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1 - Witness Protection
My mother’s a witch.
Or maybe she’s an illusionist, street performer, levitating dancer, traveling artist, jewelry maker, or the greatest story teller on earth. Probably all of these rolled into one person.
I’m a pretty good story teller too.
But my mother’s the best.
No wands. She’s never worn a pointy black hat. I’ve never seen her cast a spell, but the world just changed around her when she wanted it to.
Not so much anymore, but I remember things just...happening when I was younger. Crazy things, like motel room doors opening into jungles with alien screeching birds, and we would walk right through into Jakarta-level humidity. Or that time I blinked and we were standing three hundred feet off the ground in the peak of a redwood tree, looking over folds of morning fog to the horizon. Or when the entire world changed between one of my footsteps. There was old, cracked Little Rock pavement under my right foot, and when my left foot came down—on smooth concrete—I looked up into a bright busy shopping district, and everyone was speaking Japanese. Still holding my mother’s hand, I looked back at a Kanji-scrawled awning and a boy about my age in a school uniform, and knew we weren’t in Arkansas anymore.
We were like the characters in the stories she told.
My mother and I were always moving. We never seemed to be penniless, but there was that time in Minneapolis we had to live in an old Ford Fusion, and eat instant soup for a few months. Almost like camping, which we’d also done on occasion. We had help—in both people and money, but I never saw much of it in person. I just remember voices late at night, whispered directions, someone handing my mother new credit cards. And then we would catch a ride across the country, step into southern California sun, and start a new life.
Same old story.
Just like ours, the stories my mom told never changed much. They just sort of grew. Evolved. The two core characters in her stories were always the same. It was the background that moved, sliding off stage like a scene change in a play, one city replaced with a new one.
She was a natural story teller—with the perfect name, and hundreds of tales in her head. We’d stay up late on weekends and she would tell me about warring families, magic that burned through steel, pathways to different worlds, and gods who trapped their children inside stories. There were people who talked to the dead, people who made mirror copies of themselves and then committed crimes. Hideous crimes. She told stories about hunters who were like vampires—no mention of blood sucking, but they could fly. They walked among us, normal as the next guy, and then bang! They suddenly had scary, sharp, metallic, black wings. And they could smell you a mile away.
Smelling someone? Tell me that’s not creepy.
The stories were like something out of movies, following the main characters, a woman and her son, in and out of hiding. Sort of a supernatural Federal Witness Protection Program. Like us, the characters had been on the run for a good part of their lives. They ran and landed somewhere that felt safe, started over, imagined new lives in new places, pretended to be people they hadn’t been the day before, hiding in plain sight.
We had changed names a couple times, I’m sure, but I can’t really remember my mom being anyone other than Emily Teller.
I don’t think we’d ever had to change the way we looked, which was a plus.
Back when my mother still said anything about my father, she’d say things like, “You look like him.” I must. Our eye color’s close, but I certainly don’t have my mother’s hair. Mine is almost black. My mom’s is blond and she has eyes like blue arctic ice. She’s like a Valkyrie, one of the slaughter women in Norse myths who get to choose who will die in battle, who gets to go to Valhalla.
I told my mother that once, and she cried, and said I wasn’t that far from the truth. I couldn’t get her to explain. I tried.
We live in Monterey, California now, running the coolest tourist shop on Cannery Row. We haven’t moved in a handful of years, and I’ve had the same name, Andin Teller, for at least that long.
And now, when I ask about the doors into jungles and visiting Japan, my mother just looks at me for a minute, and tells me those were just stories.
2 - Stego
I was painting The Tides when one of my best friends, Taryn Schmidt, appeared in the doorway of Teller Esoterica—Sellers of Wiccan Supplies, Ritual Tools, and Goddess Jewelry Since 1994—and told the world, “I can hide a trillion copies of myself in every sunset.”
The world at that moment was the entire population of our shop—so that’s me, my mom behind the cash register, one old guy looking for something out of the ordinary for a niece in Ohio, and Mrs. Rydell, a regular from Spanish Bay, who was digging around the everything’s-a-dollar box of amethyst crystals, badly wound wire jewelry, tiny geodes, real shark’s teeth, and fake arrowheads.
I liked Taryn because she made up words, had a grasp on numbers like no one else, and she’s crazy in a weird inverse way that made it seem as if she was the one carrying the world’s secrets in her head—and somehow we were all crazy.
Yeah, she would be my favorite in any world.
She’s just the most brilliant person, thinker, surfer on the planet. She’s like Einstein, Mark Cunningham, and that guy from Pier 3 who sounded like an entire band with nothing but a pickle-bucket, drumsticks, and whatever he does with his voice—all rolled into one girl.
She danced all the way into our Cannery Row occult/tourist shop, arms open wide, and said to me, “Andin Teller, man of the world, I want to see if we can steganographically seal the light of every sunrise in the setting of every sun. That’s what I want to do today.”
That’s Taryn. Today will last about eight minutes and I only understand about half of what she’s saying at any time—and that’s if I’m really listening and not in the middle of a painting.
I do watercolor tarot cards that my mom and I sell for as much as we can get. I think they keep the store open. My cards certainly do better than the jewelry, candles, acrylic skulls, and “I ♥ Monterey California” bumper stickers. I only have a vague idea of what “ritual tools” are, but they do pretty well too, and my mom keeps them under the counter for discriminating customers and the occasional High Priestess.
I put down my brush with its slick of Prussian Blue in the bristles. “No idea what you’re talking about. What’s stego...whatever you said?”
Taryn spun up behind me like an open umbrella—arms out, leaning in to look over my shoulder at the half-done painting of my interpretation of The Moon for our major arcana set. This one’s called The Tides.
“Stego is a way to hide things right in plain sight. Stega-nog-raphy—it’s a way to stick info inside an image, video, just about any kind of digital thing. That’s a technical term, by the way, ‘digital thing’ only used by the digitalligentsia. Come, on. Get aboard the chi-square calculation subway, Andin, before it leaves the station.”
She wheeled away from me, dancing into the blaze of sun coming through the front windows.
This was one of those times when I just have to stare at Taryn—and I mean bug-eyed staring at her—because it’s like she’s from a different world. A world I wouldn’t mind visiting. Not one where I’d own property, though. It would probably vanish into another dimension when I wasn’t looking.
Like Taryn sometimes did.
But she must have understood. She had to have this effect on other humans. “Yes!” She brightened at my attention, almost into the visible part of the spectrum. “We need an example.”
She leapt at me like a rabid gazelle, grabbed a handful of the front of my shirt, and pulled me to the corner box of occult-themed, hand-painted, windsocks—skulls, ravens, sea otters, and silhouettes of witches across a pale moon—all in pointed hats, one of them cackling. None of the sea otters were cackling, but one of them was cracking open what looked like a grayish oblong blob, supposed to be an oyster. Don’t look at me. They’re “hand-painted”, but it’s not my work.
Taryn snapped one of the windsocks into the air.
“Okay, okay. Take an image of this skull—let’s say a picture with your phone, really the camera on your phone—and when your camera stores the image, it’s breaking it into a big grid of tiny, tiny blocks of color. You get that, right? Each one of the blocks is a pixel. So imagine this whole whitish bone color section of the skull stored as millions of pixels—obviously not stored as color, but as numbers that represent each color. And there are millions of different colors—doesn’t need to be more than millions because you get to a point where the human eye can’t tell one shade of a color from the next. So picture millions of shades of this skull color with each given a number like 12345678. Because there are so many shades and humans aren’t capable of seeing very small changes in those shades, there’s wiggle room in every single pixel’s number. Enough room to put some other numeric information—without messing up the color. Then, with a decent sized image, there are enough pixels to store lots of information. That’s steganography.”
Taryn let the windsock go. Lesson complete.
My mouth was dry because in the last few minutes it had opened on its own. I don’t think I had blinked either. “How do you know all this?”
She waved me closer, into a huddle, her arm sliding up my back, fingers curling around my shoulder. I felt the tips of her nails through my shirt, digging into me, the start of a seriously private conversation. “Let you in on a little secret, Andin, my friend.” I nodded, and she glanced around to make sure no one else was about to hear this. “There are these rectangular information storage devices. Ingenious things, really. Sometimes they have these rigid tops and bottoms that let you open them to see inside. Next thing you know, the information’s washing over you, but you can hold it all in your hands. It’s glorious.” Her voice rose to just this side of ecstasy. “It’s like magic. It’s like an angel of light and dark, a hot flow of letters and numbers and beams of light composed of every color.” The muscles were tightening in my arms and she clutched me harder. “The super-secret codeword we use when we want to talk about these devices in front of the ignorant masses is...” She did another review of the room for potential spies. “Book.”
“Taryn—” I straightened up and we bonked heads, and then she was laughing, but in that warm and silly way she does with me and the I-Man—that’s what we call our best friend, Itoshi. Sometimes shortened to “Itosh”.
One hand still holding her forehead where we’d connected, she ran for the door. Today was over apparently, because she was moving on to the next thing. “Got to go. Have to finish up a few things on the submarine I designed for Zekey Ulysses. Then I’m meeting Itosh under the Plaza Hotel for some abalone diving.”
“What submarine?” I knew the name Zekey Ulysses, an old sailor who was rumored to be behind all kinds of strange things, sort of a legend along the Row—with a million sea stories. Then the abalone diving idea lurched inside me. “You do know this is all protected water, no fishing, no catching, or consuming anything of any kind?”
I didn’t think she heard me, but at the bottom of the front steps she spun all the way around, running backwards now, and shouted, “I know! Make’s everything even easier. There’s tons of them!”
And then Taryn turned away and disappeared down Cannery, the shifting tourist crowds swallowing her in bright sunny yellows and summer blues.
When I looked away, turning back to my painting and my brushful of Prussian Blue, my mom was staring after her with something I couldn’t read in her expression. Maybe worry.
It could be that because no one else in this world had ever worried about Taryn, my mom thought she needed to step in and take the job. I was pretty sure my mom worried about Itoshi, but at least he had a home and parents in Pacific Grove.
Taryn was alone in this world.
I stretched, stabbing the paint brush into the air, and gave my mom a nod as I got back to work on The Tides. She gave me back a hint of an approving smile.
My mom quietly watched the world from our shop in Monterey, nodded anytime I wanted anything—new paints, new brushes, new paper—smiled most of the time, and rarely said anything that took more than four or five words.
Except when she was in the mood for a story. Then we’d stay up late, drink coffee, and she’d tell me about Synnepheia and her son, and about characters who took on the shapes of nature and chased them all over the world.
There was always this sense of racing just ahead of death and revenge. But the main theme was always about the courageous daughter of powerful people, taking her son and escaping—and never looking back.
So there were times she spoke at length to tell these stories, but right now, as I bent over my drawing table to get back to work, she just looked worried.
Worry crept up on me too, but not for hours, not until I was nearly done with The Tides and the sun had set—with a trillion copies of Taryn inside it? No one but Taryn really knew.
What I did know was that I felt something wrong and it was headed our way, a change in the weather, a cool pressure on my skin. It was as if there was a bad tide coming in.
I picked up the brush, washed it out, dried it, and slid the tip through the Cadmium Yellow. I’d already completed the waves, loops of foam in the surf, the dark line of seawater at the horizon, but I still needed to finish the sky and sunrise, a ripple of cold morning light reflecting across the ocean’s surface, coming into the foreground.
The door to the shop opened and closed softly, not even enough to make the bells chime. I didn’t bother to look up. No doubt it was one more lonely customer looking for candles or bumper stickers, and too much of my brain was suddenly focused on a serious problem with my painting.
Maybe that’s what felt wrong—or looked wrong. It took me a minute to figure it out, but when I did it looked like half a day's painting wasted. Here’s the scene I was halfway through painting—showing the end of one night as it faded into dawn and the sun was rising over the ocean—my version of The Moon card, and its influences on the greatest feature of our world: the oceans.
The Tides made sense, but this view, the view from this direction was wrong. Wonder why I drew it like this—and why didn’t it strike me wrong before? This wasn’t a sunrise on the Pacific side, but on the Atlantic. The sun rises in the east, which meant here in California, the sun came up inland and set over the ocean.
You’re never going to see a sunrise over seawater out here, except from a boat, and maybe down in Baja California.
My shoulders dropped. I put the brush down, not sure if I should finish the card or just toss it and start over.
Now that the mistake was staring back at me, annoying me, I didn’t want to finish it. Besides, my brain was already looking at a new design that would correct everything, and make the world right again. I really wanted a dawn tide. Maybe I could paint the sun coming up behind someone standing on the shoreline, casting a long shadow over the waves?
That would work.
But it would change the whole card. The sky would be darker, the color of the ocean, too. Light coming from a completely different direction and angle.
Shit. Sea, shadows, sky, everything’s different now.
So different…the whole world shook around me. And it was painful. A shift in my vision, a sharp weight that hit me and rolled up my spine, and a blur of color in my head. It shoved me into my drawing table. I dropped my paint brush with a splatter of yellow across the wood. The water bowl slid off the edge, shattered, tubes of olive and ultra-violet tumbling after it.
And then I couldn’t breathe. The floor felt slippery under my feet and something hit me again.
Then I understood.
It was someone’s fist, hard and low on the right side of my back. Tears welled up in my eyes and everything went blurry. Too weak to get my hands out in time, the floor swung up and took me right across the face.
There was blood in my mouth.
I could hear sounds of struggling in the shop, glass breaking somewhere behind me. My mom was fighting back, but I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t say a word, but what’s really strange is that no one had spoken so far. There was no warning, no demand for money—we didn’t have a lot of money, but that’s what I’d expect to hear. There was just the noise of resistance, a sharp smack of something hard hitting skin, someone breathing loudly, the thud of feet on the floor catching balance, the wooden pop of bones breaking.
Someone was sobbing. My mom. It took me a second because I had never heard her sob before. I tried to turn and then a heavy weight landed on my back, pinning me to the floor, and one of them—had to be at least two attackers—yanked my head up by my hair, jammed a cloth bag around my ears, and double-knotted a cord at the back of my neck.
There was a trickle of wet against my jaw and the strong reek of seawater and something sour that made me think of seagull crap baking on the rocks in the sun.
Behind me, it sounded like the fight had restarted, my mom launching some kind of surprise counter attack that sent one of them crashing against the display cases, the drum-like rattle and hollow thump of a hundred candles shaken into the air.
Then the weight lifted from my back as my attacker joined the fight and I rolled blindly, banged my head against the leg of the drawing table, so dizzy I couldn’t get my thoughts to focus on what I was supposed to do.
Get this damn stinking bag off my head.
There were several people breathing, and the click and tap of a few loose things still falling from somewhere to the floor.
Then my mom’s words slashed the quiet like a knife—the voice of someone trying to talk reason into monsters, the final words of someone who knew her attackers, and hoped she would be able to reach them. Her voice was cold. “He’s just an employee, doesn’t know anything. Let him live and I will go without any more fighting.” A few seconds of silence, and she was answering a question I couldn’t hear. Dead silence and then she said, “No, he will not report this or call the police. He knows if he does I will be killed and he will get something worse.”
I rolled over, my nails clawing at the knots. The cord was wet, tied tight, and so thin I couldn’t loosen enough of it to grab.
By the time I peeled off the bag, there was nothing left to see. The shop was empty. I rolled to my knees, using my artist’s table to get to my feet.
I threw the front door wide. It was nearly silent outside, too. No one in the dark corridor leading to the underground shops, and just the sound of seagulls in the stairwell going upstairs.
Jumping the six concrete stairs out front, I landed in the middle of the sidewalk along Cannery Row and nearly bowled over an entire family.
The dad shouted at me, red windbreaker whipping around his raised arms. “Hey!”
“Sorry.” I was desperate. “Did you see uh...two men and a woman running from this building?” I pointed back up the stairs, licking the blood off my lips. I think it was two men. I had heard breathing, but my mom’s was the only voice in the fight.
They all shook their heads and kept walking, gathering children closer.
Back inside Teller Esoterica, I was shaking so hard I had to close my hands into fists. It was as if some brain chemical dump, or shock, or the race of time had been holding back the fear until now and, unleashed, it rolled over me, a dam break, cold as the saltwater surf just beyond the buildings across the street.
Without turning around, I reached back, found the door handle blindly, then the latch below, and locked the store.
The store was a mess, candles everywhere, shattered glass. Next to a leg of my drawing table, The Tides tarot card was face up, thrown to the floor during the fight, dark waves curling over sand, streaks of foam and the vivid oranges and pinks of a rising sun reflected in shuddering lines over a turbulent ocean, a hint of transparent gold and blue coming through a roll of surf.
I crouched down and was about to touch it, slide it closer to get a better look.
I jumped back.
“That can’t be.”
I put down the brush without touching the paper. I know I did. I hadn’t finished the painting, but the painted card lay there face up on the floor, vivid watercolors, a sunrise for the wrong coast.
3 - Skinny Thugs
The world was hollow, nothing but street sounds, cold morning light, and a clear direction in the air that told me I had lost my way. I had lost everything. My mom had been the anchor that had kept the world from spinning off its axis, and now I felt the earth slip a little under every footstep, something shifting, warm and wet like...blood?
That couldn’t be right.
I jumped to a clear space in front of the counter, landed with a stab of pain, and hoisted myself up with a turn into a seat next to the register. Then I dug the glass out of the bottom of my foot, and saw the slick tracks of blood I’d made across the floor.
I hadn’t slept yet, pacing across the front windows most of the night like a rudderless ship. Waiting.
I couldn’t tell you what I was waiting for. I didn’t even care if the bad guys came back. At least they were a thread, a connection to my mother.
The floor was littered with broken glass and candlesticks. The store still smelled real, the worn wood solid, the bright colors of hats and gems and calendars all signs that the world was still out there on the other side of the front windows. Maybe it wasn’t all lost. Not yet.
And someone knew something.
There had to be someone out there with information, names, places. I mean, these kidnappers knew my mom. This wasn’t a random act. There were people out there who knew what was going on. I just had to find them—without having any idea where to look.
Any direction seemed as likely as the next—and none of them very likely at all. I had no family, no private investigators on retainer, nor enough money for one, and a clear message from my own mother not to bring in the police—unless I wanted her dead.
Not a hell of lot to go on.
I may be lost, but I could feel helpless without being helpless. I just needed to remind myself every few minutes that there was a difference between the two.
With a slide of cold antiseptic gel from heel to toe, I got my shoes on, found the broom, and got to work. And there was going to be a lot of work getting Teller Esoterica back in order.
“You want to explain what this is about, Teller?”
I looked up at the open front door and lowered the dustpan. Half an hour of work and there was still glass everywhere. Standing just inside the shop on this beautiful summer morning was someone I really did not want to see, Wes Deyoung—Die Young we’re still hoping for.
Wes was holding one of the posters I’d put up last night, and Taryn and Itoshi were still out stapling them to power poles from here to Sand City. HAVE YOU SEEN EMILY TELLER? with my mom’s picture, a description, email, and phone to call.
Funny, the only picture I could find of my mom that wasn’t half in shadow and actually looked like her was the one she hated the most. Itoshi had taken it several new phones ago, really just to see how the shot would come out, with my mom behind the counter and the store lit only with candles. Surprisingly well is how it turned out. She’d thanked Itosh, but I’d heard the disappointment in her voice, staring at the shot as if it was someone else. Now I was thinking: how stupid could these kidnapper guys have been to believe my mom? They might not pick up the mother and son relation, but why would they believe her when she told them I was “just an employee”. Why would they take her word that I wouldn’t go to the police? It was as if my mother told them what to see and hear and they just...believed her.
Wes dug his fingers deeper into the poster of my mother, curling it into a ball. “Well?”
I had already rehearsed for the authorities in case they showed without being called. I had lines for the people from building management, other shop owners in the area, creditors, and anyone else who would eventually come looking for my mom. I didn't want to be left without any answers to her whereabouts.
I forced a lopsided grin onto my face and nodded at Wes Deyoung.
“Just a joke. My mother’s pissed. I rearranged some of the displays, ended up breaking a bunch of shit.” I gestured with the dustpan. “Now, she’s gone to San Fran to see her sister, told me to clean everything up before she gets back.”
Weird. A little practice, some coaching from Taryn, and the lies just seemed to slide into my voice as if they belonged there. As far as I knew, my mom didn’t have any family outside of the stories she tells me—and there’s no way those are real.
The smile soured on Wes’s face, which I took as a response to accepting my Mom’s gone to SF lie as the truth, but not really liking it. Wes—his father owned the company that owned the company that owned this building—would like nothing more than to see me, my mom, and every last bit of our “druid puking witch-shit” out of here.
Wes crumpled the paper in his fist, dropped it, took a couple tentative steps across the gritty floor, the whole time looking up at the shelves of green witch books, tarot decks, candle magick how-to’s, a stack of next year’s Witches Calendars, down across the counter with the register, ignoring me. He also ignored the sea star and manatee lawn ornaments—apparently they registered as non-threatening somewhere in his brain. He ended up making some disgusted sniffing noises while glaring at the tree of cloaks, hats, hoods, and a couple plush otter hand puppets.
“Yeah, well...” It looked like he wanted to spit and get some awful taste out of his mouth. “Hope I don’t see you around much longer.” And Wes Deyoung left without closing the door.
Teller Esoterica was open for business as usual because I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t call the police—my own mother having told me not to. I was too nervous to draw. I couldn’t even look at my brushes, paints, and drawing table.
The finished tarot card of The Tides stood in the sunlight up by the front windows.
I was afraid to look at it.
Taryn and Itoshi returned around noon with almost all the posters up and entirely out of staples. The shop was empty except for a cool albino woman and her son in a back corner huddled around a copy of Buckland’s Book of Saxon Witchcraft—a classic. I could hear them speaking softly in another language, but the pale woman—and I mean skin as white as a sheet of paper—spoke Californian English like a native. She looked as close as I’ve ever seen anyone look like a real witch, all in black, fingers as cold as ice, short fingernails with metallic blue polish, eyes that didn’t just look through you, but looked through you into other worlds, into dark corners, into your future. She gave me the chills, which quickly warmed away when she rolled out sixteen-hundred dollars for some of the hand-painted tarot cards—all with ocean themes.
Taryn threw open the door, bursting in like a hurricane, while Itoshi stowed the helmets and goggles. The I-Man’s dearest possession in the world was an old Ural Sahara with a sidecar and open exhaust that could be heard a mile away. It looked like something out of a World War II movie. Very cool.
Taryn quickly raided the cloak and puppet tree. She was twirling, wrapping herself in one of the size Large pentacle sarongs and talking to an otter hand puppet about beneficial sulfate reducing bacteria when Itoshi came in running his fingers through his hair—which he always complained was too long for someone who rode a motorcycle. He rarely did anything about it. He tossed his leather jacket on the floor and took one of the solid wooden kiddie seats, leaning back against the bookcases.
“So, Andin, posters of your mother are up. Anyone call?”
These were my best friends. And they're not the cops. So, of course I’d told them everything.
I shook my head. “Nothing. I can’t stand this waiting. Not a bad sales day, though.” I glanced at the pale woman and her son in the back, now completely absorbed in a book on runes—and not just any runes. Magick runes.
“We could look at the feeds off the CR Security cams,” suggested Taryn using the otter hand puppet as a spokesman.
Itoshi looked at me.
“We don’t have cameras in here.” I waved a hand at the industrial-long-before-it-was-stylish vent and duct lined ceiling, completely camera-free.
“But you do have windows and the lights were on.” It took Taryn a couple seconds to work her pinky into the otter’s right arm, extending it to point across the street. “There’s a whole series of them up and down Cannery, spying on us every second of the day.”
Itoshi shaded his eyes, leaning toward the storefront and nearly toppling out of the chair. “Where?”
Taryn shrugged out of the sarong, tossed me the otter, and bolted for the door, shouting over her shoulder, “Anywhere they want them to be. Size of my fingernail, stick’em and go. Be back in an hour with some feed video!”
It was more like forty minutes and not in person. She messaged me a seven minute segment with crops and close-ups of two skinny men in our shop, dressed way too warmly for a summer evening, browsing the signet rings, sealing waxes, and Eye of Horus tote bags.
They didn’t come in from the street, but from inside the building. I’m there, facing the windows, bent over my drawing table, oblivious to my mother stepping out from behind the register in what looked like a combat stance. She had known who they were the moment they had entered Teller Esoterica. You could see it in the way she watched them.
She started moving when one of the pair of thugs stepped up behind me, throwing a fist into my lower back. I hit the table, dropped the brush, and then I was on the floor. Behind me my mom and thug number 2 were going at it, jabs and punches. Then it’s like something out of the interactive fights; my mom’s in the air, a roundhouse kick lined up with the guy’s face. He turns just in time to avoid the sudden introduction of his nose cartilage to his frontal lobes, gets the instep of my mom’s left foot across the neck and lower jaw instead. Then he’s off his feet, flying into the glass-fronted candle cabinet.
Itoshi and I were so absorbed in the fight neither of us noticed when Taryn made her appearance—talking right in my ear, her chin digging into my shoulder. “Yeah, your mom wails the shit out of that one. I think he permanently lost some decision making brain functioning with that kick alone.”
Itoshi, startled at Taryn’s snap into reality, waved our attention back at another kick from my mom. It was like she was floating a couple feet off the ground—at least from this angle of the camera. Thug number 1 joins the fray—he’s pretty much taken me out of everything, left me rolling around like an idiot trying to untie that bag.
Repeated kicks from mom, then they’re on her. One gives her a sharp punch to the side, closing to hammer his elbow across her face. Throws her to the floor. She’s only on her back a moment, springing into the air, chop and block, but it’s almost all defensive now, losing ground. They back her up into the counter.
It’s clear they’re all tired and in pain. Then my mom delivers the offer to go without any more fighting, if they’ll just let me live—and no police. The combat just evaporates. A second later, they’re out the door, my mom walking between them without a glance back, heading deeper into the building. But where? Upstairs?
I stopped the video and rolled back when I reached the point where I was yanking the bag off my head, then a freeze and frame by frame step through the fight until I found one with a fairly clear shot of the guy who had taken me out.
He didn’t really look like a typical thug—you know, seven feet of angry meat, no neck, and fists like compact cars.
Itoshi was biting his lip and said aloud what I was thinking. “They don’t really look like enforcer types, do they? A bit small and slender for throwing weight around.” He was smiling, though, but a little sad. “Your mom now, man, she could have shaken down the whole building.”
“That’s about as clear a shot as the video caught of these guys,” said Taryn. “I had to filter it. A lot of reflection coming off the front glass.”
I looked closer at the blurred slices of shadow across their faces, not enough to identify anyone in there, but it would have to be enough. Maybe someone would know who they were by the way they stood, folded their arms, or took an ass-kicking.
I nodded back at Taryn. “Yeah, I didn’t get to see the action realtime, but it sure sounded like my mom was holding her own. Most of yesterday’s broken glass and mess was what she did to them, not the other way around.”
Taryn was smiling. “I’ve always liked your mom. So, let’s figure out how to get her back.” Then she clapped her hands, the sound of a great idea coming to life. “We can stick up a pile of Skinny Thug Posters!”
Nodding, I was trying to work out how these two baddies could have left the building with my mom and not be seen by any security cams—especially if the cameras were easy to put up. I was also thinking about Wes Deyoung trying to get Teller Esoterica closed and out of the building. “Let’s replace all my mom’s missing posters with the new ones.”
4 - Out of a Story
Every minute was painful. I don’t think I slept more than an hour the whole night.
Next morning I turned the open sign out, rolled the latch, and the shop wasn’t open five minutes when a man entered with every Skinny Thug Poster we had put up the night before crumpled in his hands.
He was clearly angry about something. Paper crackling, he gestured madly with his free hand, sign language way too fast for me, and when I stared back at him, ready to step away, he tossed the wad of posters across the floor and plucked a pencil from the mug on my drawing table.
I’d seen this guy before. He had even been in the shop a couple times—but it was a couple times spread over a couple years, so I might have been mixing him up with someone else. He was thin—a little too thin, as if he wasn’t eating enough. An angular face, cheeks sunken in, long graying black hair pulled into a ponytail. Jeans faded to the color of clouds, a black t-shirt under a blue long-sleeved dress shirt with one sleeve rolled up, the other all the way down and buttoned at the wrist. There were spirals and coils of what looked like wind currents mapped in pale green tattooing up his right arm. He didn’t exactly look sick, but there was something wrong with him. Something different about him. I didn’t get an addict vibe off him. His clothes were too neat and clean. This guy didn’t sleep behind dumpsters, and his hand—writing a rapid stream of words across a blank sheet of card stock—was steady as a machine.
He waved me over to see what he had written, jabbing the pencil at the posters scattered across the floor.
I leaned in to take a look. Two questions in very neat handwriting:
What do you think you’re doing? Trying to call them back?
I snapped up like a spring, threw out my arms to catch my balance. “Call who? You know who took my mother? Tell me where she is.”
He shook his head, shrugged a little as if to say he didn’t know. Then the sharpness left his eyes for a second, the steadiness from his hands. He was afraid. He turned to the front windows in what looked like readiness to make a dash for the door.
“I know you,” I said and it looked as if those three words stopped his heart. He staggered, grabbed the edge of the table. “Or you remind me of someone.” I was thinking I should smile at the crazy idea surfacing in my head, but I couldn’t do it. “This is going to sound strange, but my mother tells me stories—she’s told stories all my life. I mean she’s read books aloud to me, when I was younger, and she still reads aloud sometimes—someone else’s stories. But she also makes up stories—always has. Never writes them down, but she’s been telling them as long as I can remember. I think I’ve seen you here in the store once, maybe twice, but you also... totally remind me of this character she’s described, a protector, this guy who sort of comes and goes with the wind, shows up in the dark and stops bad things from happening.”
The man with wind current tattoos turned toward me, the tips of his thumbs touching and coming apart. I thought that meant “continue,” but while I was making up my mind, he waved me on, wheeling to make sure the store was empty of customers.
“Your name wouldn’t...” My mouth had suddenly dried up. I coughed. “This character has tattoos like yours. You wouldn’t happen to be Aerizo?”
He had turned all the way around, approaching me as I said the name. Then something stopped him. He froze and looked as if he had forgotten to breathe, sky blue eyes unfocused and unblinking, almost like the end of the world was coming at him at highway speeds. Then he collapsed. He grabbed my drawing table, leaning into it so hard he nearly toppled over with it. I held on to it from my side, anchoring it, the wood shaking under my hands. I braced my legs apart and kept us both on our feet.
A tube of cobalt blue flipped out of its tray and hit the floor, but that was all.
He leaned there, head bowed, breathing deeply for another minute.
Then he straightened, picked up the pencil with hands not so steady, and wrote another question below the first two: In your mother’s stories, who does this Aerizo protect?
I shrugged like it was obvious, like I was talking about stories everyone knew end to end—Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Sabriel. “He’s always running around protecting the daughter of this hideously nasty organized crime queen. A lot of the stories are about hiding from her mother, assuming new identities—Aerizo’s a master of making IDs, forging documents, establishing residences to make it look like the daughter lives in one place when she really lives in another, but the queen never stops looking. There’s a lot more to it. Most of the stories are...”
I stopped when he started writing the next question. I bent around the table to get the words as he was putting them down.
What is the daughter’s name?
He nodded easily, as if he already knew this, then wrote,
Most storytellers create characters and events entirely out of thin air. Some mix the events of their own lives into their stories.
“So, you’re saying some of this is real?” Impatience building inside me. We’re wasting time talking about stories. “Where’s my mother? You know who took her?”
He shook his head. A few storytellers—very few—only tell stories of themselves and the events they have lived through.
And the guy with the wind current tattoos put down the pencil and sighed deeply—a sigh that was long and full of sorrow, like almost every story my mother had ever told.
I looked up to meet his gaze. “Uh, yeah, but Aerizo also has wings. And not like fluffy, feathery bird wings.” I flapped my arms. “More like black, fold-away, carbon fiber wings that will cut you if you’re not careful. And he can really fly.”
He picked up the pencil. In your mother’s stories, don’t the servants of this organized crime queen also have wings?
He pointed at one of the crumpled posters, the blurred faces of the two thugs in neat boxes.
Did you check the roof? The two who took your mother did not just walk out the front door with her. It isn’t their way.
5 - Eating Voices
“No, I’m telling you a character out of my mother’s stories was here in the shop. And he more than hinted that my mother is like this Synnepheia, and that Synnepheia’s mother is behind this.”
Taryn was staring out the front windows at the tourists. “And he said his name was Aerizo?”
I pointed at the drawing table. “No, he sort of guided me to the answer—to the question of his name. Look, he wrote everything down there. Itosh, I really needed your sign language skills. He couldn’t speak.”
“Or just didn’t want to.” Itoshi was already studying the paper with a look that was somewhere between mild doubt and you’re-full-of-shit. But I could tell he was intrigued by the line about our Skinny Thugs having wings. “The security cams didn’t pick up our kidnappers coming out the front door with your mom, so maybe they did go upstairs.”
Taryn, pacing across the front of the store, picked up the completed Atlantic sunrise tarot card, frowning. “Really? Well, that might explain the hang glider pilot on the roof.”
Both Itoshi and I shouted at the same time. “What?”
She turned, surprised by our surprise. “I didn’t tell you?” She pointed to the ceiling and presumably meant the roof. “I was on my way to Folkin’ Nana’s last night... hey, when your mother was kidnapped. I saw someone on the roof of your building. Looked like a guy with a fancy military-looking pair of wings, very sharp tipped and blending with the night sky. I don’t think he was alone—I didn’t hear him speak, but there were other noises up on your roof. I thought he just had some sort of covert hang gliding thing going.”
“That’s exactly what they had going.” Itoshi scanned Aerizo’s writing another time, with renewed interest, doubt apparently slipping to the point where he might find clues buried behind the gray lines of pencil.
I took a step toward Taryn. “Did you see which way they went?”
She looked up, then turned back to the windows, pointing out. “Out to the Bay. I think. The one I could see from the street was facing that direction. I couldn’t hang around. I was doing chromosome poetry at eight o’clock. I wanted to get there before they ran out of ‘X-inactivation Happens’ t-shirts.”
Chromosome poetry? I could guess at a form of 23 couplets and maybe all words had to have an X or a Y in them, but I didn’t want to open that can of DNA at the moment.
Itoshi, usually the one with a ready can opener for any situation, didn’t even seem to hear Taryn. He sat down, crossed his legs on his jacket in the middle of the shop floor, and bent over Aerizo’s handwriting. “So, it’s clear this guy with the tats knew something about your mother’s captors—knows there’s more than one of them. He’s angry, asking if you’re trying to call them back. He doesn’t say his name’s Aerizo, but doesn’t deny it either, and he’s...careful. That’s what I read in these ten or eleven lines. He’s trying to get more information out of you than you would be able to get from him.”
I sat down, stretched out my legs, leaning against the low cabinets across from the cash register. “He doesn’t know who to trust?”
Taryn climbed up and sat on the counter next to the register, still holding the completed sunrise card. “Maybe he doesn’t trust you? Do you think he trusted your mom? What did Aerizo do in the stories? You said he’s like a guardian, always getting things for Synnepheia. Do you think they had something going, in secret, or was he just helping her hide out under an assumed name?”
I shrugged off the chill. In the stories, they did seem to have something going, but in the past. “I don’t know.” Looking up, Itoshi was staring at me. “What is it?”
“Where’s your family from? You and your mom sort of look alike—not the hair color, but your faces are close.” Both Itoshi and Taryn were studying me and, after a minute, Itoshi finally said, “If I had to guess, I’d say Mediterranean, south of France, maybe Algerian or Greek?”
“My ancestors?” I don’t think my mother had ever said anything about them.
“Yeah, maybe not back that far. Where’s your family from, originally? Like, I’m second gen American, but we’re from Machida, Japan and Taryn’s from—I don’t know, pick a habitable solar system ten to twenty lightyears out.”
Taryn gave us a snooty look and a royal wave of her hand. “Solar system? Just one? No, I’m a descendant of intergalactic imperialists. I’m only here for conquest.”
Itoshi nodded as if seriously considering this, and then turned back to me.
I shrugged again. “I remember asking when I was a kid. I’m sure more than once, but I don’t remember ever hearing an answer.”
The truth was that I probably didn’t push it because I’d always wanted to be from the places in my mother’s stories. Synnepheia had a son too, a son named Hidden. She called him “Kryphon” which apparently meant “hidden” in their language. Kryphon did many of the things I did. He was an artist, he helped his mother in whatever job she had found—could also be the other way around. I was an artist because Kryphon was one, and I wanted to live his exciting, dangerous life.
“It’s not like I’m not from somewhere. I just don’t know.”
Itoshi nodded. “That’s weird. Most people know where they’re from.”
Leave it to Taryn to throw in something unexpected and enlightening. “You know what’s weird? The Skinny Thugs and this guy Aerizo don’t speak. What’s the connection there?” Then she held out The Tides card. “And where’s this? It’s not around here.”
There was a stab of pain at the interminable wait and I looked past Taryn to the front windows.
I sighed and went with the question with the answer that wouldn’t be crazy sounding. “Some of the stories have titles. There’s one called Omen Breaking. Aerizo used to be one of them, a bad guy. He worked for Diosemia, this organized crime queen, a really nasty creature. But Aerizo turned sides. My mother’s told this story several times and it always starts with: ‘Imagine a hunter who abandoned his hunt to help the prey.’ And then she goes on to describe this hunter Aerizo, his eyes, his face, the gray of his hair like rain heavy cumulus, every single tattoo up both arms. The guy who was here yesterday is that Aerizo. Everything about him matched the description in Omen Breaking.”
“You said he kept one sleeve rolled down?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what that was about.”
Still waving the tarot card, Taryn said, “So what about not being able to talk?”
“Diosemia takes all their voices when they swear service to her.”
Itoshi made a face. “Does she ever return them?”
“I think she eats them. The voices of others are like her food.”
“Ooh, that’s grim,” said Itoshi.
“That’s awesome,” said Taryn. “How come you’ve never invited us over for your mom’s story time? I’m bringing popcorn.”
There was silence for a while. Sounded like a good idea to me.
Itoshi was shaking his head, making a chopping motion that may have meant stay on track. “I think the point here, Taryn, is that some of these stories have elements of truth in them, real people as characters, events that actually took place. And maybe there are clues to who took Andin’s mom in them.” He turned to me, kept his deadpan even voice. “Would it be possible for you to tell us the stories? I think that would give us a better understanding of who we’re up against.”
The door slammed shut. I hadn’t even heard it open, no clang of bells, no difference in the sound coming off Cannery.
We were on our feet in a second, but Aerizo waved us back, locking the door behind him. Not that that would stop anything serious from entering Teller Esoterica. The windows were big enough to drive a small vehicle through.
I tried not to sound happy, but I was. “You came back!”
Aerizo nodded at me, glanced first at Itoshi, then Taryn, gave them both a little more than a nod—a bow of his head. Then he went to my drawing table, pulled out the watercolor pencil he’d used earlier, the Staedtler karat Dark Grey. He wrote across the top sheet of paper.
It’s possible to tell your mother’s stories, but not wise.
Then he held the pencil by the tip between thumb and forefinger and destroyed it.
One second the pencil stood up from his fingertips, the next it came apart and drifted away. He looked at it, gestured with his left hand, and the wood, the watercolor core, the silver lettering up the side of the pencil softened, coiling into the air like smoke. Flecks of color and wood slivers orbited his hand. Aerizo breathed on them, set each fragment spinning, some pieces so small they formed a cloudy ring. Five silvery ovals spun out of the mix, flatter than paper and nearly transparent.
Aerizo signed something with his left hand.
Itoshi translated, shrugging at the same time. “He said, ‘My fingerprints’.”
Then Aerizo breathed them in, gesturing some more.
Itoshi nodded. “Plus a couple of yours, Andin.”
Itoshi’s grandmother was deaf and he had always been her language channel to the world.
Aerizo opened his hand and the pencil, in thousands of tiny pieces, some too small to see clearly, vanished in a pale blue flare of light.
Itoshi translated again, “He says, ‘I owe you a pencil.’”
“Don’t...don’t worry about it.”
Taryn had her arms folded, but she was smiling. “That was impressive. Are you like a fey? Someone from faerie?”
Aerizo rolled his eyes, using both hands to speak with Itoshi speed translating. “Faeries are silly. They are just stories.”
Aerizo pointed to himself and then went into a long string of sign language. Itoshi nodded, able to keep track of everything while speaking. “I am talking about what really happens in your world. I am one of the hunters. No one can hide from one of us forever. I was created to hunt. I am uncursable—except under rare circumstances. I can see through spells. I can float with any breeze, become the vapor in a cloud. I can travel just about anywhere. There is no magic that can hide a living thing from one of us for long—except another one of us. And when we find them, if the queen wishes it, we take their lives.”
“Nice.” Taryn was enthralled, leaning closer to whisper her question. “Would you use magic—like you did with the pencil—to assassinate someone?”
Aerizo shrugged and Itoshi translated. “I’d put a bullet through the target’s head, maybe a couple of them, see if that did the job before moving on to one of the more painful, costlier, or messier methods of stopping life.”
“No.” I could barely hold in my words. “But you’ve helped my mom. You’ve helped us for years. It’s in the stories.”
Aerizo smiled and it was a cruel smile, a shark’s smile—swim to me, little fishies.
Itoshi kept his even tone with Aerizo’s words, scaring the hell out of us. “It is because of the stories that I do those things. Your mother has damaged me—and now you have too, painted and used words to cover the bindings in my soul, enough to pull me to your side. I have helped you hide from others of my kind—for years. I have built the clouds around your lives, created new addresses, identities, and financial resources for you. I must continue to help you until I am released. Until you release me. But do not ever forget that I have given my voice to Diosemia, the god’s omen, Queen of Intricate Ways, the polyptuktos—many-tangled path, this dawn-world’s greatest dealer of shifts in space, shadow watchers, dead things that live, targeted seismic events, plus assorted side ventures, investments and operations in casinos, armaments, and even a toe in the illegal drug trafficking pool.”
Taryn was absolutely still and quiet for once in her life. I closed my mouth, because it had fallen open. So far, Itoshi seemed to have had no problem keeping up with Aerizo’s flow of words and phrases, even the complicated words in some other language, synchronizing everything but his breathing—which had lagged behind. Now he bent over his knees, sucked in a breath, told us he was lightheaded, and had to sit down.
Aerizo folded his arms and looked self-satisfied, as if he had wanted to say all of this for a long time. No sign on his face or in his smile of what had stopped him.
6 - Thin as Air
Itoshi always came through with the tough questions.
He had recovered his breath and was standing straight, arms folded, leaning a little to one side, almost as if he was mimicking, or maybe even mocking Aerizo. “Does this Diosemia, queen of all kinds of weird shit, have any rivals? You say she’s the greatest. Who’d be number two? And the one after that?”
The smirk slid off Aerizo’s face.
If Itoshi just delivered a stabbing blow, I reached in and twisted the blade. “And why does she need guys like you, with summonable wings and vapor walking, and all the fancy ink, if her throne is so secure? So maybe it’s not secure and you and your fellow hunters spend most of your time going after these rival crime lords and ladies.”
Taryn, unusually quiet and thoughtful the whole time, wagged a finger at Aerizo. “I was going to ask you why you said it was possible for Andin to tell us his mom’s stories, but not wise.”
Aerizo’s left hand made a couple quick gestures, which Itoshi spoke aloud. “What are you going to ask instead?”
She pointed at his feet. “Uh, did you know you’re bleeding on the floor?”
Aerizo looked down, brought his right arm against his chest, cupping the elbow with his other hand. A dark stain was coming through the sleeve’s thin material.
Itoshi translated a few brief signs.
“Damn. Can you help me with this?”
Aerizo suddenly didn’t seem so intimidating. He was looking at me and I jumped forward. “Yeah, what do you need? Ride to the hospital? We don’t have much in the first aid kit, but we’ll get what you need.”
He jutted his chin to my drawing table and Itoshi came back with his words, “Get a fresh sheet of paper.”
Aerizo picked up a pencil, started writing, but his hand wasn’t as steady as it had been yesterday. And there was blood oozing between his fingers.
Draw and paint my right arm.
He was completely serious.
He unbuttoned the cuff, rolled the thin blue material above the elbow. A long slash cut into the muscle from wrist to elbow, peeling open toward the bottom and gushing blood. A smear of blue jelly looking stuff had been applied to the wound, webs of it straining to hold it closed.
The salve compound your mother makes for me did not work as I had hoped, and she is not here to make something better. Some kind of degenerative agent on the blade that cut me. Draw every line of the tattoos unbroken. Paint them, make them real, make my arm whole. I need to sit down.
As he put down the pencil, dribbling blood across my table, his legs nearly folded under him, barely able to hold him up. He stuck out his good arm, palm flat, fingers spread, and caught some of his weight, but landed roughly. Then he crossed his legs, closed his eyes, and rested his damaged arm across his lap, propping it up with the fist from his other hand.
I wasn’t sure what was happening—or why it was happening—but Aerizo was serious, and he just sat with closed eyes waiting for me to fix everything, blood still trickling off his elbow. I picked up a nice sharp 2B and started sketching.
“After this, we’re taking you to the hospital.”
The outlines were easy, the sharp bend in the elbow and slight angle to the wrist, a loose fan of his fingers on the hand of his injured arm. The lines came to me effortlessly and I pushed them into the paper, trading up to watercolor pencils to start the folds of the material of Aerizo’s shirt sleeve, the right breast pocket partly open, unbuttoned.
What was really crazy was that drawing and painting felt like the right thing to do.
Itoshi brought out a lamp, setting it on the floor and tilting the base up with a copy of Suburban Witchcraft to give the scene better lighting—and with me directing and adjusting to keep the shadows and highlights true to what I’d already started.
The tattoos were difficult to pencil in. I had to be precise, carefully drawing life into organic twists of lines that overlapped and, in some cases, braided into the soft waves of sea breezes. I let the pencil tip follow tails of cyclonic forces running the length of his forearm, tracing a hundred wind currents and streams, all of them named and mapped on his skin.
A muscle tightened along Aerizo’s jaw as I went to the back to fill the rack of water jars I used for color washes and brush cleaning, but I was back in a minute and squeezing out nine colors onto the palette, everything I’d need to paint what I was seeing.
I spent two more hours painting, relying on a few brushes, mostly a favorite medium round and a liner for the tattooing. Somewhere in the middle of all of it, a slow tide of warmth slid into me, deceptively calm, like a clear and glassy surface over hot volcanic rage. I didn’t feel angry. I felt a low rumble of thunder deep inside, a smooth elastic skin holding it all in like a coat, and every bristle of my brush was the finest needle sliding through the surface to draw energy, something raw and formless into my control.
When I transferred color to paper, I felt it, a change in the structure of everything around me. The sunlight came in through the windows at a slightly different angle. Nothing broke or disintegrated, but it was as if the world shifted to accommodate my hand resting on the paper, my fingers tight on a brush with a mix of pigments, a hint of cadmium lemon through cobalt for the tiniest wedge of shadow in the fold of the sleeve of Aerizo’s shirt.
The thunder felt deeper—volcanic lake deep and scary—with every brush stroke.
When I was done, I washed the brushes, set the painting off to one side to dry. The shop had been quiet for a while and when I looked over my shoulder, Taryn and Itoshi sat side by side on the floor, backs to the register counter, both reading books.
By the time the paint dried, Aerizo’s wound had not only healed, but there was no sign that he had ever been gouged with a poisoned knife from wrist to elbow. A cold blue energy flowed through his tattoos.
Itoshi was the first to notice that I had finished working. He tossed away a copy of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth and jumped up to study the painting, then turned to look at Aerizo’s arm. I went to wash up and when I got back, Taryn and Itoshi were staring at me like my hair was on fire. Gesturing and pointing, but unable to get words out, they kept a cautious distance, shifting their positions to keep a few feet between us.
Still looking a little groggy, Aerizo remained on the floor, examining his arm, flexing his fingers, and he didn’t look disappointed.
Itoshi pointed down at our tattooed crusader and said in his standard low, even tone, “Man, that’s magic.”
Taryn pointed at the finished watercolor of Aerizo’s arm with the book she had been reading, Shamanic Healing Volume 4. “No, that’s serious confocal intermedial molecular reconstruction.”
It made me smile, and I shrugged, still riding the internal thunder, with the fear that only the thinnest protective membrane held it in place and kept it from eating me hollow from the inside out and devouring me. “Think it’s a little of both.”
Itoshi, now looking at me as if I might faint, jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Day’s only half over, but it already feels long. You want anything? I’m going to the Ox Market. Taryn? Aerizo?”
We put in for chips, salsa, and bottled waters, and Itoshi dashed off. Ox was one street up and a block over, but he was back in ten minutes with two bags swinging from his fists. One customer had come in, browsed for a while, and left without making eye contact.
We sat in silence through the afternoon, crunching chips, breathing in to cool down some really hot salsa. I could tell Itoshi and Taryn had questions, but I think they read something in the character of the after-magic discussion that told them to hold back until Aerizo was gone.
Itoshi translated signals into voice for the hunter, but there was more silence than talk. A family of four came in, spent fifteen minutes looking, but somehow not seeing what was there. They ended up making purchases and left without buying anything wiccan, magical, crystalline, or made of wax. Astonishing.
“Aerizo?” He looked up, wiping salsa off his chin. “How did you get cut that badly?”
He shrugged, looked around for an answer as if we had them hanging on the walls, then signed something to Itoshi. “The full story another time. It’s enough to say you are right that Diosemia isn’t the only power out there. I was looking for clues that might lead me to your mother—and apparently I crossed some line. An assassin of Eknephias tried to kill me while I slept.”
He slumped back against the book cases, closing his eyes. Taryn hopped up to help a woman with an armload of curse candles, and Itosh and I sat quietly. Don’t know what was running through his thoughts, but I couldn’t let go of that thundering core, floating in some corner of my mind, ready to feed the things I painted.
I thought of The Tides card completing itself. What am I? What have I become?
Not simply a watercolorist, a sketcher, a painter of interpreted scenes and figures, of swords, cups, wands, and pentacles. Now I’m making things happen with color and light and lines of graphite. This was something out of my mother’s stories and even with Aerizo—the turned hunter and killer—right in front of me, I couldn’t see a clear way to fit it into the same world with Taryn and Itoshi.
Or how it might help me get my mother back.
Then a wild idea—a very Taryn idea—dropped into my head and I went to work on it, shrugging off Itoshi who had jumped up with me and was now leaning in to see what I was drawing. “You’re going to paint a book?”
“Shhh. Need to concentrate.”
Taryn helped more customers pick out pointy hats, power crystals, and plush Great White Sharks, while Itoshi slid behind the counter to man the register. I focused on the work, painting details, imagining what I wanted, not on paper, but in the world.
I looked up and there they were, a book and a pen.
It was exactly the book I had imagined. Every detail down to the stitching in the binding. I opened the cover, the whole thing fitting inside my cupped hand, opening from my thumb to just past the tips of my fingers. Thirty-eight smooth sheets of paper bound inside, end papers of starry sky and giant trees, fire glowing and the tumbling black smoke of ruin, like something out of a Beksiński painting.
Taryn liked it. Itoshi had some doubt. “Okay, that’s a pretty cool little book and pen. Does it do anything?”
“It’s a pen that absorbs the fingerprints of the writer and a book that eats the ink of the pen in nineteen minutes, but only when you write on page nineteen.”
Itoshi was nodding. “Okay, that’s impressive.”
Taryn snapped up the pen. “Can I write on page nineteen first?”
“Go for it.”
She huddled in a corner with the pen and the book propped on her knees. She spent a few minutes thinking, chewing on the end of the pen, and the rest with her nose almost touching the paper, writing tiny symbols and numbers and who knows what else. She wouldn’t let us see any of it, especially not with Aerizo glancing over suspiciously at her every couple minutes—as if she was writing in secret code to our enemies.
Itoshi gave me a jab in the side and said something about Taryn drawing hearts with my name in them. It was only funny because we both knew that to Taryn hearts weren’t hearts without ventricles and atriums.
A busload of tourists from Kansas spilled down both sides of Cannery Row, a biblical flood of bright hats and dark sunglasses in a cloud of coconut-scented sunscreen. Only a few dared to brave the candle lit druidic confines of Teller Esoterica.
Of course, there was a simple reason for that. The front steps were blocked for ten minutes by one loud old lady trying to get her bearings with the help of a few buddies, several sets of hands struggling with a big glossy hundred-fold tourist map, the loud one finally pointing us out as the “Den of Satan”—which everyone knew was half a block down and only sold the hottest, nastiest, most toxic, and tongue-shrinking hot sauces from around the world.
Taryn sighed heavily from her corner, standing, stretching like a cat, and closing the book.
I looked over. “What’s wrong?”
She looked at me as if I had betrayed her.
“Why nineteen minutes? I was this close to a proof for the twin prime conjecture when all the ink under my hand evaporated.” Disappointed, she tossed the book and pen to Aerizo, who seemed eager to check it out—I had made it for him after all.
Taryn walked in circles and waved casually at the universe. “Oh well, some other time. Those infinite pairs of prime numbers that differ by two aren’t going anywhere before next April.”
The first question Aerizo wrote in the ink-eating book I’d painted out of thin air was, What happens next April? He actually looked concerned.
“Don’t ask.” Itoshi smiled, a flick of his gaze to Taryn, who had wandered off to the back of the store to try on unicorn bracelets. Left wrist only, because she always wore the same bracelet on her right, a circle of heavy steel links with a string of little bulbs that looked like acorns, each ending in a rounded fiery red stone. She had been wearing that bracelet the day we met, years ago now, and it had probably never left her wrist. It actually might be too small to fit over her hand.
7 - Wings
Wes Deyoung showed up fifteen minutes after we had cleaned up the tortilla chip wrappers, salsa tubs, water bottles, and blood.
“Teller?” He jerked his chin at Aerizo as if he had picked up some more-than-a-customer vibe from the tattooed avenger. “Who’s this?”
Aerizo had already turned, eyes fixed on the son of the building’s owner.
Itoshi caught the gestures as he turned and gave Aerizo a voice to match his glare—it came out lethally soft. “He is an old family friend.”
Wes looked from Itoshi to me, then back to Aerizo, decided he didn’t want to pursue whatever it was he had come about, and kept his mouth shut, nodded to us, and left. I turned, scanning the shop interior, just checking to see if we were alone. So much had happened in the last couple hours. I’d been so busy painting, so focused on holding off that weird hot energy inside me, I had no idea who had come in, bought something, or remained behind.
Teller Esoterica was empty of customers.
I went to the front windows, leaned out to see how busy Cannery was—not very—and then reached over and locked the front door. When I turned around to face Aerizo, he was already folding his arms, preparing for some obvious next steps, questions, accusations, pleas for help.
“Okay, your arm’s back in working order. We’ve had something to eat and drink. We’re alone, no one’s going to overhear us. We know something about who you are. Where’s my mother?”
Taryn came around to stand behind me, propped an elbow on my shoulder. “And more importantly, how do we get her back? And are you going to help us?”
Itoshi, fiddling with the paint brushes on my table, added, “I’d like to know a little more about what you are.” He picked up the painting of Aerizo’s magically repaired arm and waved it at me. “And, even more importantly, what you are, Andin.”
Aerizo nodded and held the book open to page nineteen in the crook of his arm, writing quickly with the fingerprint-eating pen.
They are not going to kill your mother, not right away. If they really wanted to kill her, they would not have left her alive when they found her.
Aerizo looked up at me, gestured with an open hand—a gesture I took to mean, “Are we clear on that?” Then he went back to writing.
I have been gathering traces of Synnepheia’s—Emily’s—captors. Very little to go on so far, unfortunately. I spent the last two days running down leads and fending off an assassin from an old adversary. Which is an interesting turn in itself and tells me something about who we’re up against.
“Will it help if you know what they look like?” I pulled out my phone, flipped it around, and played the Cannery Row security cam segment for him. He watched it all the way through, dialed back to the middle of the fight, zoomed in on both slender figures, and sighed loudly several times when one of them struck my mom.
The pen was shaking in his hand. How did you get this video?
“You have to ask?” I nodded to Taryn. “She has far more magic in her than I ever will. Sees the world in a way I can’t even hope to see it.”
He looked doubtful, wrote the three words, I know about—he stopped writing.
“You know what?”
Aerizo shook his head, wrote, Some other time, and put the pen down.
“What? So you’re not going to tell us anything?”
One side of Aerizo’s smile lifted. He signed something and Itoshi said, “He says he’s going to show us instead. It will be easier than talking about it.”
Moving to the back of the store, out of direct view of the windows, Aerizo turned to face us. He looked up as if measuring the ceiling’s height—as if what he was about to do had some kind of clearance restriction.
He folded his arms, turning to one side, into what looked like a menacing pose. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back, the muscles along his jaw bulging with the effort. The air around him blurred. The rainbow of book spines in the cases along the back wall smeared into each other, and then snapped tight and sharp.
Huge wedges of metallic black unfolded around him, two spires of wing segments nearly touched the ceiling, the lower jagged edges of them scraping along the floor. He opened his arms, brought his hands together, then made a graceful sweeping gesture, and matched it with the opening of his wings. He didn’t get them all the way open, only about halfway before the tips on each side started digging into the baseboards where the floor met the walls. Long metallic spines ran top to bottom on each wing segment, crisscrossed with faintly etched veins.
I was so focused on the wings themselves I didn’t notice the darkness spreading along the walls for a minute, shadowy fingers of it seeping from the corners, bending along the book cases, absorbing the overhead spots and daylight coming in through the windows.
It was a bright summer afternoon and here we were standing in the dark, folding our arms against the cold, breathing it in, every inhale like ice against my teeth. Aerizo looked the same as he did without the wings, but there was something different, an edge that made me feel like some part of him—he had pinned down reasonably well—was tempted to cut my throat. The darkness did something to the pallor of his skin, turned it a light shade of blue, and the long vines and wind current tattoos glowed up his arms. His eyes were still blue, but with a vivid yellow ring at the edge of the irises.
Aerizo was a monster.
He signed something and Itoshi cleared his throat, shook off the chill, and said, “This is what I am. I hunt people like you.” A dramatic pause and then some more signing. “If I am allowed to.”
Okay, Aerizo was a monster with a touch of theater.
Itoshi went on with Aerizo signing. “I also wanted to show what you are up against. Let me track down your mother’s captors. Let me find out who and where. I know it hurts, but you need to stay quiet, stay safe. Don’t go out after dark unless you have to. It might be better if we got you out of here for a few days, see who turns up looking for you.”
He folded in the wings, sucked the darkness back into whatever container he stored it, and the life returned to the shop. Then I felt something else, a sense of urgency about him.
Frowning, he pointed to the front windows.
Startled, I had to stop myself from jumping and crying out when I heard the rap of knuckles on the glass of the front door, but I shut my mouth and kept it under control. At least on the outside. My heart was thudding solidly inside me when I spun the locks and opened the store again.
It was Mrs. Rydell from Spanish Bay on her almost daily visit to dig through the dollar basket and if I didn’t let her in, everyone who had ears along Cannery Row would know something strange was going on at Teller Esoterica...Did you know they’re closed in the middle of the day? I didn’t. Is something wrong with that dear Emily Teller and her son that neither of them could open the doors? And somehow Wes Deyoung would hear of it and pay me another visit. He wouldn’t come back without backup—legal back up, I’m sure, not hired muscle or anti-wiccan mercenaries.
Itoshi spent another minute watching Aerizo and said, “We’ve seen what you look like all tooled up. Let’s get the page nineteen book and ask you some questions. I think you’ve raised more than you’ve answered at this point.”
I left Mrs. Rydell alone. She would be here for an hour, digging through the same old crap, looking for something that hadn’t miraculously caught her eye the day before. It was as if she was panning for gold in a stream that didn’t flow anywhere but back into itself.
Taryn stepped up with the first question, keeping her voice low to avoid Mrs. Rydell’s deceptively tuned sense of hearing and well known ability to memorize other people’s conversations for repeating up and down Cannery and Lighthouse Avenue.
“So why wouldn’t it be wise to tell the stories? Andin knows them and Itosh and I both want to hear them.”
Looking at me, Aerizo wrote, Because you may unintentionally unbind something your mother sealed with the telling of a story.
He skipped a couple lines and added, Before we go any further with questions, I need to understand something from you, Andin: how many answers do you want me to share with your friends? I have tracked Itoshi and Taryn for as long as you’ve known them—years. I have a pretty good understanding of how much they mean to you. I even know how much they mean to your mother.
There was a little spark of comfort in Aerizo’s use of the present tense, “mean” and not past tense, “meant to your mother.”
I looked over at Itoshi and Taryn, then back to Aerizo. “Is that why you’ve been open with us so far?”
He nodded, closed the book, prepared to wait for my thoughtful reply.
I didn’t need to even think about it. “We want to hear it all. You can say—or write—anything in front of Taryn and Itoshi.”
Taryn laughed. “So you have been following me! I thought so. I’ve seen you a bunch of times around the city, once on the roof of Lighthouse Pizza—awesome calzones there. Don’t know if you were there to stalk me or eat or both, but you should try the ham and pineapple cal. Also saw you once in Monterey Custom Frames using a mirror to look out the front windows as I went by. Oh, and you shouldn’t even try to pretend to read a magazine on the steps next to the Mariner’s Museum, you know with all the wavy brickwork? There’s a whole spread of security cams along the front, with some pretty intelligent image-matching cogs behind it all. I’m sure they have a file on you downtown. Let me know if you’re interested in seeing what they’ve collected on you so far.”
Itoshi sounded disappointed. “How come I’ve never seen you before today?”
Aerizo seemed a little angry; Taryn was really annoying him. His handwriting came out crooked with words running together. Because when you go somewhere, Itoshi, you look where you’re going. When you walk somewhere, you walk, one foot in front of the other, and when you ride your motorcycle, you stay within the lines.
He didn’t add “like a normal person,” but I felt the words in the blank space on page nineteen. Instead he tilted his head to Taryn as an example of someone who did none of those things—that was, going somewhere meant dancing there with her head thrown back and eyes focused on things no normal person noticed, someone who thought lines were created to be skipped, hopped, and colored over, and who habitually noticed suspicious creepers watching from roofs, second story windows, and the reflections in car windows.
8 - Tellers
Mrs. Rydell surprised us all when she actually found something worth finding in the everything’s-a-dollar basket. I jumped up to handle the transaction. She straightened with some effort, grabbing the front counter with her bony fingers, then shifted her glasses around to get a good look at it.
It was a ring with a knob of metal topped with a rounded red stone gleaming like fire. She held it out to me in one shaking hand. “I found this, Andin Teller, in the basket.”
I couldn’t move for a second. It matched the bracelet Taryn had always worn—heavy links of steel, the acorn looking knobs with red gems—that I suspected was now too small to be removed without cutting it off.
We didn’t carry this ring, or anything like it, in Teller Esoterica. It wasn’t Taryn’s. I would have noticed if she was wearing a ring to match her bracelet.
I turned to the back of the store where Taryn and Itoshi had gone back to talking to Aerizo, then looked around the store for anything—anything—I could use to offer in exchange for the ring. I had to have it. Taryn had to have it.
“Mrs. Rydell, could I...uh...interest...”
“I don’t think this belongs in the basket with the other junk. Someone’s mistake, I think.”
My mom always said there were two kinds of customer. There were customers who came into the store, browsed or knew exactly what they wanted, and bought something. And there were customers who came into the store, rarely bought anything, but just liked to meet people and talk—and these kinds of customers talked to their friends about how nice things were at Teller Esoterica. Voices like currency, my mom said, and you treated them both like gold.
She pushed the ring into my hand, folding my fingers closed over it.
“I think you’re right, Mrs. Rydell.” I felt bad taking it away from her—as badly as I wanted it. “But you come in here all the time, looking for something valuable in the dollar basket. I’ll tell you what, you can...”
I stopped talking because she was giving me a fierce stare, wagging one finger. “I don’t want any of the crap in the basket, not worth a dollar, Andin Teller. What the hell would I do with a shark’s tooth anyway? I come in to talk to your mother is all. Where’s she been?”
“Oh, she’s—” I pointed north as if that would mean anything—it did seem to add weight to the lie. “She’s spending time with her sister in San Francisco.”
Something sharpened in Mrs. Rydell’s look, her eyes focused on mine through the lenses of her glasses. “Didn’t know she had relatives up in the City. When will she be back?”
I waved the ring around. “In a few days. Look, I’d like you to have something in place of the ring. I mean, you found it and, yeah, it’s obviously a mistake. I don’t know how it ended up in there. My mom wouldn’t be happy if I had to let this one go for a dollar.” I stopped on the rack of watercolor tarot cards, a dozen of them hand-painted, individually wrapped in clear acid-free sleeves. “Would you like one of my paintings? Take one. Any one.”
I suddenly hoped she would take the wrong Tides card, but Taryn was still holding it and seemed to want it herself.
Mrs. Rydell brightened and released the counter, flipping through cards while I pocketed the red acorn ring. “Really kind of you, Andin. I’ve always loved your paintings.”
She laughed at some of them—at something in them, but I was behind the counter and couldn’t see which cards struck her that way. Most of the tarot deck’s either not funny at all or downright somber. Maybe The Fool. I did variations on most of the cards, including a Fool who juggled three chainsaws and someone’s left hand—not his own left hand, however.
Mrs. Rydell ended up taking The Lovers—and being somewhere around eighty, that was a bit of a surprise, but it was one of my gay themed Lovers for her grandnephew Randall. I do gay, lesbian, and hetero versions of a couple cards.
Mrs. Rydell left the shop happy as I’d ever seen her. “You tell your mom I was in. You tell her she’s raised an honest, kind, and talented boy who never gives the incorrect change. I don’t buy much, but I’ve watched, you know.” She pointed at me. “Don’t you forget to tell her that from me.”
I nodded and waved to her several more times as she waltzed away down Cannery—she kept stopping and turning to wave back at me.
When I rejoined the party in the back, the ring still in my pocket, Taryn looked up at me, smiling. “Mrs. Rydell’s the sweetest lady, isn’t she?”
It had occurred to me that since the ring didn’t belong in Teller Esoterica, someone might have lost it in the dollar basket and they’d be back to ask about it. How awful would it be to give it to Taryn only to have to take it away again? No, I’d better keep it for now, in case the owner showed up.
“Yeah.” Nodding absently, I asked, “How do you know her?”
“I’ve stayed at her place at the Bay a hundred times. She makes the most awesome chicken and cheese soup. I just think she’s lonely and she loves to hear me talk about shapes and numbers—you know how I can go on about equidecomposable polyhedra. Any time we get into Dehn invariants I’m liable to dig so deep I’ll forget to breathe.”
I looked over at Aerizo to see if he understood any of that. Nope.
That’s the Taryn I know and love—hopelessly, to the point of holding onto a lost ring that matched her bracelet, and hoping no one would return to claim it. How hopeless was that?
She kept a worldful of knowledge in her head and the best thing was, if for some crazy reason we really did want to get into certain polyhedra and their equidecomposability, all we’d have to do is ask. If she was around. The only thing you couldn’t ask Taryn to keep was a schedule. She didn’t even understand the word.
“Speaking of holding our breaths.” Itoshi waved me into the huddle. “Okay, Aerizo, let’s hear it—see it. We’ve been waiting. Who or what is Andin Teller?”
Aerizo held up page nineteen. He had already written it out, hoping I’d return before the nineteen minute deadline. All three of us leaned in to read.
Andin, you are Synnepheia’s son and she has given you all her power. You are a Teller with a bit of a difference. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I know your mother has always been careful with her words. I know you must use the telling powers in short bursts and with unpredictably. The stories stand out, make themselves noticeable to people whose attention you’d rather not attract. I am sure it is the same with your paintings.
You know the stories, and that Synnepheia is the daughter of Diosemia, but what your mother may have left out was that she was to be wedded to the son of Eknephias, an adversary of Diosemia. An adversary your grandmother hoped to turn into an ally with the combining of their empires.
I shrugged. “So, Diosemia’s disappointed in her daughter for not entering into this forced marriage? And for this, she sends hunters to kill her? What for?”
Your mother started a war.
Aerizo pulled the book back and continued writing for another minute. The son of Eknephias is a guy named Straton, not a very nice guy. Brutal and shrewd, two keys to keeping his father’s empire alive. Straton ran most of the operations for his father and killed anyone who got in his way. He also treated your mother like a disease—specifically her ability to tell and make things happen. He commanded a team made up of his own loyals and two from Diosemia’s sworn hunters to find a way to take them away from her. He didn’t trust her and treated her shamefully, breaking her fingers, legs, once her skull, all to test the extent of her ability to tell enough of a story to make herself whole again. Your mother fought back in a very complex way. She found out his truths—I don’t know how. She put him to sleep with the key to destroy the Eknephian holdings on his tongue, the right words just behind his teeth, ready to burst from him to tell the world as soon as he woke. Then she told the secret to waking Straton to her mother and no one else.
Itoshi was nodding. “Which started a war between Diosemia and Eknephias?”
Taryn gave me a backhand across the arm. “Wow. I’m liking your mom more and more.”
“So, I really am this Hidden character in the stories?”
Aerizo bent over the book, writing. You are the product of Straton’s command—to take your mother’s powers away.
That’s not what I expected to read. A wash of heat across my face. “Me?”
The only way we found to remove Synnepheia’s powers was to move them from her to someone else and the only compatible recipient is a child.
“So, who are you, Aerizo? Really?”
I led the team that hunted for the cure to your mother’s storytelling-world changing disease. Those are Straton’s words, not mine. I was Diosemia’s hunter then—before war between us broke out.
Itoshi leaned forward, suspicious. “So, you had given your voice to Diosemia, but you worked for this Eknephias and his sleeping son Straton?”
“You answer this.” I jabbed a finger at him and my voice came out deadly quiet, didn’t even sound like me. “Are you on our side or not?”
The scratching of the pen on page nineteen stirred that hot angry pool inside me. I wanted to paint him right out of existence. Cut off his wings. Erase Aerizo from every memory in every mind in the world.
I am answering every single one of your questions, telling you everything you want to know about yourself, your enemies, showing you the extent of my powers. I have defended you from killers your entire life. I have moved you around the world, created new names, bank accounts, histories for you. I even need you to heal me—a minor wound can kill me and only you can heal me. You tell me if you think I’m on your side or not.
Taryn grabbed my hand to stop it from shaking. “You haven’t told us one very important thing about Andin. Who’s his father?”
9 - Tides
Aerizo wrote five words and turned the book around.
I thought it was obvious.
Synnepheia had already turned my allegiance, unseated the bindings Diosemia put in me. I couldn’t tell you if I was in love with her once—it could have just been the story and the way she told it that made me think I was. It’s even more complicated than that, but genetically speaking, yes. Straton wasn’t about to touch your mother. I was ordered to by Diosemia, who saw this as nothing more than removing an obstacle to combining fortunes and power. Very little thought for the welfare of her own daughter—your mother. None of us had choices in this matter, least of all me.
I tried for cutting sarcasm, but the words came out half choked in my throat. “Well, thanks for doing your part.”
Aerizo made a silent laugh, his mouth open, showing his teeth. Do not thank me before you know what really happened, not before you know everything. When you were born, I was also given the order to kill you—cut your throat—let you bleed out, cut off your ears, three fingers from each hand, and bury you somewhere in the wilderness. Killing you in this specific way was supposed to draw out Synnepheia’s power of storytelling.
Itoshi jumped in with, “That clearly didn’t happen.”
Aerizo shook his head. Your mother set the trap for Straton, made him sleep, passed the key to wake him to her mother, then we ran away, your mother and her baby—and I went to work, hiding you, establishing new identities, warding off and redirecting agents and assassins who happened to find a hint of your existence, killing those who got too close.
The question just came to me and I tried to pull the sound of judgment from my tone. “You killed people?”
Aerizo shrugged. None of them were “people” in the way you understand the word and they would have done far worse to you than I did to them.
He put down the book and pen, waiting for the next question, but no one said anything, silence stretching into minutes. Taryn got up and paced around, rudderless, almost as if dancing wasn’t an option because too much energy had been drained from her.
Itoshi picked up the book, flipped through it to page nineteen just to see if it was blank. He closed it and set it back down.
I waved toward the front door, indicating the shop and the fight the night before. “So why didn’t they take me with my mom?”
Aerizo spent more time thinking about that than any other question so far. Finally he picked up the book and pen. I think your mother told her last story to make them think she was alone. They had forgotten about you. That is the power of your mother’s words over them. In the video, the two hunters never looked back at you, almost as if you weren’t there.
Neither did my mother.
I didn’t say it aloud, but I couldn’t stop the thought.
I cleared my throat, stood up, and forced my mind to the big questions.
“So what do we do now? They know where to find me. Won’t they figure this out? Won’t they be back?”
He nodded, agreeing, but he didn’t look happy about it. They will probably send a team out to bring you in or kill you, and you better not be here. I need to keep moving too, but I cannot be in more than one place at a time. You need to get away from the store for a while and we need a way to communicate.
“So we just run, wait for this team of bad guys to blow through town, and then come back?”
He shrugged and nodded at the same time—which didn’t look reassuring.
Itoshi leaned in to read page nineteen as I did, but he had a couple more questions for Aerizo. “What will you be doing? Going hunting?”
Aerizo locked eyes with the I-Man for half a minute, no sign of humor or anything lighter than grim and graveyards in his expression. He just nodded, leaned back against the book cases, and stared into the ductwork running along the ceiling.
Taryn, standing over me, arms folded, said, “Well, we’re going with you, wherever you go. I’ll say something that will make your brain hurt if you say no.”
Itoshi just nodded, resting his chin in his hands, his elbows propped on his knees. “I’ll need fuel money. Bike doesn’t run on air.”
While the three of us—Itoshi, Taryn, and I—settled travel plans, Aerizo, still seated, twisted around to scan the shelves, running his fingers over the books. He finally settled on a big volume of recipes, poisons, and love potions for kitchen witches, thumbing through the pages as if he knew what he was looking for.
Apparently not, because he stopped in the middle on a recipe for a not very appetizing mincemeat pie, tore out three pages, and replaced the book on the shelf. We watched his fingers fan over the paper, pressing it into the floor, feeling the letters and pictures on the page, folding it, stretching it, his thumb working it like very thin clay. The black ink smeared into shades of gray, pushed into black tips emerging along two angular structures he was folding into the shape. He ended the paper manipulation session with his hands cupped around the final work and when he opened them, a tiny seagull hopped and tested its wings on the tips of his fingers. Aerizo had even turned the paper in a way that made a sharp wedge of a picture of the mincemeat pie crust come out as the yellow of the seagull’s beak.
“Brilliant.” Itoshi spoke for us all.
Aerizo didn’t even look up, just held out his hand to release the tiny seagull. Then he slid his writing book over, opened it to page nineteen. I will make three of these, one for each of you. When we need to meet, release one with a message and it will find me and deliver it. Andin, over by the door, you have a tray of crystals in little wooden cages. Can you get me three and dump out the crystals?
He was already finishing up the third bird when I got back, setting the cages on the floor.
“You’re not coming with us?”
He shook his head. I can give you some suggestions and advice.
If you have to, split up and run in different directions, but with a clear meet up point. Promise me that every time you stop—I don’t care if it’s just for refueling—you will make a plan to break and regroup at a location you can find—in a day or two. Don’t use your phones. If they’re close enough to find your footprints, you can be certain they’re listening in. This is not some silly story where the ones who use magic stick to using it and shun technology. They will use hunting dogs, they will use weapons of all kinds—some you’ve never even dreamed of. They have money, they can buy their way into places and past almost any defense you put up.
“What will you be doing?”
Trying to find exactly who has your mother and where they’re keeping her.
“So, you’re certain they haven’t...killed her?”
He pulled in a long breath, shook his head. It’s possible, but not likely. She’s a valuable piece in her mother’s game and still playable—maybe even more valuable now that she no longer has her telling power. He pointed at me. You are more of threat to Diosemia than your mother is right now.
His words seemed to have weight and I felt them on my shoulders. “This sounds hopeless.”
Taryn was angry. “Are you trying to shake our confidence?”
Aerizo smiled and wrote, Just being realistic. And don’t ever forget that you have a mythologos—a story teller, Andin, someone who can change the world with his paint brush. Who knows what your words can do? Your mother was one. Very rare in any world. Hekate, the very goddess of witches, walker of underworld paths, was one—and don’t believe all that nonsense about her being chaste. She was as loose as a flag on a flagpole—on a very windy day. You may even be one of her descendants. It’s just that she controlled the story—her own story. You, Andin, control yours and maybe even all of ours.
Silence in the shop for a while. “One last question. Who else have I been?”
The ink had faded from page nineteen by the time Aerizo started to answer. You have changed names three times. Hidden is just what your mother called you in her stories, but that’s never been your real name. I have created new identities for you and your mother three times. The last time, you were six, you became Andin and probably don’t remember your first and second names.
It was late, past midnight, when Aerizo got up and waved us to the roof of the old shopping plaza building, four floors above the two narrow lanes of Cannery Row. He had his fold-away carbon-fiber-looking wings out by the time he reached the edge.
It was windy up there and Taryn called out over the sound of the weather and the Pacific surf. “When should we leave?”
Aerizo looked back over his shoulder, twisted partway around so that the tip of his right wing nearly impaled me, and signed something I took to mean, “no later than” and then tapped the wrist on the opposite arm with his open thumb, index, and middle finger—no later than three.
Time for a little road trip.
10 - Sand Castles
We pulled into Morro Bay at dawn and spent half an hour looking for a coffee shop. All three of us suffered from the same long drive aches; hunger, ears ringing, helmet-hair, and goggle memory—we spent a few minutes rubbing our faces, trying to shake that weird sustained pressure around your eyes that hangs around long after you take off the goggles.
My fingers were cold and locked around my box of paints and brushes when we grabbed the parking space on Front Street. First thing I did after extricating myself from the Ural’s sidecar—even before restarting the circulation in my legs—was set them down, stacked on top of my art book—a fresh Moleskine watercolor notebook. I wasn’t going to let any of them out of my sight for the rest of my life. I was hesitant about telling Taryn and Itoshi, but I was planning to sleep with the paints under my pillow—if we had pillows wherever we ended up sleeping.
I’d squeezed into the sidecar for most of the trip, and after we found this cool old breakfast place on the water, I only had to spend fifteen minutes kneading and stretching and curling my toes to get my legs and feet back in working order.
Straightening and stretching my spine, I looked up and down the sleepy early morning street and pulled in a deep draw of ocean air. The streetlights were still on, even with the sun just coming up over the hills, bands of vivid pink light fanning over silvery smooth water and a forest of anchored sailboats out to the breakwater, a slim bar of brown rock that cut a line across the Pacific just under the horizon.
I had been to Morro Bay once before, a smaller, quieter, more sincere version of Monterey about halfway down the California coast—and with the most unique natural landmark of anywhere in the world, Morro Rock. The hemisphere of rock stood a hundred and seventy-six meters high and basically looked like a massive oviparous alien species had dropped one of its eggs at the edge of the Pacific and left it half-buried in the sand just north of the city. I’m sure it’s going to hatch at some point, grow up eating whole countries, and eventually devour the entire earth, before moving on to another planet to lay eggs.
We took a booth up by the windows to keep an eye on the bike and ordered a pot of coffee, some sort of highly-charged surfer/kayaker/fisherman blend, which is what most of the other diners looked like; a few guys in coats bent over the counter, a couple women in paisley rashguards at a window booth talking quietly over mugs of something hot, and a larger group taking over two tables in the back, all surfers, mostly guys.
The coffee was good and I was on my second cup when the tiniest seagull swooped in from somewhere and landed on my shoulder. It made a very authentic gull chattering noise and the standard impatient dance. Putting my mug down, I brought both hands up to cup the little bird and bring it to the tabletop, bending forward to block its view from other tables.
Just as I opened my hands, the bird exploded, a sharp popping noise and points of something pressing into my fingers and palms. A wad of heavy paper tumbled out of my hands, across the table. Taryn snapped it up and smoothed it out so we could read a message from Aerizo:
I have found more evidence tying your mother’s abduction to Eknephias. So far, I don’t think Diosemia is involved, but that will only be a matter of time. Hunters came to Teller Esoterica this morning, broke in, and did a standard search for any information you left behind. They know you’ve taken off and will probably be looking for you. Be careful. Have you made a break and regroup plan? No, you haven’t. Make one now.
Taryn jabbed a finger at the last line. “How does he know we haven’t?”
Itoshi laughed tiredly. “Because he knows we drove down on the Ural and it’s so loud we wouldn’t have been able to hold any kind of conversation on the ride.”
I gulped another mouthful of hot coffee, my body going suddenly cold, thinking that it wasn’t a good sign that he had found us or followed us so easily. We didn’t tell him where we were going—he didn’t want to know—but he was a hunter and I’d bet that involved a complicated set of investigation methods, predictability studies, personality analysis on the three of us, terrain pattern matching, and intuitive functions that had nothing to do with smacking a GPS transmitter on Itoshi’s vehicle.
I looked out the window, scanned the quiet street. “If Aerizo found us within a matter of hours, how long will it take a team of hunters? Let’s pick a point, longitude and latitude, and memorize it. Things start to get out of hand, we run in different directions and regroup at that long and lat. Pick a number of days.” I looked from Taryn to Itoshi.
“Two days,” Taryn threw out, fingering through the map interface on her phone.
We settled on 35.334278, -120.827036, south of Morro Bay, not so far from where we were that the distance couldn’t be walked, but off any probable course we would have made on Itoshi’s bike. It was in the middle of someplace called Elfin Forest Reserve, which on low altitude imagery looked neither elfin, nor wooded. That ought to throw them off.
Then we settled deeper into our booth in the coffee shop on Front Street and planned our next moves. Taryn took off to look for a cheap place to stay the night. Itoshi went to fuel up and then drive around the city a bit, what he called “getting a lay of the land,” but I think he just wanted to cruise around and be observant, see if anyone unusual turned up on the streets.
They left me with the bill.
I’d loaded up a throwaway debit card from the store account and got more in cash for smaller purchases. What we didn’t want to do—Aerizo assured us—was use existing accounts, cards, any ties to credit, if we were going to spend it outside of Monterey. He said it was standard for hunters to follow the transaction trail.
What, are they in the FBI?
I left enough cash for the meals and tip, grabbed my paint box and notebook, and headed for the beach to practice changing the world.
That’s the way it seemed to work, making things I could see change in some way. I had no idea how far I could take that, though. Aerizo’s straightforward demand to draw his arm had seemed natural, as if in the past he would come into the shop any time someone stabbed, sliced, or diced him, and my mother would just tell a story to put him back together again. Is that how it worked? Could I tell stories too or did everything in me have to come through pencils and paint brushes?
Whatever it was, whatever made it happen, it came from inside me. Both times—Aerizo’s arm and the book—had taken something from me, slid it into my hands, and let me push and shape the world with lines and watercolors.
Practice. Don’t come back without the ability to paint the world you want.
Those were the last things Aerizo told me, just before flying off to continue looking for the people who stole my mom.
Practice with what? But he had said he couldn’t help me with that.
Should I make more things, books, pens...sand castles? I hadn’t even thought about making another tarot card after the last one finished painting itself. Was that part of this thing inside me? Making itself known, telling me it was awake and was ready to give me the power to shape the world?
I was pretty sure if I drew and painted a sand castle, it would emerge from the sand just as I had imagined it. Looking out at the soft rolls of green ocean playing sloppily at the edge of the beach, I wondered if I could change the color of an ocean or build the Empire State Building here in Morro Bay—people would be pissed of course, a giant building blocking the view.
I pushed for more questions. Would I just be moving the building from Manhattan—offices, people in the elevators, security guards—or would I be painting and creating an exact duplicate—with or without people?
Where was the limit? Even if I painted a free lunch, it had to come from somewhere, right? Someone had to pay for it, and if not me, then who?
I had that well of raw power to feed off, but what replenished it? Could I use it up on useless things?
Was it useless if I was learning something?
I pulled out my watercolor notebook and a pencil and started with the turrets, four of them, crenellated walls running to each corner, a blocky tower rising above the walls in the center, more crenels, slotted windows for archers. I felt the warm rush inside me, banked low like a fire allowed to run down, and there was no change in the sand around me, no moats, no walls, no castle.
Things didn’t start to heat up until I opened the paint box. The same hot rumble of power rose inside, lines of it cutting invisibly through my skin into the air, a stab of it exiting just above my right hip, a thrum inside like a hose hooked up to my bones, feeding the power. I ran my fingers over my side and didn’t feel anything through my shirt. When I turned, the feed didn’t shift with me, but slid across my back like a compass needle pulled north, fixed in one direction.
“Okay, that’s weird.”
I let it go for now and set up my paints, filled a cup with my water bottle.
I started with a light umber wash and felt the world shift around me. It wasn’t like an earthquake. Everything but my notebook propped on my knees became indistinct, in motion, but not really going anywhere. The world was suddenly impressionable, everything waiting for the touch of the tip of my paint brush.
I didn’t even notice the admirers until they blocked the sun, standing over my shoulder. The shadow was like a splash of ice water down my back. I lurched forward, almost dropped my notebook. I blinked, saw a girl crouched next to the sand castle—made of real sand. I twisted around to follow the shadows to a couple looking at my painting.
“Wonderful likeness,” said one. “Detail’s so tough with watercolors.”
“The painting’s okay,” said the girl, stabbing a finger at the actual sand castle. “But who made this?”
I had been totally out of it, hadn’t even heard this couple and their daughter approach. Glancing up and down the beach, empty except for a few joggers, I cleared my throat and pulled in a deep breath. The world had stopped moving and, over the top of my painting I noticed how detailed the castle was, straight lines of stone and mortar all out of sand. Each of the turrets had circular stairways cutting down into their tops. My heart was racing. “Oh, uh, a friend of mine makes the greatest sand sculptures. He’s won awards up in Marina and Carmel.” I craned my neck down the beach, pretending to look for someone. “He’s gone, probably building the Eiffel Tower out of sand somewhere.”
11 - Practice Makes Imperfect
The next thing I did was move the world.
Actually my shoes, but it felt to me like my old unlaced Vans—kicked off about ten feet away—remained where they were and the world moved under them. There was a lump of granite with a shaggy wreath of sea-wrack about twenty feet away. I drew, then painted my shoes right next to it, felt the rise of power inside me, and when I looked up, my shoes had moved ten more feet away, right next to the rock.
Could I move people—and even closer to where I was going with a new line of questions—could I move them here from somewhere else without having them in front of me? I rarely used models in my art, just drew them out of my imagination—I mean how was I going to get ten mermaids to pose for me on the Ten of Cups card I did for our underwater-themed deck?
I flipped to a new page in the Moleskine and started penciling in my mother.
My hand was shaking, a spasm sent the pencil point across the cream-colored paper, and the picture in my mind shifted around. I couldn’t picture my own mother. I knew what she looked like, high cheek bones, cold blue eyes with little flecks of gold, dark arching brows, a straight nose...I couldn’t make my hand work.
Maybe I couldn’t move things that weren’t here. Maybe I just couldn’t do it without knowing where they were. I got up, grabbed my shoes, and tossed one of them up on the concrete walkway. Then I turned around, sat down, and drew the shoe next to its pair in front of me.
So I didn’t need to see the thing I was moving and this time I only painted the shoe, not the concrete, not the background, and it joined its twin. So, maybe I didn’t need to know where the thing was and something else was preventing me from shifting my mom here. Distance? Could it be it only worked for things twenty feet away, a hundred feet, a mile, but anything more than that just wouldn’t come into focus?
Itoshi found me an hour later, after I’d blown through half my notebook and moved my shoes, a pencil, and even a seagull a dozen times all over the beach. I heard him coming up Harbor Street, loud pipes rumbling, then sputtering in stops and starts as he wheeled around for a parking space. Taryn appeared out of nowhere, hopped off the concrete ledge to the sand and twirled her way down to me.
“Andin? Found a motel. Check in’s at two. Did you practice?”
I nodded up at her, flipped to a new page, and painted the shoes right off her feet—while they were moving. She was wearing her custom inked hi-tops, loose laces coiling and dancing medusa-like. She stopped suddenly, looking down her toes digging into warm wet sand.
Then she laughed. “Hey, you just did that?”
I lifted the brush. “I think I have it down. I don’t even need to sketch first, just go in with my favorite number 6 loaded with color, shaping the things I want to move or make. I’m not even filling in spaces or keeping straight edges anymore—the painting does that, like it’s self-correcting, like it knows what I’m painting and helps me out.”
Itoshi walked up, goggles propped on his head. “Man, this city is small.”
Taryn was squatting next to her shoes and socks, looking them over. “It’s cute, though.” She jammed her socks in her pockets and stepped into her shoes, glancing over at me, a scheming smile on her face. “Can you take us all somewhere, paint us away from here?” Her smile broadened. “Just for a little while. Then paint us back again so we can pick up Itoshi’s bike.”
“Yeah, not too long though, I’m parked in a two hour zone.”
I gathered my stuff, got my shoes on, but left the paints, brush, and notebook out. “Where to?”
Taryn slid her backpack around to the front and dug out The Tides tarot card. “I want to go here.”
I took it from her and the card felt warm in my hand—not from being her backpack. I could feel the power inside the paper, the lines, the color. It didn’t feel like my own.
I shook my head and slipped The Tides into the back of my notebook. “Not this place, not yet. Something about the painting, or the story in the painting, doesn’t feel like my own.” I held back the words, “I don’t like it” and replaced them with, “We’ll go somewhere nice, I promise.”
The meaning behind The Tides—The Moon—card also didn’t feel right for this bit of exploration. The Moon card meant a change in perspective, loneliness, sometimes confusion, but very clearly the life and world of the imagination—which is exactly what my world had become the instant they took my mother away.
I didn’t want to go all the way there. Not yet.
Squeezing out a few more colors—mostly reds—I imagined another coastline, another place where the sun came up over the waves, and I painted it. I painted Taryn first, then Itosh, myself last, starting with the brush and notebook in my hand, followed by the paints and my paint box, then I just worked my way up from my shoes.
The world moved under me, smooth and certain.
I felt my legs unfolding, extending on their own, as if I was floating, the paint box and notebook weightless in one hand, the brush gripped in my right as if it was the only thing that anchored me to reality.
My feet hit solid ground and I bent my knees a little.
Then I opened my eyes, Itoshi on one side of me, Taryn on the other.
We were staring out at a different landscape, a serrated line of pine trees blocking the horizon.
Itoshi looked off to the right. “Where are we?”
I shook my head, pointed with my brush. “No idea. This place could be completely fictional for all I know. Like just through those trees we’ll find Ottery St. Catchpole or Wyverley College.” I sighed, a deeper sadder sound than I’d expected to come out of me. “I used to paint. Now I paint places and things happening, and the more I practice, the crazier it becomes.”
Taryn laughed, slapping me on the shoulder. “Imperfect tense! That’s practice makes imperfect.”
And while she danced off, Itoshi and I were thumbing search terms into our phones—we had service, so we couldn’t be too far off the map. Itosh got there before me. “Here it is. Imperfect tense—the tense of a verb for an action or a condition as incomplete, continuous, or coincident with another action.”
I was looking over the examples. “So, she’s referring to me saying, ‘I used to paint’ I think?”
“Yeah, and then making the connection with practice makes perfect.”
I laughed because it was somehow exciting to see the revelatory smile on Itoshi’s face—and it probably mirrored my own smile. We’d solved one of Taryn’s million daily insights. It was like getting a glimpse of the world through her eyes. Beautiful and full of patterns that needed to be connected and a mind that refused to let all the separate bundles of wonder go by without connecting them.
I turned around to find the Atlantic Ocean, somehow colder and darker blue than the Pacific, and the thought, Oceans are as different as people, slipped through my thoughts. No idea where that came from. It was like a piece of a story, as if I wasn’t the only one inside my head telling stories. Or maybe it was that I was the one telling them—the Teller—but some of the stories were far older than me and were written by others. And somehow they had wandered into my head.
I set down my paint box and notebook, right at my feet, planning to keep them within reach wherever I went.
Taryn wouldn’t let me brood more than a few minutes. She grabbed me, took both my hands in hers, and danced in circles, pulling me around Itoshi, singing something about “M. A. G. I. C. Magic!”
Itoshi, the voice of reason, had the right idea. “So, you’ve painted us from one place to another. We were standing on a beach, facing the Pacific Ocean. I blinked and the world changed. Now, I’m standing on a beach, facing a different ocean.” He pointed at it as if we’d have trouble seeing it. “I’m looking right at it, but this feels far away. So, I suggest we find out where we are.”
Phones worked, so we nailed our position down to Canada—right along the coast of Nova Scotia.
“I don’t even have a passport.” But Taryn didn’t seem the least bit anxious about it. She caught my eye. “It’s beautiful, but why here? Have you been here before?”
“Not that I remember. I know we moved around a lot when I was little. Haven’t been outside California since my mom took over the store.”
We hiked across a stretch of rocky shoreline, up a shallow embankment with a crest of very green grass, following a rough gravel road toward the rooflines of houses. Taryn came dancing up behind us, happily staring around.
The gravel ended on a two lane paved road called Marine Drive.
We looked up and down the road for a while, then headed back toward the beach.
Taryn threw her arm over my shoulder. “Let’s kill some time. Tell a story.”
“Okay. Something new?”
Itoshi kicked a stone into the bushes next to the road. “Yeah, something we haven’t heard before. New character.”
I was nodding, running plots through my head, glancing around for something to spark an idea.
Taryn leaned closer. She smelled like roses, like soap with a rose scent. “What happens when you tell a story?”
I shrugged. “I become someone else.”
“Anyone.” I looked back at the road sign. Marine Drive. And I knew where I needed to go. “I’m a marine—as in United States Marine Corps, Semper Fi. But not just any marine. I’ve seen combat. I’m a pilot and a bit of a poet. I fly the President’s helicopter and I’m waiting for something, a phone call, because the weather’s going south, and I think we should get the fuck out of here.”
I hear my voice change somewhere in the middle of my explanation, become the voice of the marine, and by that time I can feel the glass cold under my hand. The story has taken me away and even I’m not sure where it will lead.
I just know I want to tell it.
“Forests like horses... Their speed and grace comes with the fall, you know? They don’t come alive until then. If you look down at the woods from the third floor, you can see that it really isn’t woods at all, but horse shaped things, like those wild mustangs, running rivers of them in Montana canyons, old Spanish lines stirred together, dusty flows of crushed walnuts and black ink on cold white paper.
“And their eyes. They have those big eyes, brown as earth and glassy as water.
“I hold up my hand, a farewell, because winter’s right around the corner. And I know it is. Weather Channel’s reflecting in the window and I can see the pink band and then solid white moving over Union Station, coming over the dome of the Capitol. And they don’t like the cold. One lifts its head, ears like leafy spears, and the forest moves like a herd into Constitution Gardens, crossing the Potomac just south of the Arlington Bridge.
“Orange leaves going everywhere, but I can still see their eyes, some to the side, most looking ahead, eager. A few looking back at the earth they won’t see again until spring.
“I press my hand into the cold glass, making distant contact with the weather outside, then a pull of gravity on my focus to the foot of the building so I can watch a parade of black vehicles roll into the round below, a synchronous snakelike curl, and a fan of open doors, a snap of dark suits, long overcoats whipping in the wind.
“The vehicles are empty. Just Her service personnel. It can’t be her arriving because she’s in the building. Been here all morning. The parade is here to take her back home.
“But just long enough to pack.
“The last vehicle jumps the parade line, cuts across the grass, and pulls even with the front door, a uniformed driver stepping out, gloved hands flexing, reaching back to close the door. Then he just stands at the front fender, hands clasped behind his back, ready.
“Ready for me. That’s my ride out to the hanger. It means we’re clearing out before the storm really hits. Like the autumn woods on hooves shod with thunder and a scatter of orange across the Potomac.
“Going home, where it’s warm.
“Mine, too. My home was warm, a place of the brightest sun and the widest sky and water-eaten rocks as red as the leaves below. I left it behind with a child’s hands cut on growing up, and now I look at my hands, gunship pilot calluses and line scars from that shootdown over Kilbastala.
“The phone rings, the phone I never need to answer, just pick it up, just listen. I turn from the window, picking it up.
“Her secretary’s voice is in my ear, telling me to hold a moment, and he has one of the softest voices I have ever heard. Beautiful, really. Soft, but needle-edged. Like a calalily, that particular kind of flower. You know how a calalily has that white cone with the end dipping like a pitcher and there’s this sharp point at the end of everything? It’s like this perfect curl of white felt, thin as paper, but with a needle underneath. It’s like that, his voice.
“And then she’s on the phone, telling me to power up Marine One. She wants to leave in fifteen, off the south lawn, she and her entire cabinet.
“I’m thinking, what I really want to do is follow the autumn woods, that trail of leaves and hooves and dark eyes, right over the Potomac. That’s my path. Maybe that’s hers too and I say the one line I only really need to say.
“Yes, Madam President.”
The story faded away. I blinked, trying to focus on the world, as if I’d just opened my eyes at the end of a dream. There’s a cold Canadian wind blowing at my back.
And Taryn’s dancing about ten feet off to my right. “So, the President of the United States is a woman?”
“In that story she is.”
Itoshi’s stoking a campfire he had somehow lit while I was talking and we gathered around it, facing the Atlantic, staring into the flames while the sun went down behind us.
We didn’t hang around long after that, mainly because none of us had any need to do anything or go anywhere in Nova Scotia in the dark. We marched right back down the shore, and, using Itoshi’s phone light, I painted us all back to Morro Bay.
Time for a couple deep breaths, something to help me deal with the reaction to everything appearing to work out so far. I don’t know how well. Everything seemed to be in place, but there as a slick, warm feeling inside my head. Like internal bleeding of the soul. And then it hit me that maybe telling wasn’t all that safe, that insanity could be the result of too great a shift in things. Wasn’t that what insanity really was?
I was still folding up the paint box and snapping the elastic around my notebook when the hunters attacked. There were two of them, slender, very fast, moving like smears of shadow, almost invisible in their dark coats.
I looked from Taryn to Itoshi, locked eyes, all three of us nodding at the same time. Then we turned away from each other and ran. It wasn’t a good idea, two of them, three of us; pretty much meant one of us would get away and two of us would end up caught or dead.
I looked back. I think we all did at the same time.
One went straight for Taryn, which made me stop and turn. I dug my shoes into the sand, leaning into a sprint. Itoshi got there first, head tucked in, running into the hunter, bowling him over. He stumbled past, twisting to toss his keys to Taryn. She caught them in the middle of her own dance to move out the hunter’s reach.
Both of us shouted, “Run!”
Taryn could have shouted the word back at us, but I didn’t hear her over my own voice and Itoshi’s. I just turned and ran north along the strand, hoping I could make it to the concrete walkway before the bad guys, hoping I could draw at least one away from Taryn and Itoshi.
There was no way. The guy was way faster than I was.
Silent as ever, the hunter darted in from my left, twisting gracefully, almost a dance, his kick coming around in slow-motion, knocking my feet out from under me. I went face first into the sand, my paint box and notebook flew from my hands, tumbling end over end.
I pulled my knees in and rolled with the motion, coming up on my butt, jamming my hands and feet into the sand. The hunter closed on me, hands already in motion, the heel of one palm caught me in the shoulder and set me spinning.
I reacted, threw a fist straight out, and caught the guy above the mouth along the right side of his nose. He didn’t expect the attack. I didn’t expect the sharp, bone-deep pain.
He staggered back, eyes a little wide, stunned, shaking his head.
I couldn’t stop the spin, lost my footing, and landed on my back.
He stood over me, wiping blood from his nose, smiling, some of the blood running into his teeth. And holy shit, my hand ached. It felt like I had pulled a couple finger bones out with pliers and now my hand, lacking the necessary structure, couldn’t make a fist or move in any useful way.
I clawed and kicked backward away from the hunter. He just strode forward, reached under his coat for a handgun and locked the first round in.
No. I needed to see my mom again. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen. I’ll miss the store, the warm sun coming through the glass, and painting. I can’t go anywhere without my pencils and brushes. I can’t go anywhere without Taryn and Itoshi.
He sighted along the barrel, a ring of metal flashing at me, the flash of a dying sun off the muzzle’s end. I was babbling, fingers on my left hand curling into the sand.
“There’s a...above your head. There’s the gray...” I started to laugh, but it didn’t sound like my voice. I didn’t even know why it was funny. “There’s a manatee lawn ornament above your head.” A big gray lumpy animal with a circular tail flipping playfully, the curve of its mouth coming close to a smile. The one from Teller Esoterica—we only ordered one and couldn’t sell the damn thing. “Took two of us to carry that thing in from the delivery truck. It’s a...”
Two hundred pounds of shaped and molded concrete over structural wire—and probably a couple pounds of matte gray paint—landed on the hunter, knocked his head sideways, a crushing weight on his shoulders. It hadn’t even been a real story, just the words spilling out of my mouth, but it had worked. I had called the manatee all the way from Monterey.
A flash of light blinded me, the gun firing, ringing in my ears. Then a spray of high-velocity sand sticking into my jaw and cheek, a trickle of blood into my left eye.
12 - Dealt the Moon
I could just make out the sound of Itoshi’s bike revved high, cuts of sound louder when Taryn went through open intersections, but it was fading. She was gone.
I got to my knees, rubbed the sand off my face with my good hand, my left—and I’m right handed. The hand I paint with felt broken, fever hot in some spots, numb in others. Pulling it against my chest, holding it there, I crawled the rest of the way to my paint box and notebook.
Glancing down at the hunter’s crumpled form in the sand, he was still breathing, but not very well, blood forking across his forehead, mouth open with sand sticking to his teeth.
The concrete manatee was belly up on the far side, its tail digging into his shoulder.
Wonder if Aerizo would be proud that I’d taken out this highly trained hunter with a lawn ornament, or if he would just think we were stupid for getting caught in the first place?
Grabbing my stuff, I staggered to my feet, using the box for leverage. There was a chill at the back of my neck when I turned away from the hunter, dark motion out of the corner of my eye.
I spun and almost lost my balance. The hunter’s black coat twisted as if pulled by invisible hands, the material tearing and folding into three large black crows. Wings fluttering, they hopped and walked around their bleeding owner, poking at him with sharp beaks.
They eyed me suspiciously and then took off into the sky, flying over the line of hotels and shops, wheeling north just before I lost them against the dark sky.
My voice came out hoarse. “Think that’s my signal to run.”
I couldn’t run. It was like my leg muscles were on standby, the whole near death event knocking half my body offline.
Instead, I walked south, parallel to the ocean, at as quick a pace as I could manage, and turned back down Harbor Street to find someplace quiet. I just needed to stop and think the next steps over. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t stop without knowing what had happened to Taryn and Itoshi. Especially Itoshi, on foot with the other hunter after him. It sounded as if Taryn had made it out on the bike.
I had coordinates for our meet up at whatever it was called, some misnamed Elfin Forest, in two days—and that was probably no more than five or six hours away at a good walk, which I didn’t want to start in the dark. Or in this condition.
I found a coffee and tea shop off the main streets, ducked in, and headed straight for the bathroom to wash the blood off my face. I wasn’t in seriously bad shape, just cuts and bruises. My hand hurt like fuck, though. I could barely cup it with my left to get some water on my face.
How the hell am I going to paint now?
Setting my box and notebook on the edge of the sink, I dug through my pockets one-handed. Itoshi had some money and not much else. Taryn had the bike and our extra clothes and supplies. What did I have? Enough money to keep me going for a little while, no weapons except what I could do with a paint brush and my voice—thoughts and intent and my own tongue all getting in the way, I’d still managed to move the manatee from Monterey in time to plant it on the hunter’s head.
A flash of memory, the gun firing and sand hitting my face. I winced.
He was sent to kill me. He was really going to kill me. Simply. Happily. The certainty of it in his focus along the gun made my legs weak and I grabbed the sink, bending to fold my elbow over the right side.
Just like that. No talking—or signing. No questions. No magic, no blast of green fire. Like Aerizo said, hunting, finding, put a bullet through the target’s head, maybe two.
Did they just want me or was the other hunter just as likely to kill Itoshi? And when they caught up with her, Taryn too?
I couldn’t use my phone to check on them, Aerizo’s caution about being able to track us by phone use coming back to me. Was that how they had found us? I didn’t think so. We’d looked up things, but we hadn’t called each other in days—we hadn’t been apart in days for long enough to require a call.
And now that we were apart, it hurt, and two days seemed like a long damn time.
I was alone.
At the door to the bathroom I grabbed four packs of pain killers from a dispenser that charged me ten times what it would cost anywhere else. My hand was killing me. I tore open two packs with my teeth and dry swallowed them. Price of convenience.
Grabbing a seat that faced the door, I ordered a large coffee and made sure I opened my paint box and notebook to some figure sketches. It’s something I’d learned. I looked like trouble, bruised face, aura of stress that would register off the end of anyone’s meter. So, I went with my standard troubled artist diffusion tactic, which almost always worked. Without the pencils and sketching, I was an unpredictability and they might call the police. Once they knew I drew stuff—and watercolor’s even better—all that washed away. How much trouble could an artist get into—even with a heavy dose of caffeine? Only thing you had to do then to anchor a table for a couple hours in any restaurant was have five or ten dollars in view. You’re not going to hurt anyone or damage property and you’re going to pay. That’s all anyone needed to know.
So I had that corner of the place to myself—I didn’t even know the name of the place. I turned the large turquoise-glazed mug of coffee and there it was in loopy script. The Tides.
The name of this place was also the name of my self-completing tarot card? It could have been a few minutes, I couldn’t tell, but I had to remind myself to breathe at one point. Morro Bay was a coastal community, the Pacific Ocean’s right there, oceans have tides, it’s a coincidence. I had already damped down the paranoia on the walk up from the beach—that I was being hunted and that I’d missed a bullet through my face by inches—but the name on the coffee mug lit up that paranoid edge like fire.
I flipped to the end of my notebook and slid out The Tides card.
My painting had changed.
There were two people standing at the left and right bottom corners of the shore, facing the ocean, doing nothing while a third person flailed around beyond the surf, arms waving, fingers grasping at the open air, panic just before drowning. And the morning sun came up behind it all, silvery bright and full of cheer.
It was all in my style, but I didn’t paint these people and I was sure in a very unsure way that the figure at the left was Taryn, it was me on the right, and Itoshi, still in his leather jacket, was going to drown while we just watched ambivalently from the beach.
A pouring liquid sound and I blinked, looking up to see the waitress refilling my mug. “That’s beautiful.” She pointed at The Tides card, a glance at the paints and brushes. “You painted that? Do you sell them?”
I nodded my head, cleared my throat to get my voice working. “Not selling this one. My mother and I own a shop in Monterey. Teller Esoterica.”
She brightened, putting the coffee pot down on the next table. “Oh, I’ve been there! Just down from the aquarium on the other side of the street? Lots of candles, cool jewelry, tarot cards. Is that what this is, part of the tarot?” She leaned closer.
“That’s us and yup, it’s something I’m...working on, a new themed set.” I couldn’t just hide the card, that would be weird, but I also didn’t want to tell her more than I needed to.
“I’m Hillary.” She stuck out her hand and I shook it. Strong grip, a ring on every other finger, the different metals warm against my skin. She had a slender vine tattoo winding up her arm, very subtle lining with leaves shaped like stars, and every angle of the five points a different color, almost metallic and shifting colors when she moved. I looked up, met her eyes. She was maybe twenty-five. I got a helpful vibe from her. I definitely did not get an “I’m going to betray and kill you” vibe, so that was good.
“Andin Teller. Nice ink.”
“Thanks. How long you going to be around?”
I pointed at the table. “Here? A while, couple hours at least.”
“Good. I have a break at nine. I want to ask you something.” She didn’t wait for an answer, grabbed the coffee pot, looking over her shoulder as she headed through the swinging kitchen door. “Let me know if you need anything!”
I didn’t know what to make of that, but it didn’t take a lot of effort to swing everything in my head back to Itoshi and what might be going on right now with him. Taryn had probably run free and, with transportation and most of our belongings, probably didn’t need help. On the other hand, Itoshi might be dead or near to it, hiding somewhere in the dark with the hunter tracking him. And I could draw Itoshi in my sleep. I’d known him for years. We’d gone to school together, had classes together, spent summers running the streets and bike paths of Monterey.
I flipped to a new page, my pencil hanging right over the paper, thinking back on the attack at the beach. I didn’t hear another gunshot after the one meant for me, but that might mean the hunter caught Itoshi and killed him in some less noisy way, or maybe the two of them fired their guns at the same time.
Was I supposed to just wait two days, sit back and do nothing? He could be in trouble right now. What if I didn’t bring him here, but somewhere else?
And the pain in my hand had faded to an ache I could manage.
I pushed the tip of the pencil to the paper and started with a simple human figure standing with his arms at his sides. I pictured the low brush and sand I’d seen in the images of Elfin Forest Reserve, and standing in front of the two posts leading into it was Itoshi. The lines and shading came naturally, which pushed me closer to being certain that Itoshi was alive.
I waved down Hillary for a glass of water and used it wash my number 6 brush. In an hour, I had Itoshi shifting over the world to our future meeting place. I felt the movement. I felt Itoshi’s willingness to move and I didn’t think that would happen if he wasn’t...alive.
I was still breathing, sitting in the back of a coffee shop, and somewhere out there, Taryn was driving the Ural, and Itoshi wasn’t even in the same city anymore. We had been this close to dead, and an hour or so later, we were all still breathing. That counted for something.
Somewhere in the back of my head, I made one more note about this power to tell a story and make things happen: I can move people from one location to another without knowing exactly where they are and without ever visiting the destination.
That could come in handy.
Hillary came back at nine o’clock and sat across from me. And she brought a deck of cards. “Can I do a reading for you?” She handed it to me for shuffling, then spread out the deck face down. “How many do you want me to do? Any spread preference?”
I shook my head, glancing around the restaurant. “Give it to me in one. I need to know where to go, how to deal with a threat. I’ve lost two friends and I need to know how to meet up with them again.”
I touched one card and when she flipped it over, it didn’t surprise me a bit. The Moon—which is the standard tarot major card for The Tides that was now safely tucked back into my notebook.
“The Moon. Fear and imagination.” Hillary caught my eyes, held them a minute, then looked down at my hands resting on the table. “You’re depressed about losing friends and hope for something out of the ordinary, even magical, to bring them back. I can also see a creative side, making things up in order to make your world better and brighter, but you don’t really trust it.” She drew in a slow breath, eyes locked with mine again. “The world looks different under the light of the moon. You need to find out what you really want, what you really value. But be careful, things may not be what they appear to be. Your next steps aren’t without risk, you have friends who may even help you along the way, but you will have to make many decisions by yourself. Alone.”
I’ve had better tellings, but she knew her stuff.
Hillary leaned over The Moon without touching it, her slim fingers spread to prop herself up, bright gold and orange shapes across her rings, the same shapes in her dark eyes, reflecting the lights from the corner spots and the fixture hanging over the table.
Finally, she asked, “What are you doing in Morro Bay?”
I nudged my paint box. “Art. I’m meeting a friend of mine further south day after tomorrow.”
We sat there silently for a moment, then she nodded to herself. “Do you need a place to stay?”
Okay, this was suddenly going a bit quick for me. I wanted to nod, but I kept my head still and tried not to show any answer in my expression. “Can I ask you something?”
“You don’t even know me. I have money. I can get a hotel room.” Actually, I would have to use ID and my real name for a hotel, so I didn’t really have that option. “Why would you invite a total stranger to your home?”
She shrugged. “I was going to ask you for something in return.”
Okay, she had just doubled the speed, and I think my surprise showed on my face because she laughed.
“Oh!” She laughed again. “No, not that. I’m not into guys.” She twisted sideways, showing me the back of her upper right arm. “I want you to draw something for me. You make me an upright Six of Swords that will fit right here. Do that and you have a room to yourself in Morro Bay for a couple nights.”
“Six of Swords. You’ve just come through hardship and found your safe haven, your Morro Bay.”
“You got it.”
“Sure. I can do that.”
13 - Not Elrond’s Elfin Forest
I woke in a strange bed with strange noises in my ears, but it was the smell of sourdough bread being toasted that got me up. My stomach rumbled. I rolled onto my back, rubbing my eyes, trying to focus on the ceiling. White plaster and dark wood beams, pale morning light coming through windows on my right, gauzy curtains moving with a breeze off the Pacific.
I breathed it in for a few minutes. Then I got up to find the most important things I owned, my paint box and notebook. They were sitting on a narrow dresser next to the bed—which still had its bed spread on. I was still in my clothes, but barefoot. It looked like sometime in the middle of the night I had just slipped out of my shoes and fallen onto the bed.
I stopped in the tiny bathroom to see what I looked like. Not bad, considering the attack on the beach. I washed up, then I followed the scent of bread to the kitchen, carrying my art supplies.
Hillary was up, sitting at a tile-top café table with a book, a mug, and a piece of toast in her mouth.
She looked over when I came in, waved across the kitchen with the toast. “Hey. Coffee’s over there. Make some toast if you’re hungry. Then what are you going to do? Draw? I have to be at work by two.”
I rubbed my eyes. “What time is it?”
“Little past eleven.”
I barely remembered walking to her house last night, mostly side streets, westward toward the shore. “Love your place. What’s outside the window of the bedroom I’m in? Is there a deck or someplace I can sit without too much sun—but enough light to sketch?”
She nodded her head, pointed at the ceiling. “There’s a garden outside your window. Upstairs, off the main room, there’s a deck with a balcony. Help yourself. Put up the umbrella. There’s a table and some chairs out there.”
I checked my phone. Nothing. Then I went to get some coffee and toast.
In ten minutes, I was upstairs and out in the cool morning shade; the sun hadn’t yet hit the westward face of the house. I did look around a bit, leaning over the railing to see where in the city I was. Hillary had a narrow multi-story condo among a dozen staggered along a hill that sloped down to the beach, whitewashed with blue shutters that really worked, blue tiled roofs, and a perfect view of the ocean and Morro Rock looming in the distance off to the right.
I spent the afternoon fending off the pull of Taryn and Itoshi. I wanted so badly to find out if they were alive, hiding, making their way south to our rendezvous point, the misnamed Elfin Forest. And wouldn’t it be so cool if the whole thing was a façade hiding what was real, so that when you looked at the place through imagery from low flying aircraft Elfin Forest Preserve looked like undesirable dry climate scrub and stunted trees, but if you actually walked in, there’d be giant trees with stairways and glowing houses sixty feet in the branches?
I needed more coffee.
Halfway through my second cup I was rolling along, culling the symbols and concepts I liked about the Six of Swords. Hillary headed off to The Tides restaurant early in the afternoon and I finished up around seven in the evening, taking my time, working in details in layers. I went with subtler colors, angry looking clouds on the left, soft welcoming sun on the right.
I walked the eight blocks to The Tides at quarter of nine to meet Hillary on her break and I think she was surprised. I handed over the art on a page cut neatly from my watercolor book and, while I wolfed down two rolls with butter, she held the painting delicately with the tips of fingers, tilted it up, and just stared at it for several minutes.
I had drawn and painted a woman looking away on the far bank of a raging river, six swords with points down fanned over her head, a blaze of sunlight facing her, with receding storm clouds on the nearer bank of the river. She was holding her right hand open, fingers spread, and her head was tilted to inspect her own strength.
“This is brilliant. The far shore is in sharp focus and the near is starting to blur. You did that on purpose?”
I nodded. “You wanted the Six of Swords for your own reasons, but it’s enough to tell me you have struggled and made the journey to a place where things are clearer, open, less treacherous.”
She stared at it for another minute and said, “Wow. I love this. And you don’t mind if I get a friend of mine to copy this in ink on my arm?”
“I painted it for you. It’s yours. I’d love to see it when you get it done. Next time you’re in Monterey?” I hope I sounded sincere. All I had was hope. I could hope all of this business with bad guys taking my mom would be over at some point and everything would go back to the way it was.
I spent the rest of another evening at The Tides, drinking coffee. Next morning, I was up around the same time. Hillary offered to drive me a few miles and drop me off at the corner of South Bay Boulevard and Santa Ysabel. She even got out, came around, gave me a hug, and told me I could stay at her place any time.
“I may take you up on it.”
We exchanged contact info and she left me walking west on a narrow asphalt sidewalk. Time to see if there really were elves in the woods around here.
At one point I thought I heard Itoshi’s motorcycle, but the rumbling exhaust sound faded and I moved on.
A couple intersections, a right turn, about a mile of walking, and I found the place.
But more importantly, I found out that the “elfin” referred to the height of the Live Oak trees throughout the preserve, which normally grew to fifty feet or so. Due to soil composition and other features, there wasn’t one tree in the Elfin Forest taller than half that size, even though some of them were very old trees.
There was one car in the dirt lot at the edge of the entrance, California plates. It looked local to me. The preserve was beautiful, miles of walkways just in from the water, some of it along elevated boardwalks where the ground was soggy. I found myself looking up for things with wings, but I just caught sight of a couple seagulls wheeling south.
“Andin!” Taryn was hiding in the trees, off the path, half a mile into the Elfin Forest.
I turned, startled at her call. She jumped on me and then it was like we were jumping on each other. Itoshi broke it up, carrying a pair of handcuffs, clinking them together as he stepped off the path to join us.
He looked beaten, weighed down with more seriousness than he normally carted around. “It’s so good to see the two of you alive.” He caught my eye. “How did you get away from him?”
That was all it took to recall one moment. The flash off the end of the gun, my ears ringing, sand cutting into my face. “I...well...I talked him out of killing me. He tried, had the gun lined up, got one round off. He aimed for my face and I moved the manatee lawn ornament from the shop onto the guy’s head.” I filled in the details and the words coming out of my mouth just sounded crazy.
Taryn’s eyes widened. “The one you could never sell, that great big concrete whiskered thing with the flipper on the end?”
Itoshi made an effort and smiled. “Wearing that as a hat would talk anyone out of anything.”
I looked at the sliding rings of metal in his hand. “What’s with the handcuffs?”
He snorted. “You tell me. I was sitting in the back of a Sheriff’s patrol vehicle, handcuffed. I didn’t have ID on me—left it with the bike—so I lied about my name and home, told them I was from Nova Scotia. Everything was so crazy. They found the gun at the scene, with shots fired. I didn’t know what to say, no way to explain what had happened, so I shut up. They didn’t like that. They would have had it all out of me at the station with a DNA scan, but I never made it. One second I’m sitting cuffed in the back seat, the next I’m standing outside this place. Found the cuffs on the ground behind me. Somehow they had moved with me.”
“I painted your arms at your sides, just a normal standing pose. I didn’t know you’d been apprehended.”
Taryn, looking concerned, said, “What did you do after that?”
He waved the cuffs around. “I hiked back to Morro Bay yesterday for a look around, but didn’t see you guys anywhere. I hid in some tight and dark places I’d spied out on my exploration of the city streets. Got up early this morning and walked all the way back here, keeping off the main road.”
“Yeah, this was...difficult.” Taryn, the bounciest person I had ever met, seemed subdued. She was overjoyed at all three of us making it through alive, but the waiting had taken something out of her, and I hoped that time, or me, or some power source inside her, could replace it. She reached out hesitantly, then put her hand on Itoshi’s shoulder, gave it a squeeze. “What happened? Why did the sheriffs have you cuffed and what happened to the hunter chasing you?”
Itoshi was quiet and even more thoughtful. “I barely dodged a car in traffic. He wasn’t as lucky. They grabbed me for questioning.”
14 - Eviction
On our way out of Elfin Forest we stopped at the edge and sent off Taryn’s little paper seagull with the message that we were coming home to Monterey. The little bird was eager to get into the air, nodding at Taryn and then shooting into the sky, tipping and barreling in a stiff gust, extending its wings and vanishing into the blue.
Taryn turned, grabbed me by the sleeve of my shirt, desperate. “I need something to think about on the ride back.” She leaned in, locked eyes with me. “Tell me a story. Just the idea, so I can think about it.” Then she said something that made my skin go cold. “I need something new in my head. Just too much has happened in the last two days for me to think about. Need something new.”
I nodded. I actually did have a story idea. Taryn let go of me and I looked back and forth, from Itoshi back to Taryn. “Okay, I have a singularity story. You know what a singularity is?”
“Sure,” said Itosh.
Taryn cut in with, “Technological singularity, when the progress of intelligence moves so far beyond us, it opens up all kinds of good and bad doors.”
“Okay it’s SF, a farce, maybe a dark comedy.” I spilled the idea. “The main character, a guy named Orlando Cran, is maintaining the learning engine for a singularity machine—it’s learning at a rate of a century a day and will be beyond our tech level by the weekend. Right now it’s playing with underground weapons of the nineteenth Century, garrotes and so forth. Beyond being an all-around smart guy, Orlando is also a journalist determined to catch the moment the machine turns sentient, omnipotent, omniscient, whatever, so he can write about it. Trying to figure out how a garrote works, the machine strangles Orlando.”
Itoshi waited for more and kept his smile. He seemed to like the idea. “You have a title?”
Taryn laughed. “That’s enough to get me home. Let’s go.”
We jumped on the Ural and went home.
Aerizo met us at the entrance to Old Fisherman’s Wharf where two competing organ grinders with angry monkeys—one monkey dressed in shiny red with a tricorn like a Sgt. Pepper’s George Harrison—were shouting over each other and doing short blasts of harmonica to attract or annoy as many people as possible.
Our winged hunter drifted in and out of the shade of a big old oak at the edge of the parking lot, somehow moving in a way that made him disappear from normal notice. Tricky.
Taryn noticed him right off, smiling and pointed him out to us. As we approached, I noticed he looked ill, his hair grayer. He was definitely skinnier than he was when we left a few days ago.
“Aren’t you eating? You look sick.”
He signed a sarcastic, Thanks.
He pulled out the page nineteen book and pen, writing furiously. Why did you come back? What did you do?
“What do you mean, what did we do? We ran. They found us, I don’t know how they did it, but they did. They came out of nowhere and we...defeated the two hunters, we split up for a couple days, and then, when we thought it might be safe, we came back here.
He nodded, looking us over, probably taking in the differences he saw in our liveliness. Only one returned from the hunt, a failure, and Eknephias cut the head off that hunter. How did you escape them? They were sent to kill you.
“They almost succeeded,” Itoshi said grimly.
Why did you come back?
“Because we handled them and I need to find my mother.”
They’ll be back with more. Aerizo ducked a little and scanned the tourists ambling to and from the wharf. He was even more skittish than when we left. Something must be up.
“And we’re ready.” I showed him my nearly complete—one stroke away—painting with me, Taryn, and Itoshi somewhere else. “I practiced. I took your advice. I think I have this painting thing down. I even painted us across the country.”
Aerizo stared at the painting for a minute, shook his head, blinking as if confused, and when he put the words down, it didn’t feel like the words he wanted to write. And if they find out where your destination is? They will simply scare you there and kill you when you show up.
He shook his head. I cannot tell you.
Taryn now, a little angry. “Why not?”
I mean, I am unable to tell you. Something is stopping me. I do not like that painting and I do not know why. He waved it away, stumbled a little as if pushing against the boundaries of his loyalties hurt him. He dropped the pen, bent inhumanly fast, caught it before it hit the ground, and opened the book for all of us to see. What are you going to do now?
Itoshi and Taryn looked over at me to see what I would say. “Not sure yet. But we want to know what you’ve found out.”
Taryn added, “And where we can find Diosemia or this Eknephias guy? I mean, if we wanted to? Do they have secret lairs, mountain top command centers, what?”
You won’t ever find them where you expect them, but if you need to pass along a message, there are fixed points I can show you on a map that are like waypoints, places to drop off letters, and, if you show up in person, get yourself killed.
He wrote out two sets of longs and lats, and, while Itoshi pinpointed them on a map, Aerizo went on.
The war rages on. It is not Diosemia who has captured your mother, but her closest rival, Eknephias. The son, Straton, has not yet opened his eyes. Aerizo smiled grimly. Like sleeping beauty—he just needs his princess to wake him up. I do not think your mother is cooperating.
“Or maybe what you told me is actually true. Maybe my mother’s story took away her own means of fixing things. The sleeper can only be awakened by the one who has the key. That’s Diosemia.”
Aerizo nodded, waiting with the pen to see if I had anything else to say. I did.
“I tried to paint my mother out of prison, but something’s stopping me. And I don’t believe it has anything to do with distance or not knowing exactly where she is. Someone is blocking me from painting my own mother. I can’t actually picture what she looks like.”
Aerizo’s shoulders dropped and Itoshi grabbed him by the arm to prop him up. I held him from my side, my fingers digging into something heavy and rigid under his arm—a gun. We waited with growing impatience while our fearless winged combatant recovered from whatever he was suffering.
Have you thought about the suggestion that it is your mother herself doing that?
A shudder ran through me. “Why would she do that?”
A number of reasons I can think of. She doesn’t want to put you in danger. She’s buying you time. She doesn’t want to draw you into a trap. Maybe there is another story teller among them who can trace you by your changes to the world. It’s just a suggestion. I do not have an answer.
Taryn did a little dance, the first sign of her pre-Morro Bay personality returning. “Do you think they will attack us again, here?”
I do not know. I know you frightened them. I have done my share of spying over the last few days.
“Are you injured, bleeding, and not telling us?”
He shook his head. They thought they were up against three kids and you rubbed their faces in failure. I believe they don’t know what to do. They haven’t formed a next set of steps and will probably just observe. My impression is that they think you did not act on your own, but were luring them into a trap. You have the attention of the empire of Eknephias. What he will do next depends on what he hears from his spies.
I looked at Taryn, who twirled between us, counting something in the hundred thousands under her breath. She caught me watching her, laughed, and said, “Easy. Props and manikins. Colonel Turner’s Department—we use deception like the British made phony wooden airplanes and landing fields to throw off the Nazi bombers and recon planes.” My Taryn was back, thinking at escape velocity speeds, and tossing out unusual bits of trivia with abandon. She grabbed me hard by the arm. “You paint a bunch of skinny thugs hanging around Teller Esoterica, telling kill stories, flexing their muscles, and comparing the sizes of their wings. Eknephias’ guys and girls fly in, see an army waiting for them, and run home with their tail feathers between their legs.”
Aerizo’s eyebrows jumped into the middle of his forehead. He was grinning as he wrote. I am glad I am not hunting you. Those guys who followed you weren’t up against three kids, but tough bastards and strategic geniuses.
“It was close, Aerizo.”
Itoshi said, “And we were lucky.”
“We probably couldn’t do it again. I think it was the break and run in different directions that made the difference. It gave us a few seconds. My hunter had me on the ground on my back facing the end of a gun. Nothing but pure luck and a large aquatic mammal saw me through with my skull intact.”
What kind of hardware was he using?
I shrugged. “I don’t know one gun from another. It was definitely a handgun. Loud and the round hit the sand a few inches from the side of my face.”
Itoshi shook his head at my lack of firearms knowledge. “H and K, USP9 tactical. My guy had a silencer. Not into making lots of noise, I guess.”
Jutting my chin at Aerizo, I said, “So what are you carrying around under the coat?”
He straightened and did a slow half turn across the paved wharf entrance. Apparently the coast was clear because he slid the edge of his coat aside, enough for us to a glimpse of some black boxy machine gun with a folded stock hanging from a shoulder strap.
Itoshi looked impressed, but there was a deep and treacherous undercurrent of fear in his voice. “Okay, that’s some serious gear. It’s like we’re in the middle of a drug cartel war.”
Aerizo shrugged and opened the book. In terms of seriousness and lack of value for life when someone gets in the way, that’s about right.
I opened up Teller Esoterica in time for the mid-afternoon rush—three serious wiccans and a pair of goth girls with way too much makeup and money to spend. I was halfway through painting the skinny thug ensemble for our phony army when my least favorite person who didn’t want to kill me stepped in.
Wes Deyoung looked happy, a sharpening at the corners of his mouth. He delivered our eviction notice, with an order from the City of Monterey to cease operations, and a cancellation of the business license for Teller Esoterica.
“Terms of your lease, Teller. Store hours are mandatory or negotiable with the board. You can’t just close shop and head off to one of your brainshit magic druid conventions any time you feel like it. Now you’ll have all the time in the world to waste on them.”
Then he sighed, his look souring, disappointed that it had taken this long or that I didn’t react. He was already out on the front steps when I started reading the crucial parts to the others. “The business owner, Emily Teller, has thirty days to challenge the claim or forfeit...” I read on, skimming a long paragraph. “Basically, everything.”
That threw a wet towel over the mood—and the mood wasn’t that light to begin with.
I went back to my painting. Taryn danced at half speed, just enough to run to the Ox for some snacks.
Aerizo went out to prowl the halls and stairs, scanning up and down Cannery from the roof, then wandering up and down the street with his machine gun under his coat and a camera hanging around his neck. Yeah, real touristy.
Itoshi said, “Let me see the docs. I want to read them over.”
“Be my guest.” I handed them to him and went back to my painting.
It was after midnight when I looked up from my drawing table, setting the brush down. My fingers ached. Itoshi had gone out earlier to get coffee and brought some back for Aerizo and I. No sign of Taryn, probably off doing chromosome poetry.
By one o’clock there were a dozen very convincing looking skinny thugs standing around the shop, browsing the merch, glaring out the front windows periodically.
From the inside they had a ghostly look, but through the windows, it looked like the shop was full of slender, shaven-headed, serious looking guys in long wool coats and gloves, as if we had been invaded by some privileged, long distance running team.
Itoshi came in, swinging the door in with the bells chiming. He shut it quietly, staring around at the props.
“Six more on the roof and a couple wandering the halls.”
“Where’s Taryn? She has to see these guys.”
Itoshi shrugged. “Wasn’t my turn to watch her. Have you called?”
“Yeah, nothing. Just getting her voicemail.”
“How about calling Mrs. Rydell?”
15 - The Letter
There was a letter waiting for me on the floor by the front door when I woke.
I saw it when I jumped down from the loft—the bed platform over the storage shelves in the stockroom. It’s cramped up there, really just a crawlspace with a mattress and ratty blankets, but it’s always come in handy when there was a late sale or I was painting into the night and didn’t feel like walking home.
My squad of skinny thugs was starting to fade, all of them sitting cross-legged along the bookcases.
I didn’t see anyone outside as I approached the front windows, but I wanted to be careful. Letters don’t just show up in the middle of the night.
It was a plain white envelope with “Teller” written in bold across the back.
Someone had probably just pushed it through the mail slot, but I didn’t like where it was positioned, right in the middle of the floor in front of the door. The bottom edge of the envelope lined up with the doorframe and threshold, which made it look like someone had opened the door and been inside the shop with me asleep in the loft.
This had Wes Deyoung written all over it. I’m sure he had access to keys.
One more glance outside to see if anyone waited there and I picked up the envelope, heading back to the counter, rubbing my eyes. I needed some coffee.
I flipped it over to see if there was anything written on the back. Nope. There was something moving under the paper, hard and heavy, sliding into one corner when I tipped the envelope on its end.
“What the hell?”
I jabbed a finger under the flap, tearing it open. A bracelet fell out, metal links and fiery red gems rapping on the hardwood floor like a restless ghost with a bent for interdimensional communication.
I kicked my legs apart, not wanting to get hit by whatever fell out of the strange envelope. Then I couldn’t move.
I stood over it, a figure eight of jewelry like some twisted and lifeless thing at my feet, and I couldn’t make my brain move forward. Sparks of thought were coming through, but I couldn’t connect them all. It had touched her skin, the links had spun around her wrist every time she spun in front of the windows of the shop. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them, expecting to be able to think after that, as if the problem was with my vision.
Then something unlocked my voice.
Flipped up my phone and got her voicemail. I punched in her number again. Three more times. Same thing, except my heart was beating faster each time.
The next thing I remember, I was screaming her name into my phone. My fingers called Itoshi’s number by themselves. I heard his motorcycle roar into life. He wasn’t listening to me anymore, but had jammed his phone in his pocket with me still on the line, on his way here.
I heard him come around the downhill corner at the aquarium—had to be doing fifty and leaning over the sidecar to keep the bike on the street. There was some shouting out front as he drove up on the sidewalk, jumped off and ran up the steps to the shop, pounding on the glass because I still hadn’t opened up for the day.
“Where’s Taryn?” One hand on the glass, he pushed the question through the gap in the doors.
I was shaking my head as I turned open the lock. “I don’t know. Someone sent me her bracelet. Left the envelope just inside the door sometime in the night.” I saw the question surfacing in the expression on his face and shook my head. “I can’t reach her. Just getting her voicemail.”
“How many times did you—”
“A hundred times! She’s not there!”
Itoshi held up a hand. “Hey, calm down. We’ll think this through. We’ll find her.”
“They have her.”
He looked past me to the counter with the envelope. “Was there anything else inside?”
I turned, shaking my head. I hadn’t looked. I thought the bracelet was enough of a message, but he was already running for it, snapping up the envelope, peeling it apart. A single half-sheet of paper torn across one edge hadn’t fallen out with the bracelet and it had three neat handwritten lines:
1:20 AM, August the 18th, 37.017528, -122.061453 Come trade your life for hers and don’t be late, Andin Teller. Come early or late and you can pick her up in pieces.
Itoshi looked over at me, nodding, keeping very cool. “Okay, we have a time and a location—exact location with lat and long.”
I was already thumbing the numbers into my phone and zooming into the map. “That’s off Route 9, west, into the hills.”
Itoshi leaned in to take a look. “About thirty minutes driving, another thirty hiking. How steep’s the climb?”
“A bit, according to the terrain map. A lot of trees. It’s between 9 and the river.”
Itoshi frowned, glancing down at the time on his phone. “We can’t show up early. We have eighteen hours and we should be on the road in seventeen. What now?”
I bent down, picked up Taryn’s bracelet, and slipped it in my pocket. “I can try to call Aerizo. We have to plan this out. If I have to, I’ll give up—as long as they’ll release Taryn.”
She was the most brilliant person in the world, but she had grown up on the streets, ten or eleven when her father was killed in some far off war that sent her mother into psych wards, alcohol binging, and ultimately floating face down in the sewer. And against all the odds, Taryn survived to become this absolutely unique life and tireless mind balanced on a fine edge, but with emptiness all around her. It was almost as if the craziness, the devouring of two or three books a day, an ocean of numbers to arrange and rearrange, the chromosome poetry, the three second attention span, kept her from falling apart or over the side. Somehow—it didn’t seem possible, but it was—she was both the strongest and the most fragile person I knew. And she needed that craziness, the endless conveyor belt of reading material, the sea room, the grand dance of her feet in warm sunlight. Or she was going to break. And no one could put someone like Taryn back together again.
Maybe another Taryn could, with a hundred years to play with the pieces. Unfortunately, we only had one in this world.
Itoshi was shaking his head. “Okay. As a last resort. But we’re going to plan this and we’re going to rescue her—and all of us get to walk away.” He studied me for a second. “You look tired.”
I started to laugh. “So do you. Let’s get some coffee.”
He waved me back. “You stay here. Someone might show up, another letter, other demands, more jewelry. I’ll run down to Nana’s for bagels and coffee.”
Itoshi turned, digging in his pockets for keys, and met the Law at the front door of Teller Esoterica. He stopped short, glancing back over his shoulder at me. In anyone else I would have expected fear, trembling, nervousness, but this was Itoshi and he kept everything cool. Just stood there like a statue.
I met the officer just inside the door, waving wildly at the front windows. “Hi, is this about the motorcycle? He’s just moving it. We had a bit of an emergency.” I looked at his badge and name tag. Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. “It turned out to be nothing, Officer Ramirez.”
No rehearsal, no coaching from Taryn, and I had no idea what I was going to say when Ramirez dug any deeper into my lame story. What emergency? I’m going dork this up and Eknephias is going to find out the police were here and he’s going think I called them and he’s going to kill my mother.
Ramirez turned to Itoshi. “The bike with the sidecar is yours?”
“Yeah. Sorry. I’ll get it off the sidewalk now.”
“Do that.” Deputy Ramirez turned back to me and said, “Actually, I’m not here about parking violations. Your name’s Andin Teller? I’m here about Emily Teller.”
I blinked, swallowed the saliva pooling in my mouth, and remembered to be a bit surprised. “My mom? What about her?”
Ramirez unsnapped a pocket high on his right sleeve and slid out a folded sheet of the pale green paper on which we’d printed my mom’s missing posters. He took his time unfolding it, reading it again and giving the image a study before flipping it around for me. “That’s your mother?”
I looked closely at the poster as if I’d never seen the thing before.
“Hang on, let me show you something better. That’s a terrible picture of my mom.”
A quick dip in the water, a swirl through a curl of wet Burnt Sienna, twenty quick strokes, and I had painted the street out front without the Sheriff’s patrol vehicle. I followed that up with details, shadows on the street and walls, leaving the sharp angles of sunlight between the awnings along the aquarium. Ramirez watched me, fascinated by more than just my hand and the brush moving over the paper. He was nodding, getting something I didn’t receive.
The comm gear along his shoulder chirped and the Sheriff’s Deputy leaned his ear into it, then replied with a couple short affirmatives. He looked at me, but didn’t really focus on me, and every couple seconds he glanced down at the dark lines of Cannery Row drying on the paper.
I had just lifted the brush tip from the paper when Ramirez slid a contact card from a pocket on his right sleeve, slipping one corner into the stack of art card stock on the table. “I have a call,” he said quietly. “When you hear from your mother, can you let me know?”
Itoshi passed Ramirez on the front steps, glancing over his shoulder as he stepped into the store. “What was that about?”
“Don’t know.” I tracked the patrol car as it pulled from the curb and slid into a row of vehicles heading down Cannery. “My guess is that this is a quick jab from the opposing side—Diosemia and her organization, assuming they know I’ve been told not to call the police if I want to see my mother alive.”
Itoshi pulled out the tiny seagull in its wooden cage. “Call Aerizo?”
“Yeah, but don’t have him meet us here.” I packed up my paints, brushes, and notebook. “I don’t know if it’s anything. I don’t feel safe here anymore and my band of thugs has vanished with the day.”
“Do they only last a day or a night?”
Shrugging, I said, “I’m not sure. I didn’t intend for that to happen, except maybe subconsciously. Maybe some part of me didn’t want them in the store during open hours? Might hurt business? Who knows?”
One more look at the Cease of Business Operations documents folded on the counter and I locked the door behind me.
We grabbed a table at Nana’s, a mildly pretentious café by morning, raging disco diner plus stage show by night. It was like there were two different owners, one who got up at four in the morning and roasted coffee, made bagels, and opened the UK rugby team color “scrumbrellas” over the little round tables out front, and the other who stayed up to three AM and put on Bee Gees Karaoke Nights, science fiction author readings, and the occasional Chromosome Poetry Open Mic.
Itoshi forked up some cash for Huevos Rancheros. The corn tortillas smelled wonderful, but I couldn’t make myself eat.
Holding Taryn’s bracelet in one hand, the matching ring in the other, I was pushing my thoughts right into my mouth without a filter. “And they want me instead? The letter was pretty clear about a trade, but knowing what I know about this crime queen, how likely is she to keep her word? Will they just kill us all, shut us up? Maybe Eknephias might want us dead, but would Diosemia? Why? What do we even know?”
“The painting thing scares them all,” said Itoshi with pinpoint accuracy.
“It scares me. Really.”
He’s looking right back at me and I could tell he was running through similar questions, but in his usual way of aligning and prioritizing to keep me on the right track. “This Diosemia didn’t take your mom—her own daughter—but clearly sees you as a threat. I mean, look what you’re doing with pencils and watercolors. And Eknephias’ game from the beginning was to remove the story telling power from your mother. Now he just wants his son back—put under a spell by your mother. If that’s true, why would he send killers? If he’s thinking the whole world is safer with you eliminated, then he would really need Diosemia after that. Without her, there would be no way to wake the son. And on her own, Diosemia doesn’t have the leverage—your mom—and she’s going to need what you have, your art, if she’s going to hold her kingpin position.” He sighed long and loud, came to a decision. “I think she’s here to make a deal.”
My hands were shaking. Time to spill another problem. “I can’t paint Taryn back.”
Itoshi was quiet for a moment, chewing his breakfast, pointing at me with his fork. “You’ve tried?”
“Over and over. I can’t move her, can’t picture her in the right way. I can’t move my mother, either. Someone’s working against me or, more likely, I have no idea what I’m doing. Why does it work one way and not another?”
His voice came back a whisper. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t have anyone to answer my questions.” I nodded without enthusiasm, craning my head to study the small groups of tourists and shoppers. “And where the hell is Aerizo?”
16 - The Trade
Itoshi’s sense of timing was perfect. It always was.
We pulled into the dark off Route 9, hopped free of the Ural, and ran for the hills. Trees like darker columns of night loomed up and we dodged them, catching low hanging branches. A pale blue glow out of the corner of my eye and I caught Itosh taking a final time check.
“We’re on time.”
The crest of the hill came into view, a few persistent rays of moonlight cutting through the dark, revealing two slender guys, one holding Taryn. Neither of them had wings active. One had a gun, pointed at us, and it looked pretty damn active to me.
Another twenty meters of uphill run and I stopped, jabbed a finger at them. “Let her go.”
They looked at each other, not smiling shark-like, but confused—as if the script wasn’t being followed. The one on the right waved his dark blocky handgun around and said, “What are you doing here?”
“You stupid? You sent me a damn letter with a place and time. I’m here.” I took a step forward. “Take me. Let her go.”
A woman’s laughter from the darkness brought all of us around—except Taryn, who looked at the ground and didn’t even appear to know Itoshi and I were there for her. The two guys holding Taryn looked startled, the one with the gun lowering it a fraction. The laughter continued longer than it should have.
Then Diosemia stepped out of the shadows—or, I guess what really happened was that the shadows folded into themselves and became her cape. The darkness rolled around her, curls of it like vines down her arms, the dark fanning out in the air behind her as she moved toward me, foamy night lapping at her pale as bone bare feet.
Diosemia looked like a Nordic lesser gorgon working her way up the fast track to full turn-you-to-stone Medusa status, thick twists of her blond hair arching and coiling like vipers, fingernails dark and sharp like raptor claws. An insect buzz followed her into the moonlight, tickling my ears, a stone-like heaviness in my arms and legs when I looked into her glowing green eyes.
Her teeth were sharp, very white under the moon, cat’s teeth, perfect for killing and tearing meat. Sharpness at the corners of her mouth, her smile making it clear that we were all mice, but that she enjoyed the game as much as the taste of the kill.
And there’s no way she’s old enough to be my grandmother—she didn’t have that gravity-resisting look. Nothing wrinkle-defying about her. And I mean she didn’t have one wrinkle. She looked like she was twenty—definitely on some crazy, extreme, magic, voice-eating diet. Doe’s blood tea, human heart pâté, and a plate of Triscuits came to mind.
“Andin Teller?” The sound of my name from her mouth was a richly layered wave of persuasion, the edges of every voice she had ever stolen sliding into syllables, and then every word became a spell. “I must tell you, I have given our first meeting so much thought and now that we are here, I don’t really care for the conclusions I came to on my own. I’m going to change the game.”
Her words were an ice water rinse washing around inside my head, making me agree, and most of me wanted the game to change.
Not all of me. There was still a lump of anger deep inside and that’s where my voice came from—sounded rough as sandpaper. “Give me my friend back. Now.”
The hunter with the gun leveled it at me. “I don’t think so. You’re all going to come with us.”
I turned back to the hunters and froze. I couldn’t make my eyes move from the gun to Diosemia, the hollow circle of the muzzle’s end, a cold ring of metal.
Then her voice broke the chains. “Not yet, Nephodes. He doesn’t need to die.”
The gun vanished from view and I lifted my eyes to Diosemia, a prickling along my scalp. We locked eyes and I couldn’t read anything but a cold and monstrous playfulness in her. This wasn’t a serious event for this woman.
My grandmother was a monster.
“Eknephias has my mother. I want her back.”
She laughed, one hand opening, a gesture to an audience only she seemed to see. “Dear Synnepheia has raised a boy who knows what he wants.”
That’s when Aerizo dropped out of the trees, a snap of wings to break his fall, and nearly took one guard’s head off with a kick, spun while still in the air, and swept the legs out from under the other one. Guns thundering in the night, shredding leaves raining down on me, and I was running toward the gunmen, Itoshi right behind me. Taryn wasn’t moving. They had let her go to face the new threat, but she was just standing there, bent and scared, holding her hands over her ears.
Grabbing her by the arm, I pulled her down the slope; time to get out of here. Her feet moved robotically and not very fast, not much stability. She didn’t look up, didn’t even recognize us. Itoshi got her other arm and we marched her back the way we’d climbed.
Diosemia was laughing, sharp and cutting, apparently loving this change in the game.
Aerizo was in the air, landing right behind us, a sweep of his pale tattooed arm in the dark, pointing at the rolling figures of the hunters, one groaning loudly. The other was looking for his gun.
Signing madly at us—too fast for me—Aerizo was as angry as I had ever seen him, jabbing a finger down the hill, telling us to go, clearly upset that we’d even shown up.
Over my shoulder, I called back, “You think I’d leave her?”
He didn’t gesture or motion any direction to me. He just stared, the hard cold fix of his eyes on mine—just for a second.
Just before turning back to catch my footing on the slope, I caught Aerizo wheeling on Diosemia and her hunters, wings unfolding, hands curling into claws, the bright lines of air currents shifting up his arms. He was going to try to give us time to escape.
As if reading my mind, Itoshi looked over. “By himself?”
I shrugged, bending to grab Taryn’s ankles, folding her legs to get her seated in the sidecar. Itoshi had to place her hands on the brace bar and squeeze her fingers closed around it. Our Taryn had been replaced by this zombie, eyes staring but unseeing, blinking slowly, an empty expression on her face.
I hopped on the seat behind Itosh, leaning over to hold on to Taryn, and we roared off, northbound on Route 9. Looking back, no one followed, no one jumped out of the tree shadows. I even kept an eye on the sky to see if we could be followed by guys with wings.
Whatever was happening up on the hill in the dark, Aerizo seemed to be holding off pursuit. But it couldn’t last forever. That last look he had given me had meant something—possibly “This is the last time you’ll see me alive.”
We rode for an hour, pulling over at a rest strop outside Boulder Creek. Itoshi shut off the engine, turned to pass on Aerizo’s final words, and they came out hissing between his teeth, bitter sounding. “He said, ‘You aren’t supposed to be here. You were supposed to paint her out of there.’”
Itoshi walked away, disappointed, snapping his keys against the palm of his hand.
Disappointed? Get in line. I was disappointed in myself. Even when I had power I was a let down, couldn’t seem to do it right, or just plain fucked things up.
I came around the other side of the Ural to help Taryn out of the sidecar. She climbed out like a robot who understood how to move, but didn’t know when or what to move. I grabbed her under the arms, lifting, and she followed my motion, pulling one leg up at a time, unfolding each, testing the ground with each shoe.
Then she stood there, eyes unseeing, no expression on her face.
Disappointed? Look what I’ve done to Taryn!
I felt the tears coming and blinked them back, took her hand, led her to the rest stop’s main building—bathrooms, vending machines, a little stall for political posters.
“Taryn?” I bent to look directly at her. There was no sign that she saw me. “You want some water? What do you want to do?” I let go of her hand, expecting her to twirl or raise her hands to the sky or talk math—like that time she had a whole conversation with me in base 26 and she spelled out every word in numbers from zero to twenty five. She had to translate because I couldn’t move fast enough with the numbers representing the letters.
Taryn blinked, looking down at my hand, and I took hers again, leading toward the building. Right outside the Women’s bathroom, she lifted the other hand and pushed the door in. I let go, because she seemed to know where she needed to be.
The door closed behind her and I stood outside, checking the time on my phone. Itoshi found me five minutes later pacing up and down outside the Women’s room.
“Taryn’s in there?”
I nodded. “Taking a long time.”
Itoshi glanced around the empty parking lot. “Should we check on her?”
“That’s what I was thinking. There’s no one else here.” I turned and pounded on the door with the side of my fist. “Taryn?”
Counting to five without an answer, I pushed open the door, holding it wide with one hand. The bathroom looked empty. It stank like a bathroom, old urine and some damp moldy odor—not as bad as any public men’s room, but it was no one’s example of cleanliness.
Itoshi over my shoulder, “Taryn?”
She was on the floor in the last stall, one side of her face leaning against the tiled back wall. It didn’t look as if she had fallen down, just forgotten how to move and lowered herself to the dirty floor.
I elbowed my way into the stall, grabbing Taryn under the arms. She reached out absently, curled her fingers around a pipe coming down the wall, and helped me get her feet under her.
Taryn leaned heavily against me, only taking about half her own weight on her legs, and I was losing my hold. I had to stop next to the sinks to grab the top of her pants, hooking fingers in the belt loops.
Itoshi held open the outside door with one foot, reaching out to get Taryn’s arm.
Slipping on water, I almost brought us all down.
Then a rush of anger shot through me. My skin went hot. That’s all I’ve done so far. Bring everyone down.
I looked over at Itoshi and whispered, “Help me.” I lashed out, clawing at the tiles, catching one finger in the grout and tearing away a chunk of fingernail. “I don’t know what to do! They’re taking everything away. My mother, Taryn, Aerizo, the store’s next. You’re the only one left. How long are they going to let you live?” I shook my head. “Not long if you hang around with me.”
Itoshi, calm as ever, looked thoughtful for several minutes, then started nodding.
Still holding the door open, he turned to get Taryn by the elbow, holding up her left side, so that the three of us could walk across the parking lot, avoiding the concrete barriers, to the Ural. Taryn’s body seemed to have less control on the way out, her head sagging forward, her breathing harder.
She held on to the grab bars tight when we got her seated in the sidecar, but I was worried she would just roll right out once we got up to highway speeds. I hooked one foot under the kick bar and leaned across the spare tire on the tail of the sidecar. It wasn’t going to be comfortable, but I had one hand around the other side of Taryn, enough to hold her in her seat.
Itoshi started across the parking lot at an idle and before he hit the on ramp when the engine would be roaring too loud to talk, he glanced over his shoulder, and said, “Andin, what if we start taking people away from them?”
17 - The Library
We’d been back in Monterey an hour, mostly just driving around, too scared to stop. Taryn’s fragility haunted me every second. The world seemed to be on the edge of falling over, especially when we drove down Cannery, right past the store.
Even Teller Esoterica seemed to look more fragile than ever, with its glass windows, old door locks, and sticks of wax. If they could get to Taryn, they could easily attack us there. I didn’t think they would just waltz right in— but if they knew where I was, what prevented them from detonating a bomb that cleared the whole block?
Diosemia’s laughter came back to me, hurting me with its joy at everyone else’s misery. She really was a monster. Even when Aerizo dropped out of the tress and kicked the crap out of her own soldiers...she thought it was funny.
I had told Aerizo I knew what I was doing. I don’t know shit.
Why couldn’t I paint Taryn home—wherever home was to her? I couldn’t imagine her living inside a set of walls, behind glass, on the other side of a door. Any room would be too small for her. I pictured her in a garden or the beach, bright sunlight, cool spring breeze and room to dance. That’s home for Taryn.
I could tell that Itoshi had the same question queued up and ready to launch when I looked receptive. Why didn’t I just paint Taryn home? I locked it all down, running through Aerizo’s question—and the are-you-stupid tone in which he had delivered it.
I had tried.
Why couldn’t I just paint her away from trouble? Was that the real problem? I couldn’t concentrate? I’m too close to Taryn? I didn’t think enough about it? What if I had worked harder? And the real question that kept pushing up through the soil like bamboo torture was, would it have worked? Would Taryn be safe and normal or would I have gotten that same blurring when I tried to paint my mother home?
Taryn had to want to go for that to happen. She was broken and couldn’t move on her own.
I elbowed Itosh. “We need to get Taryn to a doctor, then we need to find some place safe to stay.”
“Some place quiet.” Itoshi nodded back. “Where we can plot our enemy’s destruction.”
That made me want to smile. I didn’t, but there was something reassuring in Itoshi’s response that made me want to. I was breathing a little easier. Even if I was blaming myself, at least Itoshi wasn’t blaming me for most of this mess.
“Mrs. Rydell? You know where she lives?”
Itoshi gave it some thought, doing a u-turn in the middle of Lighthouse Avenue. “Think so. I picked Taryn up at her house a year ago or so. Let’s drive over there. I’ll probably remember which one’s hers if we go by it.”
He found it immediately, a sixties beach style, single story, with a roof of brick-colored shingles and a front lawn maintained to pro golf standards.
I looked over. Taryn didn’t seem recognize the place.
Itoshi and I had to keep her walking to get her up the steps to Mrs. Rydell’s front door. Without us, she would have just frozen up and stood there and probably would have collapsed when her muscles gave out.
Mrs. Rydell yanked open the door before we had a chance to knock. Surprisingly fast for such an old woman, she grabbed Taryn under the arms and pulled us all inside, kicking the door shut.
She scowled at me, then Itoshi, motioning us to sit Taryn down in an arm chair just inside the living room. “What happened?”
Mrs. Rydell bent over Taryn, one hand holding her head steady, the other spreading her eyelids as she studied something about her eyes—iris dilation, focus, something she clearly didn’t like, clear in the frown on her face.
“Someone going to answer me?”
I glanced at Itoshi and said, “I found her outside the store this morning...like this.” I didn’t think we needed to tell Mrs. Rydell about hunters with wings and the hideous monster that is my grandmother laughing at the horror she’s made of everything. Eknephias wanted to kill me. If they found Mrs. Rydell, they would kill her too.
And the story just came to me. “ Yesterday, Taryn said she had to do something about the twin prime conjecture and went off to do it. She showed up this morning like a zombie, like she’s retreated so far inside her own mind she can’t hear us, can’t see us, can’t see the world around her anymore. I don’t know what to do.”
Mrs. Rydell caught my eye for a minute, just staring at me, deciding something. Then she nodded and said coldly, “I know Taryn’s affection for numbers. I was a mathematics professor for years.” Looking down at Taryn, her fingers gently touched the side of her face. “She comes here all the time to think. She should have come here last night if she was going to dwell on something. That’s what she calls it, ‘dwelling on it’. I think it was a phrase her mother used.” Mrs. Rydell looked up at us. “Taryn’s mother’s dead, you know? Spent most of Taryn’s childhood in a crazy hospital, trying to get the voices out of her head.” Shaking her head sadly, she gestured Itosh and I into the living room. “Taryn’s mother walked out of the ward one day, spent the last week of her life drunk and doused to the eyes with who knows what, and someone cut her throat, threw her in a canal off 68 by the airport.”
I had never seen Mrs. Rydell so serious. She had always been the somewhat silly old lady who rummaged through the dollar basket and chatted with everyone—tourists and townies alike, up and down Lighthouse and Cannery Row. It was like I didn’t even know this woman. A math professor? That made the connection with Taryn clearer, but nothing else made sense.
I went to get bottled waters from the fridge for myself, Taryn, and Itoshi—Mrs. Rydell insisted—and when I returned, emergency services were on the phone, sending an ambulance and a pair of EMTs.
Mrs. Rydell took charge, directing everyone, sharing pieces of the story I had made up with the authorities, adding one bright lie. She said Taryn was her grandniece.
An hour later, they took Taryn away and Mrs. Rydell went with them. Her last words were, “I’ll call the store with news when I have some.”
I nodded, didn’t have the heart to tell her that the store wasn’t going to be there much longer.
Itoshi looked over at me. “What just happened here?” He pointed after the distant flash of blue and moan of sirens. “I mean, I’ve seen and spoken to Mrs. Rydell a dozen times in Teller Esoterica, in every shop down Cannery. I’ve never seen her like that.” He was looking at me a little too sharply. “You did most of the talking. Was it something you said?”
The breath caught in my throat. I couldn’t answer, but I had to wonder about the changes in Mrs. Rydell’s manner and hadn’t made it far enough to make a connection with storytelling. Now that Itosh had said it...had I changed her by telling her a made up story about Taryn and numbers? Was Mrs. Rydell really a math professor or had she become one because of something I said?
Remembering how I had always characterized my mom as someone who changed the world around her, I turned to Itoshi and shook my head. Everything had been so simple and mostly understandable before they took my mother, before this power showed up, before my own painting of The Tides decided to finish itself. “I don’t know.”
Itoshi wheeled out, made sure Mrs. Rydell’s front door was locked, and then we headed for the Ural. I jumped in the sidecar and Itosh flipped us around, heading back to Monterey through the Rip Van Winkle, a stretch of undeveloped forest and parkland. A couple sharp turns, ripping through residential areas, and we were coming up on the city library.
I pointed across the street. “Park there. Let’s hide out in the library.”
Itoshi looked over at me to see if I was serious, his eyes narrowing through the goggle lenses. Finally, he said, “I like it,” and crossed the traffic, swinging into the lot for an office building across the street from the library.
While Itoshi locked everything up, I pulled out our last little paper seagull in its cage and planted it deep inside the hedge that ran the length of the lot. I don’t know if the magic bird still knew where to find Aerizo, but it was something valuable I couldn’t afford to lose—and something that either of us could use.
Itoshi looked up and I pointed to the hedge.
“Last little Aerizo bird’s there. I don’t know if it still works or if Aerizo can even help us, but if either of us gets caught, the other sends out this as a distress signal.”
We walked in past the security gates—with alarms that called in air-strikes if you tried to steal a book—past the information counter, and then through the maze of book cases to the ancient history section. No one seemed to be getting into the Roman expansion under the republic this afternoon, so we had a couple comfy chairs to ourselves.
Trying to calm down.
We settled in, both of us breathing deeply, closing our eyes. I just wanted a few minutes to catch some of the wild thoughts ricocheting around my head.
When I opened my eyes fifteen minutes later, Itoshi was staring at me.
I jutted my chin at him. “Where are we going to find someone to take? And what are we going to do with them once we take them?” Itoshi’s idea that we start taking people away from Diosemia and Eknephias stirred up a bunch of questions, but it all really came down to “how?” Then again, maybe they would just come to us.
He nodded back, started to smile. “So, you like my idea.”
“It’s the best I’ve heard so far. I think we have to do something bold. We’re dealing with monsters here. Can you believe that laughing psycho’s my grandmother?”
Itoshi sighed. “What I’ve seen in the last few days, Andin, old chap... I’d believe anything.”
I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, and lowered my voice. “Aerizo said they’re scared of us.”
“Yeah, it sounded like they didn’t seriously think any threat we could have come up was worth a damn. Big surprise. Those guys in Morro Bar were Eknephias’ guys, right? Not sent by Diosemia, your psycho grandmother.”
I nodded back at him. “Do we take on both?”
“Or do we treat them all as psychos? Don’t distinguish between different groups?”
Shaking my head, I said, “I think their motives are different. Eknephias definitely wanted us dead. Simple. Wiped off the map. Diosemia is playing some game. She’s the queen of these Rootworld criminals.”
“Hell yeah. Now that I know how our identities have been carefully managed all these years, I think my mother’s a total badass in hiding us, but I also think we wouldn’t have gone far without Aerizo on our side. He’s the hunter, he thinks like them, he knows where to find them, and how to avoid them. In less than a week I’ve lost both—and Taryn.” I let the silence hang there between for a bit. “How about you? Afraid?”
I didn’t want to ask if he still wanted to help me. The odds for actually winning were near zero and making it through another week alive didn’t look much better.
On the other hand, Itoshi’s solid.
He nodded, deep in thought, looking over my shoulder, out the big tinted windows. “Still wondering how they found us in Morro Bay. You were doing all kinds of crazy stuff down there, moving us to Canada and back. If they’re drawn to you using your powers, we should be able to lure them anywhere we want. Let’s pick some high ground, someplace where we’ll have an advantage over them.”
“And I’ll make some stuff happen. I like it. They seem to do everything at night and in secret. I’m thinking broad daylight, someplace crowded, like out in front of the aquarium?”
“Or the plaza.”
We walked away from the library, both of us wondering if they knew about Itoshi’s bike—if they did, they would know we were coming, and if they didn’t, we might hand them an advantage. No telling—ha ha—who’s watching Teller Esoterica and the major city streets and no way of knowing if Eknephias’ guys in Morro Bay—all dead now, according to Aerizo—had passed on anything about Taryn’s dash to safety on the Ural or if they had even seen it.
The two of us split up after we passed the Chart House and after we’d arranged a signal to warn each other of approaching danger—shouting at the top of our lungs that Captain Jackie’s Whale Watching Boat was leaving in five minutes and remaining tickets were HALF PRICE!
We figured the trick was to say something that would stand out without standing out. Nothing looked more peculiar and noticeable than standing on a busy street making bird noises or flapping your arms.
I settled into a block of shade across the street from the aquarium and got out my pencils and paints.
Time to lure in the bad guys.
Time to learn more about this crazy ability to tell a story or paint a picture and somehow shape the world.
Moving an inanimate object, a shoe or a stone, didn’t require any will on the part of the thing being moved. An animal or person was a different matter. I tried moving seagulls and they loved it, but that may be part of their nature, expecting some force from the outside—drafts and gusts of wind—moving them. Motion was built in to being a seagull.
I needed something a bit more sedentary.
I had taken a seat on the sidewalk on one side of the bus turn-around across the street from the aquarium. There’s a raised bed of grass and a big shade tree in the middle. A chocolate labrador was tied by a couple meters of leash to the tree, panting and giving everyone who passed a tired wag of its tail. I went through three pages, painting with detailed lines, pencil, bold Burnt Umber watercolor strokes. Nothing worked. I couldn’t feel the desire to move in the image of the dog shifting around my imagination.
This dog was out here waiting for someone and nothing was going to make him move. He looked over at me a couple times, wagged his tail. He was friendly. It didn’t mean he wanted to go anywhere.
So, did that mean my mother didn’t want to be moved? And Taryn, when Diosemia captured her, didn’t want to go anywhere—or maybe couldn’t?
Waving Itoshi over, I pointed at my sketchbook, but said, “Don’t look up, but there’s a guy watching us just down from the bike path, leaning against the aquarium wall. Skinny, but not scary looking, not like one of the regular hunters. This guy’s one of them, I think, but he’s...different.”
“Different how?” Itoshi nodded, fingering the page in my sketchbook to make it look like it was the center of focus. “Like he’s not going to kill us?”
I shook my head. “No, I think he’ll do that, just not in the usual way.”
Itoshi looked past me, surreptitiously scanning the reflections in the windows running the length of the aquarium’s Cannery Row facing wall.
I followed his line of sight, picked out our observer, and did a quick sketch of the man, mid-fifties, dark hair going gray around his ears. Flash of a gold button pinning closed the collar of a sharp white shirt—no tie—and over it all, way too warm for the day, a long navy blue overcoat that almost touched the ground.
I dug out the Prussian Blue, dipped a brush in water, and went to work on preparing something to control our lured in bad guy. That’s when Itoshi pulled out a baggie of canned peaches and a nice shredded Parmesan-Romano mix.
“He doesn’t look dangerous. Except for the gloves, which give him a tinge of hit man. A distinguished hit man. Other than that, he looks like...a journalist, a reporter, something like that.”
“What, covering news for the otherworldly underworld?”
Seeing no humor in it, Itosh nodded absently. “Speaking of news, I found something interesting on the feeds when I went to check on the store. Doesn’t look like anyone broke in. I grabbed some clothes for you, tossed out the milk in the fridge after gathering what I needed—the peaches are going to be perfect.”
I looked down to see his backpack stuffed with clothing and whatever else he had found useful and picked up at Teller Esoterica. “What’s with the news?”
Keeping one eye on the reflection in the aquarium windows, Itoshi tilted his phone’s screen to me. “Check this out. Several sources covering it.”
MORRO BAY, California. —A mix of curiosity and anger pulled residents into the streets Monday to watch an unusual funeral procession as an unknown group dressed in long dark blue coats carried two caskets through the city center. This followed two mysterious deaths and an escape from police custody, assumed to be related. Over the weekend, several homes were invaded and ransacked...
18 - The Story Hunter
We captured the hunter with a Lamora Special. The oldest trick in the book really worked if you had a coordinated team with a few key resources—a good, aged parmesan being one.
Pretending we weren’t paying the least attention to anything going on around us, we waited for our observer to approach and when he crossed the too close for comfort line, we let him have it.
Itosh glanced at me and I gave him the slightest nod. It was time to bust out the stuff. Itoshi, already chewing a mix of rice, yogurt, and peaches, palmed a handful of shredded parmesan, added it to the mixture, and grunted loudly, “I’m going to be sick.”
Then he staggered toward the man, spewing it everywhere, choking and gurgling. It was beautiful. Globs of milky pink fluid with chunks of shredded fruit and the bitter odor of aged cheese aldehydes and butyrates.
The hunter danced a few steps backward with a hint of losing his balance. His full attention was definitely ours. We had every one of his senses pinned to the sour mess on the concrete and he was concentrating on one thing: not getting any of it on his pretty long blue coat.
Itoshi rocked this one.
Even I almost lost it and I was holding my breath while I dashed off the finishing lines and shadows, glancing up every few moments to catch our hunter buddy in mid-gag. He finally succumbed, bent over, grabbed his knees, and ejected the contents of his stomach into the street.
Gasping something with the word “unholy” in it, he staggered back, beads of sweat shaken loose and before they fell and disappeared, seemed to float in the air, cold fireflies glittering in the light of the afternoon sun.
By the time he recovered, one hand still clutching at the air for support, he was mine.
I painted him into an agreeable mood with a loose tongue and an open mind. Real friendly like.
He looked up, wiped his mouth with the back of his gloved hand, smiling with grit in his teeth.
Yeah, that’s attractive. I turned to Itoshi, nodded that I had this guy’s colors. “We have a towel or something for our friend?”
Itoshi unzipped his pack, dug around, and tossed the hunter my Wiccantastic t-shirt. “Clean yourself up.”
“Then you’re going to tell us why you are here, in our world, and what exactly you’re doing here. And by you, I don’t mean just you, but all of you.”
I gave him another minute, then repeated my first question. “What are you doing here?”
“We are waiting.” He said it easily, as if it was as clear as “the sun rises.”
Itoshi declined the t-shirt when the hunter offered to return it. “What’s your name?”
“Tarasso.” Without any more prompting, Tarasso went on. “We wait for the Moira of Humans—the makers of worlds. We must let you become yourselves, the beings you were meant to be. You are in the development stages of understanding the power that will enable you to make new worlds. And we will not interfere. That is one thing we all agree is off-limits.”
“Your lot, what you will get, and what you will make of yourselves, given time.”
Time? There was a scribble of fear up my back.
“How long have you been here?”
“Not very long. Centuries. Very few have been here longer than that. “
“In our world? How come we’ve never seen you?”
He smiled, almost playfully. “You have. You are looking at me right now.”
“You know what I mean. Why are you hiding?”
“We are not hiding. We are waiting.”
“Yeah. You said that and followed it up with a bunch of crap. So give it to me in one line. What are you waiting for?”
“For humans to leave.”
“Uh...” I felt a stronger wash of cold, this time up my insides. “Where are we going?”
He looked at me strangely—clearly, I wasn’t human. He shifted his gazed to Itoshi and stared at him for a good long two minutes.
Then he remembered the question and waved in no particular direction. “That is your Moira. Out there, the stars, virtual worlds, other planets, any number of places. It isn’t something we spend time on. We just know it’s going to happen. You will be gone and this world will be ours. And we understand that we interfere in your progress at our own peril.”
Itoshi gave me half a smile and said, “Okay, oddball. Give it to us again. Name some places. Just because I pack my bags and visit Bermuda, Mars, or Europa doesn’t mean I’m never coming back here.”
“Don’t you read your own books? Watch your own movies? Listen to your own heart? You are a restless species. Isn’t it clear that you humans have motion built into your code? You will not remain in one world for long. You have the magic of converting time into motion. Given enough time, you will move from one part of the world to another, or all over the world, into the skies, into the ocean depths. You Americans say “time is money,” but given money, you’d just use it to move somewhere else.
“And a world like this won’t hold you for long. Motion is in everything you do, everything you eat, read, believe. Afterlife myths where everyone moves on except the cursed, damned, et cetera, et cetera. Look at your shows, your series and spin-offs for Star Trek—and focus for a moment on the word ‘trek.’ A ship captained by humans? Five year mission? Hell with that. They had no intention of returning—except maybe to get a sanctioned extension to do more trekking. There is no question. You will all move on at some point.”
I was staring at him, had to shut my wide open mouth.
As usual, Itoshi had the will and command to pull the conversation back into serious waters. “Hey nutjob, let’s return to reality. We recognize the blue coat, we know your boss. We messed up the guys he sent to deal with us last time. So, why did Eknephias send you?”
He brightened as if this was the easiest question he would have to answer today. He turned one gloved palm up and gestured to me. “To save Andin Teller’s mother.”
19 - The Promise
Tarasso took off his gloves, folding them. “You are surprised?”
“What has Eknephias done to her?”
His fingers were pale, bony, crisscrossed with spidery black lines, but in a pattern I couldn’t make out. He pointed one at me. “It is you who are doing it, Andin Teller. You are killing your mother with every stroke of the brush, every sketch, every story you make.”
My hand froze with the brush in it.
Itoshi frowned. “Really? Why would we believe you? Why have you tracked us down and how did you do it?”
“I am a story hunter. It’s what I do. I look for the Bright One’s kin. I have a bit of your line in me myself. Not enough to affect the shapes of things, you see, but I can sense the shifts in the patterns around me. I can feel their motion from afar in the way that anyone would feel ripples of water a hundred feet away and several minutes after you throw the stone in the pond. The closer I am to you, the tighter the lock I can get on your location, your identity, even the nature of your power.” Smiling pleasantly, he wagged a finger at me. “You, now, are astonishing. A poet of both words and visualization—a maker and changer of things with your voice and brush.”
“How do you know that?”
“I can see what you do. You are simple in your movement, unclever in hiding your tracks. You leave a trail of disruption in the patterns. Your mother, now, she is a genius. I’ve only ever detected her twice in my life and it was so faint, so woven in with the reality around her, I couldn’t get a lock before the patterns absorbed her changes and cleared her from my sight. Compared to her, you are a simpleton, a naïve boy blundering around with powers he doesn’t understand, drawn from sources he can’t imagine.”
“And if I paint you out of existence? Turn you into a cockroach?” I jammed a finger into the branches. “Paint you in a noose hanging from this tree gagging out the last of your life?”
He just smiled. “Be my guest, but you will do more harm than good.”
“In what way?”
“While your mother and anyone in your maternal line are alive, you grow your power at their expense. You draw from their stores, you make the world change out of their blood, out of their force of life. As you get stronger, your mother and your grandmother get weaker. As you live and create—tell your stories and paint worlds, they will die.”
There were questions stacking up in my head. I just couldn’t get them to my mouth.
Good thing Itosh was with me. “Okay, I can see why Eknephias wouldn’t want Emily Teller to weaken to the point of death. His son Straton is sleeping like a baby and can’t wake without her.”
Tarasso shook his head. “No, Diosemia holds the key to wake Straton. It is a one-way key. Even Synnepheia—Emily Teller—cannot undo what she’s done.”
“So it’s Diosemia, the raging lunatic death bitch, who’s the key, not Emily Teller?”
Tarasso smiled. “I see you’ve met the queen. Yes, she is all that and more. She is also the primary source for Andin. He drains Diosemia at a faster rate than Synnepheia.”
Reasoning it out at the same time, Itoshi glanced at me and I nodded back. He came back with, “Okay, then why on earth would Andin stop now? If continuing on gets rid of his evil grandmother?”
“Because a quicker death for one doesn’t mean less pain for everyone else involved. Synnepheia isn’t the force her mother is. In all likelihood, Andin, you will end up killing both, Diosemia right before her daughter. My lord, Eknephias, has sent me to argue for caution.”
My voice finally unlocked, angry now. “He wanted us dead a couple days ago!”
Tarasso shrugged. “I use different methods. It serves the same purpose.”
Itoshi was scowling over something. “It does, but Eknephias must want something if he’s willing to go this far. What does he want?”
Tarasso smiled over a memory he was recalling. “I doubted my lord when we discussed this. He was certain that you, Andin, were not aware of your talents. I was of the other mind, that you could not have grown this powerful without knowing what you could do with the tools of your talent. Eknephias was right and now that I have met you, I see that Synnepheia was in every way the rival genius I had always pictured her.”
“You didn’t answer the question. What does Eknephias want?”
Tarasso looked me directly in the eye. “He wants the voice-eating and loyalty binding abilities of your grandmother. You can give it to him.”
“So I can set him up instead of my grandmother?”
He shook his head. “So, you can even things out. You will not be taking the voice-eating from Diosemia and handing it to Eknephias. You will merely be granting him the identical ability.”
Tarasso sighed. “Or Eknephias kills your mother, marshals all his forces, and kills you.”
“Will not intervene. She cares less for her daughter than dirt. She might have a problem losing you. You’re the one with power now, power with a connection to her. She could use you. But in the end, she’s not going to get in between you and Eknephias.”
I looked over at Itoshi, but he raised his eyebrows as if he was out of questions.
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do. I can’t promise.”
Tarasso put his gloves on slowly. “Oh no, that is exactly what you will do.”
“I have to promise to even things out with Diosemia and Eknephias, level the playing field—so to speak? Then I get my mother back and we can all go on living our lives?”
Tarasso bowed his head slightly. “Exactly.”
Itoshi looked worried, a flash of don’t-sign-a-contract-with-the-devil on his face.
“I hear you,” I said back to him and turned to Tarasso. “How am I supposed to go up against Diosemia on my own?”
I felt the pull of his will against my story, not wanting to answer me, tense silence for a minute, and then he sighed. “Use the One.”
I exchanged a glance with Itosh. He had one of his eyebrows raised, but I could tell he was thinking what I was thinking. The One? Sounds a bit new-agey for me.
“The One?” I put some sarcasm into my voice.
Tarasso sighed again. “It’s the first thing a teller like you creates that is the strongest...artifact. The one thing that can control him, the one thing that can save him, the one thing he can always summon and use against his enemies. I’ve heard of tellers using their One after their death and it brought them back to life.”
I had a good idea what my “One” was, but after that, I had no idea, no practical way to do something with it. If it really was the strongest thing I owned, then this old story hunter had just handed me some hope. “And this One doesn’t draw from my mother?”
Tarasso leaned toward, swaying, trying to focus on my eyes and face, like he was trying to get some kind of read from me—or he was drunk and couldn’t focus on anything more than a foot away. “You really do not know any of this? Your mother told you nothing? Or are you playing with me here?”
No one likes to admit ignorance. I shrugged and that sort of made it easier. “I don’t. Really.”
Tarasso straightened and let out a long breath. “Well, I can’t tell you much more. The One is different for each teller.”
When I was sure he wasn’t going to add anymore, I nodded to Tarasso. “Then I promise.”
He just bowed his head again, a formal sort of gesture.
Nothing happened. I didn’t sign anything in blood, no winds of change stirred over the bay, no shadowy omen-shifting clouds. I’d just promised something I had no idea how to deliver. On the other hand, I would promise anything—all of Jupiter’s moons—to get my mother back.
The sun climbed over the aquarium, cutting into our shade, and the three of us stood there silently for another ten minutes, watching the tourists with their big bright shopping bags.
“Tarasso, what am I?”
“You are a child of the Brightest One, a child of the sun from the Rootworld, a child of the Great Storyteller himself.” He paused to think something over. “Somehow, your line escaped his story and came through the passage to this world. Most of your kin are trapped there, in the Bright One’s many tales and lies. Some have lived within one or another of his dreams for thousands of years, characters in his story, so immersed in the threads and weave of his thought, they have forgotten themselves, forgotten there was an outside world, lost in a story that was once their own.”
20 - Uncles and Dronies
Tarasso walked away and I let him, my fingers gripping the paint brush so tightly it hurt.
I had made a promise and he apparently was going to let me try to keep it...for now.
We walked back to the library and hid at the end of a quiet aisle. I couldn’t touch my paints and brushes. I put them away, jammed all the pencils inside, and snapped the box closed.
“Can I dream about her?”
Itoshi looked up. “What?”
“What if I just think of Taryn—picture her or anyone in my head—is that going to use this power?”
Itoshi nodded, thinking about this. “Can’t you feel the difference?”
I nodded back. “When something big’s happening, when I’m moving things, or changing the way the world looks, but I don’t know...” I shrugged. “There could be small changes that don’t feel like anything.”
Itoshi looked doubtful. “Advice? Use it if you have to. Don’t worry about the small changes. Your mother gave this to you for a reason—and giving up wasn’t the reason. Otherwise, she would have just fought off the hunters that came for her, done everything in her power to avoid giving it to you. And I don’t trust the story and motives of Eknephias and his teller finder. Not entirely.”
My hands flew out in a wild gesture. I caught them, pulled them back in, and took a few deep breaths before answering. “Look, I’ve brought us all to ruin. Why would you trust me to do the right thing now?”
Itoshi held up his wrists, brought them together as if bound, and then pulled them apart. “You saved my life, man. I was in the back of a patrol car handcuffed with a killer/silencer/no-respect-for-the law combo after me. How long would I have been breathing if you hadn’t whisked me away from that? We got away and we hurt them bad. You put fear into them. And we saved Taryn from Diosemia.” He waved away my protest. “Don’t give me that crap. Taryn came with us. We all knew this was dangerous.” He jabbed a finger at me. “You will make her better. I know it.”
That’s when the ground shook.
It wasn’t an earthquake. It was a sharp jolt, a long stretch of silence, and then sirens. Out the window, facing Pacific Street, cars had pulled over, drivers getting out to look around and shout questions to each other.
I looked over at Itosh and found we were both on our feet. I didn’t remember getting out of the chair. Inside, I felt something caving in, falling away, a scatter of debris, a severed connection, and the loss of memories.
“What is it?”
I locked eyes with him. “Don’t know. Something bad. Let’s check on Taryn.”
“What about the store?”
A flash of panic and then a vision of the maw of a fire-gutted building, exposed timber sharp like teeth, blackened by flame and twisted with the force of an explosion. And I was looking down its throat at the charred books, broken glass, wet splatters of candle wax.
I grabbed my focus, wrenched it away from the blast, and found myself blinking at Itoshi, holding one hand up in question, still waiting for an answer.
“Let’s check on Taryn, quickly, and then see what they’ve done to Teller Esoterica.”
Taryn was asleep—still as death—when we dashed in to see her. Mrs. Rydell was there, sitting in a chair beside the bed, scowling up from a book on Hypatia of Alexandria. Shaking her head, she had nothing new to report. No end in sight. Doctors were still running tests, all the usual stuff.
Taryn woke for fifteen minutes, groggy, rubbing her eyes. She didn’t even recognize us, although she got pretty close, calling me “Andy” after I’d told her my name eight times. And still, she looked at Itoshi and I as if we were strangers.
This imposter Taryn said “goodbye” in the faintest voice and turned away from us.
I was wiping away tears when we left. I had destroyed my friend. I might as well have painted away everything that made her get up in the morning, everything that made her laugh. I might as well have gutted her intelligence. She’s ruined and it’s my fault.
It hurt to be in the same room with a lifeless Taryn.
And I ran.
There was a message waiting for me when we made our way through the crowds and fire trucks along Cannery Row to what was left of Teller Esoterica. Big letters, clear as the day, and yet only I could see them. I leaned toward Itoshi, kept my voice low.
“It’s from Diosemia. Says, ‘Andin, my boy, what are you waiting for? I am the only one who can free your mother from Eknephias. Think of me as hope and the devastation and death around you as the world you have created in order to avoid it.’”
Itoshi scowled up at the words he couldn’t see. “Avoid what? Hope?”
Under my breath, I said, “Avoid the capital C Crazy stampede of poisonous spiders that is my grandmother.”
There was a snicker behind us and, turning, I was face to face with the scariest hunter I had seen yet—long bleached blond hair pulled tight into a tail, wedges of shadow cut into his gaunt face, eyes unnaturally blue, teeth unnaturally sharp, and a spiral of vine tattoos curling up his throat, branches of it spiraling his ears.
He held up his open hands, signing to us.
Itoshi kept his eyes on him, but translated. “Friend, I’m just here to see that you got the message from the Lady. And to ask if you need directions. That is all.”
I cut in. “Directions where? For a meeting?”
The hunter nodded.
I tilted my head to what was left of the store—actually, half the building was gone. Had to be some serious explosives involved in this one, and Homeland Security was going to be all over this, FBI too. Buildings didn’t just blow up—not like this.
“Did you blow up my mother’s place?”
He smiled thinly, shaking his head, signing something to Itosh.
“Take it up with the Lady. I don’t do fire. I do final breaths.”
He held up his hands again, opened them, and this time there was neat handwriting across them. Another pair of coordinates:
37.000, -122.500, 1AM PST
Itoshi already had his phone out, skimming the map. “Tonight? This is out in the ocean.”
The hunter shrugged, signing, “Do you need a boat? I don’t know. If you think you do, then get one. Tonight.”
Itoshi wasn’t frightened by the hunter, jabbing a finger at him. “What have you done with Aerizo?”
He kept the amused smile on his face, signed again, “Take it all up with the Lady. The only question I’m permitted to answer is where to meet.”
“I want Aerizo set free.”
“This isn’t an answer to your question, so I am permitted to tell you that Aerizo was my brother.”
I didn’t like the past tense one bit, but it didn’t have the finality of death in it, more like he had disowned Aerizo for betraying Diosemia’s loyalty. “What’s your name?”
He hesitated over his response, his hands shaking a little.
My guess was that those bound to Diosemia quickly learned ways to work around what they were and weren’t permitted to do.
Itoshi glanced over and I caught the mischief there. He came back with the hunter’s response: “You do not need to know it, but some call me Aeroais.”
I ran with it. “So, am I permitted to call you Uncle Aeroais?”
His eyebrows climbed into the middle of his forehead. While Aeroais stood there stunned, I looked beyond him, focusing on a dark-uniformed shape, and there was Officer Arthur Ramirez in full body armor, moving through the crowd. We locked eyes and he gave me an insistent look—clearly, “Wait right there, Mr. Teller. I have some questions for you.”
Hell with that.
But there was no way I was going to waste an ounce of my mother’s life on reworking reality unless I was forced. We had to do this the old fashioned way. I grabbed Itoshi by the jacket and we ran for it.
Dodging gawkers and firefighters, hurdling free roaming German Shepherds and Cocker Spaniels—no idea why people bring their pets to the scene of a bombing. We ducked between cars, crossed Cannery at Irving, and then went into an all out sprint for the “bike path”—or, if you’re in law enforcement, the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail. As in, the perps are “heading east on the Trail”
There was shouting behind us, someone pointing us out, and the rhythmic thump of air support coming from the south east. I exchanged a look with Itoshi, nodded, both of us hoping for a full manned aircraft, not the UAVs. Last thing we wanted was a dozen autonomous drone-choppers swooping below the trees and on our asses.
It was a sleek black military chopper, thundering past right above the trees, and, by the sound of it, wheeling to come back around for us.
“These guys are serious!” Itosh shouted over at me.
It took only a glance over my shoulder to see that Officer Ramirez was a hell of fast runner in armor. We were breaking away, but he wasn’t that far behind. “My guess is they were already in the air, covering the bombing.”
“No dronies.” That was what we called the unmanned aircraft, remotely controlled helicopters the size of small motorcycles, some of them with full weapons capability, and nearly all with some sort of non-lethal arsenal, stun and flash rounds, tranq darts, rumors of nastier things.
I just caught the signal for sharp right from Itosh, just managed to avoid a fatal tangle, and then we bolted up Hoffman, where a van full of tourists nearly ran us into the asphalt.
I laughed, “Let them honk!”
The van was big, stalled in the street, blocking any ground view of our direction. The chopper overhead came back, swooped over us, rotating into a turn that brought the nose up Hoffman as we broke left on Wave Street, cutting under the trees across a parking lot.
I was pretty sure the Law didn’t have us in sight, waving Itoshi through the shade and over the bowing slats of a fence into someone’s backyard.
Not just anyone. Surfers.
It was like mind reading. We suddenly knew what to do.
Itoshi had his jacket off, tossing it away. Then both of us wrestled with the clothesline for a pair of faded turquoise beach towels. I grabbed a water bottle, dumped half over my head, the other half went to Itoshi. A moment later, we stepped out of the side gate at a stroll, pants legs rolled up as high as we could get them, shirts off and tucked into the backs of our pants, hair energetically tousled, towels rolled over our shoulders, half covering our heads, surfboards under our arms as we made our way back toward Cannery. Couple guys out for one thing.
Just looking for some waves, man.
Well, two things. Waves and lack of attention from anyone with a badge.
Itoshi looked over, grinning. “Nice board.”
I looked down at the night sky mural with a dancing dark haired girl in white boots, blue top, and eyes as big as her skirt was short—it was clearly a girl’s board. I gave him a mock defensive glare. “Hey, I’m totally into Sailor Moon.”
We crossed Cannery at a leisurely pace, Itoshi risking a glance up the Row to see Officer Ramirez standing beside his Ural, signaling to officers across the street, directing them into buildings, widening his search.
The chopper roared across the sky, but it was on the other side of the city block, up along Wave Street.
“Deeper. Digging ourselves deeper.” Itosh breathed the words under his breath as a matte black police sedan ripped by us, a fan of strobing blue lights across the grill, cutting dangerously through the crowds. “Now they know who we are, where we live, full identities. I’m sure they think we had something to do with the store going up in smoke and there will be a full anti-terror strike team on the damn ground in a matter of hours.”
I was waiting for it, but Itoshi didn’t ask me to story or paint the trouble away.
Instead, he elbowed me. “Where are we going to get something to eat?”
“You’re hungry?” My stomach was in knots.
He shrugged. “I think we need to find a place to hide out for a while, someplace quiet where we can think about what to do next.”
Okay, that sounded good. “Like where the hell am I going to find a boat before sundown?”
21 - Tarynado
We didn’t find a boat to beg, hire, or steal by sundown. We found this freaky, ultra-hobbyist, shallow water submarine that belonged to a guy who knew Taryn well from something called “spline interpolation review,” but only noddingly recognized Itoshi as a friend of hers.
He didn’t know me at all.
Everyone in Monterey knew him, though.
We figured sundown was our deadline for Diosemia’s 1AM rendezvous because it would take us a while to get used to any boat. Neither of us knew much about being in the ocean in a hull bigger than a kayak. Kayaks—we were experts with kayaks. But we didn’t even discuss the possibility of taking a pair of small paddle-driven watercraft out to the -122.5 longitude—roughly sixteen miles off the coast of Santa Cruz.
That would be crazy.
We had about eighty dollars between us—not enough to rent anything with an engine. We were on foot. We were wanted—by now—by several government agencies, none of which worked in a coordinated fashion and shared critical information until they’re after you. We were probably on the news and feeds, labeled Terror Suspects, so any of our usual hangouts, and even walking in the street, was a hazard.
No, we’d have to “borrow” something. Soon.
Zekey Ulysses was an old Navy man with eyes focused on the tides, not on the television. Which Navy was uncertain. He looked old enough to have sailed with Cortez. He had a drunken sea-dog reputation, which he apparently took seriously enough to line the walls of his kitchen with liquor bottles. We all knew of him, even if he had barely heard of us. He had a million sea stories. He had lived on or in the ocean all his life. He had probably worked in the very canneries that so many of the buildings along the Row had once been.
He had met mermaids on distant shores. He could tell a turn in the weather hours before any local device and he built boats that didn’t float and a one-man sub that just barely qualified as floating. Neutrally-buoyant, he called it. Sounded better than abyss-bound.
I wasn’t up for a debate. And we were desperate.
So, we thought we could loosen his hold on the submarine just a bit and claim we wanted to rent it.
While I stood around with my phone to my ear, pretending to make and receive calls to my “bank representative” in the Grenadines for a direct transfer of $3,000 to Zekey’s financial institute—an old coffee can with a duct taped lid—Itoshi busted out a bottle of Vodka and pushed a glass in front of our sub-driver, refilling as needed.
I punched in local numbers, talked right over the “hellos” on the other end, and pretended to be a little bit put out with my bank rep when he couldn’t simply make the submarine rental money appear magically and in cash. I caved with some sighing and one bout of pleading and, over the course of an hour, I arranged a transfer to a non-existent local branch of a made up affiliate bank, coordinating delivery of the funds to Zekey’s house by a skateboarding courier.
By that time, Zekey couldn’t even tell us the name of the submarine. Apparently he thought it was important for us to know. Unfortunately, that’s also when he decided to run through the operating procedures for this wonderful “boot”.
Crap. This wasn’t going to work. I knew less about submarines than surface vehicles. At least normal boats didn’t go up and down. They just went left and right—I mean, port and starboard.
He had just gone through the steps for making the boat dive when the Law showed up.
Even with the wash of blue light coming through the front windows, it took me a second to figure out what was going on. I just stood there, stunned. Ten more seconds to grasp that it was me using my phone pretending to make overseas calls that had lured them right to us.
Itoshi froze, breathing deeply. After a few, he nodded his head. “Damn.”
I glanced down to see that Zekey wasn’t going to put up much of a fight if we wanted to take the sub out for a spin. Pointing at the front door, I asked, “Can we make it to the sub before they storm the place?”
Shaking his head, Itoshi grabbed me by the shoulders. “Doubt it and he’s not going to hold anyone off.” Pointing to our host, he shrugged. “Look, it’s a one man sub—maybe we could have squeezed into it, but it’s better if I remain behind. I’m going to buy you time, man,” he said with a nod to the open basement door that led down to Zekey’s secret UBoat base. “And this has turned out to be ideal. Who’s going to be looking for subsurface vehicles? Take the boat.”
I planted my feet, shaking my head. “What about you?”
Itoshi’s fingers dug deeper into my shoulders. “Come on. I have a Teller as a best friend. I don’t care what’s about to happen to me. Get your mom, make her better, use your power to get me out of whatever I’m about to land in. Clear my record, make everyone forget, hack the justice system, just get me out. Okay?”
I was nodding halfway through. “I promise.”
Promises. I was making a lot of them. Promises I had no way of keeping.
Itoshi turned away, held up his hands to the front windows. Over his shoulder, he said, “Go, Andin. I got this.” Then he edged toward the front door and started shouting demands. Something about being held hostage, that the terrorists would only talk through him, and that the Feds “better get the F back” because Zekey’s narrow, weathered house was full of explosives.
I jumped the basement stairs two at a time.
The boat’s name was painted in crooked lime green letters—bad handwriting apparently wasn’t part of the design, but it fit. And I couldn’t ask for a better omen than:
It caught me a bit by surprise and I just stared at it for a second. I could have been wrong, but I went with the interpretation of a play on the word “tornado” with Taryn at the core. Zekey was cool. He obviously knew our Taryn. She had probably taught him hull design, which suddenly made me feel better.
Untying the only line I could see, I climbed up the port side, tossed my box of paints, brushes, and pencils in with my Moleskine artbook, and kicked my feet over the open circular edge of the hatch. The hatch. Only one way in or out of this beast, Zekey had said.
The Tides tarot card had fallen out of my artbook, face up next to the seat. I picked it up and couldn’t help studying the ocean scene for changes. Far out in the blue waves, the top of a little submarine bobbed, the hatch closed, and standing over it, a guy with black wings and a gun.
I shuddered. “Got to keep you away from the rest of the art—before you corrupt it all.” I jammed The Tides into a gap in some electrical conduit running along the wall.
I got my butt in the seat, looked around, got my bearings. “Okay, let’s get the hell out of here.”
It took a few minutes to figure out how to seal the hatch closed from the inside, but I got it. Then I was back in the driver’s seat of the Tarynado. It had a steering wheel and what looked like a lever for speeding up and slowing down. How hard could this be?
Reaching up to grab a big metal handle—supposed to start the motor when I turned it clockwise—I closed my eyes and made a little wish, hoping it would do more good than harm. I pictured Officer Ramirez—Deputy Arthur Ramirez, Monterey County Sheriff’s Department—and I pushed a little bit of trust into his thoughts. He knew Itoshi. He knew me. He knew we weren’t mad bombers, terrorists, bad guys.
Cutting that off, I moved on to Taryn, spending a full minute and a half trying to see her, imagining her in a garden somewhere near the beach, laughing at the wind in her hair and the trails of numbers that flowed like the wind off of everything that existed. A world of numeric natural beauty. I just wanted her to feel safe, to feel like she was at home.
I wasn’t sure either of these were going to get through, but I had to do something.
Okay, back to the present. I took another slow look around the cramped sub, curved sides with welded bracing, motor, and everything else crammed together behind me. It smelled like rotting seaweed, machine oil, and sweat. I touched the sealing around a curved rectangular window right in front of me. Kicking out my legs, digging my toes into a crossbeam, I reached up and started the engine, a big water-cooled electric with racks of batteries and exposed wiring running along both interior walls.
It was quieter than I had expected, a low rumbling that made everything vibrate, including my teeth. I pushed on a worn block of two by four with “Dive” and “Surface” written on each side in red pen.
“Push for dive.”
I nudged the accelerator forward, the motor raced behind me, and the Tarynado lurched steeply into the water, bucking as if I had forgotten a line. I think I had. The sub rammed against the dock on the right—I mean starboard—side. Then, with the sound of timber squealing and paint shaved off metal, the Tarynado was away.
Dropping through cold seawater like a freakin’ stone.
Everything went dark. I hadn’t even thought about interior lighting or how I could possibly see where I was going. Seawater rolled up the front window and then I was underwater and completely blind—and with what felt like as much forward motion as downward.
22 - Stories that Hide Other Stories
Shooting out of the underwater sub chute like a bullet, I jammed the sliding accelerator forward and felt the propeller bite, pushing me back in the seat.
This crazy thing really worked. I couldn’t see a thing. It was like being in an underwater earthquake while sealed in a closet—someone’s pretty foul smelling closet. But I knew the Monterey Bay sloped down from the coast. It was rocky at the edges and if I hadn’t hit something yet, I thought my chances were good that I wasn’t going to.
If I headed straight out from Zekey’s, I should be lined up with the Santa Cruz headland. So, I just had to cope with the dark sloshing water, creaking hull seams, and whining motor—and hope nothing would go wrong.
Then there was also the hope I wasn’t actually diving.
I dug out my phone—not planning on calling anyone ever again on the thing, but I could see around the cramped space with the screen’s backlight. Shouldn’t there be, like, an altimeter—or whatever you call the thing that measures the depth or hull pressure?
I found a gauge low on the wall next to my left foot, the needle standing at 60 PSI—pounds per square inch. I was too rattled to think through the calculation for depth based on pressure, but I figured if the needle didn’t go up, I wasn’t diving.
I dropped my phone in my lap, put both hands on the wheel, and rode the Tarynado into the Bay.
“I swear...I swear...”
If I made it to the rendezvous and ended up living through all this, I swore right then I would do something special for Zekey. The old sailor had really come through with this thing—maybe with some hull design work from Taryn.
Flipping the phone face up, I thumbed through the map and GPS to pinpoint my location, wondering if I was too deep to get a satellite reading. Apparently. I waited a few minutes. Nothing.
I gave the diving and ascending block of wood a gentle nudge with the heel of my hand and, although I couldn’t really feel a change in angle, there was a rushing noise that I hoped had something to do with ballast or buoyancy being shifted around and the PSI gauge backed off slowly to 20 PSI. I guessed that to be around ten feet and, after a few minutes of thinking about it, the map lit up my location right in the center of Monterey Bay, heading northwest.
That’s when the feeling hit me and I thought of the Moon card Hillary had placed on the table in Morro Bay—and what it meant.
I was alone.
I had lost everyone now, my mother, Aerizo, Taryn, and now Itoshi. And it may be that every one of them had to rely on me to bring them home again. If I failed, they would never come back. I could be going out here to my death. Diosemia could easily kill me, I think—although she didn’t strike me as someone who had put a bullet through my head the moment I popped the Tarynado’s hatch, more of a cat-and-mouse play with her food before severing the spine kind of killer.
Either way, the story died with me.
Like something out of a crime show, I imagined my broken body washing up on the shore in Monterey, pale, rotting, bloated with seawater, kids poking at it with sticks, screaming when the crabs scuttled from my mouth and from the holes they would have eaten through my face.
“Stop it!” I was starting to shiver.
Maybe Diosemia just wanted to end this thing, get on with her plans to take over the world? Maybe she would let me and my mother go, so we could return to our little store on Cannery Row? Yeah, the one that someone just burned to the ground. I was already shaking my head. Anything was possible with a monster that seemed so unpredictable. I couldn’t trust her a millimeter.
And I had to preserve the story, preserve the debts I had accumulated. I couldn’t let anything stop me from helping Taryn and Itoshi—out of the depths of madness and out of trouble. They were there because of me. I had to preserve the story in order to make certain my debts would be paid—even if I wasn’t around.
But who could I tell? Who would believe me? Who would believe...a teller?
I could always make them believe. The real problem was getting the story outside of my head because my head may not be attached to my shoulders for much longer.
I looked down at my phone as a way to store my voice and images of my friends.
“Not going to work.”
I didn’t even know if it would float or just sink to the bottom. It probably wouldn’t make it through my death, or if it did, it wouldn’t end up in the hands of someone outside Diosemia’s control.
I looked at my hands. What about inside me? That’s it. Not outside the box. Think so far inside the box it wouldn’t be detected. What if the story was inside the broken body washing up on the shore, worm-eaten and...stop it.
I’m a story teller. I’m a Teller. Stories are in my blood. What if I simply add this one to the mix? Wouldn’t the coroner have to draw blood, cut me open, find out how I had been killed? And then I would hit the forensic doc—or maybe the whole forensic team—with the story, make them feel the debt I owe Taryn and Itoshi, make it their debt.
I pulled the block of wood back and surfaced about a mile from the rendezvous point, straining to see anything through the curve of industrial thickness plastic in front of me. Not much more than a dark slosh of water against a dark sky. I eased way back on the accelerator, dropping the speed to a crawl through the waves.
I shot a glance down at my phone to see that I was just outside the Bay, in the Pacific Ocean proper now. And it was getting hard to breathe. I went through the reverse of the sealing process for the hatch, unscrewing a dozen T-bolts, and swung the hatch open.
The air felt good on my face, gave me strength. I draped my arms over the edge of the hatch opening, leaning against it, while I rocked in the Pacific swells and looked around for anyone approaching.
Turning around, I could still see the flash of lights as emergency crews worked on the blown up and burning building that used to be Teller Esoterica.
It was dark out here. No moon in sight tonight. It was nearly full, but hadn’t risen yet. If I turned my head in little increments, I could catch brief cries of seagulls off to my right—back toward Santa Cruz. Nothing on my left, which made me think Diosemia hadn’t shown up yet. The birds always followed the boats.
The Tarynado had no running lights—no lights at all that I could find, so I kept my phone, glowing like a beacon, below the hatch opening, not wanting to give my location away.
It was just before midnight.
I had little over an hour to tell the story of my friends and what had to be done to help them and get it into my blood. Then make the last mile long leg of the trip to meet with psycho-grandma.
Taking the time to really get Taryn and Itoshi in my thoughts, I slowly brought up the feel of the blood running through my body, heart thumping. I felt the warmth circulating through me and it felt so easy to feed everything I knew about my best friends into that flow, along with commands to release the story when it was touched. This might actually work.
I remembered the first time I saw Taryn on the streets of Monterey, sitting cross-legged, facing Old Ty who had been making music along Fisherman’s Wharf for longer than I had been alive. He was rolling through complex rhythms, sticks blurring, eyes locked on Taryn’s while she picked out the time signature and shouted it. Then Ty would slide into something faster or slower, a different timing, and Taryn would nod, clicking her teeth together with every beat, calling it. That went on for half an hour, then I had to get back to Teller Esoterica to give my mom a break.
Taryn came in the shop the next day, wearing that red knobby bracelet she always wore, dancing to music only she could hear, going through the watercolor tarot cards and trying on every hat on the tree. I knew she was magical the first time I saw her.
And then I thought of what I had done to Taryn. I hadn’t watched out for her. I had let my grandmother take her away and...take all the magic out of her.
Itoshi and I met at Pacific Grove Middle School, skateboarding in the teacher’s parking lot. I don’t know which one of us started it, but we ended with a bumper cars game, shooting around the lot at high speed, right into the cars—not damaging anything, just grabbing the car with our hands—the game being about who could redirect their momentum the best, shooting off at a shallow enough angle to keep the motion going. We got caught, hauled into some meeting with an admin, and spent the afternoon in detention. Cool. We were friends from that point on.
Friends so tight, he trusted me to get him out of some of the worst trouble anyone could find themselves in.
Taryn and Itoshi were gone, left behind so that I could move forward. Here I was in the Pacific, in a one-man submarine, with dark water lapping at the sides, staring back at Monterey.
Taryn’s mind had wandered off without her and she didn’t recognize us. And Itoshi was probably locked up somewhere.
It hurt to think about them and made my heart beat faster. But when I was done, everyone would know what I owed my friends. It’s inside my blood. Now, it didn’t matter if Diosemia killed me. If someone found my body, if someone did an autopsy, the story would live in them. And it would make them act. They may not know how or why they felt the need to help Taryn and Itoshi, but they would.
It’s now in my blood, all the love I have and debts I owe to my friends.
Ten minutes to one and the running lights and deck lights fired up on something that was closer to a small ship than a yacht a hundred yards off my starboard, right where Diosemia said she would be.
23 - Neutral Water
“Welcome aboard, Andin Teller.”
I glanced around to get my bearings on this ship—somewhere just in from the stern, some sort of low to the water greeting deck with dark green awnings and what looked like living vines coiling up the posts that held up a broad canopy with a stylized D in the middle.
I was helped aboard—very efficiently—by a green uniformed crew, all in green berets.Berets always made me think that there were just some people who looked good in a beret and some people who didn’t and those who didn’t shouldn’t be wearing them.
The only belligerent thing they had done so far was take away my paint box and artbook.
I looked up from my empty hands, scanning the arrival committee. Everyone was in some shade of green, except for a small contingent of dark blues.
And in the middle of it all, Diosemia looking as pleased as possible.
My first thought was, She’s definitely going to kill me. And maybe make a party out of it.
Diosemia smiled, rows of even white teeth, a little too sharp. No more cat’s teeth. She had changed into something a bit more normal. She also looked older than she had been just days ago in the woods—probably still eating voices, but maybe she’s not getting enough time to bathe in baby’s blood or whatever she stole, cooked, or did to look far younger than she really was.
I turned and there was Tarasso, the story hunter, standing next to his boss, Eknephias.
Or he is going to kill me.
That explained the helicopter with a big E on it on the pad hanging off the ship’s stern.
I was obviously staring in some threatening way because everyone tensed up on the deck, hunters dropping from the sky—or right through the canopy without tearing it—landing like cats and Diosemia laughed that cruel delighted laugh.
“Don’t worry your head, Andin. Lord Eknephias is my guest...for a little while. Just doing some business. We’re all here in neutral waters, so to speak. Neither of us has any real power over this moving blue monstrosity—or even alliances with those who do.” She waved her hand impatiently over the side and, before I could react, Diosemia was beside me, our backs to the Monterey lights glinting off in the distance, her thin cold fingers on my shoulder, intrigue in her voice. “By the way, your darling submarine made a brilliant entrance. The crew, my hunters, and I had a little game going on how—or even if—you would show up for our meeting. None of us even dreamed of a submarine. Just brilliant. You are the winner in our circle of chance—surprise being the card that trumps all others.”
I felt sick, a sudden shift in my stomach, a real need to retch. And it was because I felt good about surprising them all with Zekey’s sub. I didn’t want to feel good here—with all these enemies. I wanted to hate, to make fists, to hit someone and get my mother back.
Instead, I felt like laughing with them.
Then a twist in my stomach and an ache in my heart.
One of the crew handed my paints and book to Diosemia, who thumbed through the pages, glancing at pictures of sandcastles and Taryn’s shoes. She sniffed as if someone had had the effrontery to hand her a stack of garbage. “Take these downstairs and burn them immediately.”
It was one o’clock in the morning, I was dead tired, my friends and family were locked up, comatose, or somewhere in between—all depending on me to free them—and I was being whisked off to the party room on Diosemia’s ship for hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and what appeared to be light chatting about world domination.
Tarasso’s stories of the future came back to me when I heard Eknephias talking about humans as if we—they—weren’t here any longer and then sighing over the delays in their progress and ways he was investing in their advanced technologies.
Then Diosemia laughed, sipping some chilled dark red fluid with dark little things bobbing around in it—I hoped they were just blueberries. “I have just bought my way into eight percent of Knowledgenix for that very reason. You should look into them, Eknephias. Very advanced autonomous robotics, closest I’ve ever seen to artificial thinking.” She raised her glass to the port side, a distant look in her eyes. “They’re here in the Bay, headquarters just north of Monterey.” She snapped her fingers and a servant appeared at her side. “Fetch Lord Eknephias the Knowledgenix contact info.”
This wasn’t James Bond and the villain Blofeld petting his stupid cat, explaining every detail of his plans for taking over the world. This was more like aliens who lived thousands of years had so thoroughly infiltrated every nation in our world, studied every aspect of human culture, and, even though they weren’t all on the same side, they all agreed on one thing: at some point they would decide to seize the day—and our world.
No less comforting was the fact that—apparently—I was one of them.
It wasn’t even like Diosemia wanted to crush Eknephias now—plenty of time for that later after the pesky humans have left their world, gone virtual, or whatever it was they were all waiting for. Then we can get on with a real war and not have to worry about tactical messiness and collateral damage.
And I was balanced there at the edge of this group, treated in every way like I was one of them, part of this world seizing mentality. I couldn’t back up. Not one step. I tried and, when I did, one of Diosemia’s servants was there, a gentle hand on my elbow, steadying me.
Then my grandmother would throw her arm over my shoulder, hold me at her side, while she went on about ending hunger, disease, and offering the gift of human immortality—discreetly, of course. No blatant selling and tech distribution. You know me, I’m the very personification of subtlety.” Laughing, then pouting unconvincingly when she told them of the rejections she had received.
I tried to dig into Tarasso’s story and even glanced his way a couple times—no sign in his eyes or face that he recognized me from yesterday morning and no way to know if he was pretending or if my story telling had wiped it all away after we were through.
The words were already slipping from my memory with the time—somewhere around three in the morning now—but I was sure he had said that the people from this other world were just waiting—only waiting—for humans to advance their technology to the point where they would leave Earth. And they didn’t interfere with that advancement.
And here we were talking about exactly that, investing in companies that might influence things, interfering in human wars and natural phenomena that might set the “human diaspora” date forward.
At our peril. That’s what Tarasso had said, something about influencing and manipulating human technological advancement at our peril.
I was at a party with the criminals among these world infiltrators, the ones who didn’t abide by the “wait for humans to leave on their own” rule, not one speck of concern for any kind of peril they might be inviting.
Just lots of white, white teeth and dark spherical things floating in blood red wine. Sickeningly sharp laughter that made my head hurt and vision blur. Next thing I knew, there was afternoon sun slanting in the windows of a bedroom.
And I was looking up at it from the bed.
I was still in yesterday’s clothes, but still creeped out at the thought that I might not have been. My head felt as if it was about to wobble off my shoulders. So, holding it with both hands, I levered myself out of bed and elbowed the curtains aside for a better view. Monterey was still there, although sometime in the night we’d moved a few miles further out.
I leaned there, letting my forehead rest gently against the glass. Everything between my face and the back of my head was on fire. Even my skull hurt—I could feel a separate pain in the bony parts of my head. My brain felt as if it had been run through a blender—or was still running, still chunky, but on its way to puree.
And I hadn’t touched anything that looked edible or drinkable. Maybe poison was too obvious. My hideous death goddess of a grandmother seemed to think it was hilarious that I refused to consume anything when they were all drinking and eating from the same serving trays and decanters.
Maybe I don’t like things floating around in my drink. Made me think of Halloween punch with fake eyeballs bobbing against the ladle—only more real.
There was chilled bottled water in a bucket of ice on a dresser across from the bed—a dresser that looked like something stolen from the Louvre, with inlaid fleur-de-lis of lighter wood and, running my finger over it, probably real gold.
The whole bedroom matched, antique dark carved wood, gauzy stuff hanging from the head of the bed, framed art in oils by artists I didn’t immediately recognize—beautiful work, though. One could have been a Vermeer...but weren’t the thirty-some paintings we had all in museums?
Turning back to the window, a memory of an episode of The Prisoner hit me hard. Maybe I wasn’t even on board the SS Diosemia anymore. Maybe this was an elaborate prison to make me think I was still a dozen miles off the coast of Santa Cruz. I felt the gentle shift of the tides through the floor and the view out the window was convincing.
I headed for the door, thinking that if it was some kind of simulation, it was damn good.
The door was unlocked. I pulled it open and stepped into a long narrow hall lit with very modern bars of bluish-green light. Daylight at the hall’s end and I headed for it.
One of Diosemia’s servants in a green cape and beret put his hand on my shoulder. “May I escort you somewhere, sir? This is the Lady’s ship and there are many places guests are not permitted to venture. Perhaps some breakfast or coffee?”
I nodded after a moment of just staring and blinking at him. Hunter?
He gestured down the hall. “This way, please.”
He stood absolutely still, eyes fixed on mine, pleasant smile firmly in place. Waiting for me to recover. It took me a few more seconds to unlock my feet, but he showed no sign of impatience, no sign that he knew he had startled the hell out of me. I was ten feet from the door to my bedroom and I hadn’t even seen him appear. Looking back, there was a dark alcove in the wall opposite the side the door opened, so I wouldn’t have seen him. Clever. A room made for guests who needed to be looked after.
Getting a good look at the sky on the way to the dining room, the sun was somewhere between noon and the horizon, so I guessed around three in the afternoon. And that was apparently still early for Diosemia and any other dignitaries, because it was just me, my escort, and some of the deck crew, a mix of men and women in green, sitting around one table in the dining room.
They looked up when I came in with my escort, smiling, raising mugs of coffee with a cheer at my daring arrival the night before.
“Did you make it yourself?” One of them asked, a blond woman with vivid red eyes, like light coming through rubies.
I shook my head. “An old friend, navy guy who’s soul is attached to the sea. Never seen him more than a hundred yards from the water.”
I thought I was giving an eloquent description of our long-drinking, sea-dog, boat building buddy, Zekey Ulysses, but it was clear they took more from my words than I had meant to convey, nodding gravely, exchanging glances with each other.
Pointing astern, one of the crew said, “We cleaned out your sub and we’re recharging the batteries.” Jutting his chin at the blond woman in Diosemia’s crew, he added. “Kleariste resealed the hull and Namo made adjustments to the rudder.”
“She’s a beautiful craft,” someone else said and then there was a bunch of nodding green berets.
Then they turned back to their mugs of coffee and quiet talk, while I took a seat by the starboard railing and stared out at the Pacific, a dance of sunlight across the surface.
My escort pulled out a chair for me, gestured for me to sit down, and then moved to the far side of the dining room, to stand alertly.
A waiter glided up next to the table with a cup of really good coffee, sourdough rolls still warm from the oven, and offered to have anything I wanted delivered to my table. Still staring at the water, I thanked him. I breathed in the ocean air, smiling up at a darting pair of seagulls—which reminded me of something important. I just couldn’t remember.
Little seagulls in cages... But that sounded crazy.
The waiter gave me one last questioning look. I smiled and shook my head.
I couldn’t ask for anything more. There was an angry edge of something off in one corner of my mind, an ache in my heart that was quickly fading. Shaking it off, I lifted the cup of coffee from the saucer, took a sip, and tried to remember why I was there.
24 - Fool
Diosemia was very pleased to let me know why I was there.
“You are here for your mother, of course.”
There was still a faint anger stirring in me, but I couldn’t pin it down—really couldn’t see any reason to be angry. It took me another minute to understand that there was something strange about my mother being there. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but things were rolling along with or without me. The anger caught like gears, first like grinding metal in my head, then it hooked and turned some relevant thoughts, a surge of adrenaline, and sent a hot handful of words into my throat.
My grandmother put up her hand, waved me back just before the words jumped out of me. Nothing could stop them—or me—from shouting them.
“You have my mother?”
They were just words. A question I was supposed to ask, but I had no idea how significant they were. I was on my feet, hands in fists, shaking.
Diosemia’s smile broadened, her gaze darting to the servants against the wall, who rushed off to do something. “We will be in the sky salon. Bring Synnepheia there,” she said to another set of servants and then gestured toward the door of the dining room.
I fell in with the entourage, riding the elevator to the highest deck, and then into a ballroom wide “salon” decorated almost entirely in dark carved wood and gold. At the far end, some of Diosemia’s crew were sliding big glass walls aside to open up the room to the ocean air and a blood red sunset.
Fifteen minutes later, they brought in my mother on a levitating stretcher, expensive looking blue blankets with silver swirling patterns draped over her. She didn’t look dead. Didn’t even look sick. She looked asleep.
There were things I knew about her, but they were shallow thoughts, recently planted, and when I tried to dig into them, I felt an overwhelming gratitude for my grandmother. She had been honest with me all along. She was the one who had bargained with the enemy and managed to get my mother back—and after all, it was my mother’s fault for stirring up all this trouble in the first place.
“How did you get her away from Eknephias?”
“I gave him what he wanted. The key to wake his son Straton.”
I felt a frown forming on my face and knew there was something dangerous about Straton—that waking him with my mother’s key wasn’t a good thing, but all of that quickly drifted away when the servants brought around the sandwiches.
I was starving.
Besides, I barely knew this woman, Synnepheia, asleep on her levitating stretcher, wrapped in her blue blanket. She didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t know her outside of lines drawn on a family tree. My mother and father had abandoned me, left me to be raised by my grandmother, the only person in this world who had ever cared for me.
And I was so hungry. Diosemia’s chef had prepared the most amazing chicken sandwiches with chipotle mango salsa. God, these were good. I took another one.
Everything about being here was right and good.
In the evenings, my grandmother threw parties. Helicopters flew out, landed, dropped off guests, and took off. She brought in a band that played nothing but shitty pop music and I wasn’t interested in getting anywhere near the dance floor.
Until Diosemia waved over a couple girls my age, introduced them as Klio and Zala, and suggested that I dance with them. Suddenly it sounded like fun and we spent the next four hours dancing, talking, and drinking. I laughed with them when they called Monterey a nest of backward humans and I even laughed when they asked me about people they thought I should know, but didn’t.
“Air-iz-oh...Aerizo? Never heard of him.” I laughed when they laughed at me for not knowing. It felt wrong and I didn’t like them laughing at me, treating me like a fool, but it was all supposed to be fun, right? I waved over one of the servers and had him bring more wine.
The party didn’t slow down until the sun had risen.
On the third night, we had an uninvited guest. A woman with long dark hair in an ocean blue gown came aboard and walked the decks like she owned them, a goddess’ arrogance rolling off her, the whole time sniffing at us all like we were vermin infesting the ship. A rage of whispers followed her, but no one felt I needed—or could be trusted enough—to be filled in on who she was. Even Diosemia’s hunters backed off warily, fear in their eyes.
She didn’t come by helicopter. She rose right out of the sea and stepped into the party.
She strolled around the salon and everyone lowered their gazes, bowed their heads. I didn’t know that’s what we were supposed to do. And when she fixed her eyes on mine, all the blood rushed from head and I was in free fall. I heard some laughing around the room—look at the fool getting his ass and brain handed to him by this ocean goddess. I nearly fainted, dropped my glass, and had to catch the bar before I fell to the floor. Then the woman swung her gaze to my grandmother, a hurricane’s rage in her eyes.
Diosemia, queen of the party ship, smiled, opened her hands in an insincere appeasing gesture and even showed a hint of defiance in her face. Then she was on her knees, groveling at this sea woman’s feet, begging to be left alive.
There were guests sobbing, but most, like me, were doing a good deal of fearful sweating, knees shaking, swallowing the saliva pooling in our mouths.
No one spoke of it afterward, as if it went dead against some unwritten set of laws. Never got the sea woman’s name—I was afraid to ask—and she only spoke once—to my grandmother. “I don’t know what game you are playing here, Diosemia. Just don’t let it spill over into my ocean.”
Then she was gone, stepping right over the side of the ship with a flutter of sea blue, going into the deeps without a hint of a splash.
And the party continued into the early morning. Helicopters dropped in and retrieved party goers who’d had enough or had trouble keeping their feet. I saw a couple hunters come in late on sleek black wings, circling the ship at wind ripping speeds, pulling up with a loud thump of air before landing on the roof of the ship’s bridge with the aerials and satellite gear, driving off the seagulls.
And all I could think was that I would love to be one those guys someday. I would give up my voice in a heartbeat if I could have wings like that. I would ask my grandmother about it later.
I danced with Klio and Zala—but after more wine, they had become serious bitches, not even hiding their disdain for me. It hadn’t been that bad when they hid it all behind their beautiful smiles, but now it was time to get away from them.
Who was I fooling? I tried to find one peaceful place on this floating palace, but I couldn’t get away from the party.
Party. Party. Party. That’s all my grandmother seemed to do. And I felt penned in on the boat—even a big boat like Diosemia’s. There were only so many places I could go. Only so many corridors, ballrooms, salons, sitting rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms I had access to and everywhere I went, a hunter escorted me. Anywhere I stopped to take in the wide dark ocean rolling against the ship, hunters followed, slipped into shadows, became the wind with flapping wings.
I tried to get away from them, maybe slip to the stern of the S.S. Diosemia and find a way to get aboard my submarine. Close the hatch, close my eyes, try to make sense of my life. I couldn’t run from the hunters. They didn’t need to follow me down the corridors. They simply spread their wings and flew to the end of the boat and waited for me to show up—and the bastards were smiling when they led me back to the party.
I just didn’t know how long I could take this.
There was the hint—somewhere in the back of my mind—that I was just being kept busy for a while, penned in, waiting for the slaughter.
I felt crowded—in my head.
A thousand thoughts on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t taste one of them. There were names I couldn’t quite pronounce, people I once knew, floating around in the stew in my head, a girl’s name that started with a “T,” but I couldn’t remember a single letter after that, couldn’t make myself say her name. There were faces, a guy with a motorcycle—with another name I couldn’t pronounce. I knew it started with an “I” though.
I felt lost. It was like having maps to every corner of this world, but in fragments, remembering that you’re actually from a different world. And nothing in your head will guide you back.
Maybe I was looking in the wrong place. I was running end to end—bow to stern? Maybe the path wasn’t off the floating palace, but deeper inside it?
One of my grandmother’s servants in a green beret approached, snapped up straight, his body going rigid as he saluted the two winged hunters escorting me back from the ship’s bow.
“I’ll take him from here.” Mr. Beret said. I glanced back to see one of them using sign language back.
I felt a chill, not a nightmare sort of chill, but a this-reminds-me-of-something sort of chill. Familiarity. I couldn’t place it, but it was the sign language that struck something inside. I had already discovered that none of the hunters spoke a word. I tried asking them questions. They just shoved me back toward the party.
I interrupted the silent conversation going on between the guy in the beret and the guys with wings. I yawned, stretched one arm at the ceiling. “Actually, I am hungry. And I need some coffee. Where can I get some coffee?”
We walked away and I kept it at a bored stroll, yawning again.
As soon at the hunters were out of sight, I pushed him down the stairs. Beret flying, he had his hands out, but it didn’t do him a bit of good. He was tumbling too fast, landed on his side, and didn’t stop until he hit the landing and rolled up against the back wall.
Instead of running away, back up the corridor, I followed his rolling form down the stairs, jumping over him to make the turn to head deeper into the ship. I glanced over my shoulder to see my latest escort was out cold, a knot starting to form high on his forehead, his dark hair flattened and wedged up against the painted metal wall.
I scooped up his beret two flights of stairs down, a mushroom-top of bright green felt balanced on the railing. I jammed it on my head. It might buy me a second.
I don’t know what I could possibly do in two seconds, didn’t even know what I was running from, but it seemed right that I was running.
Just keep running.
To the bottom of the ship?
I stopped at the end of the staircase, leaning back so I wouldn’t be seen in the hallway cutting across my path. It was darker down here and it smelled of machines, burning oil, some kind of engine exhaust that wasn’t a car’s. Different.
I edged my way closer to the opening into the hall and heard voices from the left. Sounded like they were coming my way, two men. I didn’t hear anything from the right, so I straightened my beret—probably looked ridiculous on me—and turned left, walking with purpose.
As if I knew where I was going.
No idea at the moment. I was hoping the darkness down here would keep the details unclear, maybe a silhouette, enough to show the guys coming up the hall that I had on a beret, and they would see me as just another one of the crew.
“Hey!” One of them called for me, his voice echoing a little down the metal walls.
I didn’t turn around. I sped up a little, but kept it at a fast walk. If I ran, they would chase me.
They’re both calling after me now. “Stop!” One of them added, “We’re clearing this deck. Lady’s business!”
I started to run, passing half a dozen closed metal doors with big old fashioned hatch wheels like something out of a submarine movie.
The guys down the hall were yelling at me and I could hear their running feet. “All I.E. hatches are to remain closed!”
What the hell’s an I.E. hatch? You mean these doors?
Like I’m going to listen to anyone on this crazy party ship.
I stopped at the next one, grabbed the wheel. It’s rough in that way that metal stairway railings are rough, like chipped paint that’s been painted over. I felt the ridges smoothed over with several layers of paint. The metal’s warm under my hands, as if whatever’s on the other side was heating up the metal.
Lefty-loosey, righty-tighty. I turned the wheel left and the heavy door swung open smoothly.
And I let the cats out.
25 - Foolhardy
Cats with spots like leopards, but not as big. And they don’t look like pets. They’re lean and hungry looking, sharp ears angling back, teeth gleaming in the dark. They ignored me and headed for the two guys down the hall. Six cats, loping along as a team, hunting.
I heard the guys yelling at me, anger that then pitched higher into fear, and then the thudding of footsteps running. I was already over the threshold and swinging the heavy door closed, turning the wheel on the inside to seal the bad guys and cats outside.
When I turned around, I was standing in a jungle.
This felt—and smelled and looked—so familiar. Strange birds trumpeting in the trees above me, strange, but it’s as if I had heard them before. As if I had been there before.
With my mother.
The ground was soft under my shoes, but that was only for the first ten steps. Then it turned to concrete. The world shifted to the changes in my thoughts. I thought of Japan, an old memory that I didn’t think was real—maybe something from a movie. Didn’t matter. I was walking through Shinjuku station, crowded with people, guys in suits with somewhere to go.
Do I? Have somewhere to go?
I stepped around a group of boys and girls in school uniforms, toward the bright train schedule, looking for the express to Odawara—or maybe it’s a stop on the Odawara Line? I have no idea what I’m looking for or why.
And I never found out. New memories moved around in my head and I thought of the ocean goddess stepping out of the water and wandering around Diosemia’s yacht as if she owned it, as if all the oceans were hers...or if she is the ocean? It could be she had chosen to take that woman’s form in her blue gown to move among us.
Then I was crying, curled up against cabinets in a kitchen, blood running down my arms and memories in my head that weren’t mine. Sweet sugar in the air and bright industrial lighting shining off stainless steel.
“This isn’t my world,” I whispered and looked down at the blood stains up my white chef’s jacket and the knife in my hand.
“What have I done?” The world turned cold and before all the words left my lips, I was floating in the middle of the ocean and it was laid out in front of me like a piano’s keyboard.
All I had to do was reach into the cold saltwater and play the music.
“Why would I play music?”
My voice sounded different, but I suddenly knew the answer: Because I wanted to speak to the ocean.
The questions were piling up. Before the first one reached out to be asked, I became someone else. Someone who can talk to oceans apparently.
You might think Oceans were big lumbering things, slow to act and speak. You’d be wrong.
Ocean didn’t mince words. I asked her why she chose me and she said she needed someone with the right mind. That, and she needed a storyteller. She wanted the words read aloud and I had a beautiful speaking voice with fingers to match.
I looked at my hands—hands that weren’t mine. The hands of a character in my own story. And it was clear I had so much to learn and a world of stories to step into.
I slid the razor into seawater, into the newspaper, straight soft squares of recycled gray going transparent, columns of black print stinging bright just under the ocean surface. The old paper rolled into a tube and fell into deeper sea. My fingers followed the article down, cold rings of water up my arms, my skin painted in tiger-camo linescars from a thousand razorblades, from my life of soft feather slippers on hospital floors and the long flight of some unipolar depressive disorder the doctors kept switching on me to stay one cut ahead.
I tossed my cares into the sea. They hadn’t found me yet and I knew the ocean by her name, tapping on the surface in her language of pressure fluctuations and her words of longwave-borne spectral shapes. She had taught me to listen and not be fooled by the calm beneath her surface. Tides a thousand kilometers and a half a day long were her heartbeat, reaching to her floor—nine kilometers down—with a rhythm of long wave pressure pulses. The tides were proof of her life and health, but no more readable than a man’s heartbeat.
The technique was to ride them down with capillary waves.
You need two restless hands to speak to the ocean and four fingers and a thumb on each is barely enough to keep up with her. The sea is calming a hundred meters under a hurricane. But longwave pressure signals decay slowly and if she’s listening, they have the power to reach as deep as she goes.
It’s like playing the piano with each hand working a different piece of music at the same time—and with the medium through which sound travels playing a conductive, blending, and enhanced sound carrier role. We spoke to each other. I sent her my words in the tapping of my fingers. She unraveled them in the deep, heard my signal out of the noise of the tides, surf, and the disturbance of every gust of wind across her surface.
She listened when my fingers talked in the water.
“They just didn’t want to be cut. It’s a fear with deep roots in humans, roots as deep as you, my friend,” I said.
“Want to be cut? It’s in the news article I just sent below, an old one off the AP feed. The Tutsi in Rwanda. Their killers made them buy the bullets that were going to be used to slaughter them in order to avoid being hacked up and left to bleed. That was their awful choice. To a human, just about any way is better than a blade—you’d buy the bullets that will kill you if that’s what it takes. It doesn’t get any more human than that. They just didn’t want to get cut.”
Then why do you?
I held out my arms so she could see them, my skin crossed with scars, gluey pink against pale brown and a field of freckles. “Because when I’m not with you, I don’t know if I am human.” The small swells my fingers had made closed in a brush of surface tensile forces. I dipped in again. “I need to convince myself that I still have a heartbeat and it’s the only way I trust.”
The ocean sighed, spread the space between the next nine crests, even sent a cheery swirl of foam my way, lapping over the waist ring of floats.
I will teach you another.
“Another? This is my fourteenth successful escape. I’m communicating with an ocean—with my fingers.”
Soon, you will not have to speak your words aloud.
“You’ve taught me so much already. Every time they catch me, it’s the same. I spend all my time plotting to come back to you.”
You are restless.
“Not here. I escape to here.”
How well do you play the piano?
“Quite well. There’s an old Grand with a sour low C in the hospital’s music room.”
And you avoid playing it?
“The sour low C? I try to include it at least once into everything I play.”
She’s an organism, a single beautiful fluid organism over one and a third billion cubic kilometers in volume, and she spreads over our planet, fills the channels between mountain ranges; she drives so much of the change and weather and life on our world.
And they don’t realize she can leave any time she wishes.
Exposed to the sun and air above my floats and stolen thermsuit, she could see I was getting a bit dry, so she sent a burst of rain-heavy clouds my way. I welcomed the water with an open mouth, swallowing in spasms and laughing and closing my eyes, a temporary peace.
I noticed the blood and pain only after I had cut a fresh series of lines up my left arm, my life leaking in spidery red, a filmy orange tint against the razor steel. My fingers shook and I swallowed the last of the rain in my mouth.
Then I was drifting in the blood loss chill, an ocean of memories, and I followed a strong current back to the days when I had promise, a future, the taste of sugar in the air...
And no dripping, no sticky mess.
So many problems can be solved with overnight refrigeration. The trick was to roll it all up in a big sheet of wax paper—use several if you need to. Fold in the ends so nothing leaks out. Stick it in your fridge for twelve hours. You want it nice and stiff, easy to carve up.
I like to use a long serrated bread knife for cutting. Chilled, the blade goes through the hard stuff with a tempting little thunk, glides through the rest like butter, and a bread knife turns out beautiful half-inch rounds that won’t ooze all over the place. Clean. Easy to place.
Now bake them at 375°F for ten or eleven minutes. Best damn oatmeal chocolate chip cookies you’ll find anywhere. So many great cookie recipes out there—the secret’s in the refrigeration and the knives. I’m talking butcher, paring, carving, fillet, not throwing, whittling, hunting. This isn’t a circus or sport. And I don’t need to tell you there’s more power in an old square butcher knife then in all the pots and pans hanging from the rack.
Rule one. You got to get yourself a good set of sharp knives.
The ocean stirred in my fingertips, more questions from her.
You were a chef?
“A baker. Up early, cakes, cookies, a sweet life...until the dreams.”
“You know I never get a good look at him? It’s always night, the guy grabs me and says, ‘Did you know the quiet way to kill someone intimately is to go through the back, low into a kidney? Everyone thinks you cut the throat. Is that what you think, dreamer?’ I nod and he laughs and pushes the knife into my back, through my skin, into my organs. He says in my ear, ‘You’re watching too many movies. Go for the throat and you’re just as likely to cut off your own fingers or have the victim bite them off in the struggle. Makes too much noise, the throat. You get them with a jab of paralysis when it’s through the back and kidney.’ And I can’t move, pinned like an insect. My mouth opens, but I’m...quiet.”
Drowning’s nice. Very quiet way to go. It’s certainly an intimate experience for me.
My fingers shake and I slide the razor down my right forearm, an involuntary hiss through my teeth at the sting. The seawater on my skin breathes fire into my new cut.
Perhaps it is time for your medication?
“I’m not on any medica—wait. Am I?” I laughed, couldn’t help it, and opened my hands, spread my fingers—couldn’t help that either, some conditioned process from the hospital, show them you weren’t hiding anything. Damn, my last blade slid out of my fingers into the sea, flipped end over end, blinking at me into the dark, lost forever.
My meds. They’re here in one of the pockets. The only get-up I could find after the escape, a tac-response thermo uniform with enough pockets to carry my own body weight. It even came with a beret, but I’ll die before you catch me with one of those on my head. A beret’s one of those pieces of headwear that has to be worn correctly or not at all.
I unsnapped pockets, three across my stomach, one high on my chest with a hard plastic cylinder and a child safety cap. The cap spun off at a wish and I dry swallowed two tiny bright orange tabs, spun the top back on, and shoved the thing into the pocket. Funny, I don’t remember them being bright orange.
“Thank you for the reminder.”
Don’t mention it.
“They fired me for the dreams and the red stains up the sleeves, along the stiff collar of my jacket, fired me for my behavior. Shoved me off my station, out the door of my very own Index7 restaurant, thirty-one tables, new kitchen remod down on 59th in Midtown. People used to walk from the 100s for a Brioche aux Sucre. I was a third partner and they called in the doctors and the lawyers and they took everything from me.”
And now I can’t own property. Somehow that makes me someone else’s.
“I’m a ward of the state or maybe my grandmother owns me like a piece of property. I can’t remember which. Either way, I am a prisoner in a body that is no longer mine. So I must cut to see if it will bleed, to feel if the heart still beats, to see if it remains human.”
You have nothing?
“I have you, my watery friend, and nothing else that I can remember. I think I had many things once. A girlfriend with a name that starts with the letter “T,” a best friend with a motorcycle. I’ve lost it all.”
Can I give you something?
I pulled my hands from the waves, startled, and then laughed and put them back in, fingering the question, “What can an ocean give me?”
I am an old ocean. I have accumulated many prizes and gifts.
“What, like wrecked ships? The Titanic? What can you offer me that I would be able to keep—that I would need?”
I laughed, waved at the horizon, and paddled in a circle, the thermsuit crinkling protectively around my waist. “But I am free. See? My fourteenth time out to visit you. All they can do is catch me...again.”
Even as I said it, I watched the Coast Guard scrambler, an elongated orange smear in the sky—orange like one of the pills I had just taken. It roared up, hovering to a stop above me, a black cavern door opening with the glitter reels of rescue lines.
I dropped my hands in the ocean in time to hear her.
I will want one gift from you. Something in return.
“I have so few things. For you, anything. Name it. It is yours.”
I want your restlessness.
And she took it from me just like that—just before the cables snapped up my suit and yanked me out of the water.
I curled over the ring of floats, shouted down at her. “What do I do now?”
She danced, delighted by our deal, tossed a wave into the air, and wet-slapped my hand with the words, You have the keys.
Piano keys or door keys?
I was back at the hospital in two hours. The Coast Guard crew was nice, passing around bags of chocolate chip cookies and packaged cheddar cheese spread and crackers. I pocketed the plastic knife.
We landed smoothly and the doctors and orderlies came out to get me with a chair and cable ties.
I held up my hands and wished I had thought to pack a damn wallet, anyone’s wallet with pictures of their kids. I checked my wrist, bands of scarring and bare of timepieces. When was it, World War One? When they surrendered, they came before the enemy holding up photographs of their children, their mothers, they held out their watches, some pulled the fillings from their teeth, anything of value, anything to catch a fleeting wave of mercy, anything to hold off the slaughter.
The doctor patted the seat of the chair like I’m a dog. Come on, sit your butt down right here, boy.
And they locked me away with my dreams of paralyzing kidney wounds and the silence of the deep ocean. And all my stories.
And time slipped by, forgetting me.
A long time and the world changed around me.
I heard them talking about it, but I couldn’t do anything. They have me jacked to the sky on something to keep me from harming myself. I can taste their fear and it tastes like lemons picked too soon and burnt toast, clingy, full of mistakes that can’t be scraped away. They whispered about the “disaster” as if they’re talking about trains derailing, spilling noxious chemicals, and not the loss of the significant characteristic of our planet.
Overnight catastrophic climate change, vanishing shorelines, and then...nothing. I hear nothing.
The meds wore off eventually. I pulled the IV. The bags of saline were empty on the chrome tree above me and I was weak and alone in a desert world.
My eyes had really dried shut. I had to pull them open, tearing away half my lashes. Lips sticking to my teeth, no moisture in my mouth, and a shuffling sensation across my body—my skin flaking off in sheets. I’d give a couple fingers for a damn glass of water right now and then I remembered I’ll need them, all my fingers and thumbs just to keep up.
It didn’t take me long to feel the emptiness of the world.
The earth was dead because the ocean had left her home, down some wormhole drain on the long flight to another planet with a large enough moon to fit her mood and heartbeat. I grabbed the bedrail and stood up, worried about the weakness in my bones. But only for a second.
My door was unlocked—how kind of them to leave me a way out. I slippered down the hall filled with dead carts, dead food trays, and plain pale dead with stiff claw fingers, past the empty admin station, to the music room.
At the door, I nodded to the old piano in the center. It certainly looked welcoming.
I sat down and when my fingers touched the keys, I felt the ocean inside me break through, turn every part of me to liquid, and I spread over the dry earth in billion liter a second waterfalls, washing away the past.
Steam rose miles into the atmosphere. I stretched and flexed my muscles and my warm currents circled the great basins that once held the Atlantic, the Pacific, Arctic, Indian, the Southern.
I was free and so was she.
And I was not so restless. Whenever I wanted to, I could feel the lunar pull, the tides, my new heartbeat. I had become the ocean on this world.
Someone slapped me.
I got to my feet, trying to figure out where I was. I remembered the cats and closing myself behind the door with the wheel. Then I made a deal with the ocean and killed everyone in the world.
I blinked and tried to focus. There were a bunch of guys in green berets and then I saw my grandmother’s angry face.
Diosemia held me by the shoulders, her fingers digging into my shirt. Sweat was running into my eyes, stinging, and I twisted to break her hold on me so I could wipe them.
“What’s happening to me?”
“You are becoming what you were always meant to be.”
“What was that?” I waved around the room, not sure what I was pointing at.
“Just a story, Andin. You told a story.”
I shook my head. “No. It was real. It felt so real. The world was a desert. I was...someone else. Other people. I destroyed everything, let the world die.”
I didn’t tell a story. I was the story.
“Praise all that is good that you were in here and not outside. In the world.”
I didn’t understand one word of that.
My grandmother looked at me, a seriously deep stare into my eyes, trying to pry any of the thoughts I didn’t have nailed down out of my head. I closed my eyes, turned away from her. “That couldn’t have been a dream.”
“Tell me what happened? Tell me what I just did?”
Diosemia kept her voice quiet, waving me toward the open door—the one like a hatch on a submarine. She took my elbow and led me into the hall. “It’s something your mother should have taught you about. But she failed you. She abandoned you and I’m the one who’s going to take care of you.”
That didn’t seem right. I felt a stir of anger, but I could find anything to hang it on, so I let it drift away.
My grandmother turned the hatch wheel closed behind us and led me back to the party.
Back to the familiar.
Okay, I remembered all of this—drinking, laughing, and music. Hundreds of people in the ballroom on Diosemia’s ship. There was an open space at the bar waiting for us. By the time I was through my second glass of wine, everything that had happened seemed like a silly dream.
Talking to oceans and turning the world into a barren hunk of rock? Ridiculous.
One of the servants stepped up beside my grandmother with a small folded piece of paper on a tray. She took it, read it, frowned, and returned it to the tray.
Then she was smiling gaily, waving over the bitch sisters, Zala and Klio. “Dance, Andin. Dance the night away.”
Sounded like the title of a cheesy song, but I put my glass down and headed for the floor. It suddenly felt like a good idea.
For a while.
Hours later, with the party starting to wind down, the stories crept back into my head, nagging me. As if they were telling me I needed to be somewhere important. I didn’t know where, but I knew it wasn’t here on this crazy ship.
“Better talk to grandmother,” I said the words aloud, but to myself.
I’m sure Diosemia will know where I’m supposed to be.
I approached my grandmother, sitting with some old friends and a couple new friends. The new ones looked like fresh human business opportunities to me, two couples in evening wear, dark suits and gowns. I stood back, listening to Diosemia going through her pitch:
“I’m always hungry. That’s what makes me a good investor. I have an infinite hunger and infinite patience. I’ve lived long enough to see both work for me. It pays to feed the hunger, but just enough.”
It was weird that my grandmother looked older tonight, too, as if she had shifted the way she looked to make the right impression, a businesswoman who was experienced, someone who had been in business for decades and had amassed a fortune she felt like spreading around.
She looked the part.
She brought in her personal helicopter to take her business guests home and, once out of earshot, she brought her wineglass up and I heard her say, “And it pays to help you humans vanish if I have to.”
I took a seat and listened while my grandmother talked with her cronies about what a hassle it was to deal with aging and what time did to everyone, then the talk turned to struggles with rival families—apparently many more out there than Eknephias and his band.
Around four in the morning, it was just me and Diosemia sitting there, still sipping whatever they were serving, and she was slurring words, talking about weird things like roots and worlds and her childhood.
“What was my childhood like?” She waved her glass around. “I don’t know. I don’t remember it well. My mother was a Physician who killed and devoured her Welldweller partner and from her I get the ability to shift.” We locked eyes over her glass of wine. “Shifting means I can change my appearance—but it does take some work.”
Which I took to mean, she had to kill babies or bathe in blood or do something equally unwholesome.
“Then she met my father and made her plans to expand her power in the Rootworld.”
I had no idea what that meant, but I didn’t ask for an explanation, just looked at her intently.
“My father was a Teller—like you Andin, one of the so called Children of the Sun. He brought me to this world, told the story that made a door in the Wrollnest, a hundred mile tunnel through the Winterdim, and then here, into the Dawnworld. My mother cut off most of his mouth, lips gone, teeth exposed, most of this tongue, and eventually cut his throat and let him bleed out for taking me away from her. The Rootworld is so different from this world. You wouldn’t understand it even if I could describe it to you. Doesn’t matter. This is where I became me. This is where everything’s going to happen. This is where I’m anchoring my position for control.”
She quieted down for a minute, but her thoughts were still raging behind her eyes. I could see it. Then she turned them on me—made me edge deeper into my seat.
“The worst mistake of my long life was to want a daughter. Without a doubt, Synnepheia was the stupidest thing I have ever done. The greatest thing and the worst thing. She was too limited to understand that I am not alone in wanting a significant piece of this world, too young to see her purpose and serve it. Synnepheia was a waste of my blood and power. She has brought me nothing but pain and war. She is clever, I will give her that, and underhanded, but she is an enemy—a well-regarded enemy. I had high hopes for her, but she failed me. My hopes are not so high now. There is enough left in me to give her one chance to twist her troubles to my advantage. Again, not high hopes for that, but it’s possible.”
I watched her, cold fear crawling up my insides, and Diosemia took another sip and continued rambling, her voice dipping, sometimes right to the border of sobbing.
“But all in all, I would call myself happy. Most of the time I am content. I’ve set so much of this world in motion. I spend most of my thought maintaining that motion and bringing in new talent—some of it going into my Operation—all of my companies, holdings, ventures.”
She waved airily. “I eat the rest—well, some of them.”
Diosemia went quiet and thoughtful for fifteen minutes, staring up at the stars, mumbling a few words in a language I couldn’t understand. Then, looking straight at me, she sobered up in an instant, and said, “As I was saying earlier, I’m always hungry. However, I don’t always eat. That is important. I feed on the voices of my hunters and gain their allegiance, on the thoughts of my scholars, on the youth of the children of my slaves. And I intend to take your voice, Andin, your artistic telling powers, and I may even allow you to live to become the role meant for you: the fool at my parties.” She rubbed her eyes. “We’ll discuss your future here with me tomorrow when I don’t have such a damn headache.”
My hands were shaking. They felt warm, sticky and wet against each other, but the fluid was too thick to be spilled wine. I looked down to see I had shattered my wineglass in my fingers, cutting a not so neat open slice up the inside of my right palm, blood running freely from a deep puncture in the meaty part of my thumb, falling through my fingers to the floor.
And all the memories of my life before Diosemia’s boat ride surfaced. They washed through me, all the drive, all the caring this monster had stolen from me.
Several days with my grandmother from hell and I had completely forgotten who I was, why I was here, who I cared for, and who I owed for being alive. Everything I had done in the last few days came back to me and I nearly vomited up whatever crap hors d’oeuvres and wine I had consumed in the last couple hours.
I thought of Taryn, alone in a hospital bed, her brilliance dulled by spending time with Diosemia. And it was my fault, the guilt hanging heavily around my neck. I thought of Itoshi giving himself up to the authorities in order to give me time to get out and do the things I needed to do. I thought of Diosemia covering over the memories of my own mother.
And I was angry.
Keeping my voice low, I said the first story that came into my head, weaving in some of the lies I had been fed over the last few days. “Grandmother, you have been so kind to shelter me from Eknephias the last two years, but it’s time I struck out on my own. I know your giant yacht is having engine trouble and won’t be able to move from its anchor for a week and with the storm coming, your helicopter’s grounded, but I’m going to take my submarine and head for San Francisco.”
I looked up, met my grandmother’s eyes, and said, “This fool at your party wants his mother back now. Send your servants to bring her here.”
There was a hint of fear in Diosemia’s face, a moment of understanding—that I didn’t need pencils and paper to make stories, to change reality in her head. Then she was part of my story and there was suddenly no other world than the one I was creating with my words. I told her that she trusted me with all her power, with every detail of her “operations,” and that the crew took orders from me as if they had come from her. And how wonderful she had been to take care of my mother.
Of course, I wasn’t going to San Fran. I was going right for the nearest beach, then back to Monterey, to see what I could do to spring Itoshi, to protect Taryn, to get my mother away from this hell.
“I said, NOW.”
Diosemia waved over someone and gave them orders. She set her glass down and seemed to be waiting for something. My thoughts jumped right to countermeasures, some way of preparing for a change in the story, and a way out—just like the story in my blood. I couldn’t imagine she didn’t have similar open doors and tricks in place. She was experienced. Some sort of wall or shield would come up and stop me.
I stood up. I needed to get out of here. My hand hurt like hell. I wiped off fresh blood on my pants.
“Have them bring my mother straight to the sub. We’ll leave from the debark platform.” I let her give the change in orders. “One more question I need answered. What have you done with Aerizo?”
26 - Open Water
My new thread of story didn’t hold Diosemia more than fifteen minutes and she immediately countered the ideas about engine trouble and weather I had put into the tale. The ship was raising anchor before Zekey’s recharged sub was thirty yards off the port side. I could hear the chain thumping rhythmically and the low rumble of engines in the water. I’m sure the helicopter was also powering up for a search.
Then there were the dozens of hunters on board, winged predators trained to find Diosemia’s enemies. I thought how easily we’d been found in Morro Bay and Aerizo’s words came back to me. I hunt people like you.
“I’m going to need to do some serious storytelling to get out of this. Sorry, mom.”
Whatever I was about to do to change things would come at the price of some amount off my mother’s health or life. Like drawing money from a bank, dimes and pennies taking away minutes and weeks and years off her life.
Nudging the “dive” side of the block a little more, I drove the sub deeper into the Bay, keeping an eye on the PSI gauge.
My mother was still in her pricey blue embroidered blanket curled along the hull at my feet, sound asleep or comatose, head rolling away from me with the descent.
I eased back on the dive/ascend block and tried not to think about breathing. There was nothing inside the sub to scrub the air and remove the building CO2. I had made it all the way out to the rendezvous on one cabin full of air, but it had been getting pretty thin inside before I surfaced and opened the hatch to let in fresh air.
Now there were two of us.
Also, I had to figure the heading for SF part of my story wasn’t going to fly either. They knew I would be heading right back to the nearest coast I could find. That would Santa Cruz—exactly where I was going.
“To hell with the air.”
In the dark, my own words sounded like someone else...and they sounded scared.
I turned the wheel right for ten seconds, hoping I was turning the sub south, away from Santa Cruz. A lot of water out here. If I wasn’t where they expected me to be, maybe I could surface, open the hatch, grab enough air, and submerge?
Half an hour of submerged boating and it was starting to get stuffy inside. Smelled better than on the way out; Diosemia’s crew did a great job of cleaning things up. Using my phone as a light, I found the battery gauge behind my seat, reading .77, which I took to mean 77% charged.
So, power wasn’t the problem. Breathing was.
I nudged the Tarynado a little higher in the water, skimming the surface, a rush of bubbles against the curve of plastic window.
I waited a few minutes to get a reading by GPS and then a few more to see if I could tell my direction. Not far enough west. My ten second guess with steering in the dark had lined me up with Sand City.
I set the phone down on my leg, face up, holding the steering wheel steady with my knee. The plan was to turn the Tarynado while keeping speed, watching my progress on the map. That way I could line up with some point west of the Monterey headland, toward open ocean, dive for a while and drive straight. Then surface, get another bearing, and find out when I could take a left and head south down the coast toward Carmel and Point Lobos.
That left the breathing problem to tackle.
Looking below the steering “console” at the sub’s bow, my mother had curled up where the hull curved toward itself on all sides, toward the pointed tip. The stuffiness level had risen since I had last thought about it, and I reached up for the first of a ring of T bolts holding the hatch closed.
I felt something wrong a moment before it happened, a sharp twist inside me, a stab of pain that was almost a taste in my mouth. Or maybe it was both.
There was a splash of water and thudding as someone landed on the sub. A hunter. Had to be. Who else—or what else—could spot me this far out in the water and come in for the kill so quickly?
Another thump as if the hunter had hit the outside of the hatch with a fist.
He didn’t sound angry. “Open up, Andin Teller, and I won’t kill you.”
“Oh, yeah, just empty my head of everything useful and take away my friends. I don’t think so, shithead.” I felt the stir of rage and raw power inside me and I dipped into it, let it flow into my voice. “You haven’t seen a thing out here in the Bay. You fly off and don’t look back because there’s nothing out here. The sub’s gone to Maui or Seattle. Only an idiot would think the sub is still somewhere near Monterey.”
The Tarynado shook, jumped in the water as if a heavy weight had been lifted off it, and without another word, the hunter was in the air.
I held my breath, trying to listen for wing beats or any other sign of him.
He landed hard a minute later, laughing this time. “Maui is three thousand miles away, Andin Teller. Who would believe something so crazy?”
He added, “I cannot be turned that easily,” just as I remembered Aerizo’s description of hunters as monsters who couldn’t be fooled without extraordinary effort, who could see through spells and tricks, who could hunt anything anywhere in any conditions.
I needed Aerizo if I really wanted to get rid of this guy permanently.
“Doesn’t have to be permanent,” I said aloud. “I just need him off my back for an hour.”
“Open up or I will sink your submarine with you inside it.” His voice came back loud and clear through the metal hull.
I had one hand tight around a T bolt, scowling at the hatch, the word “How?” high in my thoughts, when gunfire ripped away my hearing, an explosion of noise that left my ears ringing and two small holes in the hull.
A blast of cold seawater hit me in the chest, took my breath—just sucked it right out of my lungs. One of the holes was a foot from my mother’s head, jetting water. The other was just up from the hatch on the right side. The gun was so loud; it could have been one shot, entry and exit wound in the good boat Tarynado.
Somehow I had the presence or just dumb luck and frightened motion to jam the “dive” block forward, sending the boat nose first into the deeps. There was another gunshot and a snapping metal noise. Then wings thumping to get altitude and seven or eight more sharp bangs of the hunter’s gun before I was headed for death in a punctured sub.
The ocean roared through the tiny bullet holes, the salt blinding me.
My mother was sloshing around in water—no blood in the water, so the hunter hadn’t hit us. I was so cold, my teeth were clicking together. My phone was somewhere by my feet, casting a ghostly glow in the cabin. I was thinking watercolors, need to paint the gunshot holes closed and bail out the water, but I had lost my paints and brushes. I even spent what felt like five minutes trying to remember when I had last had my watercolor tablet and paint.
My feet were cold and the chill against my skin slapped some sense into me. I reached into that pool of power inside, grabbed a handful of it, and sealed the Tarynado’s hull from the hungry ocean.
Yanking the dive block back to level off the descent, I lifted my phone out of a foot of water—still worked though. The whole sub shook and wobbled, unbalanced with the weight of trapped ocean rolling up and back along the hull. My mother, half floating in the bilge water, sloshed against my legs, the blue blanket coiling around my ankles.
I still had a handful of power, enough to bend people’s lives, twist the direction of history, enough to remove a thousand memories from the minds of a thousand people.
And I used it to bail the water out of my submarine.
Then it was quiet and dark. I was freezing.
And I was having trouble breathing.
My mother made a noise, a groan like someone with a minor annoyance to take care of.
She wasn’t awake and showed no sign of hearing me. Maybe dreaming. Then she lashed out, swung a fist that clipped my right knee, and it felt like bones breaking. I banged my head into the steering wheel, breathing harder. Maybe she was dreaming of what was happening five minutes too late—and then reacting.
I held back the pain, as much as I could, and turned the Tarynado hard to starboard. I’d need to get away from my last position—far away from it—if I was going to surface again and get some air.
Then again, I might just pass out with a steady westward heading and they would find us a week from now washed up on the beaches of Maui, having suffocated to death. We’d make a strange news story.
For some crazy reason, that didn’t sound too bad.
27 - Gathering Friends
Then it hit me, an idea as sharp as my mother’s blind strike to the knee, which was still throbbing fifteen minutes later.
Why in any hell was I choosing to remain a sitting duck in this submarine, running out of air to breathe, with loose-gun hunters and my voice-eating grandmother casting a wide search net over the whole bay when I could just tell our way out of here?
I didn’t like the slippery insanity feeling when the world shifted too hard, but any risk was worth getting out of this.
I looked down at my mother, grabbed her under the elbows, and dragged her higher against the wall of the sub. “Let’s give them that news story, minus the suffocation victims.”
I kept the steering wheel straight, took my mother’s hand—ice cold fingers curled with mine—and I thought of the wind-twisted pines and cypress trees along the trails on Point Lobos.
I pulled in a deep breath and smelled the salt in the air, heard the distant echo of a tide going out. The wind pushed at my back, almost knocked me over, a wind made of cold night air, of oceans and damp forest floors, pine needle rot and dirt.
The brush was in my hand, my favorite number 6, a sharp tip with green so dark it was almost black, but it was all in my head, an imagined painting. Every stroke of the brush felt real and I felt the same shift in the world, as if things at an atomic scale were misaligned. A sharp snap and everything slipped together smoothly, a sharpness in the jagged silhouette of trees against the night sky. Pines and cypress trees twisting in the gusting salt air off the Pacific.
It smelled good.
I opened my eyes and I was standing just off the foot path in Point Lobos, near the edge of a sea cliff, one wall of a giant cut into the land, and a great view—during the day—across the water to the other side. I had stood right here two years ago with Taryn, both of us coming down to the park on the BHDT senior citizens bus—one of the many perks of knowing Mrs. Rydell. You had to put up with some sales and propaganda shit from the driver, but the passengers were usually cool, mostly sixties and up—talk about people who’ve seen a lot and could tell stories. Real stories. And BHDT had stacks of info sheets they handed out every time you got on the bus, a losing battle to make it clear that the non-profit company name stood for the founders, Brad Hernandez and Dana Thompson, and not, as everyone said, Blue Haired Day Trippers.
My mother’s hand slipped from mine and she eased back on the bed of pine needles.
She was shivering in the wet blue blanket, teeth clattering together. I just stared at her for a minute. My mother was back, still fast asleep or drugged, but she was back.
She didn’t look older or beaten or in any way affected by my use—or abuse—of power. What was it doing, then? Could I trust Tarasso and his “saving my mother” story any more than I could trust Diosemia and hers? I felt Itoshi’s influence in my head, telling me to dig a little deeper into the problem.
“They’re both liars!” I shouted the words to the empty night. “Digging deeper isn’t going to reveal anything.”
My grandmother, definitely. Couldn’t trust her as far you could throw her uphill. At least Tarasso had seemed sincere, honorable. And he had said a lot more than just, “I’m here to save your mother.” He had told a story, a long story, about beings from other worlds who had travelled here to wait for the inhabitants—humans—to leave. To inherit it from the current owners, sort of. Why would he tell us that? Whose side is he really on?
Tarasso had cautioned me about telling stories—in words or with paint—because it drew against stores of power from my mother and grandmother. I felt that lump of something raw and unformed, that energy inside me waiting to be let out. Was that the power? Was it shared—like a bank account? Could my grandmother feel it when I used it, just like she would know immediately, through reports or alerts, when someone had drawn money from an account?
Would she know where that power was being used? Or how?
The wind in the trees suddenly scared me.
I look down and grabbed my mother’s hand. “Sorry, mom, I’m going to have to risk more to get us the hell out of here.”
Then we were standing in a hospital room at Monterey Community, the neuro-disorder wing where Taryn was currently being monitored.
A woman’s voice.
I turned, startled, and there was Mrs. Rydell, sitting in a chair next to Taryn’s bed, looking at me over an old Asimov’s.
“Uh...oh...” I stammered some more, made some swallowing noises, and finally pulled it together enough to say, “Hello, Mrs. Rydell. How’s Taryn?”
She closed the magazine, set it down on a table next to her, and looked at her charge, then a quick sour glance out the door. “She’s different. Doctors don’t believe me, but a couple days ago she smiled, sighed deeply, and she’s seemed happier since. More relaxed.” She shrugged, pulling a blue hospital blanket closer. “Could be wishful thinking on my part.”
“No, I think you’re right.” I was nodding vigorously, noticing the change on Taryn’s face. Then looking down at my mother. “Can you help me?”
Mrs. Rydell was on her feet, the blanket curling across the shiny tiled floor. “You’re soaked.” She glanced at the door, the shift in the world’s story catching up to her, and I could see what she was thinking right on her face. She hadn’t seen me walk into the room—I’d just appeared, standing on the other side of Taryn’s bed, seawater from a sinking submarine with bullet holes in the hull bleeding darker blue up my shirt.
“You must be freezing.”
I was shaking, but it wasn’t the temperature. “No. Can you help me with my mom?”
When she made her way around the end of the bed, both her hands went to her wide open mouth.
“Don’t call the nurses. Just help me get her on that couch.”
Cutting her off with a gesture to my mom’s bare feet, we lifted her to the couch—actually more like a really wide chair. My mom’s knees bent over one side, her head resting against the cushioned arm on the other. She didn’t look comfortable, but at least she was free.
Mrs. Rydell pulled off the wet blanket from Diosemia’s ship and replaced it with her own blanket, then brought an extra pillow from Taryn’s bed to tuck under my mom’s head.
“Can you stay here with them?”
Mrs. Rydell nodded back through obvious concern, holding up one finger like teacher about to reprimand a student.
I cut her off again. “Please don’t call anyone or tell the nurses anything about my mom. I need to go and do a few things, then I’ll be back to take care of business.” Yeah, that was vague enough.
“Only if you tell me something about what’s going on, Andin. Are you in trouble?”
I nodded, bringing my voice down to a whisper, and leaning toward her. “You could say that. What do you know about my mother’s family?”
An immediate scowl. “Not much. Just that she doesn’t get along with her mother and I think her father’s...out of the picture. And I was pretty sure Emily didn’t have family in San Francisco...until you told me she did.”
We locked eyes for a minute—maybe longer—a lot going through my head, questions about how much I can trust her, how much she needed to know, how much knowing would put her in danger from my monster grandmother.
“Okay...there isn’t a word for how understated ‘doesn’t get along with her mother’ really is. Let’s just say, my grandmother is cruel and very powerful and has been trying to track down my mother for years...so that she can kill her. Or worse. I just rescued my mom, but they’re looking for us.” I was shaking and tried locking it down by making my fists tighter. “So, please don’t tell anyone about this. You should also know you’re in serious danger just by being near us.”
Mrs. Rydell was nodding, the scowl deepening on her face, chewing her lip thoughtfully. “Fine. How long will you be gone?”
Looking over my shoulder at the morning light coming through the curtains, I said, “I need to talk to the police about guns, then set someone free and rearrange an afternoon several days ago. I should be back here in a couple hours.”
Mrs. Rydell was clearly used to Taryn’s cryptic statements because she just asked, “Then what?”
“I think we need to move them both to some place safe.”
They were waiting for me when I stepped off the curb in front of the hospital, two police officers in black uniforms in a black patrol car with vivid blue stripes, big front bumper guards, light vehicle armor, and “Monterey Police” painted on the doors.
There were no double-takes, no wondering stares, no consulting crime logs, or the console screens. They knew it was me—the mad Cannery Row bomber—the moment we saw each other. A second later they were out of their seats, guns drawn, shouting for me to eat the pavement.
I didn’t hesitate. Any other reaction that might have been sprouting in my head cleared out or died, twisting thoughts that drifted off like ash in a breeze. I kept my hands in the air, kneeling as softly as I could on the asphalt, bending, dropping to my elbows hard, little sharp rocks cutting into my arms.
I looked up once more before diving for the street. Two cops, one clearly an older senior officer with a neatly trimmed graying cop-stache and a deep R&B voice, the other a younger officer—but no rookie—in a black uniform as crisp as new money.
The younger one was cuffing me, kneeling on my back, while Officer Seniority looked like he was a breath away from taking off my head with his semi-automatic.
“You have the right to remain silent...”
Yeah, yeah, but can I tell you a story?
We were half a block from the hospital before I had the handcuffs off, but I kept my hands behind my back. No reason to give the ending away at the beginning. The story was just starting. I was leaning into the metal grating between the back and front seats and had three words out of my mouth, “You know, guys...” when the older cop lost his head and ran our armored bumper-guarded police vehicle into a row of parked cars, sheering off mirrors, smashing glass, and finally grinding to a halt.
Most of his head. The rest was all over the younger officer, who was already looking over at the shattered driver’s side window, thumbing off the safety on his gun, his free hand wiping blood and other stuff off his face and throat.
The second shot to the vehicle went through the passenger side window, took him in the back of the head. Another shot, this one lower, went through his spine, opened up his uniform, his chest under it, and the windshield went opaque, the whole dash dripping red.
I couldn’t breathe. I may have been stuttering something, trying to scream. I don’t know. I just knew I had to get out of the car. Blood in my hair, a sprinkle of it across my face, felt it dripping under my collar.
I looked for a door handle, then kicked the panels, but there wasn’t anything that would allow perps to open the doors.
Thankfully, the cop killers felt obliged to get me out of the car.
Bright California sun cut into the dark interior as someone opened the rear driver’s side door. They were dressed all in blue with long blue overcoats and they didn’t look as if they were going to give me anything friendlier than what they had just given two of Monterey’s finest.
Two of them, with a third standing behind the guys with guns. One of them waved me out—with his gun, which wasn’t reassuring. A glance over my shoulder and it was clear there was only one way out of the vehicle. The passenger side was mashed up against an SUV with a couple snapped off mirrors from other cars wedged in between.
“Come out, Andin Teller. We just want to talk.”
I slid to the open door, wiped the blood off my face onto my shirt, and glanced at the two dead officers in the front seat. Talk? Wonder what happened when they just wanted to kill you.
I stepped out, nearly lost my footing when I put all my weight down, and grabbed the open car door. I was shaking, my clothes splattered with blood, and I was looking up into the cruel eyes of two of Eknephias’ hunters.
Neither of them had their guns on me. They held them in gloved hands, pointed at the street, waiting for me to catch my breath before parting to reveal Tarasso, the story hunter, behind them.
Tarasso wasn’t a short guy, about as tall as me, but he was completely hidden behind these two monsters with guns and long blue coats, about a head shorter than either of them.
“Mr. Teller, you have the boldest name. It just astonishes me that I never noticed it in my hunting. Again it shows how clever and powerful your mother is.” Tarasso waved a gloved hand. “Anyway. Not here to discuss her, but to clarify a point in our deal.”
I heard the words in my head, but it took a minute to get them out of my mouth. I was also gesturing at the shattered windows. But you just killed these guys!
The words finally came. “What deal?”
He looked disappointed. “Come now. You are going to give my lord Eknephias the same voice eating abilities as your grandmother. That deal.”
My brain was still foggy—maybe it was because someone else’s blood was dripping in my ear. Fingers shaking, I wiped it away with the back of my hand. “And what was I going to get in return?”
Over the police sirens in the distance, Tarasso smiled. “You get to avoid being part of the mess in the front seat, Andin Teller.”
I stepped away from the ruined police car, forced my back straight, and brought my hands out, palms up, indicating the two hunters. “And when these guys turn and point their guns at you?”
Without a pause, both killers in blue wheeled and had their guns aimed at Tarasso’s face.
The story hunter paused. He put his hands up slowly. “Then we negotiate.” He looked from the faces—and guns—of the two killers to me. “I mean we can just talk about it. No need for damage.”
I hooked my thumb over my shoulder. “Tell that to the officers in the car, what’s left of them, Mr. Story Hunter.”
He raised an eyebrow, clearly curious. “Why don’t you?”
I was getting angry, felt that thunder deep inside me wanting to get out. “Why don’t I what?”
A slow smile made its way onto Tarasso’s face. “Tell them.”
Hands still a little shaky, the smell of blood in the air, I reached out and touched the two hunters with guns. Pushed my fingers into their coats. “You will need your wings. You fly on home. Both of you. Eknephias needs you now. And I need to fix the last ten minutes.”
The two monsters turned slowly, synchronized movement, both sliding their guns into holsters under their overcoats, snapping things down tight before they walked away. Tarasso and I watched them cross the street, jump the curb, and head into an employee’s-only parking lot behind the hospital. They weren’t out of view more than a minute and both of them shot straight up into the blue, bullet-fast smears of dark blue. So fast that, if you hadn’t seen them walking, you might think they were some unusually large bird. California Condors maybe.
Tarasso looked back at me. “Well?”
“You still want to talk to me?”
He opened his gloved hands, jutted his chin towards the sky in the direction of his flying bodyguards. They were gone, probably so far away now they weren’t even dark spots in the sky. “I got what I came for.”
I didn’t glance up, didn’t take my eyes from him. “Which was?”
“That you are actually capable of taking the voice eating powers from Diosemia. Eknephias sent me to test your abilities a little, just to see. He’s careful that way. Doesn’t like surprises.”
I looked over my shoulder at the dead police cruiser, then turned to see flashing blue coming up the street at high speed. More sirens blared several blocks behind me. It was starting to get out of control. “Then you better get out of here.”
He nodded, some of his smile still on his face. “What are you going to do?”
I looked at the vehicle racing up the street, bulky with armor, matte black, narrow beams of blue flashing lights.
“Try to fix the story.”
He laughed, wagging his finger at me. “That’s the teller in you.” He turned to cross the street. Over his shoulder, he added, “I look forward to hunting you when the time comes, Andin Teller.”
I didn’t laugh.
I turned just in time to stop a speeding bullet. A few of them actually.
Suck on that Superman.
I reworked the story and I was standing under fluorescent lights in a long hall with shiny plastic tiled flooring.
Back on the first floor of Monterey Community Hospital.
I didn’t go for the front door this time, but took a side door out of the hospital. Come on. The freakin’ cops were waiting for me out front. But it wasn’t like I was running from the law. Not really. I was running right for the cops...just not those cops.
First things first. I went straight to the library to get Aerizo’s last little paper bird in its cage, still hidden across the street in the hedge along the parking lot where we’d parked the Ural. I stuffed it in my shirt’s top pocket.
It felt weird standing in the empty parking space and it made me wonder where Itoshi’s bike had gone. Was it still parked along Cannery? Probably not. Would have been towed away by now and Deputy Ramirez knew who it belonged to. So, it was most likely in some police impound lot.
From the library I caught the golf course/airport bus that got me across the city and out along Aguajito in under an hour. Another ten minutes walking and I was inside the front doors of the Monterey County Sherriff’s Department. I told the admin I had an appointment with Deputy Ramirez and took the stairs two at a time to find his office.
Ramirez stood as I walked in, giving me a stern eye. “Mr. Andin Teller. We’ve been looking all over for you.”
“No, not anymore you’re not. That whole nonsense with Itoshi is over, too. Please have him released. Your department caught the guy who tried to vandalize Teller Esoterica a few days back. Guy named Wes Deyoung.”
“But what about the explosion?” Ramirez’s voice was hesitant, tugging at his memory for what had really happened, what he had seen with his own eyes. He blinked, stared at his desk for a moment, and then nodded. “Yeah, that could have been a real tragedy if Deyoung had followed through and blown the place up.”
I waved at the phone. “Oh, and can you get someone to release Itoshi’s vehicle from impound? It’s an old Ural Sahara motorcycle with a sidecar.”
Ramirez raised an eyebrow, appeared to be shoveling in the sarcasm. “And I suppose you’d like them to drive it over for you, too?”
“That would be perfect.”
He shook his head and made the call, glancing up at me every ten seconds to see if I was still there, almost as if he expected me to change the story again, and didn’t want to waste his time on the phone.
But he found the right channels and made the right demands, setting the phone down a few minutes later.
“Really appreciate your information in this case, Mr. Teller.” Ramirez nodded, following my line of sight.
I was staring at a picture of a younger Deputy Ramirez in uniform, wearing pale orange range glasses, handgun held straight out, aimed at some off frame target.
“That’s me at the range, during academy training.”
“What kind of gun do you carry?”
Ramirez unstrapped his handgun and showed it to me.
“Mind if I borrow it for a minute? Just to draw it.”
An immediate scowl appeared on Ramirez’s face and I held up my hands. “Not draw it-draw it, like a gunfighter. I mean with a pencil on paper, sketch it.” I waited a moment and added, “But it does have to be loaded. I need to draw a fully loaded gun. Two of them actually. Fully loaded? Is that what you call it?”
When Ramirez nodded and said, “That’s fine,” I shook my head.
“Sounds like a burrito with everything or a car that comes with roof racks—fully loaded.” Ramirez gave me an amused look—like didn’t I watch movies or play interactives where everyone was using the latest weaponry and had all the gun jargon down?
I shook my head. “I also need to borrow a pencil.” I reached across his desk and snagged one from a mug with a smiling family painted by a child, haloed in blue sky and ankle deep in green, green grass.
Ramirez saw where my eyes were pinned and said, “My daughter made it for me, couple years ago, to cheer me up about a missing persons case that went cold.”
There was a flash of darkness, cold ink splattering across my vision, seagulls crying in the sky opening up around me. A woman in a wetsuit and scuba gear walking into the Pacific, tears rolling down her cheeks, leaving everything behind, and then I saw that pale woman with milk-white hair in Teller Esoterica handing me a stack of hundred dollar bills for a stack of tarot cards. And it was the same woman.
Ramirez came around the desk, grabbed my shoulder as if I was about to fall over. “You okay?”
I looked up, blinking, trying to focus on the current story and the smiling faces on the coffee mug stuffed with pens and pencils and a bent metal ruler. “Yeah, beautiful colors. Your daughter’s talented.” I pointed at the mug. “Did you ever find the missing woman?”
Ramirez gave me an odd look, the sharp remains of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “I didn’t say it was a woman. Missing person.”
“I know. I think she’s fine and maybe doesn’t want to be found.”
The edges of his smile vanished. “You know what my daughter told me when she gave me the mug? Something very close to that. She didn’t say the woman didn’t want to be found. She said everything’s going to be fine because maybe she found herself.”
I nodded, lifted the pencil and pulled the notepad closer. “I better start drawing.”
The guns were big, heavy, loaded, and with the safeties off. I mirrored them across the page, perfect sloping metallic edges guarding the triggers, sharp ridges running the length of the slide, the dark hollows of the barrels angled at forty-five degrees. I took my time drawing the knurled pattern of diamonds down the matte black grips and even though I could smell something deadly and burning rolling off them, they weren’t quite real yet. That’s exactly where I wanted them, on paper, ready to become real when needed. Lethally poised.
I also wasn’t sure at first, thinking that two loose guns in a jail cell somewhere wouldn’t do any good. So, I added two open hands across the top, well apart from each other, with fingers reaching for the tools they would need to escape.
When I pulled out the little caged seagull Aerizo had made, a stiff card slid out with it, flipping and showing hints of color and shapes, but landing blank side up.
I crouched, dug my nails under it, trying not to crease the paper, and picked it up. Turning it in my fingers, I nearly dropped it. It was The Tides card I had left in the sub, no sign of water damage or being tampered with by Diosemia’s hit team. I looked around Ramirez’s office, just to see if my paints and Moleskine book would show up, too.
No sign of them. Then a whiff of burning paper in my nose, just a memory, enough to tell me they hadn’t survived the ordeal.
Ramirez leaned back on his desk, watching me as he slid his gun back in the holster. “What are you doing?” Tilting his head to one side, he stared down at the anxious little paper seagull in the tiny cage.
“Helping a friend of mine—actually he’s my long lost dad, but I think he was sort of forced into the deal.”
I slid the drawing of the two guns and free hands over The Tides card and rolled both of them up tightly into a tube the diameter of a pencil. Then I took out the bird, let it hop up to my arm, and fed the curled up prison escape keys into its mouth. It turned and opened its beak for them, so it seemed like the right thing to do, and the little bird made a high seagull whine and seemed eager to devour the rolled up art—even though it was three or four times its own size.
There were broad sealed windows running the length of one wall of the office. I pointed to the adjacent wall. “Does that window open?”
Twisting around, Ramirez stood and unlocked the narrow side window just above his desk and I held out the seagull, gesturing to the sky.
The little sea gray bird did a dance to the ends of my fingers and took off, gliding past the window frame and into the blue.
Time to gather my friends and meet my enemies.
“Thanks for everything.”
Ramirez called me when I got to the door. “Mr. Teller, what are you?”
“Just that. I’m a teller and right now I’m telling stories—and everything in the world has a story.”
There was a Monterey City Police officer waiting for me out front...with Itoshi’s Ural Sahara gassed up and rumbling loudly. “Andin Teller?”
When I nodded, he tossed me the helmet. “It’s the law,” he laughed and headed up the steps into the building.
I started the Ural, did u-turn in the middle of the street, and swung around to the back of the sheriff’s department to pick up my friend, who was waiting out front, leaning against a matte black armored patrol car as if he owned it.
Itoshi slid easily into the sidecar, jammed on the helmet, and looked over at me through the goggles.
It was just like him to ask only one question. “Hey, what’s the plan?”
I throttled down and we took off, ran the stop sign, cutting through westbound traffic back toward Monterey Community Hospital.
28 - Take Away
“Did you get your mother back from Diosemia?”
That was Itoshi’s second question. He looked over at me, waiting for an answer as we jumped the speed bumps in the Monterey Community Hospital parking lot, then up the curb, swinging the bike into the garden just down from the ER entrance. I had nodded back to him through all that, but he probably had no way of telling that apart from the repeated bouncing and jostling.
I finally got the words out, glancing around and lowering my voice. “She’s with Taryn and Mrs. Rydell.” I tossed the helmet into the sidecar with Itoshi’s spare and we headed through the sliding doors into the Emergency Room. “The neuro-disorder wing is this way. We can take the elevators.”
Mrs. Rydell looked less like her usual busybody self—or a retired math teacher—than I had ever seen her. More like a sentry guarding gold than the half-baked lady who dug through the crystals and chatted for hours at our store.
She brightened when she saw the two of us, Itoshi and I, signing in at the nurse’s station and coming down the hallway. She waved us into Taryn’s room as if we were late for the secret high-stakes power poker tournament.
Mrs. Rydell was asking questions—nine or ten of them, all at once. I didn’t follow any of them, every thought in my head tuned to the sounds of a scuffle in the hall.
There was a gunshot and Mrs. Rydell shut up. And everything happened before she could close the door.
A nurse in turquoise came sliding along the hallway floor on her back, past the open door, thrown by someone. Alarms went off and we heard distant shouting, most of it angry, all of it coming from the doctors and nurses out at the station at the head of the hall.
Not one word from whoever was storming the neuro-disorder wing of Monterey Community.
That could only mean one thing.
Three hunters swept into view, tall, gaunt figures with guns, the first braced in the open door, breathing hard, gloved fingers flexing, eyes fixed on me. He didn’t smile or show any sign of wanting to talk things over. This guy was here for results.
I pulled out The Tides card—or a copy of it just appeared in my hand, because, damn, didn’t I just send it along to Aerizo, stuffed in the mouth of a tiny paper seagull?
No time for answers.
I tossed it into the space between me and my killers, closing my eyes as the nearest hunter swung his gun up, level with my face, and fired.
Ringing in my ears and shattering glass behind me.
When I opened my eyes, Diosemia’s skinny thugs had vanished. And looking through the open door, just about everything else had vanished with them, including the hall and everything else beyond the walls of Taryn’s room in the neuro-disorder wing of Monterey Community.
A cool sea breeze gusted through the room.
I wheeled to see that the window behind me had blown out from the gunshot, but there was blue sky and, along the lower edge, the dark blue and strips of foamy white of an ocean on a different coast.
It was the view from my tarot card.
I had somehow managed to teleport Taryn’s entire hospital room and everything in it somewhere else.
I was still trying to piece things together, turning toward struggling sounds on my right.
Itoshi had dragged Taryn off the bed to the floor to get her out of the path of gunfire and he was lifting her back onto the bed. Mrs. Rydell hadn’t moved. She looked angry, one hand up in accusation, still facing the open door, now empty of bad guys to scold.
Then she turned it on me, finger still up, shaking now. “What...” Her mouth opened and closed and her head kept swiveling between me and the grass waving in an ocean breeze through the open doorway. “What just happened?”
I was still running through an opening line that didn’t sound completely insane when Itoshi spoke up for me.
“Andin can change the world.”
Mrs. Rydell turned around to get Itoshi in her view, one eyebrow going up.
Holding a hand open toward my mom, I said, “Sort of. It’s like the world, the universe, everything, is running through a story—or billions of stories all intertwined and coiling with each other and...” I looked down at my mother now. “My mom had this power to shift things around and now I have it.”
“But...” Mrs. Rydell couldn’t get another word out, waving toward the door and really, what was beyond it, or what wasn’t beyond it anymore, namely the rest of Monterey Community Hospital.
I nodded, understanding. “I know. This is a bit different. I painted a card a while ago, a tarot card.” I turned toward the view through the curtains. “With this place in it and it—the card—has been doing something, helping me.” That just sounded crazy, which was exactly what I was afraid of. I waved my hands through the air to sweep it away. “Forget about how we got here for a second. There are bad guys looking for us—mainly after my mother and I, but anyone they think might be a problem will suddenly find themselves on the list of those who must be eliminated. These are killers, bad, bad people. There are some good people on our side, but one’s still locked up as far as I know.”
I thought about The Tides card appearing with me when it should have been on its way to Aerizo—and what did that mean? The seagull didn’t make the trip? Was shot down? Delivered the guns, but didn’t need to deliver The Tides?
Instead of just adding to the confusion, what I had just said seemed to have stirred up some anger in Mrs. Rydell. She moved to Taryn’s side, taking her hand, placing one palm across her forehead. “And Taryn? Did she get mixed up with these bad guys?”
I nodded, felt a heavier weight land on my shoulders. “They caught her and when Itoshi and I rescued her, she was like...this.”
She looked grim, a flicker in the direction of my mother, still sleeping on the couch.
I glanced over at Itoshi. He shrugged back, Tell her everything?
“Yeah, we spent the last three days rescuing her. Itoshi created a diversion, kept everyone busy while I dashed out to trick my grandmother—she’s the one who’s behind a lot of this. There are other players, but she’s the really evil nasty one.”
That appeared to be enough for Mrs. Rydell because she sighed heavily and sat down on the edge of Taryn’s bed. She stared at the floor and appeared to have enough to think about for a while.
Figuring I had some time before things returned to extraordinarily dangerous, I kneeled next to the couch, closed my eyes, and siphoned up some of the power rumbling deep in me—that story energy or whatever it was. I took my mom’s hand, her skin cold and dry, almost lifeless.
“Wake up. Diosemia doesn’t hold you any longer. And I don’t think Eknephias is even in the picture any more now that he has his son back.”
I opened my eyes. No response.
My mom didn’t look any older. It didn’t look like I was hurting her when I told stories or drew from that store of power. So I shifted the story a little more, pulled it into my head, found the thread along which my mother slept and rewrote it so that she was awake.
I told myself my mother was just sleeping normally and a good hand clap would startle her out of it. It worked, but not for long, certainly not the way I thought it would. And waking brought with it nightmares.
She opened her eyes, blinking and disoriented, then brought up a hand, curled loosely, to rub them. Clear enough to focus, she locked eyes with me, nodding her head weakly. Then yawned wide, her eyes watering, a clear expression of pain on her face.
Hands shaking as they unfolded, she pointed to her open mouth, one finger trailing down to her throat. And she was already fading, struggling to keep her eyes open, her hands shaking as she dug her nails into my arm with one hand, clutching at the couch’s cushion with the other.
There was a flash of cold up my back. “Diosemia took your voice. Did she do something else, to make you sleep?”
My mother nodded, eyes already going too heavy to hold open. Whatever my grandmother had done to her own daughter, it was countering my awakening story.
“How far does Diosemia’s story extend? How deep? What does it affect?” I wanted to ask if I could trust any moment to be my own, that everything wasn’t some part of my grandmother’s stories.
She couldn’t speak. She looked at me, a strange expression on her face—happy and not very happy at the same time. She nodded her head and that was all she could manage before the sleep took her again.
But I felt the story change in my head, felt the shift like a moment of dizziness slipping in one side and then out the other side, gone, the changes to the story made. I tugged after it, tried to follow its path through my memories. I saw Tarasso’s grim face outside the aquarium and he shook his head, but I didn’t remember him doing that.
It was enough to make me understand that I could tell stories and not worry about drawing power from my mother or hurting her.
“Hope so.” I whispered the words as I stood, turning to see Itoshi raising his arm defensively, gaze on the open door.
The hunters dropped from the sky, landing lightly all around us, and the walls of Taryn’s room folded away, the scene from my Tides card vanishing into columns of dark foggy forest and the taste in the air of wet pine needles.
29 - A Place for the One
Diosemia looked different—the true monster underneath the facade I had seen on the ship. She was now a bony old woman with too much pale makeup and a weird attachment to the color red. She was way too skinny, but her long red gown widened below her hips, belling out to the forest floor and, at the edges, along the wrinkles and folds of the cloth, something moved and slipped across the surfaces of things underneath, as if she had more than two legs, spider’s legs scratching at the pine needles, long metallic exoskeletal legs with stiff bristles and barbs running their lengths.
She didn’t look happy to see me. No more pretending for her, I guessed.
Taryn’s room had shifted around. The walls, windows, and smooth tiled floor were gone, but Taryn was still there, with Itoshi on one side of the bed, Mrs. Rydell on the other—looking a bit put out by the sudden changes in scenery.
I shot her a look that I hoped she read as Stay out of this one.
That side of Taryn’s hospital room hadn’t changed, but I was now standing with my back to the open door—or where the open door had been—and my mother, asleep on the couch, was now across the room from me.
Diosemia crouched over her like some kind of giant predatory insect, one arm folded sharply at the elbow like a praying mantis. The other shot out, the hand uncurling, fingers snapping open to grab my mother by the throat and lift her into a seated position on the couch, heading lolling to one side, ragdoll limp.
Looking at me, Diosemia made a hint of a sarcastic smile and sat down—with what looked like several legs under her skirt jutting and bending over the couch’s arm. “Move over, daughter, make room for your dear old mother.”
One too many enemies already, but apparently that wasn’t enough.
Eknephias and a bunch of his winged hunters in blue dropped from the sky with a rumble like an angry volcano mixed with a chorus of squawking crows. The shadows curled around them, spread like wings into the trees and blocked some of the light of the moon—a big full moon gazing down at us.
Diosemia only seemed mildly surprised to see her rival Eknephias at our forest party. She turned back to me.
“Give me your voice, Andin Teller, and I will release my daughter from her sleep.”
When Diosemia spoke, it was with a hundred voices, men’s voices, women’s voices, high and low, changing on each syllable. The voices of the thousands she had eaten in her lifetime. And when she said “my,” it was like “mine”—ownership.
Anger bristling inside me. “She’s not your daughter. She’s my mother.”
She smiled and her teeth were sharp, needly, not like shark’s teeth, but like a mouthful from some creepy fish from the abyss. “You are my grandson. You belong to me and you will do what I tell you to do.”
Her words slid into me like slivers of glass, a thousand facets of reflected memory crossing each other, barbed wire words and images tangling at the edges of my thoughts, and somewhere deep inside me, warm fluid leaked like blood. Or courage.
The thoughts inside my own head felt loose, shaken around, as if at any moment I could make one wrong move and they would fly away. Her words echoed inside me, things with sharp edges that cut connections and moments and dreams and went right for the things I wanted to keep forever.
Blinking, I tried to find any connected thought in my head. At least one.
It was as if her words stood on the face of an endless grid of filing cabinets full of my memories and Diosemia had thrown all the drawers open, kicked them into the air, scattered their contents across the floor, and I was alone in the middle, left to put it all back together or lose my mind.
I don’t remember moving, but both my hands were pressing into the sides of my head, my fingers clawing through my hair. I don’t know if I was screaming on the outside. I certainly was inside, shrill and angry enough to fill every space in my head.
And Diosemia’s story stopped twisting inside me, left my thoughts alone.
Lowering my hands, I glanced around the forest clearing with most of the furniture from Taryn’s hospital room arranged neatly. Every eye was on me, Eknephias looking like a king out of any old movie, the man I assumed was his son looking even more like one, but with a mix of old pin-striped-suit gangster tailored around the broad shoulders of a street fighter. That guy Straton could snap me in half like a branch from any one of these trees.
I looked up, scanned the crown of sky above the clearing, a hundred crows rustling and oddly quiet over Eknephias and his entourage. Were they hunters in the form of crows? If so, he had brought a small army with him—exactly what I’d sensibly bring to any meet up with Diosemia.
If I had a small army.
Above my grandmother, the trees smeared with the shadows, leaves thinning like taffy and bleeding into each other, threads of the fluid stuff forking and running to nearby trees for support. It was like something alien building a nest—and definitely went well with the monster my grandmother seemed to be.
I guessed about a hundred eyes all fixed on me—pale blues, vivid greens, glowing orange, and night dark crow eyes.
They all turned away when I looked into the trees above my friends, a little wedge of crow and weird alien spider-web-free space, with bold green leaves and the sharp tips of pine needles catching the moon and making them deadly. Under them, there was Itoshi next to Taryn, still completely out on the bed with Mrs. Rydell holding her hand.
A rustle of crows, some of them squawking uncertainly. Diosemia’s webbing strained and snapped, edges of it flying loose against the sky like a tattered battle flag. Aerizo dropped from the sky, black wings folding in, snapping wide at the last second to catch his fall. He hit the dirt hard, his whole body folding around his knees, but when he straightened, his wings swelling fluidly around him like oil against the night, he had the two guns I had sent along by carrier seagull.
He landed next to Mrs. Rydell, holstered one gun and put a hand on her shoulder to steady her, kept one of Ramirez’s copied guns in his other hand, pointed at the ground.
He just gave me a nod and then turned his gaze on Diosemia—or maybe on my mother, still draped across the end of the little couch, one pale arm hooked over the back, her pale as gold hair curling off the far side.
There was another minute of silence and then I was certain they were all waiting for something—me, is what it looked like.
I felt the waiting for something in my own body and I opened one fist, letting my fingers go loose.
The Tides card flipped end over end into my hands. I felt the pressure change in the air around me and heard a couple tiny gasps when I turned the card around and some of Eknephias’ hunters—on my left—got a quick glimpse of the sun rising over the waves lapping at a rocky beach.
The tides were coming in. Change was on its way, I could feel it.
The first thing to change was our story hunter. Tarasso cleared his throat, straightened, and crossed the clearing, moving from Eknephias’ side right past my grandmother, to stop and turn to face us next to Itoshi—Itoshi edged away from him a few inches.
Straton, Eknephias’ son, spoke up first. “What are you doing?” He sounded genuinely confused, not threatened or suspicious. As if there was a clear, agreed upon plan they were all going to follow once they got here and Tarasso was suddenly doing improv.
Tarasso gestured to me. “I won’t stand against a teller with a place for the One.”
After her demand to take my voice, Diosemia had been really quiet—very suspicious, in her airy, sharp-toothed way. She had also let her gaze follow Tarasso across the room with a scowl on her face and now she turned it back to me.
Her eyes caught mine for a moment, then dropped to the card in my hand.
“What the hell does that mean?” Straton spoke again, his question directed at Tarasso.
It took me a second to figure out what Tarasso had said—a moment of me thinking it was more new age bullshit.
“Is someone going to answer me?” Straton shouted and all around him hunters readied for battle, wings stiffening, the clicks of safeties on guns sliding off. Eknephias made a slicing gesture with one hand and everyone shut up and stood down. I think he was upset or embarrassed about his son’s almost childish outburst and when I looked across the clearing at Tarasso, the expression he was giving back to Eknephias was something like, Couldn’t we have just left him asleep?
“It is the greatest advantage,” said Diosemia quietly, and then little louder, “And the greatest weakness.”
What does “place for the One” mean? What is the greatest weakness?
Damn riddles. I was really hoping Straton would throw another tantrum and demand to know what a “place for the One” was. I didn’t want to ask. I was spending most of my effort trying to keep my back straight and appear to know what the hell was going on.
I could tell I wasn’t the only one in the forest overjoyed when Tarasso spoke again. “The Great Storyteller, the Bright One himself, made a copy of the Rootworld and everything in it as his first work, all of his growth-power fed into it, and he is its master.”
“And few escape its reach,” added Diosemia, in what sounded like the edge of tears.
Itoshi and I exchanged a look. I didn’t want to shrug. I just hoped he could read my mind.
I glanced over at Straton and had to hold in a smirk at his obvious annoyance with matters and phrases going over his head.
Not that I suddenly knew it all, but what Tarasso’s explanation sounded like was that there was something special about a teller whose first work—his “One”—is a place and not something else. I’m guessing a thing, an object, like a pair of scissors or a car or any of the junk in the everything’s-a-dollar basket at the store.
The part I didn’t like one bit—it was sticking in my throat—was Diosemia’s second revelation, “the greatest weakness.”
30 - Person, Place, or Thing
“I own you, Andin Teller.”
Diosemia said it with such force and conviction that I just stood there, closed mouth, staring at her, feeling the sharpness in her smile.
“You are mine like my hunters are mine, like any trinket and piece of lint in my pocket is mine. Synnepheia was clever, but that is because she is my daughter, as much mine—owned by me—as you are. “
I shook my head. “You don’t own—
She talked right over me. “Every teller creates something for the One and it’s almost always a key, a mirror, a coin, a ring, sword, sometimes a gun—always something useful, real, practical, a thing in the world that can be manipulated into related things, carried around, used for storing energy, something that can be stolen and used against the Teller of Things.”
She pointed a long knobby finger at me. “You’re one of the few who have ever created a place for the One, something so rare and powerful and dangerous that—outside of the Great Storyteller—no history records their stories.”
She smiled in an I-know-something-that-you-don’t sort of way and it was annoying.
I shouted at her, “And you?”
“Andin, my dear boy, I’m the rarest of them all. I’m the only teller who has ever made a person. Created someone for my One, instead of something or someplace.”
Person. Place. Thing. The three words just jumped into my head. I looked over at Tarasso and he was terrified, mouth half open, staring at her. He looked like a gambler who had just placed everything he owned—his stack of chips, wallet, the keys to his Aston Martin DB5, even his soul—on one winner with what he thought was a clear advantage and then found out he wasn’t playing the same game.
I turned back, staring at my mother, because Diosemia was running her spider fingers over her throat, pulling her long pale hair back off her face. My grandmother was looking straight at me.
“Say it, Andin Teller. Ask your question, or state the obvious, will you?”
Diosemia started to brighten. “Yes?”
I felt beaten. “She is your first work, your ‘One’?”
Her fingers came away from my mother’s face dripping blood, thin red lines across pale skin, and dark fluid beading up and running to the sharp tips of Diosemia’s nails. Her smile was even sharper. “You’re such a bright one, Andin.”
Itoshi, the god of calm, folded his arms and came back with more anger than I had ever seen in him before. “Shut up, you hag. Don’t treat him like the lint in your pocket. You will regret it.”
Diosemia spared him a glance, then came back to me.
“Everything is story, Andin, and you are part of mine, born of my own creation. A Teller of Things is weak—the weakness of things is that another teller can take those things away from you—and the weakness of places—as the Great Storyteller discovered—is that other tellers can walk through them and change them, make small pieces of them their own. So, the Teller of Places helps his enemies with every bend of his story. It is how we came here, came from our Rootworld. We exploited this weakness in the Great Teller’s own first work.”
Diosemia opened her arms and seemed to expand over the edges of the little couch she shared with my mother.
“I created Synnepheia. I did not give birth to her. Well, not in the usual way.”
Tarasso opened up then and we all turned to look at him. He made a few noises, starting something, but not able to get going for a few seconds. And when he did, he seemed to be minutes behind. He responded to something my grandmother said about those few who create a place for their One and how their stories don’t appear anywhere. “But a Teller of Place controls a world’s story. The reason no history records their stories is because history is their story.”
Diosemia looked mildly alarmed, even with half her smile still there to partially cover her jagged needle teeth.
Then, shocking the hell out of everyone in the forest clearing, Taryn jabbed a finger at Diosemia. “I think you’re an idiot!” A quick glance at Itoshi and I saw the look I probably had on my own face: When did she wake up?
Taryn went on as if she had been sitting in on the conversation the whole time. “I think you’re wrong. You’ve made the mistake of thinking that because no one else has ever been a Teller of People—is that how it’s said?” She looked over at Tarasso and he nodded back impatiently, clearly interested in where she was going, trying to find some way he could turn it into an advantage.
Hey, I was thinking exactly the same thing.
Taryn was wagging her finger now, what she was saying becoming a reprimand for my grandmother. “Because no one knows much about a Teller of People, you think you have no weaknesses. Or that ignorance, a lack of knowledge, equals secrecy.” Then she was gesturing angrily, a burst of futile laughter before she went on. “This is like cryptographers who think they can keep the secret by hiding the algorithm instead of relying on the key. Ignorance doesn’t equal secrecy—it just means someone hasn’t taken a decent look at the lock yet. And when they do...”
Diosemia turned to me, half a shrug on her bony shoulders, a question in her eyes—You have any idea what the girl’s talking about?
“I do.” I kept my face passive—maybe a little shock left over from hearing Taryn’s voice again—but I kept hidden the ideas stirring in my thoughts, and what was emerging out of that roil of energy inside me.
There had to be a weakness. If a Teller of Things could lose the One and a Teller of Place could misplace pieces of history, rooms, towns, whole cities—leave them out of history—then a Teller of People had to have a weakness.
The stirring thoughts fused into something that felt solid and I said it without thinking through to the end. “The weakness of the Teller of People is that, although they can control their own first work, they never own it.”
Diosemia’s smile soured on her face. Not exactly admitting defeat, but she didn’t deny it either. Her claws went to my mother’s throat. “And perhaps if a Teller of People destroys the One, all things born of that One will fade and die? Does that finish your thought, Andin?”
31 - Voices of the Dead
A cold moon overhead cut across the clearing in bands of light, and in my head there was a hard to pin down restlessness. My hands jumped out in front of me, first like claws stabbing the air, warding off something, then uncurling into less frightened gestures. My left hand opened, index finger flexing as if to draw something. My right folded as if holding a paintbrush.
And then I was repainting everything that had happened. I stepped forward and the face of the world shifted to accommodate my changes. Everything was a paintable surface, layers-deep colors and shapes of sorrow, a warm slide of joy.
I was painting the world around me, changing things as fast as I was learning from the layers underneath, and my story was becoming this world’s story.
And the tale carried me away, fed me the words I didn’t know were mine, but were going to be mine at some point, and now I realized I had always wanted to say them.
It was if I was looking down a tunnel walled in that slippery insanity, and important ideas started to sink in: Like stay in the center of the road. A teller with a place for the One can play here and there with time, but too much and I would slide right into madness.
I reached into futures and turned them my way, and the gaps between moments corrected themselves, like a billion threads of shifting color fanning out backwards through everything that had already happened, going cloudy and uncertain, then sharpening when the shifts in motion and human will folded into each other.
I looked down at Diosemia. “You’re wrong. You don’t even understand your own words. The ‘my’ next to grandson just means we share some gene sequences. Nothing more. I no more belong to you than you belong to your ancestors. They’re important, sure, but in the same way that telling and remembering a story is important. Or a warning is important.
“We are not owned by any story we tell. We can be shaped by the telling, influenced by it. The words and images we hear, read, and see, do have the power to change the physical world. I am talking about every storyteller out there—not just me or my mother or you. Storytellers make heartbeats race, eyes close, and make the hair stand up on the backs of necks. Those are simple pieces of the world—but they are physical changes to the world brought about by the story.
“Your brain controls your body. Your eyes do not see. Your ears do not hear. Your fingers do not feel. They’re the devices that feed your brain. Look deeper into any reader’s brain—the physical stuff inside your head—and you will see that every story makes an impression. A story can change the physical world—for good or evil. There are millions of tiny structural changes occurring in your brain right now as you hear my words, your brain working to embed them in short term memory. You may recall the words later, move them about, link them to other memories. You may misunderstand them or remember them incorrectly. You may even store them forever.
“I finally realize what I am—not just a storyteller—but a storyteller who can, with words and painting, push the story deeper than any other teller—and make it stick—even for other tellers. I don’t just tell the story, I make it permanent, fold it into the thoughts in every mind. Every time I tell a story, I can change how you see the world, how you see yourself, how you see those around you. How you see forever. I can change the world because I can change how everyone sees it. I can change night into day because I can make you think the sun has gone down. And maybe that is what a Teller of Place really is.”
I lifted a hand and the dawn sun was coming through the trees. I felt its warmth in every pine needle. I felt every spiral of dust in the beams of light coming through the branches.
“The problem—the ‘weakness’ of a Teller of Place—is that I change myself every time I tell a story, pieces of the story affect my mind too, and, if I’m not careful, I can even tell myself right out of existence.”
I couldn’t help shrugging my shoulders. “I’m surprised there are any of us left at all—but maybe that is a story itself, one of revival?”
Diosemia was shaking, staring up at me, open-mouthed. I swung my gaze to Eknephias and he had both hands up, out in front, fending off something, or maybe trying to tell me that he didn’t want any trouble. His son, Straton, apparently was one of those guys who never seemed to take a hint. He stormed forward, angry, one fist pulling back for a swing at me.
I held up my hand and the world slowed enough for me to reach out and place two fingers over his eyes.
When I caught Eknephias’ gaze, I gave him a slight bow of my head. “Promises to keep? I will keep them, but not in the way you assume.”
When I lowered my hand, Straton was on the ground, sleeping like a baby. Eknephias waved two of his hunters in to drag his son away from me.
Turning back to Diosemia, I said, “Do you want me as an enemy? I don’t think you do. You have to let go of this wrong view of relation you seem to have. You think that if you do not own something—control it—it is an adversary, it is something to be feared, and it is better off dead than free to move and act outside your control.”
She waved her hand, but the airy don’t-care fluid motion wasn’t there. “I don’t know anything about enemies.”
I made a fist. “Maybe I can teach you something?”
She smiled, a sad smile. “I only know one thing.” She swung an opened clawing hand at my mother’s exposed throat. “If I can’t have her, then no one can have her.”
My fist was swinging up, opening, the world slowing, but not enough. Never enough.
I heard my mother’s voice in my head. One brush stroke can ruin an entire painting or change it forever. You do not need to move the world, Andin, to change everything in it. You understand what you are. Take your brush or even a pencil and make it your story.
The story was so fluid, pulsing with the lives of millions, and twisting with miles-deep changes. I saw my own death twice and my mother’s...once.
Diosemia’s fingertips jabbed into my mother’s throat, but her fingers had become soft, blunted, bending, and then oozing with the consistency of pancake batter.
My grandmother was screaming, looking down at her hands.
I felt her rage and all the power inside her. There was a knot of something dark and lumpy whirling by. Another one went by, then two more, like jagged chunks of metal and rock orbiting a star made of suffering. Turning, I saw thousands of them, cold blocky shadows shifting over their faces as they spun helplessly in their ecliptics, fragments of once great things, caught in the pull of a greater star. Thousands of voices, trapped inside Diosemia, ripped from every hunter in the clearing, every slave in her retinue.
And in an orbit nearer to the core of pain, I found my mother’s voice.
I opened my eyes and caught my grandmother’s scream by its tail. She was still screaming. For a few seconds. Then she stopped.
I made a cage and a mouthful of all the air that will fill her lungs to the end of time. I captured her voice.
Then I opened every other cage in their dark orbits and freed them.
I don’t know how long I stood there, unmoving, the story rolling through me, taking pieces of me away, carried in the flow, but when I woke, or returned to the clearing in the forest, so much had changed that I spent another few minutes just looking up at the sky and breathing in the cool morning air.
Diosemia lay at an unnatural angle, her back arched along the couch. I thought her neck was broken and a flash of panic ran through me. I have just murdered my grandmother. Then I noticed she was breathing, and after all, it was Diosemia who could shift and take on weird spidery forms. So, it was going to be difficult to tell natural from unnatural with her.
Then I completely forgot about Diosemia and her laugh and her spindly arms.
My mother was awake, rubbing her eyes, blinking around the clearing, trying to figure out where she was. She twisted around, saw Diosemia, and frowned, then looked back at me with the same frown—her reaction to something she saw in my face, my expression changing as a storm of noise swept through my head.
I felt something ancient and powerful coming at me, far away, but moving so fast it hit me, roared over me, and was gone, on its way around for another orbit before I could gather enough thoughts to spend on what the hell it was. It took me another minute because there was just too much story, too much going on, too much to take in all at once.
Some storyteller I am. I still had so much to learn.
Taryn was awake, watching me, along with Itoshi, Mrs. Rydell, and Aerizo. Eknephias and every hunter and crow that had appeared with him were gone. On my right, a group of Diosemia’s hunters were talking—speaking in their own voices. I didn’t catch their conversation, but it didn’t sound good for my dear old grandmother.
I had given them their voices, but some of them were still signaling out of habit.
Old habits remained, but I had set them free.
And my mother had her voice back. She looked up at me, concerned, her fingers clutching at the arm of the couch to rise. “What’s wrong, Andin?”
I suddenly understood what the roaring noise and orbiting voices were.
There was a weight inside me, an emptiness that somehow felt heavier than any metal, or any material—I mean core of a neutron star heavy. “Many of Diosemia’s hunters and slaves are no longer part of any moving story. Haven’t been for years. Killed while fighting my grandmother’s wars. But I hear all their voices inside me. The voices of the dead.”
32 - The Original Story
The Tides card snapped into my hand and the forest bled away into blue sky, and dark rocky coastline, and the deep blue Atlantic Ocean to the horizon. I only brought along the people I wanted with me—my mother, Taryn, Itoshi, Aerizo, Mrs. Rydell—and one spur of the moment addition, Tarasso. I also brought along the couch minus Diosemia—hope she fell on her ass in the forest—and the hospital bed in case someone needed to lie down.
I helped my mother to her feet, hugged her, smiling crookedly when she mashed my nose into her shoulder, messed up my hair, and cried, “You did it!” in my ear, over and over.
That went on for ten minutes with my own tears running down my cheeks, bitter in my mouth. I whispered, “I didn’t want to do all this. I had to.”
She only let me go when a strange man’s voice said, “I think you were wrong, about one thing.”
My mother and I turned around and Aerizo was standing there, arms folded, smiling, wings like great folded black umbrellas jutting out at angles two feet above his head.
I nodded back to his half-bow, that I somehow knew was a thank-you for giving him back his voice. “In what way was I wrong, Aerizo?”
“I think the weakness of a Teller of People is not only do they not own their first creation, they don’t in any way control it either.” He held out a hand to my mother. “Otherwise she would have found you, Emily, many years ago. Diosemia would have simply commanded you to return to her, and you would have had no choice but to return.”
My mother stared at Aerizo—my dad—for a while, pulling her thoughts together, her face going still, clearly holding back a rush of pain, and then said to me, “Never lose sight of one thing. Even when a story can change your mind, it cannot own you—or your mind—unless you want it to. A teller owns the story. But the first creation isn’t a story—it owns the teller more than the teller will ever own it. My mother’s real mistake was to misunderstand this. Her second was to think that every story of yours drew from my store of power—when I never had one in the first place. I was Diosemia’s creation and I drew directly from her. You do too. You cannot harm me by telling a story.” She took my hand, turned it palm up as if to read it. Instead, she pushed her finger into the center, the pressure deepening as she made her point. She might as well have poked me in the forehead with that finger. “A Teller of Place doesn’t own or control the place. He just paints it, fills it in, gives it direction, makes it brighter. Don’t forget that.”
She released me, moving hesitantly, her gaze locked with Aerizo. He was nodding, responding to something unsaid. “Yes, I forgive you, Emily.”
She was shaking, and he took her hands to stop it.
“But I can’t accept it. I controlled you, made you do things. For years.”
“Synnepheia did those things. Not Emily Teller—and they were things I would have gladly done with my own voice—if I’d had one. You weren’t controlling me. You were controlling a puppet in the control of Diosemia.”
Taryn swept in on my right, grabbed me, and wouldn’t let go. She kissed me. “Hey, Andin, I’m back.”
Itoshi and Mrs. Rydell leaned against the railing at the end of the hospital bed. Tarasso stood back, watching us, maybe uncertain about why I had brought him with us.
I leaned in to kiss Taryn back. I tried for the cheek, but since our Taryn was back in full force, the always-in-motion Taryn, I ended up planting one next to her eye.
She just laughed.
“So glad you’re here.” The guilt slammed into me, and would have knocked me to the ground if Taryn hadn’t been holding me up. “Taryn, I’m so sorry I lost you. I didn’t know what to do. Itoshi and I rescued you from Diosemia—with Aerizo sacrificing his freedom for the escape. You came with us, but it wasn’t you inside. And I couldn’t find you. Mrs. Rydell has taken care of you for a week in the hospital, never leaving your side. I painted books and tried to do chromosome poetry, and pictured you dancing in the sun, with waves as high as houses to surf. I wanted you back so badly, but if you weren’t going to come back, I just wanted you to be happy—wherever you had gone.”
She was nodding. “Yeah, I got your stuff and your silly poetry. The waves were great, but it was lonely. I did a lot of traveling, found nirvana, found it fun for a while, but ultimately found it lacking.” She twisted around toward Itoshi. “I couldn’t find you guys anywhere. I looked. You never showed and I was lonely, so I came back here.”
Mrs. Rydell smiled. “At just the right time.”
With Taryn still clinging to me like an abalone, I caught my mother’s eye, and asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me what I was—what I am?”
She looked from Aerizo to me. “I couldn’t. Or I wasn’t sure I could—without giving you up to Diosemia. If you were changing stories when the hunters came for me, you wouldn’t have escaped, they would have brought you to Eknephias and broken you, or Diosemia would have caught you and hollowed you out, taken your voice and everything else. As long as you didn’t know how deep the story went, you were free to imagine a world—and a story—where they could not catch you.”
My mother stopped suddenly, looking over at Tarasso, a scowl appearing on her face. “Why are you here, hunter of Eknephias?”
Tarasso bowed. He looked more than nervous, as if my mother was a moment from telling him right out of existence. He glanced at me. “I...uh...not absolutely sure. I was wondering...was hoping to offer my services to the Teller of Place in this world. And that he would accept them—accept my services to track and reveal tellers who have gone off the tracks, causing serious shifts in his story?”
I looked at Itoshi, he was nodding back at me, and I let him take the response. He turned to Tarasso. “Yeah, you’re in, story hunter. Welcome to the club, but lose the blue overcoat, man, you’re making me hot wearing that thing.”
We found a clear place in the grass above the rocky shoreline, left the Monterey Community Hospital furniture behind, and spent the rest of the afternoon catching up, telling stories.
No story can really take you back to the beginning, but sometimes you can return things to something like the way they used to be. Almost once upon a time...again.
At sunset, after everything in this part of the story had settled down, I put one very important thing back, and then we went home.
33 - Esoterica
Secret things. It was even in the name of the store. But like so many secrets, they’re right in front of you. You just can’t see them unless you’re trained to.
The place was the same. I had to change some things though, like my name. Teller was just too obvious to those with training. Diosemia, Eknephias, and who knows who else, were still out there, waiting for humans to get on with some next stage in evolution.
I looked out the windows of Teller Esoterica—all back in one piece, with not one candle or crystal out of place. I tossed out those lame windsocks, though. I’ll have to paint some new ones.
But I couldn’t change the name of the store. It was just so perfect.
Other things would need to change.
I couldn’t believe how bold my mother and Aerizo had been—my whole life—with names and places. Teller right in the name?
My name was one of those things that needed to change. The story was mine now and I asked Itoshi and Taryn for a name that was a little different—cool, but different.
Itoshi came up with Andrew Ramirez, the surname taken from our favorite Monterey County Sheriff, with Andrew being close enough Andin to get my attention.
That was good. I liked it.
Taryn thought I should stick with my first name and just change my last to...
“Andin Zulkowski? Seriously?”
It got a raised eyebrow from Itosh, and a deep scowl from Mrs. Rydell, but that may have been the extra load of shark’s teeth and all the old crap in the everything’s-a-dollar basket.
Taryn knows best.
“I like it. Okay. From now on I’m Andin Zulkowski.”
And... I was. Almost as if I had always had been.
Itoshi shook his head and Mrs. Rydell said, “What did you end up doing with that ring I found in the basket?”
I opened my hand, and there was the bracelet with the big metal and red jewel knobs—with the matching ring.
Taryn danced a foot in the air. For a second I thought I was going to have to grab her to keep her from flying away.
“Itosh and I got your bracelet back as part of Diosemia’s threat and the matching ring...well, that’s a present from your favorite math teacher. Mrs. Rydell found that one.”
As if it was here the whole time. I looked around the store, felt something missing, but only temporarily missing.
My mother and Aerizo had flown off to Morro Bay for the weekend—and not by plane—after Taryn, Itoshi, and I told them what a beautiful coastal city it was. As long as you didn’t run into any of Eknephias’ bad guys in long blue overcoats.
Oh, and my mom and Aerizo were definitely planning a stroll along the paths and boardwalks of the Elfin Forest.
I made sure our old sea dog, Zekey Ulysses, was compensated for his submarine, which incidentally turned up a hundred miles off the Hawaiian islands and was picked up and claimed by a salvage crew. I made sure Zekey had an even better, faster, sleeker sub. I also made sure he was now teaching courses in small underwater craft construction over at Cal State. It was the least I could do after losing Tarynado and trying to kill him. Turned out Zekey didn’t drink at all—nothing but water—the bottles appearing in his kitchen as part of a story I had created out of rumor.
Rumors...nasty things. Monsters. They can kill if you’re not careful.
I’ll have to watch that from now on. Could be dangerous, but it’s one more lesson for me: don’t believe every story you hear.
On the outside, things seemed to have returned to something like they once were, but inside it was a different story.
The more I changed, the more I changed.
I had that slippery madness feeling in my head all the time now, but I was learning balance and ways to avoid falling. I had definitely changed, wrapped up in the deepest threads of history, tangled with them. The stories turned inside me and the things I have changed have come back to haunt me like the ghosts of universes past and future. I’m not even going to tell you about the nightmares I get now. Time will tell if it was worth it.
For now, the present course of history seems to work.
Unplanned, like something out of an old story I used to know, Hillary came into the store to show off her Six of Swords tattoo and to tell us all about bad guys breaking into her house and stealing a batch of painted swords I’d left in the guest room.
She looked up at the Teller Esoterica sign across the back wall. “So, your name is Teller, right?”
“Nope. Zulkowski. Andin Zulkowski.”
There was a fraction of a second’s hesitation on Hillary’s face, and then she smiled. “That’s right. You told me Zulkowski at the restaurant. Can’t believe I’d forget a name like that. Where are the hand painted cards? I’m looking for one or two to hang at the condo.”
I pointed them out just as Taryn looked up, frowning at Wes Deyoung and his father approaching. The police and a couple fed agencies had been looking for Wes, but I cleared that up. No hard feelings and all that.
They stood just inside the open doors...smiling broadly. The Deyoungs looked around Teller Esoterica as if it was a magical candy factory, and they were hungry for sweets.
Mr. Reginald Deyoung—Wes’s father, who owned half a dozen buildings around Monterey—stepped forward when he saw me. “Mr. Zulkowski, pleased to meet you. I have the new lease ready for you to sign.” He looked up at the name of our wonderful shop across the back wall, nodding. “Can’t tell you how much we love having your store right out front. So colorful. Like a rainbow.”
I took out a pen, and signed the lease. “Oh, you’re welcome.”
Then I shook his hand, turning to see Taryn and Itoshi, standing by the decks of tarot cards, grinning at me.
It may not last forever, but I love this story.
34 - After Words
The pale woman and her son appeared every couple weeks over the summer, and once while they were in the store, the woman from the sea—the one who had made Diosemia grovel on the deck of her own ship—strode through the front door of Teller Esoterica and, ignoring me completely, met up with the pair in the back.
It looked like a reunion, with hugging and low but excited talking, followed by laughter. Then joy turned to browsing through a few of the books in the Sea Witch section, mostly stuff about medicinal uses of various seaweeds, symbolic meanings of waves and tides, and the collecting of stones worn into shapes by the ocean—heart shapes, hand shapes, that sort of thing.
It was difficult to ignore them, but I waved Itoshi and Taryn over for support, as I moved into the sunlight at the front of the store. It was story time, and I already had a small audience, a few couples with young children in strollers, a father with twin boys about seven, an older gentleman who was becoming a regular. I think he was working up the nerve to ask Mrs. Rydell to dinner, but he loved my weekly story time, and had an interest in numbers, even if he laughed—mostly to himself—over the pages of the books on numerology.
I stood in the light coming through the front windows, with the shopping and Monterey Bay Aquarium crowds moving along Cannery Row behind me. Giving the small gathering a slight bow, I said, “Welcome. So glad you could make it. Today’s story is about—”
I stopped, suddenly cold, as the woman from the sea and her interesting friends made their way to the front. She wasn’t dressed up, as she had been at Diosemia’s floating party. If anything it went the other way—faded old jeans, hiking boots, a black Pinback concert t-shirt. But it was definitely her, because when she turned to look right at me I couldn’t move. The thoughts—the story I was about to deliver—just froze in my head. The words withered away. The entire world, with the blazing California sun at my back, dimmed and went cold, until we were alone—me, her, and the unearthly weight of an incoming tide, flowing over me and taking me under.
I felt her smile, cold but friendly. “Make it something about the sea, Andin Teller.” She didn’t call me Zulkowski, which was disturbing. After a moment—to let that sink in—she gestured to the pale woman. “And my friend Corina would like something with an acrostic. Do you think you can work that in for her?”
It wasn’t really a request. She released me, and I staggered back, caught the bookshelves with one clutching hand. Taryn grabbed my shoulder on the other side to steady my feet, and she was smiling as she leaned in to whisper, “Fun, fun, fun, till her daddy takes the T-Bird away.”
Taryn nodded, as if she was in on this sudden and new direction. She gave me a little shove toward the eager gathering in Teller Esoterica.
“Yes, this’ll be fun.” I cleared my throat, with a quick glance at the scary woman from the sea. “Today’s story is about memories and longing, but also about inquisitive neighbors, thunderbirds, managing citrus orchards, and colonizing a faraway world called Thetis. But most of all it’s about oceans, and...uh, how friendly they can be.”
Grabbing my water bottle off a nearby shelf, I let my gaze drift over the small crowd of listeners, and then the words just flowed through me like the tides.
I cleared my throat, calmed my thoughts.
And I told another story...
Fundra put the thunderbird to sleep, her tips pressing the two-meter wings into hundred-fold angles. Bird bone spines and feathers fused into layers, the whole animal sliding paper-thin, and easily rolled into her community pocket. She made a gesture of sixteen tips because she felt sad, and because she had fallen in love with the bird’s eyes, glassy dark and wise.
Under the shade of fanning citrus orchards, she could just see Bilk’s house, across Jihmeer Warless Meadow, in the guest human settlement, ovals of light and smeared reflection along a tube that stuck out of one end of the Gib-Letton family residence. She thought it fun that Bilk called his piece of the house, his “wing.”
“Not like a thunderbird has wings?” she had asked him, extremely curious, and played the memory again.
Fundra had arrayed eleven tips like one raised eyebrow and Bilk had nodded. “Just like them. A limb off the main structure.” He held out his muscular arms, hands dancer straight, fingers rigid. He smiled. “An arm, a leg will work well for the word, but a wing has a beauty that humans don’t possess. You gave us the maps and tools to jump the gaps between stars. Since the beginning we’ve crossed worlds with our legs, and built them with our hands. But to soar over them without machinery? We do not have the grace, the beauty of a bird. We can only dream of having wings.”
Ugliness was a funny subject with humans. They rarely looked anywhere but inside themselves for it. Ugliness and sorrow—so intimate for humankind. Fundra had made a sound like a laugh, a choppy twist of her voice that she had learned to perform when she was with her fellow otherworld colonists. Then she had pointed to Bilk’s wing of the house. “And you sleep in a wing?”
“Normally.” He had mimicked her laugh, sounding not quite human. “I dream when I sleep. Sometimes of wings. But more often of fins and swimming quick beneath the sea. Or I dream of a long time ago when I kicked under the waves of Chaleur Bay with my sister Nikola.” A long silence had followed, after that.
Fundra turned away from the memory, drifting home in the waves, and thought about tomorrow, when she would spend more time with Bilk, the human boy who had ugly and sorrow inside with his beauty and love of growth, who spent his sleeping time with shadows of himself running from old worlds, building new ones, and flying over them, all in the wing of his house.
Unanchored to the sea floor, she fanned out and flowed with the currents, becoming a part of the water around her, chemically so much like her origin world so far away—but so much more than that world because she had grown into her forty-eight tips here on the planet her kind had opened to the humans. And, as if returning the gift, they’d called it Thetis. This world, Thetis, where she had learned enough to understand the folding rules and how to tip the shapes of things like thunderbirds—things from Bilk’s own mind and memories—into this world with them. Even with forty-eight, she wasn’t allowed to make whole worlds yet—not without supervision.
Nothing slowed Fundra down when the sun rose over the great oceans of Thetis, when she could return to Bilk’s house without alarming anyone, when the humans would wake and rub their beautiful eyes. She pulsed in the strength of the shore’s currents, surfacing near the settlement at the end of the beach that wrapped one side of the Warless Meadow.
The Gib-Lettons were up and making coffee when Fundra used two tips—a simple move—to coil long cables of her body into a hard lump she used to knock on the front door. Humans were informal—at least these were. Gustav, Bilk’s father, called out, “Door’s not locked,” and she slid through the opening, fanning out in the tiled area they called a “dinette.” Jovita swung around the counter with a mug of hot coffee, lifting it a little in offering. Fundra declined, but continued staring. Bilk’s mother had eyes rich and green like chlorophylled shallows.
Inside the Gib-Lettons’ house, Fundra pulled together most of her body, long tendrils weaving into thick globs that hung over chairs, rolled halfway up the stairs, draped like heavy cloth over the banister, but she kept her senses focused on the kitchen and the pungent citrus smell—a good smell, she had determined.
Leaning over the bundles at the foot of the stairs, Jovita shouted, “Bilk, get up. Fundra’s here.”
“Lemons” said Gustav, catching Fundra’s interest in the citrus smell. Then he went on sipping his coffee, spinning slowly inside a cylinder of infoscreens, keeping just enough focus on his surroundings to know that he had an audience. “The Cansons and us have a fine citrus crop going this season. The Hubery’s, alas, are still catching up.”
“Have you eaten? You’re early.” Bilk stood at the top of the stairs, yawning, rubbing one eye with a fist.
“Every moment I’m in the water, and I have no need of early. Oceans do not sleep, my friend Bilk.” Fundra streamed rows of fluid appendages toward the open front door. “We have little need for early or late, spending all our time looking for the answer. Is the answer to humanity open in the way you delight in things that grow? Lemons? Does it hide in the ways you express sorrow? Or is there something more?” Humans were like sharp little tidal forces, each one an ocean in the grasp of a strong moon, drawing up and awake for a short time, then falling asleep, waking, sleeping, spending their entire lives tied to the cycle. It was one of the first interesting facts she had learned about her world guests. The second had been that they had named the colonized world after a mythical sea deity—and how lovely of them.
Realizing he wasn’t dressed in much, Bilk tugged at his shirt, and back-stepped to his room to get ready for their day of exploration. He threw on his drysuit, jumped the bundles of Fundra at the bottom of the stairs, and raced for the front door with a wave at his parents. Thetis was cleared of most human threats by Fundra’s family of oceanfarers. And any bad things that remained were land-based. “The waters are clear,” as Fundra’s mother Niyallor had said when the humans arrived.
Down at the shore, Bilk slid the suit’s seams closed to his throat, and bayonetted his helmet seal, mimicking—with his tongue behind his teeth—the hard click the pressure locks made. He looked up at Fundra. “All set?”
“Are you asking if I have reconfigured for a different environment in the last few moments? I am ready to journey, if that’s what you mean.”
“Don’t want to jinx anything.” Bilk wagged finger, and a worried look pressed itself into his features. “I have to ask the check-off question.” Bilk waved away the conversation and started a new one, pointing over the sea. “Dawn is here. I have until dusk to make the most of the day. Where shall we go, Fundra?”
“Down is always good. I usually advise that to start out.”
“You usually? You’re a body of water. When don’t you think down is good?”
“Thunderbirds have been on my mind lately.”
“And you can now advise a course of up to start out instead of down? Or how about both, hopping up and down like a kangaroo?”
“Kangaroos do not interest me in the same way the thunderbird does.”
“Ever hear of the prehistoric vampire kangaroo—tales of the monstrous, the blood-thirsty, the pouched predator, fangaroo?” Bilk strolled into the foam and rolling waves, bending to get his fingers wet. He looked over at her, smiled. “They’re silly—sillier than a thunderbird by far.”
Surf crashed against Fundra’s fluid bulk, and she flowed with it, lapping up the beach, ten meter nerve strands and paddles drawn into the curl of the next wave. “My ancestor Jelishild would have been able to create a fangaroo if she wanted. She could create anything. She grew to one hundred and fourteen tips, and could topple and twist and turn whole galaxies on edge. Her volume spanned a thousand planets, and she tip-built the plumbing to a thousand unflowing galactic spaces. You and I are here on Thetis because Jelishild tipped here before us.”
“Tipped a world?” Bilk spread his fingers in a flowing gesture. “How do you build a world-path? How do you chart the paths to stars and worlds? So many out there. How do you even know which stars to choose?”
“How do you know this is the right place to enter the sea?” Fundra twirled a few tips into a pointing finger, and wagged it along the beach. “Because you have been here before, Bilk. Because you have made the path through the dunes to this point on the shore. Finding a new and whole breathable world is not easy. It’s not impossible, but it’s also not productive. Jelishild’s way—and now ours—is to create the worlds, form them with her power, flow over their surfaces, supply the life and wealth, and then tread the path from other worlds a few times to make it clear and mappable by others—our own kind, and our guests.”
Excited by the thought of some of Fundra’s kind—the over-hundred-tipped among them—building their own worlds, Bilk lunged forward, and went under the waves, determined to explore more of this one, Fundra smoothing out around him in long threaded currents that curled and pulsed.
Tears started up as soon as Bilk hit thirty-one meters, soft salt splattering the inside of his face mask. He tried to stop them, tried to shove the safety checklist from his mind, and he sucked in a deep breath over shuddering rows of sorrow. He was still sobbing at sixty meters.
“Bilk?” Fundra ran three tips along the back of his suit, curling at his shoulders, sent the last to coil over his helmet and tap on the face mask.
“I looked down at my depth meter right at thirty-one. Sorry.” Bilk’s voice came back distant, choppy with pain. “I thought I’d cried it all out a long time ago. My twin, my sister, died at thirty-one meters. When we lived on Chaleur Bay—on Earth. We moved to Florida, then to Coquimbo in Chile.” He waved a thick gloved finger at the surrounding dark blue. “We are here not because Jelishild made the path, but because I lost my sister. My parents had to get away from everything. They couldn’t bear to be in the same world that killed her.”
Running tears slid down the inside of his face mask, puddling in the voice instruments. Bilk blinked to clear his vision, throwing one arm out reflexively, cupping the water and pulling at it to find his direction. He heard Nikola’s voice—his sister speaking, and then a tingle up his neck. He felt someone breathing the same air. Then he lost touch with the world. It slipped away from him.
“Do not move.” Fundra went into an emergency mothering curl, surrounding Bilk in a sphere of surface pressure space, and he drifted into a roll, landing on his back, his helmet thumping hard on an artificial floor.
A web of finger-thin appendages shot out and spun off Bilk’s shoulder and throat cuffs. The helmet sagged back and skidded away, and Fundra’s gentle fingers slipped around his neck and head to hold him up.
“Wait, Bilk. Do not leave this world yet.” Fundra gave him a few tugs. “Come back to me. Look at me.” Then panic slipped into her voice as she watched a fresh flow of tears start. “No, Bilk. Do not create new worlds here. I will not be able to contain them. You must hold on to your tears.”
A shudder ran through Bilk, and he focused, swiveled his gaze to Fundra’s face, a mass of sensory knobs and wave flaps and chemoanalyst panels. She was beautiful and he smiled as she lifted one of his tears away with a single tip, gently, a benign goddess handling someone’s soul. The little sphere of saline wobbled and Bilk felt her fear.
“You are too late, my friend.” Fundra spread seven tips for sorrow.
They were all there—and all worried: Bilk’s mother and father, two of the human colony reps, Tenna Serice, Greg Kintreias, and the whole Hubery family, who were just really nosy and had a mild rivalry going with the Gib-Lettons.
“Gone for two days?” Serice, the col-rep, used the tip of her shoe to make an S in the sand at her feet. “We contacted Home, but it’ll be another couple days before we get an answer back. In the meantime...” Her voice trailed off with the hope that a good idea would appear before she had to take the next breath.
“They sent us this.” Bilk’s father, Gustav, held up a thin, metallic-looking elliptical shape with feathered edges and four rows of irregular spines. He got a shaking head from Kintreias, who had already run the thing through the labs.
Bilk’s mother, Jovita, pulled it from his hands, holding it up to the light. “No idea how to open it.”
“Do you read it?” said one of the Huberys, mildly irritated that the Gib-Lettons had received something they hadn’t.
“It looks like it needs to be opened or turned on.” Jovita handed it back to Gustav, sighing. “Bilk would know what to do with it. We’re assuming it’s a message, something to be read, or to interact with.”
Kintreias was chewing his lip, then stopped to say, “Most of their tech requires a minimum of twenty-eight tips—something all their children have grown into.” He chewed a little more, then added, “Twenty-eight’s the minimum just to read the labels, just to find out what something is. Their simplest toys require the twenty-eight. We’ve analyzed thousands of their tools and devices with up to sixty tip requirements, recorded molecular structures and patterning, and tried to match particle signatures. We’ve seen nothing like this. It could be a simple letter. It could be payment for losing your son.” He scratched his head. “We have no idea.”
The surface of the sea before them flattened and then heaved with eight giant watery shapes, tendrils swinging into the air. Three more of Fundra’s kind seeped up through the sand behind the humans, curling and flattening out so they wouldn’t tower over them and frighten them. Oceans in their smallest forms were still terrifyingly large.
Fundra’s father was in the center of the group, looking angry to Jovita’s eye. But he didn’t sound angry, his voice smooth, soft surf over level sand. “Jovita and Gustav, welcome.” He swung forty transparent tendrils into a fan shape across the beach with a graceful stem that pointed at the metallic thing in Gustav’s hands. “I am glad you have received and accepted our request for a formal meeting.” He indicated the two human colony reps, made a curling motion with half his body, perhaps attempting a bow. “And you have gathered advisors and friends.”
Jovita stepped forward, one hand gripping Gustav’s shoulder hard. She pulled in a breath, let it out to put some calm in her voice. “What can you tell us of our son—and Fundra?”
“A confession first. We were just speaking among ourselves of confessions and coincidence and loss. We have lost our daughter Fundra and you have lost your son Bilk. It is no coincidence that they were together to share a day, and together they are lost. We are searching, and we must confess that we have found no trace of Fundra in this world. She is...” He spent a few seconds searching for a word. “Gone.”
Gustav looked past the gathering at the horizon. “And Bilk is with her.”
“You are not equipped...” Fundra’s father stammered in translation, mixing in choppy notes and long curling R sounds.
“We do not mean to offend,” said another of Fundra’s kind from behind the humans.
“We blame my daughter. She is an answer gatherer—trained to find the answer of your kind, but she is also ...”
They didn’t find out what Fundra also was. Fundra’s father sounded unsure. “She has perhaps grown into another twelve tips, giving her enough to create and visit another world. Perhaps she pushed too hard for the answer.”
Gustav stepped forward, holding the metallic device in both hands, shaking. “I don’t understand. She has taken Bilk with her? Can they come back to this one?”
Just the wind over the waves for an answer.
“You said it’s too late.” Bilk laughed, scooping the water past his body. “In what way is it too late?”
“Your mother will be upset with you.”
Bilk frowned. “And not my father?”
“He is concerned with lemons,” she said as if this made perfect sense.
“And you think citrus fruit will ease his mind?” He laughed again.
“At least it is clear to me that he will understand growth.” Fundra lifted long strands of her own body and slipped under him, surrounding and protecting him, closing as if preparing to pull him out of the life inside his own tear.
Bilk waved her off. “I’m not ready to leave.”
He spun, taking it all in. How could he leave? A single teardrop contained all this.
The world around Bilk was thick like the sea but full of winged creatures soaring—some like thunderbirds that flew in fluid. He bent his body and headed straight down, the darker, the deeper, the scarier the better. He just knew it. And Fundra was there with him, racing alongside, keeping pace in her between-the-water frictionless form.
Bilk looked over his shoulder and watched the last of the tears slide off his face, tiny flashes of bright silver skipping end over end into his turbulent wake. He was on his way back to the shallows when he noticed he wasn’t wearing his helmet—and then with some choking shock—that he didn’t seem to need it. The water was inside his lungs—if he still had lungs here. This was a different world. He was different. And like a dream in which the most absurd things can slip by without question, Bilk forgot about possibilities and breathing devices, waving playfully at Fundra and laughing.
His drysuit slipped away, imaginary here, dissolving in the sea. He was soaring in a sleek new body, silver bright arms and cupping transparent fingers catching the water and moving it under him. And he felt...infinite and multiple and connected to every reflection of himself the sea showed him. He felt the memory well in every molecule made of other-worlds and friends long gone. And suddenly he knew what to do.
“Let’s go to thirty-one meters. Let’s see what’s there.” He kicked harder and pulled ahead. “Race you, Fundra!”
Bilk’s twin sister Nikola was there waiting for them.
And she told them it was time to go home.
Bilk and Fundra unfolded and slipped over the sand on Thetis, but not without changing, returning to their real forms, the lumpy dry suit clinging to his body. He dropped his helmet in the surf. Fundra sent all forty-eight tips over his body, checking his health, and it seemed to Bilk that twelve of them—six on each side—danced in the air, feeling for a long trail of invisible shapes, something he had never seen her do before.
Fundra’s words came out charged, snapping around this new experience, this new array of answers. “Wings and sisters and reasons why. This is unexpected. You have power beyond me, Bilk Gib-Letton.”
He stretched, yawning as if he’d just slipped out of a long night’s sleep, liking the pull of morning on his muscles. “You say the funniest things. Beyond you?” He laughed, letting one hand glide along Fundra’s body, following the distorted reflections of his face in her shiny rolling surface. He saw six of himself mirrored in her, all with the same stupidly comical, astonished face. He stretched his mouth into a wider grin, but only one of the reflections followed his change, and the expression died. He blinked, returned to Fundra’s statement, and whispered, “Your kind, Fundra, are so far beyond us. We’d still be bound to Earth without you.”
“You answered our call.” She said it simply, as if that answer was enough to cover everything.
Bilk opened his hands, curling his fingers as if holding something with a strange non-uniform shape. He glanced at his reflection again and saw the shape in his mirrored hands, conjured out of his imagination. “You do things with nature that we don’t comprehend. You fold things inside themselves, and unfold them when you need them. Fundra, you have non-symmetric seventeen-sided shapes that we examine without conclusion—to the end of our abilities. We can’t unfold them. We can’t determine their purposes. The shape could open into a full-grown flowering plum tree. It could open into a city with a kilo high vertical and a pop zone and cap of ten million inhabitants. We have eyes. We just can’t see it.” He expanded his gesture to the reach of his arms, ignoring the reflection of the city unfolding between his hands. “And there is nothing in the form, in the mass, in any perceptible aspect of the shape that—to us—determines its function.” He repeated something his father always said about Fundra’s kind. “It’s like you have access to other worlds in everything you touch.” He held up one hand to hold off her response. “And I’m not even talking about your sophisticated tech. This is trivial everyday use stuff that children among you can operate.” Bilk shook his head as if to be certain there was nothing loose inside. “And you think I’m beyond you?”
It took Fundra a few moments, but she managed a heavy sigh—very human. “I do not believe you understand. We invited you here, my friend Bilk, to find the answer to your kind.” She sent a handful of stringy appendages sweeping the sky. “We invited you across a hundred planets. We gave you the maps and means to communicate in methods suitable for you. And you have just given me a glimpse of the answer to what makes you what you are. You have shown me a world of your own making, and given me many more questions. You told me, ‘We are here because I lost my sister. My parents had to get away from everything.’ It is almost as if...” She stopped to shape the words. “Almost as if you can grow like a tree without roots—or without remembering your roots. Running away from a world, leaving it out of your memory and moving on as if there was no before. That is a strange idea to me—to us. It is an ability we would like to understand. You create and shed whole worlds. You build them, and leave them behind. In all our encounters with life in the Greatest Ocean, you are the most private and sorrowful—and world-full life we have encountered.”
Bilk laughed sadly. “We can do some pretty nasty things, too. You know our history. What we’re capable of?”
She dismissed his objection. “We measure you by your interest in growth, in your ability to understand, by the worlds you want to create, not in your capacity to destroy.” Fundra made a shrugging motion, a roll of waves like shoulders. “Destruction is simple. Growth is difficult—understanding why things need to grow is the most difficult of all. Thetis is what it is because you are here. Earth is what it is because you are there. A hundred worlds are what they are because you have settled on them and brought your love of growth.”
Bilk shifted his focus to the pale sun-flowing shape of his sister, and then along to the five copies of himself in the reflection off Fundra’s surface. Apparently everyone had followed him to Thetis. Were they permanently attached to him? Were his memories real in a way he had never known? There was a sense of all five copies of himself being parts of a whole, and he could act for them all. Then there was the ghostly reflection of his sister Nikola, who was there but not part of him. She was there...like she was there. And how did that happen? Bilk had always had questions for answer-seeking Fundra, but now that’s all he seemed to have. Questions.
“I don’t have any more answers,” he whispered.
Fundra smiled at him, a rippling glow in her depths. “I think that’s because it is my turn to have some for you.”
Bilk frowned, and looking over Fundra, not far up the beach, he saw his mother and father and a bunch of others, a couple of the colony reps, gathered with Fundra’s family. All at once the adults turned and ran or washed down the beach toward them.
Fundra’s tone changed, her words coming quicker, as if she only had a short time to explain things before more formal interactive constraints would be lowered on them. “You have your twin sister.”
Bilk tried to re-word her statement into something he understood. “I carry everything she meant to me?”
“You carry everything that made her your sister—with access to everything she is and was, and you carry it in your world.” Fundra fanned a dozen tips over his head. “You brought her together. The Greatest Ocean holds all things, not only memories, but the substance of the things in it at all points in time. Touch that idea with your thought, Bilk, and see your sister. It is your world. It is right to put in it the things dear to you.”
Bilk turned, still trying to comprehend that, and then his mother cried out, cutting through his thoughts, and grabbed him. “Two days, Bilk? Where have you been?”
“I knew you’d come back,” said Gustav, but gave Bilk a playful swat on the shoulder anyway. He pulled a lemon from his pack, the size of both his fists clasped together, and handed it to Fundra. “For you, my dear Answer-seeker.”
The col-reps were taking voice notes and nodding approvingly. The Hubery family looked disappointed for some reason.
Fundra’s father, eyeing the lemon as if it was an egregious breach of etiquette, did not look pleased, turning his feelings on his daughter. “Give me everything of yours, the thunderbird, all of the things you have tipped from Bilk’s memories. Until you do not fail in your responsibilities, you are no longer permitted to see Bilk.”
Fundra swayed back defiantly, tips tucking in. “I did not create the lost world. Bilk did. He has all the ability and components. He just needed to be shown how to assemble them.”
Bilk gave Fundra’s father an open-handed gesture. “She came with me to protect me.”
Fundra copied his gesture. “He made tears, and I didn’t understand his purpose at first. I thought he was going to create a world for me, one in which his dead sister still lived. I didn’t know it was possible, but I helped him anyway, and he—he did it. He made one. We went to a place created from his control of materials, his ideas, his perceptions. His world.”
Her father made a confusing gesture, throwing water everywhere, and the expression he gave his daughter took a minute for Bilk to understand. There was a strong show of disbelief mixed with a flurry of signatures: doubt, a thin current of fear, a long chain of patterns that meant something like physical impossibility and tied in biological capabilities and limitations, culture, physiological incompatibility. Then there was revelation. “But with so few tips?”
“Bilk solved that as well. He has grown five of himself—five copies of Bilk.” She blended a hundred strands into one reflective sheet that sent the light of Thetis’ star through the near transparent copies of her human friend, arranged foot-to-foot and hand-to-hand like an unfolded paper cutout of Bilk-shaped patterns.
Fundra’s father spent a moment studying Bilk. “An interesting path.” He noticed with a two-tip prod the girl standing next to Bilk in the reflection, but didn’t comment on her.
“Five of him grown off the original, using each finger as a tip, producing sixty. In this way, he can be considered elder to me.”
Bilk looked up and into the vast and wise ocean eyes of Fundra’s father. One side of Bilk’s mouth curled into half a smile. “Fundra helped me. Don’t take anything away from her. She has taught me so much, how to find what we have lost, how to feel the motion of the tides. How deep the water is in every one of our tears.”
“Bilk has answered.” Fundra said solemnly, folding three long tendrils over Bilk’s shoulders. “He has given us more than we were seeking. Our journey is never complete, but in this one regard, it is over.”
Bilk looked around, from his parents to Fundra’s father, and then up to Fundra. “Over?” He pointed out the tides. “Tomorrow’s always a new day with new things to learn, new things to teach.”
Fundra made her very human sounding laugh, holding up Gustav’s gift. “That is so. And still many old things.” She tapped the bright yellow rind with one tip. “Lemons. Your father’s warm fingers in the dirt, curled around the seedling of a lemon tree. Try to find that across the Greatest Ocean.” She paused only a moment. “I will spare you the challenge. You will not find it outside yourselves and a few other kinds.” Fundra held up all forty-eight of her tips, her full fan. “We have looked. We have tipped whole worlds for others who have—as you say, climbed far. If they exist, they have not heard our call.”
Fundra’s father made a rolling motion that everyone understood to mean he was intrigued by this change, that he was surprised by its apparent depth, and he would have to spend a long time thinking about it. He bowed to Jovita and Gustav, curled up and stabbed nineteen tips, nine of them fanned into the air, the others at the waves, directing his accompanying oceanfarers away.
And Bilk took that to mean that he and Fundra were off the hook—everyone’s hooks. “See you tomorrow, Fundra?”
She made a gesture with almost all of her tips, the rest of them still holding the bright yellow lemon. “Yes, you will.”
He took his mother’s and father’s hands, gave them each a squeeze, and then let them go. “I have one more thing to tell you.” Bilk pointed to his head. “I found Nikola. She was in here and across the universe—the Greatest Ocean—the whole time, waiting to get out, waiting to come back together. Maybe we tried to leave her at Home. But she followed us here.”
Bilk looked up on the last few words, smiled, following the curve of sand to his sister who had run ahead. Nikola stopped with the starlight shining through her and turned, smiling back at him, her feet sinking in the seawater that played at the edge of their new world.
There was a promise in her smile—a smile that told everyone she would be there tomorrow.
Chris Howard is just a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books, 2008), Salvage (Masque/Prime Books, 2013), Nanowhere (Lykeion, 2005), and a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines and anthologies—latest is “The Mermaid Game” in Paula Guran's anthology, Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep (Prime Books, 2015). “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” was in Fantasy Magazine. His story “Hammers and Snails” is a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. His essay “How to Build Worlds without Becoming the Minister for Tourism” is in Now Write! (Penguin, 2014). He writes and illustrates the comic Saltwater Witch, as well as the comic edition of Salvage. His art has appeared on dozens of book covers, in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages of books, blogs, and other interesting places.
Find out more at SaltwaterWitch.com
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