Everything was in flux. From one day to the next it seemed that nothing, no matter how basic, was guaranteed to remain unchanged. But even in Tortus Bay, where once a month the fundamental forces of reality upended themselves, Henry relied on one thing: Whenever the world might go fuzzy, Niles could make it clear again. But it wasn’t he who answered the door.
“There are three rules in this house,” Clair said. She leaned against the door-frame, arms crossed, with a strange glimmer in the eye. “One: no shop talk; two: no magic talk; three: no talking about any event which may or may not have transpired yesterday. And four: no talking about how tired we are. That wasn’t one of the original rules, but I think the committee will back me up once they get a look at you.”
“Yes,” Henry said, “hello to you as well.”
“Do you agree?”
“I suppose I have to.”
She pulled him into a tight hug. In sharp contrast with the last time they’d been in close proximity, she now smelled of fruity shampoo and damp cotton.
Free space in Niles’ living room had been forcibly achieved by shoving the excess stacks of books against the walls. Some sort of complicated board game was spread out on the table and part of the floor around it, consisting of dozens of plastic figurines and hundreds of cardboard tiles. Kara and Niles hunched intently over the chaos. “What is this?” Henry asked.
“Sorry,” Niles said, “Clair insisted that she answer the door. Didn’t get a chance to warn you.”
Clair swept back into the room, and rolled a handful of colorful dice. “The host doesn’t get up. That’s rule number five.”
“We have an even number now,” Kara said. “Can we please switch to the trivia game?”
“You don’t want to play this one out?”
“Come on, he can be on your team if you want.”
It was game night. After a moment’s hesitation Henry settled in, and the four of them sat around Nile’s small table, moving pieces, drawing cards, and rolling dice. There were homemade chocolate-chip cookies to snack on. Eventually Niles produced a pizza from the kitchen. Bruce broke in every now and again, sniffling madly at the source of attention that was not him, until he got his fill of head pats and belly rubs. Kara and Clair had each brought a bottle of wine with them, and Niles provided several more beside.
Somehow, despite all logic and reason, Clair’s rules worked. Under her watchful stare none of them dared broach a forbidden topic, and so they talked about pleasant nothings. Henry’s exhaustion melted away. The tangled knot in the pit of his stomach came loose, and he found he was able to laugh again.
“I swear, this die only rolls fives,” Clair said. “Okay, ignore that one, but I’m serious. It was like six fives in a row.”
“Is this something that you guys do?” Henry asked. “Have I been missing out this whole time?”
“Never once.” Niles took the die from Clair, and rolled a five. Her eyes became saucers. “But apparently word got out that I have a stash of games in the garage. Haven’t played most of them. They were left over from the previous owner.”
“And you thought, ‘why not invite everyone over now for their inauguration?’”
“I came looking for you,” Kara said.
Clair nodded. “So did I. Knew you would show up eventually. Now shut up and play.”
A clear, pleasant night fell while they played. Darkness seeped through the window into their bubble of oblivious light. Over the course of the night, Henry found himself casting sideways glances at Clair. That mischievous glimmer stayed, but he thought there was something else hidden underneath. “Are you okay?” he asked.
Her face puckered sour. “Who’s turn is it?” Kara passed her the die, and she busied herself pretending to read the instructions on the board.
“I’m serious,” he pressed. “You spent a month out in the woods. How are you?”
“This is a violation of the rules!” she said, wagging her finger to soften the sudden bark in her voice—but the three of them only leaned back and gave her expectant looks. She sighed, set the die aside, and spoke slowly. “Physically, I am fine. In my head, I am not. In my heart, I am not. Is that what you want to hear?”
“I only wanted to hear the truth.”
“Then there it is. Are you surprised? None of us are doing okay. Three people died. People I knew. Well.” As she spoke, her words came more frantic, until by the end she was nearly shouting. “And I should be at home crying for them, but I don’t have a house to go home to. It’s still in pieces from Leia’s ransacking, and the power was shut off. But all of that should be obvious, so I have no fucking idea why you would make me say it. No, I’m not okay. Are you?”
Henry set aside his wine. “No. I’m not.” He looked down at his limp arm. “I’ll be number four, soon enough.”
Her eyes locked onto his. They were solid, for a moment, as she processed the words. Then her lips started trembling, and angry tears spilled down her cheeks. “Fucking liar.” She scrambled toward him, knocking over glasses and game pieces. “You fucking liar,” she said again, taking him by the collar. “Tell me that’s not true.”
Niles gently pried her away, and handed her a package of kleenex.
“Teresa thinks we might still find a cure,” Kara said. Her voice was quiet.
Clair sat in a blubbering huddle, dabbing her eyes with tissues.
“And there might be something,” Kara continued, “that I can do with my charms. Some way to protect against whatever it is that’s hurting you.”
“I’m giving the charms back. Both of them.”
Now it was Kara’s turn, to wear a disbelieving expression. “Why?”
“You can’t keep going on as you have been. If I hadn’t been there…”
“That’s never happened before.”
“What if it does? You’re stretching yourself too thin.”
Kara’s face became stone. “It’s my art, Henry. This is what I do.”
Clair sniffled. “This is why we had the rules.”
A hand on Henry’s back made him jump. Niles had come around behind him. “Do you want to step outside?”
They walked by moonlight under a dense canopy of stars. A song of cricket chirps and rustling grass surrounded them, but they did not speak. After a lap around the house Niles took his hand. They leaned against a rickety wooden fence. In what passed as the village’s mini suburb, their view was less than inspiring, but they pretended.
“I’m not very good at this,” Niles said. “I’m not used to it. It’s like waking up early one day, going to the window to watch the sun rise, and it never comes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing used to change around here. We got a baby a year, and maybe a death too—but they were expected. A person could build a life like a blanket, and sit wrapped in its warmth for decades. Now change is coming, no matter what anybody does.”
Henry considered his next words carefully. “Change is good. If you live your life in the same blanket, or looking back at a blanket you lost, you might never recognize the options in front of you. Sweaters, for instance.”
Niles’ hand ran up his arm. “A sweater?”
“Or a snuggie.”
“No, not that.” Niles pulled him in, and their lips met in the dark.