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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Mystery & detective  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Adventure  ➡  General

An Atlas for Melancholy Dreamers

Shakespir Edition

2016

TABLE OF CONTENTS

ONE

The First to Join, and a Woman in Black

TWO

Philadelphia Museum of Art

THREE

The Reluctant Adventurer

FOUR

Doorway of the Attrantics

FIVE

The Mural Illusion

SIX

Neverwuz

SEVEN

The Island of Roscoe Teddy Toad

EIGHT

Perpetual Morning & the Phantasm Nightmare

NINE

Bar in France, 1656

TEN

A Girl Named Lloyd

ELEVEN

Nidus

TWELVE

Currents Without Storm

THIRTEEN

The Boogeyman

FOURTEEN

The Trip Back

FIFTEEN

Monsters in the Rain

AN INTERLUDE

The Story of Viktor Gurlach

SIXTEEN

A Union of Rebels

SEVENTEEN

The War in the Barren Lands[
**]

CHAPTER *][]ONE[*—

The First to Join, and a Woman in Black

“One time I kept my eyes open and sneezed—now I don’t blink…ever,” said the wide-eyed teenager, his voice low and shy.

This was the first applicant.

True to his word, he had not blinked once during the interview.

“That’s…weird,” Syd Siegfried replied. “What made you call about the ad?”

He had recently run an ad in the Inquirer that read:

The meek, wide-eyed young man gave a worried glance around the room. His hands were in his lap and Syd noticed he would twiddle his thumbs faster or slower depending on what they were talking about.

“I would maybe like to do something…daring?” the young man half-answered, half-asked.

(The word “daring” made his thumbs twiddle faster.)

Syd didn’t know what to think of the teenager.

Syd had been finishing work at his desk when the young man first arrived. A mop-top of black hair poked around the corner of his office doorway before the young man’s wide, unblinking eyes peeked around the corner, hidden behind thick, round glasses. But just as Syd was about to greet him—poof, the young man disappeared into the hallway outside the office. A quiet second passed and the young man reappeared, this time without the glasses. It all happened so fast that Syd wasn’t even sure if the glasses were real or if he had been mistaken. (Although the young man had been exactly on time, so that was a good sign.)

“I’m not sure how daring this’ll be,” Syd responded honestly.

“Oh…” the young man mumbled, still concerned.

HOOOONK!

—the young man’s head jerked toward the sound like a frightened cat; his wide, unblinking eyes searched the nearby window for danger even though it was just the rude honking of a car horn on the street below. Syd’s office was on the second floor of Chestnut Street, which was in a busier part of the city, so the traffic could get obnoxious at times. But it was as if the teenager had never heard a car before.

“Bryan?” called Syd, trying to get the teenager’s attention back.

Reluctantly, the young man returned his unblinking focus to Syd.

“My frien—a person—or, well, I guess pe-people call me…Whiskers,” he stuttered.

“So tell me, Mr. Whiskers—”

“Just Whiskers,” interrupted the young man, correcting Syd.

Sort of fits, Syd thought of the nickname.

“Good. Mr. Whiskers sounds like the host of a children’s show. And you’re…seventeen years old, right?”

Whiskers nodded.

“And your nickname is Whiskers?”

Whiskers nodded again.

“And you don’t blink. Ever?”

Whiskers nodded again.

“Not the talkative sort, are you?”

Whiskers nodded again.

“And you’re looking to go on a daring adventure?” reiterated Syd, eyeing the teenager a final time.

“Um, yes, sir,” Whiskers meekly affirmed.

“Love the enthusiasm,” agreed Syd, sarcastically. “Okay, you can be the first to join.”

“Join? Like a rad club?” Whiskers wondered, with a tinge of happiness in his voice.

“…sure,” Syd answered, hesitantly.

“So there are others?” asked Whiskers.

“Aside from me and my daughter—”

“Daughter?” Whiskers asked, surprised.

Syd was in his early thirties but his face was youthful and he appeared several years younger. People were often surprised to learn that he had a daughter, which was almost like an odd compliment.

“Yeah, she’s nine,” Syd nodded. “Aside from her and I, and now you, there’s still a few other people that seem interested. First meeting is Wednesday evening at the Art Museum.” Syd realized something. “Wait – you don’t even know what we’re doing yet.”

Whiskers shook his head and glanced around the room. His thumbs twiddled listlessly and he actually seemed content, even shuffling around in his coat to get more comfortable. The tan overcoat he wore was big enough to wrap around his thin body twice, almost like he was swaddled in a blanket. Double-breasted, with fake fur around the neck and wrists and gaudy black buttons up the front, it was old-fashioned (one might even say outdated) by several decades. It had been a cold winter but the spring season had started so, even aside from its appearance, the overcoat was still a peculiar choice.

There was a moment of silence.

“Do…you want to know what we’ll be doing?” Syd finally had to ask.

Whiskers focused his big, brown eyes on Syd again.

“Sure,” he said, as if it was an afterthought.

“A friend of mine asked me to check something out,” Syd began. “Have you ever been way, way up North on Oxford Avenue?”

Way, way up North on Oxford Avenue, Syd would sometimes play board games in a tiny room behind the pulpit of Old Trinity Church. Though Syd didn’t usually feel comfortable in churches, this one was nice. Two stories tall, it was built of red and black brick so old that the materials had been shipped from Britain during Queen Ann’s reign, and there was a three-story spire to one side. A decrepit, fenced-in cemetery was to one side, with a field in back, and the church was tucked away behind a line of trees and hidden from the street. Only the top of the spire and a worn, blue awning that hung over the bright-white front door could be seen from the sidewalk. The church had been long forgotten by the city but, at 276 years, it was the oldest church in Philadelphia.

Syd visited Old Trinity Church for work. One of his duties for H&H Home Healthcare was to deliver medical supplies, which brought him to the church frequently, so he could replace oxygen tanks and hand-deliver medication refills…and that was how Syd Siegfried first met Father Daniels.

A gentleman of calm demeanor and quick wit, Father Daniels was also surprisingly active for a person his age (which Syd pegged around seventy-five). He oversaw the church grounds, including the gardening, the cleaning, the maintenance, the painting, and anything else that needed doing. He would even spend his nights roaming the vestibules, tidying up, and, without fail, gave a sermon each and every Sunday – a task he’d done for thirty-six years straight, no matter the weather or if he was ill. (There was even one Sunday, when a large storm prevented everyone from coming in, that he gave an especially impassioned, truthful sermon to no one.)

Syd made deliveries to the church and, each week, he found himself staying later and later to talk with Father Daniels. Their conversations could be about anything, ranging from modern marvels (Father Daniels had somehow never seen a television) to the best breed of dog (Syd said Husky; Father Daniels disagreed, believing it to be a Golden Retriever); neither of them had close friends so it was pleasant, a reprieve from their nights alone.

But everything would change one Thursday night…

Syd had been sitting across from Father Daniels during an especially intense round of the board game Risk, their little figurines spread across a map of the world. (Board games were a favorite pastime of Father Daniels and they would play while talking.) The two men were seated on benches at an old wooden table in the center of a tiny, dimly lit room behind the pulpit. A tiny, square window on the outer edge of the room showed a tranquil night but everything was cast in a pale shade of ginger from the bulb overhead.

They took turns rolling the dice and Syd won.

“Australia’s mine, mate-y,” Syd said, using a terrible accent.

“Is Australia full of pirates?” joked Father Daniels.

“No, that’s my Australian accent,” Syd explained. “Like Crocodile Dundee.“ Father Daniels didn’t understand the reference and Syd told him the plot of a VHS he had recently rented for his daughter. (Syd never did realize he was confusing pirates with Australians.)

A moment of silence followed as they stared at the board.

Father Daniels rubbed his chin, thinking, and a glint of the overhead light reflected off his bald head as he told Syd, “Did you know it was an Oscar-winning French filmmaker who created the board game Risk?”

“I did not know that,” Syd responded, caught off-guard by the random fact. “What did the French director direct?”

“Something French, I assume,” Father Daniels answered as he moved his army into South America.

The two men rolled the dice and, again, Syd won.

Syd grinned but remained quiet.

“Yar! Ya hornswaggled me out of me plunder,” chuckled Father Daniels, pretending to be a pirate.

“That’s a perfect Australian accent,” Syd admitted, impressed.

The game was over, as Syd had taken over the world.

“Well, it looks like you won,” conceded Father Daniels, “so I best show you what it is you’ve earned.” He reached beneath the table and lifted up a long, rolled-up piece of old parchment, which he then unfurled and held up. “It’s an atlas.”

As a rule, they weren’t allowed to bet on their games – but the winner could accept a small gift from the non-winner (Father Daniels didn’t like the word “loser”). The gift wasn’t allowed to be fancy or expensive, and it had to be something the other person already owned but didn’t need anymore. So far, Syd had accepted a news magazine from the year he was born, and Father Daniels had (very graciously) accepted several board games that had been lying around Syd’s house for some time.

Syd stared at the designs on the yellowing paper. It was a beautiful, hand-drawn atlas of Philadelphia, and it might have been worth something if it hadn’t been covered with tiny black scribbles – as if someone had vandalized it with unreadable notes.

“Is that real?” asked Syd, skeptically.

“Real enough,” answered Father Daniels. “It’s been in the basement of this church for who-knows-how-long and I saw it the other day and thought you might like it.”

“What’s all the black scribbles?” Syd asked, squinting to read them.

“That’s why I thought you might like it,” Father Daniels said with a smile. “Someone scribbled all over it…but, each of the scribbles are over areas that would eventually become landmarks of Philadelphia, like the art museum and the second bank and liberty hall. I don’t think it’s scribbles, though; I think it’s writing. I think there may be more to it than just scribbles. I don’t think it was vandalized, I think…someone might have been trying to say something with it. I think—”

“—that it’s a treasure map?” Syd finished his thought, hopeful.

“I’m not sure if it’s treasure,” Father Daniels answered, uncertain, “but it seems to lead to something. I got it when I was young, even younger than you now. And I remember being younger and looking at this atlas and the scribbles, and I would always tell myself, ‘One day, I’m going to look into this. One day, I’m going to go to the landmarks, with the atlas, and research it, and see if the scribbles mean anything. One day, one day, one day…’ But I always put it off. Put it off and put it off until putting it off became routine, and then it was forgotten and left to collect dust in a cellar because one day _]never came.” His aged eyes gave a knowing glance across the table to Syd. It was an [_if-only-I-could-pass-my-life-experience kind of look. “More time never comes. You start with a lot and it only gets shorter and moves faster and now, now I can’t even do it – even if I wanted to. So take this gift and do an old man a favor – look into it for me. You’re a good person, Syd Siegfried. It’s something I can see in your eyes and hear it in your voice, especially when you talk about your daughter.” Father Daniels nodded to himself, then handed the atlas over the table. “And I see great things in you, young man.”

*      *      *

Syd finished telling the story.

Whiskers had perked up during the story, interested.

“So it could be a treasure map?” he asked, curious.

“I doubt it but who knows,” responded Syd. “I haven’t really been able to read it yet because it’s all cursive-y but I’m fairly certain the scribbles do actually say something – it’s just whether or not that something actually turns out to be anything. So we’re going to check out some landmarks with the atlas – that’s it.” Syd paused a moment. “Couple trips around the city, you know. A fun history lesson, if nothing else.”

And with that, Syd was done.

A moment of silence.

“So…I’ll see you next Wednesday evening,” he added, trying to end the meeting.

Whiskers’ unblinking eyes jumped from the window to the ceiling to the filing cabinet, and then to Syd. More silence. The two men stared at each other as if it were a contest. Whiskers’ enormous brown eyes were almost hypnotic and the more Syd stared into them, the bigger they seemed to get, the harder it became to look away, the deeper they stared back, the bigger they—

“I feel like you’re staring into my soul!” Syd said with a grunt, finally breaking eye contact.

Whiskers looked at the ground.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “I just can’t help it.”

Syd instantly felt bad.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said, encouragingly. “I’m just not used to it. Makes me feel like I’m the one being interviewed.”

“Is this an interview?” Whiskers asked, worried.

“No, not really,” Syd said, shaking his head. These weren’t really interviews, more like meetings to determine if the people responding to his ad in the newspaper were crazy. The peculiar young man sitting across from him was a fidgety sort, shy and skinny and easily distracted, with a bizarre wardrobe, and his fingers that never ceased their twiddling, but there was something endearing about Whiskers. He wasn’t crazy, just a bit weird.

Syd stood up and they bid each other farewell and shared an awkward handshake, and then Whiskers left the office and disappeared down the hallway. Syd had chosen to meet the applicants at his work office, on the second floor of H&H Home Healthcare, because he was still suffering the consequences of having put his home phone number in the newspaper classifieds.

The ad hadn’t even been out a full day before the calls started:

“Hello?” Syd answered.

“Yes, I’m calling about the ad in newspaper,” replied a deep, gruff voice.

“Fantastic,” Syd had said, excited. “What’s your name? Tell me about yourself.”

“My name’s Bruce Wayne,” the deep, gruff voice had said, “and I can’t work at night…annnnnnnd I’m a billionaire.”

That was just the beginning and, soon, Syd’s phone was ringing daily with interested parties.

“Name’s Al. Last name, Killou.”

“Al Killou?”

“How dare you threaten me!”

Somehow, Syd always fell for it.

“When are you free to meet, Mr. Ami? Or do you prefer to be called Sal? Is that an Italian name, Sal Ami?”

“Yes, it’s Italian. And delicious.”

Sometimes people would laugh and hang up.

Sometimes, they would let the call go on for as long as they could.

Thankfully, the volume of prank calls had decreased now that the new Sunday edition of the Inquirer was out…though they hadn’t stopped entirely. (Just the night before, a Miss “Maya Rearsmells” had called to talk about the gas in his stove.)

Syd returned to his desk to tidy up a bit, then took a moment to watch a ray of sun cross the wooden floorboards of his office. He didn’t know why he stared at the ground as much as he did, just that it had become a habit. His window offered a fine view of the city, too, but Syd always found himself watching a sliver of orange light creep over the warped planks of wood.

A gentle dusk had swept the city by the time Syd locked all the doors and stepped outside. The streets were uncharacteristically calm and the evening was warm. Winter had been horrible and even April was cold but now that they were getting deeper into May, the weather was nicer, with gentle breaths of cool air and the scent of blossoming daffodils. Night had fallen by the time Syd reached his shoddy apartment building and climbed up the two flights of narrow stairs. (The building elevator had been broken since before he lived there.) And, just as the key fit into the lock of his front door, the phone rang.

Syd rushed inside to answer.

“Hello?”

[_“Ugh,” _]a disgusted (yet familiar) sigh greeted him.

“Oh…hey,” Syd replied, recognizing the voice.

[_“Pick your daughter up from school tomorrow?” _]the voice said with the inflection of a question; really, it was more of a statement.

Syd thought about his schedule.

“That’s fine, shouldn’t be an issue,” he responded.

“Don’t forget,” the voice warned.

“Have I ever?” he asked, genuinely confused.

[“Ugh,” _]another disgusted sigh, followed by a speculative,[ “probably, you’re the worst.”_]

“Can I talk to Abby?” he eagerly asked, ignoring everything else.

“She’s busy.”

Click.

Syd set the receiver down—and the phone rang again, instantly.

“Hello?” he answered, hoping it was his daughter.

“Hi,” responded a pert, slow male voice, “I saw your ad in the paper.”

Syd grabbed the notepad on the table next to the couch.

“What’s your name?”

“Tyler.” The voice paused while Syd wrote it. “Do you need my last name?

“Sure,” replied Syd, pencil ready.

“It’s Tass. T-A-S-S,” the voice answered.

“Nice to meet you Tyler,” he cheerily greeted the caller, “my name’s Syd.”

“Call me Ty,” the man interjected, politely.

“You got it, Ty,” Syd said, smiling.

“Before we start, I do need to know something right up front – is this gonna cost me anything? Or are there going to be, like, hidden fees? Because my wife and I don’t have much money.”

“No-no-no, I promise – no costs or hidden fees or anything like that, Mr. Ty Tass—”

“What?—how rude?!” the voice angrily cut him off.

Click.

A minute and thirty-seven seconds passed before Syd got the joke. It was another pun about a behind, which were becoming more frequent lately. Bed definitely followed shortly after, and he woke early the next morning to stumble into the bathroom. It was dawn but, for the first time in months (a lifetime, it felt like), his apartment wasn’t freezing. The floor was still cold, though, especially the bathroom tiles, so Syd hopped around in front of the mirror. His stubble was unruly so he shaved his face. Brushed his teeth. Coffee. Clothes. And then, out the door.

Syd walked to work, again enjoying the advent of spring. He passed through the front doors of H&H Home Healthcare and thought the showroom on the ground floor was empty until a voice called out, from behind an aisle of walkers, “We got a wheelchair that needs service over at the Orion Retirement Home.”

A face with distinctly puffy, chipmunk-like cheeks popped up over the shelves between them. This was Syd’s boss, Paul Hidenberg – the first H of H&H Home Healthcare.

“Do you know who needs it?” Syd asked, walking over to Paul.

“Miss…Gorilla,” answered Paul, thinking.

Syd paused, waiting for the punch line – and, when none came, there was a moment where he genuinely worried that the prank calls had somehow followed him to work.

“You mean Miss Grillo?” Syd corrected him, finally realizing the only person he could mean.

“Right, right, Miss…Gorillo,” Paul nodded, still mispronouncing the name.

Syd noticed a similarity between Paul and the unblinking teenager known as Whiskers: both were always shifting, fidgeting as if their bodies were uncomfortable if they were still. But Paul was kind of puffy all over, his midsection rounded with excess weight, and he was much more talkative. His voice would also rise with excitement whenever he would talk about his passions (usually sci-fi and horror movies), which was pretty often; in fact, Syd could see the newest issue of Fangoria rolled up in Paul’s left hand.

Paul saw Syd’s eyes looking at his magazine.

“Did you see what comes out in July?” he asked.

“Nah, what’s coming out?” encouraged Syd, politely, even though it was a subject he didn’t much care for. He didn’t watch horror movies – or any movies, really, unless they were made for kids. Syd’s tastes weren’t mainstream, by any means: the only thing he watched was the evening news; the only station he listened to was talk radio (unless Abby was in the car with him); and the newspaper was the only thing he read. When it came to anything even remotely popular, Syd Siegfried was usually clueless.

Paul opened his magazine to show Syd the picture of a man in a gray, metal suit.

“What on Earth is that?” Syd asked, always surprised (and sometimes horrified) by whichever Fangoria article Paul was shoving in his face.

“It’s a cop that’s half-man/half-robot. It’s called – get this – Robocop!” Paul’s voice rose with excitement. He had such enthusiasm that it was often refreshing to talk with someone who had so much passion, and he began counting on his fingers. “First there’s Predator in June, then Robocop in—”

“I should probably go fix the gorilla wheelchair,” Syd politely cut him off. He didn’t want to be rude but, if Paul wasn’t interrupted, he would never get any work done.

Syd requested that Paul not schedule any appointments after 3:00 p.m. since he had to pick up his daughter, and then he excused himself. Entering his office felt more like home than his apartment did, which made Syd the slightest bit sad. Wood creaked as he crossed the room, as did the metal frame of his chair when he sat and leaned toward his desk. The order for Miss Grillo’s replacement brakes was in his inbox, and he clipped it to a clipboard, but the daily docket was otherwise empty. The low morning sun created a blue-tinted, diamond-like reflection though his window and made the wood planks of the floor turn a burning, deep-red color.

You never stare out the window, Syd scolded himself, only at the floor.

The work day that followed was uneventful—well, aside from something that happened while Syd changed the brakes on Miss Grillo’s wheelchair at the Orion Retirement Home.

“Oh, dear, best not get too close to me. I think I’m coming down with something,” Miss Grillo softly confessed before coughing into a handkerchief. She was a sweetheart, always generous and polite, and Syd had known her for some time. He was not particularly worried about her cold and he knelt beside the wheelchair while she remained seated in it.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Syd reassured her.

“You want to go out for wine?” Miss Grillo asked, her voice loud. She was hard of hearing and often misunderstood the things Syd would say to her. Before he could respond, however, she was already answering a question he didn’t ask. “I can’t go out for wine, sweetie. But you’re a handsome young chap. Thirty years ago, I would have!” she laughed.

Syd finished replacing the breaks on one wheel and moved to the other side of the wheelchair.

“What is it you’re doing down there?” Miss Grillo asked, her voice even louder.

“I’m replacing the brakes,” he answered, raising his voice.

“You’re heating up steaks?” she asked, bewildered. (No matter how loud he spoke, she never really seemed to hear him.) “Why are there steaks on my wheelchair?”

“No, I’m replacing the brakes!” Syd said, nearly yelling.

Miss Grillo looked horrified.

“You’re protecting me from snakes?” she hollered. “Thank you so much. I hate snakes. How many snakes are down there? Were they drawn to the wheelchair steaks?”

Syd stopped what he was doing and faced her directly, getting closer to her. He opened his mouth wide to better enunciate and began to repeat himself a third time, “I’M CH—”

“ACHOOOO!”

Miss Grillo quickly sneezed in Syd’s face and open mouth.

“Oh, dear,” she excused herself, wiping her mouth and nose with a handkerchief. “I’m definitely coming down with something. Told you not to get too close, my dear.”

Other than that, the work-day was uneventful.

*      *      *

Abby Siegfried glared at a nearby boy. School was over and they were waiting outside on the back concrete parking lot but Abby still had the burning desire to run over and rip the backpack off the boy’s shoulders and stomp on it and make him cry. His name was Alex and he had taken not one, not two, but three of her crayons during art—and they were the lighter colors, her favorites. Light pink. Light blue. Peach. Her cheeks were becoming flush, and her anger was growing—but then someone called her name, and she turned, and she found her daddy approaching.

Instantly, Abby’s anger was gone, and she ran over to him.

She loved her daddy. He was different, too, just like her—or at least he used to be like her. It was something he liked to talk about, that she was exactly like him when he was her age. She always felt different – from her friends, her classmates, everyone – but there was a time when her daddy was different, too, when he was just as driven and stubborn and angry as her. She liked to think that there was once a time when she wasn’t so different, when there was someone else just like her. Her daddy had calmed down as he got older. She was still in the thick of it, emotional and impulsive and creative and sugar and difference and anger and opposition and “Why?”—always “Why? Why? Why?” Grownups hated her constant questioning. They would tell her that grownups didn’t have the luxury to question everything. Abby could tell that grownups didn’t like change and she knew why – change was new and new was different and different was scary because grownups wanted everything boring and predictable. (Syd had outgrown this behavior, but always asking “Why?” was the one trait he missed.)

Syd picked his daughter up and he hugged and kissed Abby all over her face before setting her back down to leave the area. They were following the sidewalk, heading away from her elementary school, and Syd asked if anything had happened since the weekend, when he last saw her.

“Mommy has a new boyfriend,” she said with an approving nod, “an’ he has big muscles and he lives in a giant house – it’s so much bigger than your apartment – an’ mommy calls him ‘hunky’—but, daddy, what’s ‘hunky’ mean?”

“It means mediocre,” replied Syd. “Like, ‘He’s just okay. Nothing special.’ Wait—did mommy take you to get a haircut?” He quickly changed the subject.

“Yup. Like it?” Abby said and stopped and modeled the new haircut. Her fluffy auburn hair had been cut into a bob, rounding and shaping her tiny pink face. She stared up at her father, eager for his opinion, and her expression was strangely familiar. She may have had her mother’s eyes but their telling expressions – anger, surprise, humor – were identical to his own. Her mother’s eyes but her father’s looks, literally, he would often tell people.

“I love it,” Syd told her, glowing.

Abby smiled and they continued on.

“How’s the rat?” she asked.

“It’s a guinea pig, sweetie,” Syd corrected her, “and she’s fine—or he…I’m still not sure if it’s a boy or girl.”

“She,” Abby said with certainty.

“She? Okay,” he agreed. “Well, she hides most of the time. I can’t even remember the last time I saw her running around. But she must be okay since she eats all her food and really fills her litter bin. It’s amazing that so much can come out of such a tiny creature. I don’t know how she has time to do anything besides eat and use the potty.”

Abby giggled.

“We need to make a quick stop,” he quickly told her while she was in a good mood, trying to say it fast in order to avoid an argument.

“Ugh,” Abby let out a sigh, one that was eerily similar to her mother; it sent a chill up Syd’s spine.

“It’ll be fun,” promised Syd.

Instead of turning down the block leading to his apartment, they went straight until the sign to H&H Home Healthcare was visible.

At the sight of his work, Abby began to complain.

“It’s boring,” she kept saying. She wanted to do something fun like eat candy or run around or jump or climb, anything but his work. “And yer office smells like an old shoe closet.”

“That’s…a surprisingly accurate description of how my office smells,” he admitted. “But we have to interview someone.”

It helped to make her integral to the situation.

Abby didn’t know what “interview” meant, and she really didn’t want to be in daddy’s musty office, but helping with grownup stuff persuaded her just enough to invest a small amount of attention toward the situation. She’d give it a chance…probably a very, very short chance, maybe even shorter than that…but, a chance nonetheless.

Syd unlocked the front door to H&H Home Healthcare and they walked up to his second-floor office. He sat at his desk and Abby sat in a chair behind him, against the wall and beside the window, and he instructed her to be quiet and not move around too much during the interview, though he knew it might be too much to ask of her. Abby never sat for longer than a minute or two (it had actually become an issue at school), like the fidgets of Paul and Whiskers but to the nth degree. She had infinite energy and couldn’t help but move, usually rocking in her seat or running when she should walk. That, coupled with an insatiable curiosity, made Abby a handful.

“Why are you in-v-tewing people?” Abby asked, trying to repeat the word. She was already twisting side-to-side in the swivel chair.

“In-ter-view-ing,” corrected Syd. “Remember that atlas I showed you?”

“Yes! The Almond-ack,” Abby exclaimed. She instantly knew what he was talking about.

“An al-man-ck is about weather and farming and stuff,” Syd informed her. “We have an at-las, which is a survey of the land. And I’m in-ter-view-ing people because I figured more heads are better than just us two, right?”

“Heads?” Abby asked, picturing multiple heads on one body.

Syd was going to explain but there was a knock at the office door.

“Come in,” welcomed Syd.

The door opened wide, spreading light from the hallway.

A woman walked in and the whole room suddenly felt dimmer. She had a blank expression and her pale skin almost glowed against all-black attire: her tight, low-cut band tee-shirt and torn jeans, the long hair that swayed down her back, her thick eye-liner and lipstick, boots and accessories – everything was black.

“Um…hi. Des—Desdemona Giger?” asked Syd, standing from his desk.

“Dezzy,” she corrected him, crossing the room.

Syd reached out his hand and the black, witch-like charms on her bracelet clinked and clanked as she confidently shook his hand and took a seat.

Syd was, once again, taken aback by the applicant.

“Um…hi,” he muttered, taking his seat.

“You already said that,” Dezzy pointed out, dryly.

“Um, yes…of course I did. You’re early. So…how—why did you respond to the ad?” he struggled to get back on track.

“It sounded normal,” she answered, matter-of-factly.

Syd crooked his head, confused.

“It did?” he asked.

“Yes. I need more normal in my life,” she said in a flat, monotone voice – as if everything was so bland that it teetered on annoyance. Her face also remained expressionless, frozen in a blank stare.

And here I thought Whiskers was hard to read, Syd noted.

“There’s a child behind you,” Dezzy said and pointed behind Syd.

Abby must have been waiting for Dezzy to notice her because she excitedly blurted out, “Hey, you have big boo—!”

“Abby!” Syd interrupted, knowing it was something inappropriate.

Abby tried to cover her wide smile with a closed fist.

“Thank you,” Dezzy replied, with no inflection whatsoever.

“How old are you?” asked Syd, attempting to regain control of the situation.

“Twenty-four,” Dezzy answered.

Syd retold his story, explaining how his friend had asked him to go to Philly landmarks and check out the “scribbles” on an old atlas to see if they meant anything. Dezzy called it “sight-seeing” and agreed to join the group, which surprised Syd – he hadn’t been sure if she was interested, or angry, or bored, or even listening.

“What’s in it for you?” she asked.

No one had asked him that.

“Besides doing a favor for a friend?” Syd thought a moment. “Abby…” he pointed behind him, at Abby (she excitedly waved at Dezzy with a wide smile, her legs swinging back and forth under the swivel chair), “…will get to see the city, and it’ll be educational. Plus, I could use a few trips out. Lately it’s just work and sleep, like I’m running underwater.”

His life had been feeling stagnant lately, so much so that he had recently had a dream where he found a fortune in gold at the bottom of the ocean. But the gold weighed him down, so he could either give up the gold to get to the surface, where Abby was waiting for him, or he could keep the fortune and stay at the bottom of the ocean, alone.

“First meeting is next Wednesday,” Syd said, changing the conversation. “We’re all meeting at the art museum—”

“Who’s we?” Dezzy asked in a flat voice.

“As of right now,” answered Syd, half-watching Abby as she began to rifle through an open filing cabinet, “it’s just me and Abby and a young guy named Whiskers.”

“Whiskers?” Dezzy said, curious.

“Yeah. Skinny. Doesn’t blink. Giant overcoat. Strange fellow but nice. I also have two other applicants I’m seeing tomorrow and the next day so, we’ll see.”

Syd would narrow the list down to five the very next day, when the third applicant walked in and immediately asked, “You guys solve mysteries, right?” He was older than Syd and kind of scuzzy, with greasy black hair combed back, though his outfit was refined and expensive; and even though it was evening, and they were inside, he wore sunglasses the entire time.

Syd shook his head.

“I’m getting a group together for trips around Philly,” he explained.

“Really? Daring crew and adventure weren’t code for something?” The man pushed a hand through his greasy hair and sniffled.

“I’m sure,” Syd answered, dead serious.

“Darn,” the third applicant said and looked away, then back up at Syd. He seemed anxious. “I was hoping to talk to someone about this alleyway that smells like bad cheese, and something growls at me when I pass it. I’m fairly certain that a troll’s taken up residence there but I’m too afraid to investigate it alone, you know, just in case it turns out to be an ogre, or a Dracula—or a cat. I hate cats – allergies.”

There was a long moment of silence.

Syd wasn’t sure what to say next so he settled for the truth.

“I’m sorry but…most of those things aren’t real,” he told the stranger.

The man took on a deathly stare as he responded.

“You’re gonna tell me that cats aren’t real? ‘Cause there’s a fat one that watches me when I leave my house every day and I swear he’s planning something.”

“Yeah, cats are real. Ogres, trolls, Draculas—wait. What do you think the cat is planning?” Syd had to ask, curious.

“I don’t know. Something nefarious. Probably a heist,” he answered, thoughtfully.

“So…it’s a cat burglar?” Syd stifled a laugh but quickly got serious. “Look, man, this is a fun, safe group that visits Philly landmarks. I don’t think it’s what you’re looking for.”

“But what am I supposed to do about the alleyway?” the man asked, genuinely concerned.

“It’s no more dangerous than any other alleyway in Philly so, if you don’t mind, I have to start closing up,” Syd said, both reassuring and dismissing him. He shuffled some papers, tidying his desk to leave for the day, but the third applicant remained seated. He shoved a hand through his oily hair again, further slicking it back.

“But…what am I supposed to do about the alleyway?” he asked again, as if Syd hadn’t already responded.

“You were right the first time,” Syd replied, shoving the last of his papers into a folder. “Better avoid the alleyway entirely. Definitely sounds like an ogre infestation.”

CHAPTER *]TWO[*—

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Syd Siegfried was growing impatient.

The final applicant was late.

The sun had nearly set and he was at his desk, waiting. His eyes lowered to the fiery hue fading from the office floorboards and he thought about the man who had given him the atlas. Father Daniels had said Syd was a good person and it was the nicest thing anyone had said about him in some time.

The sound of someone approaching caused Syd to look up and check the time. The final applicant was twenty minutes late when he entered the office. He was clean-shaven and his oaken hair had been buzzed into a crew cut recently, which helped refine an otherwise messy-looking applicant. His fattish torso was stuffed in a sweat-stained Ghostbusters tee-shirt, his gut hanging over dirty jeans, and he wore big, black-framed glasses and green slippers instead of shoes.

“Hi, hey. Syd, right?” the final applicant said, tossing an empty bag of cheetos into the waste basket beside the desk.

Syd held his hand out and the final applicant shook it vigorously.

“I’m Syd, yeah.”

“Call me Math.”

He left a residue of cheeto powder and sweat in Syd’s hand.

“Math?” Syd asked, cleaning his hand with a tissue.

“Yeah, Matthew without the ew!” laughed Math.

They took their seats.

“Sorry I’m late,” he went on, “but I got caught up with my girlfriend. She totally exists.”

The brag sounded disingenuous.

Syd quickly explained the atlas and what they would be doing.

Math wiped his lips but the moisture in his hand just smeared more cheeto powder across his face, like a messy toddler. “Can I see the atlas?” he asked, searching Syd’s desk to see if it was there.

Syd envisioned the atlas covered in greasy cheeto powder.

“No,” he said, truthfully, “it’s tucked away. Safe. But I’ll make a copy of it when we meet at the museum Wednesday.”

“And that is…wait, what’s today?” wondered Math.

“Today is Friday,” Syd answered. “Mind if I ask what it is you do during the day?”

“Lately? A lot of Metroid.” Math could tell Syd didn’t know what that meant. “It’s a video game on the Nintendo console.” (Syd knew what a Nintendo was but only because Abby hadn’t stopped talking about owning one since Christmas.)

Syd asked his age.

“Twenty years young,” Math answered. He picked something out of his ear and flicked it on the floor before continuing. “My dad’s an electrician and he brings me with him places, tries to teach me the family business—forget that! Am I right?” He laughed. “Though I do like it when we work on Macintoshes together.”

“And that’s a…?”

“Holy moley, Syds!” exclaimed Math. “A personal computer! You know, Apple Macintosh?”

Syd nodded again. He knew what they were but computers and video games were for the wealthy, not him.

“You’re livin’ in the stone age,” Math told him, shaking his head as if disappointed. “I bet everything’s computerized one day. Even banks.”

That’s ridiculous, Syd thought to himself.

But the young man seemed normal, if a bit sloppy.

“Would you like to join us?” Syd asked the final applicant.

Math pushed his glasses up his and nose and gave an enthusiastic “Yup!”

“Okay, then that’s it,” Syd said with a nod; but, when it was clear Math wasn’t leaving, he began using excuses to end the interview. “Now I got to go pick up my daughter…and make dinner…and I have to stop and get my laundry…and grocery shop…”

However, each excuse kept Math talking:

“How old is your daughter? I have a younger sister. She’s nine. Man can she be annoying, always following—What’re you having for dinner? I was thinking of picking up Chinese on the way home. I know the best place—Do you do your own laundry? Dry cleaning is amazing—Groceries? I grocery shop near here—”

It was while Math talked (and talked and talked) that Syd showed him the office door. Math just stood there talking. Syd sighed and left with him. He locked the building as they exited out onto Chestnut Street. Math was still talking. “Did you know Chestnut Street used to be Wynn Street, for Thomas Wynn? He was William Penn’s doctor until—” He had an impressive wealth of knowledge but, like Syd’s boss Paul, it seemed as if he would never stop rambling.

“Sorry to cut you off but I’m going to go that way,” Syd said and pointed down a nearby street.

Math was adamantly trying to follow him.

“Me too!”

“I meant that way!” Syd quickly said and hurried across the street, heading the opposite way.

“Oh…okay. See you Wednesday, Syds!” Math called after him.

Syd was in his apartment shortly after and, once home – shoes off, sweatpants on – he filled a bowl with dried food for the guinea pig he never saw, threw out the old litter and replaced it, heated up a dinner in his microwave, and, just as he sat down to eat and watch the news, the phone rang. He eyed it up, wondering if he wanted to risk whatever horror might be lurking on the other end. He chose to answer it in case of an emergency and was happy to find it a courtesy call.

“This is AT&T, may I speak with Mr…Lee?” a pert voice asked.

“I’m sorry, you have the wrong number,” sighed Syd.

“This isn’t Brock?” the voice asked again.

“No. There’s no Brock Lee here.”

“Good, I hate vegetables!” snickered the caller.

Click.

Durn it! he thought and hung up, feeling quite stupid for having walked into that one. At least it wasn’t a butt joke. He turned his attention back to the reheated dinner and news broadcast. The rest of the weekend passed quickly, as it was one of the few without Abby. Syd did nothing but lay around in sweatpants, reading and eating cereal. The third week of May began just as any other. Monday came and went like many of Syd’s days. Most days were the same and those that weren’t were different in the same ways, and they were all easy to forget. Deliver a wheelchair. Dismantle a hospital bed. Prescriptions to a few local apartments. Jen Hidenberg – wife to Paul and the second H of H&H Home Healthcare – had been with her mother’s family the last few weeks but she came back Tuesday. He passed her on his way through the showroom, heading out the door.

“Welcome back,” greeted Syd.

“You need to shave,” she answered through pursed lips.

Whereas Paul was always pleasant, with a sort of doofy smile, his wife Jen always appeared stern, severe. She never smiled. She wasn’t pleasant. Every situation was a serious affair to deal with her.

Syd rubbed his face and promised to shave and hurried out the door. He avoided the office for the rest of the day and shaved that night. Wednesday came and he spent the morning at work returning calls and contacting distributors for replacement parts. Around lunchtime, he set out to complete the list on the docket. Halfway through his first task, which was oiling the gears of a stair elevator, the house phone rang. The elderly client, with the unique first name Stenton, answered his phone; waited a moment; then he passed the phone to Syd.

“It’s for you, boy,” the very old Stenton spoke down to Syd, who was kneeling at the first stair.

Syd looked up, worried.

This better not be a prank call.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Hey, it’s me.”

There was a pause.

“Paul?” Syd asked.

“Yeah, of course. Expecting another call?” replied Paul, with a chuckle.

Syd breathed a sigh of relief.

“What’s going on?”

“Abby’s school called. She’s in the principal’s office and they said they couldn’t get ahold of her mother and they need you to be there ASAP.”

Syd rubbed the hair on his chin (the facial hair had already started growing back) and thought a moment. “I’m pretty much finished here and then I’ll head right over. Call and reschedule the last appointment please,” he politely requested.

Paul affirmed and they hung up.

Syd quickly finished oiling the stair elevator so that it purred smoothly. The elderly Stenton held his hand out, his fist clenched with something inside, as Syd went to leave. Some people tipped him and it was greatly needed but he understood when people didn’t, or couldn’t. Syd reached over, gratefully accepting the gratuity—only to find it was a balled-up, used tissue.

“Toss that out for me, boy.”

Syd nodded and left for Abby’s school. He had been to the elementary school weekly to drop off Abby but seldom did he go inside, only for parent/teacher conferences and the occasional trip to the principal’s office. He had once attended the same school, many years earlier, and he made the occasional trip to the principal’s office back then, too.

“Mr. Siegfried,” began the principal when they were finally alone in his office, “I need to speak with you about your child’s behavior.” He was a short man in a brightly colored suit and his demeanor was stern, which reminded Syd of his boss Jen. “She’s continued to be disruptive in class. Argumentative. Aggressive. Her teacher has voiced concerns. Abby is showing little regard for authority. And now this.”

“What did she do?” asked Syd, cutting him off.

“They didn’t tell you?”

Syd shook his head no.

“Well, Abby’s class was in art and she apparently had an issue with another boy taking her crayons and when the teacher tried to intervene, Abby went berserk and destroyed the art room.”

The principal pointed behind him and out through the open door. There was a conference room across the hallway. Syd was startled to find Abby was staring right back at him through the conference room window, her arms crossed, her chin down, and her eyes frozen in a menacing glare. Smeared on her face, matted in her hair, and splattered all over her jean overalls and white shirt were various colors of fluorescent paint.

“She’s been suspended for the next three days.”

Syd spat the first word that came to mind, which was a curse word. In a single disapproving glance, he could see the principal place all of the blame for Abby’s behavior squarely on him.

With a brief farewell, Syd left the office and got Abby’s book bag and her denim jacket from the front desk. He opened the door to the conference room and, with neither of them speaking, followed his pint-sized, paint-splattered daughter as she led them out of the building. Once outside, he checked his watch. Syd decided to head toward the museum early and they boarded a bus and rode to the end of Spring Garden Street and got off at the long stretch in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The only words said aloud during the trip from the school to the museum were spoken as they passed the vendors, when Syd ordered three hotdogs with mustard and onions – two for him and one for her, done up in their favorite way. He didn’t need to ask if she was hungry. Abby always, always wanted a street-side hotdog with onions and mustard. It was a passion they shared and they ate the hotdogs while sitting on a nearby bench. The paint covering Abby was beginning to harden, Syd noticed. There was a thick glob of chartreuse in her auburn hair, a stripe of olive over the shoulder of her white shirt (though it was mostly covered by her denim jacket), and an indigo/violet swirl around her jean overalls. A tiny tie-dyed human. Whatever anger she had in her faded away during this time. They were quiet because that’s just how they were sometimes. Quiet. She swung her legs under the bench on which she sat as she ate. She was getting taller. He could remember a time when she’d rest her back against the wood benches in Philly and keep her knees bent and feet up since they barely reached over the edge.

Abby finished the hot dog and looked up, her lips and mouth a mustardy-yellow mess (and a piece of onion stuck to her cheek). Syd smeared spit on a napkin from the vendor and cleaned her face, and then they were ready to continue, passing the Rocky statute to climb the coliseum-like steps leading up to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Reaching the top, Syd caught a glimpse of green slippers and heard, “…Excitebike is a Nintendo game, not an exercise,” and quickly identified the rotund, slovenly body of the man who had nicknamed himself Math. He was wearing the exact same outfit as he had when they met the previous Friday, his gut protruding from under a sweat-stained Ghostbusters tee-shirt, jeans ragged and dirty. If it wasn’t for the crew cut, he might appear homeless. He kept pushing his big, black-rimmed glasses further up his nose.

“You don’t say,” came a familiar, monotonous tone.

It took a moment before Syd realized that the woman ignoring Math was the dark, unreadable Dezzy. She, too, was dressed as she had the week previous, different attire but all of it black. He did notice that she was wearing heavy army boots, which was new. Her long, shadowy eyelashes blinked as she glanced over, her long, straight black hair half-covering her face, and Syd could tell she had seen them.

No going back now.

“It’s that pretty girl—who’s that fat guy?!” Abby asked, worried he might be her boyfriend.

She thought Dezzy could do better.

They stopped at the top of the stairs and Syd knelt beside her and made sure their eyes were connected while he spoke. They had already talked about making trips around the city, about using the atlas as if it were a treasure map, about including others to get help and make new friends. Abby had little trepidation over the endeavor but he wanted to be clear: “Before we do this, I just want you to remember that this whole thing is for us to have fun. There’s a little bit of learning but this is for us – for you and I to try something new, something different. And we do this only as long as we’re both in this together. Agreed?”

“Yup!” she exclaimed.

Syd and Abby approached the two, who were standing near the fountain. Math was surprised by the presence of a child doused in paint but, before he could react, Dezzy bent toward Abby and told the child, “You look awesome.” Then, she stood up with straight posture and an indifferent stare.

“Kid?” Math asked, over Abby’s head, to Syd.

“Kid,” Syd nodded, acknowledging that this was his offspring.

After scanning the local crowd, Syd had to presume the odd, unblinking first applicant was absent (What was his name? Fluffers? Whiskey?) and ushered everyone toward the main building. They were nearing the grand columns lining the front entrance when Syd began to tell Abby some of the stuff he had learned about the museum during recent visits.

“Abby, did you know this started as a massive collection of art for the first World’s Fair, which was held in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—which was signed where?” Syd liked to ask her questions; it kept her on her toes, kept her involved.

She just looked up with a shrug.

“Independence Hall, right down the street from daddy’s work!” he answered, trying to make it sound amazing. “On July 4th, our Independence Day.”

“Actually, only Hancock signed it on July 4th, 1776. Most everyone else signed on August 2nd,” corrected Math.

Abby wasn’t even paying attention; instead, she was staring up at the tall columns while circling them in a figure-8. That didn’t stop Math, however, as he felt compelled to share more information.

”Philadelphia used to get its water from behind here, too. There was a yellow fever epidemic so they built the Fairmount Waterworks behind here. But that was back when all this was just a giant rocky hill called Faire Mount.”

No one was really listening.

They entered and approached the admissions counter. The young clerk at the register rolled his eyes and scoffed in a condescending manner, asking Syd, “Back again?”

*      *      *

Syd had made several trips to the museum after acquiring the atlas. During his last trip, he even joined a tour. He tried asking questions that might be relevant to the atlas but learned very little. It might have helped if he understood what it was he was actually looking for, or even just the ability to clearly read the scribbles so that he might find a hint. He did have with him a Xeroxed copy of a section of the atlas, which he referred to often, but the tiny writing and scribbles proved useless.

After the tour, Syd showed it to the slender, stick-like tour guide.

“Well, what you have here is a small portion of a geographical map by the cartographer Varli, circa 1801,” explained the tour guide.

“Really? Is it valuable?” Syd asked, nonchalantly.

“This is a photocopy, sir,” he snidely answered, “but yes, the original Varli atlas is invaluable.” The guide hesitated, studying Syd, then went on. “It was reproduced many times but the original is thought to have been destroyed many years ago. This photo copy, however, has distinct etchings that are not on the Varli original. Penmanship appears to have originated,” and he held the photocopy closer to his pencil-thin mustache, studying it, “sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s.”

“How can you tell?”

“There is a gothic curvature to the figures, one made popular by a specific type on the Gutenberg Press. Americans saw it as a sign of Europe and it faded from use by the Civil War, maybe a little after.”

Syd also got the distinct feeling that the man thought he was an idiot.

“This is quite a famous view of Philadelphia,” the tour guide asked before leaving. “May I inquire where you got the photocopy?”

“I made it—” Syd started but immediately stopped, realizing his mistake, “—I mean, from another photocopy. It’s a copy of a copy.”

The situation suddenly grew quite uneasy. The tour guide licked his lips quickly, like a lizard, and a cold glint overtook his eyes, one that made Syd nervous; and then they narrowed with suspicion.

“Copy of a copy…” he half-mumbled, studying the copy in his hand a bit closer. “And who had that copy?”

“Someone—a friend,” Syd lied.

“May I keep this copy?” inquired the tour guide.

“Sorry, it’s my only one.”

The tour guide summoned a nearby employee.

“Get this gentleman’s information and sign him up for the free membership,” he told the employee. “And put my name as the recommendation.”

Syd had protested but the guide refused.

“I won’t hear of it,” the tour guide said, his voice entirely different than it had been moments before, more eager. “Art lover like yourself, asking all these questions. You should have constant access.”

Syd felt patronized and it had been quite an odd encounter. It had also been the situation that let him know he needed help, maybe a group of people helping him investigate whatever it was he was supposed to be investigating. And since he didn’t have friends, and didn’t know anyone else that could help (besides Abby), Syd placed an ad in the classifieds of the Philadelphia Inquirer the very next day, to run that Sunday.

*      *      *

“Yes, I’m back,” replied Syd as the group approached the judgmental museum employee at the admissions desk. “It’s my daughter and I…and these people.” He pointed to Dezzy and Math.

The clerk rang up the total and Syd opened his wallet. He was disparaged by its contents and forgot about the hotdogs he had bought for him and Abby. He was short a few dollars.

“I got it,” Math interrupted, happily handing over a credit card. “My family’s got plenty of moo-lah.”

The employee set the card in the credit card imprinter to ring up the charges—

“No-no-no,” called a voice, “these people are free—good to see you again, Mr. Siegfried. And glad to see you brought others!”

Syd grumbled a short hello as the slender tour guide approached through the open foyer—but then Syd realized something. I was careful not to tell him my name…which means he must’ve gone through the membership information. This unnerved Syd only a brief moment as, in watching the tour guide approach, he caught a glimpse of something in an upstairs corner, something familiar and mop-topped and wearing thick, rounded glasses.

The tour guide reached them with an endless line of questions, his voice carrying with it a distinguished air, one of the upper-class. “Back again? How are things? Is this your daughter? She’s so lovely, isn’t she? Covered in paint for the art museum, I love it!” He was mistaking Abby’s paint-specked clothes and hair as having purpose. “And these, your guests? I’m Ivan Risker, one of the curators. How do you do? Mr. Siegfried, did you ever find the person with the original photocopy? Oh, might it be one of these folks?”

After asking so many questions, Ivan Risker only waited for an answer to the last, during which time he gave Dezzy and Math a worried glance, as if afraid they might ruin the art. His pencil-thin mustache twitched anxiously and he gently scooted the tiny, round spectacles further up the brim of his narrow, pointed nose.

“Yeah, I’m back. Things are good. This is my daughter, these are my guests,” answered Syd, hurriedly listing them one-by-one. “And no, I didn’t find the person. They’ve gone far, far away. I think we’re going to look around. Nice to see you again.”

Syd gave Ivan Risker a friendly, dismissive pat on the shoulder and, for a split second, a look of scorn overcame Ivan—but it disappeared instantly, right back into a polite smile. The group gave him an acknowledging nod as they passed him, everyone except Dezzy – she growled and gnashed her teeth like a wolf as she walked by.

They entered the open area at the base of the polished stone stairway and headed up the stairs to the second floor. Halfway up, the stairs split in either direction toward the two museum’s two wings and, right at that split, towered the goddess Diana with her bow pulled taut and an arrow aimed toward nothing.

Abby took an extra moment to stare up at the statue.

Syd identified with an aimless arrow, as it reminded him of life, but he pushed on and led everyone the rest of the way up the elegant stairway. After reaching the right-side wing and checking to make sure the slender curator Ivan Risker wasn’t following them or somewhere spying, Syd pulled from his back pocket the five copies he had made of the atlas. Each copy was the same, an enlarged portion of the section over the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He handed one to Dezzy, one to Math, one to Abby—

“Hi,” came a gentle voice just behind him.

Syd jumped, startled. He thought Ivan Risker had come to berate him with more questions and, quickly turning, was fully prepared to defend himself against the museum curator.

The intense, unblinking gaze of the fifth member greeted him.

“Glad you could make it,” Syd smiled.

He remembered his name the moment he saw him again.

“I’ve been here since it opened,” Whiskers quietly responded.

“When was that?” asked Syd, surprised.

“9:00 a.m.”

Whiskers stared, unblinking.

“Okay then.” Syd handed him a Xeroxed copy and made the quick introductions. “This is Dezzy and Math and my daughter, Abby. Everyone, this is Whiskers.”

Whiskers gave a shy wave hello.

“Why do they call you that?” Math quickly blurted out.

“Who’s they?” Whiskers asked back.

“Touché,” responded Math.

Dezzy was indifferent to the exchange and turned to Syd.

“So what do we do?”

“We split up. If you look at what I gave you,” Syd checked the photocopy of the atlas and tried to describe the scribbles. “There’s some lines and a couple…symbols, like, part of a T and a circle and a backwards L. And it has a word. Da-dru-drem—”

“Davis Graff,” said Whiskers, looking down at his photocopy.

Syd gave him a look of surprise.

“You can read that?”

“Yeah,” Whiskers timidly answered.

The ad was already proving itself a success.

“Alright, well, that’s a name, right? Just, no matter what anyone does, do not ask Mr. Creepy Thinstache down there,” and he motioned toward Ivan Risker, who was lurking in the downstairs foyer, “because he just might be a murderer. Otherwise, find any artwork from a Davis Graff, find out who he is, anything. It could be something else, as well, like Davis’ graph.”

“—or Dave’s giraffe,” chimed in Abby.

“Yeah, that it could be.”

“Davis Graff, with two fs,” confirmed Whiskers, speaking low but without any doubt.

“I’ve been through here a few times and I couldn’t figure out what the atlas said so we’re already ahead.”

“Then what did you do if you didn’t know what you were doing?” Dezzy asked, almost annoyed by the idea.

“This place isn’t a desert. I found things to—look, we’re off topic. I figure, if we all work together,” he looked everyone over, “…at least we’ll get to see some artwork, right? Who’s with me?”

Math had a smile.

Whiskers fidgeted, unblinking.

Dezzy groaned and wished the place was a desert.

Abby raised her hand and Syd sighed; he could tell she was excited at the prospect of exploring alone.

“No, sweetness. You gotta stay with—”

“She can come with me,” Dezzy interrupted.

The monotone offer may have been surprising but it wasn’t nearly as surprising as Abby’s vigorous support of it. She jumped up and down and clapped.

“Um,” Syd thought it over. He didn’t know Dezzy very well. And she was definitely unusual. “I don’t…really—”

“Please, dad, please,” whined Abby.

“Yeah, dad, please,” joined Dezzy, morosely, before adding, “and we’ll stay on the second floor. We won’t venture far.”

Syd really wanted to say no but Abby’s pleading eyes, half-hidden by paint-stained hair, proved too hard.

“I guess it’s okay. You don’t leave her sight,” he told Abby; then, to Dezzy, he warned, “She likes to wander. Sometimes it’s a good idea to hold her hand.”

“Wonderful,” grumbled Dezzy, “because I like to wander and hold hands, too.”

Syd stared at her for the longest moment trying to discern if she was serious or not. Everything she said sounded sarcastic and her face was about as easy to read as wallpaper so he came to no conclusions – not that it mattered. The second he took his eyes off them, they were hurrying toward the nearest exhibit, hands together, and Abby’s sweet voice reached all the way back as she proclaimed, “Let’s go find Dave’s giraffe!”

The three men continued to stand at the threshold near the top of the stairs. Syd was about to suggest that Math and Whiskers work together but then decided against it and tried to think of something else to suggest. Math began eating a candy bar from his back pocket, his lips smearing with caramel. Whiskers stared intently between the two men, and at the ceiling, at any loud noise, at people close by, at the floor, up again, behind himself, and so on. His fingers were twiddling in front of him.

Each of them spoke at the same time.

“So it’s—”

“Let’s just—”

“…ok…”

And then they headed in separate directions.

CHAPTER *][]THREE[*—

The Reluctant Adventurer

Syd wandered aimlessly from one exhibit to the next.

He had seen all of them several times and wasn’t particularly interested in seeing them again so he lazily ambled along, staring off, lost in thought. Half an hour passed and he pulled out his copy of the atlas and sat on a cushioned bench in the corner of the Mongolian exhibit. An enormous mural of fierce Mongolian warriors stretched across the far wall and 700 year old suits of armor were displayed at both ends of the exhibit, as if standing guard. This particular exhibit had interested him during his first few visits. It fascinated him, that the armor had been worn so long ago, way, way, way, before the museum or the atlas or even the city of Philadelphia.

Syd stared down at the photocopy in his hand once more. He’d looked at it so many times that the sight of the yellowed paper and unintelligible scribbling was less frustrating and more exhausting, to the point where he felt as though he was staring through it…but Father Daniels had asked him to check out the atlas, see if the scribbles had any meaning, and Syd was going to check it thoroughly before raising a white flag – even if it was futile. The map was nearly two centuries old and the markings were from who knows when and written by someone six hundred years before the atlas even existed (according to Ivan Risker, the thin, annoying curator). Whatever the scribbles signified, it was most certainly gone. And that was assuming it had even meant anything to begin with, that it wasn’t just the doodles of someone who really liked tiny calligraphy.

Two hundred years is a long time. The great city of Philadelphia had changed over and over again; it was still changing, evolving, adapting to the times. The atlas showed miles of bare land surrounding the city, land that had long since been bought up and built over. Even the art museum had moved here from Memorial Hall, which was why the area on the map was empty. This had been nothing more than a rocky hill. Faire Mount. Nothing special, right?

This area had been empty until…the mid-1800s, so maybe—

Syd was on the verge of something – an idea, possibly a breakthrough – when a nearby noise distracted him. It was a distinct sound, one with which he was familiar…

A whimper.

Only one other person was in the exhibit and Syd looked over. A woman was hunched over her purse at the opposite end of the chamber. Her head was down as she searched for something in her purse. Syd turned his attention back to the paper in his hands, pretending not to notice, but the clanking and shuffling grew louder as the woman became more and more exasperated. At that moment, Syd made the chivalrous decision to intervene if she whimpered again—and then she immediately whimpered again, this time louder, and Syd quickly…didn’t do anything. He wimped out, afraid of approaching a stranger—well, a female. [_I’m sure the last thing this woman wants is some strange man approaching her, _]he thought, attempting to justify his inaction and the fact that he wasn’t brave enough to be a decent human.

A good person would try to help a person in need.

Syd may have been scared to approach a stranger but he was more annoyed with himself at the prospect of being a bad person; so, ultimately, he forced himself up and approached. Her head was still down, her face in her hands and buried beneath long waves of blonde hair. Her elbows rested on her knees and her shoulders shook as she quietly, gently sobbed.

“Ma’am, is everything alright?”

The woman startled.

Syd was confident she had thought herself alone until he spoke.

Bloodshot eyes glanced up through disheveled hair. A line of mascara ran down each of her flush cheeks. She waved him off and nodded, trying her best to not appear helpless – though it actually made her seem even more helpless. There had been situations like this with Abby, where she was inconsolable and didn’t want to be pestered. They both liked their silence but it was always more a remedy for anger, not sadness; for sadness, he would often sit next to her and talk about things in the room or things he had done that day or anything personal. So long as he kept his voice soft, and calm, and made an occasional joke, it usually helped her work through it. Abby’s angry spells, on the other hand, were a different situation entirely, one in which Syd was beginning to feel helpless.

Sighing with instant regret, Syd took a seat next to the woman. He was careful to leave plenty of space between them because he didn’t want to seem like a creepy creep and invade her space. Just, a moment to talk calmly…

“Gotta give it to the Mongols, they were ahead of their time. Female rulers. Intricate postal service. Encouraged trade. Accepted the habits of those they conquered.” Syd’s voice was contemplative. He left a brief pause so the woman could call him a creepy weirdo and ask him to shut up or leave. She didn’t, so he continued. “And man!—what warriors. Genghis Khan shows up and unites all the tribes and they fight and fight and fight until they have the single biggest empire in history—so then what do they do? Fight each other.”

Syd sighed, disconcerted by the history of the Mongolians.

“Fight long enough, guess it’s all you know.”

The woman had stopped sobbing but her head remained down.

“I can empathize—not that I’m a kung fu fighter or anything. Just, as a kid… Sorta felt like I was born to fight. Argue. Annoy. Pester. Question. Always fighting, always asking why, always bothering the heck out of my parents and teachers.” His tone had the hint of remorse that came with growing up. “Even the local police officers knew me. Lost it somewhere along the way, though. That desire to fight. It’s tough enough just keeping up these days, you know, can’t be fighting everyone all the time. I’m not even sure it’s still in me anymore.”

Then, Syd Siegfried stood up.

“Ah well. I wish you happiness and sunshine, ma’am. Good day.”

And he headed toward the top of the main staircase.

Math was already waiting—and as soon as Syd saw this, he tried to duck and dodge and turn and hide or run off in any other direction so he wouldn’t have to be alone with Math.

“Find anything?” called Math from some distance away.

Darn, too late.

Syd approached and shook his head no.

“Me either. What’s that mean?”

“I think it means we didn’t find anything.”

“Yeah. Shame.” Math squinted up at the ceiling, inspecting the minutia of the detailed trim. “This building’s so old. Bet it has secret passages!—oh, a dungeon! Think there’s a dungeon? Hey Syd, think this place has a dungeon? Probably has a dungeon somewhere.”

This reminded Syd of a thought he had earlier.

“How old?” he asked, dreading that he might have to ask the tour guide.

“How old is the dungeon? No idea. Probably old and full of gross spiders. You know, I knew someone that once had a spider lay eggs in their—”

“No, the museum. How old is the mu—What?! What about spiders?—wait, forget I asked. How old is the art museum?”

“Construction started in 1919 and they finished just before 1930,” Math answered. “Why?”

“Because I think we’re in the wrong spot.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure. If the copy I have is the original… I don’t know. Maybe it would be a good idea to figure out how old this copy of the atlas is. I’ll take it to the college, see if I can get an expert to narrow it down to a specific time.”

“If we aren’t supposed to be here…where are we supposed to be?”

A tiny voice called out the answer.

“Daddy, daddy! Waterworks!”

Abby excitedly ran over and hugged her father.

Dezzy was far behind, maintaining a measured pace.

“How did you figure that out?” Syd asked, baffled.

“Dezzy talked like a girl and she sounded real nice and happy and kept laughing and she said she does it to get guys to do stuff for her and it did! It did! It did! It got boys to look stuff up for her.”

“Dave’s giraffe has somethin’ to do with the waterworks or something,” explained Dezzy.

“Davis’ Graff?”

“Whatever,” she sighed.

“Yeah, the giraffe built a darn or something,” Abby yelled so loud that Syd had to hush down her excitement, as they were drawing attention.

Math smacked his head.

“Of course! Fredrick Graff and John Davis, duh,” he shook his head, upset he hadn’t thought of it sooner. Math looked at everyone like they were just as silly for not having realized something so simple and obvious.

No one had a clue who they were.

“They were two guys that designed the Philadelphia Waterworks.”

“I guess we can leave when—oh my!” Syd jumped. Someone was right behind him and breathing on his neck – it was Whiskers, of course. “Stop doing that!”

“Doing what?” asked Whiskers, ever so gently.

Syd stared at him a moment, unsure if he was genuinely oblivious to how startlingly quiet he was. The young man just stared back, unblinking. The stare went on a moment until Syd felt like Whiskers’ penetrating gaze could read his thoughts.

“…never mind…” Syd muttered, giving up. He was getting tired and ready to head home. “I guess it’s time to call it a night. Meet in front of the Philadelphia Waterworks next Wednesday? Is that good for everyone?”

“Or we could just go there right now. You know. Since it’s across the street,” suggested Dezzy, except her tone made it sound like it was as much an inconvenience as he felt it was.

Syd checked his watch.

“It’s getting dark. And it’s a school night. And Abby really needs a bath. And I’m exhausted.”

“Shouldn’t we vote?” Whiskers asked.

“Vote?”

Syd was caught off-guard.

Everyone quickly agreed.

“Is this a mutiny?”

“No, it’s a democracy. Cause we’re a group,” scoffed Math.

“Yeah, a group of the melancholy,” Dezzy sighed.

“Speak for yourself,” retorted.

Whiskers raised his hand.

Everyone looked at him but he didn’t answer until Syd called on him.

“I’m a dreamer.”

Math pointed at Whiskers to prove his point.

“See? Blinky isn’t melancholy.”

“Some of us are,” Dezzy responded, irritated.

Syd cut the argument off quickly.

“Great, it’s settled. We’re a…democracy of…melancholy-ish…dreamers.”

“An’ we have an atlas!” added Abby.

*      *      *

Annoyed at being outvoted four-to-one, Syd huffed as he grudgingly led the Melancholy Dreamers across the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and down a row of twisting steps to the waterfront. A warm, gentle wind calmly ebbed off the water to greet them as they walked along the concrete pier. The Schuylkill River glistened, reflecting an early dusk. Abby was having a discussion about the show “The Golden Girls” with Math, who was an ardent fan. Syd was behind them, not listening, and Whiskers was behind him, stopping every so often to inspect a mysterious issue he was having with his shoe, though it was an elusive problem and he could find no solution. Dezzy was bringing up the rear and occasionally kicking the heel of Whiskers’ shoe when he took a step. (She found this extremely funny even though she continued to scowl.)

Syd searched the pier for the first thing to stop this digression and he soon found it.

The entrance to the Philadelphia Waterworks was dug into the hill they had just descended and it headed deep underground, in the direction back toward the museum.

Syd stopped short, unsure if this was it. It certainly didn’t look like it, at least from what he expected. There were large red doors, both open, and a concrete frame built into the hillside.

“Looks kinda far-Eastern,” Math remarked.

Abby grabbed her father’s hand and pulled him closer.

Syd felt a wave of relief as two things were clear: the narrow, cave-like entranceway had an iron gate that was padlocked shut; and, no one was around to unlock it.

“Whelp, looks like—” Syd started.

“Well hey there, folks!” interrupted an elderly man.

This startled everyone, Syd most of all.

Syd was certain that, a moment earlier, they had been alone.

The elderly man scampered over, half-hunched and using a wooden cane with a crack in its top half. “You folks interested in the waterworks?” He was dressed in a weathered, yellow-plaid suit and a matching tweed cap. His nose crooked hard to the left and he often sniffled, as if congested. There was also the clanging of metal with each of his shambling movements.

“Yeah. Can you get us in?” Math asked.

The old man hunched over the cane and turned sideways, tilting his head sideways to stare up from under his cap. Syd saw a large, black-metal key-ring attached to the back of his pants, the keys clink-clanging with his movements.

“—or do we have to come back tomorrow?” hoped Syd.

“No need to travel toward sunset for the ‘morrow’!” the old man laughed. “I can get you in! I’m the watcher of the Waterworks!” And with that, the old man joyfully rushed off toward the curved gate of the Waterworks.

“I think I may be in love with this man,” Dezzy admitted, biting her lip.

Syd was plain baffled by the statement.

“They call me Professor Bumbleflum!” declared the old man over his shoulder, the group following close behind him.

Again, Syd was baffled by the statement.

Do they?” he nearly laughed at the question, disbelieving, then stopped everyone from following any further and shook his head, stating, “So this is a great big nope. We’re not following Captain Flimflam anywhere. Let’s—”

“Dad!” Abby scolded.

“Yeah, dude,” Dezzy interjected. “You’re the only one acting like you don’t want to be here.”

Syd ignored the irony of Dezzy, of all people, pointing out that he was the one sounding glum and continued to try and persuade them. “Following a crazy old man into a dark cavern might not be the best idea. Right?”

The faces staring back were disappointed.

“Adventure,” Whiskers encouraged, nervously.

Syd stopped, took a breath in… Exhaled…

“You’re right. Adventure,” he agreed and held his hand out, ushering the group to follow the crazy old man toward the curved gate and cavern that followed.

Everyone went on except Math, who had been uncharacteristically quiet as of late.

“What?” Syd asked.

Math was staring back up the hill.

Syd joined his gaze but found nothing.

“I thought I saw a guy. I saw him in the museum, too. Think he was looking down here, like, following me. Or us, I guess. All of us. Any one of us… Prolly me, though.”

Syd dismissed everything Math said and the two men walked toward the round gateway as the old man undid the padlock and pushed open the large metal gate—then Professor Bumbleflum hurried ahead and disappeared into the black cavern beyond the entranceway. Abby stood in front, frozen, and held up the line. The doorway was only narrow enough for one person to pass through at a time and she stared forward, afraid to step into the darkness.

Syd walked up alongside her, patted her shoulder, and spoke one word:

“Adventure.”

Abby nodded and walked through first, Syd right behind, and his hand never left her shoulder.

Dezzy followed, yawning.

Math maneuvered a little, afraid he might be too wide.

Whiskers was last, his eyes skirting in every direction. The seventeen year old had recently been allowed to watch a film about an alien and it had terrified him tremendously. Entering a dark cavern beyond the gate reminded him of the alien ship in the movie. He was petrified and fairly certain that an alien monster would jump out at any moment.

A bright yellow FLASH—so quick and nimble was Whiskers that Math didn’t even know the young man was now crouched and using him as a shield—as a light came on overhead.

Everyone flinched as their eyes settled.

The darkness had hidden a well-manicured tunnel built of red brick. The floor and ceiling were flat but the walls on both sides curved outward, as it must have been bordering a tube. Lights strung from the ceiling continued to illuminate further and further down the tunnel, one after the other after the other after the other, illuminating a vast, exceptionally long path onward. There were large, old-timey posters hanging along the walls on either side, the frames held by tiny hooks in the brick so that they hung flat but for the occasional ripple from a gust of wind through the gated end. The tunnel was wide, a large pathway bordered by the occasional wood bench. It was orderly and pristine, not a speck of dirt.

“Where…are we?” Syd wondered aloud.

“Ha ha! This is the new Waterworks!” the old man excitedly startled them once more, standing directly behind them as he shut the curved gate, returned the padlock, and clicked it shut, locking them in.

Each of the men began to protest being locked in.

Syd put his hands up and gave a, “Whoa whoa whoa.”

“We’re trapped with the aliens,” whispered Whiskers to himself.

Math started to say something but stopped; instead, he pointed.

On the other side of the gate, a man was walking along the river. He was admirably dressed, a slick, dark-blue suit and mahogany-colored dress shoes that shined even at a distance. His head was down, leisurely strolling along the shoreline, heading away…and then there was a curious moment as the man – his head was down, walking away – gave a slow, suspicious glance over his shoulder. The black fedora was tilted down and sunglasses covered his eyes but Syd was certain, absolutely certain, that the man was staring at him. But the moment was quick and the man continued on, out of sight.

“Told you. Same guy as before. Following me.”

Syd started to agree with Math. Maybe they were being followed. And, in addition to that, he caught another interesting detail. The crazy old man, Professor Bubblegum or whatever, had narrowed his eyes at the man, too, an expression of distaste on the old man’s face as he watched the figure walk away.

The old man turned around and ignored any objections. With an enthusiastic “Come on!” he shuffled his way down the corridor and passed everyone. Without checking to see if anyone was actually following, Professor Bumbleflum kept ahead of the group by several paces, yelling facts about the Waterworks over his shoulder. “They renovated it recently but not a single blasted person comes ‘round no more…”

“It says five hundred.”

Whiskers spoke from the back, barely audible, but the tunnel echo helped carry his voice to the front.

Syd turned to face him.

“What does?”

Everyone stopped but the old man in front, who continued stomping forward, chuckling as he hollered the history of the Waterworks to a group that were no longer following.

“The atlas,” Whiskers answered, holding up the Xeroxed copy.

“Where?” Syd walked to him and squinted at the paper.

Whiskers pointed.

“I thought those were symbols.”

Whiskers shook his head.

“Five. Zero. Zero.”

“What about the backward L?”

“It’s a small arrow.”

Hearing this, Syd began to see the details differently. It did look like the number 500, an uneven arrow pointing—but then he lost it and it looked like there was a drawn-in black dash that underlined squiggly symbols and none of it made sense.

“Five hundred paces forward. From the waterfront.”

“Then what!?” Abby squealed, as though there might be a treasure at the end of 500 paces.

“How many have we walked?” questioned Syd, looking back.

“Ninety-eight from the shoreline,” Math answered.

Again, Syd was impressed—except a part of him was never sure if Math was correct in everything he said, or if he was just really quick at making things up and really good at sounding certain.

Side-by-side, the group began to step forward together. Abby had to step twice for every one pace but they moved as one and closed the gap between them and old Professor Bumbleflum. Just as they got close, he glanced back and informed them that the Waterworks had been shut down many years before. He couldn’t remember exactly when it was shut down, and he scratched his head as he thought about it a moment, but it was a long time ago, whenever it was – of that they could be certain.

The old man’s shuffle slowed their pace so that they would all take a step (Abby would take two), then pause as the old man slowly walked forward, at which point they would take another step, and pause, and so on.

“Why’re you called Erfessor Flumbly-bum?” Abby asked, bored of walking slowly.

“Why, it’s Professor Bumbleflum, my dear. It was a name given to me a long time ago but that’s a longer story. And though I do hope to share it with you one day, it’ll have to wait for another time.”

And he left it at that.

The old man soon grew tired and needed to rest on the bench. Syd asked permission for them to move on, down the way a bit (211 more paces, to be precise), and the old man assured them that it was fine so long as they didn’t enter any of the rooms ahead. They agreed and continued further down the pathway, deeper and deeper underground. The air grew stagnant. The gated exit was a tiny, round blip behind them. There were entrances right and left every so often, wooden doors (probably supply closets) and large, open glass doorways to the left where old, retired machinery and portions of the river could be seen.

At the end of 500 paces was an entrance unlike any other.

For one, it was gigantic.

For another, it was round.

And, most unique of all, it was made of polished metal.

“What is that?!” Abby squealed.

“I’m with her,” added Dezzy. “What is that?”

“This is 500, right?” Syd looked to Math for validation.

“Approximately four-hundred and nine-eight-ish.”

“What’s it say next?” Abby asked Whiskers, who stared down at her a moment, unblinking; then he looked to Syd, who shrugged and gave credit where it was due.

“Hey, man, I didn’t see what you did. I look at it,” Syd stared closely at the copy of the atlas, “and I see that it says something super tiny here…something-something…buns?…or something…” He quieted when he realized he wasn’t helping.

Whiskers put the atlas close to his unblinking eyes.

“It’s a poem.”

He read it aloud, slowly deciphering the words:

Every day

‘Round your house I come

Climb your walls

Kiss your skin

Won’t you let me in?

The Melancholy Dreamers were silent.

“What does that mean?” Dezzy asked.

“No idea,” responded Syd.

“Love poem…?” Math suggested.

“What’s in there?” Abby wondered.

“Well that room—!” proclaimed Professor Bumbleflum excitedly.

The group startled.

He had somehow caught up to them.

“Sorry,” apologized Bumbleflum, his cheeks flush.

“It’s okay, I’m used to it,” Syd said and pointed a thumb at Whiskers, who didn’t understand.

“That’s a special doorway,” Professor Bumbleflum glowed, then quickly soured, “but I don’t have the key to it. Sorry. Only people with the key get in.”

Syd got close to the giant, vault-like door, catching his reflection in the glint on the silver metal as he inspected it. There was a shiny metal wheel, which he presumed would twist and open the door once the “key” was provided…except, there was no keyhole. In the center – where a key would be inserted, or a vault might have a dial for a combination lock – there was only a perfectly-rounded plastic dome. That was it. No keyhole. Black dome, perfectly rounded. Nothing else. “Anyone with the key can get in here?” he asked, finishing his close inspection of the door.

“Ab-so-lutely!” responded Professor Bumbleflum, his enthusiasm boundless.

“But where does the key go?”

Professor Bumbleflum laughed.

“Where indeed! You gentlemens and ladieses ever heard of Atlantis?”

“Yeah, it was an old civilization that was super smart but then sank into the ocean—wait, Atlantis is behind that door?” Math had an extremely skeptical tone.

“Nope!”

A pause while everyone stared at the smiling face of Professor Bumbleflum, waiting for him to say more.

He didn’t.

“Then what’s in that door, Fessor Bumblegum?” Abby asked, anxious to learn its secrets.

“Well, young lady,” and Professor Bumbleflum spoke directly to her, hobbling closer to her, “I’m gonna tell you a quick fact not many people know. It wasn’t really called Atlantis. It was Attrantis. With two Ts.”

“Isn’t that three Ts?” Math corrected him.

“Why yes, it is. Of course. Clever, you are. They were clever, too. Cleverer than me, ‘least.” He eyed Abby a moment, then nodded. “Not you, though. You look like a smart cookie. But Atlantic-Attrantic, somewhere between here and way back when,” the old man circled his arm and stuck out a leg for “the R flipped and mangled itself into an L.” He stood as straight as he could (which wasn’t very) and dropped the wood cane flat and, with inexplicable grace, he caught it against the crook of his loafer, balancing the cane on the crook of his foot so that it was out like the bottom of a letter L. “…and Attrantis became the long-lost island of Atlantis – or, as the Greeks would call it, the Island of Atlas.”

With a quick kick to the side, the cane hopped into the air – while remaining flat and level – and the old Professor reached a hand out, clasped the cane without looking, set the end against the ground, and hunched over it. This was a deft and inexplicably awesome feat, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was performed by such a feeble-looking old man.

“That don’t got much to do with much,” Bumbleflum smiled at Abby once more, dismissing all he had just said, “just thought it was an interesting fact. Anyways, they built this here doorway contraption.”

Math wasn’t unconvinced and spoke in an incredulous tone.

“Didn’t Atlantis, like, exist a far ways from here and sink in the ocean, like, a thousand years ago or something?”

“Atlantis never existed, my boy.”

“The Attrantics, whatever.”

“They never did neither, did they?”

“You’re the one that said they built—you literally just said they built this door.”

“I did?” he asked himself, then nodded. “I did! They did.”

“How’s that possible?”

“How indeed!”

Math grunted in frustration.

Syd chimed in, thinking out, “So a society that didn’t exist…created a door with no keyhole?”

The final time Bumbleflum spoke, it wasn’t enthusiastic. His arms didn’t lift up. He didn’t proclaim it in the same boisterous way he had with nearly every other word up to that point. The smile dimmed. His reticent eyes narrowed. No, the final time old Professor Bumbleflum spoke, his tone took on a distinctly mischievous drawl.

“How indeed, ladieses and gentlemens. How indeed…”

CHAPTER *][]FOUR[*—

Doorway of the Attrantics

It was well after dark by the time they left the museum. Abby was exhausted and fell asleep in Syd’s arms on the bus. He walked her the block home and through the smelly lobby, up the stairs, and through the front door to her bedroom. He put her in pjs and tucked her in. She didn’t wake once, breathing deeply, sound asleep.

Syd was asleep soon after.

And while he didn’t know it, the next week would be a long one.

The following day was Thursday. Syd let Abby dress in front of the show Fraggle Rock and fed her and dropped her off at mother’s house.

While making deliveries, Syd went by the University of Pennsylvania with the genuine, original copy of the atlas. He used their library to Xerox copies, zooming in to enhance the writing so the small, detailed writing would be more legible – except, even with as much heightened detail as technology would allow, the writing was still impossible to read. After that, he stopped by the office of the university’s only cryptologist. He had spoken with the man earlier in the day and described the situation, and he asked if the cryptographer could help assign an age to the atlas’ paper or to the ink of the sketchings. The man reluctantly agreed over the phone but, before handing over the atlas, Syd asked the man to write a comprehensive receipt and sign it. The cryptologist wasn’t especially grateful for the added task but he did it nonetheless and took the atlas and said the results would be in by the following Wednesday.

That Thursday night was quiet. Syd spent the night alone, lying on the couch as he fell asleep in the middle of eating a sandwich. Friday morning he woke up covered in mustard and bologna chunks. There was a murky darkness to the overcast day, the air humid and uncomfortable.

No sooner had he entered through the front door than he was startled by a disembodied voice. “Father Daniels passed away last night,” his boss, Paul, called out from a back aisle. This information was as startling as the disembodied voice.

Dazed, Syd slowly climbed the stairs to his office and sat at his desk. The morning sun was a bright yellow, which he watched cross the floorboards of the room while the shock wore off. He knew the Father wasn’t well, that the man wouldn’t live forever, but his friend had passed away.

In the afternoon, he picked Abby up from school and they walked home. She told him how everyone in school knew about the atlas and that they all wanted to be in their secret group of “melanky dreamers.” Syd thought the news was incredibly sweet but reminded her that, in order for it to be a secret, she couldn’t tell people. That was the first rule of secrets: you can’t tell people. It was also the second rule of secrets, and the third—pretty much the only thing that made a secret a secret, really. And he also reminded her that their group wasn’t a secret. She was free to tell everyone if she so desired. (He didn’t mention that it had even been in the newspaper, a mistake Syd was still paying for as, the night before, he woke to a phone call asking for a Miss Mya Buttsbig.)

Abby ignored everything Syd said and asked about the rat. “Guinea pig,” he corrected her. And he still hadn’t seen the creature but it was eating all its food and using the litter box, so it must be fine.

They entered Syd’s apartment building and passed a lobby that always had the faint smell of wet trash. Up two narrow flights of stairs, around the corner—and Syd knew something was wrong immediately. Wood splinters were all over the carpet in front of his door and he could tell someone had broken into his apartment. Abby was curious but Syd turned her around and knocked on the nearest door.

An older lady answered, frowning. Syd quickly explained the situation and she hesitantly let them in so he could use her phone to call the police. Abby stayed in the doorway of the older woman’s apartment while Syd returned to the apartment. The lock and frame were smashed as if someone kicked the whole thing in and, once inside, something quickly became obvious…

Everything had been destroyed. Furniture shredded, bottles and dishes smashed everywhere, all of his books thrown around, the fridge gutted, his television tossed, his and Abby’s beds ripped and torn, toys smashed. Everything was shattered, broken, trash.

Everything.

And whoever did it was long gone – probably out his bedroom window and down the fire escape and onto the city street, lost in the crowd of faceless bystanders.

Two police officers showed up within a half-hour. One searched the apartment while the second wrote Syd’s statement into a tiny notebook. When he though they were finishing up, that was when the second officer cornered Syd and began an intense exchanged that started with the question, “Do you know anyone who would want to hurt you or send you a message?”

“I don’t think so. Don’t robberies like this happen often?”

“No.”

Silence.

The young officer seemed to be moving ever closer and he chomped gum loudly in Syd’s face.

“Oh…kay,” Syd replied, unsure of what he was being told.

“This wasn’t a robbery. Robbers don’t usually leave behind the tvs,” chomped the officer, and he nodded toward the broken television. “So, if someone isn’t trying to send you a message,” he gave an especially loud chomp, “my guess would be that someone was looking for something.” He gave two loud smacks of the gum, keeping his eyes on Syd’s face. “Anything here, or anything that was here, I need to know about?” His tone was sharp, obviously suspicious.

Syd shook his head no.

“Okay,” the officer said, dropping the intense demeanor.

They told him they’d be in touch soon and left.

Syd found his phone in the rubble and called his ex.

She picked up on the second ring.

“Hello?”

“My place was robbed and everything’s smashed. There’s broken glass everywhere. I need you to pick up Abby.”

“Oh God, can’t you do anything right?”

“What…didn’t I do right?”

“Anything. Uggggh,” and she let out a disgusted groan. “I’ll be there in twenty. Make sure she’s ready.”

Abby was standing in the doorway as Syd hung up. Her face was shrunk with concern. Genuinely concerned and dead serious, she looked into her father’s face and suggested a culprit.

“Think it was the rat?”

He smiled and, as always, gently corrected her. “Guinea pig, sweetie—oh…” The guinea pig might be injured somewhere in the mess, he realized.

Suddenly, Abby’s mood shifted from curious to distressed to bawling. The destruction of inside her bedroom was visible from where she stood. Syd quickly lifted Abby into his arms and she rested her head on his shoulder, sobbing into his shirt, as he explained again and again that he’d buy her all new stuff—but that only turned the sadness into anger. Abby blamed her father, telling him she didn’t want new stuff. She wanted her old stuff. “How could you let this happen?” she kept asking, struggling to get down. Syd held her longer, as he didn’t want her walking through the hazards of their demolished apartment, and this caused an escalating fight until, finally, he took her into the hallway to set her down—and, once her feet touched the ground, Abby was off running and gone. Syd was after her and they reached the lobby at the same time, just as Abby’s mother pulled up outside.

Abby didn’t say goodbye.

There was a brief exchange of words with her before they left, where he was again called the “worst father ever,” except this time, Syd found no words to defend himself.

Returning to his apartment, the phone rang.

“Yes?”

“This is Ivan.”

The young male voice sounded familiar and Syd believed it to be the officer from earlier that evening.

“What can I do for you, Officer? Or is it Detective?”

“Oh—Detective. You should probably write some of this information down.”

Syd searched the rubble and found a pen and a scrap of paper.

“Ready.”

“Last name is spelled N-U-G-L-I-R-U-M-P, just in case you need to contact me…at the station. Repeat it back to me to be sure you have it correct.”

“Detective…Ivan Nuglirump.”

“I’m sure it is!”

Snickering.

Click.

The voice was familiar because it had prank-called him several times.

“Durn it,” mumbled Syd as he remained seated, surveying the desolation that was his life. He spent the weekend cleaning and replacing what he could. By Sunday, he had only replaced the kitchen supplies and mattresses before his savings ran out. [_It’ll suffice until I can save more money, _]he thought, satisfied for now.

Monday morning was like any other day—until he walked into work. Something crunched under his feet and, before he could check what it was, Syd nearly toppled into his bosses, Paul and Jen Hidenberg. They were waiting for him.

Paul greeted Syd with a friendly hello.

“You’re fired,” Jen said, sternly.

“Good morning to you, too, Jen.”

Syd started for his office but stopped.

“Wait, what?”

“We have to fire you,” Jen repeated.

It was like talking to the personification of Yin and Yang.

Shattered glass was scattered on the carpet and the front door had been completely smashed. Syd had passed right by it without noticing, too busy thinking about Father Daniels, and the atlas, and his destroyed apartment.

“Someone broke into your office over the weekend,” Paul informed him as he led the way upstairs.

Again, the door was kicked in. Syd’s office had been tossed, papers everywhere, his desk in splinters, chairs smashed, filing cabinets pulled apart. Even his pictures of Abby had been bent up and broken.

“Police told us they were looking for something. Whatever it is they were looking for or whatever happened, we can’t have it around our business,” Jen said in a mournful voice.

Syd explained that the same thing had happened to his apartment and that he had no idea what someone would be looking for (which wasn’t entirely true) He was a loyal employee, seldom missed a day, worked hard—they were even friends, sorta…but it was to no avail. Bottom line was – H&H Home Healthcare just couldn’t afford another situation like this. He was to collect his things and leave.

They gave him some time alone and Syd gathered the cracked frames filled with Abby’s smiling face and the few personal possessions he kept around the office. There had also been copies of the atlas from his trip to the library, copies he kept in his top left desk drawer. After fishing through all the rubble, the copies of the atlas were the only thing Syd found to be missing.

He thought of the love poem again.

He had memorized it and even spoke it to himself, low.

“Every day, ‘round your house I come, climb your walls, kiss your skin, won’t you let me in…”

Syd was staring at the floor when he saw something—and then it hit him. It wasn’t a love poem. It was a riddle. And he knew the answer—not only that, he knew how to open the vault-like doorway of the Attrantics.

*      *      *

Father Daniels’ funeral was later that Monday afternoon and it was held at a small cemetery in the suburbs of Delaware County, about an hour outside Philadelphia.

Syd was one of only three people in attendance.

There was a crotchety old man with a bald, pockmarked head. His face was the color of leather and his eyes curled down and inward, as if his face had confirmed to an evil scowl. It was odd, observed Syd, that the crotchety old man didn’t even seem sad. His eyes stayed on the casket, his chin downturned and his eyes stuck in a menacing glare. The only other attendee was a blonde woman who stood beside the old man, possibly his daughter since she looked to be about Syd’s age.

It was a rainy day and the ceremony was somber and brief. Afterward, Syd set a U.S. General figurine from the game of Risk on top of the casket and headed for his car—when there was a moment he thought he saw the same well-dressed man – wearing the same suit and sunglasses and fedora and shiny shoes – who had been leisurely strolling along the shoreline—but Syd blinked and the man was gone. Probably someone else that just happened to bare a small resemblance. He tried to shake it off but…there was a lingering doubt.

For the rest of Monday and all of Tuesday, Syd phoned every job opportunity in the classifieds and set up several interviews for the end of the week. That night, he called Dezzy, Whiskers, and Math to request that each of them bring as many mirrors (of any shape or size) to the Waterworks on Wednesday night. None of them understood why and Syd didn’t elaborate.

That night, Syd had a nightmare about the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He was well above it, looking down, and he noticed that the structure had an almost human-like quality.

—when, all of a sudden, he was falling toward it, dropping like a rock, his stomach sick, the air rushing over his body, into his mouth and nose, and a ringing in his ear, a ringing, a rin—

The answering machine beeped.

It was Wednesday morning.

There was a message on the machine and it was from the cryptologist. The atlas was ready to be picked up but the cryptologist made it very clear that he didn’t wish to speak of the matter over the phone – only in person. Syd thought this rather odd but, lately, everything had felt slanted sideways and backwards and just plain wrong, so a weird message was par for the course.

Syd pulled on jeans and tightened the belt—it snapped, breaking in half. Cursing, he checked his wardrobe for another but the only belt left was a brown utility belt filled with tools. That wasn’t an option. He checked for jeans that fit better – but the last trip to the laundry had been reserved for Abby’s clothing, as she deserved to smell sweet, which meant that all his pants smelled like deli garbage. He glanced at the brown utility belt but shook his head firmly no.

Absolutely not – I’d be the biggest oddball in Philly.

Shortly after, Syd stepped out of his apartment and straight into a hulking mass of muscle and bone. It was the neck-less beast of a man that was his landlord’s son. Cornering Syd, who was a third the man’s size, the giant made it very clear that rent was to be paid by the following Monday or the eviction process would start.

Syd promised it would be paid, ducking and dodging himself free. (He could hear the man mumble the word “loser” as he ran off.) At the local thrift shop, he bought two mirrors and a tan, cylindrical case for the atlas using what little money he had left. Then it was off to the University. The cryptologist had the atlas unfurled across his desk. “The paper is from 1801 but whatever that ink is – if you can even call it ink – whatever it was they used to write all those scribbles and lines and stuff all over that paper, we don’t have it.”

Syd didn’t understand what that meant.

“Have it where? At the college?”

“Try, on the planet earth.” The cryptographer seemed a bit hesitant. “Look, I took a sample and sent it to the lab. That lab has a data index and that index has hundreds of thousands of test samples to match it with.” The words were spoken as if they were bad luck. “Nothing, no matches. Nobody knows what it is. It certainly isn’t ink.”

Syd thought about this as he rolled up the atlas and slid it into the cylindrical tube he had just purchased. It had a shoulder strap so there would be less risk of damaging it now that he intended to carry it with him at all times.

About to leave, the cryptographer pointed at Syd’s pants.

“You in construction?”

Syd thought the question odd and looked down, having already forgotten that, in the end, he had been left with no other choice but to wear the brown utility belt.

“No, it was the only belt I had left.”

“Oh. Then why didn’t you take all the tools out?”

The thought hadn’t even crossed Syd’s mind. The belt was stuffed with all sorts of tools, from screws and a hammer to measuring tape and duct tape and superglue and a box cutter and a dozen other miscellaneous tools.

“Because…you never know when you…might need a slide ruler—whatever. Leave me alone,” pouted Syd, a bit humiliated—but then he quickly added a gracious, “And thanks for helping me, that was really nice of you.”

Then, he was on his way.

*      *      *

Abby’s mom was 45 minutes late.

After a fair amount of repositioning the utility belt and the cylindrical atlas container strapped around his back, Syd stopped pacing and sat on a step at the very bottom of the museum stairs. A moment passed. His mind wandered. The sun crossed the cement. He looked up.

A woman was standing over him.

“Hello,” she greeted him, hand extended.

“Hi…” Syd said and quickly stood up, a bit surprised and discombobulated by the clanging tools and swinging cylinder. He shook her hand, trying to place where he might know the woman. There was a vague familiarity but Syd couldn’t figure out where he knew her from.

A tuft of vibrant blonde hair blew into the woman’s face and she brushed it aside with a distinct motion, a flick of her index and middle finger. She was rather tall but it could’ve been her dark blue high-heels. Her clothes were professional, a white blouse and long black skirt. It reminded Syd of an executive in a board room, and her voice had an eloquence to it that wasn’t common.

“I was at Father Daniels’ funeral, on Monday,” she said.

“Ah, yes,” Syd remembered seeing her with the crotchety old man.

“And you spoke to me last week.”

“I did?”

Syd stared into her blue eyes but couldn’t remember the encounter.

“Maybe you don’t recognize me because I’m not sobbing.”

Syd laughed.

“The Mongolian exhibit, a week ago. Sorry if I creeped you out.”

“You didn’t. It was very…sweet,” she admitted, blushing.

“Hang around the art museum a lot, huh?”

“I could accuse you of the same,” she responded, her voice sly.

“I’m not here for the museum.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“Then why are you here?”

“Oh,” Syd pretended to be serious, “I’m on an adventure.”

“Is that why you have all the tools?”

Syd looked down at the tools on his belt as if seeing them for the first time. “Ummmmm…yup, that is exactly why I am wearing this utility belt.” He hated telling a white lie and had initially wanted to tell the truth but decided it was easier and less humiliating if he didn’t.

She gave a quick, light chuckle.

“Well, your reason definitely sounds better than my reason for being here.”

“And what’s your reason?”

“I work for an art collector,” she answered, obviously troubled by this information. “He-he was the man I was with at the funeral. Maybe you saw him – craggy old man, always looks angry?”

“Sounds like most old men, actually,” joked Syd, though he clearly remembered the old man from the funeral, how his wrinkled face had appeared more spiteful than sad.

Hair again blew into the woman’s face and, again, she brushed it aside with a distinct motion, a flick of her index and middle finger.

“Well, that rude, craggy old man likes to lend pieces to the museum but he’s…particular, to say the least. So he sends me here to check on them.”

“To make sure…the paintings don’t change at night?”

The woman laughed again and the air between them was relaxed, as if they already knew each other—and they both seemed to realize the same thing at the same time.

“My name’s Syd,” he introduced himself.

“I’m Mya.” (—Syd was immediately worried that she was about to say her last name was Buttsbig and then run off laughing but, luckily, she didn’t.)

“Shoot, hold on just a moment,” he said and walked over to the curb as a car pulled up.

The back door opened and Abby got out.

Syd poked his head in through the passenger window to have a few words but, almost instantly, the car pulled off the curb—he was quick and jumped back just in time, head still attached. He had sent the group to the waterfront to avoid anyone seeing his interaction with Abby’s mother but now this pretty woman was there to see everything.

Mya didn’t see any of it, though, as her attention was immediately stolen by Abby, who had passed her father and gone straight to the spot where she had seen him talking to a new person. The nine year old was dressed in bright colors, a red skirt, black leggings, and a light pink shirt covered by her new denim jacket, and she stood there silently staring up into the mystery woman’s face.

“Hello, young lady. I like your hair,” Mya greeted the child.

Abby’s auburn hair had been pulled back into dual pony tails, one on each side, and she gave a polite thank you.

“What’s your name?”

“Abby. Are you gonna be dirty kissing my daddy?” asked Abby, her hands square on her hips as if a scolding parent even as her doe eyes blinked innocently.

“Umm…no, no, uh, I…um, it’s—” Mya stuttered, entirely unprepared for such a question. “I actually just met him.”

Syd joined them just as Abby invited Mya, excitedly hopping as she asked, “Would you wanna be part of our secret group?”

“I’m sure she’s got places to be, sweetie.”

“What does your secret group do?” inquired Mya, her curiosity genuine.

“Tonight we’re going to the Waterworks to open a big metal door using magic even though we don’t know what’s on the other SEEEEEE—”Abby was so excited that her sentence turned into a squeal.

“It’s a secret – we’ve already told you too much.” Syd did his best to sound mysterious. “We’re in the middle of solving a potentially world-changing mystery but we’re not allowed to talk about it—however!” He held up his finger melodramatically, as if he had just had a brilliant idea. “We are accepting late applications for our supersecretclub” (pronounced as if it were one word) “so if you’d like to join us for maybe an hour…”

“You’re such a nerd, dad. Gosh!”

“Absolutely,” Mya agreed.

Syd wasn’t sure if she was agreeing that he was a nerd, or if she wanted to join them. He was relieved when she followed Abby toward the twisting stairwell leading down to the river and the Waterworks.

Dezzy was sitting on the edge of the water front and she almost looked pleasant, as her black pants were rolled up, both legs dangling, feet in the water. Her head was down, the bulk of her long black hair hiding her face like a shroud.

Math was at a bench near the gated entrance to the Waterworks. His slippered left foot rest on his right knee – this was so he could set his hoagie on his leg whenever he needed to turn a page in the magazine he was reading. Mustard had dripped down his chin and all over the skull on his Ghostbusters tee-shirt.

Whiskers was probably hiding somewhere close by. Syd kept checking over his shoulder, trying his best to prevent the quiet young man from sneaking up on him.

The waterfront was otherwise empty.

“I didn’t know this was down here,” Mya said with a hint of awe.

Above them, up the hill and all around the museum, cars and people joined in a chorus of revving engines and private conversations and jarring white noise. But down there, at the waterfront, it was serene. The bothersome noises faded away, replaced by the listless murmurs of the Schuylkill River. The air carried a gentle tang of salt and the final gasps of cold from the previous winter. Philadelphia and its skyline were a lifetime away, One Liberty Place a tall, pointed shadow in the distance.

Once again, the gate to the Waterworks was locked.

That reminded Syd of something and he checked over his shoulder, checking to make sure Professor Snuzzlebum didn’t also sneak up on him—

“Ah!” Syd gasped, startled.

Whiskers was directly behind him. His black hair had been managed recently, neatly cut and parted to the right. He was still draped in the same tan, double-breasted trench coat that looked to be a century old, complete with wool collar and belted cuffs.

Dezzy glanced over her shoulder, through her hair, which huffed out as she groaned, “Finally.” She put her black socks and black, pointed boots on and everyone converged in front the bench, where Math was gorging himself with meat and cheese and bread. He swallowed rather audibly and glanced up…and he paused, the gigantic hoagie halfway to his mouth, as a crowd was now gathered around. Reluctantly, and grumbling the whole time, he packed up the remaining half of his hoagie and stuffed the food and magazine into a book bag resting at his feet.

Dezzy was eyeing up Mya

“Who’s this?—I don’t trust her.”

“Be nice,” Syd politely scolded before introducing her to everyone.

“My name’s Matthew but everyone calls me Math, like Matthew without the Ew. Last name’s Ruth. I’m actually the great-great—”

Syd cut him off. “And this is Whiskers, he never blinks. And this is Dezzy, who’s actually very sweet.”

Dezzy gave a melodramatic smile and shook Mya’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.” She sounded happy and sincere, almost unrecognizable. It was like watching an actress completely submerge herself into a character. Abby had mentioned that Dezzy got answers by talking like a girl but Syd hadn’t seen how impressive and believable she could be until that moment.

“Same…” Mya responded, unsure if the younger woman was serious.

Sunlight glinted off the water and Syd walked to the water’s edge, his eyes going from the Schuylkill River to the brightly setting sun in the west.

The group watched, confused.

Syd found a spot on the shoreline and motioned for everyone to join him.

“Did everyone bring a mirror?”

Everyone held out their mirrors. Math had a green dinosaur mirror. Dezzy had a broken mirror and another that had a circle with a line through it, drawn in red lipstick. Whiskers pulled aside his tan, old-fashioned trench coat and pulled out a large mirror panel, about two feet wide. Syd motioned for Whiskers to bring it over and told him, “I need you here,” as he pointed at the water’s edge. “But you gotta be kinda low.” Whiskers did as he was told, kneeling at the water’s edge. “This mirror is perfect, Whiskers. We need to tilt it a bit so you can—”

“Mirrors!” bellowed the Professor.

Everyone startled and there was a soft bloop as the mirror fell into the river.

Whiskers looked up, embarrassed.

“So I guess that’s it for today, huh?” joked Dezzy, a familiar monotone returning to her voice.

Professor Bumbleflum had again approached the group completely undetected. He was hunched over the wood of his weathered cane, smiling.

“He does that,” Syd informed, Mya. He wasn’t sure he remembered the old man’s name, either, and he spoke the first name that came to mind. “Professor Gumblejum, could we take another trip into the Waterworks?”

“The name, sir, is Bumbleflum. Professor Bumbleflum.” The old man sniffled out his crook nose and mumbled to himself, “’Least I think so.” Then, to everyone, he proclaimed, “And of course you can come in to the Waterworks! All are welcome!”

After that last bit, Syd noticed Professor Bumbleflum suspiciously eye up the newest member of the group, Mya—but it was quick, and then he was off. The old man wobbled to the gate and Syd wondered if Bumbleflum was wearing the exact same yellow plaid suit and matching tweed cap, the exact same attire from the week before, or if the old man had a closet full of identical yellow plaid suits.

Syd shook off the question and again took stock of the mirrors. There was Math’s tiny green dinosaur mirror, Dezzy’s broken mirror and the one she decorated in lip-stick, and the two mirrors Syd had bought at the thrift store. (Mya didn’t have any, as she had left her purse in the car.) Syd handed one of his mirrors to Whiskers, who was still kneeling at the water’s edge.

Mya was the first to voice the confusion of the group.

“What are you doing exactly?”

“Oh, right. Last week we found a doorway in the Waterworks that we couldn’t open. But we had a hint. ‘Round your house I come, climb your walls, kiss your skin, won’t you let me in?’ We thought it was a love poem.”

Professor Bumbleflum had opened the gate and disappeared into the dark cavern beyond. There was a single FLASH of light as the first bulb sparked and Abby watched the flicker of distant bulbs spark to life further and further down the corridor.

“It isn’t a love poem?”

“No, Math. It’s a riddle. What comes to your house every day? What climbs your walls?”

“Spiders!” answered Whiskers, horrified.

Syd shook his head.

“No, not spiders.”

“You’ve obviously never seen my basement,” Whiskers quickly whispered back with a high level of certainty.

Math pushed his big, black-rimmed glasses up his nose and joined in, confidently telling them all, “No, it’s not spiders. It’s ghosts. Terrifying, bloody ghosts that hide in underwear drawers and oversized trench coats—” He snickered, unable to go on.

Before anyone could say anything else, Syd gave the answer.

“It’s sunlight! Sunlight climbs your walls every day, kisses your skin, but you can close your blinds, lock it out. And I know it sounds crazy but I think sunlight will open that door in there. So we need to reflect the sun off of these mirrors, into the Waterworks, down the corridor, and into that plastic dome-thingy on the metal door.”

The group positioned themselves wherever Syd asked. Whiskers used the mirror to reflect the sun from the water’s edge to the gate, where Dezzy stood just outside the bars to catch the light on a hand mirror and reflect it past the gate, into the corridor, where Math used a second mirror to reflect the light further, to Mya, who stood halfway down and reflected the thinning beam to Syd, who then shot the beam straight to—

Abby wasn’t paying attention. She faced the large, circular metal door – the “doorway of the Attrantics” as (the now suspiciously absent) Professor Bumbleflum had told her a week earlier. The plastic dome was a foot over her head. Various treasures crossed her mind – Nintendo, markers, shiny earrings, a trampoline – but her intentions were more curious than greedy, maybe even defiant. The door was quite large and thick and overwhelming to her, a young girl small for her age. She wasn’t as interested in the treasure as she was in opening this big stupid door since it made her feel small. She didn’t like big stupid things in her way and there was no fight too big. Abby had a unique persistence, not just tenacity but the confidence that she could win every battle…for better or worse.

Her father called her name and it echoed down the corridor. A glint of sunlight crossed her eyes and she moved to block it. In her one hand was the small dinosaur mirror and she lifted it up to catch the ray of sunlight. After fidgeting it around a bunch, she felt the mirror was positioned to reflect the sunlight into the dome…but the beam dimmed and died away. The sun had gone behind clouds or maybe even set, as it had taken some time to get the sunlight so deep down the corridor.

Abby huffed.

The adventure had grown boring. Her arm was tired of holding up the mirror. This was dumb and she should see what else she could find—and as she was about to lower the mirror, a strong beam of sunlight pinballed down the Waterworks corridor from mirror to mirror and all the way to the door of the Attrantics. Her father called out once more, just a single, reaffirming word.

“Adventure!”

Abby held the mirror over her head with both hands to keep it steady. A slight tilt, a bit to the side, and the ray hit the tiny dinosaur mirror and bounced off, a focused beam of sunlight reflecting straight into the plastic dome of the doorway.

Abby was the sole witness for what happened next.

In passing through the plastic dome, the solid beam of sunlight turned to liquid, like gold only much more luminescent. And the longer she held the mirror up, the more sunlight the dome drank in, the more it filled with this thick, steely liquid, the brighter it became.

This was magic.

But, almost immediately, it got a bit too bright and Abby averted her eyes, as it hurt – like staring into the sun. It wasn’t over, not yet, and the dome grew brighter and brighter until the light was an incandescent, overwhelming white. Her body had become extremely warm, and her heart beat faster, and she was scared. The mirror dropped and broke at her feet and Abby faced the wall, both arms over her closed eyes. Footsteps were running, closing in, and she was quickly lifted into her father’s arms as he asked what happened.

When he got there, Abby wasn’t crying – and that worried Syd a great deal. Silently standing against the wall, she had her arms over her eyes even after he picked her up and hugged her against his chest. The others arrived one by one but, even then, she wouldn’t take her arms away from her face.

A hand gently brushed through the back of her pony-tails, a face leaned in, and Dezzy whispered, “You’re awesome!” so low that only Abby could hear.

“That was so rad!” Math called out, huffing and wheezing as he ran toward them.

Mya approached, worriedly asking in a low voice what happened, if Abby was okay, and what that light had been (as if the child wouldn’t hear her if she spoke softly—so stupid, Abby thought).

Whiskers described what he had seen from the waterfront.

“It looked like the whole tunnel had its own sun and it just, like, shot out. Gold then white light—I just-just never seen nothin’ like it.” Whiskers was also in some form of shock, it seemed. Abby could picture him twiddling his fingers.

Everyone went silent at the sound of two metallic clicks. Abby peeked just one eye, just enough to see. Math stepped forward and twisted the wheel in the center, which spun round and round and round—then suddenly stopped. The hinges shrieked.

The doorway of the Attrantics had been opened.

CHAPTER *][]FIVE[*—

The Mural Illusion

With a tug from Math, the round, metallic door opened fully. It was as thick as the vault in any bank, which concerned Syd. For a moment, he questioned whether they had been locked out…or if maybe something had been locked in.

A wall of darkness greeted them beyond the doorway but they couldn’t make out anything, not one detail that waited for them on the other side of the doorway. Abby climbed down off her father to stare in with everyone else. It was an impenetrable black that awaited them and, as they stood there, a breeze blew out and over them.

Side-by-side, the Melancholy Dreamers faced the unknown.

“It’s so creepy. I wanna live here. Forever,” remarked Dezzy.

“How many aliens do you think are in there?” Whiskers asked.

“All of them, probably,” Math swiftly answered, but then got a bit serious. “I think…I think I see something moving.”

“Stop trying to scare him,” warned Syd.

“I’m not,” Math replied, a bit grim. “I see something moving in there.”

Everyone squinted into the darkness. He was right; there was something in there. Something in the shadows was taking shape as it appeared to move closer to them. They were all scared—but then it was too late, and this shadow creature hit the edge of the darkness only an arm’s length away. Dezzy yelped. Mya grabbed Syd’s elbow (which Abby noticed). Yet again, Whiskers nimbly leap behind Math and, yet again, Math was completely unaware that he was being used as a human shield. Everyone froze, too terrified to—

“You opened it!” congratulated a jubilant voice.

Professor Bumbleflum emerged from the darkness and stepped into the brick corridor of the Waterworks. He leaned on his cane and stood in front of the group. They were momentarily speechless and their petrified expressions were stuck for the moment. Bumbleflum beamed proudly at them before noticing their expressions. He glanced over his shoulder, briefly searching the darkness behind him for whatever must’ve caused their fright.

Dezzy angrily grunted at him.

Hair, a forehead, and then a pair of wide, unblinking eyes lifted over Math’s shoulder.

“You said you didn’t have the key? How did you—” Math was too shaken up to think and speak simultaneously. “You were back—how did you… How? I don’t—”

“Absolutely correct, young man,” agreed the elusive Professor Bumbleflum.

There were so many more questions—but any follow-up was cut short by the sound of footsteps.

Someone was approaching.

“It’s him…” Math’s voice was hushed, and partly to himself, but Syd instantly knew whom he meant.

The man walking down the corridor had been the same man leisurely wandering the shore a week earlier…

…the same man Math had accused of following them…

…the same man Syd had thought he saw at Father Daniels’ funeral.

Mahogany dress shoes click-clacked against the brick with every step the man took toward the group. His fedora was tilted down, obscuring the left half of his face, but his eye glared at them as his stride picked up pace, though he never ran. He pulled taut the neckline of his dark blue suit jacket, and steadied his dark blue tie in the center of his button-up collar. Closing in, he reached a hand under the left side of his suit jacket—Syd pushed Abby behind him—and withdrew a gun from against his ribs, which he kept at his side and aimed down.

“Whoa there, sir,” Professor Bumbleflum cordially protested, hobbling forward with his wood cane until he stood directly between the armed man and the group.

The well-dressed man stopped in front of Bumbleflum and growled.

“Out of the way, old man—”

There was a flicker of movement, so fast that their eyes hardly caught anything at all. The first strike was so quick, in fact, that no one seemed to know where it came from or where it landed. The wood cane spun up and around and this second swing caught the man’s chin—but then the cane was back down and Bumbleflum was hunched over it, as if nothing happened.

The well-dressed man was caught entirely off-guard by the rapid blows and he stumbled back. The fedora flew from the top of his head to reveal disheveled, greasy black hair – and it was just then that Syd realized that he had already met the well-dressed man once before. A pang of foolishness filled him. This was the weirdo that had showed up for the fourth interview, the one with slicked-back black hair and a fear of alleyway ogres. Syd had been face-to-face with this man in his office but it had all been fake, a trick. Everything made sense now. In that moment, Syd knew with absolute certainty that this was the man who had broken into his house and work office.

“Why don’t y’all head through that there doorway?” Professor Bumbleflum called over his shoulder to the group, as they had frozen a second time in as many minutes; however, they weren’t scared this time around, more so spectators of the bizarre scene playing out before them.

The well-dressed man regained his balance. His eyes were blurry as they hunted for the phantom attacker, the one that had hit him so quickly and without warning. His jaw ached so badly that it felt like a car had hit his face. The old man was in front of him, smiling, and the well-dressed man glanced down, at the cane, at the group behind the old man, then back at the old man. His eyes narrowed with rage as he figured it out.

Professor Bumbleflum approached the well-dressed man as if he were twiddling away at some infinitesimal irritant, shooing him (“Out-Out-Get!”) as if dealing with a pesky seagull. Syd was awestruck by Bumbleflum and how truly fearless he was. This was like something out of a comic Paul would read, where a seemingly ordinary person used extraordinary measures to escape danger.

The well-dressed man lifted the gun in anger and pointed it straight at Bumbleflum—BANG!—an explosion reverberated down the corridor and everyone was momentarily deaf. The Professor had, again, swung the cane and hit the well-dressed man in the arm, forcing his hand up and out. The gun fired by accident, as a reflex, and the bullet lodged itself deep into the brick wall.

The gun was like a starter’s pistol for the Melancholy Dreamers. They ducked at the gunshot, everyone except Mya. She remained straight up, unfazed, staring at the well-dressed man – possibly in shock. Syd had Abby close against him, shielding her, and his other hand pushed Mya forward until, one-by-one, they disappeared into the darkness beyond the round doorway of the Attrantics.

Grabbing the edge of the door to pull it closed behind them, Syd caught a final glimpse of the Professor. Old Bumbleflum was shooing the well-dressed man back down the corridor (“Scat! Shoe! Get!”), deftly using the cane to disarm the man before turning him toward the exit and forcing him forward step-by-step. The well-dressed man was infuriated by this and protested every second of it, but each time he tried to turn or engage the old man, the wood cane would swing this way and that—so fast it was invisible—and the well-dressed man would spin this way and that until he was disoriented and facing the exit once more. He had no other choice, no other direction, helpless to the thrusts and hits of the Professor’s lightning-fast cane.

The vault-like door shut and clicked twice, locking behind them. Now they were stuck, surrounded by darkness so dense and opaque that they couldn’t even see the person directly beside them. They were somewhere different, that was for sure. The ground was no longer brick but soft and kind of sink-y like unsettled dirt. The air had become musty and frigid, with a chill, and a thick silence hung over them – though their ears were still ringing from the gunshot. It was as if they had left the Waterworks for a different planet.

Whiskers was the first to speak.

“Remember when you said it wouldn’t be dangerous?”

Something moved in the darkness, a rustling…and then a low, squishing noise. Syd fished around his tool belt. He found his flashlight, removed it, pointed it toward the noise, and turned it on—

“Ahhhhhhhh!”

Math was eating a hoagie directly in front of him, a piece of cheese stuck to the side of his mouth. The sight scared the bejesus out of everyone, including Math, as it was sudden and unexpected. Whiskers thought it was a Sasquatch and tried to duck behind Math, which scared him even more when he realized the threat and the safety were one and the same.

Syd exhaled deeply, relieved.

“I eat when I’m nervous,” confessed Math.

“You must be nervous all the time,” Dezzy mumbled.

Syd focused the flashlight down this new corridor but he couldn’t see much farther than a few feet. He turned the light on their immediate surroundings. The walls were curved like the Waterworks and it appeared that they were in another tunnel – one that wasn’t nearly as polished and pretty as the one they’d just left. The stone walls were old, the façade cracked and broken, its edges crumbling and green with decay.

EEEEEERRRRGH!—It was a horrendous screech, metal on metal.

A dense thud.

And then a heart-stopping explosion overhead as a light fixture burned to life and the bulb burst with a vibrant shower of red and orange sparks; luckily, it was some feet off and no one was close enough to be hurt. While the first bulb dimmed to a casual white, half a dozen feet forward another bulb FLASHED and exploded with a torrent of sparks before dimming. Everyone was done with the theatrics after five or six more bulbs went off in the distance.

(Whiskers had thick, round glasses on—but they were off instantly.)

Abby was next to a rusty panel that had a single, foot long lever – something that might possibly have been the most dangerous thing Syd had ever seen in his life. It belonged to an electric chair, as far as he could tell. The medieval-looking lever was connected to a panel hanging off the wall. A bunch of wires were haphazardly protruding out of the back and it was a miracle the whole thing hadn’t blown up.

“Light switch,” nodded Abby, proudly.

Syd realized that it had been his daughter who flipped the switch and he let out a delayed yelp, one that came out as a quick, high-pitched, screechy “Eeee!” The danger had taken a moment to register but register it had – now he was mortified for his daughter’s safety and he quickly scooped her up in his arms and backed away. Math seemed to have an interest in the panel, though, and he got closer, inspecting the back wires in-between bites of a turkey hoagie.

“What is it?” inquired Whiskers.

“The work I do with my pop, sometimes we do avionics work,” Math said, his attention divided between the lever, answering Whiskers, and chomping on his hoagie, “like wi-wing fings.”

Silence.

“And?” prodded Dezzy.

Math hadn’t really given an explanation.

“And… I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“It’s probably just old,” suggested Syd, loosening his clutch of Abby against his chest. She was growing annoyed and fighting to get down. Syd weighed the pros and cons of a temper tantrum against the dangers of whatever else might be around them. In the end, he let her down on the condition that she holds his hand for now.

“It is old, very old, but…” Math inspected it a final time. There was a moment of suspense where, yet again, he went silent. Syd was unsure if he was doing it as a joke, or if he was lost in thought, or if he just needed another bite of his hoagie.

“Oh my gosh,” moaned Dezzy, “what? What is it?”

“I’m not a master electrician but I know the basics of wiring and electricity,” Math explained, “and there’s no way this should work.”

“Why?” the group asked, simultaneously, as everyone was intrigued.

He faced the group but kept his head down, a slight hint of fear in his eyes. “Besides the wiring, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen…where’s the power source? Where’s the plug?”

It wasn’t obvious until he said it but Math was right.

The panel hung off the wall by a metal hook and there were wires protruding from the back of it but every wire led right back into the panel. There was nothing else, no extension cord, no power outlet, no wires leading to it, nothing. In fact, someone could take the entire panel off the hook and carry it around. Everyone stared.

“It’s like using a phone that’s unplugged.”

“Wait a second! I need a quick mental picture of this, hold still.” Dezzy got in front of Math and blinked her eyes. “Click! There, it shall be forever immortalized – the time we were in a situation where you didn’t know something.”

Math gave a mocking laugh.

“Do I at least look good in the picture?” he quipped.

Dezzy shut her eyes.

“Gotta develop ‘em a moment—aw, you blinked. And you’re fat. Maybe next time, though.”

“Guys!” called Syd in his most dad-like voice. “Remember? Stuck underground? Creepy old tunnel? Armed man? Can we focus please?”

“What do we do?” Mya asked.

She had been dead silent the whole time, practically forgotten.

Everyone turned to Syd.

“What, me? I thought this was a democracy.” Everyone kept staring at him, eagerly waiting for direction. “Alright, well, there are only two choices. We can stay here and hope Doctor Bubblegum—”

“Professor Bumbleflum!” everyone (except Mya) corrected Syd.

Syd indignantly cleared his throat.

“Yes. Professor Bumbleflum might come open the door but the sun is most definitely set by now and I’m not certain there’s any other way to open it. Or, we can head down the tunnel. See if it leads out. Bumbleflum got in here from the entrance, right?—at least, I think he did. I don’t get that strange little man.”

Every chin turned toward the long stretch of tunnel ahead of them. A shiver ran down Syd’s spine as he imagined the plethora of creepy-crawlies waiting for them…not that they were much better off where they currently stood.

“I guess we better move,” Syd conceded.

And the Melancholy Dreamers began their journey down this new tunnel. Abby and Math talked about The Golden Girls again but the conversation changed and they talked about Madonna, at which point Dezzy joined in to elaborate on her hatred of pop music.

“Mommy loves Madonna. We dance to it,” Abby said enthusiastically, which surprised Syd.

“Isn’t that kind of music inappropriate?” he asked.

No one answered.

Mya asked Abby which song was her favorite.

“Burden song?” she answered as if asking a question.

“I’m not sure I’m familiar with that one.”

“It’s super popular.” Abby walked backwards in front of Mya, singing, “’Like a burden, yeah, touched for the very first time.’”

“What-ched for the very first time?!” Syd blurted.

Dezzy and Mya chuckled.

“Mommy says a burden is something heavy and we dance to it even though her new boyfriend doesn’t like it because he’s got really bad taste in stuff and mommy just ignores it and calls him hunky because she thinks he’s really handsome—”

Syd let out an uncomfortable cough.

“Uh, guys,” Whiskers meekly called out, “can we please talk about the fact that someone tried to—” and his eyes looked down at Abby, thinking about his words carefully, “—that someone wanted to talk to us and they had a-a gun and didn’t seem to be very polite.”

“Talk to us?” scoffed Math, pushing his big, black-rimmed glasses up his nose. “That dude wanted to hurt us. He was prolly gonna shoot us in the eyeball so that our heads explode,” and he took a quick moment to mime the action in graphic detail. “Guy was prolly mob, looked like he was in the mob. Mob’s everywhere, got those mob suits. Philly has lots of mob—”

“Would you stop saying ‘mob’?” interrupted Dezzy.

Abby wasn’t paying attention to the conversation, instead kicking small mounds of dirt at the wall.

Whiskers, on the other hand, drank in every word.

“But why us?”

He sounded terrified.

“Money. Boredom.” Math shrugged. “Maybe just sport. Or maybe he wanted to harvest our organs.” Math demonstrated the optimum locations to remove various organs before heading into another story about a bus driver who may or may not have been a real vampire.

Syd had been thinking about their distance and bearing when he caught the tail-end of Math’s story. Glancing back, he saw Whiskers had turned a pale white and his fingers twiddled as if there was no tomorrow, so he asked a random Nintendo question.

“Super Mario Brothers is gonna have level designs vertical!”

Math took the lead, talking over his shoulder like Professor Sugargum or whatever. He pulled his book bag around front to rest on his bulbous belly and pulled out another half-eaten a sandwich – this one even more questionable than the last, as it hadn’t been wrapped in anything.

“I always liked Luigi better, not sure if it was the green or—”

There was an explosion. Lettuce and cheese and meat burst out in all directions and fell from the sky. Math backed up, bewildered. His sandwich had somehow blown up and glasses were cracked.

Everyone stopped.

A smudge of mayo floated in the air. While Math was disoriented and wandering around, wearing cracked glasses, everyone else reached out and touched the stone wall in front of them. Ahead, it was a long corridor that seemed to curve in the distance, the lights illuminating the entire way—but the group could tell it wasn’t real. It was an illusion. Someone had built a stone wall and painted it to look like the tunnel went on forever. The mayo wasn’t floating in the air but mashed into the phony picture on the wall.

“What kind of Wile E. Coyote booby trap is this?” Math asked, upset that his sandwich had exploded and still a bit dazed from walking face-first into the wall. (Truth be told, his gut saved his face from taking the brunt of the impact.) “Click,” Dezzy blinked at Math for another mental picture.

Math threw his broken glasses to the ground.

“Won’t you be blind without your glasses?” Syd asked.

“I can see just fine without them, Whiskers,” Math answered.

“Syd said that,” Whiskers corrected Math.

“Thanks, Abby,” replied Math.

Abby chuckled.

“What was that?” Math wondered, but everyone ignored him and returned to the curiosity in front of them.

They were at a dead-end.

“Why would someone paint this?” asked Mya, concerned.

“Someone with talent,” admired Dezzy, putting her hand on the wall. “It’s amazing.”

There didn’t appear to be any crack in the painted wall; no hidden doorway, nothing. It was a wall. The mural illusion was incredibly detailed and eerily believable, even close up, but it served no purpose whatsoever. It was just a sneaky dead-end.

“What does the atlas say?” Math asked.

Syd hadn’t even thought about it. He pulled the atlas from the tube on his back and handed it to Whiskers.

“What does the atlas say?” Syd asked, repeating Math’s question.

Whiskers looked it over. They had followed a straight line, from the waterfront 500 paces into the Waterworks, and then it had been another straight line from the doorway of the Attrantics to this dead-end.

“How many steps have we taken down this corridor?” Whiskers asked Math.

“Fate-hundred and sebenty,” Math answered; then, he shook the fog from his head and tried again. “Four-hundred and seventy-eight.”

“There’s a circle.”

“A what?” asked Syd, looking around.

“There’s a circle.”

Whiskers held out the atlas and pointed to the spot.

Syd saw it, a black circle.

“What’s it mean?” Whiskers wondered.

“I’m not sure,” Syd shrugged. “We’re in that vicinity but I didn’t see any black circle—”

“Hey, everyone,” Mya called, “come look at this.”

Syd tucked the atlas back into its cylindrical container and swung it over his shoulder. Mya had wandered back a bit and she was against the wall, examining something. In her right hand she carried her high heels, which she had removed the moment they stepped onto the dirt ground, but her other hand checked her pockets and pulled out a tube of bright pink lipstick.

“If you’re using that lipstick to impress a handsome man, might I suggest…” and Dezzy motioned toward Math, who was busy picking bits of food off his shirt and belly. Some bits he’d smell. Some bits he’d toss. Some bits he’d eat. Math noticed the two females watching and gave a suggestive wink.

Mya ignored all this and went back to what she had been doing. She leaned forward and rubbed the lipstick against the wall until an engraved message took shape. It was etched into the tunnel wall and then painted into the landscape, entirely invisible without the lipstick. Mya continued to color when her arm hit against a lever so successfully hidden that no one had noticed it poking out of the wall. There were two of them, side-by-side, and both were similar to the medieval-looking lever – except one was down and one was up. She smeared a bit of pink on the handles to better distinguish them, then continued shading around the area. Next to the down-turned lever was an arrow pointing up. Beside the other, up-turned lever was an arrow pointed down. There was a final smear below the levers, revealing a second engraving.

“The top part is a quote,” Mya said, leaning in to inspect the writing, and she read it aloud: “’Age hasn’t the opportunity to double-back’.”

“Daddy’s old…” Abby suggested, as an answer.

“Not that old,” denied Syd, immediately defensive.

“Does that mean we can’t go back?” asked Whiskers.

No one answered.

Mya read the second engraving:

“The bottom just says, ‘Two Opportunities’.”

She turned around to find everyone staring at her.

“That’s it?” Math asked.

She nodded.

“But seriously, is that it?” Dezzy asked shortly after.

She nodded slower, more deliberately.

Syd had gone silent, deep in thought. It grew quiet and, when he looked around, a group of innocent, helpless, questioning gazes stared back. Mya was the only one not staring at him because she, too, was thinking. (They actually had very similar expressions when lost in thought.)

“I uh…I don’t know. I’m not even sure it’s a riddle.”

This sparked a debate amongst the group. Abby suggested that they pull both levers at the same time, which Dezzy supported. Syd wanted to pull zero levers, as they had no idea what would happen; if they did pull one, though, he preferred the down-turned lever with the up arrow beside it, in the hopes that it would lead to the surface. Math and Whiskers both wanted to pull the up-turned lever beside the down arrow in case it led them further underground. (Syd reminded them that they had no food or water and that they’d probably die if they ended up deeper underground.)

“Maybe there’s more to it hidden around,” Syd reasoned, thinking out loud. “Maybe it wants us to do something first.”

“What does?” Whiskers asked, his fingers twiddling again.

“What does what?” Syd responded, as he didn’t understand the question.

“You said, ‘It wants us to do something.’ What wants us to do something?”

“No idea,” Syd shrugged, “but whoever it was, they certainly built a fair amount of stuff to tuck it underground and forget about it.”

“So let me get this straight…” Dezzy began, “…someone did this but we don’t know who.” She held up a finger. “There’s a reason behind it, probably,” she stressed the word, lifting a second finger, “but we don’t know what. There are riddles,” another finger, “but we don’t understand them since they’re not even questions. There’s a sharply-dressed man with a gun apparently following us,” another finger, “but we don’t know why. And, as of right now,” up went her fifth and final finger, the thumb, “we’re trapped underground with only two options – an up lever and a down lever – and a riddle sketched out in a terrible shade of pink?”

“About sums it up,” Math agreed.

“It isn’t a riddle,” corrected Mya.

Everyone looked at her, confused.

She shot them a glance like it was obvious, one Math might give.

“It isn’t a riddle. It’s a risk, a challenge.” She turned back toward the two levers. “The original quote was about growing old. You either move on or you wallow but you can’t go back. Maybe this is sort of daring us to go on by using the up lever, like a taunt or…”

Abby strolled past Mya, reached out both hands, and swiftly pushed the down-turned lever up so that it matched the arrow beside it; then she turned around, proud.

Everyone else let out a collective gasp.

A clicking echoed through the tunnel, followed by an ominous creaking. No one moved. Whiskers was hiding behind Math. Abby had her back against her father and his arms were over her shoulders, holding her close against him. Dezzy was enthusiastic about this new development, eagerly awaiting a booby trap full of spikes or a giant sewer rat she could name Squeaky or whatever – something exciting was happening. Mya’s body stayed tense and she shot a worried glance at Syd. Unseen cogs buried deep in the floor and walls and ceiling ached to life and grew louder, closing in all around them—and then it stopped.

Dezzy sighed, disappointed.

Whiskers peeked over Math’s shoulder.

Mya’s body loosened a little.

“Maybe it was the wrong answer,” Syd sigh, relieved. “At least nothing bad happened—”

The clicking resumed, much louder and accompanied by a new, thunderous grinding. The ground trembled, the earth quaking—and then it split apart right beneath them. A sinkhole formed below them and the dirt poured into the dark abyss. The floor tilted down, toward the widening pit, and the loose dirt made it impossible to grab hold of anything. Syd saw that, under all the dirt, the ground beneath the dirt was made of a shiny black metal; but it was the last thing he was really able to notice as each person tumbled end-over-end into the blackness.

Twirling madness as they fell, Syd used every sense he could to locate Abby but everything was black – utterly, exasperatingly black. (Somehow, every new place was darker than the previous). They rushed downward with great momentum but their fall was short and they were swallowed into the mouth of a wide tube pointed nearly straight down, making it impossible for them to slow or steady themselves. Their backs brushed along a polished metal as the decline decreased slightly, now driving them downward and forward, even further out, away, deeper under the city. Syd tried time and again to fight against it but the metal was perfectly frictionless, so much so that the rubber of his shoes and even the skin of his hands couldn’t slow his speed. The experience was frightening at first, then disorienting; then it was…almost like being weightless in a vacuum. Groans echoed as everyone slid but there was nothing to see, all the senses jumbled, just sliding downward, ever downward. Abby was just below him; her joyful giggling could be heard as she spun uncontrollably. Syd could just see her silhouette as they were approaching a light at the end of the tunnel. A breeze of cool, fresh air, the smell of salt…it looked like daylight, sweet daylight ahead (—but it’s night outside—) and the light grew brighter and then it was over and they were falling, really falling, shot out into open air one-by-one. This time, though, the fall was much greater, the sense of weightlessness much more real.

CHAPTER *][]SIX[*—

Neverwuz

In the summer of 1986, Abby had been 5 years old and Syd signed her up for camp at the YMCA. They had agreed that the camp looked rad as half the day was spent playing inside games and the second half was spent at the outdoor swimming pool. He took her every weekday and picked her up and there was never an issue until, one Tuesday, Abby was hiding when he arrived. It took him some time searching around the large pool but he found her behind a picnic bench in the back, and he could instantly tell that she had been crying. When Syd asked why, Abby refused to tell him and they went home without another word. They ate dinner and watched television, silently. She brushed her teeth and he read her a bedtime story and then, after 4 hours, she was ready to tell him how two older girls – sisters – were calling her names and picking on her because she couldn’t swim.

Syd thought a moment.

“Do you want to learn to swim?” he asked.

Abby nodded.

“Well then, I promise that we’ll go to the pool every night until you’ve learned.”

Syd arrived the following day to, again, find Abby hiding behind the picnic benches in the back. Again, she had been crying. As they were leaving, Syd felt Abby squeeze his hand and noticed that she was glowering in a certain direction. When he joined her gaze, Syd found the two brunette sisters sitting on a bench near the changing rooms. Both girls were older than Abby by two or three years, several inches taller and more filled out. They were making faces at Abby but, as Syd looked over, they stopped, their eyes cleared, and their faces took on an innocent quality. With them watching, Syd used his index and middle fingers to point towards his eyes, then pointed both fingers at the sisters; it was meant to let the girls know he was watching them. He did all this over Abby’s turned head and she never noticed.

That evening, 45 minutes after dinner, they returned to the pool and began practicing things like treading water and the doggy paddle. Abby took to the methods quickly so, Wednesday, Syd moved on to underwater swimming. The sisters hadn’t made fun of her that day so she wasn’t as adamant to learn. She struggled at first, as Abby didn’t like to put her head underwater, but Syd taught her to exhale a bit from her nose when she was under. She tried and tried and it was at this point that she nearly quit, and she paddled over to the wall to hop out and sit on the concrete, her legs still in the water and a frustrated, angry scowl on her face.

It was then that Syd said something that stayed with her:

“You can always quit,” Syd told her, all but his head submerged in front of her knees. “Everyone can quit. Lots of people do. It’s a whole lot easier than not quitting. You know why?” Her answer was a frown. “Because everything new is difficult at first. If it wasn’t, every single person would be an expert at everything. Could you imagine if everyone was an amazing musician the second they picked up an instrument? It takes time and patience and sometimes it hurts and it’s hard work, it just is.”

Abby continued to scowl.

The pep talk wasn’t working.

“And you know what? Sometimes it’s okay to quit. Some things aren’t worth the time. Thing is, people always seem to ask, ‘Should I quit?’ That’s not what you need to ask, sweetness, you need to ask, ‘Is it worth it not to?’” Syd reminded Abby that they were there because she was being teased about something she couldn’t do, and because of that it was something she wanted to learn. She could quit; or, she could learn it, practice, go back to camp, and show those two sisters that they didn’t know what they were talking about. He urged her to use her anger in a positive way, as determination, as the driving force to learn something new. “Otherwise, being mad just slows you down. It doesn’t accomplish anything other than making you feel like doody.”

This last part made Abby laugh, her scowl faded, and she leapt in, her head fully submerged. From then on, Abby fought very hard to learn to swim and, after a solid week of practice, she had become quite proficient. This made her very proud. That week at camp, she waded over to the sisters and waited for their attention, which they gave her. Well, Abby swam to the opposite end of the pool and back again. Catching her breath with a look of satisfaction, Abby expected the older sisters’ admiration…but, instead, they laughed at her.

Soon after, Syd was asked to pick Abby up early as there had been an incident. The camp director met him at the entrance as he arrived and explained the story as they walked toward the infirmary. “Wait, what?” he asked, stopping to focus directly on the camp director. “She destroyed everything. In the office, that is,” the director specified. Syd wasn’t being taken to the infirmary, as he had originally thought, but through it.

Abby was locked in the office behind the infirmary.

Before he was able to take her home, the camp director and two of the counselors privately, and quite politely, requested that Abby find another camp for the remainder of the summer. This was the first time she’d done anything like it, and Syd had been a bit surprised by the behavior but he still argued in his daughter’s favor, describing the torment two sisters perpetrated and how this must have been a result of it. The director told him that his daughter needed to tell a counselor if there was an issue – or even he could bring it up, since he apparently knew of the situation – and that “destroying an office” instead just wasn’t an option. In the end, Syd’s argument only served to highlight the fact that, according to them, other kids didn’t behave this way. She was different and it wasn’t a good fit for her there. Abby was not to return.

*      *      *

Syd and Abby and Whiskers and Dezzy and Math and Mya were spit out of the dark tunnel, through the bright, fresh air a solid 30 feet and straight into clear blue water. Each person landed with a thudding splash. After the dirt in his face, the darkness and falling and spinning and sliding, followed by more falling, Syd opened his eyes underwater to find Abby directly in front of him, facing him, not moving. This stirred in him a great panic until he realized she was watching him back. Her mouth curled into a smile and she sluggishly waved back-and-forth underwater before swimming to the surface.

Something else underwater caught Syd’s eye. The bottom was visible, no deeper than a dozen or so feet, and it looked like sand – not east coast sand, either, which was darker and sometimes a miserable gray – real sand, like golden, tropical beach sand. There was a school of brightly colored fish circling around several objects floating along the ocean floor, shiny objects that he quickly recognized as the tools from his belt. It was then that Syd realized something else was off. It was a feeling inside him, one that was especially distinct, like a yearning. Then he realized what was wrong – the atlas was gone. The shoulder strap must have snapped somewhere between the earth caving in, the sensory-depriving abyss, the warped slide, the 30-foot plummet, and his hard landing in the water.

Syd swam to the surface and gasped air until his lungs burned. Both eyes were burning from the salt water and extra slow to adjust to the bright surroundings. He scanned the glistening blue around him. Heads bobbed in the water around him and Syd counted four in addition to him and Abby, who was treading beside him. He knew her stamina was low—heck, everyone’s stamina would be gone soon if they didn’t find something immediately.

“You okay?” he asked her, out of breath.

Abby couldn’t really answer as she fought to keep her head above water. Instead, she circled around and climbed onto her father’s back while he searched for a direction to swim.

Abby pushed up, her head out of the water, and yelled out, “Holy butts!” Surprise and delight had caused her to say the first curse word that came to mind. Finally able to see, her tiny arm reached over Syd’s shoulder and pointed in the direction of the sun, which was hovering low on the horizon.

It was hard to make out against the glare of the sun but a bony shadow stuck out of the shimmering teal. It took a moment before Syd realized that it was a tree on a patch of land. Mya and Whiskers were already swimming toward it. Math wasn’t far off, putting in the effort but visibly struggling with his breast stroke, so much so that he switched to doggy paddle. Dezzy had looked back at the sound of Abby’s voice and then disappeared underwater.

Syd swam forward, Abby’s arms snug around his neck, but they only made it far enough to pass Math before his energy was depleted. Sensing this, and now rested, Abby disembarked to swim the remainder alone. Syd rolled onto his back for the moment, catching his breath as the gentle waves carried him. It was serene, at least for the moment, wholly peaceful and silent but for the gentle whooshing of the tide and the out-of-shape wheezing of Math as he paddled forward. The sky was a cloudless, yawning blue, so realistic that Syd briefly forgot that it wasn’t real, that it couldn’t be real since they were deep underground and there could be no sky deep underground.

It even felt real against his skin.

The realization that nothing around him was genuine helped motivate Syd to roll back over and swim the rest of the short distance to shore. Abby had already made it and was sprawled out on the beach. Whiskers was sitting cross-legged next to her. Mya wandered the small island, which was no bigger than a football field.

There were splashes behind him and Syd turned just as Dezzy swam up carrying a familiar, cylindrical tube as if it was a floatation device. “Good thing you sprang for the waterproof,” she sneered. Syd accepted the atlas with a gracious nod but he wasn’t in the mood for jokes. Math wasn’t far behind her, finally close enough to stand on his tippy toes, and he was baby-stepping his way toward the shore.

Syd’s focus lifted to the sky in search of the hole from which they had just fallen, any sign of the tunnel that had led them there or the exit that had shot them out—but it was gone, all gone, any trace hidden in the cloudless blue. He shook his head, annoyed. Guess I should have expected that, he mused.

Math dragged himself the last few steps, his arms limp and head down. “I’m… never… responding… to… a… newspaper… ad… again…” he huffed, bending over as he caught his breath. He glanced up at Syd and then tilted his head to look behind him, at the island. A dumbfounded expression crept over his face.

“I know, right,” Syd scoffed. “What is this place?”

It wasn’t until Syd turned around that he realized Math wasn’t amazed by the location—nope, Dezzy was stripping down to her black underwear. It wasn’t indecent or even very revealing, as her undergarments closely resembled a two-piece bathing suit, but Math was incapable of looking anywhere else. Dezzy was unconcerned with Math’s gawking and took a seat next to Abby, who was still sprawled out and seemed to be asleep. Syd snapped his fingers in front of Math’s face but it didn’t register so he took hold of his arm and towed him to shore. Abby was indeed asleep, Syd noticed. Dezzy scooted over and Syd sat between her and Abby. Math collapsed on one end, his ogling at last broken by exhaustion. Mya returned shortly after and quietly sat on the other end, beside Whiskers.

A short period of silence followed.

The air carried a warm, gentle breeze.

Waves delicately swept up the shore and back.

Abby snored softly.

Under different circumstances, it could have been paradise.

“It’s not foolin’ me, none of it,” Math assured those listening. He began rifling through his soaked backpack. “Sunrise totally looks real but it definitely ain’t. I might’ve walked into a Looney Tunes booby-trap once but it won’t happen again—Yes! Look what I found!”

Excitement spread through the group as Math reached into his bag and pulled out a…multi-colored square puzzle, commonly referred to as the Rubix Cube.

“Ugh,” Dezzy groaned.

Attention returned to the ocean.

“What?” Math asked, unsure why interest had faded so quickly.

“We thought it might be food or…something useful,” sighed Syd, a bit hopeless.

“Is that one of those cubes?” Whiskers asked, still interested.

“Absolutely. Why don’t you give it a shot, Whisks?”

Math tossed the cube over. Whiskers flinched instead of catching it; then picked it up, brushed off the sand, and began twisting the colored rows up and down, left and right.

“So you have no food, right?” Syd finally asked.

Math gave a disappointed shake of his head.

“What else is in there?”

“Trash. My work binder. Some office supplies.” He pulled out a metal clipboard the shape and size of a thick textbook. “My dad’s gonna be so piffed when he finds out my papers got destroyed.” Math lifted the surface of his clipboard to show a hollow middle compartment full of soggy papers, writing utensils, scotch tape, and white out. He shut it and set it in the sand and then dumped the rest of the bag’s contents out, proving it was filled with trash – empty bottles, potato chip bags, plastic wrap, hoagie remnants, and other odds and ends, none of it much use.

“I did it!” exclaimed Whiskers.

“Wow…you solved it?” Math said with a hint of envy.

Whiskers beamed proudly and held up the Rubix Cube.

There was a moment of dead air.

The cube hadn’t been solved; quite the contrary, the colors were even more mixed up and disorderly.

“Look, I got each color by itself,” exclaimed Whiskers as he turned it over, pointing to each side, “see – gray, gray, light gray, gray. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Nobody said anything.

“What?” Whiskers asked, troubled by their reaction.

“Pretty sure you’re colorblind, bud,” Syd answered, glumly.

“Oh…”

Whiskers set the cube back in the sand, disconcerted.

Syd suggested everyone take inventory of the things they had with them. Whiskers fished into each of his trench coat pockets and pulled out a comb, a small pocketknife, a refrigerator magnet from some pizza restaurant, a large pair of prescription glasses, 3 AA batteries, and a couple other random odds and ends. Dezzy went over to the clothes she had taken off and brought back keys.

“My purse is in my car,” Mya admitted, empty-handed.

They set the random objects on top of the metal clipboard.

“Is that everything?” Syd asked, checking himself.

He had an empty tool belt, with the tools now at the bottom of the ocean around them. There was also the atlas, his (nearly empty) wallet, keys, and that was it.

The group’s attention collectively turned to the cylindrical tube holding the atlas. Everyone had the same thought at the same time. Syd hesitantly reached back, worried about what they might (or might not) find. “Shall we?” he lamented, unscrewing the lid to withdraw and unfurl the atlas. He initially winced, as if the atlas might punch him, but then his eyes narrowed in concentration as he followed their trek from the black circle. Markings suggested that they had traveled south a bit, along the Schuylkill River, and then pushed deeper inland.

There were more scribbles.

“We’re southwest of the Waterworks,” Syd said as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. He handed the atlas over Abby’s tiny sleeping body to Whiskers. He spread it out and nearly put his face against the paper.

“Does it tell us where to find a boat?” joked Dezzy.

He shook his head.

“It’s another riddle.”

Syd, Dezzy, and Math formed a chorus of groans.

Mya, on the other hand, perked up.

Whiskers read it aloud:

“Always to approach

Though never arrive

Always to be

But neverwuz”

“Awesome riddle,” Syd sighed. “I was hoping it’d be short and extremely vague.”

The atlas was passed back, returned to the cylinder, and set aside.

“What’s it mean, Math?” Dezzy asked, looking over.

“I don’t—”

“Click,” she interrupted him.

“Please,” Syd scolded, his exasperation growing. “How many feet underground do you think we are?”

“Oh, a real question. Um,” Math thought a moment, “if you assume we traveled an average of 12 miles an hour over a period just shy of 3 minutes, with an additional 30 feet at the end, I’d say we’re near .6 miles down. My guess would be 3,200 feet below sea level. Approximately.”

Mya whimpered.

“Don’t worry,” Math continued, attempting to console her, “we could prolly go down a few thousand more feet before our skin would melt or the pressure would crush us into cubes.”

“Like a Rubix Cube,” suggested Whiskers, as if it were an answer and the two were connected, and he twiddled his fingers together.

Mya whimpered again.

Syd got to his feet and paced in front of the group. He rubbed the beard thickening on his face. He shook his head as if silently arguing with himself. Twice he turned to the group, about to speak, but stopped himself to resume pacing.

Dezzy was rather amused by all this.

“What do you think it means?” Whiskers asked.

Syd stopped and looked down, confused.

“What does what mean?”

“The riddle.”

Syd resumed pacing.

“I have no idea.”

“Oh…then, what’re we gonna do?” wondered Whiskers.

“We could play I-Spy,” Math flippantly suggested.

Dezzy joined in.

“Whiskers, you can start. Let me guess, you spy something gray.”

Math, Whiskers, and even Mya chuckled at the comment.

Syd stopped pacing.

“I don’t know if you guys realize this but the adventure’s over.” His voice was stern. “We are going to die down here if we don’t do something. Look around you. The psycho that built this place spent a fortune and we don’t know why—not that it even matters now. Every minute we waste is a minute we no longer have to get out of this place and it’s a minute closer to dehydration or worse. This has become a fight for our lives and I am not going to let anything bad happen to my daughter. Okay?”

Each head slowly nodded in agreement.

Syd went back to pacing as he outlined their plan.

“We need five things. First off, we need to rest. We’re going to need our strength and our wits but it’s starting to get late.” Syd checked his watch to verify the time but the only information he could glean from the small device was that it had broken at 7:41 p.m. He growled at his wrist before continuing. “After we rest, then we get food. Then we start a fire. Then we get drinking water. And then we get the fudge out of here.”

Whiskers raised his hand.

“Yes?”

“How are we going to accomplish that?”

Syd’s hand brushed over his belt, feeling the empty spots that had once been occupied by his tools.

“With the limited supplies we have.”

“What would MacGyver do?” wondered Math, dead-serious.

Syd had no idea what that was.

“What’s a MacGyver?”

“It’s a show about a guy who solves problems with stuff like what we got. He’d prolly use our stuff to build a rocket.”

“We have more than just the stuff on the clipboard,” Syd stated, matter-of-factly.

“Like what?”

Syd stopped pacing and glanced up, behind everyone.

They twisted to look.

Everyone turned back, confused.

“Talkin’ about the tree, right?”

“Yes, Math. Not ocean or sand or the…” He remembered something. “Wait, you called it a sunrise earlier. Can you tell that the sun’s rising and not setting?”

“Actually, it’s not moving at all,” Dezzy interjected.

“I noticed that, too,” Whiskers concurred.

Math cleared his throat to get the attention he felt he deserved.

“There’s a theory that the sun has a slightly bluer hue when it rises and a more orange/red hue when it sets.”

“Really?” Syd wasn’t certain that was true. “Why would it change? Same sun, same sky.”

“A change in the temperature gradient of the atmosphere. Duh.”

“I…have no idea what that means,” Syd admitted.

“Think of it this way. You got two hemispheres to the planet. When the sun’s not around, the atmosphere slightly lowers in temperature because it’s not in direct sunlight. When the sun comes back around, the temperature raises. So, the atmosphere is slightly colder in the morning and slightly warmer in the evening. Usually you can see the difference in clouds or darkness but we have neither. Thing about it is that it’s supposed to be so subtle that your eyes catch it unconsciously, like one of those things you can just tell. I see that sun, it’s got an obvious blue tint to it – like it’s supposed to be noticeable – so I take it to mean sunrise.”

Syd stared at the sun, considering what he had just learned.

“I wish there was a way to know for sure.”

Dezzy got to her feet.

“Anyone got a baby pin? Or paperclip?” she asked, leisurely strolling behind everyone—and then, “Bull’s eye.” She plucked a bobby pin from Mya’s damp blonde hair and walked off, crossed the island, grabbed a leaf off the tree, and returned. She set the leaf, bobby pin, and refrigerator magnet aside; lifted the top of the metal clipboard and emptied out the soggy papers, the writing utensils, the tape, and the whiteout; took the clipboard to the water’s edge, dipped it in so that the middle compartment filled with water, and then came back once more. She got onto her knees and set the water-filled clipboard flat against the ground, in front of everyone. They were watching eagerly, as if she was a magician about to perform an amazing magic trick.

“So if you take a needle – like a bobby pin or paperclip – and you take a magnet, and you rub them together like this…” and she rubbed the magnet against the bobby pin over and over again, always from top-to-bottom, “…you can magnetize the pin. And once it’s magnetized, you can put it on top of a leaf…” and she put the bobby pin on the center of the leaf, then carefully dropped it onto the water, “…and you set it in the water like so…”

Like magic, the leaf sluggishly turned in the water all by itself.

“And viola, it’ll point north,” Dezzy stated.

“I think it’s pronounced, ‘voila,’” corrected Math.

“I think it’s pronounced, ‘I’ll destroy you if you correct me again,’” Dezzy corrected Math’s correction.

When it finally stopped, the needle pointed to the left of the sun.

The sun was in the east.

“Told you,” gloated Math, “it’s a sunrise.”

Syd was thoroughly impressed.

“Where did you learn that?”

“My dad. He, uh, showed me how to do that when I was young, in case I ever got lost.” Her face lit up as a genuine smile crossed her lips, one brought on by a sense of accomplishment and the recollection of a fond memory.

Syd could hardly recognize her like this.

“He didn’t happen to teach you how to do that thing where you rub two sticks together and it makes a fire, did he?”

Her smile vanished just as quickly as it had arrived.

“He died when I was eight. I don’t really remember much. Just that he always smelled like saw-dust…and how to make a compass.”

She cleared her throat and sat back on her heels.

Syd told her how sorry he was to hear that, and Whiskers gave her a sympathetic squeeze of the shoulder, and Math let her know how much it sucked…and, as if noticing she was the only one left, Mya whispered a quick, “Sorry.” All of these things made Dezzy uncomfortable and even a bit annoyed. She dismissed it all with a glib, “I’m fine.”

Syd was hopeful as he looked from person to person.

“We’re going to be alright,” he stated with confidence. “If we don’t panic, and we work together, we can do anything. But right now we just need to try and rest. We got a lot of work ahead of us so I don’t want to hear any more silliness.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Island of Roscoe Teddy Toad

The island was roughly the size of a baseball field, with a single tree at the ridge nearest the eastern sun, right where the grass met the sand. Syd climbed the thick trunk and deep into the tree limbs. It wasn’t until he had nearly made it to the top that he found a few branches that were straight enough and solid enough to be useful. He broke the branches from the tree with little effort and, with a dozen branches bundled under one arm, Syd climbed down the tree and snuck back to the spot on the beach where his 6 year old daughter was still sprawled out and sleeping.

That girl could sleep through a tsunami.

Syd smiled at his angelic daughter.

He sat a safe distance away from her, opened the pocketknife, picked the first branch from the pile, and began running the blade along the bottom edge. He did this over and over again, peeling away the leaves and bark and sharpening the end into a fine point. The wood was stubborn and it fought him even as he went with the grain – a pain to whittle but perfect for its intended use. When he finished with one, he set it aside and started another. This went on for the better part of an hour, at which point the lot were all finished – except two, which were to remain untouched.

The rest of the group continued to sleep, each person spread around the length of the shore. They had separated, creating enough distance for the illusion of privacy. Syd had tried to rest. He had curled up next to Abby and felt her breathing, listened to the waves wash up on the shore, let his mind wander—and then he suddenly woke and sat straight up, as if he’d just had a horrible nightmare. He tried to remember the nightmare that caused him to bolt upright but it vanished so successfully that Syd began to doubt if he had even fallen asleep. He checked his watch out of habit: 7:41 p.m. yesterday and then grunted in frustration, tossing the watch. It landed in the ocean with a soft plop. The island was in perpetual morning and time was impossible to measure without a watch. The sky was a cloudless blue. The sun was low on the east horizon, unmoving. The ocean was calm. Nothing but water surrounded them in any direction. Everything was exactly the same as it had been the moment they got there and nothing looked like it was about to change, ever, and they’d never make it—

Syd shook it off.

The odds of going completely mad would increase exponentially if he kept dwelling on the downside so, from that point on, he worked to remedy the absence of the four things they needed most:

Food.

Fire.

Water.

Home.

“Aren’t you going to sleep?” a female voice whispered from behind.

A shiver spiraled up Syd’s spine as he had been caught entirely off-guard. He forgot how tall Mya was, having to turn and tilt his head straight up to meet her eyes. She circled around him and took a seat. They kept their voices to a whisper, as Abby was close by.

“I should ask you the same thing.”

“I’ve rested enough.”

“Yeah, I know the feeling.” Syd tried again to remember the phantasm nightmare that had woken him but, again, not one detail came to mind. “Sometimes my rest is keeping myself busy, you know?”

Mya had a kindness in her eyes when she looked at him, Syd noticed, but the rest of the time it seemed like she was an impartial observer. Seldom did she involve herself or even speak. Aside from their conversation outside the museum, she had asked Abby a question about Madonna and she had found the levers, had worked out the “riddle” as best she could, but other than that she had remained almost entirely silent, passive.

“Mya, can I ask you a question?”

She nodded.

“Do you feel like a part of the group?”

This time it was Syd who caught her off-guard.

Her eyebrows rose as she searched for the words to answer.

“Uh, yeah. Sure. Why?”

“Just curious. I have another question.”

A bit more hesitant this time, she nodded again.

“Why were you crying that night in the museum?” Syd was talking about the night they had first met, when she was crying her eyes out on a bench in the Mongolian Exhibit of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He had approached her and blathered nonsense in an attempt to console her the same way he sometimes did with Abby; then, without even seeing her face, he left.

“Sometimes my boss can be…quite a horrible man.” It took her a good deal of energy to make the admission, almost like it was a heavy burden that she neither wanted to carry nor share.

“He’s an art collector, right?”

“Among other things, yeah.” A tuft of vibrant blonde hair fell across her face and she brushed it aside with a distinct motion, a flick of her index and middle finger. After all the dirt, saltwater, and sand, her hair was a bit frizzy. “He’s very wealthy. Very old and stubborn and set in his ways. Sometimes I don’t even think he understands the cost of the things he says and does.”

“How did he know Father Daniels?”

“Father Daniels was my boss’ nephew,” answered Mya, “but they had had a…a rough falling out a long while back. I don’t even know why he went to the funeral. I’ve never seen someone so indifferent to the death of a family member.”

Syd had noticed her boss at the funeral, not because of the small attendance but because of the old man’s grizzled scowl the entire time. He hadn’t appeared sad in any way, much more angry, like he was there out of spite. It really had been a string of coincidences that brought them together. Less than a week after the crying episode at the museum, she had been one of only three people attending his friend’s funeral; then, two days later, they crossed paths again in front of the museum. It was funny that only a few hours had passed since that last meeting, in front of the museum, yet it felt like a lifetime ago. They even looked different. Syd was grimy from the sweat bath he had taken when he tried to sleep and for some reason his facial hair was growing twice as fast as normal, already at a point where his beard needed trimming. Mya’s makeup had been washed away, her heels gone, her clothes mangled and crusted white from the saltwater.

“Well, I’m glad you feel like part of the group,” Syd said, giving her knee an appreciative pat, “because it seems like fate really wanted you to be here. I mean, what are the odds of us running into each other three times within one week?”

She let out a good-hearted chuckle.

“Well, if you’re at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I’d say your chances of running into me are pretty good. But I see what you mean. Now I have a question for you.”

“Ah, we’re out of time,” Syd joked.

“Well, make some. What is all that?” Her eyes lowered to the other side of Syd, where a bunch of sticks were in a bundle next to a crude sketch in the sand. It was a design Syd had come up with before climbing the tree for suitable branches.

“What indeed,” Syd said with a mischievous laugh. “I hope you’re not partial to that black skirt.”

Mya smirked with pleasant curiosity.

“I was pretty fond of my skirt until some stranger asked me to go on a quick trip down the street and I ended up falling point six miles through the earth’s crust into saltwater.”

“Happens to the best of us. And I believe I told you that we were a secret group…or something, in the middle of solving something or other. I don’t really remember the lie I used.”

She snorted a laugh.

Abby woke while her daddy and Mya were talking nearby but she stayed quiet and kept her eyes closed and listened to their boring conversation. Her daddy always seemed so lonely. There had been nights when she woke to use the bathroom and then afterward she would go into his bedroom with a basket full of her favorite dolls and she would use them to occupy the empty space around his sleeping body. She didn’t like it that he was alone because she didn’t like it when she was alone, which happened occasionally, usually at school when the kids wouldn’t play with her. And she liked Math and Dezzy and Whiskers, all of their new friends except Mya – she didn’t hate Mya, she just didn’t think she was very special. When she looked at Mya’s face and Mya looked back, she felt like there was something missing, but it was fine because they had Dezzy and Whiskers and Math and each other. But her daddy’s conversation was still so boring so she stirred and made noise.

*      *      *

Syd kept his eye toward the north shore, toward Whiskers sleeping soundly.

“I don’t know why you’re so worried,” Dezzy said as she stretched out the clothes they had accumulated thus far.

Mya was across from her, doing the same.

“Did you see how Math looks? And…I don’t know. I feel like Whiskers is the baby of the group and we have to be gentle.”

Dezzy gave him a surprised glance.

“He’s the baby? Not the nine year old girl?”

“Actually,” Syd realized, “the thought didn’t even cross my mind.”

There was a hole in Math’s jeans and Mya accidentally tore it wider.

“This would be so much easier with scissors,” she grunted, frustrated.

“Looks like baby Huey is waking up.”

Whiskers was standing up from his nap.

Syd dashed over with an enthusiastic, “Good morning!”

Whiskers was a bit startled but he nodded back, yawning.

“How you feelin’?” Syd quickly asked.

“Fine…?” responded Whiskers, slightly puzzled by Syd’s exuberance. The dark hair that had seemed so well-managed the day before now stuck up and out in every wild, chaotic direction. His darting eyes didn’t blink as he began twiddling fingers in front of his chest.

Syd decided to just come out with it.

“I need to ask something of you, Whiskers.”

“Sure. Whatever you need.”

“It’s…kind of a lot.”

Whiskers seemed a bit concerned but held steady.

“I’m not sure what that means and I don’t exactly have very much but it’s all yours.”

“Well, first, let me ask this – is that trench coat waterproof?”

Whiskers’ eyes lowered to the enormous, double-breasted trench coat still wrapped around his body as if he’d never seen it before. Syd wasn’t even sure why he was still wearing it, as it was hot on the island.

“Ye—yeah. It is. Why?”

“I noticed you never take it off.”

“It was my uncle’s.”

“Gotcha. Close with your uncle?”

“No. I never got to meet him. He used to be a journalist. I mean, he retired a long time ago but he used to cover wars and travel the world.”

“That’s awesome.”

“I got a pair of his thick glasses over in the pile of junk—of supplies, I mean. And they were in the jacket when my mom gave it to me. Sometimes I put them on, when I’m scared…”

“Like when you came to my office that first time?”

“Yeah. And in the tunnel. And the art museum. I put them on and imagine seeing war and then whatever jumps out next isn’t so bad. And the trench coat just feels like…almost like a suit of armor.”

Syd let out an anguished sigh.

This was proving difficult.

“So can we use that trench coat for something really important? It would mean that you’d never get it back. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Anything. I’d give you the shirt off my back if you asked.”

Syd stifled a laugh and it sent him into a coughing fit.

“What are you gonna do with it?” Whiskers asked.

“It’s the only thing on the island made out of waterproof material and, uh, Mya’s pretty sure that we can seal air in them and use them as makeshift flotation devices. It’ll make it a lot easier on us later.”

“Why? What’s later?”

“One thing at a time, Whiskers. There’s uh, still something I need to tell you. While you were resting, we sort of made a decision that involves all of the fabric on the island—everyone’s clothes, really. Not just your jacket. Now, luckily, we’ll have enough fabric to do what we want but it’ll only work if everyone changes their attire…just a bit…”

“Okay.”

Whiskers seemed surprisingly relaxed.

“Okay?” Syd relaxed a bit. “Well, we’re going to need to start soon—ohhhhhh great, Math is headed this way. He’s uh, as good an example as any to show you what I mean by new attire, if you want to…take a gander…”

Math approached the two men.

“What is going on, gentlemen?” he greeted them with a joyful gusto, striding over with a bounce to his bulbous hips as if he had just been elected Mayor of the island. All of his clothes were gone, replaced by a single piece of black fabric wrapped around his waist and between his legs like a diaper. To have said that the new apparel left little to the imagination would have been an insult to imaginations.

The shock didn’t fade from Whiskers’ face.

“Why on earth didn’t we do this sooner? It feels so good.” Math was prancing around, clearly enjoying the new outfit. There was something energetic about him, some newfound liberation. “What are you two up to?—Hangin’ out? Cool.” He twirled, kicked up a hairy leg, started rotating his hairy arms, then his hairy shoulders, which he forced backwards as he stuck out his hairy chest, pushing forth his round, sloping, hairy belly even further while his spine cracked in several spots.

He let out an elated moan.

Syd couldn’t find anything to say besides, “Oh my.”

Whiskers’ eyes darted in a polite attempt to avert the half-naked man standing in front of him.

Math began stretching his legs.

“It’s just so comfy. Freeing. Look, I can even do lunges—”

“But should you?” Syd asked and then focused on his wrist, forgetting he had thrown his watch in the ocean.

“I haven’t stretched in forever—I can almost touch my toes! Look, Whisks. I can almost touch my toes. We should be stretching partners.”

Whiskers stuttered out a noise that sounded almost like choking and then he turned his entire body left and headed off in that direction.

“Yeah, that made the situation a lot easier, thanks.”

“Couldn’t help freaking him out a little,” Math chuckled. “Spazoid shouldn’t have slept so long.”

“I’ll be sure to call you over next time I need something handled delicately.”

“Whatever I can do for yah, Syds.”

“You can start by never doing lunges again.”

*      *      *

“Okay, first order of business – and definitely the least important but you all keep asking – let’s vote to name the island. How many for Pinkie Swear Island?…three. Okay. And who’s in favor of calling it The Island of Donkey Kong?…two. It’s settled—”

“Daddy, you didn’t vote!”

“Abby, I don’t vote unless it’s actually important.”

“But daddy, if you absolutely had to then which one would you pick?”

“Sweetie, can we please move on? Everyone has a lot of work to—”

“I just really wanna know…please, daaaaa-deeeee…”

“I would have…created my own name. And called it uh, Island…Rescue Tether Tides. Or something.”

“Oh darn. Syd, I wanna change my vote to that.”

“You can’t change your vote, Math. Aren’t you the one that picked the other name? Yes, Whiskers? Why are you raising your hand?”

“I wanna change my vote, too.”

“Whiskers—”

“I only picked the donkey name ‘cause Math said he’d give me his vote if I ever needed it.”

“Whiskers, you shouldn’t let people persuade you so easily. He’s taking advantage of you. And Math! Stop corrupting the democracy of the group.”

“Abby and I want to switch our votes to the name you picked, too.”

“Dezzy, come on, I don’t even remember what it was anymore.”

“Daddy, it was Roscoe Teddy Toad…Island.”

“I don’t think that was it, Abby.”

“Roscoe Teddy Toad is even better!”

“Math, quit it. I’ll tell you what, I’m just gonna pick the name so we can move on.”

“That’s dangerously close to a dictatorship, Syd.”

“I don’t care, Math. Is everyone hungry? Yeah? Thirsty? How about we call it Let’s Not Die Here Island. All in favor—good; settled. Second order of business – escape. Math has volunteered to take a set of the floaties and swim as far as he can in one direction. Hopefully we can figure out just how big this place is. Math, what direction are you gonna swim in?”

“North.”

“Anyone want to add anything?… No? Really? The island name, that gets all the passion – but we send the worst swimmer out in some random direction and everyone’s just fine with that?”

“Syd…am I really the worst swimmer?”

“Yes, Math. Even the nine year old was embarrassed for you. Okay, north it is. Math, you’re free to head off whenever you want.”

“I’m gonna wait until the meeting’s over. I want to bring something up during the questions and comments at the end.”

“Math—who told you there’d be a questions and comments at the end?”

“I got something super important to bring up.”

“I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that, Math.”

“Was that sarcastic, El Presidente?”

“Yes, Dezzy. I’m glad you noticed because I’m laying it on pretty thick right now. Third order of business. Water. Water… I’m sorry but I don’t know what to tell you guys. I’ve heard there might be water in tree roots but that’s all I know. We can’t drink the saltwater and it’s safe to say that it’s not going to rain here any time soon so we all need to get creative, okay? We’re coming up on a full day soon and…we need water. We need to figure something out soon because we’re all thirsty. Yes, Whiskers? Why are you raising your hand?”

“Are you certain we can’t drink the saltwater?”

“Yes, Whiskers. I’m certain. It’ll make you sick. It’ll dehydrate you more and that’ll be it. You can’t drink salt water—yes, Whiskers? You don’t need to keep raising your hand.”

“What if we mixed the saltwater with sand, you know, before we drink it? You know, used sand to balance out the salt?”

“I don’t even know what that means, Whiskers. Don’t drink saltwater. And definitely don’t drink saltwater with sand in it—stop raising your hand. What?”

“Not even if you like the taste?”

“Whiskers!—have you been drinking saltwater with sand in it?”

“…no…”

“I hope not. Next order of business, number four on the docket—is a reminder not to drink saltwater, especially if it has sand in it. Everyone good with that? Raise your hand if it isn’t clear—Math, why are you raising your hand?”

“You said raise your hand if it isn’t clear and saltwater with sand in it isn’t clear. It’s kind of foggy, actually. Whiskers filled a bottle with it earlier and shared some with—”

“I swear!—moving on, Mya, you keep working on the netting. When she’s done, Whiskers, you’re with me and we’ll head west and try to catch some fish. Dezzy and Abby, you’re on fire. Figure it out. There’s a way to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together and I want you two to do it. That’s it. Meeting adjourned.”

“Syd, what about the questions and comments portion at the end?”

“Math, what is it?”

“Whiskers has been drinking saltwater. I thought you should know.”

“You don’t say, Math…”

“Math! You promised you wouldn’t tell! And you tried it, too!”

“Yeah, Whisks, it was gross. Tasted like I was drinking the floor.”

*      *      *

Abby watched her dad and Whiskers paddle away from the island. The spears on either side of their giant net poked out of the water and up over their heads pretty high. She could still make out the lines of the wood even after she couldn’t see them swimming anymore.

She picked at her outfit a moment. All the new attire had been sliced down from other clothes and no one had scissors so there were loose strings that tickled her pits and neck. Seeing the difference between what the boys got to wear and what the girls had to wear, Abby begged for a boy’s outfit – one of the darker ones that just wrapped around and under and through like a diaper. Her father had put his foot down, though, saying it was inappropriate in a place they didn’t know. So she was wearing the same boring outfit in the same boring tan color as boring Mya, one that wrapped around under her armpits and over her shoulder and across her chest. They said it was modeled after an Indian dressed called a “Sorry” or something but she didn’t care, she was already sorry because it gave her a constant case of the itchy neck.

Abby returned to the large pit they had dug near the tree. Dezzy briefly explained that bark was their only option for fuel, with branches, leaves, and Math’s dried-out work papers as the only choices in kindling. Those were literally the only non-toxic, flammable things left on the island.

Abby hopped down into the 2-foot pit and sat against the side.

“You ready to do this?” asked Dezzy, sitting opposite her in the pit.

“No,” she huffed, scratching at her neck.

“Come on, it’ll be fun. Who doesn’t love starting fires?”

This did cheer Abby up a bit.

They both had the same setup: a flat chunk of bark on their lap and two sticks. They tried rubbing the sticks sideways, tried rubbing one against the chunk of bark, both against the chunk of bark, just rubbing the tips of the sticks, holding both sticks together against the bark, and on and on until half an hour passed and they were just as close to starting a fire as they were when they first began, except now they had calluses.

“Let’s find another way to start a fire,” Dezzy said and threw the pieces of wood into the pit. She had as much chance of lighting this fire as she did of magically finding a fire. Wasting time had become aggravating, especially when they were hungry, and thirsty, and no one had accomplished anything yet.

Abby tossed the bark and sticks on top of what was already in there and then climbed out of the fire pit to follow Dezzy. They walked up to the metal clipboard and opened the lid to make absolutely certain a pack of matches hadn’t appeared while they slept.

It was the same old lame supplies.

Abby reached a hand in, fishing around for anything interesting. She picked up the liquid paper and Dezzy had to clarify that it wasn’t a liquid that turned into a sheet of paper but more like a paper-colored marker. Dezzy needed to think and she left Abby playing with the lame supplies to go walk the parameter of the island. Mya was on the south side of the island, wading in the water, staring out.

“Thinking?” Dezzy asked, joining her.

“Yeah,” she said and looked over and gave a smile. It was a polite smile but fake. If anyone knew a fake smile, it was Dezzy.

“Thinking about life down here or life up there?”

The question made Mya sad and she turned to Dezzy, asking, “If you could have anything right now, what would it be?”

“Four cheeseburgers,” answered Dezzy without a moment’s hesitation. “You?”

“A warm cup of steaming tea,” Mya said, a palpable yearning in her voice. Just the way she said it made Dezzy want one, too. “Tea always makes me feel better.”

“Maybe we’ll figure out how to start a fire and then you can…I don’t know, boil some tree roots for flavor—oh, wait, we don’t have water. Or a pot,” realized Dezzy, disappointed.

“Sure we do,” Mya disagreed, “just warp the metal of that clipboard, round it out a bit. You saw how much water could fit in there when you did the compass”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Dezzy said.

“I miss my tea,” Mya admitted, giving another fake smile.

There was a splashing behind them as Abby approached.

“I don’t know what we’re gonna do, stinky,” Dezzy called to her.

Thick, round, old-man glasses were hanging off Abby’s face, the ones that Whiskers had been carrying around for whatever reason.

“These make me blind. Hold my hand?” Abby asked, carefully navigating the water.

“Take those off,” Dezzy snorted, yanking them from her face.

“They make me smarter.”

“These lenses are thick enough to use in coke bottles.”

She held the glasses out toward the sun, curious how blind the person was that had this prescription. Squinting, she could only see a thin ray of light through the—

“Abby, you’re so smart!” squealed Dezzy, and she grabbed the young child and lifted her up and spun her around.

“Even without the glasses on?”

“Especially without the glasses on. Follow me.”

*      *      *

“You think Math was serious about being stretching buddies?” Whiskers asked, bringing up the conversation Math had had with them while showcasing their new island attire, which consisted of thin, black cloth wrapped around them like a diaper.

Syd sighed loudly, letting that serve as his answer.

Silence, just the sound of short splashes behind them as they kicked.

“He was right, though,” Whiskers went on. “It is a really comfortable outfit we got on—I mean, I sometimes feel wind where I’ve never felt wind before.”

“Yeah,” Syd agreed, having had the same thought. “It feels like clothing that’s appropriate for an island, doesn’t it?”

Silence, just the sound of short splashes behind them as they kicked.

“But do you think he was serious about being stretching buddies?” Whiskers asked again, of Math’s suggestion.

“No, Whiskers. I don’t. I think he was just trying his best to freak you out. However, I can tell you this – if you’ve changed your mind and you now think stretch-buddies is something that’s real and something you might be interested in, I’d suggest asking him.”

“What do you think stretch-buddies entails exactly?” wondered Whiskers.

“Oh dear—” Syd uttered, “I actually think it’s one of those rare things where the name pretty much says it all.”

“But do you think there’s like a set regimen or is it like a free—” Whiskers continued to wondered until Syd cut him off.

“Tell me about your uncle,” Syd asked, changing the subject. “Bet he’d love this place, right?”

“Yeah, probably,” Whiskers half-agreed. “I never met him.”

Silence, just the sound of short splashes behind them as they kicked.

“I have a question,” Whiskers asked, using a more timid tone that Syd hadn’t heard in a while.

“I don’t know what the routine of a stretch-buddy is, Whiskers, I promise.”

“No, it’s not that,” Whiskers responded. “So say Math finds a door that leads out of here. Doesn’t that mean we’ll just be 3,200 feet underground somewhere else? I mean, will we really be better off?”

“Yeah, I think we’ll be better off,” answered Syd in a positive, hopeful tone. “Whoever made this place…I have the distinct feeling in my gut that there’s a reason for all this. Whoever made it, they’re probably not still down here—but I think that something’s down here, something good. I’m just sure of it—I can’t really explain it better than that. I feel it in my bones.”

Silence, just the sound of short splashes behind them as they kicked.

“What do you think it is, at the end?” asked Whiskers, thoughtfully.

“All the tea in China,” joked Syd. “Or maybe treasure—sure could use some treasure. Or maybe it’s a bunch of coupons for Chinese food or a pile of rocks or maybe, at the end of all this, there’s just gonna be real daylight and an amazing story to tell people.”

Silence, just the sound of short splashes behind them as they kicked.

Whiskers thanked Syd and Syd wasn’t sure why.

“For making me feel better,” Whiskers said, appreciatively.

“I’m glad. And I guess we can start to head back.”

Syd and Whiskers had to coordinate their change of course for a wide turn, heading back toward the island behind them. Both men held the speared edges of the giant net made of patched-together clothes. The spears had been knitted into the edges of the net, making it easy to manage and ensuring its durability in deeper waters, where Syd had first seen fish swimming around the tools that had fallen from his belt. The middle of the net was slack and floating behind them like a half-blown bubble. It was a good-sized pocket that had formed in the center of the net, one large enough to trap a decent amount of fish (if it was, in fact, working; they couldn’t tell yet). As long as the center stayed slack and the two of them kept swimming, their momentum would make it impossible for the fish to escape. (In a rare twist of irony, they had taken all of the brightly colored stickers off the Rubix Cube and stuck them dead-center of the net to help attract fish – so Whiskers finally got a Rubix Cube where every side was the same dark color.)

As it turned out, Mya was an incredible seamstress. She sharpened a bobby pin and, in ways Syd didn’t even understand, used it as a needle to stitch everything together with thread pulled out of the other clothes. She was even able to sew pieces of Whiskers’ trench coat air-tight, blowing air into each bit as if they were balloons before tightening the string and tying it closed – successfully making the waterproof jacket into floatation devices, easing the pressure of long trips through the water.

“Hey, alright!” cheered Whiskers, one of his arms up in triumph. Syd thought it was because they were heading back, but then he saw the island.

CHAPTER *][][*EIGHT—

Perpetual Morning & the Phantasm Nightmare

Dezzy and Abby were hooting and hollering as they ran to the shore. Syd and Whiskers were approaching much the same way they departed, their bodies flat out, the floaties keeping them up, their kicks driving them forward, and a tall cloth netting stretched out between them.

The men reminded Abby of astronauts floating through space.

Closing in on shallow waters, both men brought the outer edges closer together and let the slack netting elongate even further behind them. Whiskers stood up in the water and took hold of both sides, dragging the bottom along the ocean floor. Half of the netting was now out of the water and much heavier and it caused him to struggle, pulling with all his strength further and further up shore. Syd moved to the back, where the netting ballooned out in a pocket (hopefully full of fish), and he reached a hand underwater in search of the extra spear he had Mya braid into the bottom middle of the cloth as an anchor.

“Got it,” he called out as he found it.

“Go ahead,” Whiskers responded, wading in knee-deep water.

Syd shoved the anchor into the sand, securing the back in place and closing any gap between the netting and the ocean’s floor. Whiskers kept hold of one speared edge while Syd took the other and, pulling the slack taut in a V shape, the men stuck the net into the sand. It was as if the two men had done it a million times, seasoned professionals. Dezzy was impressed and Abby was proud of her father but Mya wasn’t anywhere to be seen, which Syd found strange. Maybe she’s busy…? He could see her doing something on the other side of the island but wasn’t sure what. His focus returned to the netting.

A majority of the enclosure remained in knee-deep water but the opening led up shore, where the tide couldn’t reach and the fish couldn’t escape but everyone could look in. Syd was hesitant, afraid the net was empty and they had accomplished nothing, but then Dezzy pointed something out.

“Looks like you caught a bunch of fish using an old man’s sock.”

Syd peered in.

Not only was the make-shift aquarium full of tropical fish but Dezzy was kinda right and the tall netting, which half-stood out of the water and sagged into the center of the enclosure, definitely looked like a soggy old sock; didn’t matter, though, since they had succeeded.

Syd and Whiskers high-fived.

“Good job, daddy and Whiskers!”

“Good work, guys.”

The men bowed like gentlemen and thanked both ladies for the compliments. Whiskers even bragged that it may have been one of the manliest things he had ever done in his life. But the celebration of one accomplishment quickly shifted to the celebration of another, and the men congratulated the ladies on starting a fire. Syd asked how they were able to do it so quickly and with nothing more than sticks and bark.

“That’s not 100% accurate,” Dezzy admitted.

“We used the sun!” blurted Abby.

Dezzy explained it a bit further, telling them how they had used the thick, round glasses to magnify light from the sun onto a small tuft of grass and leaves. Once the kindling started to smoke, they set it on more kindling in the center of the pit and both of them blew and blew and blew until it caught and spread.

“The fake, unmoving sun was strong enough to start a fire?” asked Syd, skeptically. “It hasn’t even given anyone sunburn yet. I don’t even think it emits UV rays.”

Dezzy nodded in agreement.

“It’s funny because I got super excited when Abby came up with it and then I thought the same thing as you. It occurred to me that my pale skin wasn’t burning, which it usually does in direct sunlight. But guess what – I tried it anyway and, low and behold—Fire!”

Abby got next to her and they grunted and pounded their chests and lumbered forward like gorillas, hollering things like, “Me create fire!” and “Me need meat!” It was refreshing, as Syd hadn’t seen Abby this happy and silly in a quite some time; and, even odder, he’d never seen Dezzy act goofy. She actually looked happy – genuinely, unconditionally happy. And they weren’t the only ones, as Syd was quite pleased and Whiskers felt accomplished, strong even.

“Did you rehearse this caveman stuff while we were gone?” Syd asked, kidding.

“Of course!” they said at the same time and then jinxed each other and then jinxed each other again.

“Two jinxes in a row means neither of you can talk…ever again,” Syd said, reminding them of the strict, unbending rules of jinx; then he looked around. “Where’s Math? And what’s Mya doing?”

“Math isn’t back yet. And Mya thinks she might have figured out a way to get us water. She took some of the fire to the other end of the shore and she’s been working it out for a while now.”

“That’s great. Alright—well, who’s hungry?”

Everyone cheered.

Syd grabbed the pocketknife from the supplies and returned to the shore while Abby ran back to the fire and Dezzy followed, returning to feed the flames and keep an eye on Abby while Syd was busy.

“This might be easier with an extra set of hands,” Syd told Whiskers before the young man could leave with the girls. Because of their new attire, Syd was better able to see Whiskers’ gaunt figure. He was skinny, that was for sure, and it actually made him appear not just fragile but even younger than he claimed. This stirred in Syd a yearning to teach the seventeen year old, maybe help him become more capable and less delicate. “You should learn to dress a fish so that it can be eaten, that way I’m not the only one. Plus, it’s super manly.”

Whiskers’ eyes were wide, as they always were, but his gaze became more impassioned with the knowledge that he could become manly by learning this new task. He nodded an emphatic yes and obediently stayed, watching intently.

The fish panicked and tried to scramble but Syd grabbed hold of the nearest, slowest one. While doing this, he told Whiskers to dig a hole in the sand.

“Why?” the young man asked.

“For all the guts and fish heads and bones and everything.”

The color drained from Whiskers’ face.

At the fire pit, Dezzy and Abby were playing a game where one of them would come up with two scenarios and they had to pick which one they wanted to do more.

“Would you rather be able to turn invisible or fly?” Dezzy asked.

“What’s n’sisible?” Abby asked, unsure.

“It’s when people can’t see you,” clarified Dezzy.

Abby thought a moment and then she leaned in and whispered, “Sometimes at school I’m n’sisible. Jamie is a girl and she never smiles at me—only at everyone else but she never smiles at me and I jus’ want to be friends with her and I wan’ her ta see me but I’m n’sisible ‘cause she never smiles at me.”

Dezzy paused, broken-hearted by Abby’s admission.

“I’ll tell you a secret. Something no one else knows,” she whispered back, leaning in. “I repeated seventh grade.”

“You were bad?” Abby gasped.

Dezzy shook her head. “No, I was good back then,” she explained. “It wasn’t because of my grades. It was because…everyone forgot about me. The school made a mistake and the teachers didn’t even notice and I didn’t tell anybody.”

“What ‘bout your mommy?” asked Abby, a bit sad for Dezzy.

“Pfffft,” scoffed Dezzy. “My mom never knew what grade I was in. She wasn’t around so much.” She glanced at Syd, who had to stop gutting a fish because Whiskers was dry-heaving. “You’re lucky you have someone as amazing as your dad. He cares about you more than anything else.”

They were interrupted by the sounds of splashing.

Math was walking up the shore.

“Hey, doofus,” Dezzy called over as he walked up the embankment toward them, “you find the way out of here yet?”

Math hadn’t seemed to hear her and he stared at Dezzy as if just realizing she was there. “Where’s uh, where’s Syd?” he asked, dazed.

“What happened?” Dezzy asked back, curious.

“Nothing,” lied Math. “Yeah, yeah. Totally nothing. Everything’s so fine, like, just so-so fine that you probably shouldn’t ask what happened because it was so normal.”

Dezzy wanted to keep asking questions but Math found Syd and walked away. Syd and Whiskers greeted him with great big smiles, moving aside so that he could look in at all the fish. He hadn’t noticed the fire and he didn’t seem to notice the goo all over Syd or the enclosure filled with fish.

“Can I have a moment alone with Syd?” requested Math, politely.

Whiskers was taken aback but nodded and went off.

“What’s up?” Syd asked, well aware of Math’s apparent shock. “You look like you…I don’t know, like you just woke up.”

“I don’t think we’re going to get out of here,” he whispered, terrified.

“What? Why?” panicked Syd.

“The plan was to head north,” Math said, exhaling, “until I hit a wall that was painted to look like the sky or something, right? There has to be an end, right?”

“Yeah…” Syd said, nodding.

“I headed north.” Math said and then grimaced at the prospect of sharing anything more.

“Yeah…” repeated Syd, nodding again.

“And I made sure to keep track of my bearings so that I didn’t get turned around,” he went on, sounding sure of himself, “I didn’t want to end up lost or something. I made sure that sun-shaped bulb in the sky was always to my left. I’m certain of it.”

Silence.

“Yeah?—come on, man,” Syd groaned, as Math never seemed to just come right out and explain something in full, “tell me what happened.”

“Well, I went north and I went and I went and I went…and I just ended up back here.”

“What?” asked Syd, confused.

“I’m telling you that I just traveled in one direction for what felt like eternity, for hours and hours, and it led me. Right. Back. Here.” Math pointed out to the north, then down at his feet.

This didn’t clear anything up and Syd remained perplexed and so he asked the obvious question:

“How is that possible?”

“It’s not,” Math shook his head. “I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

“Well, it’s not unheard of,” Syd said, and he finally got to correct Math, a first in their friendship. “It’s not impossible, just unlikely.”

“Where have you ever heard of something like that?” asked Math, staring at Syd.

“Math, think about it – if I left Philadelphia and flew around the world back to Philadelphia, I would have just traveled in one direction and ended up in the same place. It just doesn’t apply here.”

Math’s mouth dropped open.

“Why doesn’t it apply here?” he finally asked.

“That sounds like something you should know, Math,” Syd replied with a shrug.

Math was working it out in his head and he started to think aloud, murmuring, “All you would need is a gravitational center…and some kind of shell…” He looked up at the sky and smiled slyly, as if he had the answer. “We’re on a small planet, Syd.”

“We’re on a small planet…within our planet?” Syd asked, doubtful.

“We don’t know that we’re on our planet,” Math pointed out. “We don’t have any idea where we are. And, I mean, the technology to make a separate but sustainable gravity doesn’t exist, yet…but that doesn’t mean it can’t exist, or that someone—or something else didn’t figure it out. The blueprints already exist to create a satellite planet – it’s within the basic laws of physics, except this is somehow self-contained.”

Math gave the world around them an admiring once over.

“I do not like this at all,” Syd fretted. “Can we pretend like you never left and we never had this conversation, please? I mean, are you telling me that there’s a slight chance the sky could fall?”

“I’m not saying that it’s definitely the answer but it’s [_an _]answer and it can’t be ruled out since there aren’t many explanations. Just think about it.”

Syd sighed.

“I was so happy five minutes ago. Just thought to myself, ‘I didn’t expect things to go this well.’ And now I have to start worrying that I’m on a tiny planet within earth’s crust? Or not even on earth, somehow?”

Syd freaked at the possibility but Math returned to normal now that he had the foundation of a scientific explanation, no matter how unrealistic or unlikely.

He leaned toward the enclosure of fish.

“You and Whiskers did this? Good work, man.”

“Huh?” Syd looked at Math and the fish and the sky.

“Hey, if it is true, at least that tells us one thing that we really want to know.”

“What?”

“The only way out of here is up. Kinda like those levers, ha. Clever.”

Syd scrunched his face with disappointment.

“How does that help? Swimming to a fake wall and opening a door would have been so much easier than escaping the gravity of a tiny—”

Math cut him off.

“Hey-hey-hey, play it cool. I’m gonna go get ready for dinner.”

And then he ran off.

Once he was gone, Whiskers returned.

“What did Math want? Was he disappointed he didn’t find a Nintendo out there?”

Syd laughed, snapping out of it.

“Sometimes I forget he really doesn’t know everything. Whaddya say we finish up? Everyone’s starving.”

Their first meal on the island took several hours (or so it was estimated, since no one had a watch). Syd had prepared six roasting spears long before they had even caught any fish, just in case – though, at the time, he didn’t expect everything to work out as well as it did. Everyone roasted large hunks of juicy fish meat over the raging fire and they ate and ate and ate. Syd and Whiskers had to return to the fish enclosure so many times that, eventually, Syd just let the meek teenager do it alone. Whiskers’ stomach had toughened up and he was a quick learner and a hard worker and, in their final round of fillets, the young man proved himself a worthy apprentice.

For desert, Mya brought a coke bottle half-filled with water so that everyone could have a small sip. She promised more was on the way but it was difficult to make a lot, quickly. Syd wanted to know how she was doing it and offered to help, which she accepted. As naptime approached, Syd and Mya left everyone stuffed and lying comfortably around the small fire while they went off to make water.

“So this is what you’ve been doing?” Syd mused, surveying the area Mya had been using to conduct experiments. There was an identical fire pit dug into the sand, with a much smaller fire, and the pit was surrounded by Math’s trash and his metal clipboard.

“Yeah,” Mya blushed apologizing for not coming over when everyone got back. “Sometimes I get wrapped up in figuring things out,” she explained. “I like solving puzzles.”

“That makes one of us,” responded Syd.

The idea had hit her shortly after a conversation with Dezzy. They had been talking about making tea and how she could boil tree roots in saltwater. (“Add some sand and it sounds like something Whiskers would like,” added Syd.) But something about that idea had stayed with her. It just seemed like there had to be a way to purify saltwater into drinking water.

“So I started boiling ocean water, trying to figure it out.”

Mya felt like there was an answer staring her in the face as she watched the saltwater boil. The bubbling water and steam reminded her of tea and tea always made her feel better—and then it dawned on her. So obvious, it had been right in her face the whole time. The only problem was, now that she’d had an idea, they didn’t have much to work with. Luckily, the pile of garbage that Math had left on the beach was still there.

“It was in the steam,” she exclaimed, sounding ever so nerdy. “The steam was drinking water—well, could be drinking water.” She went on and on and Syd listened to every word, impressed with Mya’s ingenuity as well as her tenacity to solve the issue. Abby was tenacious and it was an important quality to possess.

Mya was boiling saltwater in Math’s metal clipboard and then using an empty potato chip bag to catch the steam so that it turned to condensation inside the bag. The condensation was purified, drinkable water but the hard part was capturing it into a container. There was a good deal of trial and error before she even got a single drop to fall into the empty coke bottle she was using as a container. One trick had been to indent the center of the potato chip bag so that all the condensation collected there; another was to use the knife to cut the top of the plastic bottle off so that it opened wider. It would help if she had a funnel or something larger to collect the steam or a number of any other things but this worked, albeit slowly.

“So what do you think?” she finally asked Syd.

“I think that was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” he confessed, in no way hiding just how awestruck all this made him. “A+. I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t expect us to achieve anything we set out to do today. Fire, water, fish, and then Math thinkin’—” he stopped himself.

“What did he see out there?” Mya asked. Her curiosity had been peaked and Syd knew he wasn’t going to escape it.

“Math claims,” and he paused for a deep breath, “to have gone in one direction the entire time, straight north, and that it led him right back to the island. So he was a little freaked out.”

“How on earth is that possible?” Mya asked.

“Exactly,” Syd laughed at her wording. “He prolly got mixed up or got turned around in a current or something.”

“But what if his story’s true?” worried Mya, unsettled by the news.

“There is one theory but it’s ridiculous,” Syd said, exhaling. “He supposes that this entire beach, the ocean, all of it…is its own tiny planet, with its own gravity, one that is somehow separated from the physics of earth.”

“Hmm. Interesting…” Mya said, thinking it over. “I’d probably believe Math got confused before leaping to the conclusion that we were on some micro planet, but it’s definitely creative.”

“That’s a good way to think about it,” agreed Syd.

“What do you think about it?” she asked, scrutinizing his face for any sign of hesitation or unspoken danger. He felt like a puzzle she was trying to solve.

“I’ve been thinking about it since before dinner and I decided that I need to try it, to swim in one direction. If the same thing happens to me that happened to him then I will…plan accordingly.”

“And what does that plan entail?” questioned Mya.

“Escape the tiny planet, of course,” Syd said, smiling.

“That sounds dangerously close to an adventure,” she mocked.

Their eyes met and Syd felt a calm wash over him as she stared back.

“I’m uh,” he said, snapping out of it, “I’m gonna go back to Abby, keep her company while she sleeps.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. Now that I’ve eaten I actually feel like I could use a rest.”

“Yeah, me too. I’ll see you in a bit.”

Syd returned to the fire pit to find everyone already sleeping soundly. He tossed an extra piece of bark into the fire to keep it going and then took a seat next to Abby, staring at the flame as he thought.

“Tiny planet?” Syd chuckled to himself. “Gimme a break.”

“You’re definitely in the right spot if you need’a break!”

Syd nearly screamed. He angrily twisted around.

Professor Bumbleflum was sitting cross-legged behind him. The tweed hat and plaid outfit seemed so out of place on the beach but it didn’t seem to bother Bumbleflum one bit. A smile remained plastered across the old man’s face. The grey cane was draped across his lap and Syd could see that the wood had a slender, lightning-shaped crack down the handle.

“You!” demanded Syd, angrily pointing at Professor Bumbleflum.

“Me,” verified Bumbleflum, tipping his tweed cap; and then pointed at Syd, confirming, “You.”

“Get us out of here,” Syd growled.

“In due time,” admitted Bumbleflum.

Syd couldn’t help but glare.

Professor Bumbleflum didn’t seem to notice; either that or he didn’t care. Maybe he was used to frustrating people but you would never know by looking at him. He seemed so innocent, so feeble. The old man scratched his crook nose and looked around, marveling, “I absolutely love all of your outfits. It’s so appropriate for this place.”

“How did you get here?” Syd asked, nearly commanding an answer.

Professor Bumbleflum let out a noise, a drawn-out, “Ohhhhhh,” and it sounded as if he were about to say something important—but then he shifted and pulled the large ring of keys out from under him. “Sittin’ on my keys this whole time. I thought the ground was mad at me,” he snickered.

“Be useful,” pleaded Syd, “and don’t say something vague. Just tell me something useful, anything that can help us in any way.” Exasperated, Syd was ready to beg. “Something—why come here if you’re not going to help?”

“Ohhhh,” he did the noise again, this time continuing, “I came ‘cause I had an extra lollipop and I’m sittin’ on the bench at the Waterworks thinkin’, ‘You know who might like some candy?’” Professor Bumbleflum grinned as he waited for an answer, which he didn’t get, so he continued. “Your daughter, of course. She might appreciate it.”

Syd was so discouraged that he actually whimpered.

Professor Bumbleflum noticed and stared deep into Syd’s eyes.

“Worry not, Syd Siegfried,” he spoke in a calm, understanding tone, “everything will be just fine for you and yours. It just sounds like all you need is a bit of…direction.”

—Syd woke and shot straight up again.

The fire pit was in front of him and he twisted around but Bumbleflum was gone—er, hadn’t been there. Abby was sprawled out next to him, passed out. Whiskers and Math and Dezzy were nearby, also sleeping. Mya was curled up on the beach, away from the group and sleeping alone. Everything was just as he had left it moments (or was it hours?) earlier.

There was something oddly familiar about how he felt right then: it was like the phantasm nightmare all over again – a short nap that ended when he woke so abruptly that he sat straight up. This time, however, he remembered every detail of the dream quite clearly…so clearly, in fact, that it felt more like a memory than a dream. It wasn’t real, he had to remind himself, I’m just groggy and sleep-deprived.

Syd got up, no longer sleepy, and he stoked the fire, keeping it alive, and he wandered the island for a bit, and he sat on the shore in front of the fish enclosure and opened the atlas. He still couldn’t make out anything, not like Whiskers could, but he had the riddle memorized. “Always to approach, though never arrive. Always to be but neverwuz.” He recited it several times because, even though it was maddeningly vague, it did have a nice ring to it. The fish were more interesting, though, and he dismissed the atlas in favor of watching them. They were a calm, curious species of tropical fish – always investigating, even when it was a place they had just been. The plight of these fish was that they were now trapped on a beach, probably forever—it was a situation with which Syd could empathize.

“Do you ever sleep?” asked a hazy voice.

Somehow, some way, Syd wasn’t startled this time.

Whiskers stumbled over and sat on the beach beside Syd. Neither of them said anything, just watching the fish investigate the same nooks and crannies and corners and crevices over and over again.

Out of reflex, Syd checked his bare wrist for the time. Whiskers noticed and Syd confessed, “I threw my watch in the water a while back. Not that it mattered since it was broken and stuck on the day before.”

“My parents got me an electronic Casio watch last Christmas,” Whiskers said, telling the story. “When I opened it, the date was off by a day. One day ahead. And I didn’t know how to change it and never figured it out so it just stayed that way, stuck one day ahead, and sometimes it felt like I was stuck in the past since I started to expect the date to catch up. It never did. Eventually I stopped wearing it.”

This was the most Syd heard Whiskers speak since…well, forever, and he found the anecdote amusing—“Wait a second.” He grabbed the atlas, holding it as if it were hot, and he recited aloud once more: “Always to approach, though never arrive. Always to be but neverwuz.”

And then Syd let the atlas fall to the beach.

“What?” Whiskers asked.

“I figured it out.”

“Is the answer a Casio watch?”

Syd shook his head.

“Always approaching. Always to be. But it can’t arrive. The answer is tomorrow. It can’t be tomorrow because then it’s today. And it can’t have been because then it’s yesterday.”

“Oh. I see. What’s it mean?”

Syd scratched his head, unsure how he felt anymore. Every emotion was just spilling into every other one lately. The lack of sleep was causing issues. Exhaustion and eagerness were the same as he was always working to keep himself busy. Frustration was just expected at this point so it was met with acceptance. His anger had been on the back burner, though it often felt linked to his curiosity since everything he scrutinized only made things more confusing or harder or completely different or worse.

Shuffling could be heard behind them.

People were waking.

Syd dismissed it, at least for the moment.

“Guess we should start doing stuff.”

Whiskers nodded.

“Hope everyone’s hungry for fish.”

Everyone woke and ate. Mya had let the water purifier keep going while everyone napped and she passed around a full bottle of water for everyone to share. What had been a godsend earlier was not nearly as impressive now. Everyone was gracious, and they drank, but that was it.

The day progressed quietly, if not a bit grumpy, and a listless, discouraged mood settled over them. The last time, after everyone reset, tasks were handed out and there were clear-cut goals and everyone set about saving their own lives. Now, nothing was left to build, no challenge left to overcome. Finding an exit was the only thing left on the docket and it was shrouded in futility and weirdness, and escaping the island had no deadline. Fish and water would keep them alive indefinitely so the fear of mortal danger was gone and swiftly replaced with boredom and annoyance.

Math and Dezzy bickered like siblings.

Mya stayed alone with her mini-lab.

Syd was grumpy and everyone steered clear.

The only two that were un-phased by the gloomy mood were Whiskers and Abby, who spent their day reading over the atlas in search of future secrets. Syd wanted Abby to spend time with him, to stay by his side – heck, he was half-tempted to pick her up and carry her in his arms all day just so he could hug her and smell her and feel her close against him. It felt like they hadn’t been spending much time together. She had been helping Dezzy while he went for food and now she was with Whiskers. But he let her be and took a seat nearby, staring out over the water.

“Daddy, look!”

Surprised by the sudden enthusiasm, Syd looked over to see what had caused Abby such a great deal of sudden delight. She held out an unopened lollipop fresh in the wrapper. His face turned white, like he’d just seen a ghost. She was smiling at the lollipop but then saw her dad’s horrified expression and panicked, asking, “Oh no can I not have it?”

“What?—yeah, you can have it. Where did you find that?”

She pointed to the sand beside her.

“It was in the sand.”

direction, he remembered Professor Bumbleflum saying.

His eyes darted low but he wasn’t really seeing anything. A lot of details had been swirling in his head but no matter how hard he tried, none of it fit together into a cohesive picture—until that moment. In that moment, everything came together. It was exhilarating, like a spotlight shining just on him. At that one shining moment, everything made sense and he just knew with absolute certainty what to do. “Everyone, I figured it out!” he hollered excitedly, leaping to his feet. Everyone stared over at him from their various spots around the island and he was so ready to give them the answer they had been looking for, the one that would help them escape, their saving grace…

“Guys, we have to head toward tomorrow!”

Silence.

The expressions around him were blank.

“What in the garden-diggin’ heck does that mean?” commented Math, not really asking so much as highlighting the utter absurdity of the statement.

Little by little, Syd realized that he had no clue where one might find tomorrow. And then it occurred to him that the riddle had made it perfectly clear that tomorrow was always coming but it never arrived; thus, the entire point of the riddle was that its answer was unobtainable.

“I—wait, I-I…I…” he stuttered, oh so close.

But the euphoria passed. Exasperation and annoyance returned. He was certain, though, even if he didn’t know what it meant, he was certain that the answer was to head to tomorrow.

*      *      *

“That don’t make no sense,” stated Math once Syd had finished explaining the answer to the riddle and how he felt they just needed direction. (He didn’t mention the part where Professor Bumbleflum showed up in a dream and told him that and then left candy and vanished.)

“It’s like my watch all over again,” Whiskers worried to himself.

Mya was typically quiet, with a tired, hopeless expression.

“Got me,” Dezzy dourly said, just as tired of the questions as she was of the island and Math.

“That way,” Abby pointed west.

“Sweetie, what’s over that way that isn’t out in every other direction?”

“Tomorrow,” Abby said and shook her head, certain.

Syd turned his head and gave her a dismissive flick of his wrist, as if time were being wasted—fury raged in Abby’s eyes and her upper lip snarled. She screamed and ran over and pushed her father and then began smashing anything she could get her hands on. She threw the last of the drinkable water in the ocean and broke the cooking skewers and kicked dirt and screamed again, searching for more things to break. Everyone was too shocked to react—and Syd instantly saw his mistake. He had been rude, uncharacteristically so, and to the person he cared about most in the universe.

Syd bent beside her and the world around them disappeared. He wrapped his arms around her tiny body and lifted her off the ground, pinning her hands to the side. Abby screamed and convulsed and tried to bite while Syd apologized over and over and did his best not to get hurt. It went on like this for some time as Syd’s voice pleaded less and soothed more, speaking over her ranging pitch of angry howls. He apologized and described her beauty and told her a story:

“You know that you never really learned to walk? You were so tiny, eight months old, and it was like one day you were crawling around and the next day you picked yourself up and were off and running, always running. It was like you skipped learning how to walk. Always running around and touching things you weren’t supposed to just to see what they did, like the time you burned down the kitchen table because you wondered what would happen if you combined a napkin and a candle.”

The blood slowly drained from Abby’s flush face. Her body slowed and stopped fighting. The howling lowered to a whine. Her eyes were cheerless and she rested her head against his chest and just listened.

“Sweetie, I’m very sorry I was rude. I’m frustrated. It was an accident.”

“There’s a million excuses to be rude but only one reason to be polite and that’s ‘cause good people don’t need excuses ‘cause good people are kind an’ nice.” Abby’s voice was as monotonous as Dezzy’s while she repeated the lesson Syd had taught her many times. Millions of excuses to be rude but only one reason to be polite and that’s to be a good person, because a good person is kind to strangers, and a good person doesn’t judge others, and a good person is generous to those less fortunate.

“You’re absolutely right, my dear, and I’m sorry. Why don’t you tell me why tomorrow is in that direction? Why is tomorrow in the west?”

Her head remained against his chest as she began to elaborate, in a melancholy tone, “’Cause ‘fessor Bum’leflum tol’ us when we met him not to travel into the sunset for tomorrow and over there is where the sun goes down ‘cause Mrs. Bowman said, ‘The sun sets directly across from where the sun rises.’” As she finished, her head was off his chest and she was reciting the words of her teacher.

The angry spell was over, as if nothing had happened.

The world returned and he set her down.

“That way?” he asked, pointing west to make sure.

“Yea-up.”

Syd realized something.

“How did you know that was the sunrise? You were asleep when we figured that bit out.”

Abby explained that she just knew by looking at it.

Syd turned toward the fake sun; a moment later, he turned west.

“She’s right about Bumbleflum,” Dezzy chimed in, trying to help maintain a level of redirected calm. “I remember it. That’s exactly what he said. ‘No need to travel toward sunset for the ‘morrow.’ I remember because it made me think he was insane and instantly made me want to be best friends with him forever.”

“I think you got a direction,” added Math, definitively.

Syd kept his daughter in his arms but leaned her back so he could stare into her blue eyes as he lovingly told her, “I do believe congratulations are in order, my love, because you just solved something that no one else here could.”

Whiskers and Math closed in and congratulated her and patted her back and rubbed her hair and let her know she was the coolest nine year old who had ever walked the planet. Dezzy was last and she leaned in close to her ear and whispered, “You’re not n’sisible to me.” And then she kissed her cheek.

Abby felt a much-deserved sense of pride.

Not ten minutes later, Syd was taking down the enclosure. “If this isn’t right, or there’s no exit, we’ll come back and get more,” he explained to Whiskers, both of them in the water and pulling the spears from the sand to open the net, “but if not, if we do get out of here, I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I left these guys on this shore forever.”

The fish quickly scattered and disappeared, all of them but one. It was bright red with catfish-like whiskers and it swam over to Whiskers and the young man stared down at the fish and the fish stared back up at him, unblinking. They shared a moment of intense eye contact before Whiskers reached down and put a hand in the water. The fish dashed over, inspected the hand, and then rubbed the broad side of its body against his fingers—and then it was gone.

Whiskers immediately missed the little guy.

“I think that was Roscoe Teddy Toad.”

“No, I think that was…super weird,” replied Syd, shaking his head.

Shortly after, Syd told everyone that he wanted to check it out alone. This decision was almost unanimously objected (minus two votes as Syd was exempted from voting and Mya missed the whole thing, busy making water for the trip). The vote had brought about the implementation of a new rule, one that was to go into effect immediately. Dezzy even turned the new rule into an oath which she made them all repeat after her:

“We are the Melancholy Dreamers. No risk or burden shall split us asunder. Together we face every challenge. And like the month-old ham sandwich I found stuck behind the radiator, so is the overwhelming power of Math. Seriously. He smells bad. The. End.”

Math, Whiskers, Syd, and Abby repeated after her—

“Wait-what?” Math asked, thinking about what he’d just said.

Abby tapped Math’s arm and he looked down.

“You smell like a potty,” she told him.

Math smelled his armpits and nodded in agreement.

Mya was able to make six tan, balloon-like floaties out of the material from Whiskers’ jacket and all of them were gathered and three were tied to each of the two spears that Abby hadn’t broken; and then Dezzy and Whiskers and Abby went into the ocean to test the durability and weight restrictions of these newly constructed wood floaties by swimming wildly and kicking water and splashing each other. They actually appeared to be having fun, which was energizing since fun had been lacking recently.

Everyone drank the water Mya prepared. Syd tore an extra shred of cloth from the netting and tied the cylindrical tube containing the atlas to his leg. And then they were off, side-by-side and three to a wood floaty, everyone holding on and kicking at the sun. They were headed west.

As the journey progressed, Syd was thankful that the rule was in place and that he wasn’t alone. A part of him always expected to face everything alone and it was nice that it wasn’t the case with them. With them, he had partners, compatriots, friends, equals. And, with a direction and goal, spirits were lifting. Everyone was joking again. Several times, they had three-on-three races to see who could go faster; followed by breaks where they just stopped kicking and floated for a bit. They played as many word games as they could. Whiskers won at I-spy when no one could spy something that was a medium grey.

Abby noticed the sun was disappearing behind them and everyone turned back. It felt unnatural to see this sun, which was fake and hadn’t moved the entire time, as nothing more than a sliver on the horizon. Abby kept checking over her shoulder until, at long last, she informed everyone that they had arrived. The fake sun had perfectly disappeared behind the horizon but just in the small area. Everyone stopped kicking. Nothing but blue water and a blue sky.

Attention turned to the ocean floor.

“Can anyone see anything down there?” Syd asked.

The sandy bottom was just deep enough to be hazy.

A silent moment—and then everyone simultaneously dived under, rushing to the bottom as if in a race for treasure. Syd was the first to reach the sandy floor, with everyone else tied for second except Math, who was the first to turn back for air; which also made him the first one to find it. One-by-one, each of the others ran out of air and turned for the surface, and it was at that point that they, too, found it. Syd was last and, heartbroken that his search bore no fruit, he finally turned back toward the surface…and there it was.

The exit.

Syd burst out of the water and gasped for air. The saltwater had burned his eyes and he thought he had rubbed them clear until he saw Math standing on the water. Syd rubbed his eyes much more vigorously and looked again. Math was still standing on water, a pained look on his face as he rubbed his head.

“I ran into it,” he admitted, obviously disappointed in himself.

“What would we do without you running into everything?” Dezzy asked Math, half-serious.

From underwater, looking up, they had each seen the large rectangular shadow sitting on the surface of the water. Math swam up and towards the shadow, only to smash face-to-face into himself. Abby carefully swam closer, just behind him, and she was met by another Abby. They hadn’t noticed the platform earlier because it was made of mirrors that extended just under the surface of the water, entirely disguised.

At the end of the rectangular, mirror-plated platform, Math found himself staring into his own reflection once more. There was another mirror, this one rising up from the platform and into the blue sky, and there was a small button at waist-level, to the far right. The whole thing was a headache-inducing optical illusion, anyone’s guess what the button did or what was behind the mirror or where it went besides up, apparently.

Math pressed the button and it lit bright white.

Everyone gathered to the edge of the mirror platform and watched from the water. Math flinched as there was a beep and the mirror split in half—to reveal the rouge interior of an elevator. Soft muzak played inside.

“We should bring the spears,” Whiskers suggested.

Syd sighed.

“Anyone care to venture a guess where this might lead?”

CHAPTER *][]NINE[*—

Bar in Europe, 1656

The elevator doors opened to reveal a rank scent and a dark cellar.

“Well…this looks promising,” observed Dezzy.

Everyone remained on the elevator.

“I hope this is the wrong floor,” Whiskers whispered, fear returning to his voice after a long absence.

“This is the only floor,” Math stated.

At least they still had two spears.

Before them was a small, narrow area, one lit by the dying flame of a sickly yellow lantern. Sacks of potatoes were on the ground. Some many insects were buzzing and chirping and fluttering and scraping and scurrying up the wall that it almost sounded like an orchestra. Shelving lined either side of the room ahead and each seemed to be filled with hunks of rotted meat; the stench of it was growing exponentially worse with each passing second.

There was a wooden door at the end.

Abby backed further against her father, scared. Syd finished retying the piece of cloth to the long, cylindrical tube so that the atlas could, once again, sling over his shoulder and free his hands. He bent down and picked up his daughter, keeping his wood spear outstretched in the other hand. Step-by-slow-calculated-step, he led the group into the revolting storage-cellar. Bugs were everywhere—which made them shuffle toward the door much faster, but not one of them screamed or freaked out loud or caused the others further anxiety. Whatever lay on the other side of the door could be worse than bugs so they all panicked internally. Each one of them was scantily clad in their beach attire so every flutter and thin, twitching leg could be felt. Syd protected Abby’s body with his own and it caused him to take a swarm of beetles to the face. Whiskers was hyperventilating as something with a million legs (or a million things with one leg) crawled up his calf. Math accidentally swallowed something large and black that flew into his mouth (and was extremely upset by the fact that he didn’t hate the taste). About a dozen creatures were inching through Mya’s hair. Dezzy was watching a bunch of spider-y, finger-length creepy-crawlies follow her, scurrying across the top shelf as if a tiny pack of hunters; their black eyes were actually staring at her, specifically her, and for a moment she thought about grabbing one of them to keep as a pet.

With Abby holding his spear, Syd made it to the door and twisted the iron knob and it wobbled in his hand, loosely bolted to the frame. Pushing just a bit, the door opened to expose an even darker stairwell. That old, familiar dread was welling up inside him, the one that signified he was heading from one dark, mysterious area into a place that was even darker and even more mysterious. He wasn’t sure which he hated more: limitless daylight or opaque darkness.

Everyone pushed and rushed and moved to get out of the bug room, and they all huddled in this new, even smaller, even darker area. Syd moved his foot around in the darkness and was terrified to find something in front of him!—only to realize it was stairs. The group climbed the pitch-black stairwell and the steps creaked beneath them as if each were about to snap under their weight.

Syd reached a second door at the top of the short stairwell. Gradually, warily, he opened it. Beyond, candles lined a ridge along the top of the first floor. Opening the door a bit more, he could see a massive chandelier hanging in the center, bathing the room in a white fluorescence. Just a bit more and he could—everyone pushed Syd out of the way and hurried out of the dark stairwell.

It was void of people, or at least appeared to be empty – which was a good thing, as Dezzy, Mya, Math, and Whiskers danced and hopped and shook and yelped and flapped and twirled to get the bugs off them. Syd set Abby down for a moment and shook the beetles from his beard and hair and brushed off the ones that were crawling up his legs. He even found a giant, preying-mantis like creature clinging to the back of Abby’s shirt and he quickly plucked it off and flung it across the room before she could notice.

“It’s a bar,” Syd announced.

It might have been the most exquisite bar he had ever seen.

The wood of the bar itself was an intricately carved and thoroughly polished oak. Behind it were shelves of variously colored bottles, none of them labeled, and a door heading into a back room. The second floor was visible just over the bar and it consisted of three doors and a banister. A short stairwell to the left of the bar (and next to the storage cellar) led up to this second floor. There were tables scattered around the main area, all of them barren. Long, detailed metal sconces held out a handful of candles every few feet. The walls had been painted a deep green, which contrasted nicely with the mahogany floorboards and trim. To the right of the main area was a furnished den, with a rounded table in the center and more vacant chairs. There was one other room on the first floor, a small one that looked like it might be a bathroom or closet. And across from the bar, at the head of this establishment, was a single door leading outside and windows on either side. Everyone could see that a violent storm raging outside. Howling winds shook the window panes and door. Rain spiraled across the glass. Lightning flashed.

“Fantastic,” groaned Syd, a nauseating fear filling his belly. He approached the exit and glanced back, motioning for everyone to stay put. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to him just how ridiculous they looked. Everyone was scantily clad in the thin cloth of their beach attire, some of them defensively holding spears, their hair crazy and stuck-out from the saltwater (except Math’s crew cut). They looked like a pack of wild cave people.

Syd turned back to the door with a smile and opened it and stared out. It was so dark that he was unsure if it was nighttime or if they had made it to an opposite world, one without a sun. The winds wailed from the darkness, a chill crossing over the tables. Flecks of rainwater made it in through the doorway and spritzed the bar over.

Syd stepped into the storm and closed the door behind him.

Several silent minutes passed before Dezzy and Abby got bored and decided to explore. They started with the second floor, just above the bar, and they went into each of the three rooms. The first room was empty of everything except a lit candle and two cattycorner beds. No windows. No tables. Nothing else, just two beds and a candle. The second room was identical to the first, as was the third.

“Well that’s boring,” Dezzy exhaled, underwhelmed by the amenities and décor of the second floor.

“Comfy beds!” declared Abby, as if Dezzy hadn’t seen them.

“You’re right. At least now we have beds,” Dezzy agreed, nodding.

The front door banged open, startling everyone, and Syd bolted inside. His eyes were wide and terrified, his breath rapid. Slamming the door shut so hard the building shook, he pressed his shoulder and all of his bodyweight against the wood to make sure it stayed closed. Water dripped from his hair and body and the cloth around his waist, drenched head-to-toe in rainwater.

“Uh, did you see something out there?” probed Math, hesitantly.

Syd shot glances in all directions as if he forgot others were there.

The horrified expression on his face didn’t subside.

Everyone stared at him.

“Mo—mo—there’s mmm…” Syd stuttered, 1,000 words trying to exit his mouth simultaneously; it was the first one that he wanted to get out the most, just one word.

“Mountains?” Math offered, trying to help him get out that pesky first word.

“Mothers?” Whiskers helped.

“Mogwai? I love that movie,” a hopeful Dezzy called down, leaning over the banister of the second floor. Abby was beside her (“I really do love that movie,” Dezzy quickly repeated just to Abby) but the nine year old was too short to see over the banister. Syd could see her looking down from between the banister’s wooden pegs.

“Monsters?” she asked, scared.

Even though she had been right, it was Abby’s fear that snapped Syd out of it. He regained composure. The horrified expression left his face. He cleared his throat and took a final glance at the door…but the glance didn’t end. Easing his weight off to back away, he still kept staring at the wooden door leading out. The rain had made him cold and he shivered and stood in front of everyone. His intense stare was similar to Whiskers’, an unblinking, unbroken focus on the door. When he was finally able to speak, it was in a low, stern voice.

“No one leaves this place.”

It was an order, like they were in the military.

Whaaaaat is out there?” asked Math, running to one of the front windows. Everyone followed except Syd. He shifted the atlas off his back and spread it across an empty table and called Whiskers over.

“Can you tell me what horrible thing the atlas says now?”

Whiskers leaned down and put his noise against the paper. A moment passed before he stood up again.

“You’re not gonna like this,” warned Whiskers, afraid to tell Syd what he’d read.

“Just tell me.”

Syd was prepared for anything at this point.

“It just says one word.”

“And what word is that?” laughed Syd, a bit mad.

“‘Survive.’”

Two flashes of lightning—the explosive cracks of a stuttering thunder—and lightning struck just outside…except, it didn’t seem to strike the ground, no; instead, the two bolts struck one another. Just outside the front door.

“That’s ominous,” observed Dezzy.

Syd ignored the lightning and thanked Whiskers and rolled the atlas up and put it back in the container; then he crossed the main area to sit on a bar stool. His head dropped to the counter.

Whiskers joined everyone back at the window but nobody could see farther than the edge of the front awning of the bar; that didn’t stop them from speculating, though. Math said the foliage looked like they were in rural Japan and poised a theory that the elevator had taken them to the other side of the world. “Either that or we traveled back in time to Europe – circa 1656 judging by the décor.” (Syd heard this and groaned into the bar counter.) Whiskers thought it looked like Fairmont Park. Dezzy assumed they were still underground and that this was just some new, twisted puzzle like the island had been—

“What can I get you folks?” called the bartender.

Everyone turned back to the bar.

Syd’s head quickly shot up.

An older black gentleman was standing behind the bar. He wore an elegant, recently pressed tuxedo, though the bowtie was undone and the dress shirt was partially unbuttoned and un-tucked as if he had just come from a party.

“Holy butts! A dude!” blurted Abby, pointing at the bartender.

The rest of the gang rushed over to join Syd at the bar. It was then, after Math, Whiskers, and Mya sat on one side of Syd with Abby and Dezzy on the other, that everyone could tell with absolute certainty that the bartender was blind. All eyes were on the bartender while the bartender’s milky white pupils were aimless and often floating up toward the ceiling.

The bartender cleared his throat and repeated himself.

“What can I get you folks?”

“Daddy, can I have soda?” Abby asked, hopefully.

“Sweetie, I doubt they have soda—” Syd started but—KETEESH—he was cut off as the top popped off an ice cold glass bottle of Coca Cola and the bartender sat it in front of Abby.

“Thanks!” she graciously said and then looked at her daddy for approval.

He nodded.

At that point, Math, Dezzy, and Whiskers began asking for things.

“Two steaks, several potatoes—a lot of cheese on them—and uh a Coke, probably two—better make it three…” Math started a seemingly endless list.

“Glass of milk,” was all Whiskers wanted but he hushed when others talked over him.

“I want whatever booze is in those jugs behind you,” Dezzy requested.

“Guys!” Syd spoke up, silencing everyone. “Can we ask for information first? Please.” The bartender had the cooler top pulled wide open, his arm fishing around the deepest compartments for something, but Syd tried to get his attention. “Sir!”

“Patience,” echoed up from the bartender, his head now joining his arm inside the cooler. Reemerging, he had a Coke for Math and a glass of milk for Whiskers; then, he took an empty glass and filled it with a brown liquid from one of the jugs and sat it in front of Dezzy.

The bartender turned to Syd.

“And what would you like?”

“I would like to go home,” Syd quickly answered. “How do I do that?”

“That depends. Where’s home?”

“Old City, near Market.”

The bartender gave a knowing nod.

“Well, there’s only one city around here and it’s one of the oldest. But it definitely has a market so you’re in luck.”

Syd gave an exasperated sigh.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” Syd said and pointed at the brown liquid in front of Dezzy and then remembered the bartender was blind.

Mya got a tall glass of water.

Math got a second Coke.

The bartender pushed open the swinging door behind the bar and disappeared into a back room.

“To the Melancholy Dreamers!” cheers’d Whiskers with a thunderous bravado that had, thus far, remained unseen. Everyone glanced at him, surprised by his gusto.

Each member lifted their beverage.

Dezzy recited the oath and they repeated after her:

“We are the Melancholy Dreamers. No risk or burden shall split us asunder. Together we face every challenge. And like the venomous snake I released in my ex-boyfriend’s bedroom, so is the stealth of Whiskers. Seriously. Neither of them blinks. It’s creepy. The. End.” They repeated the words (except Mya, who had missed the initial vote and had no idea what they were saying). Whiskers gave an extra nod, agreeing with that last bit. They all drank heartily.

The bartender came back out and Syd ordered water for everyone. The bartender handed out fresh drinks and removed empty glasses as if by intuition. Math found it impossible and finally just came out with it, his tone inquisitive as he asked, “How can you tell which glasses are empty?”

“I can hear it when you set the glass down,” explained the blind bartender.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” probed Abby, also finding it an impossible not to ask.

Syd began telling her that the question was rude when the bartender politely interceded.

“It’s quite alright. She’s curious, trying to understand – which is definitely my kind of person,” he told Syd before facing Abby. “I’m blind, have been since birth. Truth be told, little lady, I don’t actually think my eyes are wrong per se, just that I was meant to be different. You wanna know a secret?”

Abby nodded.

The bartender turned his back to them and used a basin of water to wash the empty glasses, polishing each one with a towel before setting them in a neat row. His eyes were up and Syd noticed the man never looked down or lowered his chin. He called back over his shoulder, “I can get bits here and there – colors and movement in the shadows – but even then, sometimes I still feel like I see more than most people.” And the bartender turned back just long enough to shoot a quick smile to Abby before disappearing behind the swinging door once more.

Everyone started talking at once—

The swinging door opened as the bartender returned with three plates stacked up each arm. All of the plates had steaming-hot, thick-crust cheese pizza except the last, which had a rib-eye steak and baked potato smothered in cheese. Food, finally food, and it smelled delicious. The sweet scent of basil from the pizza sauce filled the air. The golden cheese glistened in the candlelight. The steak had a pan-roasted au jois that smelled of rich garlic. Everyone’s eyes glazed with happiness as they drooled over the plates set in front of them.

“Nobody touch it!” demanded Syd.

Everyone stopped just as they were to take their first bites.

“Don’t ruin this for me, Syd!” Math barked.

“Sir, we don’t have any money,” Syd admitted to the bartender.

“No money necessary,” acknowledged the bartender.

Everyone picked up their food but, again, Syd stopped them.

“Nobody eat it.” He examined the pizza. “Why are you giving us free pizza?” He turned to everyone. “Don’t you all think this is weird? We didn’t even order food.”

Math looked helpless as he murmured, “But steak…”

“Even though this guy was the only one to order, I figured everyone could use some pizza. You all sound hungry. Got Timmy in the back, told him to whip you up somethin’ nice.”

Syd inspected the pizza closely; then, he gave the go-ahead.

“Alright, I guess. Everyone e—”

Grumphs and chewing and ravenous gnawing had already filled the air. Any time someone finished, the bartender removed the plate, disappeared, and then returned with more pizza, always more pizza, seemingly an endless supply of pizza behind the swinging bar door. No one cared about this except Syd but he was just as starving as everyone else and they all ate and ate and ate because the pizza was absolutely amazing. The cheese melted against the tongue and the sauce tasted fresh and the dough was just crunchy enough. The steak was cooked to perfection and the buttered potato skin was the best he’d ever had, Math told the bartender as he pushed his empty plate forward and asked for a slice of pizza.

The group was a bit sluggish once everyone finished overeating.

The bartender pointed to the small room at the end of the bar, the one that looked to be a closet, and he announced that the bath was ready for whoever wished to go first. “Water’s only going to be hot for so long. And we got fresh clothes in there for each of you.” Everyone, lethargic from all the food, looked from one to the other. Syd was so tired he didn’t even ask a dozen questions; the sound of a warm bath and fresh clothes sounded amazing, no matter how many questions it brought up. Abby was the least anxious to get a bath, as she hated bathes, but the group voted her to go first. Syd took her into the small room, which was much wider and longer than it appeared from the outside. The floor was built of long, thin gray boards of wood and the walls were covered in floral, aged-tan wallpaper. A ledge wrapped around the middle portion, on which candles lined one the wall. It was dimmer, more comfortable, relaxing. Six towels and six pairs of folded clothes (one tiny) sat piled on a chair against the far wall.

In the center of the room was a hefty, oblong metal basin filled with warm water. Syd tested the temperature and it felt warm but not scalding. Abby got undressed and into the bathtub and Syd used a fresh bar of soap resting on the inside lip of the tub to scrub the sand and dirt and salt from Abby’s skin. On the floor was a comb, and beside that were a tube of shampoo and a tube of conditioner. As a man, styling Abby’s thick hair had always been elusive and difficult, a mystery, but he did his best and used the hair products to keep her auburn hair smooth and un-knotted.

Neither of them spoke much, as exhaustion had fully set in.

Once she was cleaned, he used a white towel to dry her off and dressed her in the tiny clothes that had been set aside for her. (Syd saw that each of the clothes set aside for them were identical.) Her dark green pants were made of a thin, light material and they hung a bit baggy, with about a dozen pockets, some hidden. It didn’t have a belt but a durable cord laced around the waistband, which he tied to keep them held up. The long-sleeved white shirt was made of a thicker material, heavy like denim but without the design, and it had a dozen pockets, some hidden. The left side of the shirt crossed and buttoned under the right, and the right crossed and buttoned on top of the left. It was a simple ensemble, almost like pajama pants and a tough, short bathrobe that buttoned shut.

Syd led Abby out of the wash area but stayed behind to rinse in the tub. He dried off and put on an adult-sized version of the outfit he had just dressed Abby in. Before heading back into the main area, he walked around in the new clothes. The slack, grassy-green pants swished as if made of light cotton, though the white shirt was a bit heavier and felt like armor. If anything, it was comfortable.

Dezzy let out a cat call when Syd emerged from the wash room.

Whiskers admired the new duds.

Abby was enjoying a hot fudge sundae.

Math protested changing out of the diaper-like slip of fabric that had been his island attire. (He, too, was enjoying a sundae.)

Mya was, as always, silent…but she gave a deliberate wink, smiling.

Syd sat in his seat at the bar and ate another slice of pizza and drank another tall glass of water. Abby finished all the fudge off her sundae and asked if she could have a second. Syd admitted that she had earned it but so had he and she’d have to share it with him; reluctantly, Abby agreed. The bartender pulled a steaming hot fudge sundae from out of the cooler, which seemed impossible. He ducked behind the swinging door a moment and came back out to announce that the bath water had been replaced and someone else could go wash up.

Dezzy asked to go next.

This continued until, one by one, they had all washed off the grime and changed into their new wardrobe of green pants and a robe-like, long-sleeved white shirt. It was during this time that Syd tried to glean any information he could about their location, where they had been, what was going on, anything (though he didn’t mention what he had seen outside, as he intended to be out of Abby’s earshot when he did so). The bartender was a slippery fellow and his answers were fickle.

He did assure one thing.

“You’ll get your answers soon enough.”

Syd didn’t have the strength to badger and his eyelids were heavy. Something about the bar was soothing, soft and gentle and calming. The bartender must have somehow noticed this as he said, “You and your kin can go upstairs and bunk any time you want. Got six of you. Just so happens, we got six beds upstairs. You’ll have to bunk together in twos, though.”

“Could you hear that he was tired?” Math asked somewhere in the background.

The bartender chose to ignore him, as did everyone else.

Abby and Syd would take the first room. Dread filled Dezzy’s eyes as she realized, in the moment before Syd voiced it, that she would be bunking in the middle room with Mya. Math high-fived Whiskers’, glad that they would share the last bedroom. (“You can finally explain what a stretch-partner really is,” Whiskers said, hopeful.) Everyone marched up the stairs single file (except Abby, who was too tired to walk and had to be carried by Syd) and they entered their respective bedrooms with their respective bunkmates.

In the first room, Syd pushed the two beds together so that he and Abby would have more room to cuddle together. He blew out the candle and they lay down under the blankets and she curled against his chest and they were asleep instantly.

In the second room, Dezzy sat on the bed and stared at Mya, menacingly. Mya closed the door behind her and Dezzy continued staring, her eyes open and unblinking like Whiskers. She watched Mya climb into bed and kept watching until Mya finally asked, “Is everything okay?”

“This is how I sleep. Ever since I was in the institution…”

Mya’s eyes narrowed with worry at Dezzy’s monotone response.

“What-what institution?” she asked, scrunching closer to the wall.

“You know the kind they send crazy people to?” Dezzy replied but, before Mya could answer, she went on. “It was like one of those places where they send the craziest people, only a lot worse.”

And Dezzy blew out the remaining candle.

(She was lying to Mya, of course; she had never been in an institution. It was just that something deep inside Dezzy just didn’t trust the quiet blonde and the feeling never went away.)

In the third and final bedroom, both young men were laying in their beds. The candle was out and the room was completely dark. Math was talking and talking, elaborating on theories of where they were, where they were headed, and what they would find once they got to the end. Because he had little information to go on, the theories circled around and around as he just restated things that had happened (and, in doing so, added more questions). Whiskers’ was asleep the moment his head touched the pillow but Math didn’t know this; eventually, he fell asleep midsentence.

The group slept soundly for hours.

And when they woke, it was to the sound of the world ending.

CHAPTER *][]TEN[*—

A Girl Named Lloyd

First, there was a gunshot.

An explosion of glass.

Hooting and hollering from a massive crowd.

Pounding, and more glass shattered against a nearby wall.

The doors on the second floor opened slowly and the Melancholy Dreamers exited one-by-one: Syd, wide-eyed and horrified by the noise, his beard thicker; Abby, with her auburn hair a mess (just like her dad’s), a drool stain down the right side of her chin, and listless eyes from having just woken up; Dezzy, with a wide smile, excitedly surveying the carnage below; Mya, her eyes baggy and sleepless, her blonde hair frizzed out, her mouth drooped in a sort-of grimace; and Math and Whiskers, both surprisingly alert, stood at the far end watching the bar down below. Whiskers was inconspicuously leaning against the far wall while Math hovered over the balcony. They looked as if they had been there for some time.

The place was packed and chaotic.

Syd had a hard time focusing on any one detail, as so many things caught his attention. A raccoon-looking creature was waddling around the bar counter-top; no one paid it much attention. A giant, hulk-like man in Viking garb smashed a mug over his own head—and those near him erupted in boisterous cackling. The blind bartender was serving drinks left and right to the surrounding mob, moving so swiftly that it was impossible to tell who he was serving what or how. A beautiful woman with black skin and flowing, crimson hair sat alone at a table, and hers were the only eyes staring back at Syd. Another burst of raucous laughter at the bar, where two women were laying across some of the patrons. Both of these women were dressed identically: in old-fashioned, embroidered, frilly, white lace gowns, with yellow capes and their hoods pulled up, obscuring their hair and faces. The laughter died down and Syd saw someone at the bar that looked exactly like Dezzy. She was even wearing the same long-sleeved white shirt and green pants, an outfit they were all wearing.

Wait…that is Dezzy!

Syd looked to his left, expecting to find everyone there, but someone was missing. He quickly turned back to the crowd downstairs. Dezzy was at the bar laughing and hollering with the crowd as if she were surrounded by her best friends.

Abby was lining herself up to sprint down the stairs and straight to the red raccoon thing but Syd caught her and picked her up. They would walk downstairs together. Mya reluctantly joined them, and Math followed behind her, but Whiskers stayed in his spot against the far wall of the second floor, nervously observing the madness from a distance.

Someone at the bar chucked a mug into the air, narrowly missing the chandelier, and it was headed for the wall above the front door when it blew apart with a deafening (and somewhat familiar) bang.

Syd covered Abby’s head with his hand and bent her away, protecting her. He had seen the beautiful woman with the long, flowing, crimson hair loading a gun in the moment before she fired it. She was in a gorgeous, flowery, olive-colored dress that stood out in the crowd. Her eyes had followed them down the stairs and were only off Syd and Abby for a brief moment, so she could glance up at the airborne glass long enough to fire a shot, and then her gaze returned to Syd and Abby without any hint of vanity, as if firing the gun had been nothing more than swatting at a gnat. Bits of glass showered against the front entrance and across the floor. The crowd roared with applause, hooting and hollering and screaming and laughing and—then dead silence. Each and every single person stopped what they were doing at the exact same moment, and they all turned to stare at Syd, Abby, Mya, and Math, who were standing at the bottom of the stairs, frozen.

While the crowd focused on them, the Melancholy Dreamers did their best to size up the crowd. It was an interesting and eclectic mix. There were dozens of people, none of them similar. The bulky giant in Viking garb was close-by, wearing all leather and animal pelts. Another man was standing on a barstool to get a better view of the newcomers. He was extremely short and fat and dirty and hairy (for some reason, he wasn’t wearing a shirt). The two women at the bar, who were dressed alike in the white lace gowns and yellow hooded capes, had their heads turned in their direction and their faces were visible. They were covered in thick blush and excessive purple eyeliner, the brightly colored make-up contrasting their skin which had been made pale white with powder. There was also another man, one who looked to be the most average of anyone there. He was in a rouge suede dress jacket, plaid button-up, and brown corduroys. His eyes were tired and his hair-line receding. To Syd, it reminded him of a late-70s era business man trying to relax.

“We come in peace!” declared Math.

“You’re such a dork!” a voice called back from the bar.

It was Dezzy.

Math nodded in agreement, as he was quite dorky.

Uproarious laughter filled the place once more, and everyone went back to whatever they had been doing…except the beautiful woman with the flowing, crimson hair. She continued to watch Syd. A bunch of people at the bar pointed at Dezzy and gave her cheers for infiltrating them, unnoticed. The short, fat, shirtless guy used his pudgy belly to push his way through the crowd, to the back den, carrying an armful of drinks. The hulk-sized Viking howled and smashed another mug over his head.

Status quo, it would appear.

And it was at this point that the Melancholy Dreamers split up to have their own adventures.

Math slowly wandered into the back den, where a cluster of serious people where playing poker. Standing in the background, trying to see over shoulders, the crowd around the poker table noticed the new arrival and made space for him to get closer. The stout, dirty, fat man that had pushed his way through the crowd was at the table and he pulled a chair up and invited Math to sit at the table beside him, which Math accepted.

Whiskers stayed on the second floor, observing the madness down below. The two women, in white lace and heavy make-up, had noticed Whiskers watching them from above and they were, in turn, were watching him, which he noticed – and, for a moment, they watched each other, which made Whiskers even more nervous. This made the two women giggle.

Dezzy stayed with the group at the bar. She already had a drink in her hand and her arm around the shoulder of the giant in Viking garb and she was asking questions about whether he still went pillaging and if he was single.

Mya stayed close behind Syd, who kept Abby in his arms. They approached an empty space at the bar so Syd could talk to the bartender. Abby had been startled by the gunshot, afraid of the crowd, shy, nervous—but it all went away when she saw the raccoon-like creature walking towards them. The reddish-brown animal was a little bigger than a house cat, two foot long with an extra foot of poofy tail, and it seemed to be scavenging for food. Abby reached a hand out to touch the red raccoon creature that walked to greet them at the bar but Syd pulled her back, in case the creature was vicious. It just sort of stared up with a docile expression and stuck up its nose and smelled at them, neither scared nor impressed by the strangers. Syd could see its front legs were shorter than its back legs, which is why it seemed to hobble.

“Is it a raccoon?” Abby asked, hesitantly reaching her hand out again.

“It’s a red panda,” the bartender answered as he walked over.

“Does it bite?” inquired Syd, keeping Abby a step back.

“No, not unless you’re a bad guy. Her name is Lloyd.”

Her?” exclaimed Abby.

Syd sat her in the only empty bar seat and she began petting the animal. It lazily looked around, then licked her fingers and waddled off in its continued search for food.

“Is there anywhere I can take my daughter that’s safe?” Syd called out to the bartender, hollering to be heard over the ruckus of the crowd. The windows continued to showcase a violent storm, so they were still trapped inside. He could take her upstairs but there was little chance he’d be able to keep Abby penned up in a small bedroom without an incredible fight, especially with a red panda wandering around. There was that awful cellar, with the bugs and the elevator. The bathroom. The den, with poker. None of it felt safe.

“It’s safe right here,” the bartender called back.

“You mean with the sporadic gunfire and broken glass?” Syd called back, astounded the bartender would even suggest such a thing.

“Exactly,” he nodded, “plus, I got my eyes on her.”

The bartender was still blind, mind you, his pupils a milky white and often lifting up. He was still wearing the undone tuxedo, with the bowtie untied and the top two buttons unbuttoned. Syd wondered why, after having plenty of time, did the man not change clothes; but then he dismissed it, as the bartender’s attire was the least of his worries at the moment.

“Stay right here,” Syd told Abby, as he had lost track of Math. He also asked Mya, who was standing just behind them, to keep an eye on Abby for a moment while he went to check on everyone.

Syd maneuvered through the crowd, toward the back den where he last saw Math, and each person he passed looked different than the next. Some were wearing modern clothes while others seemed to have picked their wardrobe centuries ago; still, others were dressed in ways he’d never seen before. Some were dirty and loud while others were quiet and courteous. By all appearances, none of these people should have fit together but, low and behold, they were all friends, all happy and laughing and talking and toasting boastfully.

In the back den, spectators gathered around the poker table to watch the game. Syd peeked over a shoulder to find everyone betting on their cards, including Math. He had a stack of chips in front of him and he was eyeing each chip up, deciding on his bet. (Syd rolled his eyes, as Math had been there only a few minutes and he was already showboating.) The short, fat man was right beside him, scrutinizing every move; his eyes were narrowed, trying to decide if Math was bluffing or not. He checked his own cards repeatedly.

Math raised a hefty sum.

Syd stood in the doorway, peering between shoulders, when something happened behind him. Musicians were forming against the back wall where, to Syd’s astonishment, a piano had appeared out of nowhere. And Dezzy was no longer at the bar, he noticed. She had moved to a sat beside the crimson-haired beauty—and she was already holding the gun (which appeared to be open and unloaded) while mimicking the way the crimson beauty leaned so far back in the chair. Syd did breathe a sigh of relief when he found Whiskers right where he left him. His attention returned to check on that which was most important to him but he couldn’t see Abby because there were too many people in his way, so he headed back through the crowd. To his absolute horror, she wasn’t on the bar stool where he had left her only moments earlier.

Mya was nowhere to be seen, either.

Panic quickly set in.

Now, his heart was beating hard.

He frantically searched the crowd, hating himself for leaving Abby with anyone else, even if it was only for a few minutes. Hopefully she’s with Mya and they’re still together, he thought—just as he ran into Mya, who was alone.

“Where’s Abby?!” he all but screamed.

She was surprised by his volume, and pointed toward the bar.

There, finally, he found her.

Abby was sitting on the bar counter, dressed in frilly white lace and a yellow cape, petting the red panda, as the two women, who were dressed just like her, applied white powder and rouge and eyeliner to her face. He could make out the two mysterious women a bit better now that their hoods were pulled back. One of them was old enough to be Syd’s mother while the other was younger, probably the same age as Whiskers. Both had curly, light brown hair that was puffed out in all directions like a Q-tip, making their heads seem like large, round balls with faces in the middle. All three of ladies – the older, the younger, and Abby – were laughing hysterically as they transformed his daughter into one of them.

Again, this panicked Syd to no end, and he released a tiny yelp.

What is happening?! he kept thinking as he rushed after her, doing his best to make it through the crowd—and then he was face-to-face with Mya. This confused him and he checked his surroundings, as he had just headed off and ended back in the same spot. Syd turned around and headed back toward the bar, into the crowd, pushing through person after person—right into Mya. Again, he was in the middle of the main area. Mya wasn’t moving, of that he was certain because he found her in the same place, every time; yet each step he made toward Abby seemed to turn him right back to Mya, as if he were stuck in the center of the bar. He took a step toward toward Abby and the two women, and then another, and another and another, careful to keep an eye through the crowd of people, and by the sixth step he was—face-to-face with Mya.

“May I present Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment!” announced the blind bartender as a piano began to ring out and a gentleman, wearing a pinstriped suit and holding a trumpet, stood to the side. A woman was next to him, and a series of other musicians with various other instruments were all around. And the gentleman with the trumpet began to sing a soft love song:

She could say in her voice,

in her way that she love me in

with her eyes, with her smile…

The music overwhelmed all other noise in the main area but, at the poker table in the den, the music wasn’t as loud. The same round was playing out and they were betting once more. Only Math and the stout, fat man were still in the hand and, again, Math was checking his chips. He didn’t think about it as long this time and pushed his remaining chips into the middle of the table. The stout, fat man happily called, both men flipped over their cards—and the short, dirty guy stood up, flabbergasted. Math had won and he gladly collected his winning into one large pile in front of him—at which point, the short, shirtless, pudgy man, with a mischievous tone, asked, “What do you say we go double-or-nothing?”

Dezzy and the crimson beauty were standing side-by-side near the front door, both in a straddling, gunslinger stance. The crimson beauty had her flowery, olive dress up over her thigh, where she had a holster, and she was teaching Dezzy how to draw her weapon quickly while remaining lady-like. They couldn’t talk because of the music, not that it would have mattered. Dezzy had learned that the crimson beauty mainly spoke French so they communicated through movement, and Dezzy was learning especially fast.

Syd was about to freak out. He continued to fight his way toward Abby at the bar but, as if by magic, always seemed to end up in the center of the main area, just in front of the bar and face-to-face with Mya. And each time he came face-to-face with her, she would share a tiny smile that gave him the slightest pause in his fight to get his daughter into his arms. Determined, he set out one final time, ready to push and shove and fight his way over, if necessary. This time, he forced his way through numerous people—and right into Mya, his body pressed against her. He had come back to her so quick and forcefully that he had to wrap his arms around her to stop himself from pushing her to the floor.

Mya and Syd stared into each other’s eyes. The music was loud but beautiful, melodic and romantic…and extremely peculiar, given the setting. But the man in the pinstripes sang soulfully, and a woman’s sultry voice joined him as they sang to the tune of the trumpet and piano.

Mya glanced upstairs and Syd followed her gaze.

Abby wasn’t even at the bar counter. Somehow she had made it through the crowd and was upstairs dancing to the music while the other two woman in frilly white lace had Whiskers cornered against the wall. He looked like a petrified animal, defenseless. Abby, on the other hand, was doing the running-man in her new outfit, with her face painted white with rouge and purple and dark eyeliner. Her auburn hair had also been stuck up and out in all directions, like a ball of frizz – and Syd was mystified how so much had been done in such a short time. It felt like they had only been down there a couple minutes.

But now he could see Abby, and she was safe. Better yet, she was happy. In fact, Math was happily playing poker and Dezzy found her French equal and Mya…well, she was in Syd’s arms (albeit by accident), and Whiskers may have seemed terrified but…it could’ve been worse, and maybe attention from a female or two might do him some good.

They were all happy, for the moment.

To Mya’s surprise, Syd began to sway. His panic had vanished, at least for the moment, and he was using this time to dance with her. They swayed, slow at first, but then she was with it, with him, the two of them continuing their gentle embrace. It was peaceful, as if they were the only two in the room—even though they were surrounded on all sides by wild strangers.

“Double-or-nothing, and all you have to do is answer this riddle,” the stout, fat man was telling Math in the den.

A second hand of poker hadn’t started yet.

“Ugh, please, no more riddles,” groaned Math.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were smart,” goaded the short, fat man.

It worked.

“What’s the riddle?” Math asked, accepting the challenge.

A wide smile spread across the short, fat man’s face.

“You have fifteen white socks and twenty-one black socks in a drawer. You reach in without looking. How many socks will you have to pull out before you have a pair?”

Math thought for a second, then looked at his chips.

“Wait, double-or-nothing? What do I win double of?” he asked.

The stout, fat man pulled out a tiny leather purse from his back pocket. He held it up and shook it so that metal clanked inside. Untying the string, he opened the bag and tilted it so Math could see.

“I can have that?” Math asked, drooling at the gold coins inside.

“You can have one,” the stout, fat man said and pulled one coin out, flipping it into the air.

The crowd became interested in this, more so than they had for the poker game. All was silent as Math thought the riddle over once more. He held up fingers and counted in his head and thought of it from different angles. “Fifteen white socks and twenty-one black socks…and I can’t see them, so how many would I have to pull out before I had a pair?” And then Math chuckled. “The number of socks doesn’t even matter. It’s the number of colors that counts. There’s two colors so…the first sock will be one color. The second sock could be the same color or a different color. But the third sock would have to be one or the other, because there’s only two different colors. So three. The answer is three. You’d definitely have a pair by third time. Am I right?”

Math beamed, proud of himself.

The stout, fat man flipped the coin through the air to Math.

He caught it and felt cool.

“Now, kid,” the stout, fat man went on, a hint of mischief returning to his voice, “how’d you like to win the whole bag of gold?”

The crimson beauty had walked into the crowd and came back escorting the giant guy in Viking garb, her arm lopped through his trunk-like bicep. She lined him up, faced him straight, and pushed his back against the wall between the main area and the den—then she took a quick side-step back into the crowd to grab a wide-brimmed hat off a stranger’s head, which she placed on the giant’s head. Finished, she returned to Dezzy, who was standing a few feet away, and they both turned toward the giant. The crimson beauty slipped her hand behind her, as if scratching the back of her leg, and withdrew a rather large knife from some secret hiding spot. Dezzy laughed hysterically at the ease and sneakiness with which the gorgeous woman had grabbed such an enormous knife.

Syd and Mya continued to dance together.

“I’m glad you came with us,” Syd said, matter-of-factly.

“I’m glad I did, too…even if I don’t know where we are,” agreed Mya, blushing.

Syd thought for a moment – with the sleep, the storm, the bartender, the madness around them, the time that had passed, the full belly, the bath, the new attire, the panic—with all of it, a moment had come where he had forgotten their journey, the long trek they’d been on, the fact that they still had no idea where—or even when—they were. Not to mention what he saw outside! He wiped the memory of the world outside the bar from his mind and stared deep into Mya’s eyes. She gave him a feeling that he hadn’t had in some time—and no, it wasn’t love and butterflies in his tummy. It was calm, a stillness. Serenity, even. Staring into her eyes, Syd felt okay, like everything would be just fine. It was a feeling he didn’t have very often these days.

The younger of the two women in frilly lace had her arms around Whiskers as he squished his body as hard as he could against the wall behind him. His head was back and turned toward the first floor but his eyes were closed (a rarity while awake) and his face was covered in vibrant red lipstick kisses. The older woman was beside Abby, who was still dancing, but the older woman was leaned over the banister and looking down into the crowd, a satisfied look on her face. Syd glanced up to check on Abby and the older woman caught his eyes and gave him a knowing nod.

It was weird, as if she already knew Syd and the gang.

The stout, fat man dragged his arm across the poker table, knocking all of the poker chips and cards and half-full drinks to the ground in a haphazard mess. Then he set the remaining gold coins onto the empty table. There were eight of them. He also disappeared into the crowd and grabbed something off a nearby shelf – an old, metal scale balance, with two trays, hanging level, and a silver stand in-between. It was a scale used to compare the weight of two different objects, to find out which was heavier and which was lighter. As the stout, fat man set the scale on the table, he explained the riddle Math would have to solve in order to win the rest of the gold coins:

“One of these eight coins weighs more than the other seven. You can use this scale two times and only two times to find which of these coins is heavier. If you can’t find which is heavier, you lose. Are you in?”

“If I win,” Math said, his eyes looking over the coins and the scale, “then I get to keep all the coins?”

“Correct.”

“Then absolutely I’m in.”

“Great!” said the stout, fat man, happily. “And if you lose, you have to do all the things I don’t want to, for the rest of your life. You’ll dig the dirt out from under my nails—” the short man put a short leg on the table and showed his short toes to be covered in dirt, “—and trim the hair on my back when it gets to be too long—” he twisted around to show his hairy back, “—and clean up the mess I leave behind, you know, just do everything I don’t want to. For the rest of your life.”

Math shook his head.

“Absolutely not.”

A loud pound startled the room.

The stout, fat man angrily stood up from the chair. He had pounded a fist into the table and was pointing the stubby index finger of his other hand at Math.

“You already agreed,” he snarled, a totally different side of him now apparent. This man, who was shirtless, and hairy, and short and fat, now appeared quite threatening, almost evil. His eyes glared and his nostrils flared and Math instantly felt like every decision he had ever made in his life had been wrong.

The den was silent, the music a million miles away.

Math looked around for help but there was none to be had.

“Okay,” he finally answered, fear in his voice.

“Great!” the stout, fat man smiled once more and took a seat opposite Math, staring at him intently. The scale was in the center of the table, where the poker chips had been, and the coins were beside it.

Math thought over the question poised to him.

Eight coins.

One is heavier than the other seven.

And a scale he could only use twice.

“How many do-overs do I get?” he asked.

“Oh, you get…” the stout, fat man began counting on his fingers, then answered, “…none. You get none do-overs. You can use the scale only two times. If you don’t pick the right coin after the second, you lose. And then it’s toe-nails and back hair and trash for life,” he snickered.

Their short, happy moment was coming to an end, and Syd could sense it. They had had their reprieve, a golden half-hour or so (maybe more, no one could tell since there were no clocks) of peace, of life without struggle and mystery – a moment where they all had something they wanted, got to do what they enjoyed, got to act how they felt inside. Abby was painted up and felt beautifully silly, and she had danced her heart out. Whiskers…well, he was beginning to enjoy the affection, and the girl kept herself wrapped around him, her head against his chest, her purple-and-dark-eye-liner-ed eyes closed. Whiskers was staring down at the crowd and he locked eyes with Syd a moment—Syd gasped.

Whiskers…blinked.

It was only once, and very quickly, and it didn’t happen again, and Syd began to wonder if he imagined it—but no, he’d seen it, Whiskers blinked. Once. Quickly.

Dezzy got to be a gunslinger, and she was holding the blade of the knife in her hand, her elbow bent, one eye closed in an attempt to aim her throw at the hat on the head of the giant Viking standing against the wall in front of her. (Luckily, Syd didn’t see it.)

And Syd had gotten to hold someone, had felt…at peace.

—but then it all came crashing down around them. The air changed from one of joy to one of menace. The band stopped playing and a ruckus erupted from the den, so loud that even Whiskers and his new girlfriend and Abby and the older woman on the second floor heard and looked over.

Syd and Mya stopped dancing.

In the den, Math was pacing around the table. He kept his eyes on the coins. At first, he had refused to do anything—this made the stout, fat man angry. (And, as Math paced, the far wall of the den thumped as a big knife hit the other side—so hard and fast and deep that the tip of the blade made it through the wall and nearly jabbed someone in the back.) Though he was silent, everyone watching could tell he was working the problem out in his head. Finally, Math made his choice. He put 4 coins on one side of the scale and 4 coins on the other side. The scale dipped on both sides but, after a moment, the left side weighed more. Math set aside the four lighter coins and had four coins left, and only one more chance to use the scale. He put two coins on one side and two on the other. Again, the left side was heavier.

The stout, fat man chuckled.

Math now had two coins left, one of which was heavier.

But which one…

He had a 50/50 chance of getting it right.

Mya and Syd walked into the den to watch. Dezzy, after narrowly missing the hat with the knife, and the crimson beauty also came around to see what was happening, the giant Viking man behind them. Everyone in the bar was watching as Math held up both coins, one in each hand, trying to weigh them by touch.

“Not gonna work, buckoo,” the stout, fat man laughed, “their weight difference is almost miniscule. You lost this the moment you started.”

Math thought a moment – he was going to have to pick at random.

“So what was the right answer?” he asked, stalling for time.

“I’m not going to tell you,” scoffed the stout, fat man.

“So it doesn’t have an answer? You cheated!” Math proclaimed.

“Go ahead,” the short man told the crowd, “you can tell him.”

“You weigh three and three,” shouted one person from the crowd.

“If one side is heavier, you weigh one and one from the three,” shouted another crowd-goer.

“If three and three prove equal, you weigh the other two,” shouted a third and final patron.

“Darn,” cursed Math, snapping his fingers at having been outsmarted. He even gave a nod, giving the stout, fat man some credit. And then he held up the two remaining coins, took a deep breathe, and flipped one of them toward the short, dirty man.

“That one’s the heavier one,” Math affirmed, nervously.

“Oh is it?” sneered the stout, fat man. He took the coin Math threw to him and put it on the scale; then, he took one of the coins that had been set aside and placed it on the other side of the scale.

The crowd gasped.

Both sides of the scale were equal.

The coins weighed the same.

Math was wrong.

“Yes!” the stout, fat man hollered and did an odd celebratory dance.

Syd got close to Math.

“What just happened?” he asked.

“We made a wager…” Math said and gave him a defeated look.

“And?” Syd wanted all the details.

“And…since I lost, I have to do all the things he wants me to.”

Syd shook his head, disbelieving.

“For how long?”

“Um,” Math pretended to think, “I believe we agreed that…I’d only have to do it…until I…die. I think.”

Syd heard this but it took a moment.

“Wait, what?!”

“You’re mine, buckoo,” laughed the stout, fat man.

“No, sir. He is not,” Syd called over to him.

Math put a hand on Syd’s chest, as if to stop him from talking more, but Syd didn’t care – no one was going to take Math from their group, especially not to do awful choirs.

The stout, fat man didn’t respond to Syd with words, nope—he growled.

“Grab Dezzy and Abby and meet me in the middle bedroom upstairs,” he whispered to Math, and then signaled for Mya to follow him.

“Where are you going?” the stout, fat man angrily spat.

Math turned around to answer but Syd cut him short, redirected him back into the crowd, toward Dezzy and the stairs, and then turned back to the stout, fat man, who had become more sweaty and dirty over the course of the games.

“He’s going upstairs. With my friends. If you have an issue with that, or with him, or with any of my friends, then you can take it up with me.” Syd wasn’t a fearless person—quite the contrary, actually. He feared for the well-being of his child often, and feared about his future, work, money, his ex, about life in general. Even now, he was constantly worried about the safety of the rag-tag group he had assembled. To him, each and every one of them was his responsibility – and that’s what gave him courage in this situation. It was obligation, without choice. He had to fix this situation because he had to fix this situation, and he didn’t care how evil or warthog-like the stout, shirtless, hairy, dirty, pudgy little man became, he was going to stare him down and do whatever it took to keep them safe.

The mob was staring at Syd from all directions.

The stout, fat man leaned over the table and smiled at Syd.

“We don’t take kindly to those who break the rules…”

Syd stared back.

“Well then, we’d better be leaving.”

This made the stout, fat man laugh.

“Leave?”

The mob around him began laughing, as well.

Syd was growing frustrated. He had an unfamiliar feeling inside him, and it was growing: anger, something he hadn’t felt in some time. He was actually getting mad. Normally, he was annoyed or upset or overwhelmed – but anger, that wasn’t common. His lip partly rose to show his teeth, a snarl of his own, and his chin lowered so that his eyes glared daggers at the short man in front of him.

Math had to pull Dezzy away from the scene. Mya followed close behind as they headed toward the stairs. Abby and the two other women in frilly white lace and Whiskers were all still on the second floor balcony. They were moving through the crowd but finding every step closer toward the stairs harder and harder, as the mob in the main area weren’t accommodating, none of them moving. Some seemed to stand in their way on purpose. They found moving forward almost impossible, even though the stairs were so close. This was filling Dezzy up with an anger similar to Syd’s, though hers was a feeling she quite accustomed to.

“Move!” she yelled, to no avail.

A man was standing right in front of her, taller by about a foot, staring down at Dezzy with a smile, and he asked, curtly, “What’re you gonna do about it, little girl?”

Dezzy smirked, and pandemonium followed.

“This!” she hollered, stomping on the man’s foot. As he hopped on one foot, she shoved him into the crowd and out of their way.

That one act of aggression would bring about absolute anarchy.

Like dominoes, people fell against one another as Dezzy pushed the man and the man toppled over backward, taking several others down with him; this caused a ripple effect and people were accidentally shoving against one another until someone at the bar was shoved so hard that their drink spilled on the person next to them. Not one to let a liquid spill on them accidentally, this beverage-drenched person instantly turned around and swung a fist—except the person that had shoved them was on the floor and the fist connected with someone else entirely. This set off more wild punches (none of which reached a deserving target) as the rambunctious bar crowd now shoved one another on purpose. It spread like brush fire and, in an instant, nearly everyone was fighting. Mugs and bottles were thrown or smashed. Fists were in the air in almost every direction. Math and Mya followed behind Dezzy as they rushed closer to the stairs, keeping their heads low.

Syd was in the den, staring down at the shirtless pudge. The two had moved closer to one another, both of them staring the other down. Without looking, Syd reached onto the table and grabbed one of the golden coins and, without ever taking his eyes of the short man in front of him, he began to flip it in his left hand.

CLINK

—of metal as his thumb flicked the coin into the air—

—and he caught it.

CLINK

—the coin glimmering as it shot up—

—and he caught it.

“We’re leaving,” Syd told the shirtless pudge.

CLINK

—the coin went up—

—and he caught it.

“And what if I say you’re not?” answered the shirtless pudge, his eyes locked with Syd’s.

“Then I’d say…“ CLINK “—CATCH!” The coin flipped at the shirtless pudge, which distracted him—

Syd punched the shirtless pudge square in the noise. He fell backward—but he didn’t have time to come back at Syd because bedlam had broken out all around them. The fighting in the bar pushed into the den and cut their showdown short as fists and bodies piled in, shoving and rushing and moving and pouncing in all directions. Everyone in the den was caught by surprise when two people crashed through the wall. Candles fell from their sconces and, almost immediately, a fire started. The den area cleared out, Syd included, and he rushed toward the stairs.

Abby and Whiskers had gotten closer together, as he was keeping a watchful (unblinking) eye on her. The young woman in frilly lace stayed by his side, too, entirely smitten with him, but his attention was momentarily elsewhere, on the violence below. It was getting worse, more chaotic, broken glass flying everywhere, all of the people fighting—and then he saw the fire growing in the den.

Mya, Math, and Dezzy made it up the stairs and joined them.

Syd was close behind.

The Melancholy Dreamers were on the second floor balcony, staring down at the mayhem that had broken out, mayhem they had caused. The second, older woman in frilly lace had disappeared but the younger one was hanging on Whiskers, her body behind him, her arms around his chest, her chin on his shoulder.

Once again, Syd caught sight of a man that he had seen as soon as they had first walked downstairs, one that seemed the most out of place. As average as anyone back home, dressed in a rouge suede dress jacket, plaid button-up, and brown corduroys, this man seemed almost completely oblivious to the fighting and anarchy around him. He was at a table alone, sipping on a cup of tea, occasionally looking up at Syd and his group, or around him at the people fighting—he even lifted his tea up as someone crashed through his table. Sometimes he would turn his head to check the spreading fire, or move his feet so someone didn’t step on his shiny shoes, but he remained seated the entire time.

There were other people in the fighting that Syd recognized. The crimson beauty was in the middle of it all, screaming like a banshee, arms swinging and knocking out anyone nearby. The stout, fat man was chasing after him, fighting his way to the stairs. The giant in Viking garb was easily swiping people out of his way with swings of his cannon-like arms, as if they were nothing more than weeds. (He was still wearing the wide-brimmed hat that the crimson beauty had put on his head earlier, which looked quite comical given the situation.)

And then, just like that, the fighting on the first floor stopped.

The fire was growing, consuming the wall of the front door, the windows, the den. Smoke was rising. The entire place looked like a disaster and the mob below—their fists lowering, their eyes lifting to the balcony—focused all their attention on the Melancholy Dreamers.

“It’s their fault!” yelled someone in the crowd, corralling the violent mob into one angry, focused force.

“Oh darn,” Syd groaned, realizing the entire bar was now against them. He turned to those around him. “Quick, into the room.”

Syd opened the middle door and ushered Abby, Dezzy, Math, and Whiskers inside – he did stop the young woman obsessed with Whiskers, keeping her outside. She became upset as soon as the love of her life was out of her reach and she began to screech like the howling wind of a nasty storm. Though this surprised Syd (and even scared him a bit) but he shut her out all the same, just as the mob began rushing up the stairs.

They were alone, all six of them.

Syd apologized to Abby for not being a better father, for not keeping her out of harm’s way.

“This is awesome!” giggled Abby.

“I miss the deserted island,” Math whimpered.

“Are you kidding?” asked Dezzy. “I love this place!”

Mya turned to Syd.

“What do we do now?”

The room had no window, just two beds and a table. There wasn’t much to defend themselves with, unless they started smashing everything – but, even then, it wouldn’t provide them with much. The door was locked but that would only hold them off a short time. Footsteps could be felt thumping up the stairs as countless people were running after them. This, it would seem, was the deadest of ends. Syd wasn’t certain why he had them meet upstairs, in a room without windows, but, then again, he was still a bit happy to have everyone back together. He stared at them and they stared back, eagerly, though each person seemed to have different feelings about the situation. Abby’s face became determined – she knew a fight was coming and it didn’t scare her, not so long as her daddy was there with her, fighting by her side, protecting her. There was no fight too big for the little lady and, as far as she was concerned, she’d tear through each and every person that stepped through that door. Math was nervous, as he was facing a lifetime of dirty feet and hairy backs. Whiskers was at peace, in a way, almost dream-like and covered in lipstick kisses. He looked at Syd with a modicum of wisdom, as if he knew the outcome wouldn’t be positive but that there was no choice, and he was in. It was the bravest Syd had ever seen the young man. Mya was worried but, Syd noticed, her fists were clenched and ready to swing. He looked to his daughter once more. Her lips were together (with a bright lipstick), her eyes focused (with purple shade and thick black eyeliner), her expression serious (with rouge cheeks).

“We stick together,” Syd told everyone, “and we fight.”

Dezzy had them recite the oath:

“We are the Melancholy Dreamers. No risk or burden shall split us asunder. Together we face every challenge. And like the time I got to watch a squirrel fight a mailbox, so is the bravery and sheer awesomeness of Abby. Seriously. She may be the coolest kid I’ve ever met. The. End.”

They repeated the words as the angry mob reached the second floor.

The Melancholy Dreamers were together…

Fists balled and raised…

Ready to fight.

CHAPTER *][]ELEVEN[*—

Nidus

Angry howls, wanton for blood.

The stomping and thudding of a hundred feet running up the stairs.

The Melancholy Dreamers were ready, each one of them in a fighting stance and all of them bunched together around Abby, protecting her. Syd and Dezzy faced the door, both of them ready to hurt whoever came through the door. Abby was just behind her dad, both of her tiny fists clenched and raised up. Math and Whiskers were to the side, both prepared for the first fight of their lives. Mya was in back, her heart pounding, her body tense and her fists prepared – she’d been in many fights, and she’d been taught to fight, but this was unlike anything she had experienced before.

The upstairs floorboards creaked as the crowd rushed closer. The mob was livid, their angry growls sounding almost rabid. The pounding stopped as the mob reached the door—and then…

Complete and utter silence.

No more howls of anger.

No thudding.

Nothing.

The hallway outside the door was dead silent. The ruckus had completely stopped, as if everyone had run up the stairs, reached their door, and then suddenly vanished. Even the downstairs went quiet—crinkle crinkle—came a noise from within the room!

Everyone turned, ready to fight…

“Durn it, Math!” scolded Syd.

He was opening a candy bar.

“What? I’m nervous,” Math innocently replied.

They waited.

More silence.

“They could be waiting for us to open the door,” Whiskers suggested.

Syd agreed, as the thought had occurred to him as well.

Abby got on her hands and knees and looked under the door.

“I don’t see no one out there,” she told them.

They waited longer.

“Think the fire scared them off?” asked Math.

“Maybe. We can’t wait too long, either. Cause…the building’s on fire,” Syd reminded the gang.

They waited longer.

“Umm…” mumbled Dezzy, annoyed.

Everyone dropped their fists.

Syd was confused. “Where’s the smoke? Where’s the—where’d the people…” He walked over to the door and, against his better judgment, unlocked it.

Carefully, slowly, he cracked it to peek out…

“You gotta be kidding me,” he said, swinging the door all the way open.

At first, everyone else in the room was startled and re-prepared themselves for a fight—but then they saw what Syd saw. The entire bar was completely empty. It was also bright, even though the fire was also gone—and not just put out but erased entirely, vanished without a trace like the patrons. The walls weren’t blackened or scarred but utterly fine, even the one that had been smashed by the brawl. It looked the way it had the moment they first set foot in there. No trace of other people, no fire or smashed glass or debris – even the mess was gone, miraculously cleaned up in seconds. The bar sparkled, it was so clean. Even the tables and chairs were back in place. And, through the front windows, Syd could see that there was no longer a dark, vicious storm.

The world outside was bright and sunny.

One by one they stepped out of the room—though every step they took, their fists were clenched and ready to strike. This…well, this was just plain odd—nay, it was so far beyond odd that it was dream-like, so bizarre that it was impossible. Nothing had happened, or so it seemed.

“The last hour must have been some wild, vivid hallucination,” theorized Math.

“We shouldn’t have accepted food from a stranger!” Whiskers cried out.

“We didn’t just dream what happened,” Syd calmly told them. “We can’t all share the same hallucination. This feels more like…someone’s messing with us. In fact, every step we take feels like someone’s been messing with us.”

The group walked down the stairs, checking each direction and behind every corner for a surprise attack – all of them except Dezzy, that is, who had been looking forward to the brawl. When it was clear that the bar was totally empty, they gathered near the front door and shared confused glances.

Syd opened his mouth to speak—

“You made it!” said an all-too-familiar voice.

As usual, everyone was startled.

“’Ferpessor Fumblejum!” cried Abby. He was behind them – once again, appearing out of nowhere – and she ran over to hug the old man. His giant ring of keys clinked as he crouched down in his yellow plaid suit to return the hug.

The blind bartender stood beside the Professor and he looked quite dapper. His tuxedo was now buttoned, his bow-tie tied. Syd presumed the man had come from some big event; now, Syd began to think that maybe the celebration hadn’t yet started.

“Made it?” repeated Math, curiously.

Hearing it repeated made Syd question the statement, as well, but too many other questions were already trying to come out of his mouth so, instead, he just stammered a bunch of words: “You?—Him! Where—where? Where?! What day—what just—who-who-who—how—You!?”

“Me!” confirmed Professor Bumbleflum; then he nodded his tweed cap toward everyone and proclaimed, “You!—my Melancholy Dreamers!”; then he pointed toward the windows and front door and announced, “The city of Nidus! Welcome!”

The bar doors blasted open.

The entire place filled with a brilliant stream of genuine sunlight.

The group turned, each of them just as confused as the next (except Dezzy, who was still annoyed that she didn’t get to hit anyone), and they stared past the threshold of the front doors. The steps outside the bar were made of old wood that they led down to a freshly paved street that hadn’t exist a short time earlier. What had once been a thick forest had become a city—a vibrant metropolitan, immense in size. And there was an immense crowd gathered in front, a sea of faces cramming the streets in every direction.

“Is this another riddle—ow!” Math had leaned close to Syd’s ear to whisper the question but it tickled Syd and he instinctively swatted Math in the face.

But it was a good question.

Syd glanced back at Professor Bumbleflum and the distinguished, blind bartender, both of whom held out there hands, motioning for them to step out of the bar and into the world. Abby tugged on her father’s sleeve and he picked her up. Mya stayed hidden in back. Whiskers took cover behind Math. And it was with great hesitation that the Melancholy Dreamers stepped out of the bar and into the sunshine of a beautiful day.

They had reached the destination of their journey.

They had made it to city of Nidus.

The Melancholy Dreamers stopped at the bottom of the stairs and gazed into the many faces around them. It was oddly quiet for such a large gathering. The unmoving crowd stared back, pleasantly smiling. There was a cough somewhere. A baby giggled somewhere else. A sneeze; someone gave a soft, “Bless you.” Syd was concerned while Abby gawked, amazed. Math was excited, certain that this was going to be the best thing ever, while Whiskers peeked over his shoulder, nervous yet curious. Mya remained hidden. Dezzy barked at the strangers. And the crowd stared back, still as mannequins.

It was awkward.

“Name’s Keaton,” the blind bartender said as he hugged an arm around Syd’s shoulder and led him forward, into the crowd. Syd flinched, assuming he was under attack, but Keaton assured him that no one meant them any harm.

The crowd parted enough for a path and each face had a joyous expression as they watched the small group pass. Keaton, the blind, dapper bartender led everyone across a street, then a sidewalk, then onto grass. Syd felt dazed and kept checking every direction around them in an attempt to gain some baring, to place himself somewhere real, to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.

“Sorry about scaring you back there. The leaders of Nidus like to meet everyone before let them in. See what they’re made of, in person,” admitted Keaton.

Syd didn’t understand.

“Can you just tell me where we are?” he asked.

“The city of Nidus,” chuckled Keaton, and he gave a sweeping motion, as if to present the city to them.

“And where’s that? Outside Harrisburg?” Syd wondered, looking around.

“You’re not in Pennsylvania anymore,” Keaton answered.

Syd was starting to get annoyed.

“Then where are we?”

Keaton gave a soft, good-hearted laugh, which, in turn, made Abby giggle—though she quickly stopped when Professor Bumbleflum, standing just behind, handed her a bright red lollipop. She gave a polite thanks and snatched it and – after checking with her dad to make sure it was okay – popped the red sucker in her mouth. Dezzy and Math were behind Bumbleflum and they gave him disappointed looks until he, too, gave them a white and green lollipop, respectively. Whiskers, bringing up the rear, was a bit late in realizing everyone had lollipops. He was too shy to ask for one, though he didn’t need to as Bumbleflum was already handing him a blue one. They all thanked the Professor and they sucked on their lollipops and looked around, taking in the sights.

“It’s…kind of hard to explain where Nidus is, exactly,” Keaton said. “This city was founded by people who didn’t want to be found so they made it extremely difficult to find.”

Syd shook his head, as this didn’t answer his question.

“So then how did everyone get here?”

“Some of us have been here for many generations,” answered Keaton, “but the world is filled with invitations that have directions to get here. It’s just that very few people look. And even those that find them, very few actually follow them out. And even then, there’s no guarantee that we’ll let them into the city. We’ve very careful.”

Syd’s eyes narrowed Keaton’s use of the word “invitation”.

“The atlas was an invitation? Full of directions…to get here?”

Keaton touched the tip of his nose, letting Syd know he was right.

“There are hundreds of entrances to the city, and that’s just in Philadelphia.”

“And do they all contain frustrating riddles and trap islands?” Syd asked. He hadn’t noticed it yet but – even in a city filled with onlookers watching his every move, and walking beside a blind stranger – his annoyance and concern were decreasing. For the first time, Syd was beginning to relax, more intrigued than exhausted or hopeless or angry.

“Yes,” Keaton said, chuckling at Syd’s phrasing. “To get to Nidus is a long trip, no matter the path. The trip back is quick and easy, though.”

“And they all lead to the tunnel and the island and the bar?” he asked, and it was the first time since their journey began that Syd momentarily forgot about getting home.

“Nope. The same path never exists twice. Every trip here is different, to all of us,” Keaton replied. “And many of us watch the trip.”

Syd couldn’t believe it.

“What? You’ve been watching us? You saw us on the island?”

“Yup, it’s even televised,” nodded Keaton, his voice so matter-of-fact that he could’ve been talking about any other ordinary television show. “The whole city’s been watching since the moment you figured out how to open the doorway to the Attrantics.”

Abby climbed higher on her father’s shoulder. She wasn’t listening to the conversation, choosing to eagerly wave at the people they passed. She was excited to see so many happy faces. Math was also soaking in the attention of the crowd, even shaking strangers’ hands; the crowd was anxious to shake his hand back and he loved every second of it. Whiskers was more occupied with the faces in the crowd, his unblinking eyes eagerly searching the crowd for something safe. (His own face was still covered in lipstick kisses.) Though no one could tell by her emotionless expression, even Dezzy was having fun. She would wait until a stranger was close and then honk like a goose or bah like a sheep or make some other random animal noise.

“We were on some sort of…real-life television show? That’s so ridiculously, incredibly creepy,” stated Syd. “What if we had lost the atlas or starved or something? Would everyone just watch?”

“That atlas is so old and vague that we were surprised you could follow it. Super impressive, I might add. But, if you had lost the atlas, or could read it, and we wanted to help, the Professor would have made a visit to give you a hint. And we would’ve gotten you home long before you starved.” Keaton thought a moment. “Remember the tunnel? When you found the words ‘Age hasn’t the opportunity to double-back’ etched in the wall?” Syd nodded. “Well, both of those levers did the same thing. It was like a Rorschach test for the group, so we could see what you thought it meant and how each of you reacted to something with no answer. It’s the same for everywhere you went and everything you did. Just because you’re smart enough to open the doorway to the Attrantics doesn’t mean you’re good people. So we have to test you, and watch.”

“And what did the island test, besides my patience?” asked Syd.

“Group interaction, problem solving, resourcefulness – what didn’t it tell us? In fact, the entire group handled the situation with aplomb. Only a handful of people have ever found the exit so, again, we were all very impressed.”

The crowd opened up a bit as they went on, until the group was in the center of the street with people on either side – like a parade. Syd also noticed that the crowd was changing, that the onlookers had become a gloomy sort. No one around them was smiling; in fact, they looked bored. Many checked their watches. A few yawned. A black stage was in the distance ahead. It was filled with a tidy row of yellow chairs and desks and a yellow microphone in a yellow microphone stand. Seeing this only made Syd feel worse, as he assumed it was where they were headed – onto some stage, where they would be exposed to the next horrific riddle or fight or trick or darkness or whatever.

“You’re not headed onto that stage, if that’s what you think,” Keaton said, sensing Syd’s hesitation. “Every borough in the city has their own stage. This one belongs to the Department of the East.” He motioned towards a very tall, very square building nearby; it reached into the sky forty or fifty stories high, but not a single one of those floors had a window. “They’re a dedicated, loyal breed but, between you and me,” Keaton leaned in, whispering, “they’re quite dull.”

A trolley (moving not much faster than them) began to pass. Keaton picked up the pace and jumped on. Dezzy and Math followed, though Syd had difficulty with Abby hugged against his chest, and Whiskers was last because he was terrified he’d get sucked under. (He didn’t.) Once they were all onboard, Keaton continued their private conversation while the others hung out the windows and open doorways of the trolley.

“Nidus has five boroughs and each borough serves the city in different ways. The Department of the East oversees all of the clerical work and infrastructure and maintains money. They control resources and use boring words like ‘audit’ and they make sure that we’re able to maintain the city.”

“Kind of like a city government,” Syd added.

“Sorta, yeah,” agreed Keaton. “If the city is a human body, the Department of the East is the spine. And up ahead is the heart.”

The trolley made a right turn, went down a hill, and turned again.

“This is our stop,” Keaton called out.

One-by-one, they hopped off the train.

They were on another street filled with people and, once again, everyone around them had much different demeanors. This crowd was smiling, like when they first entered Nidus, but this bunch was louder, more enthusiastic and rambunctious. People crowded the group as they walked the street, many coming within an arm’s reach.

“Finally, people I don’t hate,” Dezzy said somewhere behind them.

Syd quickly realized why.

Kids had multi-colored balloons with Dezzy’s picture on it. Women were wearing large, foam hands with the index finger out and Dezzy’s name written on it. The cheering crowds were holding up placards that read:

“Say what you will about The Delahunt Administration,” marveled Keaton, “but they canvas like no others. Answer me this: Is everyone holding up signs of Whiskers?”

“No,” Syd answered. “They’re holding up signs for Dezzy.”

“Sneaky devils,” Keaton laughed.

Dezzy was unimpressed with the pictures of her, as they were mostly from the beach when her hair was frazzled…but the overwhelmingly positivity caused Dezzy, for maybe the first time in her life, to pause. She was, for a short period, unable to react in her customarily snide fashion. Her checks grew beet red.

“Your cheeks are red!” Math teased.

“You have chubby man-boobs!” Dezzy angrily responded.

The comment caused Math glare at Dezzy…but then an uncertain expression crossed his face while he thought for a moment; then, he looked down at his chest; then, back at Dezzy. He smirked. “I’ll only admit you’re right if we call them chewbs.”

Dezzy ignored him and returned her attention to the crowd.

Several blocks ahead, Syd caught sight of a massive, emerald green mansion with a massive lawn. Along the right side of the enormous house was a platform that was surreal yet similar to the ones he’d seen in political debates, with two silver podiums on both sides and a large green curtain in back. It was bizarre, as if build for politicians on Mars.

“That’s the Green House. And I believe you’ve met President Delahunt,” Keaton said, pointing to the top of a flagpole where a silver-and-green flag waved in the wind. It had a picture of a woman’s face in the center and Syd realized Keaton was right. He had met the woman when she shot a bottle out of the air but Syd mostly remembered her beautiful hair, which was a flowing crimson.

“She’s President?!” Syd exclaimed.

“Yeah, but our President plays a different role than the President of the United States. America has three branches of government; Nidus has five branches, one for each borough,” he explained. “Jacquotte was just voted in, too, so we haven’t seen what she’s capable of yet. I can say for certain that I’m definitely not a fan of her Vice President. He’s a confrontational, pudgy, shirtless little man. Just because we don’t always with our leaders doesn’t mean they’re wrong, though. And between you and I,” Keaton leaned in and whispered, “the kids totally swayed the vote.”

“Kids vote for President here?” Syd thought about it. “Isn’t that reckless? Since they’re so easily persuaded.”

Keaton shook his head in disagreement.

“Gullibility has never prevented Americans from voting,” he replied. “At least the kids here are well-informed and interested.”

“So what makes it the city’s heart?” questioned Syd, still unable to believe that the woman teaching Dezzy to throw a giant knife was actually President of something (though learning the city’s children had voted her in made a bit of sense).

“The Delahunt Administration will control our policies and how we perceive everything, how we handle everything, our goals and our hopes. They will steer the city. They shape our future. And that usually means following your gut, doing what you think is right. And if there’s one thing I can say about Jacquotte Delahunt – when the time comes, she’ll step up.”

Syd had more questions but they turned down a different block, and then turned again, and again, and again, zig-zagging between blocks of beautiful houses and quaint stores until they reached a steep hill that reminded Syd of San Francisco.

“Is there another trolley?” Math hoped, looking around.

“Gotta walk up the hill, my boy!” instructed Professor Bumbleflum.

The crowds were gone and strange structures lined the empty street. To one side, built into the hill they were climbing, was an amphitheater with row after row of stone seats. Back at the bottom of the massive hill was a platform that had been hollowed into a boulder the size of a two-story house and then painted scarlet.

It was another stage, for another borough.

Syd wanted to ask about it but didn’t. No one made much noise (aside from sucking on lollipops) and, as the climb went on and on, everyone started breathed heavy. Math was sweaty and wheezing but, this time, he wasn’t alone. Syd still had Abby in his arms, weighing him down, and Dezzy was fanning her armpits. The only one of them to make the uphill trek without issue was Whiskers, though old man Bumbleflum and Keaton were also fine.

The street and structures had turned to grass by the time the Melancholy Dreamers reached the top of the hill. Math collapsed on the flat ground. Dezzy took a seat, sitting cross-legged beside him. Syd set Abby down and she sat in Dezzy’s lap, to rest. Whiskers and Syd turned back and they could see the whole city of Nidus.

It’s remarkably similar to Philadelphia, Syd thought.

“Was…that…a…mountain?” Math asked in-between gasps for air.

“Nope, we’re in Agnorok,” Keaton announced, pointing behind them.

Syd had been so enamored by the view of Nidus that he had failed to notice a long line of menacing, stern-looking individuals. Most of them were dressed in animal skins, their arms crossed and their eyes narrowed with suspicion as they studied the new arrivals. If that wasn’t intimidating enough, each and every single one of them (children included) were ginormous, beefed up and muscular and tall, with broad frames and imposing height.

“Holy denim! Can we go in that creepy forest?” Dezzy called out, shooting up from the ground.

Behind the line of giants was a dense forest.

“Not unless you wanna come face-to-face with the Vython,” warned Keaton.

“A monster?” Abby asked, with a worried glance toward the forest.

“Herbert is the city’s protector, not a monster,” chuckled Keaton, “but he can be scary. Vythons are the descendants of dragons, except male Vythons don’t have wings. They also have red bellies, and they love apples and singing, and they’re very territorial. Herbert does not take kindly to trespassers in his forest. Actually, no one in Agnorok likes intruders, or strangers—or anyone, really. The clan of Agnorok only likes the clan of Agnorok. And only the strongest, only the most courageous and daring individuals can join Agnorok.”

The statuesque line of hulks were studying the newcomers as a zoologist might study a new breed of animal. Dezzy bared her teeth. Whiskers hid behind Math, who was frozen with a stupid look on his face. Syd picked Abby up again.

“Back down the hill!” yelled Professor Bumbleflum.

The group let out a collective moan.

“Nah, this’ll be fun!” Bumbleflum said, encouragingly, as he walked over to a wood plank in the nearby grass. There were a bunch of them, Syd noticed, scattered around the top of the hill. Everyone watched as the Professor grabbed a rope tied to the front of the board and dragged it to the edge of the hilltop; then he sat on it, pushed himself forward a little, and sped down the hill as if sledding in snow. Math and Dezzy needed little encouragement to follow, and Abby could only do it if she sat Whiskers, who reluctantly agreed. Syd watched them slide down the grass hill before walking with Keaton to meet them at the bottom.

“Let me guess. Agnorok is the muscle?” Syd said as they carefully took step after step down the steep incline of the hill.

“Very good,” Keaton replied, smiling. “Protection. Safety. They’re the builders, the farmers, the hunters. Truthfully,” and even though they were alone, Keaton leaned in to whisper, “their work ethic is extraordinary but their smell—phew!”

Syd and Keaton joined everyone at the bottom of the hill, where the crowds were again gathered on either side of the street. They had only walked a few blocks before the crowd changed again, this time becoming a group of—

“Dorks!” blurted Abby, pointing at the crowd.

Syd hushed her.

“I always told her that dorks were actually the coolest people in school,” he explained.

“I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘cool’ when describing my gang. Intelligent, hardworking – definitely – but cool we are not.” Keaton’s white pupils crossed over the faces in the crowd around him, as if proudly taking in their expressions. Every person had a doofy, excited smile as they watched through thick-rimmed glasses – something each and every one of them wore, including the babies. Their clothes were plain, the shirts tucked-in to pants pulled up past their waists and pocket-protectors in the breast pockets. They were an shy bunch, their obvious excitement kept at a low volume. No one approached the group, either – because the Melancholy Dreamers were famous and it was just too intimidating for a majority of them.

“So you’re the leader of…” Syd began but quickly realized he didn’t know the name of the borough yet.

“The Academy of Ben, Tesla, & Einstein,” declared Keaton. “Mr. Franklin was not a fan of being addressed by his last name so we stuck with Ben. We call it BT&E.” He said the name so quickly that it almost sounded like bikini. “And I’m just the Dean. Really, it’s the teachers who are the leaders.”

They passed buildings for music, math, and art, as well as a library, a science building (with a domed planetarium), a gymnasium, a quad, a football stadium with bluish bleachers – and that was only a small part of the school. There were other blocks with more buildings, so many that Syd didn’t even know what could be left to teach in them.

“We’re the brain of the city, obviously,” added Keaton.

They reached a point where the crowd was spread just wide enough for a path. Giant hulks loomed over gawky nerds. Exuberant fans were hooting at the bored and uninterested. Ahead, the crowd was gathered around a massive circle of Amethyst that had been built into the ground.

Syd was, once again, concerned.

“What’s this?” he asked Keaton.

“This is the fifth borough,” answered Keaton, leading them onto the glistening Amethyst surface.

Syd, and Dezzy, and Whiskers, and Abby, and Math gathered in the center of the round Amethyst surface—when it rose out the ground, up and up until the purple-and-white stage was eye-level with the massive crowd – which was larger than any they had ever seen, a sea of faces as far as the eye could see. There were even some familiar faces. The dirty, stout, fat man was standing on someone’s back to make himself taller. His shirt was still off and he had a grumpy, miserable look on his face. The giant guy in the Viking garb was on another side of the round stage, and farther back. He was mainly noticeable because of his immense size (at least twice as big as anyone around him) but also because he was still wearing the wide-brimmed hat that the crimson beauty had put atop his head earlier. Even the boring guy in suede and corduroys was there (though, again, he seemed tired and average and bothered by the hubbub around him).

Whiskers noticed a stranger in the crowd and vaguely remembered him—and then the situation came back to him. This strange man had found a section of newspaper on a subway seat in Philly. He asked if the newspaper was Whiskers and Whiskers shook his head no, so the man threw the bunched up classifieds section at him anyway and told him, “It’s yours now.” Whiskers was too embarrassed to say anything so he pretended to be thankful and read the paper. That’s when he saw Syd’s ad.

Dezzy noticed a stranger in the crowd and vaguely remembered her—and then the situation came back to her. The woman had been walking a papier-mâché dog in Fairmount Park. Of course, such bizarre behavior got Dezzy’s attention immediately and, while petting the wiener dog made of plaster-and-newspaper, she happened to see an interesting ad glued to the side.

Math noticed a stranger in the crowd and vaguely remembered him—and then the situation came back to him. It was the man whose house Math had visited, with his father, to replace a series of fuses in the breaker box. It was routine, and not especially complicated, but the man had been adamant about having an electrician do it – and that it had to be someone local. While his dad explained fuses to the man, and how to replace them, Math read a nearby newspaper already opened to the classifieds.

Professor Blumbleflum was close to the stage, standing beside an older woman with puffed-out, greying hair. Her make-up had been mostly wiped off but she was still recognizable, still dressed in a frilly white lace gown and yellow cape, the hood pulled back. The Professor had his arm around her waist and they shared a glance, obviously in love. They turned back towards the group on stage with adoration in their eyes, like that of proud grandparents.

A small hole formed in the middle of the stage and a dark purple microphone atop a glistening white stand rose up out of it. Keaton walked over and reached out, feeling through the air for the microphone he knew to be there. Finding it, he pulled the mic from the stand and paced the stage.

“Give our newest members a warm welcome, Nidus!” he called out to the crowd, his voice echoing block after block.

The crowd’s applause was so uproarious that it caused a strong gust of wind. It was also deafening to stand in front of a vast city that was applauding just for them. The Melancholy Dreamers couldn’t help but feel a bit proud, even if they weren’t exactly sure what was happening or where they were or why so many people seemed so happy to see them.

Keaton began calling out the names of the places they had just passed and, each time he did so, different sections of the crowd would respond enthusiastically:

“Agnorok!”

This brought out a tribal yell from the giant man in Viking and the many other hulks followed suit, a swathe of the burliest in the crowd raising their arms in a distinct salute (elbows straight up over their heads, forearms over their heads, fist clenched) as they joined together in a triumphant, manly grunt.

“The Delahunt Administration!”

A gunshot fired from the crowd and those around it scattered, revealing the one and only crimson beauty, standing tall, her gun pointed into the air. The crowd was silent a moment, a bit shocked, before the stout, dirty, shirtless man in the front row lifted up both arms and cheered. Another portion of the crowd did the same, lifting their arms and cheering, and a wave spread through them.

“Department of the East!”

The average-looking man in the red suede overcoat looked up. His receding hairline and the bags under his eyes became all the more apparent as he looked over the group onstage; then, he turned back to face the crowd and belted out a weird, bird-like, “Hootie hootie whooooo!” In unison, a voracious portion of the crowd responded with the same ridiculous call.

All anyone could hear was “Hootie hootie whoooo!”

“And BT&E, make me proud!”

Keaton called out this last one especially loud (still pronounced like bikini) and it got an especially loud and excited (if uncoordinated) response from part of the crowd. They didn’t scream but stomped their feet and slapped their clothes to create an overwhelming purr in the air, as if a helicopter were landing.

And then it was their turn.

Keaton spun around to face the Melancholy Dreamers and it reminded Syd of the ringleader at a circus.

“Are you ready?” he asked them with a smirk.

Abby and Dezzy eagerly cheered but they were alone in their excitement. Syd had a horrified expression, terrified by whatever “Are you ready?” might entail. Whiskers was apprehensive about these goings-on but his main focus was on the faces surrounding them. He was searching the crowd for safety and there was only one person who could provide it; however, hers seemed to be the only face absent from the crowd. Math would’ve joined Abby and Dezzy in their enthusiasm if he had heard Keaton but he was too busy giving high-fives to the crowd. People were reaching up just to touch him and, for that one moment in time, Math knew what it felt like to be popular, to be a rock star. (He also knew the moment would end, and probably soon, which made him appreciate every second all the more.)

Keaton faced the ravenous crowd once more.

“Desdemona!” Keaton announced, “a.k.a. Dezzy.” He held out his hand as if presenting her at an auction. She wasn’t anywhere near him, either; instead, as soon as her name was mentioned, she circled the edge of the stage, alternately blowing kisses and meowing like a cat. The crowd cheered louder—but a gunshot silenced them all.

“Ze! Iz! Mine!” the crimson beauty screamed in her thick French accent, pointing her gun into the crowd in case someone disagreed.

“There you have it,” conceded Keaton, “the Delahunt Administration has accepted Dezzy!” The applause shook the solid stage. As the crowd slowed (they never did stop making noise), Keaton went on.

“How about Bryan, a.k.a. Whiskers!”

Keaton listened to the audience’s response closely as the crowd went wild with a deafening combination of thumps and grunts and “hootie hootie hoo”s and waving arms until he announced, “Agnorok has accepted Whiskers!”

The crowd went silent but for the thudding salute of the giants in the crowd, who were obviously in the clan of Agnorok – they were the biggest and strongest and tallest and most intimidating members of the audience. Whiskers stared out, first perplexed as to what just happened; then, to his absolute horror, the blood drained from his face. The scariest individuals in the crowd were going to do…something that involved him. He didn’t know what they were going to do but, whatever it was, he wasn’t looking forward to it.

Keaton didn’t even stop for a breath.

“Matthew without the ew!—Math, ladies and gentleman,” he screamed out. Even with the microphone, he had to speak louder and louder to be heard above the crowd. (It was then that Syd noticed the microphone had no wires.)

After Math had been announced, the sound of “hootie hootie hoo” overwhelmed the stage. Keaton didn’t even wait for the clamor to die down before declaring, “Department of the East has accepted Math!”

Syd understood what was going on; he just didn’t understand why. The five boroughs were voting on them and the loudest group won – but what the borough won, and what this meant for Dezzy and Math and Whiskers was still a mystery. In the back of his mind, Syd couldn’t help but suspect that all of this was just the intro to a vague riddle. [_This is all a ruse and we’re just being toyed with, like in the bar, _]he kept thinking, [_and a trap door is gonna suddenly open and drop us in the desert or onto the back of a whale or…something else weird, whatever. _](Syd had endless theories of where they might end up.) He did his best to quiet the thought but it never went away, not completely.

Keaton shot Syd a sly glance.

“Last but certainly not least, we have the man that brought it all together. Then you know what he did?—whelp, he brought it home!” Keaton drew out the introduction as long as he could. “The man…the myth…the legend…Mr…Syd…Siegfried!”

The denizens of Nidus erupted in every sound imaginable – hooting, hollering, gunshots, grunts, raised arms, thumping, clapping, stomping, screaming, and everything in-between. The noise was so loud that Abby and Whiskers plugged their ears.

Keaton put a stop to it.

“Who are you kidding?!” he hollered at the crowd. “You all knew BT&E accepted Syd when he used mirrors to open the doorway of the Attrantics! Ben Franklin himself will want to shake this man’s hand.” Keaton turned to Syd. “And the fishing net! With the outfits! On the beach! Pure gold!”

Keaton reached out a congratulatory hand.

Syd reluctantly met the blind man’s firm handshake.

Everyone cheered…well, everyone except Abby. She was in Syd’s arms but her head was turned away from him, glaring at the crowd. They had betrayed her. Her brilliant smile was gone and her eyes were red and puffy from was crying. He tried to talk to her but she didn’t respond. She wasn’t going to explain why. She wasn’t going to talk to any of these stupid people. She felt n’sisible again. The whole city was staring up at them, yet they didn’t even notice she was there. Nobody cared about her, not her dad or Dezzy or Math or Whiskers – they were off to some fun, magical place. She would be left by herself. She would be alone. Her face buried in Syd’s shoulder as she cried harder. All Syd could do was hug her back.

“You left out Abby,” he yelled at Keaton.

The fact that her father would talk about her when she was right there—oh, it made her furious! And he was right, which made her even angrier! The sadness was gone and rage took over. Abby kicked her father so hard that he had to let her go. She landed on her feet and stumbled, falling backward onto her butt—which made her cry harder, sobbing so hard she couldn’t catch her breath.

Syd felt awful that he had dropped his own daughter and he bent down, but Abby refused to let him pick her up. She stayed on her butt, tears streaming down her cheek while she gasped for air. He got down on his knees beside her and tried to get close but she kicked at him and screamed, and then she rolled to her knees and stood up and ran.

“No, sweetie, please!” Syd begged.

It didn’t matter that there were thousands and thousands of people around them, watching. It didn’t matter that this may or may not be interrupting a once-in-a-lifetime event. It didn’t matter how they looked and to whom, only that Syd Siegfried had to get through to his nine year old daughter, calm her down, show her love, something, anything…but none of it was working.

It was as if Abby was under a spell, inconsolable.

Syd took the only action he had left.

Before Abby could run to the edge of the stage and jump off, Syd wrapped his arms around his daughter, pinning her arms against her sides. He was restraining her with a hug from behind, holding her back against his chest to prevent her from doing anything unsafe. Her legs flailed and she tried hard to kick backwards or bite him, but Syd just held her closer.

“Please, sweetie…I love you… Please…” he repeated, pleading and kissing the back of her head.

Abby was facing the crowd and she gnashed her teeth at them. How dare they forget about her! She was important, too! She wasn’t stupid! She wasn’t different! She wasn’t n’sisible! How dare they clap for everyone but her! She was normal! She was a part of the group! She wasn’t n’sisible!—how dare they! She growled at them like a feral animal, ready to bite any of them—ready to bite all of them! How dare they forget about her! How dare they not care! How dare they treat her differently!

She was normal!

She was normal.

She was normal…

Abby cried harder. Her legs stopped kicking and the fight gently left her. Syd twisted her toward him and gave her a warm, loving hug. He kissed the tears from her cheeks and he promised, “There will never be anything else on this Earth that I love as much as you.”

Abby’s anger was gone but the sadness remained.

“May I talk to her?” a soft, sweet voice asked.

Whiskers’ heart nearly leapt from his chest when he turned around.

Her face didn’t have the white powder and purple eye shadow and black eye liner and rouge cheeks, and she was no longer wearing the frilly white lace get-up, but her brown hair was still puffed out in all directions.

It was the young woman from the bar.

Abby sniffled and wiped the snot and tears onto her father’s shirt before peering one eye over his shoulder.

“Hello,” the young woman said with a smile. “My name is Joan. Do you remember me?”

Abby sniffled again. She gave no acknowledgement.

“Well, Abigail Siegfried, today is a very special day for me. Do you want to know why?”

Abby smothered her face against her father’s shirt again. She didn’t want to hear about other people and how great their lives were and how everyone else was FINE!

“It started a very long time ago,” Joan went on, “when someone very special told me that there was a spark inside me.” She pointed to the center of her own chest. “It’s an important spark, one that lives in the heart. And it’s super-duper uncommon. Most people don’t even know it exists. Do you know what the spark does?”

Abby slightly shook her head no.

“It makes me different from everyone else, for one. My spark makes me act different and think different. And different can frighten people sometimes. People like things to be normal—or, what they think is normal. Meeting someone who is unlike anyone else you’ve ever met, or will ever meet – that’s a little scary, right? If you went into someone’s house and it was completely different than any house you’d ever been in before, wouldn’t that be a little scary?”

Abby perked up and, speaking in a raspy voice, told her, “We went home and daddy’s apartment was completely different and it was scary ‘cause someone broked-in and destroyed everything except the rat.”

“Guinea pig, dear,” Syd corrected her, smiling.

Joan moved closer to them and brushed hair out of Abby’s face.

“But guess what?” she asked, leaning closer to Syd’s shoulder until they were face-to-face.

Abby shrugged, fully engrossed.

“This is Nidus,” Joan whispered so that only Abby and Syd could hear her. “In this city, everyone is different.”

“Doesn’t that get lonely?” Abby asked, worried. (Her question caused Syd a great heartache. Even in a city where being different is okay, Abby just wanted to be like everyone else.)

“A little. I appreciate the fact that I’m unique. No one is different like me. But it’s also like being the only one of your species. You know?” Joan paused long enough for Abby to respond with a nod. “I never asked to be different, never asked for my spark – I was born with it. And can’t throw away what’s in your heart. But that’s also what makes today so special.”

Joan purposely left a pause.

“Why?” inquired Abby.

“Because of you, Abigail,” Joan said in a soft, sincere whisper. “Because I get the chance to meet you. Because you have the same spark as me. Only people with the spark can see it in others – and I saw the moment I first laid eyes on you. Before we even met I could feel it, could sense a kindred spirit. Today is special because, now, I don’t feel so alone. Now, I don’t feel so different. Now, I finally get to chance to feel some sameness.”

The words lingered in the air a moment.

Joan took the microphone from Keaton.

“The fifth borough claims Abigail Siegfried!” she yelled to the crowd.

—and so many people cheered that everyone had to plug their ears.

Abby scurried down off her father and walked to the edge of the stage, a timid look on her face as she stared out into the crowd. The air was electric while they waited to see what she would do next—but they didn’t wait long. Abby lifted her arms in triumph, like a tiny boxer who just won the match. Thousands of people went ballistic, in all directions, at the same time, and it hit those on the stage like a shockwave.

Joan turned to Syd and offered him the microphone. He turned it down repeatedly but she refused, keeping it held out toward him until, finally, he accepted the microphone.

“Thank you, everyone,” he said, holding the mic too close to his face. “This is incredible. Really, really, really weird…but also incredible. So thank you. We appreciate it. Dezzy and Whiskers and Math and Abby and…” Syd turned to acknowledge the Melancholy Dreamers—when he realized someone was missing. In all the excitement, someone had disappeared. He turned to Keaton. “Where’s Mya?”

Keaton held his hand over the microphone when he answered.

“I’m sorry but she wasn’t invited to stay.”

“Wasn’t invited?” repeated Syd, confused.

“She went home,” he explained, removing his hand from the microphone.

While Math and Dezzy and Whiskers and Abby were stunned by the news, it actually made Syd quite happy.

“Fantastic!” he smiled. “Is it too late to join her?”

“Join…her?” repeated Keaton, unsure.

“Yeah. Back home. To Philadelphia,” Syd nodded, not realizing that he was still talking into the microphone. “How do we get home from here?”

“Syd,” Keaton began, using his most teacher-ly voice, “you never have to go home again. Nidus can be your home. You’ve didn’t just wander into a podunk town in New Jersey – you fought for days to get here. This is your reward, mankind’s best-kept secret. And we welcome you with open arms. Enjoy it.”

Keaton addressed all of the Melancholy Dreamers.

“Everything has already been prepared. Food, shelter, knowledge, money – you’ll never want for anything again. You’ve hit the jackpot. Dreams you never knew possible will come true here, in Nidus.”

“I really appreciate that—but you have to understand: to me, everything you just said is extremely creepy.” Syd was being honest (and still into the mic), though his tone so skeptical that it bordered on scorn. “This is some kind of like a cult, that’s fine. Whatever works for you, I guess…even if it’s giants and vague riddles and a gun-toting President.”

Without realizing it, Syd had just insulted everyone in the city.

Suddenly, it became very uncomfortable to be on that stage.

What followed was quite unpleasant. The audience around them went dead silent. They weren’t angry, more shocked, and Syd didn’t learn why until shortly after, once they had been escorted back through the silent crowd (who watched them in disbelief) and the Melancholy Dreamers were returned to the bar from earlier. Inside, they were joined by a group of familiar faces that included: the giant in Viking garb (still wearing the wide-brimmed hat); the short, dirty, shirtless fat guy; the crimson beauty; the teenage Joan; Professor Bumbleflum and the older woman at his side; the boring guy in corduroys; and the dapper bartender named Keaton, who spoke first.

“Syd, we don’t let many people to join us,” he explained. “And no one has ever interrupted the welcoming ceremony to go home. You don’t win the lottery and go back to work at a fast food restaurant. No one is saying you have to stay forever but at stay the night? Let me explain the city. Let me show you what we do. This city is the way the world would’ve turned out if there was no ignorance or hatred. This is a place that you’ll truly appreciate. You could even make it better. Maybe you change your mind and leave, so what? Maybe you won’t. All I’m asking is that you at least hear us out. Otherwise, why make this trip in the first place?”

“I’m sorry but we can’t stay, that’s just silly,” Syd responded with a light chuckle, as if the idea was unrealistic and the mere suggestion was crazy. He checked each face to find that no one agreed with him; not his friends, and not the strangers mixed in with them. He was standing in front of everyone, alone.

“You can’t be serious?” muttered Dezzy, perturbed.

“Stay a few hours,” Math implored. “It’s impolite to cut and run.”

“What?!—we have a life in Philadelphia.” Syd began to state details as if talking to children who should know better. “Abby has school. She can’t just never go back. And I’m certainly not pulling her out of school at the end of the year—and what about her mother? She’s in horrible pain right now because she thinks something horrible might have happened to her daughter. Should I just let her suffer? Because I won the lottery? And what about Abby? She isn’t gonna see her mother ever again?” Syd’s voice rose with anger. “I have an apartment, I have bills—I can’t just abandon my responsibilities.”

“Syd, your apartment’s been destroyed. You have no job. Our school is a thousand times better than anything Philadelphia has to offer. And Abby can visit her mom whenever—“

Syd rudely cut Keaton short with an abrupt laugh.

Visit her mom?” he scoffed. “You think Abby’s mom is going to be okay with that? Are you kidding me? Do you even think that’s fair to her? Guys, everyone – this isn’t a conversation. Abby and I are not staying another minute. I have a guinea pig to feed!”

“I’m absolutely staying!” Dezzy defiantly exclaimed.

Math said that he would stay, too, but not for long.

Whiskers raised his hand last.

“Yes, Whiskers?” Syd said, calling on him.

“I’m going to stay,” he admitted with a tinge of guilt.

Syd couldn’t believe it, as if they had all gone insane.

“None of you think this is a trick? Some new riddle? Some weird test like all the others? What if this is some crazy cult?” Syd was worried for them. “And what about your families? Aren’t they gonna be upset that you didn’t come home, ever again? That they can’t contact you? Don’t you have responsibilities, too?”

Whiskers, Dezzy, and Math sort of shrugged off the last part; apparently, they did not have any responsibilities.

Again, Keaton was the one to speak.

“The tricks are over,” he promised, his voice solemn. “Your journey has reached its goal. The riddles are over. There’s no danger, no tricks. We’re not going to force you to stay—”

“Great, how do we get home then?” Syd cut him off, growing aggravated. He felt completely alone.

“Same way you first got here,” Keaton answered. He was discouraged by Syd’s persistent unwillingness to join the city of Nidus.

How do we get home?—it was a question Syd had been asking for so long, ever since they passed through the doorway of the Attrantics…that it took him a moment to realize that he had finally gotten an answer. The exit was close by—home was close by. He was so grateful that he whimpered. A tremor shot shook through his entire body.

Home is just an elevator ride away.

“Will you excuse us a moment?” Syd calmly asked the city strangers.

Everyone knew what he meant and they respected his wish.

Keaton, the blind bartender in the dapper tuxedo, disappeared behind the swinging door on the other side of the bar.

The crimson beauty pointed her index finger at Dezzy, cocked back her thumb, and pretended to fire a gun; then she left.

The balding, sleepless gentleman in corduroys handed Math a business card that read:

The man waited an extra second to make sure Math checked the back of the card, which read:

The man gave a tired sigh and a light, congratulatory pat on Math’s back; then he left.

The giant in Viking garb nodded at Whiskers, and Whiskers nodded back, and they shared together a nice moment, one that made Whiskers feel more manly—but the giant threw a celebratory dead rodent at him; then he left, just as Whiskers caught the dead rodent that had been tossed to him (probably the first time in his life he’d caught something without fumbling it). He quickly realized what the gift was and yelped like a female child, dropping it.

The short, fat man kicked Math in the shin; then he left.

Keaton emerged from the kitchen and approached Syd, staring him square in the eye. “I can’t stop you from leaving,” he said, “but, if you leave, I ask that you keep this with you at all times…in case something happens.” He handed Syd a small paper bag; then he left, escorted by the older woman in frilly lace.

Syd tossed the paper bag onto a nearby table. There was zero chance he would take something home from a city that had televised their every move over the last few days.

Joan bent down beside Abby and handed her the glistening purple microphone they had been using earlier, on the stage. She leaned in as close as her puffy brown hear would allow and whispered something to Abby that no one else could hear; as she did it, Abby’s expression went from concentration, to surprise, to excitement, to absolute amazement. Once she was done, Joan kissed the top of Abby’s head and returned to Whiskers. The two teenagers faced each other a moment and Whiskers wasn’t sure what to—her lips were quickly against his and they shared a timeless, passionate kiss; then she left.

That was the last of them—

“Don’t forget this!” Professor Bumbleflum exclaimed.

Syd nearly jumped out of his skin. He spun around to face the old man in yellow tweed, who was standing just behind him, but before he could scold Bumbleflum for sneaking up on him for the millionth time, Syd saw what was in his hands. It was a familiar, cylindrical tube, inside of which was the atlas. Syd accepted it and found that someone had fixed the strap. Once again, he was able to keep it secured over his shoulder and against his back.

“In case you wanna come back,” winked the Professor.

And, unlike everyone before him, Professor Bumbleflum visited the Melancholy Dreamers one-by-one to give them each a different key off the massive black keychain at his side: Dezzy got a skeleton key; Math got a mailbox key; Whiskers got a car key; Abby got a house key; and Syd got a closed padlock with no key at all.

“I will see you all soon,” announced Professor Bumbleflum, a wide smile across his face as he bid them farewell; then he left.

The Melancholy Dreamers were alone again.

Syd motioned for Abby to come over to him, and she started walking over when Dezzy stepped out to block her.

“We reached the treasure at the end of the treasure map – and now you’re running home? You’re gonna split us up?” Dezzy asked, as disbelieving of Syd as Syd was of everyone else. She was insulted that Syd would leave the group. He was breaking the oath. He was abandoning them.

“You’re splitting us up by not being sensible and coming home,” Syd charged back.

“But why can’t you stay just a little bit? We traveled all this way and you don’t want to find out why? What’s this place all about?” inquired Math, careful not to upset anyone further.

“No, my daughter doesn’t need to suddenly move to some mysterious city filled with only four or five different types of people. She needs to get home and return to a routine. Kids can’t just go missing,” Syd reminded Math before turning toward Dezzy. In his most hostile tone, he made a simple, low threat:

“Get away from my child.”

“Or else what?” Dezzy snarled back.

“Adventure!” Whiskers called out, trying to rekindle the spirit that had gotten them there.

“Shut up, Whiskers!” Syd snapped.

“Hey, don’t talk to him like that,” Math interjected, standing up for Whiskers.

“Stay out of it, Math,” growled Dezzy.

“Take a chill pill, Dezzy,” Math told her.

“Stay. Out. Of. It. Math.” Dezzy’s growl grew deeper.

“Take. A. Chill. Pill. Dezzy,” repeated Math, growing angry.

And the fight may have continued escalating if not for what happened next. Without a word, Abby stepped out from behind Dezzy and joined her father. She tugged on his sleeve and he picked her up. Syd hugged her tiny body against his chest. She hated seeing the people she cared about screaming at one another. She just wanted it to stop.

A moment of silence followed as everyone let the situation sink in.

“So I guess this is goodbye then,” Syd said, his voice sturdy. He did his best to hide the immense sorrow he felt deep in his heart. It was like Father Daniels’ death all over again.

“Goodbye, Syds,” Math said, his voice somber.

Whiskers had tears in his eyes and he tried to speak but found himself unable, so he waved goodbye instead.

Dezzy was heartbroken and gave Syd no acknowledgement; instead, as Syd turned his back on everyone to leave, she gave one final oath, saying each word as if spitting: “We were the Melancholy Dreamers…but we’ve been split apart. Abandoned. Without our leader, we face our challenges. Like the jellyfish that stung me so bad I’ll never step foot in Aruba again, so is the spineless, cowardly Syd Siegfried…and the pain of his betrayal. The. End.”

Those words stung but what followed hurt Syd deeper than any other wound, ever. As they headed into the storage seller, and found it brightly lit and empty of rotting things and bugs, with the elevator doors open at the end (the interior was now white), Abby lifted her head just long enough to whisper into her father’s ear…

“I hate you, daddy.”

CHAPTER *][]TWELVE[*—

Currents without Storm

The fourth week of May began rather well, to Syd’s surprise.

There was a rather long message on the answering machine from Paul Hidenberg at H&H Home Healthcare asking if Syd might consider returning to his old position. They had acted hastily, Paul confessed, and for that he apologized; then he begged Syd to come back. The orders were stacking up and their clients were becoming restless and unhappy. They had placed an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer to fill the position but no applicant had been qualified; in fact, most of the calls they received for the position turned out to be prank calls. Paul went on but Syd stopped the answering machine, having heard enough. (He didn’t like to hear groveling, even if did feel like karma – and the message was so long that it took up most of the tape in the machine.)

Syd dialed the number for H&H Home Healthcare.

Jen answered on the second ring, sounding as severe as ever.

“I’m willing to come back this Wednesday but only if I get a raise, and only if you pay me overtime for the period I’ve been gone,” he told her, in a harsh tone that matched hers. These weren’t demands. He wasn’t angry or vindictive; this was just what he needed in order to cover the bills and expenses.

Jen sternly agreed and, that day, they wrote him a check.

Syd paid off his landlord and used the money left over to get a safety deposit box for the atlas, as well as a new belt for his pants, and a new tool belt for work, and he replaced the missing tools (that were.

At home, Syd used the two days off to rebuild the many things that had been destroyed in his apartment. The fridge was first and he replaced the metal hinges on the door and made sure the plastic shut air-tight, and then he paid to refill the freon. He had never fixed a fridge before so it was astounding when he succeeded so quickly; but, instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, Syd just moved on to the next project. Next were the bedframes and window frames and doors and drawers and cabinets and bookcases. He did the best he best, replacing a majority of the woodwork with cheap, discarded wood from a scrapyard up north. His place was covered in sawdust and splinters by the time he finished but, with a good sweep and mop, it was beginning to resemble an apartment once more. Last, he made two trays and a bench so that he had a seat and place to eat his reheated dinners. (During these renovations, there were two separate occasions where Syd caught a glimpse of the guinea pig wandering around – but the creature would quickly dart off, and then it was gone, hidden behind one thing or another. Not only had it survived but it seemed to have done so without a scratch, and it was eating its food and filling the litter bin regularly – so he assumed the fuzzy, buck-toothed, tan-and-white monster was happy.)

Work resumed that Wednesday. Paul apologized a few more times before diving into a conversation about horror movies. Syd nodded, feigning interest. Jen didn’t say much to him, which was usually the case anyway, and they kept their distance. The docket was full of errands, deliveries, and maintenance issues, but he was able to knock it all out in a day. It felt like nothing had changed, as if Syd had been on vacation and not fired – except there was a new sadness that never left his eyes.

Syd spent his evenings wandering the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He didn’t look at the exhibits, which once enthralled him, but instead he searched the faces of those around him in the hopes of running into Mya. Since she never gave her phone number or last name, he had no other way to find her. (Coincidentally, the creepy, slender curator Ivan Risker, with the annoying questions and pencil mustache, was also absent from the museum.) But every night ended the same, with Syd returning to his apartment, alone.

One evening, as the museum was closing, Syd ventured down to the waterfront. To little surprise, Syd found that the entrance to the Waterworks had vanished like everything else in his life. Professor Bumbleflum wasn’t hobbling around on his grey cane, just waiting to startle him. The round gate was gone and the tunnel had been replaced by the dirt and grass of the hill leading back up to the museum. Nothing had ever been there, it seemed. There was an area for the Waterworks but it was a simple monument celebrating what had been there many years ago.

As the days turned into weeks, Syd grew increasingly impatient and eventually asked a museum employee, “There’s an older man that lends art to this museum and I’m just wondering, how I might find his name?”

“We aren’t currently displaying any private collections, sir. The work is either owned by the museum or on loan from another museum,” the employee replied.

“Well, what was the name of the last collector who [_was _]displayed here?” Syd persisted, unwilling to give up.

“Sir, we aren’t allowed to release the information of a museum benefactor without their express permission,” the employee said in a patronizing tone. And then, quite politely, he added, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Syd shook his head and walked away.

If I want to see Mya, I’ll have to wander the museum every night…

Later that same night, Syd was sitting on the bench in his living room and eating a microwave dinner when the phone rang.

“Hello?” he answered, his tone despondent.

“Yes, is Mr. Jass available?” a familiar voice asked.

“No, he’s not available right now,” Syd quickly responded. “Are you calling to reserve a buttfore?”

“What’s a buttfore?” the familiar voice finally asked.

“For using the potty, stupid,” Syd replied and then—click—he hung up on the prank caller. Silence followed, during which he should have been enthused, even proud of himself…but he wasn’t. He was lonely and broken-hearted and gravely depressed without Abby.

After their last conversation, he had decided to give her space.

*      *      *

The white elevator ceiling folded back as Syd and Abby reached their destination. A grate overhead separated and opened, and the white elevator walls became dark and turned to decaying brick, and they rose out of the ground on a metal platform. It was mid-day and the street was busy but no one seemed to notice that a man, holding a child, just emerged from sewer grating – which was a good signifier that they were back in Philadelphia.

Syd carried Abby to her mother’s house.

“Why did you say you hate me?” he asked her on the walk.

“Because I have a spark and I wasn’t alone and you took away everyone I care about,” Abby answered, her tone low. “Now I’m different again. N’sisible.”

Syd didn’t know that last word and mistakenly thought Abby was tired even though she wasn’t, not at all. His daughter was overwhelmed with sadness. For the briefest moment, she hadn’t felt different. For the briefest moment, she knew what it was like to be appreciated. And Joan had given her a glimmer of hope, had made her think that maybe, just maybe, the reason she was different was because she was special – not because she was bad, not because she didn’t listen, not because she was emotional. For a brief moment, she had felt special. The world had brightened in that brief moment—but then was over, gone forever. The adventure was over. Her friends were gone. Life would resume as it was, not as it could have been. Her hope was gone. And her thoughts on the matter were clear. She understood why her daddy made them leave but that didn’t stop her from hating him, for taking away that moment, that hope; for taking away her friends. It wasn’t anger. She wasn’t going to kick or run; it was resentment. Her father had just taken away the greatest gifts she had ever received: friendship, acceptance, purpose, reason, wonder…

She would never forgive him.

Abby did her best to communicate these feelings but it was extremely difficult. And, instead of helping to better understand, her daddy shushed her, trying to lull her to sleep, to pacify her. This would normally infuriate her but the enthusiasm to fight had dimmed, even though the feelings were much deeper than ever before.

Syd reached Abby’s mother’s house, where she lived with her boyfriend. He set Abby on her feet and knocked on the front door, which swung open wide immediately. Abby’s mother looked from Syd to her daughter, and then she burst into tears. Her mother was overcome with joy, so relieved to have her daughter back that she just knelt down and hugged Abby, sobbing.

It took an extra minute to compose herself enough to speak.

“What’re you wearing?” she finally asked Abby, her voice quivering.

They were still in their outfits from Nidus, the green pants and thick, white, long-sleeved button-up.

Abby’s mother began checking around the skin around Abby’s collar, searching for bruises. When she lifted up the sleeve to check her arm, a glistening purple microphone fell out of a hidden pocket. Abby grabbed the microphone back and rushed inside.

“Check out your bedroom,” she called after Abby, who disappeared up the stairs. “There’s a bunch of new toys waiting for you.”

As soon as the child was out of earshot, a furious, raging fire filled Abby’s mother’s eyes – Syd had seen her mad before but never like this. There was a moment before she spoke where she just stood in the doorway, shaking with anger. And then she let him have it, screaming about how Syd was the “worst father in the world” and that was a “criminal that should be in prison forever” and that he was lucky, as one more day and she would have been able to have him “arrested for kidnapping.”

Syd had no defense and nodded in agreement.

Maybe she’s right, he realized.

When she kept asking where they had been for three days, he had no response, no reason for disappearing, no explanation, nothing. She had also contacted a lawyer, and he could be sure that “the courts would be involved,” that the “papers were filed,” that his visits were over—“You’ll never see Abby again!” she screamed and then slammed the door in his face.

*      *      *

Syd had just hung up on the prank caller. He was sitting alone in his living room, thinking about his daughter. His thoughts were always about Abby. He didn’t just miss her; life was incomplete without her. The world had been drained of its color. Food had lost its taste. Sleep was nearly impossible, and bags had formed under his sullen eyes. Keeping busy wasn’t even helpful, as he just thought of Abby.

Syd picked up the phone and dialed a number.

The line rang twice before a male voice answered.

“This is Sheridan.”

Syd was so stunned that he couldn’t speak.

He may not have met the speaker but his voice was immediately recognizable – not only was this was someone who had been prank calling him for weeks but it was someone who had literally just prank called him not five minutes earlier. This had been an accident, of course, since Syd had dialed the number for Abby’s mother’s house phone. And Syd said nothing of it, made no accusations, waged no further war—no, he just politely asked to speak with his daughter.

The other line crumpled as the phone was shifted around.

“Abby doesn’t want to speak with you,” she spat.

“I know but maybe if I just talk to her—”

Syd was cut off by a disgusted sigh.

“Ugh, absolutely not. You’ll be lucky to ever see her again. Do you know what it feels like to think you’re child’s gone? In danger? Possibly dead?!” she angrily asked.

“I’m sorry. It wasn’t on purpose.”

Syd wanted to tell the truth but no one would believe him, especially not her. It would sound like nonsense, like he was crazy – telling the truth would guarantee Abby would be taken from him forever. He wanted to respect Abby’s wishes, even if it meant keeping a distance, but there was no way he’d survive without ever seeing her again. He longed to hear her voice, to see her eyes, to kiss her skin and comb her auburn hair and eat hotdogs covered in mustard and onion with her.

“I think it’s time you vanished, Syd,” she spat.

Click.

And so the days went.

He stopped visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Evenings were quiet and lonely. Work was calm and boring. Paychecks went toward replacing everything in Abby’s room. He also got a new television so he could buy her a Nintendo, but he didn’t want to tell her right away. When she visited, he wanted her to come see him, not just to come over and play Nintendo…though he was growing desperate to see her and knew that, eventually, he’d be willing to settle for any reason to spend time with her.

Midway through the second week of June, Syd got a call from Abby’s principal. School was almost over, with summer vacation beginning the following week, and Syd worried that the call was about relocating Abby for the next school year. The school principal made it clear that he wasn’t calling about an emergency—actually, it was the opposite. He was calling to tell Syd of a situation where another child had been harassing Abby but, instead of breaking everything in the room and throwing a fit, she didn’t fight back. She didn’t scream or throw a fit; she didn’t do anything. In fact, if the teacher hadn’t noticed it happening, nobody would have even been aware of the situation. The principal was calling to congratulate Syd on the progress his daughter was making.

Of all that had happened to him, this hurt Syd the most.

It was the final straw.

Abby was losing her passion, her fight, her spark.

Syd hung up on the principal and his eyes teared up but he refused to sulk and cry and wallow. A sorrow had been building inside him, and now it was devastating, but Syd wasn’t about to allow himself to succumb to it anymore. Abby wanted nothing to do with him, fine. Mya wanted nothing to do with him, fine. His new friends, whom he missed dearly, were gone right off the map, and they wanted nothing to do with him, fine.

Pictures of the future flashed through Syd’s mind:

Abby loses her curiosity and passion and the desire to constantly question everything, no longer asking why why why. She accepts the diploma at her high school graduation and he can barely see her from his seat in the far back bleachers. Sheriden, her prank calling step-father, gives her away on her wedding day. Work at H&H Home Healthcare continues in exactly the same way, day after day after day, until he’s older and more feeble than the people he’s helping – at which point he’ll live like Father Daniels, tucked away and forgotten. resigned to be alone, waiting to die.

That was it, the life he had chosen for himself.

In that moment, he realized three things:

I was wrong…

I need my friends…

I have to get Abby back to Nidus…

The next day, during his deliveries, Syd stopped to pick up the atlas from the safety deposit box he purchased shortly after returning from Nidus. After work, he drive straight home and laid the atlas out across his new kitchen table and inspected the black scribbles over the landmarks, searching for the easiest way back. The part of him that worried about responsibilities, that worried about Abby’s mother and her school, that worried about work and bills – the part of Syd that cared about a normal life was gone, swallowed by gloom and loneliness. He no longer cared if they disappeared off the map, if everything was left hanging, if everyone was left wondering.

The only thing that mattered was his daughter.

Whatever’s best for Abby is worth fighting for.

According to the atlas, Philadelphia was full of ways back to Nidus—but none of it mattered without Whiskers. Syd couldn’t read the scribbles and it wouldn’t matter even if he could, since there was no way he’d be able to figure everything out alone. It was the same situation as the day he was first given the atlas: stuck at square one, alone, and out of his depth. The atlas had brought nothing but bad luck and pain and he cursed Father Daniels for giving it to him. He fantasized stomping on it, screaming at it, shredding it, burning it—

“AH!” he howled, his frustration reaching a fever pitch.

Syd pounded a fist against the kitchen table; when that didn’t properly vent his anger, he dragged an arm across the table top and knocked the atlas across the room. It landed on the ground beside the bench he had to build (as a direct result of the atlas). Exasperated, he hit the table again – which jostled some sawdust out of a crevice, through the air, and into his left eye. The sting was immediate and tears fell from his eye, down his cheek.

Syd couldn’t help laugh.

The universe is just so obviously against me.

He walked to the sink and washed the crud from his eye—crittle crittle crittle—A crinkling sound caused him to twist around, startled. But no one was there. He must have been mistaken. Syd returned to washing the sawdust from his left eye—crittle crittle crittle—For the second time, a crinkling sound caused him to turn around. Using his one good eye, he searched the kitchen and living room. Again, no one was there—crittle crittle crittle—and then he saw it…

The atlas was moving on its own.

Syd ran to the bench and knelt down and picked up the atlas, thinking it had somehow gotten magical powers and came to life; it hadn’t, though, which was a bit of a disappointment. Underneath the yellowed parchment was a tan-and-white guinea pig.

Syd stared down at his pet.

The tiny, adorable creature stared up at him, sniffing.

He set the atlas on the floor and reached out a hand, expecting the guinea pig to run off, but the little creature moved closer and he gently rubbed his guinea pig’s head. Syd’s left eye had trouble staying open, and it still hurt, but he ignored the pain to enjoy the moment. Connecting with another living creature was something his life had been desperately lacking, and it was finally giving him some much needed comfort.

“You’re not a rat,” he told the guinea pig. “You’re a good little boy…or girl – I’m not really sure which. But either way, you’re a good piggy.”

The tiny creature lifted its chin twice, sort of head-butting his hand away, and Syd assumed this to mean that his pet was ready to resume its life of nomadic wandering. Respecting the little creatures wish, he removed his hand. The guinea pig gave two more nods, carefully scurried over the atlas, and then it darted into another room, vanishing.

The experience had been oddly rejuvenating, even instilling Syd with a small bit of hope. His eyes drifted toward the atlas but he wasn’t really looking at it, more staring through it, lost in thought…but then something caught his eye…

“Wait a second,” he said aloud, squinting his one good eye.

Syd bent closer to the floor.

“No way!” he gleefully shouted and grabbed the atlas.

Syd spread the atlas across the kitchen table on his way to the sink, where he washed his left eye repeatedly until he could successfully keep it open; then he hopped over to the kitchen table, leaned down, and stared at the atlas close-up.

He closed his right eye – then opened it.

He closed his left eye – then opened it.

“Oh man, I. am. such. an. idiot!” he declared to no one.

The cursive scribbles on the atlas were deceptive, like bad handwriting that was almost legible – but it was an optical illusion. With one eye closed, the scribbles aligned and the text became clear. Whiskers’ must have been able to see it because he never blinked, which must have changed his vision in some way. At long last, Syd could read the atlas and its many secrets. He rushed to the phone, to call Abby—when the phone rang.

“Hello?” Syd answered.

“How dare you?!” she snarled, angrier than usual.

“What?” Syd asked, confused.

“I’m coming over to pick her up right now!” she stated.

“Pick up who? Pick up Abby?” he asked, even more confused.

“Yes, Abby! I’m coming to pick up Abby, you idiot!” she spat, as if he were both stupid and a liar.

Syd looked around his apartment a moment, as if Abby might have been hiding somewhere, but the place was empty. He was alone, aside from the guinea pig.

“Abby isn’t here,” he told her, beginning to worry.

“Don’t play stupid with me! Her daycare said her father picked her up!” Her anger was loud but concern was creeping in. There were many things she hated about Syd but, of all his bad qualities, lying wasn’t one of them.

“I’m serious,” Syd pleaded, his alarm growing. “I haven’t called her or done anything since the last time I talked to you.”

“Really? You swear?”

“Yes. I swear. What did the daycare say exactly?”

“Oh no! Where’s my baby?” she cried out, realizing the situation was much worse than she expected.

Syd told her to immediately leave the house and meet him at the police station; and, for the first time in years, she didn’t argue or insult him. Syd grabbed his coat, ran to the door, and opened it to—find a man waiting in the hallway outside of his apartment.

His face was partially obscured by the long brim of a black hat.

“Hiya there, Sydney,” sneered the well-dressed man.

Syd was caught off-guard

—and then darkness.

CHAPTER *][]THIRTEEN[*—

The Boogeyman

Syd woke in a cold, dark room. He was already sitting upright

Apparently I’m in a chair, he groggily realized.

His head ached and there was a throbbing in his temple and he went to rub it—only to find himself unable to do so. His arms were tied to the chair, as were his legs. Okay, time to bust out of here like Superman, he confidently thought (still a bit disoriented from the blow to the head). His arms tensed and his knees twisted and he grunted and wiggled, but the ropes were coarse and burnt his wrists, and the knots were so tight that they didn’t budge one bit.

Okay…a new escape plan might be necessary.

Around him, details were scarce. A sliver of yellow light snuck under the nearby door but the room was otherwise cloaked in darkness. His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness and he could make out giant circles to his left. Gusts of chilly air had the smell of must, with a hint of fruit and alcohol; it felt like a basement, but a fancy one.

Someone was approaching.

The door opened.

A figure stood in the threshold.

“Wakey wakey,” a shrill male voice called over, sort of playful and sing-songy. “Time for you to wake-wakey-wake-wake-wake.”

“I’m already up, you idiot,” snarled Syd.

The door closed and the lights went on.

Syd winced at the bright white bulbs overhead.

The well-dressed man was in front of him, staring down.

“Did you just call me an idiot?—‘cause I ain’t the one tied to a chair, bucko,” and he let out a high-pitched, staccato laugh that sounded like a cartoon weasel from one of Abby’s Saturday morning cartoons. It may have been the most annoying thing Syd had ever heard.

“Don’t you own any other outfits?” Syd asked, glaring.

The well-dressed man was in a dark blue suit with glistening shoes, just as he had been before – though now the fedora was gone. His hair was black and slicked back in so much goop that a viscous slime dripped off the ends.

“If I was you, I wouldn’t be makin’ jokes,” the well-dressed man said through gritted teeth as the silliness vanished from his face. He leaned in closer to Syd until their faces were a foot apart and both men stared the other down, both trying to make the other submit, make the other give up, look away.

“Just you wait and see what’s comin’ your way, bucko,” the well-dressed man warned. His breath smelled like old trash—not even new trash, no – like a forgotten pile of wet, back alley garbage that had been baking in the summer heat for a week, minimum—and if that wasn’t bad enough, each breath felt sticky, as if a million particles were leaving his mouth to take up residence on the skin of Syd’s face.

Syd looked away.

“That’s what I thought,” the well-dressed man gloated, trying to sound manly even though his voice was an octave too high. He stood up and crossed his arms and stared down at Syd.

“That’s not fair! You just tried to kiss me,” Syd explained, his head still turned toward the wall on his right. He was searching for something that could help, anything useful, but there was just a cobblestone wall, one that was crumbling and appeared to be centuries old.

“I was NOT trying to kiss you!” protested the well-dressed man.

“Well, your eyes say otherwise,” Syd slyly added in an attempt to engage the man.

“What?!” huffed the well-dressed man, flabbergasted.

“I’m flattered, really. It’s sweet, like when a child has a crush on you,” Syd modestly admitted as he faced forward. He kept his chin low and pretended to be bashful but, really, he was still searching for something to help. Ahead of him, behind the well-dressed man and on the right, were seemingly infinite rows of wooden nooks and enclaves, each meticulously organized and well-stocked with bottles of wine. The large circles he had seen in the darkness were actually ginormous barrels (some as big as a car) stacked atop a long, wide conveyer belt, each presumably filled with more wine.

They were in an underground wine cellar—

A flash of light and stars.

Syd recovered.

His focus had been elsewhere and, because of it, he got a rap to the one area of his head that hadn’t been hurting. Syd opened his mouth and began to groan in pain, “Ooooooooon the bright side,” his tone swiftly changed as he went on, softer, more caring, “if we were a couple, at least it’d be easy to go clothes’ shopping for you. Nine pairs of the same suit? Check. Sparkly princess shoes? Check. Stupid-looking fedora? Check.” He sounded sincere, as if genuinely contemplating a relationship with the well-dressed man and their future together as he checked items off on an imaginary shopping list, though he was really just hoping the well-dressed man would get angry enough to act hastily, make a mistake, maybe do something that changes the situation in Syd’s favor.

“My shoes aren’t sparkly princess shoes, you—” he growled, raising his fist to hit Syd again…but then he stopped, and a grin crossed the well-dressed man’s sticky lips. He stood in place and lowered his fist and his posture relaxed, no longer tense with anger.

“Hey, Syd—hey. Syd. How’s your daughter? Abby, right?” he asked as if uncertain.

“Where’s my daughter?” spat Syd.

The well-dressed man let out another shrill, weasely laugh.

“Oh, she’s safe—well, maybe safe isn’t the right word,” he answered, pretending to think a moment, his smile growing wider.

A violent fury surged through Syd and it filled him with more anger than he had ever felt before, more than he could even handle, and he went into a fit of rage. His arms and legs frantically struggled against the ropes but the binding didn’t budge, and he was fairly certain the chair legs were cemented into the ground. Like a wild animal, he roared so loud that it echoed all the way down the seemingly endless wine cellar corridor.

“Whoa there, Syd-e-pie! Don’t use up all your energy. We still have to go on an adventure through Philadelphia!” The well-dressed man giggled in a high-pitched yap yap yap after quoting Syd’s ad from the Philadelphia Inquirer—but he quickly silenced.

Someone else was approaching.

The well-dressed man fake-gasped.

“Speak of the devil! Here comes the perfect candidate for your daring crew!” he exclaimed, melodramatically.

The door opened and Mya stormed in. She was disheveled and annoyed but also focused. Her cheek had a fresh scratch and a tiny droplet of blood had formed in its center. Her blonde hair was chaotic and unkempt. The shoulder of her blouse had a rip. Her eyes were somehow different, too, he noticed.

“Oren, go deal with the brat. Grandpapa wants a word with our guest,” she ordered.

The well-dressed man (whose name was apparently Oren) shot her a disagreeing glance but Mya stomped her foot and pointed at the door as if scolding the family pet. Without another word, his head lowered and he lumbered off.

There were too many things happening for Syd to process it all. Seeing Mya had caused his breath to catch in his throat and briefly left him speechless but it was the word “brat” that hit Syd hardest. She might have been referencing Abby, which meant his daughter was near – and based on Mya’s bleeding cheek and torn blouse, he could deduce that she still had her strength; but maybe he was wrong. Mya wouldn’t say something like that about Abby. Maybe she was talking about something completely unrelated. But then, why was she there? “Mya, what’s happening?” Syd was finally able to ask, hoping Mya would give a sensible answer. Maybe she was there to help, or by mistake, or maybe it was just another coincidence, like when they first met.

“I’m here to bring you to grandpapa. And stop calling me Mya. My name isn’t Mya,” she answered in a stern, unfamiliar tone, “it’s Lydia.”

“That was not reassuring, at all,” replied Syd, shaking his head.

Mya—er, Lydia marched down the wine cellar corridor and disappeared behind some shelves and it sounded as if she were rifling through a box of junk. She reappeared and returned to Syd with a musty ole rag in one hand and a large roll of duct tape in the other. Syd had a million questions and he began to ask them—when, quick as lightning, she stuffed the dirty rag into his open mouth and then duct taped his lips shut to seal the rag in. It was an incredibly unpleasant experience and Syd groaned, twisting his head side-to-side. The rag tasted like grime and mold but there wasn’t anything he could do about it.

The hint of a smile flickered on Lydia’s lips.

“I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to do that,” she admitted, ducking behind the chair. “And I’m glad we get this moment together, Syd…” she said from behind the chair, kneeling, “…because I was afraid I wouldn’t get to tell you this in person.” Two metallic clicks came from under the chair and Lydia stopped talking just long enough to come around front and gaze down at Syd, exactly like Oren, the well-dressed man, had done just a short time earlier; she stared deep into his eyes. “Our time together, I…I really did feel something deep in my heart for you.” She inched closer to Syd’s face (luckily, her breath wasn’t gross; it smelled of black licorice – sadly, Syd hated black licorice), and she stared deep into Syd’s eyes. “In fact, this feeling…it’s something I-I can’t seem to shake.” Her lip quivered. Her eyes displayed a well of vulnerability. For a brief moment, Syd could remember Mya, or at least the woman he thought he knew as Mya—but then it swiftly disappeared, as if it had all just been a mask. Mya was gone, replaced by the curled lip and blank stare of Lydia’s stone cold eyes. “It’s contempt, Syd. That’s what’s in my heart when I look at you – contempt,” Lydia said, her voice harsh. She was angry but restrained. “Always staring at me like some pathetic, love-struck middle schooler—it took all of my will power not to spit right in your smug, stubborn face.”

Lydia got behind the chair and tilted it back, lifting the front legs off the ground so it could roll forward on its two back wheels. Disoriented by the sudden jolt, it took Syd a moment to grasp that he was seated in an old wheelchair. This particular one had been reinforced considerably (to prevent captives from breaking free, presumably) but, based on the design of the seat and arms to which he was tied, Syd even recognized the model, though it had long ago been discontinued.

“Here’s a question for you, Syd: why did it take you so long to come over and help me at the Mongolian exhibit?” she asked, leading them out of the massive wine cellar. “I mean, I was crying and alone and obviously needed help, but you didn’t run over like I thought you would. You hesitated. Hm. Maybe I just didn’t expect you to be a coward.” She was capitalizing on his inability to respond by berating him. It was the worst, just insult to injury, and Syd had never felt so utterly helpless before in his life.

The hallway outside of the wine cellar had an elegant décor, with a stone flooring the color of black cherry and deep-chestnut walls showcasing countless works of art and ancient tapestries (each one was more valuable than all of Syd’s possessions combined). They passed an open foyer with sky lights and lounge chairs, and they passed a row of mysterious doors with peculiar square locks, and they passed several narrow corridors branching off toward who knows where. The whole place had the stench of wealth and felt as if it were hermetically sealed, just a long, gaudy display of power and money…though Syd couldn’t help feeling the slightest bit impressed (and even felt a pang of jealousy when he caught sight of Mongolian armor).

Lydia stopped pushing the wheelchair.

“Here’s another question I gotta ask you, Syd: didn’t you stop and wonder why no one came to your dear friend’s funeral?[_ Father_] Daniels,” she chuckled, mocking the pious moniker in a sardonic tone. They continued down the hallway as she kept talking. “That man was as religious as a napkin. But still, he was a staple of the community – it should’ve been a packed ceremony. I even disagreed with Grandpapa and told him it was too much, that you’d think it was suspicious – but, as always, Grandpapa was right. Maybe I just didn’t expect you to be so self-absorbed.”

Syd hadn’t wondered about the lack of funeral attendees, actually. He just assumed that, like himself, Father Daniels was the solitary type and that, even though he spoke every Sunday to many from the neighborhood, no one knew him well enough to attend. Also, the ceremony was an hour’s ride outside Philadelphia, in the suburbs of Delaware County, and that would have prevented a majority of car-less city folk from showing. Now that she mentioned it, though, it did seem peculiar that a pillar of the community could pass away and not a single congregant was in attendance.

“Fun fact,” Lydia went on, “your precious Father Daniels was Grandpapa’s only nephew – so I’m actually related to that selfish monster.” She shuddered at the thought. “But Grandpapa won in the end, just like always. And boy did he hoodwink them all. He got his revenge.” She added that last bit with a hint of glee. Syd hadn’t the faintest idea what she meant but she obviously relished the thought.

On the right, they passed a small room full antiques. A man was bent over a table in the center of the room, examining something with a magnifying glass, and he lifted his head as they passed the doorway – it was Ivan Risker, the slim, mustachioed “curator” from the art museum, and the document on the table was the atlas. Before Syd could react, Lydia made a sharp left into one of the narrow corridors that splintered off the main hallway—and Syd felt his situation immediately go from bad to worse. Suddenly, the museum-like atmosphere and posh décor were gone and they were navigating the claustrophobic twists and jagged turns of a stone tunnel so old that it might have predated the atlas. Lighting grew sparse and eerie, just patches of a somber orange from sporadic fixtures overhead – fixtures that were either designed to look like lanterns, or were actual lanterns (Syd couldn’t tell). The air became colder and they were moving faster because of a slight downward slant.

The tunnel ended at a wide door made of stone, engraved with a symbol that looked like the moon and Syd assumed there was a dungeon on the other side. Lydia locked the wheels of the chair and walked around front; it took her a good deal of effort to push the door open enough to disappear in the darkness behind it. Syd could hear her talking to someone on the other side of the door and, though he couldn’t make out the words, the voice he heard responding to her curdled his skin. It was low like a whisper but harsh and guttural.

Lydia came back out and leaned over Syd. She removed the tape and dirty rag from his mouth and he went to spitting grime.

“I’d be careful with anything you say from here on,” she warned, her eyes deadly serious. She was genuine, almost scared for him.

Something from within the darkness beyond pushed the door open all the way, with ease, and then Syd got a glimpse of long, gray fingers—just before they withdrew into the pitch-black on the other side of the doorway. The temperature dramatically decreased until Syd could see his breath. It was freezing.

Lydia went behind the chair and unlocked the wheels but she didn’t push or steer him, instead letting the wheelchair gently roll through the gaping doorway. It was like the beginning of a roller coaster click-clacking, climbing higher and higher, closer and closer to that first ridge, that first drop…

Syd was terrified.

The stone door slammed shut behind him just as the chair rolled to a stop. It would be an understatement to say it was “dark” just passed the stone door—to be more accurate, it was as though Syd had just been stranded in deep space. It was a freezing vacuum, void of all light. He shivered, his teeth chattering. It smelled of sulfur and the frigid air carried a damp mist. Water could be heard trickling in the distance.

Syd could feel the presence of something moving in the darkness around him, sniffing his hair and his skin…but, whatever it was, it sure didn’t feel human.

“You stink of fear,” a wicked voice hissed in his ear. It rushed overhead, crawling along the ceiling, and then it was in front of him. “You are right to be afraid.” It got closer, examining him, and the voice snarled. “I expected…more. That cockroach entrusted you with the atlas? You? Such a pathetic specimen,” it spat and Syd could feel spittle against the skin of his face again. “I expected someone stronger, someone special. Why are you here, Mr. Siegfried?”

“Because…you need a friend?” joked Syd, nervously.

“Always the jester. I want something, Mr. Siegfried. Something very important. And you’re going to help me get it.”

“Is it an interior decorator? Because this place could use some sprucing up—ouch!” Syd had tried to joke again but something sharp scratched his leg.

“Do you know who I am?” the voice asked.

“No,” Syd answered, his voice weak.

A green flame exploded near Syd’s feet, bathing the area in an emerald light. On the other side of the blazing green fire stood a tall, shadowy figure, but it remained just outside the light.

“It is not surprising the turncoats of Nidus refrained from the details of their own history,” said the figure in a low, evil tone, as if a spider had learned to taunt the prey in its web. To Syd’s ears, it was a rusty nail dragged down the chalkboard, dull silverware scraping the plate, evil incarnate.

From deep within the darkness around them, for the first time, Syd realized there were more than just the two of them in there. Things were skittering and excitedly chirping, upset by the story. By their sounds, they were surrounded by a lot of them, in all directions.

The figure stepped closer.

“So let me introduce myself…”

The creature across the green fire was the echo of a human being, similar in shape but wrong in every detail: it had black bulbs where there should’ve been eyes, but no eye lids, no ears, no hair; the chin came to a dramatic, as did the nose, but the nostrils stretched across both cheeks, almost the temple, and down; and it spoke through a mouth filled with pointed teeth.

“I am the nightmare from which you cannot wake, Mr. Siegfried. I am the banished, the darkness, the chill. I am the boogeyman…”

*      *      *

Syd slowly woke.

He was in a dimly-lit library. A marble fireplace had a normal-colored fire roaring inside. Lining the mantel were trinkets and trophies. Rows of books stretched off into the darkness around him. It was warm and comfortable. For a moment, Syd thought it had all been a dream. But then a hauntingly familiar voice spoke to him from the shadows.

“When I saw you at that mock funeral – for that despicable fool!…I mistakenly thought you had the potential to be a worthy adversary, Mr. Siegfried.”

Syd was still tied to a chair.

Durn it! he thought.

“But a worthy adversary does not faint when he is frightened,” chuckled the voice as he went on. “No, it would appear that you have more in common with my cockroach nephew. Hardly surviving, hidden under bare comforts. Scurrying for scraps.”

A lamp turned on at a nearby table but it was against the wall slightly behind Syd and he could only make out bits and pieces in his peripheral. The figure was wearing an old fashioned suit and it took a seat at a table lined with items: there was a mannequin head with a wig and prosthetic nose on it; assorted makeup containers; various mirrors, all of them moveable; and a rack of horrifying glasses, each pair already filled with eyeballs that were glancing around and staring back. Skeletal fingers hovered over each of the items, manipulating them.

The rest of the library became slightly more visible. The books lining the walls were at least three stories and iron staircases spiraled up to these other floors, where thin walkways circled around the room. Syd was uncertain if he could even make out the ceiling.

“I destroyed the church, by the way. My nephew’s church.” The figure half-turned to Syd, gloating. Syd could only make out the gray of the figure’s bald head and the black bulbs of its eyes. It turned back to face the many mirrors. “I bought the land as soon as ownership reverted back to the county. I invited his congregation back for one final memorial. Set up seating in the back, in the field behind the church.” There had been humor in its’ tone, as if the details were hilarious and it was just stifling back a laugh, but its’ voice quickly turned gravelly with anger as it went on. “And just as they started to grieve for that cockroach—I blew up their church, right in the face of those heretics!” it yelled, enraged, and pounded a fist down on the table.

The figure hunched forward, huffing out each breath.

The door burst open and there was a flood of light. Ivan Risker walked in, the atlas rolled up under his arm, his posture straighter than any Syd had ever seen. He glanced at Syd as he passed and his pencil-thin mustache twitched with dislike. Behind him, Oren struggled to walk in the door, trying to drag—

“Abby!” Syd called happily.

Tiny, nine year old Abby turned at the sound of her name and the voice of her father. Her eyes lit up with glee. She tried to run over but Oren grabbed her arm and stopped her—so she quickly turned and kicked his shin. “Ouch!” he yelped and bent done to rub his shin—Abby grabbed hold of his ear and yanked. Oren writhed and tried to get out of it but the young child had an iron-clad grip.

“Cut him loose,” the figure ordered Ivan Risker, speaking of Syd, and then it scoffed at Oren’s incompetence and demanded, “Let the little creature go!”

The slender servant Ivan Risker untied the ropes.

Oren released hold.

Syd jumped out of the wheelchair and got down on his knees and embraced his daughter, holding her against his chest so tightly that it was hard for either of them to breathe, but neither cared. Syd brushed Abby’s auburn hair out of her face and kissed her giant, rosy cheeks again and again. Neither spoke a word, as was the case with them sometimes, and instead just hugged and mushed their faces together and gave each other two thousand kisses—

“Enough!” the figure commanded in a thunderous voice.

Abby startled and they both turned to the figure, who stood from the desk and twisted around to face them—but the gray monster was gone, hidden behind layers of make-up and a wig and glasses; in its place stood a grumpy old man. The black beads of his eyes were hidden behind big frames that gave the illusion of normal eyes, so much so that, through the lenses, they moved and stared just like anyone else’s. Wide nostrils that had been stretched across both cheeks, cracks that nearly reached its’ temples, were disguised as winkles, and they lent further to the impress of a frown. Syd recognized him from Father Daniels’ funeral, the frowning old man that had been with Mya, that had appeared spiteful – but it wasn’t an old man, not at all. It was a monster in an old man suit.

“Read to me the atlas and get me back to Nidus, Mr. Siegfried, and I will consider releasing your child,” the old-man-slash-monster said nonchalantly, as if this was no more important than brushing lint off his shoulder.

Another lamp went on, at an old, wooden table. Ivan Risker stretched the atlas out across the table, standing guard behind it.

“I can’t,” Syd lied.

“Nobody could read it except that skinny geek with the glasses,” agreed Lydia.

“His name is Whiskers!” Abby screamed at her, fuming. Syd held his daughter closer and tried to calm her but, even though she did quiet, her distaste for Lydia and angry glare remained.

“THEN WHAT GOOD IS HE?!” hollered the ghoul and he pounded his fist on the nearest wood surface, which happened to be a table covered in glass ornaments, several of which rolled and fell over the edge and smashed on the hard-tiled floor. “Do it anyway!”

“I’ll try,” Syd conceded and, Abby in his arms, he walked over to the table where the atlas was spread out. With Ivan Risker standing on the opposite side, studying him, Syd leaned in and stared at the atlas. He pretended to check over the black scribbles on the yellow parchment and ran his fingers over some of the landmarks—but Ivan smacked his hand away.

“Don’t touch the atlas with your oily fingers,” scolded the slender, mustachioed curator.

“Bring me the child,” the ghoul requested.

Lydia moved quickly and, before Syd knew it, Abby was ripped from his arms. He stood up and twisted around to stop it but his attempt was met with a swift whap on the head by something metal. Oren had been behind him, hungrily waiting for such an occasion to keep Syd in place while Lydia dragged the struggling child, who was kicking and screaming nonstop, over to the ghoul dressed as an old man. Lydia released her grip and Abby drew her leg back to kick Lydia in the shin, just as she had with Oren only minutes before—but then she stopped…and lowered her leg. Both of her arms lowered to her side and she grew quiet. Abby turned slowly, as if in a daze, and quietly looked up at the ghoul. He had been speaking in a hushed voice the entire time but Syd couldn’t make out the words; in fact, he wasn’t even certain they were words and that the old man creature wasn’t just making sounds.

“Daddy, please read the atlas,” she called out in a hazy tone, distant and half-asleep. “He knows you can read it. He wants you to read the part over city hall.”

Syd froze, staring at Abby while the words sunk in. He had never heard his daughter speak in such a detached tone and it chilled him to the bone. Her intense focus on the ghoul never ceased, in much the same way as the times she was enrapt by a television program, and it creeped Syd out.

Abby turned around to face her father.

“Do it now or bad things will happen, daddy. Very bad things…” she said, her voice robotic and trance-like. Her eyes were serious but it was as though she didn’t know what she was saying.

Syd went back to the atlas and bent down, careful to obscure his face from Ivan Risker (who was still on the other side of the atlas, patiently waiting for the situation to work itself out). With one eye closed and his nose nearly pressed against the yellow parchment, he read the small writing over the area of Market Street that would eventually become South Penn Square and Philadelphia’s City Hall…and he let out a relieved chuckle. Instantly, the room filled with voices talking over one another as those around him – Ivan, Oren, and Lydia – demanded he read it aloud.

Syd obliged:

“It reads, ‘To freshen an umpire’s breath.’ That’s it.”

Of the many riddles that had been deciphered from the atlas, this was the first where Syd knew the answer right away. It wasn’t so much a riddle as it was an old joke. He backed up and, after a sly glance at each expression, returned his gaze to his silent daughter. She was standing still and, like the ghoul behind her, her eyes were studying the expression on her father’s face.

Out of everyone, it was the slender, mustachioed Ivan Risker that appeared most baffled by the words. His face distorted in a cross between anger and confusion and he mumbled the words over and over to himself. Lydia was lost in thought, much the same as when they had been working together the first time around. Oren scratched his greasy hair with the tip of a gun.

“Get the automobile ready,” the ghoul ordered.

Ivan Risker’s head jolted left, to stare at the ghoul quizzically, but then immediately realized he had been ordered to do something and quickly scurried out of the library from whence he’d come.

“Grandpapa, what’s it mean?” Oren asked, obviously lost.

Lydia had been lost in thought but she snapped out of it.

But it was Abby, still in a daze, who answered:

“It’s in the basement.”

CHAPTER *][]FOURTEEN[*—

The Trip Back

Syd and Abby were blindfolded and marched out of the library. Syd could faintly smell the grease from the Oren’s oily hair (like motor oil) even though he stayed a few steps back. Their feet squeaked against the polished floor as Oren led them down another hallway in the large house.

“Walk faster!” Oren barked, his voice filled with agitation.

“Or what?!—you stupid chud!” Abby growled back.

Relief washed over Syd as he realized his daughter had returned to normal. She no longer sounded dazed, much more focused and angry. He was going to shush her but it was so great to hear her voice, hear her attitude once more, that he let her harass Oren.

Steps squeaked faster behind them as Oren got closer.

“Or else I’ll hurt you…” he threatened, low.

A whoosh of air, a hollow thud, and Oren could be heard backing away with a whimper.

Syd smirked at the familiar sound of Abby’s shin-kick.

His daughter was definitely back to normal.

“I swear, I’m gonna…” Oren grumbled, beginning a new threat as he regained composure, but this was immediately interrupted by the willful nine year old.

“Gonna what!—you ugly catcher’s mitt!” yelled Abby.

“Catcher’s mitt?” Oren asked, confused by the insult. Anger took over and, much more carefully, he got closer. “Little girl, you ever had your arms and legs tied—ow! No—owowowowlemmego!”

Syd didn’t know which part of Oren’s head had been grabbed by Abby but, whatever it was, it sure sounded painful – and his struggle to get free sounded even worse. Syd could tell Oren finally pulled away free, as he groaned with exasperation, aching all over.

“It’ll be bad news for all of us if Grandpapa has to wait,” Oren pleaded, as much a warning for them as himself. “Just please…pick her up and walk faster.”

“Can you take off the blindfold at least?” requested Syd, as carrying his daughter blindly through a hallway wasn’t an especially easy task.

“Okay, but you gotta put them back on when we get to the limo,” Oren conceded.

Syd agreed and Oren removed his blindfold, though he left Abby’s on. The hallway was vast like the one from earlier (before it branched off to that creepy dungeon cave). It may have even been the same hallway, just further down. On either side were more priceless works of art, from Greek statues to centuries-old paintings and antiques from around the world.

Just one of these would pay my bills for the rest of my life, Syd thought again, just as he had earlier, but immediately dismissed it as he picked his daughter up.

They continued walking, Oren a few steps behind.

Holding Abby close, Syd whispered, “How do you feel?”

“Fine,” she answered, smiling as if this were another silly adventure.

“What was that old man saying to you back there?” Syd asked, still concerned about what had transpired in the library.

“What old man?” Abby asked, confused.

“Back in the library. The old man was whispering to you. It made you act…strange. I’ve never seen it before,” Syd explained but Abby shook her head, without any recollection. “You don’t remember? You told us the answer to the riddle.”

“Riddle?” wondered Abby. “Wait—I answered a riddle?!”

Syd grew more concerned.

“Yeah. ‘How do you freshen an umpire’s breath?’”

Abby thought a moment.

“An’ how do you?” she finally asked.

“A basement,” Syd answered.

“I get it,” giggled Abby.

“What about the old man?” Syd asked again.

“Whaaa? There wasn’t no old man,” she said, definitively.

Syd didn’t know what to think, nor did he have much time to think about it. Oren told them to turn, his voice less commanding, and they passed through a doorway into a narrow hallway with concrete floors and a warm breeze. It smelled of gasoline and, passing another doorway, they entered an enormous garage through the back door. Eight sparkling vehicles were identically parked in a line, each angled as if this wasn’t a garage but a showcase. Syd wasn’t familiar with fancy cars but all of them looked pretty and probably went faster than any car he’d ever stepped foot in. Instead of getting in those, however, they approached the first car in the row, which was a limousine.

Outside, the sun was shining; it was day again.

“You can put her down now,” Oren ordered as he opened the back door to the limo, his voice much less confident. Syd set his daughter on her feet and she took a seat in the back of the vehicle. Syd followed but Oren stopped him, put the blindfold back over his eyes, and then, without much reason, shoved Syd. He fell into the seat beside Abby and sat up with a grunt.

“Move to the other end,” Oren said from just outside the door. Together, Syd and Abby scooted further down, leaving enough room for one more. “No, you idiots,” grumped Oren, annoyed. “It’s a limousine. Get up and walk to the other side.”

Syd and Abby both removed their blindfolds to better navigate through the back of the limo. Oren huffed and puffed and scolded them but, as he didn’t follow them into the car, they just ignored him. Side-panels stocked full of snacks and soft drinks were knocked around as Abby walked and Syd had to practically crawl to the opposite end. They took their comfy new seats, which were against the partition separating the driver from the back. Neither of them had ever been in a limousine and, under different circumstances, it would’ve been enjoyable.

“Put them blindfolds back on,” Oren whispered into the vehicle, hushed but panicked.

Syd and Abby did as they were told.

Noise, the movement of others. Someone climbed into the back of the limo, then someone else; and the bickering started soon after.

“Glad to see you could get them here,” scoffed Lydia.

“Well I did!” Oren combated, defiantly.

“I know, I can see them,” Lydia responded, dryly.

They were sitting across from one another in the center of the limo.

“I’m sure you can see them, Ly-dee-umb!” spat Oren.

“That’s a good one. You’re so smart,” Lydia snarked, sarcastically.

The arguing abruptly stopped as others approached.

A third passenger quietly entered and sat in the far back. The rear car door shut. Someone could be heard walking around the car. The door to the driver’s seat opened and a fourth person got in.

Abby climbed onto her father’s lap.

The engine started.

“Are you ready, sir?” Ivan Risker called through the open partition, from the driver’s seat, in his usual, snooty voice.

“Now,” growled a menacing voice from the back of the car.

The limousine rolled out of the garage and down a hill. There was a brief stop and Syd could hear the sound of a gate opening. The limo interior remained silent as they drove on. Abby bounced on Syd’s lap as if they were on their way to the playground, and not in a hostage situation. Soon the unmistakable honks and hollers of Philadelphia grew in volume.

“Remove their blindfolds,” the ghoulish voice ordered Oren, breaking the silence after several minutes had passed.

Abby quickly removed her blindfold and began fiddling through the nearest amenities; then, after nothing of interest could be found, she instead moved on to messing with the window. Syd pulled his blindfold off and winced at the sunlight. It was early afternoon, by the looks of it. They had been held captive nearly 24 hours.

Lydia and Oren were uncharacteristically silent and, on the other side of the car, sat the ghoul in old man’s clothing. Syd did his best not to look into the glasses the ghoul wore to mask his black, dead eyes, but it was difficult. The ghoul was just staring at them, right at them, and he never looked away.

“Your daughter will stay with me,” the ghoul informed Syd, “in case you try anything.”

“Absolutely not!” protested Syd. The idea of her being stuck in a car with this horrible monster was too much to bear. “I need her to help me.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Lydia disagreed.

“Yeah? Who got us off the island?” Syd scornfully asked.

“I did!” cheered Abby, but then she realized who Syd was talking to and glared at Lydia. She despised the woman.

“If you ever want to see your daughter again, Mr. Siegfried, you will do as I say.” The ghoul’s voice was tense, as if always holding back a shout.

“And what is it you want?!” asked Syd, exasperated.

“You will escort my ingrate kin back to Nidus,” the ghoul answered, his every word a dry snarl.

The answer caught Syd off-guard.

What did it matter if Oren and Lydia made it to Nidus?—the ghoul in old man clothing wanted back in, not them. And if the residents of Nidus would be able to stop him before he even started. If there was one thing about getting to the city of Nidus, it was that the same path couldn’t be taken twice.

Yet again, something didn’t add up. Nothing did anymore.

“Even if we make it to Nidus, they’re just going to kick us out,” argued Syd, trying to prevent his daughter from being taken away yet again. “And they’ve already changed everything so I can’t get back.”

The ghoul didn’t respond but Lydia did.

“Could you try to be less of a coward, Syd?”

She was genuinely asking.

There was little time left and all Syd could think about was Abby. She was still bouncing on his knees, messing with the window and occasionally checking her surroundings for candy. “Do it now or bad things will happen, daddy. Very bad things…” she had warned in that hazy, robotic voice just a short time earlier, when they were in the library. He didn’t have much of a choice. If he fought, he’d lose. If he went along with it only to escape, they’d have Abby, so he’d lose.

As if reading Syd’s mind, the ghoul spoke once more.

“Mr. Siegfried, there are things in life that are unavoidable. Inevitable. Inescapable. No matter how much you fight against them. Be aware: I am one of those things.”

The limousine pulled alongside the curb of South Penn Square, just outside City Hall, and stopped. Oren shuffled to the back and opened the car door.

Time was up.

Syd kissed his daughter.

“I love you so-so-so much and I’m so sorry,” he whispered into her ear, holding back tears.

“Why?” she asked, confused.

“Because if I don’t go, I’m afraid bad things will happen,” he told her, truthfully.

“No daddy, why are you sorry?”

Syd mistakenly thought Abby still hadn’t grasped the situation they were in. He was about to say more but she stopped him.

“Remember, daddy,” she said as if reminding him of something simple.

“Remember what?” he asked, worried.

Abby looked into his eyes.

“We’re not alone, daddy. Remember.”

Abby’s statement stunned Syd, causing him to go silent. He stared at her a moment, trying to figure out what she meant—but then it was too late and Oren grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and pulled and shoved Syd out of the vehicle and onto the busy Philadelphia street. The limousine drove off before the door had even shut fully and Syd suddenly found himself alone with Oren, who flashed the holstered gun under his left armpit, and Lydia, who had the atlas tucked in its container and slung over her shoulder.

Before walking anywhere, Oren pulled out a giant walkie-talkie that had been hooked to the back of his pants. “Come in, Empire. This is Jedi one. Over,” he said, trying to radio the vehicle.

“You have to hold down the receiver, you flaming idiot,” Lydia pointed out.

Oren was briefly embarrassed and took a moment to figure out which part was the receiver. Again, this time with the receiver held down, he repeated himself.

There was a pause before the walkie-talkie crackled to life.

“The Jedi don’t work with the Empire, you flaming idiot,” Ivan Risker corrected him, “and the radio is only to be used in an emergency. Or when you’re done your task.”

“Wait…the Empire was evil? Over,” Oren radioed back.

Apparently Ivan Risker didn’t have any words left. When the walkie-talkie crackled to life one last time, all that came through was an exasperated sigh.

Another moment of silence passed.

“Shall we, then?” offered Oren, gesturing politely for Syd to take the lead. It was an attempt to change the subject after the embarrassing radio exchange.

Syd hadn’t heard any of it. He could barely stand, barely lift his sullen eyes off the ground. His body slouched, his frame shrunk, and Abby was all he could think about. It burdened his heart, and literally felt as if the world was ending. Lydia and Oren and that ghoul, they were the apocalypse.

“Now!” Lydia barked and kicked Syd.

And with that, Syd snapped out of it.

The only way out is through, he realized. His posture straightened, his legs grew sturdy, and his eyes flashed a fiery glare at Lydia. If he was ever going to see Abby again, he needed his wits about him, needed to pay attention and be careful, needed to bide his time. He was going to have to do what they asked…until the right moment came along.

Syd led the way toward the stone edifice of City Hall and the surrounding government buildings. The archway they passed through was massive, with a statue of Philadelphia founder William Penn atop a cylindrical spire that reached several stories above the main building. Syd knew little about the construction or history of the building, which was probably going to prove detrimental for any forthcoming riddles, but there was one detail he knew about it. “This was the tallest building in the world until 1908,” he could hear Math telling him in that self-satisfied voice. Darn, he wished he could hear Math tell him some superfluous fact. Or have Dezzy respond to something without a hint of emotion. Or get startled by Whiskers. He missed them all dearly – even that weird old man, Protractor Flemblechum or whatever his name was. Not a moment had gone by since leaving Nidus that Syd didn’t regret his decision.

They walked in through the main entrance of City Hall. Oren stayed behind while Lydia kept at Syd’s side. They passed police officers but Syd made no attempt to escape; in fact, he felt the complete opposite. He didn’t want to run. He was going to keep them close, lead them right into the maze between Philly and Nidus that they so desperately sought. Neither of them would leave his sight until Abby was back in his arms.

They piled into a nearby elevator and Syd went to push the button—but stopped. There was no basement button. They were on floor one and there was a floor two and three…but that was it.

They exited the elevator and headed down a nearby hallway, further into the building, to avoid suspicion. People were walking in all directions, all of them well-dressed and obviously busy and carrying briefcases and binders and newspapers. None of them were really looking around, though, Syd noticed. After a short trip down a hallway lined with courtrooms and clerk offices, they found a rickety old door with a single, rust-encrusted word etched over it: Stairwell. Lydia had to shove the door in order to open it, and she poked her head in. To the delight of some and displeasure of one – it led down, toward a shadowy basement. (Syd was also fairly certain that the door had long been forgotten, since they were in a government building where no one seemed to look around.) Lydia went into the stairwell first, Syd followed, and Oren kept in back.

That familiar feeling of the creeping unknown filled Syd’s stomach. There was hardly any light, just an eerie blue glow (from a source Syd couldn’t find). It smelled like a forgotten subway tunnel and something was leaking somewhere, as a drip-drip-drip echoed (again, from somewhere Syd couldn’t find). As they battled through clouds of cobwebs to travel further and further down the dirty, mildewed stairwell, Oren decided it was an opportune time to pull out the giant walkie-talkie hooked to the back of his pants and radio the vehicle.

“Come in, Empire. This is…James T. Kirk. We found a stairwell—”

“You. Have. To. Hold. Down. The. Receiver. You flaming idiot,” Lydia pointed out again. She didn’t sound especially annoyed, though, as her attention was mainly focused on fighting through the cobwebs.

“You also got your sci-fi references mixed-up,” Syd said, recalling the small amount of knowledge he had retained during his boss’s long talks at work.

“Shut up!” Oren snapped. He pushed the walkie-talkie’s receiver—a burst of loud static came through the radio and startled all three of them.

“Those things don’t work in stairwells or basements, doofus,” explained Lydia. “And the radio is only for when we’re on the surface, and only when we’re ready to be picked up.”

There was a long pause.

“Wait, how was my reference mixed-up?” Oren asked Syd.

Syd didn’t know enough about it to really explain so he just lied, throwing out any reference he could. “James T. Kirk is a Terminator that fights against Draculas. Just use a codename that makes you sound tough, like Mr. Peanut. Or Garfield – he was especially tough on Mondays…”

Lydia stopped.

The stairwell ended at another rusted metal door.

“Open it,” Lydia ordered Syd.

With both hands, Syd grabbed the door handle and pulled—the door opened with little resistance and, out of it, a powerful white light beamed into the dark stairwell, briefly blinding them. Using hands and arms to shield their eyes, each of them left the stairwell, passed through the rusty metal door, and into…an absolutely ordinary hallway.

The fluorescent lights overhead were obnoxiously bright and overbearing, which had caused the blinding glare, but it was an otherwise normal hallway. Three elevators were to the right and three elevators were to the left. Built into the porcelain floor tiles, right in the middle of the hallway, was an oval emblem made of bronze, approximately two foot in diameter, with an etching of William Penn’s profile. (The floor was recently polished, as well.) The faint buzz of a distant air conditioner was in the cool air, which smelled of freshly printed paper, and a plaque hung on the wall where the hallway ended. It was ordinary, unspectacular even – just a boring stretch of elevators in a boring, dead-end hallway. The whole thing made Syd nervous, as it was quite obviously the setup for some pain-in-the-rear riddle.

“This is it?” Oren asked. He was initially confused but then it grew into annoyance. He turned around, ready to go back toward the stairwell and retrace his steps, maybe look elsewhere…but Syd knew otherwise. So did Lydia, and she prevented Oren from leaving.

Their journey had reached its first destination.

Both Syd and Lydia were searching the walls and floor for anything peculiar. The elevators had nothing above them, no floor numbers or displays of any sort. In fact, each elevator was identical to the next, all of them devoid of anything defining. Every elevator had a copper-colored trim around a copper-colored door with a copper-colored panel beside it; and, in the center of each copper-colored panel, an individual white button for each elevator.

“Read the plaque,” ordered Lydia and, at first, Oren did as he was told—only to realize she wasn’t talking to him. Syd walked past the elevators and over to the old plaque on the other side of the hallway and stared it over.

“Durn it!” Syd groaned, reading over the intricate riddle.

“Aloud!” hollered Lydia.

Syd read out the words of the old plaque as fast as he could, skimming through the silly rhymes in each lyric so that it was more a proclamation:

“Side-by-side-by-side lay six eggs in a basket.

One-by one-by-one, each will be taken in time.

The first disappears before two when Mr. Blue sneaks through.

Unseen at a quarter to three is Ms. Green, who grabs one and flees.

A fellow named yellow passes by, to thieve a third and leave by five.

Mrs. Black waits for a sign, then commits the crime at a quarter past nine.

At ten thirty there hurries dirty ole White, who snatches then scurries back into the night.

Last but not least is Red, a thief from the east who also stole one and fled.

Six eggs stolen, as the day passes by, but one egg is still in the basket:

Who has it & why?”

Syd was out of breath from speed-reading aloud.

A disappointed expression crossed Oren’s face. Part of him wished that Syd hadn’t rushed through the reading but instead spaced out the cutesy rhymes and let the riddle breathe, like a bedtime nursery.

Lydia moved closer to study the plaque herself.

“So what’s it mean?” Oren finally asked.

Syd had grown to hate that question, even though the riddles themselves weren’t as bothersome anymore. Encountering them with such frequency had actually made his mind sharper, his problem-solving abilities quicker. But his mind was too tired and preoccupied with Abby to solve some stupid, overly-wordy riddle.

Lydia kept silent, lost in thought.

“I don’t understand,” admitted Oren.

“Just you wait, bucko. Think that’s frustrating? Ha!–this is just the beginning!” Syd leaned against the wall between two of the elevators. This was discouraging Oren, he noticed, so he went on. “Next thing you know, an elevator will drop you in the desert. Or on an active volcano. Or in the middle of an avalanche.” He let out a delirious chuckle.

At that point, his sanity was beginning to slip a bit.

Lydia backed up, staring at each of the elevators.

“Side-by-side-by-side can only mean two rows of three. Like the elevators…” she thought aloud.

But the idea led her nowhere.

Oren seemed lost, too (though, to his credit, he always seemed lost).

Syd gave an unenthusiastic nod and Lydia noticed.

“Oren, give me the radio,” she requested, and he promptly handed over the walkie-talkie. “Syd, we need to talk.” She positioned herself right in front of him. He stared into her eyes and could no longer remember the woman he once thought he knew, the woman he once cared for so deeply. “If you don’t help me, I’m going to take this radio,” Lydia said in a patronizing tone and held up the radio, “and I’m going to head upstairs, and I’m going to go outside, and I’m going to radio the limo, and I’m going to tell Ivan to relay a message to Grandpapa for me.” She pretended to click the button. “Do you want to know what that message is?”

Syd’s eyes narrowed with anger.

“‘Give her to the Vikes,’ I’ll say,” Lydia said with a smile and then shrugged it off as if it wasn’t much of a threat. “That’s it. Five words. Ivan will pass the message on to Grandpapa, which won’t surprise him much. He’s only expecting one of two messages, good and bad. Obviously, that’s the bad—wait. Do you…you don’t even [_really _]know about the Vikes yet, do you?”

Syd maintained an unflinching stare into Lydia’s eyes.

“Shall I tell you about them? Would you like to hear about the Vikes? I mean, you saw what Grandpapa looks like, right?—what he [_really _]looks like?” she smiled, preparing for the worst part of her threat. She didn’t wait for Syd to answer. “Well, the Vikes are a very special group of…hmmmm, what’s the best word to describe them?” she asked Owen.

“Feral hunters? Cave-dwelling ogres? Nocturnal boogeymen?” Oren suggested, joining in on the fun. The only time he ever seemed to have a handle on the situation was when it came to threatening Syd.

“All pretty accurate,” Lydia complimented Owen, the first nice thing she may have ever said to him. “However you describe them, they’re a special breed,” continued Lydia. “Vikes – another gift to humanity, courtesy of the wise men and women of Nidus. It was Nidus that created them.” Her sarcasm was thick, her hatred palpable. “Vikes were human once, you know, just like you. They were normal human beings until they were slandered, and labeled dissenters, and kicked out of Nidus without trial or testimony! Exiled—those Nidus scum! Filthy miscreants had the audacity to banish Grandpapa! To banish an entire group of people to the Dark World! As if they were nothing! How dare they!” She grew furious but the rage faded and her face took on a deep sorrow. “So many were banished to the Dark World…for so long. So many people lost in a world without light, left to eat rodents and insects, to drink water from mud…” She became empathetic, something Syd didn’t think was possible. “It’s not just incredible that they survived – it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle Grandpapa was able to rise above, was able to be there for them, to lead them to the light. He saved them.” She pepped back up. “And now he wants what’s fair. So get me to Nidus or you’ll daughter will never see the light of day again.”

Syd was silent, unsure of the story he was hearing.

“So, any insight? Got an idea? Anything to help us forward?” Lydia asked, scrutinizing his reaction.

Syd remained silent.

Lydia sighed.

“Vikes it is,” she nodded, accepting his silence as disobedience. “Just remember, after all is said and done, the blame belongs to Nidus—”

“You don’t need threaten me. Or my child. And I’ve done everything you’ve asked. If you could stop talking for just, like, two minutes, I’m trying to think…but just because I’m here don’t mean I can solve…” Syd trailed off, staring down.

Something had caught his eye.

“What?” Lydia asked, following his gaze.

The round, bronze emblem of William Penn was at their feet.

Syd didn’t answer, instead returning to the plaque on the dead-end wall. After squinting at the tiny writing for a bit, he glanced over his shoulder, first at the floor, then at an elevator, back at the plaque, at another elevator—and this continued for several minutes. Lydia began pacing, lost in thought once more, but Oren stopped her to ask for the walkie-talkie back. She startled (having momentarily forgotten he was there) before handing back the walkie-talkie. Oren flicked the radio back on and clicked the button a few times. Nothing came through but static feedback so he tucked it in the back of his pants and then stared into space, occasionally scratching his hindquarters.

The hallway went silent.

Syd turned around and walked to the middle of the hallway floor, in the space between the middle two elevators, where the bronze emblem of William Penn was cemented into the floor. He stood atop it and looked down. An inscription had been carved into the bottom that had faded over time. A dozen indentations were chiseled around the edge of the perfect circle, giving it a symmetrical appearance. The overweight William Penn was wearing a hat and fancy, frilly hair beneath – there were probably a hundred of these engravings spread around the city.

Lydia was no longer lost in thought – she was watching.

Syd pointed to the last elevator on the left.

“We need to take that elevator,” he said.

Oren actually looked impressed.

Lydia didn’t believe him.

“Explain,” she said.

Syd pointed at the bronze emblem.

“William Penn?” Lydia asked, unsure.

“Yup. Did you know that he had small pox as a child and had to wear a wig for most of his life?—and he still had seventeen kids,” Syd said, relaying the only information he had tucked away in the back of his mind about William Penn.

Oren stared, fascinated, but Lydia was quick to get annoyed.

“I told you to explain, not point,” she angrily said.

“The indents around the emblem signify hours, like a clock,” he told them.

Oren and Lydia bent down and, on closer inspection, they realized he was right. Each indent was evenly spaced, like a stopwatch with the 12 o’clock pointed straight at the plaque on the wall and the 6 o’clock directed back toward the only exit. Syd extended his arm as if it was an hour hand and the bronze emblem was a clock-face – his arm pointed at an elevator in the back left.

“2 o’clock, Mr. Blue snuck through. So,” he showed them that his arm was in the directions of 2 o’clock, according to the bronze emblem’s symmetrical indents, “so that would be the blue elevator. The emblem is the key, to determine which elevator represents what color by using the time the thefts occur. Same can be done with all of them. White was last—”

“It says Red is last,” interrupts Lydia, correcting him.

She’s on the right track, of course.

“It’s a trick. Last but not least – meaning it’s mentioned last, not that it was last chronologically. Same reason it doesn’t give a time. The other elevators correspond to a color except one.” Syd pointed to the first elevator on the left side, which coincided with an indent that would have been 7 o’clock had the bronze emblem been an actual clock face. “According to this make-believe clock, the last elevator is Red and would have occurred at 7 o’clock. Since this says it happens in the span of one day, then White is closest to midnight and that has to be the answer.” Syd didn’t want them questioning him too much so he spoke fast, using lots of numbers and colors, all in an effort to confuse them. It was partially successful, though Oren had been confused since, well, birth; but Lydia, she was sharp and still working it out.

“Just because White’s last doesn’t mean White has the egg,” Oren interjected, the first time he’d said anything remotely involved.

Syd thought a moment.

“The only way all of the eggs could be stolen but one’s still in the basket is if the last thief took the basket when the last egg was taken – so the eggs have all been stolen but one’s still in the basket. White took the basket when he stole the last egg,” he said in a rush of words.

Oren stared blankly, then nodded.

Syd pointed once more toward the last elevator on the left and noted where his arm crossed the bronze emblem – between the tenth and eleventh indents, just near the 12 o’clock of the emblem. “Ten-thirty. White. That elevator is the way forward,” he said, definitively.

“Okay, we take the last elevator on the left,” Lydia agreed. Her immediate support caught Syd by surprise. He expected an argument or, at the very least, a thorough review of the riddle and its possible meanings—but nope. Lydia took a few confident steps to the last elevator on the left-hand side and pressed the elevator button, which lit beneath her finger. They grouped in front of the elevator but Oren kept behind Syd.

Syd was ready for whatever came next, which was a first. Abby was in danger and he needed to make it back in time to save her from a society of some weird monsters called Vikes. Whatever mind-bending horror that lay ahead – slimy creatures, a portal to China’s silliest playground, a giant hot air balloon filled with Canadians, et cetera – it didn’t matter, because he was ready. This was also partly because, for the first time, Syd knew something no one else did…

The doors opened to reveal a normal elevator playing soft muzak. The interior was off-white and bland. There were no buttons to press, no floor numbers above the door, no indicator telling them if they would be heading up or down. It had absolutely not definition.

Lydia and Syd went inside.

“Better turn it on,” Lydia told Oren. He was just outside of the elevator and there was something straighter about him, not just his posture but even his eyes and chin and shoulders. His behavior was less meandering, more purposely silent. He began fishing for something in his pocket, something Syd had never seen before – a small, palm-sized, silver disc. Oren squeezed the silver disc and the device beeped twice and started incessantly blinking red, and then he joined them in the elevator. Syd didn’t ask any questions even though it worried him. The thing had a bizarre design, a little bit bigger than a silver-dollar, thicker and rounder, and it kept blinking an ominous red from a circle in the middle. It reflected light onto the wall, giving the elevator its only color.

And then something made sense…

Grandpapa Vike wanted back to Nidus so badly yet chose not to join them on their trip because he wouldn’t need to. Syd had a hunch that, whatever was in Oren’s hand, it was something that would leave a trail or somehow track them to Nidus. (He had seen something similar on the news as a means to stop bank robbers.) Anyone with the exact location of Nidus wouldn’t need to solve riddles or even have the atlas to make the trip. Grandpapa Vike could avoid all the pitfalls if the destination was pin-pointed and he had unlimited resources. No puzzle would ever stop him.

The doors closed and the elevator abruptly took off, causing everyone to brace themselves against the walls. It didn’t feel as if it were going straight up or down but diagonally, as if it were moving down and left simultaneously. Minutes passed and the speed felt as if it were increasing. Syd cracked his neck and knuckles and prepared for whatever waited from them at the end of the line. Lydia held her fists up, clenched and read to throw. Oren grew visibly nervous as everyone else took a fighting stance and so he removed the gun for its holster to hold it by his side.

Suddenly, the elevator stopped.

The ride was over.

The doors opened.

They had arrived.

CHAPTER *][]FIFTEEN[*—

Monsters in the Rain

The elevator doors opened to reveal an overcast forest. No buildings, no hallways, no people, nothing but wilderness. It was something special to see, an elevator opening up in the middle of nowhere.

Syd went first, with Lydia close behind him, and Oren last. He had his gun raised and pointed out at nothing in particular. They took several hesitant steps out of the elevator and onto the wet grass. It was drizzling and gentle specks of water spritzed them from every direction until the fabric of their clothes had quickly dampened, making them uncomfortable. The trees surrounding them were twisted and wickedly bent, with jagged branches that were bare of leaves. Past the spindly treetops, the sky was a haunting grey, though the forest was surprisingly visible. The ground was flat and well-kempt, no brush or fallen trees or jutting roots or debris of any sort, in any direction. Even the grass had been cut low, as if a lawnmower had recently run over it.

Oren tried the large radio hanging from the back of his pants. Instead of static, it made the haunting sound of a hundred voices softly whispering unintelligible nonsense. Unnerved, he immediately shut it off…but it was too late, and something had heard them.

A plum of bright white lit up the sky as a bolt of lightning struck a tree not two hundred yards away from them. The branches burst into flame, crackling, while embers floated off. And though the luminescent white bolt had zig-zagged through the air like lightning, the sound that followed wasn’t an echoing explosion, not like thunder should have been. It was more of a dull thump, like the heavy bump of a hollowed-out drum.

Syd and Lydia ducked but Oren sprightly reversed pace, spinning around as if a graceful dancer. He intended to run back to the elevator—except the elevator was gone! Oren gasped. Their ride had disappeared into thin air. His face widened in horror and his features almost sunk into his skull as he ran back to the spot from which they’d come and checked high and low and around for the elevator. He reached both hands out like a mime stuck in an invisible glass box. Syd and Lydia ignored him since they knew, once the journey began, there was no going back.

“Only way out is through,” Syd said, partly to himself.

“Through what?!” cried Oren. (It was an intimidating setting but Oren’s cowardice made it easier to be brave.)

Another flash! A zig-zagging bolt of florescent white hit another tree, throwing out sparks in an explosion. Like the time before, there was no thunder – just the sound of a hollow thump.

Oren ran back and huddled with the other two.

Syd was searching the forest when he felt a pang of familiarity. Even with the murkiness of an overcast sky and spits of rain, he could make out the immediate area. Another bolt of lightning came from the forest straight ahead of them and shoot upward, into the sky. Another hollow thump followed, this time much closer. And that’s when Syd caught sight of it—the wisp of a shadow deep in the woods…

[_I’ve been here before, _]Syd realized. It was during the last adventure to Nidus. With Abby and Math and Dezzy and Whiskers and fake-Mya, when they found themselves stranded in an empty bar, one with a second floor of bedrooms and a back room for gambling. The place would eventually turn into complete anarchy, with fist-fights and Vikings and throwing knives and flames, but it started with them all alone in an empty bar. Outside, a raging storm was so thick and heavy that little could be determined about their surroundings. So Syd stepped outside, in a desperate attempt to learn of their location, and he boldly headed into the storm. Immediately soaked to the bone (wearing very little as it was), he traveled into the forest only a short distance before he saw it. Black like a poisonous snake and the size of a subway train, it rushed passed him hissing and then disappeared into the darkness. This petrified him so much that, back inside the bar, the only description he could give everyone was an “mmm” sound.

“What?” Lydia asked, noticing the expression on Syd’s face, which was no longer fear but an eager curiosity. She could tell that he knew something they didn’t. A faint hint of fear had entered her voice. “What’s out there?”

“Mmm…mmmm…” Syd muttered, stammering as he had the last time he was in this situation. “Just kidding,” he laughed, “it’s a monster. There’s a horrible monster out there.”

Lydia eyed him, suspiciously.

Oren let out a whimper.

“Should we use it?” Oren asked and held up the metal disk, with the blinking red light.

“No! Not yet!” Lydia nearly yelled back.

Coming face-to-face with this monster had been something Syd swore he’d never let happen again after that first incident…but the times had changed—or, more accurately, Syd had changed with the times. He wasn’t terrified, not like before; in fact, he considered the whole thing to be to his advantage. And even if he wanted to be scared, there wasn’t anywhere to go, nowhere to hide, no weapons to defend himself with, nothing but flat land, bare trees, dim lighting, and drizzling rain. Nearly every second of his life since gaining the atlas – from the original trip to Nidus to the wine cellar and the ghoul – had been one long exercise in exasperating, aggravating, nerve-wracking, terrifying frustration. This time, however, Syd wasn’t scared, or frustrated, or even angry at his captors. At that moment, he felt oddly confident that everything would be okay.

There came a scraping sound behind them, and then the crack of tree branches as they broke. Oren spun around, as scared as a child, just in time to see a broken tree limb fall to the ground only a few feet away from them. Nothing else moved, no scary monster, no threats – but something had been right behind them an instant earlier.

The forest was eerily still and empty and abnormally quiet.

“The thing is as big as a train,” Syd told Oren, just to scare him, “but it’s also as fast as one so you might expect it to pop up out of nowhere.”

“This was a bad idea,” realized Oren. He was circling Syd and Lydia, the gun up and ready to fire at whatever might attack them.

“It’ll be fine—” Lydia was trying to calm him when she was interrupted.

A horrific, guttural shriek came from deep within the forest, a screeching, primal howl from something very large—

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG CLICK CLICK CLICK

Oren hastily fired the gun blindly toward the sound. Each bullet hit a nearby tree or nothing at all, and he even pulled the trigger several times after the gun was empty.

“You idiot!” Lydia scolded him.

Oren turned around, his eyes wide with fear as he stared down at the empty gun, then up at Lydia, then at Syd—stars flashed, and then darkness, black and abrupt. Syd’s fist connected with Oren’s jaw so hard that his head snapped to the side and his body crumbled to the wet grass, unconscious. The empty gun and silver disc (which was still blinking red) fell beside him.

All was silent for a moment.

Lydia stared at Syd, momentarily shocked.

Syd froze, unsure what to do next. He had been pacing himself, just waiting for the right moment. Once Oren’s gun was empty, and the walkie-talkie wasn’t working, there was nothing left to threaten him with.

“Uh…sorry?” shrugged Syd.

An evil smile crept across Lydia’s lips.

Finally,” she said, almost relieved, and cracked her knuckles, “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

“Uh oh…” worried Syd. “Waiting for what?”

“I’m going to enjoy hurting you,” she gleefully admitted.

Syd tried to remind her of the monster currently circling them but, quick as lightning, she charged forward and threw a jab that hit his face like a slap—and then quickly followed through with a hard right hook, which knocked him back several steps.

Lydia waited as Syd regained composure.

“I really don’t like you,” he finally said, a bit dazed.

“Likewise,” she responded, and then kicked him in the chin so fast that the pain of the blow came before Syd even realized what happened. Disoriented, he backed up several steps and shook his head.

“You’re like an evil ninja,” he grumbled.

Lydia patiently waited for him to regain composure again.

“At least lift your hands up and defend yourself,” she recommended.

“Would it matter?” he asked.

She thought a moment.

“No.”

“I just don’t understand,” Syd said, shaking his head with disappointment. “I don’t want to fight you. I would’ve been out of this mess if it weren’t for you. I just want my daughter back and you just won’t leave me alone. I really don’t get it.”

“You still have no idea what you’ve stumbled into,” sneered Lydia. “You’re a gnat in this, an insignificant pawn in a game between Gods. And it may have taken a long time but your family will finally get what it deserves.”

“What did Abby and I do to make you hate us so much?” Syd asked, pleading to understand.

“It’s not just you and Abby!” Lydia screamed. “Your whole family will pay!”

Syd’s eyes narrowed.

“My whole family?” he asked, confused.

Lydia caught herself as if she’d said too much, and Syd was about to ask more questions when…a distinct rustling caught their attention. Slowly, their heads turned in the same direction, and they hesitantly took their eyes off one another to glance into the forest – where a serpentine freight train was swerving and winding between tree trunks at an incredibly high speed, straight toward them.

It took a moment for them to process what they were seeing…

“Is that the mmm…” uttered Lydia, terrified, and she left the sentence unfinished.

“Monster,” Syd agreed, in a tone that was weirdly calm.

The creature was colossal, its body the width of a bus and the length of two subway cars end-to-end. It also had a slight red line near the underbelly, and the black scales and flexibility of a snake – but the creature also had the reptilian head and wide mouth of a lizard. It also had four stout legs curled against its midsection as it slithered between the trees and fully encircled them with its body. There was no escape, no direction to run that didn’t hit the black, scaly body of the creature.

“What should we do?” Lydia asked without moving her lips.

“Try lying to it. Worked on me,” instructed Syd.

The creature lifted up, extending its head off the ground higher and higher until it was well above Syd and Lydia and staring down. Its emerald eyes bounced from person to person. A forked, pink tongue repeatedly flicked out and up, whipping the air.

“Herbert!” exclaimed an old, vibrant voice.

Syd and Lydia startled.

Keys jingle-jangled as the yellow-plaid suit and matching tweed cap of the Professor (Bimbledum?) came into view. Using his cracked, grey cane, the old man shuffled between Syd and Lydia and up to the giant snake-lizard known as Herbert. The Professor tossed an apple into the air and the creature’s tongue snapped at it, pulling the apple into its mouth and swallowing it as if the fruit was a grain of salt. The old man raised his arm higher into the air and the creature affectionately rubbed the point of its enormous black noise against the Professor’s hand and arm.

“Just don’t make any sudden movements,” the old man happily added, “either of you.”

“The Vython?” wondered Syd, remembering something Keaton had mentioned during their trip through Nidus.

“That is correct! Good to see you again, Syd,” the Professor greeted, turning around. “And you, as well, Lydia. You’ve grown into quite the beautiful woman, I see you.”

“Bumbleflum!” proclaimed Syd, finally recalling the old man’s name.

“At your service,” the Professor nodded. He gave a concerned glance toward the unconscious man on the ground and then, to Lydia, said, “I see your brother Oren made it, too.”

Professor Bumbleflum walked closer.

“Oh dear, this doesn’t belong to you,” he told Lydia and removed the atlas from her shoulder. Lydia tried to protest and stop him but her sudden movements got the attention of Herbert, the Vython. The creature’s emerald eyes narrowed and his lips pulled back in a snarl. Hyack! he barked, soaking her face and shirt with drool.

Lydia immediately stopped moving.

“Told yah not to move!” the old man reminded her. “He really doesn’t like you.”

(Syd smirked, having just told her the same.)

“Whelp, I must be leaving,” the Professor said, backing away with the atlas in hand.

Syd was immediately concerned.

“Wait-huh?!”

“Sorry, Syd. You got yourself into this situation by getting the riddle wrong—” explained the Professor.

Syd was quick to cut him off.

“I made them pick the wrong elevator on purpose! I didn’t want to help them get to Nidus.”

“You did what?!” Lydia angrily cried, forgetting their dire situation.

“Still,” Bumbleflum shrugged, ignoring Lydia, “Herbert doesn’t like strangers and, sadly, both of yah are strangers to ‘em. It’ll be fine, though – all you’s gotta do is endear yerself to him. Just do his favorite thing in the world.”

“Which is?” Syd asked, annoyed that the Professor was just going to take the atlas and leave.

“Oh, it’s simple,” laughed the Professor, and then he recited the following:

“A man may stomp while a woman delightfully giggles.

Alone we weep while the experienced swoon.

New lovers tenderly kiss and the room spins.”

“Great!” Syd groaned. “I was hoping it was so simple that you could sum it up with a vague riddle.” His comment was met with silence and, out of the corner of his eye, he could tell that Professor Bumbleflum had already vanished.

The emerald eyes of Herbert, the Vython, stared from Lydia to Syd and back to Lydia. He didn’t appear as menacing, more apprehensive and judgmental; it was as if the giant snake-lizard was expecting something from them.

“I can’t believe you purposely gave me the wrong answer,” Lydia said, resuming her angry tirade.

“Honestly, I’d rather come face-to-face with the Vython than help you and your idiot brother,” Syd said with a smile. Back in the hallway with the elevators and riddle, he had spoken fast to confuse them. The trick had worked, to Syd’s surprise, and it was the first time in all of his many adventures where he was sure they weren’t headed in the right direction. It was almost liberating, knowing that he was walking into a trap.

“Then what was the right answer?” she asked, obviously curious.

“Figure it out yourself, you’re so smart. Doesn’t feel good to be tricked, does it?” replied Syd.

“I hope he eats you first!” Lydia spat.

“I can’t believe I ever cared about you…” he admitted with a genuine hint of shame in his voice. Lydia scoffed at Syd’s gullibility but her performance had been extremely persuasive. She had tricked him and he was embarrassed by it. He could no longer remember when his feelings for her began, whether it had been on the island or earlier, like the day she was crying at the museum. One moment did stand out more than the others, though: In the bar, when he kept trying to walk away but somehow returned to her each time. They had been forced together, with sweet, romantic music in the air, and he had stared into her eyes, and they had started to sway together…

“Oh, butts!” cursed Syd, realizing the answer. He hadn’t solved the Professor’s vague riddle but instead remembered what Keaton had said while taking them around the city – specifically, that the Vython from Agnorok liked something very particular.

“What?!” Lydia demanded, impatiently, when Syd didn’t say anything further.

“Umm—ahem!” Syd cleared his throat and then quietly asked, “Can you keep a beat?”

“Beat what?” she asked, confused.

“No—would you stop trying to beat things!” reprimanded Syd. “A beat, like in a song. Herbert likes music.”

“You figured that out from that stupid riddle?” Lydia asked, disbelieving.

“No. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that Professor Bumbleflum may be senile – I’m not sure. I did, however, remember what they told me when I was in Nidus. The Vython of Agnorok loves music.”

At this, a glint of joy entered Herbert’s emerald eyes, as if he understood everything they were saying.

Lydia’s face filled with doubt.

“Music? I…I don’t know music,” she said, uncertain.

“Yeah, if only snake-lizards liked watching me get beat up, you’d be golden,” joked Syd. “Just…clap.”

Lydia clapped once.

Syd sighed.

“More than once, please,” he instructed.

Lydia clapped a bunch, as if applauding a show…and then stopped.

“Seriously? Have you never heard a song before?” Syd asked.

Lydia frowned, her face solemn. She was obviously out of her depth.

Herbert had been watching the exchange. He had a slight smirk in the corner of his mouth, apparently amused.

Clap…clap…clap…clap…

Lydia’s beat was slow and steady.

Thump-thump…thump-thump…thump-thump…

Syd gently pat his chest to layer the beat.

“What I want…you got,” sang Syd. It was the first song that came to mind, and he sang awkwardly, off-beat and monotone. Driving around for work, he preferred to listen to talk radio – but Abby sometimes came with him and he would let her choose the station. This had been a track that Abby really liked, something light and fun that reminded him of better times.

Hall and Oates’ You Make My Dreams Come True.

“And it might be hard to play, but like a dddd that bbb some candy—and the candy feeds a kid, yeah!” Little by little, his voice began to sing with the tempo. He didn’t know the words, though, so he made them up. “I’ve got a buncha thoughts and dreams that matter, and you pull them together—and HOW can I explain!” he sang, hitting a high note. Syd’s heart was in it, his voice projecting.

Herbert, the Vython, was impressed. His emerald eyes had relaxed and now flickered with excitement. (It was odd, seeing a giant snake-lizard express such a wealth of emotion.) His wide mouth was twisted upward, in a great big smile, and his legs came around front so he could lean forward and sway from leg-to-leg with the impromptu music.

“Don’t forget the dancing!” hollered an old, jovial voice.

Professor Bumbleflum was back, watching from behind them.

Syd was too engaged to be mad or think otherwise, so he did as he was told and swiveled his hips, dancing while thumping his chest to the beat. (His moves were a bit stiff but he was trying.) And, reaching the chorus, Syd spun around in a circle on a single foot and belted out, “Oh yeah, well you!” and he slid onto one knee, holding his arms out, “you make-a my dreams come true!”

This signaled the end of his performance.

Lydia stopped the beat.

“Here you go, young man,” Professor Bumbleflum said as he walked over and slung the atlas over Syd’s shoulder. “After that, you’ve definitely earned it back.” Having the cylindrical container tied around his shoulder and against his back was a familiar and comforting feeling to Syd. Even though the atlas had brought him nothing but trouble, it just felt right when he had it with him.

“What did you think?” the Professor asked Herbert.

In response, the front half of the Vython’s body excitedly hopped up and down – which caused the world to quake. His body untangled so that they were no longer surrounded; countless trees splintered beneath Herbert as he twisted around. All of this made Syd nervous, at first, but then he realized what was happening. The Vython was rolling onto his back to expose the scarlet red of his belly, like a puppy.

“So can we move now?” asked Syd, hesitantly.

“We?” the Professor wondered.

“Yeah,” Syd said and turned to find the space beside him empty. Lydia was gone, as was Oren; in Oren’s place was the large walkie-talkie that had been tucked into the back of his pants.

“Where are they?” Syd asked.

The Professor sighed.

“I doubt you’ve seen the last of them,” he said, gravely—but then his mood brightened and he shoved a sack full of apples at Syd. “Feed the Vython and rub his belly. That way, Herbert’ll always be your friend.”

Herbert wiggled, watching upside-down as Syd slowly moved closer. Before he got close enough to touch the Vython, Syd tossed an apple toward him. Herbert’s tongue whipped into the air and he snagged it, pulling it into his mouth, and swallowing it whole. Syd found this interesting and tossed another into the air. Again, Herbert’s tongue whipped out and caught it and he swallowed it whole. Syd pulled out a third apple and held it in his hand a moment, then pretended to toss it in the air…but Herbert waited patiently. Syd threw him the apple and he ate it. “Oh, what’s that?” Syd asked, pretending to see something in the distance to his left—and then tossed an apple into the air, hoping to catch Herbert off-guard. Again, Herbert’s tongue whipped out and caught it and he swallowed it whole.

“Cool,” Syd said, turning toward the Professor. “So he’s a wing-less dragon that likes singing and dancing?”

Professor Bumbleflum shook his head.

“Music, yes – but he doesn’t care much for dancing.”

Syd thought a moment.

“Wait, then why did you tell me to dance?” Syd asked.

“Just seemed appropriate,” explained the Professor, as a matter-of-fact.

Syd shook his head and his attention went back to the Vython. “Hello, Herbert,” he greeted. Using both hands, gently, he rubbed the red scales of Herbert’s underside, but because the creature was so big, Syd could only reach a small portion of the belly. Herbert didn’t seem to mind and, the harder and more frantic Syd rubbed, the more he seemed to enjoy it.

“So how do I get home from—and you’re gone again!” The Professor had once again vanished and Syd was alone – well, not alone, not exactly, since he had Herbert the Vython.

“Do you know the way to Philadelphia?” Syd asked Herbert in a silly voice, as if he were talking to a cute little puppy; but then a thought crossed his mind. “Or…can I ride you?” Syd seriously thought about it for a moment…but then decided against it.

The time had come to move on but, before leaving, Syd walked back and picked Oren’s walkie-talkie up off the ground. With the atlas over his shoulder, and the walkie-talkie clipped to the back of his pants, he was ready to search for an exit. Herbert also seemed eager to move on and he twirled back onto his legs. (More trees splintered; the world quaked again.) Before they began to travel, however, Herbert carefully nudged Syd’s elbow with the tip of his nose and then pointed his head in a specific direction. Syd understood that the Vython wanted him to head that way so Syd headed in that direction and Herbert traveled beside him. Syd still had the bag of apples and occasionally tossed one into the air, which Herbert excitedly snagged and swallowed as they walked.

“So how’s life, Herbert?” Syd asked, trying to pass the time.

Herbert’s giant head was beside him and it shook from side-to-side.

“Just okay? Is there a Mrs. Herbert the Vython?”

Herbert gave him a sly, knowing glance.

“Oh my! You crafty dragon!”

[_HUYH HUYH HUYH! _]Herbert let out a dry, bellowing chuckle.

They walked until Syd ran out of apples.

“How much farther—”

Syd didn’t finish the question because Herbert suddenly stopped. His head lifted up and licked at the air—then his body tensed and his head snapped right. His emerald eyes narrowed. Everything was still and Syd could tell there was some sort of threat—and then Herbert the Vython took off like a shot, his enormous body slithering through the trees like an out-of-control locomotive until he disappeared into the distance.

“Hey, Syd, you’re totally alone again,” Syd said to himself.

“I know, right? Fantastic!” Syd answered himself.

“At least this time it’s in a dark forest!” Syd cheerily added.

“Don’t forget that it’s also raining!” Syd reminded himself.

“Oh, how could I forget! It’s making me so wonderfully uncomfortable!”

Syd stopped and turned in a circle, looking in all directions. It was all the same, just forest and specks of rain and broken branches and some guy.

“Hey,” Syd nodded a brief greeting before resuming his search—and then he froze. After thoroughly rubbing his eyes, he turned back toward the guy—he looked a lot like Father Daniels, the priest who had originally given him the atlas. “Waaaa…” he sort of mumbled, unable to speak. It was as if he had woken from one dream only to find himself in another. The man was only a few yards away so it wasn’t a mistake or illusion. And the more Syd stared, the more he realize…it was Father Daniels, wearing the black cassock and white collar Syd always saw him in—but he was younger, less wrinkled, more virile, muscular, healthy. There wasn’t an oxygen tank beside him. His bald was gone, replaced with a mane of thick black hair. He was dashing.

Father Daniels flashed a good–natured smile and approached.

Syd backed away, horrified.

“You better prove you’re not a zombie!” demanded Syd.

Father Daniels chuckled.

“I’m the same man you always knew,” he promised, his voice much stronger than before.

“No! You became a handsome ghost!” Syd stated, awestruck and barely able to think. Of all that he had seen, this may have shocked him the most.

“I’m not a ghost, Syd,” Father Daniels replied.

“Then…what are you?” asked Syd, still worried.

“A friend,” he answered.

“You…died…” Syd spoke as if betrayed, as if he were the victim of some cruel joke. “I was at your funeral. I—I saw you buried.”

“I need you to forget that for now. Can you do that for me?” Father Daniels asked.

“Just forget that you’re dead?” Syd asked, sarcastically.

He nodded.

“Oh, sure. Okay, that fact that you are, in fact, not alive – totally forgotten,” Syd replied, pretending it was normal.

“I’m here because I need to tell you a story, Syd,” he said, “and I really need you to listen. Okay?”

Father Daniels waited for Syd to acknowledge that he was paying attention which, reluctantly, Syd did (though he was still a bit put off by the situation). To make things even more peculiar, Father Daniels started walking through the forest and knocking on trees. Syd followed at a distance, still unsure if he was speaking with a ghost.

After a short silence, Father Daniels began his story:

AN *][][*INTERLUDE

The Story of Viktor Gurlach

1

There was once a boy named Viktor who lived in the English countryside. Small for his age and never one to speak up, young Viktor often spent his time hidden away, quietly reading adventure stories or pretending to be on his own adventure. And it was during one of these exciting adventures, while protecting the coast against an army of invisible pirates, that young Viktor stumbled upon a cave that would change his life forever.

The cave on the coast was dark and scary, and Viktor was certain the thing was filled with ghosts. But, in the darkness inside the cave, he noticed a faint pink glow. Intrigued, he ventured to the mouth of the cave…and slowly took a step into the darkness…and then another—then something made a tiny eeep noise, which was more than enough to terrify the boy, so he quickly excused himself from the dark (and presumably ghost-filled) cave on the coast.

Viktor ran home and returned shortly thereafter with a flashlight, protective goggles, and ghost repellant that he had himself had mixed together (using mud and rocks and glue, mostly). Bravely he entered, and that’s when he found it – the source of the faint glow. It was lodged in the rock wall and mud-covered but, after wiping it clean, a sparkling pink filled the whole cave.

With a bit of time, and a lot of struggle, Viktor worked at removing the glowing orb from the rock wall. And he worked at it and worked at it and worked at it until, finally…he decided that the shiny object was impossible to get out of the wall and he gave up—however! The very next day, right after school, Viktor returned to the cave, this time with a rock hammer (in addition to the flashlight, goggles, and ghost goo), and the young boy chiseled the rock around the glowing orb until it came loose. The pink gleamed even brighter as he pulled the object from the wall. It was no bigger than a half-dollar, and soft as a bar of soap – it was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

Viktor had found a gem.

2

Viktor brought the glowing pink gem to school the next day but even the science teacher couldn’t tell him what it was, and she was the smartest person he knew.

After science class, they chipped a small crumb off the gem and ground it to powder and put it under a microscope. Viktor looked first: vibrant pinks and fluorescent whites shimmered and danced so spectacularly that it was like staring into a kaleidoscope. His science teacher took a look—and quickly backed away from the microscope…then, she burst out laughing.

“I thought it was alive for a second there,” she said and gave him a pat on the back.

Viktor didn’t understand.

“The gem is…alive?” he asked.

“Just because I saw living cells in the microscope doesn’t mean your gem is alive,” she corrected him, and then explained, “The cells are plant-like. It’s bioluminescence – meaning the pink glow is from algae that’s coating your gem. It’s rare but the tide probably got high enough to reach the cave where you found it.”

Viktor had more questions but the science teacher politely asked him to head outside for recess so she could finish grading papers.

The afternoon was overcast and Viktor hid in his usual spot, behind the school and away from the other kids. He sat against the wall and brought his knees close to his chest and pulled his shirt over them to stare at the gem in secret. If the night sky was suddenly pink instead of black, and stars blasted every which way across the horizon, it might resemble what he saw under his shirt that day. And the deeper he stared, the more detail he could make out – a tiny cosmos revealing itself to him piece by piece. There may not have been much he understood about the gem but one thing was certain:

The smartest person he knew had been wrong.

The glow wasn’t algae, of that he was absolutely positive.

It had been several years since Viktor had had something he considered special; something to cherish, something just for him. Viktor’s parents had given him a teddy bear on his fifth birthday and it was his best friend for several years. It was soft and brown and only had one eye, and it was very, very special – but, like everything else, it was eventually taken from him. Poor young Viktor was completely devastated without his one-eyed best friend, and his broken heart never fully recovered.

Sadly, history was about to repeat itself that afternoon.

The bell chimed, signaling the end of recess, and Viktor pulled his head from his shirt—to find himself surrounded by a few of the school’s more “rambunctious” students. No teachers saw what happened next, as it was behind the school and out of sight; nor could any teachers hear it over the happy chatter of the other children as they lined up to head back inside.

A short time later, the “rambunctious” students came around the corner with big, gleeful smiles, and they huddled together in the back of the line to marvel in the pink glow of their newest discovery, and soon everyone was back inside, and the playground was empty, and the schoolyard was quiet but for the rustle of leaves skittering over grass. Another chime signaled the beginning of the next period and the school day resumed just like any other.

But young Viktor never went back in; not then, not later, not ever.

He picked himself up off the ground, and he brushed the dirt off his clothes, and he cleaned the tears from his face, and then he went straight back to the cave on the coast. His rock hammer and flashlight were still there from the previous night and he grabbed them both (though he forgot the ghost goo because he was no longer afraid).

Then, the young boy went to work.

3

A couple years later, Viktor was in his lab conducting an early morning experiment, paying careful attention to pour a precise—when his lab blew up.

It was his first explosion.

(It wouldn’t be the last.)

He had been using library books to teach himself chemistry in a lab he built at the end of the cave on the coast, where a sinkhole had created a large cavern. It wasn’t just his lab, either, but also: his bedroom, his study, his kitchen, his garden, his shower, his boat storage, and whatever else he needed. And, considering that his home was under a sinkhole in a cavern at the end of a cave on the Atlantic coast, it was a surprisingly pleasant place to live. Rainwater would funnel into a stream he dug, which kept the cave water off his stuff and out of his way; it also irrigated his veggies and flowers, provided fresh drinking water, and drained into the ocean. Winters could get a bit cold but his bedroom/kitchen was kept warm by a furnace he had sculpted out of clay. (Agriculture had been the first thing he taught himself, in order to survive.)

And best of all, Viktor got to be alone.

But then came the day he blew up his makeshift lab and everything changed. It started with a bright white light – beakers shattered and equipment broke and the ground shook – and then it was over. No sparks. No smoke cloud or fireball. The broken glass didn’t even fly through the air but just sort of fell in place. Viktor wasn’t even injured, just dizzy and seeing sunspots everywhere. A flash of light—and then everything was broken. It may have been the world’s least exciting explosion ever…but that didn’t matter to Viktor.

In fact, he was ecstatic.

After months of experiments, he had finally done it.

Viktor did a silly dance to celebrate. Needs a special container, though, he thought – and then realized a new lab was also needed, since everything was broken. That night he snuck into the local scrap yard for a few sheets of junk metal and then made a stop by the university to stock up on chemicals and equipment.

After a good night’s sleep, he woke up ready to begin.

It took days of work and a lot of patience; it also took a good deal of smashing things with a large mallet, and then it took a different mallet when the first mallet broke; it also took some cursing, and a homemade blowtorch, and then more cursing when he burned himself with the homemade blowtorch; it also took a new mallet when he threw the second mallet at a scary bat, and another white-light explosion, followed by a day where he just sat on the shoreline and hated stupid rocks and water and everything that ever existed, whatever; and then he persisted, and soon after he was finished.

He had succeeded.

Again, Viktor did a silly dance to celebrate—when a voice startled him.

“Hello, Viktor.”

Viktor spun around and was horrified to find a stranger in his cave.

“Who—how did you get by my booby traps?” he asked.

The stranger was confused.

“What booby traps?”

A pause.

“Durn it!” Viktor cursed, snapping his fingers. (He knew those darn booby traps wouldn’t work if anyone ever made passed the mural façade he had created in the cave on the shore.)

“Would you please come with me, Viktor?” the stranger asked.

Viktor, feeling that he had no choice, obliged.

4

Viktor Gurlach was 14 years old when he entered Nidus. He brought only his most recent discovery and the clothes he was wearing. Everyone who came in contact with him didn’t think he was weird, just quiet. Technically, in Nidus, everyone was a bit weird. But it wouldn’t be until he was the age of 22 that people would get to hear Viktor speak more than a few words:

“I have created something that can help the city,” he told the five boroughs from atop the round, Amethyst stage. “When I was a kid, I found the large deposit of a mineral that had never been discovered before. I spent years trying to figure out what it was – in the end, I only learned what it could do. And in that, the possibilities are endless. Once I sustained the mineral’s reaction inside a container I call the Crucible…” Viktor described what he had learned about the amazing mineral, explaining with nerdish glee the intricate science behind his discoveries and how they could utilize it, but it all came down to one thing: “If the city is a car, think of the Crucible as its motor. We could use it right now to escape danger forever. It’s dangerous, and complicated, and it’s never been done before, but we might be able to use my discovery to keep Nidus safe.”

The five boroughs voted on Viktor’s idea and, to his surprise, they were in favor of using the Crucible. It was set up in a cave outside the city (just like the old cave) and the citizens didn’t have to wait long to use it – Viktor had already made all the necessary preparations. So everyone gathered in the streets, and there was a bright flash of white light—and when they opened their eyes again, they found that Viktor’s complicated plan had actually worked. Not only was the city saved from its current threats, it was protected forever.

Viktor was hailed as a hero.

“The genius who single-handedly saved Nidus,” they cheered.

Viktor donated the Crucible to Nidus, as it was now an integral part of the city – and any further use of it would need to be voted on by the five boroughs. It remained in the cave outside the city where people could marvel at it. As he got older, Viktor began teaching at the University, and he even taught a class specifically about the Crucible. “There’s still much to be learned about it,” he would tell each class.

5

It wasn’t until much later in life that Viktor began to change…

He had never really stopped being a quiet person. Even after he got married, and had kids, and friends, and got old – through it all, Viktor was a very quiet, very private person. He taught classes at the University and could speak at length on a great many subjects but, whenever possible, he kept to his family and spoke to few others.

Then, people took notice…

His skin turned pale. His hair began to fall out. His face was almost unrecognizeable. And suddenly Viktor wasn’t so quiet anymore. No one knows what caused it but, one day, he started talking. To everyone. All the time. And the only thing he would talk about was the Crucible. People slowly felt sorry for him and ignored him but, over time, there were enough followers who believed in what he was saying for the five boroughs to hold another vote.

Viktor had changed his stance:

“I alone created the Crucible so I alone should control it, not the city.”

Before the vote, the city of Nidus asked him why the sudden change and what he intended to do with it, but Viktor couldn’t answer them. He only repeated that he alone should control the Crucible.

In the end, the city voted against him.

So Viktor and his followers decided to steal it late one night.

They call it the White Night.

Viktor and his followers snuck into the cave but, when they tried to remove the Crucible, it caused the city of Nidus to shake so violently that buildings fell and fires rose. Many were lost, and the harder they tried, the more damaged they caused – until the city split open and a bright white light shot out from beneath the surface.

Viktor failed. He had underestimated the Crucible and it scarred him physically, made him something else entirely – a monster. And the leaders of Nidus, they found him and begged for his surrender. “This can end peacefully. No one else has to get hurt,” they pleaded. Viktor’s black eyes looked them up and down and he snorted. His face was so different – his nostrils wider, his chin and teeth pointed. All signs of Viktor Gurlach had disappeared. “This isn’t going to end peacefully, and more people will be hurt,” he promised them…and then he surrendered.

When the city found out what he had done, they banished him and his followers to the Dark World. Once enough time had passed, though, the citizens of Nidus decided to bring them back from the Dark World. They searched for months, until every inch had been covered…

But Viktor and the Vikes were gone without a trace.

However, Viktor Gurlach wasn’t gone very long.

And he’s been fighting to get his creation back ever since.

NOW WE RETURN TO OUR

FEATURE PRESENTATION

“Wait, that creepy ghoul in old man clothing is named Viktor Gurlach?” Syd asked, mildly amused. Father Daniels nodded. “But he’s so scary, I thought his name would be…something else, something more menacing. Gurlach sounds like the noise you make when you throw up soup.”

“That’s…quiet descriptive,” replied Father Daniels.

“So he doesn’t care about Nidus,” Syd realized, “he just wants this Crucible thing back?”

“Yes, that’s it,” agreed Father Daniels, but his voice remained quite serious. “My uncle can never get the Crucible. No matter what happens, he cannot succeed. If he was to ever accomplish this goal, everything would be in danger – you, Abby, Nidus, Philadelphia, everything.”

“Okay, so destroy it,” Syd suggested.

Father Daniels shook his head.

“It’s not that easy.”

“What do you mean, ‘It’s not that easy’? I’ve met your uncle,” Syd said, agitated, “and I can safely say he doesn’t seem to feel remorse or regret. Just anger and spite. And he’s never going to stop. Ever. He just wants revenge.”

“Believe me, I know,” responded Father Daniels, sadly.

“Do you?” Syd asked, accusatorily. “Because my daughter’s been kidnapped—she’s with this monster right now. I don’t have any connection with him yet this monster has a personal vendetta against me. He’s taken everything from me, and for some stupid invention. Just get rid of it, hide it, send it into space, whatever. End this.”

Father Daniels’ tone was sullen.

“I wish it were that easy. And I know how spiteful he is. I’m his nephew, and I wasn’t even alive when he was banished, but he made sure to bury my body in a cheap cemetery. With a blank headstone. Outside of Philadelphia, which has always been my home. And he didn’t stop there, no…

“On the day you were at my funeral, when he was sizing you up in person, there was a proper memorial being held at Old Trinity Church. Fliers had gone up all week and it was listed in the newspaper, and the entire community showed up to pay their respects. The service was held outside, mind you, so the church itself was blocked off and the event was set up in a nice area in back, just a platform and podium and comfy chairs, and a red carpet between the isles…” Father Daniels was having a hard time describing it. He drew in a large breath and exhaled. “As the first member took the podium to give my eulogy, explosives were detonated in the church basement and Old Trinity, the oldest church in Philly, was leveled in front of them. Turned their place of worship and solace into ruble, while the congregation mourned my passing – so they never got to say goodbye.”

Syd was in disbelief.

“What?! How come I didn’t hear about this?”

“Once I was gone,” explained Father Daniels, “the church’s ownership was supposed to revert back to the city…except it didn’t, because some company showed up and began giving money hand-over-fists for the land. The church was resold the next day, in a silent auction, and the company that bought it could do whatever it wanted.”

“But what about community? How come there wasn’t some massive protest?” Syd asked, still confused.

Father Daniels smiled at Syd’s gumption.

“People only see what the news and television networks want them to see.”

Syd was flabbergasted.

“That’s not possible. He owns the news?”

“Possibly. There would be no way to trace it back to him, even if he did. And since it wasn’t a wealthy neighborhood, the destruction of my church…” Father Daniels trailed off; then, a moment later, snapped out of it. “It doesn’t matter. This isn’t about what happened to me – this is about a very dangerous man, and how we’re going to get your daughter away from him.”

“Yes! Abby!” Syd exclaimed, overjoyed just by mentioning her name. “How do I get to her?”

“Abby’s in a limousine that’s circling Philly—ah, finally!”

Father Daniels changed course and approached a nearby tree. The trunk was large but it didn’t appear to be different from any of the trees around it – except, when he knocked on this particular tree, for the first time, it sounded hollow inside. He knocked again – knock knock…knock knock…knock.

Like magic, a portion of the tree trunk opened.

It was a door.

Syd studied the opening and looked in to find something moving just passed the doorway, a shadow that was getting bigger as it got closer, bigger and bigger until it was—

“Hello, good sirs!” called an old voice, startling Syd.

The sound of jingling followed.

Professor Bumbleflum emerged, passing through the doorway as he exited the tree. Hunched over his grey, cracked cane, he stopped in front of Father Daniels and Syd to say, “Whew, it’s cramped in there!”

“Ah!—stop doing that! Why do you even do that? Why does he do that?” Syd had to ask Father Daniels, who laughed in reply.

“This will lead you home,” the Father said.

The Professor stepped aside. “And the journey ahead will be a dangerous one,” he said, wiping rain drops off his crooked nose.

“I once told you that I saw great things in you,” Father Daniels reminded Syd. “Time and again, you’ve proven me right. You truly are the man I hoped you would be. This journey is almost over but, before it can end, you’re going to have to take a leap of faith.”

Syd glanced through the doorway, then checked behind the tree (just more trees and grey and rain), and then back through the opening. Inside was a long, narrow corridor that led to a glowing white light. The passageway was only visible through the opening, though, as if the tree were a portal to somewhere else.

“How do I get her back, though?” Syd asked.

Professor Bumbleflum gave him a pat.

“Well…that’s up to you, my boy.”

“I know you have a lot of unanswered questions, my son, but such is life, and those questions must remain for another day,” Father Daniels said. He was disappointed in the brevity of their conversation.

“During a game of Risk, perhaps?” suggested Syd, hopeful.

“I’d like that very much. Maybe next time I won’t let you win,” joked Father Daniels. Syd scoffed. “And any time you’re lost, Syd, just remember that you can always find the right direction here.” He pointed to Syd’s heart. “Though sometimes it means taking a leap, even if you don’t know where you’ll land.”

Syd waited a moment.

Something was obvious but he couldn’t figure out what…

“Wait, do you like really mean leap? Like, I have to actually jump off something?” Syd asked, worried.

“Following your heart can lead you anywhere, as you’ve certainly seen. You’ll have to leap many times in this life, and in many ways, my son,” Father Daniels told him…and waited a moment before adding. “…however, in this case – yes. Usually it’s a metaphor but, in this actual situation, it’s surprisingly literal. You’ll see soon enough. But every second counts, Syd, and if you want to save your daughter, this is the only way.”

Syd was surprisingly assured, now. No one really complimented him, or called him a good person, or even spoke well of him in any way—in fact, it was often the opposite. But now he felt compelled, certain of himself even under such uncertain circumstances. If it was the only way to save Abby then he would jump off any cliff, no question.

“Might I suggest closing yer eyes when you get to the end, ‘cause otherwise it’s gonna scare the be-jettles outta yah,” recommended Professor Bumbleflum, enthusiastically.

Syd stuck his head through the door to inspect the passageway inside the tree. “Are you sure?” he asked, skeptically, pulling his back head out.

The forest was, once again, empty.

“Man, I really hate it when they do that,” he sighed to himself.

And then Syd bent forward, as the passageway was an inch too short, and he passed through the opening. The doorway closed behind him and, after a few feet, the way back was pitch-black. So he continued forward, traveling the narrow corridor toward a glowing white—but then that light was gone, too. Syd reached his hands out, stumbling through the darkness toward the end. The walls felt soft and warm and moist, like bread dough, and an exotic scent grew in strength the farther he walked. It smelled of fresh cut grass with the hint of something unfamiliar. There was a thud as the ground became hollow, and the walls were gone, and the passageway opened up.

Syd stopped and stood up straight.

“Hello?” he called out, expecting an echo, but the sound was muted, his voice caught in the air as if he had spoken into a thick pillow. He was in the darkness of a vacuum, where light and sound didn’t seem to exist. And then Syd Siegfried saw the second most amazing thing he’d ever seen in his life. The black nothingness exploded with orange light. Syd had to shield his eyes since it was so bright, but it quickly died down. In front of him was an immense canvas, one that seemed infinite in every direction. Behind him, distant lights glistened like tiny diamonds on a black curtain. The corridor back was still visible but, as it was when he looked in from the forest, the passageway only seemed to exist when staring down it. He was standing on a stretch of wood (reminiscent of a pirate ship’s plank) that extended out into and over nothingness—which might have been terrifying had there not been so much going on around him.

An orb floated by, one that was the size of a baseball and glowing fluorescent white. It was just out of reach but it passed by close enough for Syd to see the intricate details of its cratered surface. It looked exactly like the moon, or at least the pictures he’d seen of the moon.

A beam of red shot across the canvas in front of him, and it moved so fast that Syd only saw the sparkling trail it left.

Syd felt he was on the edge of an entire universe until a curved beam the color of bronze swung in a circular path around him, followed by another, and another, and another, and this continued until there were so many he couldn’t count. Each swooped and spun to its own path, never crashing into one another. The gears inside a watch were the same way, crisscrossing and looping, and for a moment he entertained the thought that maybe, just maybe, he had been shrunk.

The curved beams disappeared, only to reappear much farther away.

Syd wasn’t afraid, and he knew what to do. Beyond the plank was a seemingly infinite drop. His feet inched forward until the toes hung over the edge. He felt like a kid standing on the edge of a diving board, waiting to jump in to the water. It might be warm, it might be cold. Should I just jump or do a dive? What if I belly flop? he jokingly wondered. Even though his voice was muffled to the point of being inaudible, Syd still reminded himself of one thing:

The only way out is through.”

—and then he propelled himself off as far as he could.

Weightlessness overcame him and it felt more like sinking than falling. It was as if he actually jumped into a pool but, instead of the chlorine and a sunny, fun blurry blue, he was stranded in a small universe. An explosion of cerulean like silent fireworks. Purple and gold embers sparked, and then faded away. A square, reflective metal dashed by. It was almost peaceful, serene—but then his body felt heavier, and a sickness filled his stomach while his stomach lifted into his throat. His arms and legs spread out as a tornado-like wind current blinded him and overwhelmed his body so that he was twisting and falling and spinning over and around and upside-down until Syd was dizzy and nauseous and could do nothing but scream—

CHAPTER *][]SIXTEEN[*—

A Union of Rebels

Syd’s eyes fluttered, focusing on a dirty Chuck Taylor shoe stepping over his head. It was early dusk, and he was screaming—which he abruptly stopped doing.

Another stranger stepped over his head.

I’m…lying on a sidewalk, Syd slowly realized.

And it wasn’t even like he was curled up and out of the way; no, he was spread out, arms and legs outstretched in every direction like a skydiver. He rolled over, sat up, and looked around. City Hall was nearby but Syd’s brain was scrambled and he couldn’t remember how or why he was there. Abby was on his mind (she needs my help, a distant thought screamed out) but everything was hazy. His memories were like an out-of-focus movie played upside-down.

“You alright there, young man?” a voice asked. Syd turned to find a police officer approaching through the Center Plaza archway. He had a paunch and grey mustache and wore the light blue shirt of a metro officer.

“Kime tryn. Franksu, poodle drofficer,” Syd greeted, slow to get off the ground.

The cop stared as if Syd was an alien.

“Surry,” Syd tried again, speaking in short sentences. He brushed the dirt off himself and tried act normal. “Yes, sir. I’ne pine, rank you.”

“You hopped up on goofballs?” the officer asked, eyeing Syd up from top to bottom.

“Hoptrupt on what?” Syd asked, confused.

The officer’s demeanor was gravely serious.

“What’s on your back?” he asked, eyes on the atlas container.

Adrenaline pumped through Syd. Finally, his brain kicked into high gear. “Paperwork,” he quickly responded. “And I’m in a hurry so, if you don’t mind…” He shooed at the officer as if dismissing a pestering bird. Syd didn’t like replying in such a rude way but this was Philly so it was perfectly normal.

The officer gave a flippant nod and headed back toward City Hall.

Everything came rushing back – Abby, the Vython, the monster in an old man disguise driving around the city in a white limo. Syd searched the crowd for a familiar face, friend or foe. No one. Traffic was heavy around South Penn Square, as usual, but there was no sign of the white limousine that had brought him there. Even if I see the limousine, then what? Fight everyone? Call the police officer over and tell him Ivan Risker is hopped on goofballs? None of it was realistic, Syd knew. But he was alone – that was a fact. It was all up to him. And the walkie-talkie tucked into the back of his pants was the only real chance he had to find Abby. Ideas swirled in his head: Should I use the walkie-talkie and pretend to be Oren and set up a meeting? Or maybe offer to trade the atlas for Abby? Or should I just bluff? He began thinking of the areas around him, where the limo would have to be in order to get a signal from the walkie-talkie. Chinatown was close. (He and Abby would go there to buy Pocky, one of her favorite candies, and the thought caused him to miss her so badly that it became an actual pain in his chest.) Arch Street was nearby, too, as was Market Street. The limo could even be as far as Penn’s Landing along the river. Every direction led to highways and water, from 76 along the Schuylkill to 95 along the Delaware, so they’d have to be within those boundaries…but that’s most of the city, so they could be anywhere, Syd accepted, discouraged.

Mimicking Oren seemed like the best shot so Syd reached back, grabbed the walkie-talkie, turned it on, turned up the volume, and held in the receiver. “Come in, empire. This is…A.L.F.,” he said, trying to sound like Oren.

He released the button.

No voice answered back, no static, nothing.

“Come in, empire. This is…Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” he tried again.

More silence.

Maybe they aren’t in range.

Or maybe they have a code for pick-up.

Syd began to pace the block and look at the nearby buildings. Fine-dining. Fancy clothes. Expensive hotels. There was a Masonic lodge on one corner and a department store on another. The department store had once been Wanamaker’s and Syd could remember drooling over the toys in their front window when he was a kid – though he never got any. That was a long time ago, though, and Wanamaker’s had changed to Woodies, and then Woodies shut down, too. Now the doors were closed, the windows shuttered, and major renovations were taking place inside.

He watched the traffic again. South Penn Square had four lanes that circled the rectangular block, with three stop-lights within the block. It was rush hour and each lane was backed up and moving slower and slower. A distant screech could be heard as a subway train pulled up to the underground station. Syd sat on the curb. Breathing was growing harder to do and he couldn’t catch his breath. Panic was taking hold—when something fuzzy and wet tickled his arm. Startled, Syd glanced to his side and found a red panda seated next to him, alternating between sniffing and licking his arm.

“Lloyd?” Syd asked, afraid he might be hallucinating.

The red panda stared up at him; then, she sat beside him.

Syd stood and turned to pick Lloyd up off the ground when the sting of a shin kick shot through his body. Someone—a short, hairy, pudgy, still-shirtless man had been standing behind him, waiting for the right time to strike. (This was the second time the shirtless pudge had done this but, to be fair, Syd had hit the man square in the nose while a bar burned down around them.)

“You!” Syd said, first shocked…then disappointed. Seeing this man was a surprise but not an especially positive one. Anyone else from Nidus would’ve been better.

“Yeah, me,” grunted the shirtless pudge—and then he snatched the walkie-talkie from Syd’s hand.

“Hey, I need that!” huffed Syd. It had taken less than five seconds for him to grow angry with this small man again.

“Oh, you do?” said the shirtless oudge, mocking Syd—and then he smashed the walkie-talkie against the sidewalk, shattering it into a hundreds of plastic splinters and wires.

Syd was stunned—then furious.

“Why’d you do that?!”

The shirtless pudge ignored him and bent down to fish through the broken walkie-talkie bits. “Found it,” he said to himself, grabbing a piece out of the plastic rubble. Then, he ordered Lloyd the red panda to follow, which she did, and together they disappeared into the crowd. Syd was frozen in shock for a moment. He was prepared to chase after the short, pudgy man, ready to hit him in the face again—

“Hi, Syd,” a meek voice whispered in his ear.

Syd ducked and jumped away, frightened.

“Sorry,” apologized Whiskers, holding his hands up defensively. He had been standing so close behind Syd that he had almost been leaning against him, just so he could whisper in Syd’s ear. It was weird to see him without the overcoat, instead wearing a peculiar silver shirt and matching shorts, but his hair was still shaggy and his eyes were wide, unblinking. “I thought if I was close and whispered, maybe I wouldn’t startle you this time.”

“No, it was actually [_much, much more _]creepy that way,” Syd responded, shaking his head with a large, appreciative smile. “But I don’t even care.” He hugged the skinny young man so hard that Whiskers grunted. “Feels like you’re gaining some muscle,” he added, releasing him.

Whiskers stifled a laugh.

“I don’t have much choice,” he bashfully admitted. “Agnorok is a lot of manual labor. It’s awesome!…but it’s a lot of hard work.”

Syd didn’t have time to catch up.

“That’s great and all but Abby was taken by a monster that’s dressed up like a scary grandfather and he’s driving around Philly in a white limo and we need to get her back.”

“I know,” nodded Whiskers.

“You do? Are you alone?” Syd asked, looking around.

Whiskers’ unblinking eyes scanned the rooftops around them. He pointed to the top of the shuttered Woodies building across the street. A man was standing on the ledge of the roof. Syd worried for the man’s safety—but then he recognized the man by his outfit: a distinct red suede overcoat, plaid button-up, and brown corduroys. It was someone he had briefly met in Nidus, a guy that had always looked bored and didn’t interact with anyone, not even when a fight broke out around him. The man was fiddling with something in his hand and, when Syd squinted (which made him feel extra old), he could tell it was an electric guitar the color of chocolate.

“Why is he up there with a guitar?” Syd wondered.

“To play music,” Whiskers answered as if it was obvious.

Syd was perplexed.

“How? He doesn’t have an amp.”

“He doesn’t need one,” replied Whiskers.

“What?—What’s going on?” Syd asked and reached for Whiskers’ shoulder—but Whiskers quickly smacked his hand away like blocking an attack.

“Sorry, they taught me to always defend myself,” Whiskers apologized for smacking Syd’s hand. “But I’m—I mean, we’re all here to help.”

Syd looked around.

“You and the boring suede guy with a guitar on a roof?”

“It’s not just the two of us, silly,” Whiskers chuckled. Syd was relieved, assuming there was an army ready to help them. Whiskers pointed somewhere else, behind them and up, way up over the archway that led toward the open foyer of Center Plaza. Syd shrugged, as he didn’t see anything special. Whiskers shook his head and pointed even higher, way above City Hall, to the tower overhead. The structure was hundreds of feet tall (so tall that it could be seen on the shores of New Jersey) and, at the tippy top, was a bronze statue of William Penn.

Just below the statue, Syd could see a puffed-out ball of brown hair.

“See,” Whiskers said, “Joan’s here, too.”

Joan was the teenage girl that had taken quite a liking to Whiskers. She had also said some very nice words to Abby, words that had resonated with Syd, words that made him question what was best for his child (to the point that his decision to leave Nidus had been a regret ever since). Now, this bushy-haired young woman was hundreds of feet over the city of Philadelphia, on a ledge just below the William Penn statue…and it appeared she was messing with her chin.

“What is she doing up there?!” Syd asked, terrified for her safety.

Whiskers squinted up

“She’s tuning her viola,” he answered, matter-of-factly.

“How is a guitar and viola going to help me get Abby back?” Syd asked.

“No-no-no, it’s not just a guitar and viola,” Whiskers quickly answered, trying to reassure Syd.

“Awesome!” Syd said, again relieved.

“Yeah, there’s also drums.”

Whiskers pointed upward again, this time to their left, across the street and on the corner opposite the shuttered Woodies, to the top of the Market Street Bank. A majority of the top floor windows were open and, in each of those windows, Syd could make out the silhouette of giant drums – at least twenty, maybe more. With Joan above City Hall, and the boring suede guy above Woodies, and the drummers in the bank, the musicians were arranged in a triangle over South Penn Square where it connected to Market Street, and Syd and Whiskers were right near the middle.

“I don’t understand. Why are they up there with instruments?” asked Syd, growing impatient.

“To play music,” answered Whiskers, innocently. He gave a thumbs up to the boring suede guy, who returned the thumbs up from the Woodies rooftop; then, Whiskers turned upward to Joan and gave her a thumbs up, as well. She, too, gave a thumbs up (and blew a kiss). Whiskers turned toward the Market Street Bank but hadn’t even given a signal when a hand reached out a window from the top floor and gave the thumbs up. “And it appears they’re ready—”

“WHOA THERE, HOTSHOT!” yelled a voice close by.

Syd and Whiskers’ attention turned to the street in front of them, where a chubby traffic cop, wearing a bulky white helmet with the visor up and obscenely large sunglasses underneath, had yelled out at a car that nearly hit him. They watched as the traffic cop, like a petulant child, stood in the way of the car and motioned for the driver to roll down his window, which the driver then did.

“I don’t like you as a person!” the traffic cop yelled at the driver and then stepped aside to let the car pass.

“Seems…unprofessional,” Syd said of the cop, mostly to himself.

The traffic cop remained in the street. In one hand, he had a stack of orange cones and, with the other, he began directing cars to merge into the other lanes – something he did by using weird hand-signals that looked made up and purposely confusing, even Stooge-like. The traffic cop set the orange cones along the street and the nearby alleyway, blocking them all off. The sounds of cursing and honking grew louder and louder, not just because of the traffic cop blocking lanes but also because the traffic light on Market Street had yet to turn green. Cars were backing up further and further while the light seemed stuck on red.

“Just tell me what’s happening,” Syd said once more, turning his attention back to Whiskers.

“It’s a Nidus tradition, they’re going to play music to signal—”

Whiskers was quickly interrupted.

“You two!” the traffic cop called out in a voice muffled by the bulbous white helmet on his head. Out of cones, he walked over and stood in front, eyeing them both up. Even with the oversized helmet, the traffic cop wore sunglasses that were oversized and blocked his expression.

“What can I do for you, officer?” Syd politely asked.

The traffic cop sniffed loudly.

“Are you now, or have you ever been…the baloney bandit?”

“…what?” Syd asked, confused.

“Thought so,” the cop nodded, the giant helmet bouncing up and down. “Did you know that William Penn wanted to call this state Sylvania, which is Latin for forests, so Pennsylvania really means Penn’s forest.” The voice was warm and familiar, though still condescending. The traffic cop took his attention off Syd. “What up, Blinky? You still wanna be my stretching partner?”

“Math?” Syd questioned.

Math removed the white helmet and sunglasses and tossed them both to the ground. He put on a pair of big, black-rimmed glasses on and pushed them up his nose. And, before he could protest, Syd wrapped his arms around the wide know-it-all and squeezed him tight. This helped rejuvenate Syd – seeing Math and Whiskers was a short boost for his beating heart. Syd had missed them more than he thought possible. He had never been one to have friends and, even worse, he hadn’t appreciated the new friends he had recently made, friends that were worth his time and attention and affection.

“Why are you dressed like a cop?” Syd asked, letting go of Math.

“So no one would bother me while I rigged the traffic lights,” he laughed, as this stunt was sure to cause a massive amount of traffic and upset a large portion of the city.

“Messing with the traffic lights?”

Syd didn’t understand.

Math had just opened his mouth to explain when a car pulled alongside the curb and rolled down their window.

“Do your job, crossing guard!” an angry driver yelled at Math, motioning toward all the traffic.

“Sir, it’s illegal to have a riffsinkin while operating a motor vehicle,” Math responded, mumbling the one word.

“A what?” the driver yelled back.

“You’re riflenskinen,” Math said, mumbling the word again, and this time pointing at nothing specific. Math also had a tiny police radio on his shoulder as part of the cop outfit, and he proceeded to talk into it as if it wasn’t made of plastic.[* *]“Dispatch, I think we finally found the baloney bandit. Wait—” Math looked at the driver. “Sir, what month is Alaska?” It was hard to tell whether the driver was more angry than confused when he sped off.

Math had a good laugh and began removing the traffic cop outfit, including the belt and blue police shirt, until he was in a sweaty, food-stained silver undershirt and silver shorts.

“It’s great to see you two again,” said Syd, proudly, “but I really need to know what’s going on with the music and the traffic lights and why you’re wearing silver outfits—”

“You boys wanna explain what you’re doing?” interrupted a stern voice. This time it was an actual police officer, the same one that had checked on Syd earlier. Older, with a paunch and grey mustache and blue metro shirt. His eyes were serious and searching them thoroughly.

“You want the long version or the short version?” Math responded.

Syd wasn’t certain if he was being a wiseacre or genuine.

(Whiskers was already hiding behind Math.)

“Give me the truth version,” the officer replied, unamused.

Math’s explanation was as succinct as it was honest:

“I was just impersonating a cop to disable the traffic-lights and block some of the streets so that all of the traffic passing City Hall was northbound from Arch.” A pause. “What’s up with you?” The final question was obviously just to be a wiseacre.

“Excuse me, son?”

The officer was certain he’d misunderstood.

“There’s a pudgy, shirtless guy around here somewhere and he’s using the transmitter from a walkie-talkie to triangulate the position of a—eh, nevermind.” Math was tired of having to explain himself. He checked his watch. “A few hundred people are about to storm the city in a minute or two so, for your own safety, maybe take a—”

“My safety?” the officer laughed, reaching for his cuffs. “Turn around, punk. Don’t you know impersonating an officer is a felony. Let’s go.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Math said and whispered something low at the officer.

“You don’t have time for this,” the cop agreed, turned, and walked away.

Syd’s mouth fell open. “I-wha-how…” he tried but found himself overwhelmed with questions.

“I know, right?” chuckled Math.

Syd took a deep breath.

“Can…can someone just please just explain what’s happening?” he pleaded.

“Yeah, we’re about to—” Whiskers started.

A single drum began to tap-tap-tap from the top floor of the Market Street Bank.

“Shut up,” Math cut in and smacked Whiskers’ shoulder. “It’s starting.”

Another drum joined in, following the same tap-tap-tap beat. And then another joined, and another, and another, all of them in perfect unison. But then they stopped.

A moment of silence passed.

“Let’s get Abby back,” Whiskers said, preparing himself.

“Ready, Syd?” asked Math.

Syd was still baffled.

“Ready for what?—What is happening right now?”

And then he caught sight of it. The white limousine. It turned the corner, moving slow with the traffic. His heart beat faster. His daughter was approaching.

The drums started, not just a few but all of them, and it wasn’t slow—this was the beginning, the unification of two dozen drummers drumming out an aggressive rhythm, every beat a union of rebels. It wasn’t just music – it was a summons, a call to action – and it played so loud that it was as if the city had never known noise before. The acoustics were incredible, blaring out the top-floor windows yet the reverberations could be felt everywhere; the drummers could have been marching down the middle of the street, it was so immediate and propulsive that their rhythm became the pulse of Philadelphia. A simple melody joined the beating of the drums as the boring suede guy began to play. The guitar was much more measured, accompanying the drums softly, gently. It was the start of a patient artist, with an anxiousness to his melodic strums as if building momentum. The viola was next and Joan’s introductory notes ripped across the blocks of Philly as might a low-flying fighter jet. The initial chords were majestic in an operatic way, regal, and she hit a powerful crescendo immediately.

All of the cars around South Penn Square suddenly stopped, forcing the white limousine to stop with them. Every direction was gridlocked, with blocks and blocks of unmoving cars. (They were probably honking and cursing but the music drowned them out.) Market Street looked like a parking lot, and Syd finally understood why Math was purposely creating traffic.

The limo was trapped.

And then, complete anarchy…

People stormed out of every building within a two-block radius—and not just a few people but dozens, and behind them followed dozens more, and dozens more followed them. It was an unending mob, dozens upon dozens of people pouring onto the streets of Philadelphia from every store and apartment building and restaurant and bank and basement and any other random doorways—and the top-floor drummers split into three separate beats, seamlessly creating three harmonious rhythms, each of them propelling the tempo faster. More people rounded the corner, passing City Hall. More people emerged from the alleys. Sewer grates opened and more people climbed out. Hundreds were flooding South Penn Square from every direction. The boring suede guy had been patient, letting the melody simmer, until that moment—when it boiled into distortion and heavy metal, each chord a thrashing whirlwind of rambunctious power. Windows blew out into the street as the throbbing mass of hundreds weaved between the traffic and surrounded the limousine, leaving a few feet of open space around it.

Syd made his way through the crowd, toward the limo. There was plenty of space to pass between everyone, as they weren’t standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and the crowd was surprisingly calm and respectful of others considering the circumstances. Not a single person climbed on top of the vehicles stuck in traffic, nor did they scream obscenities or smash windows – so they obviously weren’t from Philly. And they were all wearing silver shirts and matching shorts, like Whiskers and Math.

Nidus had come to Philadelphia.

The drums and guitar stopped and, for a moment, the only music remaining were the dulcet tones of Joan’s viola, which slowed into a potent mix of sorrow and rage and yearning and hope – pieces of her own livid heart, at that moment – but then that, too, stopped, and the streets of Philadelphia were silent.

Syd made it to the front of the crowd in time to see someone he recognized step forward. It was a giant, hulking man, one of the few not wearing silver (he was still dressed in Viking garb). Dezzy had befriended him in the bar, and his ilk had taken a liking to Whiskers, for whatever reason. The ginormous man lumbered over to the back of the limousine and, using a fist the size of a mallet, he punched through the window. He grabbed the back door by the frame, gripped it with both hands, and tore it off the hinges; then he delicately set the car door on the ground and peeked inside the limo.

“It’s empty,” he called back.

Syd’s heart sank.

“Wait,” the giant called out and stuck his head into the limo further, and further, and then finally climbed inside. The limousine rocked with the giant’s weight and he disappeared behind the tinted windows. South Penn Square had never been as silent as it was at that moment. Cars stuck in traffic ceased their honking. Hundreds were waiting with bated breath, watching. No one moved. An ominous red light FLASHED inside the limo, and it stopped rocking…

The entire crowd put one foot back, lifted their fists, and braced for a fight – all at once, in a single balletic motion. Syd would have considered it incredible if not for the fact that, at that moment, he realized he was in way over his head.

A hand grabbed Syd’s arm at the elbow.

“Syd, what are you doing? Come on!” demanded Math, pulling Syd back toward the sidewalk.

Syd followed but a commotion caused him to turn his head back.

The limo shook violently, first side-to-side and then back-and-forth. A loud grunt from inside—and the hulking man suddenly appeared in the open doorway of the limo, struggling to escape. To the absolute horror of everyone in the crowd, dozens of pale, greyish hands reached out behind him, grabbing and pulling and yanking. He could only yell one word before they pulled him back inside the limousine.

“VIKES!”

For the first time, Syd heard true fear in Math’s voice as Math ordered him to “Run!” Syd turned and did as he was told, following Math back toward the sidewalk. Whiskers was eagerly waiting for them to come back, a terrified look on his young face.

The sounds of scraping and struggling filled the air nearest the limousine but it was quickly muted by two dozen drums, an electric guitar, and mournful viola as they resumed the tune they had stopped only moments before. Syd glanced over his shoulder and he could see the crowd surging and rushing, arms flailing, but the enemy was obscured and he couldn’t get a good look at the threat.

“Which way?” Math shouted to be heard over the music.

Syd faced forward and—a creature jumped in front of him. It was pale and chest-high, with black bulbs for eyes and pointy teeth. The white skin sparkled in the dusky light and it snarled through a pointed nose, which was sharper than a human’s, and it twisted its head around to stare backwards at Whiskers and Math. Patches of long, white hair swished from the sides of its bulbous head as it twisted back around. Out of reflex, Syd screamed out in horror—and quickly decked the creature. It dropped to the ground, unconscious.

Syd’s knuckle hurt and it felt as if he had punched stone.

Math and Whiskers were startled by the creature—but then they gave Syd an impressed nod. Syd didn’t notice; he wasn’t about to wait around. “Follow me!” he ordered, hollering over the chaos surrounding them, and then ran towards the only place in the area he knew to be remotely safe. Over his shoulder he saw one of the creatures leap into the air, more than twice its height and over the heads of several people, to land on someone nearby. They were feral, rabid creatures, and it wasn’t physical strength that made them a threat. Their skinny, frail bodies were everywhere, in every direction, and they were still growing in numbers (though Syd couldn’t figure out how or where they were coming from). Enough of them might overwhelm the mighty residents of Nidus.

Syd, Whiskers, and Math reached the entrance to City Hall, which had been the first safe place to pop into Syd’s head – and he was the first one through the front doors. Syd stopped and looked around, disconcerted. Inside, the music and chaos were muted – but the building, which had been filled with busy people earlier, now seemed abandoned, the hallways deathly silent and still. It was eerie.

Whiskers rushed in and ducked behind Syd.

Math was close behind, wheezing, and he pushed through the doors—with an especially ugly Vike on his heels. The glowingly pale creature slammed its body through the slim crack of the door. It grasped at Math and just barely missed. Syd went to push the door closed when – whish – a brown blur whipped through the air. It was a solid kick and Whiskers’ foot nailed the Vike in the head and knocked it backward—but, instead of letting the door, Whiskers followed the Vike outside to kick it again. This second kick hit the Vike so hard that it twisted around completely and – thud – hit the ground so hard that it shattered like glasses. Whiskers had but a fleeting moment to enjoy his bravery before realizing that a horde of countless more Vikes were sprinting toward him, faster and faster and faster, and they were nearly there.

“Get back in here!” Syd and Math yelled in unison.

Whiskers gave a terrified whimper and rushed back inside.

Syd tried to slam the door shut but two Vikes, running full-speed, smashed against the glass and blew the door wide open. Whiskers jumped aside—the door narrowly missing him—and Syd fell backward, landing on the polished linoleum. The first Vike through the door pounced on top of Syd; their bodies felt like porcelain, he noticed. The other Vike leapt at Whiskers but Math had grabbed a sign post, charged forward, and he knocked the creature right out of the air—then Math swung the base of the sign-post like a gulf club the Vike on top of Syd, shattering the rabid creature into a thousand shiny shards of white stone. Whiskers was shutting the doors and, using two metal latches atop the frame, he locked the front entrance—just as more Vikes smashed against the glass front.

“They’re still gonna find a way in,” warned Syd.

But it was already too late.

Glass shattered in an adjacent hallway and a mob of Vikes entered City Hall.[_ Pitpitpitpitpit_] went the sound of bare feet frantically running on linoleum, and it would only be a few seconds until they converged on the front lobby. After an exhausted, grumpy sigh, Syd again led the way. With Math and Whiskers close behind, he sprinted down the only hallway he was familiar with, toward the only destination he knew to be close…

Almost there, he thought, reassuring himself that it was almost over.

The lobby exploded in a hail of glass shards and twisted metal but no one looked back. Vikes were pouring in by the dozens and they immediately caught sight of Syd, Whiskers, and Math. They howled like errant foxes as they chased after. Even when the howling stopped, their growls never did, remaining so deep within their throats that it was almost a gurgle. The feral horde was closing in fast behind them when Syd made a sharp turn down a nearby hallway and through the old, rusty door of a stairwell. Math and Whiskers followed and Syd jammed the latch and locked the stairwell door behind them. The metal pounded hard as Vikes ran into the door full speed, echoing in the dark, dank stairwell so loud it was almost deafening – and the pounding never stopped. The door was metal and it was unlikely the Vikes would break through, so Syd, Whiskers, and Math took a moment to rest.

“Where…are…we?” asked Whiskers, breathless.

“Did you just…trap us…in…a…creepy…stairwell?” Math asked, wheezing.

“No,” Syd answered, “we’re going back to Nidus.”

They were mostly quiet walking down the stairs, just the occasional sound of Whiskers groaning and swatting at cobwebs. He even slapped at the back of his own head (when Math gently tickled his neck, pretending to be a spider). Reaching the bottom, Syd opened the metal door at the bottom – and, again, everyone winced at the glistening, fluorescent white light beaming through the doorway. The short hallway hadn’t changed in the few hours since he was there, three elevators on either side, the bronze emblem in the center, and, on the opposite end—

“ABBY!” Syd screamed.

But his daughter wasn’t alone…

The old man make-up and costume were gone. The Gurlach was dressed in an all-black, three-piece suit and blood red tie, and he watched them from the other end of the hallway. The black bulbs of his eyes darted from Syd to Math to Whiskers and then back to Syd. Abby was standing in front of him and his arms were draped over her shoulders, his long, spindly fingers locked together just beneath her neck; it didn’t appear threatening, more fatherly, more doting.

Abby spoke first.

“You can run all day but I will always be ahead of you, Syd,” she said in a flat, dazed voice. The screech of bending metal echoed down – the Vikes were breaking through the stairwell door. “And my family will always be right behind you.”

Syd was beaten and he knew it.

There was no more running, no more fighting.

He walked to the first elevator on the left and hit the button.

“Why that one?” Abby asked in her trance-like monotone while the Gurlach gently stroked the skin of her throat with one of his long fingers.

“There’s a riddle behind you,” Syd answered in a defeated tone.

The riddle, which Syd remembered well, read:

Side-by-side-by-side lay six eggs in a basket.

One-by one-by-one, each will be taken in time.

The first disappears before two when Mr. Blue sneaks through.

Unseen at a quarter to three is Ms. Green, who grabs one and flees.

A fellow named yellow passes by, to thieve a third and leave by five.

Mrs. Black waits for a sign, then commits the crime at a quarter past nine.

At ten thirty there hurries dirty ole White, who snatches then scurries back into the night.

Last but not least is Red, a thief from the east who also stole one and fled.

Six eggs stolen, as the day passes by, but one egg is still in the basket:

Who has it & why?

“But father, won’t you please explain the answer to me?” urged Abby. Her tone was cloying and the phrasing sent a shiver down Syd’s spine. It was forced, the words insincere and unnatural…

“The Penn emblem is a makeshift clock-face,” Syd told them, his voice melancholy. “Each color corresponds to an elevator and, since red is last – something it clearly states – the last egg was taken with the basket at 7 a.m., which is still within 24 hours of the stealing of the first egg.”

The Gurlach was silently staring at each of them when a loud CLANG shook the entire hallway. The metal door had crashed into the stairwell with such explosive impact that it was as if the building was collapsing above them. Endless thumping followed as an army of Vikes stampeded down the stairs.

The elevator doors opened, revealing a plain white interior.

“Get on, father,” Abby said. A sly, evil smile crossed her lips and it made Syd’s skin crawl.

“Does that—are we—do you mean—” Math pointed at himself and Whiskers, unsure if they were supposed to get on the elevator, too.

“Your idiot friends will not see the light of tomorrow’s sun, I can promise you that,” answered Abby, still speaking only to Syd, “but they may come with us, too.”

Syd, Whiskers, and Math got on the elevator while the Gurlach and Abby took their time, strolling across the hallway at a leisured pace. The stairwell rang with the thundering chaos of a thousand maniacs as the hallway door violently kicked in and over—and Abby and the Gurlach causally stepped into the elevator. Vikes howled at the bright white light, briefly blinded, but that didn’t stop them from crawling over one another like insects, a mass of pale limbs and gnashing, pointed teeth pouring through the doorway, their arms reaching closer, closer, closer…

The elevator doors closed.

CHAPTER *][]SEVENTEEN[*—

The War in the Barren Lands

Soft muzak played in the background but the elevator had otherwise settled into an uncomfortable silence. The Gurlach remained motionless while Abby stood in front of him, his hands resting on her shoulders. Whiskers was pretending not to study the Gurlach’s features, his unblinking eyes darting every direction but always returning to the ghoul’s grey, pointed face, while Math stared at the monster without shame, sometimes distorting his face in disgust.

Syd, on the other hand, never took his eyes off Abby.

“Are you alright?” he asked her.

“I will be well in due time, father,” Abby answered without taking her eyes off the elevator doors.

That’s it! Syd thought, fed up, and he threw a surprise punch at the Gurlach’s face—but the blow was caught mid-air by the Gurlach’s five spindly fingers. His grey upper lip lifted into a snarl, revealing a row of pointed, yellow teeth, and, using just a small bit of strength, he tightened his grip and crushed Syd’s right hand.

Whiskers winced and turned away.

Math stepped forward, ready to help, but the Gurlach stopped him with a single glance.

“You still underestimate him, father,” Abby said. “An ant cannot threaten a boot.”

And with that, the Gurlach released his grip.

Syd cried out in pain—but immediately stopped himself.

“Are you okay?” whispered Whiskers, in a silly attempt to be secretive.

“I’m fine,” Syd lied; the pain in his hand was excruciating.

“You lie,” Abby stated, “but do not fret – your suffering will end soon.” Her posture was so straight it was bizarre. Her body was forward, both eyes on the elevator doors, and she hadn’t moved since they got on.

Syd rolled his eyes.

“You remind me of my ex,” he told the Gurlach, cradling his limp hand.

“I bet he gets that a lot,” Math joked, smiling. The Gurlach stared at him but Math pretended not to notice, instead checking his wrist for the time (there wasn’t a watch on it) and then widening his eyes as if realizing he was late for something (even though he was just staring at his bare wrist).

“I’m going to get us out of this,” Syd promised Abby.

“No, father,” she replied, smug with confidence, “you will not.”

The elevator stopped, and the doors opened.

“Well, this is…new,” Math said, uncertain.

Outside of the elevator was a desolate landscape of rock, with a smoking volcano in the distance and the sky a bright blue. Syd, Math, and Whiskers stepped out first and the Gurlach, with Abby at his side, followed close behind.

“Should we maybe check the atlas?” Whiskers suggested.

Syd stopped so he could reach for the container on his back.

“Keep walking!” shouted Abby.

Startled by the outburst, they continued in the direction of the smoldering volcano while Syd got out the atlas out. “Where do you think we are?” he asked, handing it to Math. He barely looked at the atlas before pointing to a blank area with a small bit of writing and quickly answering, “We’re right there.” But Syd was curious how Math could be so certain of their location without knowing the speed of the elevator, or even what direction they had been traveling.

“Call it a hunch,” Math replied.

Syd closed one eye and studied the atlas.

“Whoa, you can read the atlas now?” Math asked.

“You just close one eye. I think it’s an optical illusion,” explained Syd.

“But that’s not how I read it,” interjected Whiskers.

“I think you can read it because you never blink. Either that or because you’re color blind,” Syd replied.

“I am?” asked Whiskers, innocently; Math and Syd nodded. “Oh… I wonder what else I can’t see?”

“Can you see the lines on my palm?” Math asked and held up a hand—but when Whiskers leaned in to look, Math flicked him in the forehead.

“Don’t flick Whiskers,” scolded Syd.

“Yeah,” Whiskers chimed in, “and you only caught me off-guard because I was staring at that huge mustard stain on your shirt.” He pointed to Math’s shirt—but when Math looked down, Whiskers flicked him in the nose.

“Would you two knock it off?” Syd scolded again, as if dealing with children.

“He started it!” Whiskers whined.

“I did not!” Math responded.

“Stop it, you imbeciles!” Abby snapped. “We are in the Barren Lands. And the atlas will read: There is no exit here.”

“He’s right,” confirmed Syd, having read those exact words.

Whiskers thought a moment.

“So…what’s that mean?”

“I think it means we’re stuck,” Math shrugged.

“This world was created for one purpose,” replied Abby.

A long pause…

“Which is?” Syd asked, stuck in suspense.

Abby answered with a single word:

“War.”

The world around them was unique, if nothing else. The ground was entirely rock, jagged and dark grey. There were no trees or grass or dirt, no buildings or people, nothing. They passed fissures in the surface, mostly thin and shallow crevices but they walked along a gulley so deep that the bottom was black darkness. At least the sun was out and the sky was a bright blue and massive clouds were creating vast shadows roaming the surface. The crest of the volcano was a few miles away and it puffed out an unending plum of grey/black smoke as if it were a chimney – every so often, the ground vibrated with tiny tremors as it gurgled.

“Stop!” demanded Abby.

Syd, Whiskers, and Math stopped walking.

“Stay!” demanded Abby.

“Anyone else notice we get ordered around like pets?” Math whispered.

The Gurlach came around front. Abby was beside him, his pale, spindly fingers like spider legs wrapped around her tiny hand. With his back to everyone else, he examined the sky, and the volcano, and the surrounding horizon. His wide nostrils huffed into the air like a large dog, sniffing at the air. He released Abby’s hand and walked off, alone. The shine off his white, bald head glistened as he headed off into the distance.

Everyone was still a moment.

“Oh…kay…” Math said as he and Whiskers shared confused glances; both of them were surprised by the sudden departure of the villain.

Syd quickly rushed over to Abby and, careful not to use his right hand, swept her up into his arms. Thanking every element in the universe for her safe return, he planted sloppy kiss after sloppy kiss on her rosy cheeks and forehead and nose and neck. He squeezed her little body tight against his chest but, when he pulled back to stare into her eyes, he found them vacant. He asked questions and told her that he loved her, reminded her of “the rat—no, wait, the guinea pig back home.” He spoke of her mother, and her friends, and the atlas, and then described how he had missed her so badly that the world had lost all shades of color – through it all, however, Abby showed no acknowledgement of Syd or her surroundings, and she gave no response.

Syd turned to Math and Whiskers for help.

“What he’s doing to her…” Math said, a bit hesitant, “…it’s more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s beyond what the people in Nidus can do. It’s like he’s trapped her in a dream that only he can control and she’s sleepwalking through it.”

“But how do we stop it?” Syd asked, caressing Abby’s auburn hair with his hurt hand. Math’s eyes went sad and turned to the ground; he had no answer. Syd’s eyes teared up but he kept it hidden from the others. At least she’s with me again. His hand may have been crushed, and it ached like no other pain he’d ever felt, but it would take the jaws of life to separate him from Abby again. Having her back made his life solid again. A part of his heart had returned; he was excited to be alive once more.

And he was prepared to fight to keep it that way.

“If she’s sorta sleepwalking…maybe we can wake her up,” Whiskers said.

Syd thought about it a second.

“How? Splash water on her face?”

“We’d have to find water, though,” Whiskers said, disconcerted.

It was unlikely that there was any water nearby.

“You know what would be even better?” Math asked, smiling, “…is if we could find Whiskers a nice, refreshing glass of saltwater with a dash of sand mixed in for flavor.” (He was hoping that maybe laughter would snap Abby out of her daze; she didn’t react.)

“That was you!” Whiskers said defensively and then turned to Syd. “Math kept telling me that saltwater and sand were the secret ingredients in soda pop but you know what saltwater and sand tastes like?—like saltwater! With sand in it!—It’s just like it sounds! Blech!”

“I do miss being stuck on Island Flasko Beddy Bugs or whatever you called it—I still don’t know why we let you name it, Syd. But we did have fun.” Math was reminiscing about their time on a beach in the middle of nowhere, during their first trip to Nidus. “I’m still a little upset that you didn’t want to be my stretch buddy, Whisks.”

“I didn’t say no, it was just that I-I…was never really certain what ‘stretch buddies’ really meant,” Whiskers thoughtfully responded, considering it a topic that might be worth revisiting.

“Pretty sure it meant two doofuses being weird,” a female voice chimed in with a distinct lack of emotion in her tone. Each word sounded hollow, devoid of meaning or inflection. Together, and in a slow, gradual motion, Math, Whiskers, and Syd turned their heads toward the voice.

Dezzy stared back with a blank expression.

No one had heard her approach and she may have been there all along.

Whiskers gave her a shy wave.

Math stuck his tongue out (she galumphed at him in return).

Syd gave her a respectful nod.

“What’s up, traitor?” Dezzy grumbled at him, obviously mad over their last encounter—but then she saw Abby and her features softened.

“Hey, kiddo,” she greeted.

When Abby didn’t respond, Dezzy shot Syd an angry glance.

He let out a disquieting sigh and told her, “It’s a long story.”

“Is it the creeper? Where is he? Where’s the Gurlach?” she asked with an actual a hint of anticipation. She wasn’t scared or curious about the Gurlach; no, Dezzy was excited to meet a real life ghoul—well, as excited as someone like Dezzy could get. But everyone had lost sight of him, too preoccupied with Abby, and the Gurlach had disappeared into the surrounding landscape.

“He’s around here somewhere,” Math told her.

“What’s he like?” she asked, still a bit eager.

“He’s like the monster equivalent of a trash bag,” added Whiskers, quietly.

“That’s so rad,” she said, the monotone returning to her voice. “Guess I’ll see him when the war starts.”

“Why does everyone keep talking about war?” Syd asked, worrying about the safety of his daughter. When Math and Whiskers sighed in response, Syd saw guilt in their faces – they weren’t telling him something.

“You tell him,” Math urged Whiskers.

“No, you do it,” Whiskers pleaded Math.

“The people of Nidus have been using you as bait,” Dezzy answered without any provocation. “They knew the monster and his spawn would come for you and Abby. Everywhere you’ve been doing, everything you’ve done, everything that’s happened since you got the atlas – it’s all been a part of their plan.”

“We’ve been bait…this whole time?” asked Syd, first dumbfounded and a bit saddened; then, little-by-little, an anger stirred inside him as he thought over everything that had happened in the last few months. “They wanted Abby kidnapped? They wanted me beaten in a wine cellar? They wanted my apartment destroyed and my office destroyed and my life ruined?”

“Well…sorta,” Whiskers half-agreed, obviously miserable about it.

A sincere voice called out from behind them:

“I’m sorry, Syd.”

Everyone turned around to find Keaton standing alone in the wide open space. His chin was up but he had a solemn expression. His milky white eyes were hidden behind sunglasses but the rest of his outfit was just as classy and unkempt as before: tuxedo, half-tucked dress shirt, untied bowtie, etc., like a wealthy bachelor in-between parties.

Syd was furious, his face turning beat red.

“You used my daughter as bait?”

“It isn’t that simple—” Keaton tried to respond.

Syd cut him off.

“It never is with you people! My child is comatose right now because of you! You’ve repeatedly put our lives in danger! And now my child and I are literally stuck in the middle of a war that we have nothing to do with?! How dare you!”

Keaton wanted to say more but held back. His expression dropped and, even with his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, Syd could see the look of shame that crossed his face.

Syd’s tone lowered.

“Is the atlas really true? There’s no exit here?” he asked.

“Yes,” nodded Keaton, “there’s no exit here. But—”

Syd shook his head and held up his broken hand and told him to “Just stop. I don’t care what you have to say next.”

“That volcano is active and about to erupt, too,” added Dezzy, with the slightest smirk. “I wasn’t sure if anyone mentioned that yet. The volcano’s gonna blow up big-time.”

Syd was so angry that his body was shaking.

“It’s gon’a be alright, daddy,” Abby told him, leaning back off his chest.

Syd’s breath caught in his throat as he looked into his daughter’s eyes – and Abby stared back. Finally, she had returned to normal. Abby was in his arms and she was back. Tears streamed down Syd’s face and he hugged her so tight she gasped – nevertheless, she hugged back. His knees wobbled. It felt like years had gone by since the last time they were together.

Syd looked over Abby’s shoulder, at Keaton.

“I can’t even remember the last time my child was safe together – and it’s all your fault,” he said, his voice breaking. It was an overwhelming combination, both immense joy from having his daughter back and the intense anger of being used, of being purposely put in danger.

“Vee did not ‘ave any option,” a woman said as she walked passed Syd.

The Crimson Beauty joined Keaton, her chin down-turned and her face half-covered by scarlet (almost blood-colored) hair, which seemed to be her trademark – and rightfully so, as it was rare, not only because of the gorgeous color but that it was long and smooth and flowed like silk over her black skin. (It didn’t hurt that she was beautiful, as well.) Her slim dress was a deep blue (her favorite because “it iz zee colour of zee Aegean sea”), with a single strap over the left shoulder and a thin slip halfway up her right thigh – baring enough of her dark skin to cause all three men to stare a bit longer than what is polite. She was stunning as ever, more beautiful each time Syd saw her. (Math was actually drooling a little.)

The bored-looking man in the red suede overcoat and plaid button-up, with brown corduroys silently joined Keaton and the Crimson Beauty—just as a shirtless, pudgy little man stepped from behind her, seemingly out of thin air. The group from Nidus was growing and they faced the Melancholy Dreamers – until Dezzy walked over and joined them.

“We wanted to tell ya, Sydney!” called an old, jubilant voice.

An arm reached around Syd’s shoulder to give him a gentle squeeze—and then the crook nose of Professor Bumbleflum leaned in close to Syd as he kissed Abby’s forehead.

“Flumblegum!” cheered Abby.

“Hello, my dear,” the Professor said before removing his arm from around Syd’s shoulder to hobble on his cracked grey cane over toward Keaton. Syd watched him walk over—and then, to his surprise, he noticed that Math had already left his side. Math was beside Keaton and eating a candy bar, a sign that he was nervous. (His lips were already smeared with chocolate.) He stared back, confused why Syd was looking at him with such surprise…and it slowed his arm as he brought the candy bar back to his lips.

Whiskers was still next to him—but then Syd noticed that he was standing in shadow. The giant was still dressed in Viking garb – the leader of Agnorok – and he barely noticed Syd; instead, he was looking down at Whiskers with both arms crossed. Without a word, Whiskers and the giant from Agnorok walked over to stand beside Keaton.

Syd was holding his daughter alone.

“I swear that I wish you didn’t have to stay for what comes next,” Keaton told Syd. “I want nothing more than for you and Abby to be safe, for you to know the truth behind everything that’s been happening – but there’s no more time for explanations, and the only way to keep her safe is by joining us.”

Keaton held his hand out as a symbol of help.

Syd scoffed.

“Daddy,” Abby said and looked into her eyes, “it’ll be fine. Everything’ll be fine. Promise!” She spoke with such certainty that Syd didn’t know how to respond.

Syd didn’t move.

Keaton and Dezzy and the Crimson Beauty and Math and the shirtless pudge and the Viking giant and Whiskers and the bored-looking man in suede all stepped aside – revealing someone standing in back of the crowd. A young woman with frizzed out brown hair and a slender figure walked between everyone, toward Syd and Abby. Her name was Joan – leader of the fifth borough, viola enthusiast, kisser of Whiskers, and soother to his daughter. She had spoken such kind words to Abby that it had stayed with Syd, making him rethink the decision to leave.

“Please, Syd. Let me protect her. Help us fight and this can all be over. Otherwise, Viktor is going to keep coming back until he gets what he wants.” Joan spoke in a calm, sweet voice.

Abby reached an arm out and Joan walked closer.

“We may not have been able to prepare you for this,” Joan continued, “but your daughter and I have been talking every day since you left our city. She knows exactly what’s happening – and she’s very brave.”

Syd was baffled.

How were they talking? he wondered.

“The microphone, daddy,” Abby explained after noticing her father’s confusion. (She had been given a glistening purple microphone when they left Nidus, her only reminder of their journey. Every night since, she had been staying up late and talking to Joan under her covers. The microphone would glow purple, which let her know Joan was on the other end, and the two of them would whisper to each other. Their conversations were instantly personal, as if they had been sisters for life; and having such a close friend was an incredible experience for Abby.)

Slowly, Syd set Abby down so she could stand on her own two feet. They were surrounded by a landscape of nothing and nowhere, just desolate rock and a fuming volcano in the distance. So much smoke had billowed out from the mouth of the volcano that the sky was beginning to darken. Syd looked from Abby’s bright eyes to Joan to the crowd behind her. Everyone was staring at him, waiting for a response…but Syd was at a loss for words. I don’t have a choice, he kept thinking but, still, something was holding him back.

And then Abby tugged on her father’s arm.

Syd looked down.

“You don’t have to be alone anymore, daddy,” she said.

“Okay, that got me,” Syd admitted with an emotional sigh. And it was that moment when, walking together side-by-side, Syd and Abby finally joined the residents of Nidus. And by joining the crowd, Syd felt something uncommon, something a bit confusing – it felt right. For the first time in a long time, Syd felt like he belonged. And he was certain that his decision was right, something that hadn’t happened in forever. Syd lifted his arms, expecting a cathartic hug from the crowd as they rejoiced—but no one hugged him; in fact, no one even turned. They remained facing the spot where Syd had just been. He turned to see what they were staring at—and that’s when he saw it, saw why they hadn’t turned toward him, saw what they were up against…

An army.

Syd and the Melancholy Dreamers and the leaders of Nidus were facing a jaw-droppingly massive army. The Gurlach was marching toward them in front of row upon row of porcelain-colored Vikes as far as the eye could see. The endless horde of crawling, rabid creatures filled the entire landscape like large, white cockroaches, with the only gaps between them caused by fissures in the rock surface. (There may have been a limitless amount of Vikes but they were stupid – a point made most apparent by the large amount of them that poured down holes and feel between crevices.) They were also moving slower than before, in Philly, each of them crawling over one another like animals but not ferociously, frantically scurrying toward them like before – they were more measured, more cautioned. To the Gurlach’s sides were Oren and Lydia, both of them still wet from the forest of the Vython. (Lydia’s hair was frizzy and unkempt, her shirt torn; Oren had lost the dress shirt, now in a short-sleeved white tee shirt and dress pants, his oil hair hanging over his bruised face.) And just behind them lumbered an enormous creature, one that appeared to be almost human if not for the fact that it was much larger than an average person (but still similar in size to the Viking from Agnorok, if a bit bigger) and it only had one eye in the center of its face. It had a thick beard, brown mohawk, and hairy chest, and he wore no shirt but had two leather straps crisscrossing over his chest. His pants were red spandex, too, like a wrestler.

A long pause followed.

“So…was all of that behind me this whole time?” Syd asked, stunned by the army of monsters approaching.

“Yup,” Whiskers nodded.

Syd didn’t understand.

“Like, even during the emotional part and all that? There was an army behind me?”

“Literally the whole time,” added Dezzy, almost bursting – as if she had been dying to tell Syd that an army of monsters was behind him.

“Of course,” Syd said, exasperated.

“Yeah, it’s been really scary,” Math said, then quickly added, “—and emotional. ‘Cause I was totally paying attention to what you were saying, like, the whole time.”

Syd laughed. Typical of his entire adventure, especially lately – everyone had seen what was coming except him. “How did they even get here—wait, how do they intend to leave if there’s no exit?” he wondered.

“You misunderstand,” Professor Bumbleflum told him, “there’s no exit here – which means you have to bring your own. And you have to use it only at the right time.”

Syd shook his head.

“Of course,” he said again, as if it made sense – even though it definitely. did. not. (It was also the first time that Professor Bumbleflum had actually answered a question instead of giving some horrendously frustrating response, which Syd really did appreciate.) “And what’s with the cyclops wrestler?” He pointed at the giant monster walking beside the Gurlach.

“That’s the Belkan,” Keaton said; then warily added, “He’s…something new.”

A pause while Syd awaited more information.

He got none.

“Of course,” Syd said as if it made sense – even though, again, it definitely did not; it didn’t even answer his question.

“Rogan, you think you can handle the Belkan?” asked Keaton.

The giant Viking from Agnorok grunted in response. (Syd presumed he was agreeing but couldn’t really tell.)

The ground shook as the volcano exploded with a plum of jet black smoke.

“Vee only ‘ave a vew minutes,” the Crimson Beauty announced.

“Glory or Death!” shouted the shirtless pudge.

“Are those really the only two options?” a concerned Whiskers asked.

“I’m sure there’s a middle ground,” responded Math.

“Of course,” Syd said as if it all made sense to him.

It did not.

“Where’s the music? I thought it was a tradition,” enquired Syd; he was referencing the massive show the citizens of Nidus had put on at City Hall earlier, when they ran into the streets for battle (it was the last fight Syd had been involuntarily tossed into).

“We don’t need music this time,” the balding, usually bored-looking man responded in a harsh voice. He had removed the suede overcoat and tossed it to the ground, and his eyes were no longer tired – no, his eyes were narrowed in anger, fiery and determined – and he was rolling up the sleeves of his button-up shirt, preparing to fight.

“And there’s no way Abby can leave?” Syd asked a final time.

Everyone else shook their heads.

“Viktor knows that no one can leave this place, not yet,” answered Keaton. “We’re trapped for now and there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Didn’t you wonder why he just let you go free?”

“Look, there’s a lot going on right now!” countered Syd. He was getting frustrated – but after few deep breaths, he was able to calm. He had managed to win out over his fear lately, but his anger was still a bit raw and uncontrolled.

Keaton tilted his head, sticking an ear into the air.

“Where’s Herbert?” he asked.

The giant Viking of Agnorok grunted in response.

Keaton nodded in agreement.

“Vython probably got lost,” Whiskers said, translating the grunt to Syd – who shook his head at the absurdity of the statement.

The Gurlach, Oren, Lydia, and the Belkan – with an infinite Vike army behind them – all stopped about fifty yards away. The greying sky matched The Gurlach’s pale skin, especially his bald, leaden scalp, and when he snarled, the black of his gums and the black of his three piece suit made each of his pointed, yellowing teeth almost radiant by contrast. The soulless black bulbs of his eyes darted between each of them – and, for the first time, Syd realized that (like Whiskers) the Gurlach didn’t blink. He had no eyelids.

Dezzy’s eyes widened with delight as she finally saw the Gurlach—and she released a stream of questions, calling across the open space things such as: “What are you?—Can you see at night?—What color is your blood?—Were you alive during the black plague?—If you bite me, will I become you?—Did you ever meet the pirate Blackbeard?—What’s your favorite breakfast food?—My friend Whiskers here said you were the monster equivalent of a trash bag, care to comment?” (Whiskers shrunk back a little when Dezzy pointed him out.)

The Gurlach ignored all of the questions; instead, he spat, “Where’s West Vincent?”

“He’s in New York,” answered Keaton.

“I’ll deal with him another day then,” the Gurlach snarked, his lips curling into a grisly smile as his head snaked to the side.

Abby and Joan were in back and Syd glanced at them.

Joan nodded toward him; she would protect Abby.

“Shall we end this?” Keaton called out, slipping a black glove over his right hand. He had removed his glasses, tossing them to the ground, and his milky eyes were unfocused but glaring toward the army.

Rogan, the Viking of Agnorok, lifted a club made from the hunk of a tree, and the Crimson Beauty pulled out an old Derringer, keeping it at her side, and Professor Bumbleflum twirled his grey cane—then leaned on it with a pensive gaze. Math finished eating his candy bar, Dezzy let out a catcall, and Whiskers screamed, “COME AT ME, YOU STUPID BUTTS!” Everyone turned to look at him. Whiskers was shaking his fist in the air like an old man but, slowly, he lowered it once everyone stared at him.

“Too much?” he shyly enquired.

“Actually, that was amazing,” Math said, proud of his little buddy.

“Really?” Whiskers asked. “I almost called them all garbage water but I thought it might be—”

The Gurlach screeched like an eagle, signaling the start of the battle.

Everyone charged forward.

Keaton and the Gurlach approached one another as if nobody else were around. Syd raised his shoulders, lifted his fists to cover his chin, and went for Oren. Dezzy and the Crimson Beauty both pointed a finger at Lydia—then they broke into a mad dash toward her. For the first time (maybe ever), Lydia looked doubtful, intimidated…but then she tightened up, steadied her footing, clenched her fists, and prepared to fight. The Vikes were swarming from every direction but a small group held them off as best they could so the others could fight. Professor Bumbleflum twirled his grey cane so fast that it was like a fan blade, and he used it to keep the Vikes from advancing or closing in on them. Math and Whiskers quickly learned that the most damaging weapon against a Vike was another Vike – so they worked together to grab, twist, and shove Vikes into one another as hard as they could. The balding man – who had once looked boring and had been wearing suede – was now thrashing like a punk rocker as he ran straight into a mountain of Vikes that were trying to flank them. And the shirtless pudge was eye-level with the short Vikes and keeping the fight close with each and every one he could reach. Joan kept Abby away from the fighting as best she could but Vikes were breaking through, forcing her to fight. Abby was behind her, picking up loose rocks and chucking them at nearby Vikes, chipping away anything they hit.

The ground shook violently. The volcano blasted out and it echoed across the land. This was the first eruption and it left like a nearby building had exploded, the air so hard that it slowed everyone down, even Keaton and the Gurlach. Some of the already-cracked Vikes exploded from the concussive impact. The sky filled with more blackness—and then volcanic rock fell from the sky. It landed everywhere, crushing large swathes of Vikes, but it missed the core group, who were in an operatic, constantly-shifting fight. The Vikes were closing in, forcing everyone into close quarters. Dezzy threw a punch toward Lydia but missed, hitting a Vike in the jaw instead – the impact of which sent spiral factures throughout the Vike’s body. Syd and Oren struggled to hit each other—and then Syd found himself backed against the Belkan, who turned around to stare down at the small human behind him. The Belkan lifted his fist to smash tiny, puny Syd—but Rogan used the momentary distraction to smash the wood club over the Belkan’s head, knocking him down.

The air grew foggy with smoke and floating ash.

Another explosion—this time much closer. It was the Crimson Beauty as she fired a shot from her Derringer into a leaping Vike. The creature shattered mid-air and fell into a hundred shiny, glass-like pieces. The Crimson Beauty then threw the empty gun at another nearing Vike and broke its shoulder off (though it kept scrambling after her).

Keaton and the Gurlach were in a bare-knuckle boxing match. The Gurlach was better and it was obvious, as punch after punch connected. But Keaton, who didn’t tire or appear hurt, landed a single punch – and the Gurlach howled in agony. In response, the Gurlach threw punch after punch and hit after hit knocked Keaton back – but then there was an opening, and Keaton jabbed again. A white light flashed from the impact of the punch as it caught the Gurlach in the face – and his ghoulishly pale skin turned charcoal black from cheek to his ear. Again, he howled in pain and returned to hitting Keaton.

Lydia ran by with Dezzy on her back as Syd threw a Vike out of his way (which Rogan, the Viking of Agnorok, smashed into a thousand pieces when he hit it with his wooden club like a baseball bat). Syd and Oren approached one another, no longer delayed. Syd hadn’t been satisfied with their earlier fight, as Oren had been knocked unconscious with a single punch, so he was especially looking forward to the rematch. Oren threw a wild punch, which Syd dodged—before quickly returning with an uppercut. The counter-punch caught Oren’s jaw—and he collapsed, unconscious.

Syd shook his head, again disappointed.

Whiskers ducked under Rogan’s massive club and then kicked a charging Vike so hard that it flipped backward, knocking back the crowd behind it—which then opened up enough space for Math to grab another charging Vike, swing it around full-circle, and launch it back the way it had come, shattering countless others in the process. They shared a celebratory glance but were interrupted by three simultaneous things: the shirtless pudge flew through the air (the result of having just picked a fight with the Belkan); a smaller Vike jumped on Whiskers back and grabbed his hair; and Lydia, finally free of Dezzy, accidentally ran straight into Math. They fell to the ground, Lydia on top.

“Sorry, you’re not my type,” Math told her as she stared into his face.

Lydia growled in response—but, before she could attack Math, Dezzy pulled her off the ground and back into their catfight. Lydia didn’t even have time to defend herself with any fancy fight moves since Dezzy attacked like a swarm of hornets, stinging her from every direction.

The Belkan was losing against the Crimson Beauty, who was easily ducking each of the slow giant’s attacks—so, to defend himself, the Belkan began throwing his fists every which way. Syd was near, holding the Vikes back—when a child’s cry stopped him. Distracted, one of the Belkan’s wild thrashes caught Syd off-guard and sent him flying deep into the Vikes. He was barely able to stand, surrounded by enemies on all sides – when the balding, usually boring-looking man (who often dressed in suede) came flying through, tearing apart any Vike unlucky enough to be within his reach. Syd was momentarily freed and he ran back toward Abby, who had cried out because Joan was lost in the battle and a Vike was in her face—but Dezzy reached her first and kicked the Vike between the legs; it screeched and ran off, injured. Oren was also near, as well, slowly waking—when Math knocked him unconscious again with an accidental kick; he wasn’t fighting but running from the Belkan. The Belkan wasn’t fighting, either, but running to escape the Crimson Beauty – who was hanging on the Belkan’s back (though the Belkan didn’t know it just yet)—and, as the three of them ran by, it forced Whiskers to leap out of the way and onto a Vike that Dezzy had just knocked down.

Syd reached Abby and picked her up, ready to fight with her in his arms—when the Vikes slowed, all of them turning. The Gurlach hit Keaton several times, knocking him further and further back into the crowd—and that’s when they began to attack Keaton all at once, piling on his back and grabbing his legs to overwhelm and trip him up. Syd and Abby watched as Keaton fell to the ground and more Vikes climbed on top of him.

Almost everyone came to the rescue.

The shirtless pudge darted through the crowd like a cannonball, throwing some of the Vikes off before he, too, was overwhelmed. Rogan chucked his club into the crowd, shattering every Vike in its path, before he stumbled over a group of them and fell; the Vikes kept him down. The balding, usually boring-looking man—who was shirtless and panting like a warrior—rushed in but the Vikes continued to swarm and, eventually, he were overrun, too. The Crimson Beauty, riding on the back of the Belkan, grabbed the giant’s hair and pulled hard, directing him where she wanted—and then she wrapped her arms across the giant’s neck in a sleeper-hold. As the enormous Belkan fell, crushing countless Vikes along his way to the ground, the Crimson Beauty leapt off to help free Keaton—but the Gurlach stopped her. With one hand, he caught her by the throat and held her up, off the ground. Struggling, the Crimson Beauty gasped for air and kicked, to no avail, and he eventually handed her off the surrounding Vikes. Joan ran at the Gurlach, too, trying to save her friends, but he knocked her away as if swatting a fly and, soon after, she was overwhelmed by Vikes, too.

“Daddy, do something!” pleaded Abby.

That’s when Syd saw something through the fog of black smoke and floating ash—and a plan took shape.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he assured her.

Syd set Abby down as Math and Whiskers and Dezzy joined them. The surrounding Vikes gnashed their teeth but left enough space so that they could face the Gurlach alone.

“HEY!” Syd screamed.

The Gurlach turned toward them—just as the volcano fully erupted. The ground shook, and another blast echoed, the air again became stiff. Vikes fell over but the Gurlach, Syd, and the others stood their ground. Behind them, bright orange magma blew into the air and down the volcano ridge. A dark black cloud was flowing over the land and it would encompass them soon.

“You ready to end this?” Syd called out.

Dezzy, Math, Whiskers, and Abby balled their fists and prepared to fight…but not Syd; no, Syd took a step closer. He cleared his throat.

“Take on me!” Syd called out.

No one moved, and even the Vikes seemed confused.

The Gurlach narrowed his eyes.

“You want me to take you on?” he snarled.

“Taaaaake…ooooon…meeeeee!” Syd called out again, with more rhythm.

Whiskers was the first to understand.

“Take me on!” he joined in falsetto.

“I’ll…be…gooooone!” Syd continued.

Abby knew and joined with Whiskers:

“In a day or…twoooooo!” they sang together.

By this point, Dezzy and Math understood; and they, too, joined in.

“Taaaaaaake…ooooooon…meeeeee!” they sang together.

“Take me on!” Whiskers sang over them in a high falsetto.

Vikes exploded as Herbert the Vython suddenly tore through the darkness of the fog and ash, his large body crushing and smashing and breaking and throwing Vikes every which way—and that’s when Keaton shot out from the crowd and directly at the Gurlach – right arm extended, fist clenched. The blow connected with such force that the impact shot out a blinding white light. And with that, the Gurlach took one step backward, and then another, and then he fell, shattering against the rocky ground, his body crumbling beneath the cloth of his black suit and scattering out in a thousand shiny pieces. Lydia gasped, a look of horror on her face—and the Vikes gave a deafening screech before, all at once, they fell to the ground.

Syd picked up Abby and covered her face. Whiskers stood strong while Math ducked behind him for cover. Dezzy held her arms out, embracing the volcano ash and smoke as it consumed them—and then everything was lost to the rolling black as the eruption finally reached them.

And then…slowly…a city took shape as the smoke cleared.

One-by-one, the disorientation wore off and they each realized that they were standing on a circular, Amethyst stage. Around them, the entirety of Nidus was gathered, surrounding them with a sea of happy faces in all directions.

A long, silent pause before—

Syd and Abby, Dezzy, Whiskers, and Math each shot an arm up in triumph—and the crowd went wild, followed by the biggest celebration in Nidus history, one that spanned the entirety of the city. Dezzy, the Crimson Beauty, the shirtless pudge, and the rest of the Delahunt Administration set off fireworks. Math, the balding, boring-looking man, and the rest of the mopey Department of the East posted a sign in front of the building – for the first time in nearly a century, the organization was closed for the night. Whiskers and the Agnorok crew were the most rambunctious, a large group of giants laughing and drinking and fighting with one another in the crowds along the streets. And each of the borough stages was filled with musicians, their beautiful music forming a chorus that echoed throughout the city. Joan played her viola (with Abby beside her) on the Amethyst stage while Keaton marched the school band down each of the city blocks. And Syd took a moment for himself, watching the festivities while sitting atop the hill overlooking Nidus…but he wasn’t alone for long. Professor Bumbleflum quietly approached, took a seat next to Syd, and handed him a bag of apples. Neither of them spoke, which was quite pleasant, and a short time later, Herbert the Vython’s head emerged from the forest to rest beside them. Together, the three of them watched the festivities while Herbert ate his apples – and Syd could even see Abby dancing on the Amethyst stage. It may have been the happiest Syd had ever been in his life.

But then the giants from Agnorok found Syd and picked him up (against his protests) and carried him back into the city, to the bar where they had been several times before. The walls had a green design, and the second floor had three rooms, and there was a back area for gambling. Math and Dezzy and Whiskers and Abby were there, waiting for Syd – and, as the giants carried him in through the doors, each and every person in the bar gave a cheer and crowded around to hug him.

Syd had never felt anything like it before; he felt accepted.

Again, the partying resumed – but with a much smaller crowd.

The boring guy in suede took pictures of each person using an old camera with an enormous flash from a handheld bulb. He caught individual moments that would live on, in infamy:

The shirtless pudge, leaning over the poker table, making a wager that Math couldn’t drink an entire bottle of some mysterious blue liquid – the loser of which would have to give up a finger of the winner’s choosing. (Syd was going to protest but didn’t. [_They know what they’re doing by now, _]he accepted.)

Whiskers, covered in lipstick kisses from Joan.

The Crimson Beauty, dipping Syd back as she kissed him.

Dezzy, balancing an apple on top of her head as she pulled the string back on a bow and arrow. (No one was sure how she’d acquired the bow and arrow but many suspected the Crimson Beauty was behind it. Dezzy eventually released the string and the arrow sailed across the room, narrowly missing several people, and into the apple she was aiming for; however, it happened to be an apple that a person was eating – a person who had no idea someone was aiming a bow and arrow at them.)

Math, taking a bite out of a long hoagie while its contents fell out the back of it.

Keaton, popping the cork off a bottle of champaign that was bubbling over. (Dezzy was below it, catching the excess with her mouth.)

Abby, as she proudly stared at her father, who smiling as he watched everyone from a seat in back.

Whiskers, spitting out a drink.

Math, laughing so hard he was crying, having just sent a cocktail of water and salt, with a sprinkle of sand, over to Whiskers.

And then all of them in one picture that captured the pandemonium of the situation: Syd hugging Abby, Joan kissing Whiskers, Dezzy sword-fighting with the Crimson Beauty, Rogan the Viking with Math on his shoulders, Professor Bumbleflum and Keaton arm-wrestling, the shirtless pudge kicking a shin, Lloyd the red panda sniffing around the bar, debris in the air, and smiles all around.

In addition to the photographs, Abby also drew everyone a picture. Using cocktail napkins and an old pencil with no eraser, she began to sketch things she’d seen: Professor Bumbleflum’s cane, Math, her daddy, the monster called Gurlach, a creepy version of Mya, a creepier version of Lydia, Oren, and on and on. Eventually she ran out of things she knew and instead drew things that were fun, such as a more snake-like version of Herbert, and a howling wolf, and even a weird elf-thing. Once she had drawn enough, Abby then went around handing them out to everyone as gifts.

Everything was going well until…

“We have to get back now.”

The record scratched and the music stopped.

It was Syd.

“Abby’s mother thinks she’s been kidnapped. The FBI is sure to be involved by now.”

“Why do you always think the FBI is immediately coming for you?” asked Math.

“I really don’t know,” Syd shrugged; but he did always imagine that Abby’s mother would make a call and then suddenly helicopters would swarm the city and men would drop out of the sky in search of him.

“Actually, I spoke with Abby’s mother earlier,” the man in the suede overcoat said, his voice a droll, flat tone. “She knows not to be concerned.”

“How did you do that?” wondered Syd.

“I have a way with words,” the droll, bored looking man replied.

“Syd, you have a good deal of history in Nidus, whether you know it or not,” began Keaton, drawing a deep breath – he was ready to tell a story, to explain everything.

“Wait-wait-wait…I can tell you’re about to tell me something important,” Syd interjected, “but I need you to hold that thought.”

Keaton was flabbergasted.

“You’ve been searching for answers the whole time…” he said.

Syd gave a wry smile.

“Abby and I have to leave,” he said, eliciting groans from every direction. (For once, Syd wasn’t the most frustrated person in the room.) “Hey, you all had to know this was coming,” he chuckled. “We still can’t just stay, not yet—however,” he quickly continued before anyone could protest, “Abby’s school ends next week. She could come back then.” Abby beamed at her father. “And…I’ll come with her. Take some time off work and bring her here. And then you can tell me whatever long story you’re about to start.”

There was a pause.

And then Dezzy stood on a chair, and lifted her glass in toast:

“We are the Dreamers, no longer Melancholy. No risk or burden shall split us asunder. With love, we will face every challenge. And only with courage will we continue to be SO AWESOME!”

Cheers, and hurrahs.

The goodbyes followed soon after but it was brief because it wasn’t farewell – it was, “See yah soon, buddy.”

And then Abby and Syd headed into the storage seller alone.

The elevator at the end opened its doors and showed a white interior, the way home. They boarded and, without pressing a button, the doors closed and the elevator moved. Abby was falling asleep against his shoulder as soft muzak played in the background but she took the moment to lift her head just long enough to whisper into her father’s ear, “I love you, daddy.” Syd told her that he loved her more than the sun burns bright and then kissed her cheek. A short moment later, the white elevator ceiling folded back as they reached their destination. A grate overhead separated and opened, and the white elevator walls became dark and turned to decaying brick, and they rose out of the ground on a metal platform. It was dawn and the street was empty.

They were back in Philadelphia.

And together, Syd and Abby went home.


An Atlas for Melancholy Dreamers

It’s the spring of 1987 and Syd Siegfried has won a mysterious atlas that will take him on an incredible journey—but what starts as an exciting trek through Philadelphia suddenly becomes a perilous adventure into the wildest unknown. With the help of his plucky daughter and an eccentric group of misfits, Syd will need to follow the clues and solve the atlas in order to get home – but when they uncover a shocking secret, nothing can prepare them for what comes next…

  • ISBN: 9781370483877
  • Author: M. Chris Benner
  • Published: 2016-12-22 03:50:39
  • Words: 101158
An Atlas for Melancholy Dreamers An Atlas for Melancholy Dreamers