1.19: The Festival, part 3

“What the hell took you so long?” Clair spoke out of the corner of her mouth, all of her attention focused on the glimmering metal pipe in her hands, and the pair of wolves snapping at her heels. Neither of them looked away from her weapon, even as he stood exposed in the clearing.

She was the last person he expected to see, and for a moment Henry was dumbfounded. After her dramatic appearance at his apartment, she hadn’t shown herself again. Had she come straight here? Was she trying to help? His own trio of wolves hadn’t followed him into the clearing, but the angry red welts they left across his body still stung. Above, the sky was a still and uncompromising grey—one of the apparent effects of the growing storm which had engulfed the park, at the center of which he now stood. “How was I supposed to know to come here?”

“I told you,” she said. With every swing of the pipe, she took a single step backwards, and the wolves advanced. In this way, they slowly circled the old oak tree in the center of the clearing. “Through your window.”

“I couldn’t hear anything you said.”

Clair’s eyes flicked toward him, and her attention broke. The larger of the two wolves hooked its snout beneath the pipe and jerked it aside, allowing the second to close in on the opposing angle. She took several stumbling steps back, feigning kicks at the drooling set of teeth lunging for her abdomen.

Henry brought his foot down on a stick. The snap finally caught the wolves’ attention, and both of them turned. Clair swung forward hard, driving the pair back together, and their balance was restored. One swing, one step back. One swing, one step back. “It’s that charm around your neck,” she said. Her voice was strained. “Were you really that scared of me?”

“I don’t know how I feel.” He watched her swing wide—too wide—and be forced to kick out again to keep the wolves away. “I don’t think those things are exactly real.”

“Real enough to me.” She jerked her leg, exposing torn cloth and blood streaking down her calf.

“Okay. Real.” He swallowed. “How do I stop all of this?”

“You have to bring back Emmaline Cass’ locket.”

He held it up. “Ahead of you there.”

“Try putting it back in the ground.”

“Are you making this up as we go along?” Henry waited for Clair and the wolves to round the far side of the tree, then darted forward. How scared were they of her metal pipe?

“I found that locket buried here,” Clair said. She spoke loudly, almost screaming, and the wolves stayed focused on her. “It wasn’t part of my stash, and I had the good sense not to move it. I might have figured you were an idiot, or a thief, but it was my mistake to think you wouldn’t be both.”

Henry fell to his knees at the base of the tree, and dug his fingers into the dirt. Fire shot through the welts on his arms, and his shoulder screamed in protest, but he knew he had to move fast. There was no other option. Clair slowly came around the other side of the tree, her assailants desperate in their attempts to push her back. 

The hole grew. With an almighty effort he heaved aside fistful after fistful of earth, opening the space a foot deep, and dropped the locket inside. He held his breath. Nothing happened. “It didn’t work!”

“Go deeper.”

“What?”

You have to trust me,” she shouted, “dig down deeper!”

He threw everything of himself into digging. He clawed, scraped, and tore, until he was coated in mud and three of his nails hung loose from his fingers. Blood flowed freely from his hands and his shoulder, streaking up and down his arms with the muck.

Clair backed up to the edge of the rapidly deepening hole, and there held her ground. Her heels sunk in, and her body twisted left and right with her increasingly desperate deflections. The wolves fanned out, flanking her, striking out with less fear now for the glittering weapon.

Several feet down he ran into thick, twisting roots. He tore through them with the remainder of his fingernails, until they too peeled back off his fingers. Then he bit in with his teeth, whipping his neck back and forth like a dog, swallowing mouthfuls of damp and wormy earth. The roots gave way, and the bloody nubs of his fingers met rotted wood as Clair screamed above him.

There was no time for distraction. Henry peeled back the board like paper, uncovering a casket. He stared into the empty eyes of a flesh-less skull within. The tattered fabric of a decorative hat clung to her crown. Emmaline Cass. Buried beneath the tallest tree in the park which bore her name.

With another strangled cry, Clair fell. Her body crumpled into the hole beside him. Blood dotted across her shirt.

Henry reached forward with shaking hands, clasped the locket closed around the skeleton’s neck, and closed his eyes. Any second, he was sure the weight of a wolf would come crashing down on him. Its teeth would sink into his neck.

Nothing came. No weight, and no teeth. 

He opened his eyes to the full light of day, and the fresh scent of grass. The sky was clear. The storm was over. Clair crawled atop him, her body trembling and frail. Blood dribbled out of her mouth. 

She pressed her hand into his chest, and a bizarre look came over her weary face. Questioning, and then awed. The pressure of her hand increased, and then she was lifting off of him, raising into the open air like a feather caught in the breeze. “Thank you,” she said. She soared further into the air, finally disappearing into the obscuring treeline. 

***

Henry pulled himself out of the grave, and lay sprawled on the ground. He looked up at fluffy white clouds. His hands bled, pulsing with spasms of pain. His shoulder was cold. His legs twitched. In the distance, there was a siren. Much closer, a rustling in the leaves.

That’s it, he thought, they’ve come to finish me off. 

The rustling continued, but came no nearer to where he lay. Henry shifted his head, fighting fresh nausea at the movement, and looked across the way to a figure poking through the trees.

The man looked back. He was tall, and old, with receding hair and a plain grey suit. Despite the extra years of lines on his face, Mathas Bernard was unmistakable from his photo. There was nothing in his eyes, and nothing in the slight smile that lifted his lips. He stepped back into the foliage. 

Henry let his head loll there on its side, musing idly to himself that he should be having a greater reaction. The man was dead—yet there he was. And what of it? Perhaps it seemed blasé, compared with the other things he’d seen that day. Perhaps he was rapidly losing blood. There was no feeling in his hands. He listened to the sirens approach, and watched the flashing colors reflect on the bright green leaves.

“Don’t move him. We have to be careful. Call Teresa, and tell her what happened. Yes. Now!” Sheriff Leia Thao’s face materialized in front of him, coming together like a fuzzy jigsaw puzzle. Henry tried to turn his head, and a pool of black washed over his eyes.

“You’re going to be fine,” she continued. Her voice sounded confident, which he found soothing. It also sounded very far away. “But I wouldn’t look forward to it, if I were you. We have some questions that need answering, down at the station.”

1.18: The Festival, part 2

There is no place safer that you could be, than here at the Anderson with me.

Henry hadn’t meant to fall asleep. At Kara’s insistence he sought out the makeshift bedroom in the guttyworks of the Anderson Warehouse, dried himself off, and pulled on a baggy change of clothes. Then he sat on the cot, and found that he could keep his eyes open no longer. No matter what is chasing you, it won’t be able to find you here.

Now he rose, disoriented and exhausted. The rain had stopped, but not more than a couple hours could have passed. There was a tiredness in him that went beyond the physical constraints of his body. Magic was real. It flowed through the village every month. Clair knew how to fly. Kara made charms that actually worked. The crimson brand on his clavicle bore witness to that truth. How much deeper did it go?

Henry stepped out on the scaffolding, beside the wall-length mural of the boy smoking a cigarette, and surveyed the empty floor below. Kara’s voice trailed down to him from above. She sounded weak. “Up here.” 

He followed her voice to a ladder against the wall that led him onto the roof. Dawn was fresh outside. Milky yellow clouds covered the sky, pushing back the fledgling purple of night. “How long was I out?”

 “Not long.” Kara sat on the edge of the building, her back propped up against a length of ventilation, looking out at the village. The bags under her eyes were darker than ever, and her skin shone nearly translucent in the yellow light.

“Did you haul yourself up here?”

“I’m not as bad off as I look.”

He sat down beside her. “Didn’t you sleep at all? Aren’t you tired?”

“Exhausted. But every time one of my charms activates, I can feel it. I won’t be sleeping today. Nor will I be leaving the warehouse,” she said, nodding toward the horizon,” and I recommend you follow suit.”

Henry followed her nod, and realized that he’d been wrong about the sky. It wasn’t a case of dawn’s light pushing out the darkness. The sun was fully risen, but it did not shine down on the park. There, and only there, was something that he could only think to call a storm, swirling like a tornado, blotting out all light in its vicinity. “What is that?”

“Nothing natural. I’ve been watching it for a while now, and all I know is that it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before.”

A looming sense of dread settled over him. What were the chances that something like that would just happen to occur over the park? What had Clair been mouthing to him, only a few hours before? “So this is weird, even by your standards?” he asked.

“Weird, and getting bigger.”

And it was. Even as he watched, the edge of the black cone—the storm—reached out to cover a few more trees. Beyond the park, the wind scattered garbage and detritus down the vacant streets of Tortus Bay. “Kara, why are we the only people watching this thing? Where is everyone else?”

“Folk stay inside on festival day. It’s an old tradition. They have their own things to do, or else they’re frightened of what they might see.”

Henry thought that wasn’t entirely unreasonable. “Isn’t there someone we can tell?”

“There are no people left who would come.”

“What’s going to happen? Will it just keep expanding?”

“I’m afraid it might.”

There were a thousand questions he wanted to ask. A thousand things that he needed to know. The storm raged on, expanding, its interior hidden by obsidian gusts of wind. “Clair can fly,” he said.

“I know.”

“I think she might be dangerous.”

“I know.”

“And she broke out of jail last night.”

Kara looked at him. “She did?”

He did not return the look. His eyes were locked on the vortex. Every now and again, it cast out sheared leaves and shorn branches as evidence of the veiled damage it wrought on the park. “I stole the locket she had hidden there. One with the name ‘Emmaline Cass’ inscribed on the side.”

“I see.” She breathed out one long, slightly uneven breath. “When an object becomes strong enough, it can come to belong to a certain person or place. I imagine that necklace I made you wouldn’t fit so comfortably around another’s neck. It knows you well enough, by now, that it would try to find its way back. And perhaps if you lost it, you would try equally as hard to reclaim it.”

“I have to go in there, don’t I?”

“You have to make a decision,” Kara said. “Keep in mind that people can just as easily belong to their places. You were brought to Tortus Bay by feelings that you couldn’t fully understand. I was the same way. Now, I belong to this village so deeply that I think the leaving might kill me. If you go into that park today, the same will happen to you. This village will become a home to you like a prison is to others. So you have to choose—but whatever you do, do it quick.”

***

Henry wasn’t sure if he was going in.

For as long as he’d held onto an inkling that there was something different, or bigger, about the world than what he’d ever known, he never once imagined anything as different or as big as what loomed before him. The storm of obscuring darkness now encompassed the entirety of the park. It blotted out the sun, and scattered larger debris than ever: bushes, stones, and a small tree complete with upturned roots. Up close, the sound of the howling wind was deafening. So close, the black of the impossible storm was impenetrable and complete.

Nothing would stop him from leaving. He was alone; there was nobody to see his cowardice. Thousands of other similar villages existed, and they would all be blessedly bereft of reality-shattering weather anomalies and magical jewelry. But he remembered, with perfect clarity, the sense of unshakable unease that had followed him on his journey away from home. He remembered the pain in his shoulder steadily growing worse, as the wound widened and bled. All of that stopped in Tortus Bay.

Henry wasn’t sure if he was going in, but like that day in front of Frida Middle School, his feet moved faster than his brain. Wind whipped his clothes against his body and stung his eyes. Dirt and leaves plastered his body. Then he crossed the threshold of the storm, and everything stopped.

The wind died. Everything stilled. There was no storm here, wherever he was. It was dark, but he could see the towering trees which stood before him. He turned, and there was the village behind—but somehow muted. The yellow of the sky became a light grey, the facades of the buildings all uniform black. All was calm. Simple. Then, the howling of wolves rent the silence.

First one, then another, and another, until the trees sang with the sound. They were too far away, for the size of the park. Henry shut his eyes and told himself that there couldn’t be wolves, until their howling trailed off on a single, mournful note.

It was like a dream. The wilderness rung in the silence left by the distant wolves. He walked through dense undergrowth until he was certain he would have passed through the length of the park twice over, but no matter how deep he went there was ever only the endless forest ahead. The leaf-strewn dirt underfoot shone grey in the faded sun, and none of the trees cast a shadow. He thought he might be going in circles. Then, another strange sound.

Metal displaced air, followed by a faint grunt. Henry turned toward it, and the howling resumed. Louder. The wolves were close.

He ran. The noise of swishing metal continued, but it was quickly overcome by the howling and the bone-chilling noise of claws ripping through dirt. When the first wolf leapt from the shadows, he broke into a sprint. The first one missed him. The second did not.

White fur and yellow fangs hit him, but did not take him down. A powerful maw wrapped around his arm, and pain coursed through his body, but after a frenzied moment the wolf dropped back. His shirt, and flesh, were left intact.

Again and again wolves leapt out at him, fur white and black and grey, tearing in turns at his throat and his legs. Angry red welts sprang up on his skin. A burning sensation radiated out from the marks, leaving him shaking and stumbling, but still he did not stop. One foot in front of the other. He slowed. The wolves cried. His saliva ran thick, dribbling out of his lips. 

With a furious coordinated attack on his hamstrings and red-raw throat, the wolves reached their crescendo. Henry took another step, and half fell out of the vast sea of trees into a small clearing.There, the world resolved slowly through the tears in his eyes and the ringing in his ears. 

A great old oak stood in the center of the clearing, a section of displaced dirt at its base. Beside the tree, Clair swung a metal pole wildly through the air. Two lumbering wolves snarled at her, haunches raised, ready to strike. But when she swung her weapon, they leapt back from its arc. Something at the tip of the pole glimmered, a light unlike anything else in the grey landscape, and the wolves treated it like fire.

1.17: The Festival, part 1

Waves of shock and horror rippled through Henry’s body, compelling him away. There was no thought. There was no plan. He scrambled back out of the broken window, half fell and half slid down the crumbling lighthouse wall to the ground, and took off running toward the village. Blinding flashes of lightning lit his path. A deafening tattoo of thunder urged him forward.

The image was burned into his retinas, so that he saw it with every blink: dried blood on the walls, gleaming daggers on the floor, and those symbols inscribed in that ceremonial circle. He re-lived it every time his foot came down hard on the broken, muddy street. Rain soaked him through. He didn’t know where he was going. There was nowhere he wanted to be. Nobody that he wanted to see. He wanted to be alone. And that was something he could do.

Henry fumbled with the keys for a second in the downpour before he swung open the front door of the cherry-red house on Second Avenue. He emerged into the same skeleton of a building that it had been, but the portion that would be his apartment—the third story attic—was completely transformed. The floor was clear of clutter, the roof was sealed, and the walls had been scrubbed down and varnished. A bed sat in the corner, beneath the slope of the ceiling, and a small dresser stood beneath the circular window. 

He stripped his clothes off, let them fall in a pile on the floor, and crawled into the sheets. Kara didn’t have to give him sheets. She didn’t have to do any of the things she had. Henry curled into a ball and tried to focus his thoughts on Kara, or the apartment, or Niles, or anything except what he knew was sitting back in the abandoned lighthouse. Rainwater soaked into the bed. He’d seen worse things. By far. Shouldn’t that have made him tougher? Didn’t the experiences of the past leave a callous?

Outside, the storm raged. Wind bent the trees and lightning lit the sky. As it passed midnight, the day of the Golden Gull Fest dawned. Henry had long since forgotten seeing a reminder for the festival on the cafe bulletin board. It hardly seemed important at the time. If anything changed about the village, it was a subtle thing. Perhaps the ferocity of the storm ebbed, by a fraction. Maybe the air cooled. 

If he had managed to settle himself, he might have slept through the day and never known it to be different. Instead he tossed and turned, shivering, and sometime in the small hours of the morning rolled over to see Clair through the window.

Clair, through his third-story window, floating unsupported in the air.

Her face was placid. Determined. Then, almost curious. Her clothes blew back and forth in the wind, and her hair was plastered to her skull.

Henry was no stranger to nightmares. He was familiar with persisting dreams and night terrors. This was none of that. He was awake. Questions flooded his brain, but in entirely the wrong order. How did she find him? What did she want with him? Did she know what he’d seen? How did she get out of jail? How was she flying?

Clair was calm. She reached out to touch the glass of the window with two fingers, and the pane opened inward. With a smile she made to move forward into the room, but then stopped. She was repulsed, as though the window were still firmly shut. Her smile became a confused grimace, and she tried again—only to be rebuffed a second time. She opened her mouth to speak, plainly mouthing the words ‘what did you do?’ but no sound came out.

Kara’s protection charm burned against Henry’s chest. It seared into his skin. Clair’s silent speech morphed into silent screaming, her eyes pleading. He stood, legs shaking, and took a step toward the window. She flew back as he did, as though pushed by a giant hand.

“Did you kill him?” he asked. “I saw the lighthouse. After all of this, was it you?”

Another step, and she was forced further back. Her lips moved with desperate speed, but if her words made a sound then it was nothing to him. He strode to the edge of the window, naked save for the burning necklace, and she flew deep enough into the dark and the rain that he could no longer distinguish her form. 

For a time he stared after her, into the night. His mind was clear.

***

Kara would know what was happening. She had to. And she had always been a friend. She would tell him what was happening, if he asked. She had to.

Henry raced through the deserted streets of Tortus Bay, wearing nothing but a sheet hastily wrapped around his shoulders, with the single-minded determination that he would find her at the Anderson Warehouse. As he ran he kept a wary eye to the sky, but nothing bothered him from above beside the storm clouds. 

He knocked on the side door of the warehouse, and Kara answered it. She looked awful. The bags under her eyes from earlier in the night had stretched down through her cheeks, giving her entire face the impression of a bruise. Her hair hung in clumps. Her shoulders shook, and her knees knocked, with the apparent effort of opening the door. Everywhere her skin was paper-white and thin.

Every other question left his head. “Are you okay?”

“Get inside,” she croaked. She closed the door behind him, then leaned on it for support. “Are you naked?”

He glanced down at the thin, drenched sheet clinging to his body. “A lot has happened tonight.”

“Up top,” she said, “Ray keeps a spare set of-” and she collapsed, toppling over sideways.

Henry sprung forward, and caught her before she hit the floor. She felt light in his arms. “What happened to you?”

“Need to sit.”

He helped her onto the warehouse floor, and eased her into the nearest chair. “Is there anything I can get you?”

She shook her head, and reached out for the charm around his neck. “I thought you might try to find me tonight. This has been used, no?”

The necklace was still warm. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. Please know that I wanted to, as I’m sure Niles and Clair wanted as well, but… there are difficulties. Most of the people who come to this village only pass through. They leave, or are called away, well before the day of the festival.” Her voice grew weaker the longer she spoke, and her eyes drifted shut. “They never get to see what makes it special.” 

He drew in a deep breath. “Magic is real here, isn’t it?”

“Is that what you need to hear? Magic is real everywhere; you should have learned that when you got that wound of yours. Once a month, for a single day, it becomes more powerful here. We call it the Golden Gull Festival. Before you ask: no, I don’t know why it’s called that; and no, I don’t know how it works. Only that it does.”

“So everyone in the village gets superpowers?”

“Not exactly. It comes to everybody differently. It doesn’t come to some people at all,” Kara said, finishing the sentiment with a hacking cough.    

“Does it normally hit you this hard?”

She smiled, but her eyes remained closed. “I make charms. They do nothing, for the majority of the month. They’re only trinkets. Then on the day of the festival, every last one of them wakes up. All of that energy comes straight out of me.” She sighed. “I know that’s a lot to digest. It’s understandable if you need some time.”

It was a great deal, but somehow hearing Kara’s words made everything snap into place in Henry’s mind, and it wasn’t overwhelming. Frightening, and new, but no longer crushing like the weight of an old secret. “I didn’t suspect, when my wound wouldn’t heal,” he said, “but like you say, it should have been a clue. The thought started building in me, when I left my home. My trip wasn’t a straight shot to Tortus Bay. I had no idea a place called Tortus Bay existed. But everywhere I stayed, I never felt settled. There was always the voice inside of me, telling me to move on. Giving a direction, but never a destination.

“Even in Yungton, not too far from here, things weren’t right. The unease followed me, so much that I began to consider that it was just a new part of my personality. But I talked to people. Eventually one of them mentioned Tortus Bay, but even with the name this place is hard to find. Not on any maps, is it? After a while I found a taxi driver who thought he might know something, and was willing to take the chance. I knew I was home, the second I stepped out of his car. Even in the pouring rain.

“So yes, I needed to hear you say that magic is real—but I’ve known since I got here. And besides, I don’t know if I have a lot of time for processing. I think I might be caught up in something dangerous.”

1.16: Crime Scene

Clair murdered Mathas Bernard for revenge. She killed him in a fit of jealousy. She hit him by mistake, thinking he was his wife toiling away in the garden. Actually, Clair did it on the instruction of the beleaguered wife. She’d always been a violent person. She was prone to sneaking out at night. After the burial, she dug the corpse back out of the earth.

Those were the things Henry heard during his shift at Horizon Foods that afternoon. He suspected that the townsfolk were swinging through for little reason other than to try out their theories. Tod, the portly man from the Hiking Club, quietly asked how long he had known, and if there were any more surprises out there that he should be anticipating. Not a single person floated the idea that Clair might be innocent.

“You can’t trust people anymore,” Howard, the store manager, told him. He leaned up beside the register, pointedly declining to assist in the growing line of customers. “Those officers marched right in here, and took her out in handcuffs. Mid-shift! Can you imagine? Now she’s really bitten the both of us.”

“Both of us?”

Howard nodded. “Me, obviously, because it’s bad for business. And you, because now there’s nobody else to do the re-stocking tonight.”

Henry focused on getting through his line. Red cans of beans, orange blocks of cheese, boxes of cereal and crackers and nuts. He scanned, smiled, and made change, trying to tune all of the words out of his head. Again and again and again, for second after minute after hour, until “they’re not letting anyone in to see Clair.”

Niles stood on the other side of the counter. “The jail’s locked up. Nobody’s getting inside without a good reason.”

“Is that unusual?” He pretended to forget the code for the loaf of bread that Niles was purchasing, punching in random keys.

“Normally visitors are allowed. I don’t know, it seems like they’re really taking this seriously.”

“Would they let family in?”

Niles looked haggard. “She doesn’t have much of that left.”

“We have to keep trying to talk sense into Leia.”

“She’s never going to take us seriously.”

The line was growing restless. Henry keyed in the correct code. “Then there’s nothing else we can do.”

***

The only problem with that verdict was that Henry himself did not believe it. He knew that there was one last thing he might try, but he reminded himself that the last time he’d gone grasping for straws all he found was a useless locket. Uneasily he put the reckless idea out of his mind, focusing instead on the maddening task of re-stocking the grocery store. Whatever other virtues Clair might have possessed, organizational prowess was certainly not among them. Not a single crate in the storeroom bore any kind of indication as to what it might hold. Howard, smiling, simply dropped a key by the computer and left with the vague instruction for Henry to “lock up behind himself.”

He thought about walking out early. The job was demonstrably unworthy of the stress it had already caused. But then there was Clair, let go from a position she loved and afterward unable to find any other decent work. He knew how the village saw him already, a distracted outsider who couldn’t handle or didn’t need a serious job anyhow; would that image be indelible? A vision of his future self, still living off Jamal’s generosity in room number 5 at the Tortoise Shell Inn, flashed into his mind. He shuddered, broke open another crate, and set to work trying to figure out whether he was dealing with potatoes or beets.

When the main door opened, he assumed it was Howard coming back around to check on his progress. Kara’s voice surprised him. “Henry?” she called.

“In back.”

“Howie around?” she asked.

“All clear.”

Kara entered, a frazzled look about her. Heavy bags hung under her eyes. “I was waiting at the bar for you, until I put two and two together. Should have checked here first. It’s a grim scene down there.”

“I thought everybody would be celebrating.”

She shook her head. “Clint’s beside himself. Vowed to never drink as long as Clair was locked up. That lasted about an hour and a half, then he changed tac and vowed to never stop drinking again. Things were starting to get out of hand when I left. Speaking of, why are you sitting on the floor in front of a crate of baby squash?”

“Baby squashes,” he breathed, rotating one of of the ribbed fruits in his hand. “Of course.”

“You really are from the city, aren’t you?” She put on a mocking accent. “Those are cucumbers on your other side, cauliflower on your left, and about fifty cans of baked beans behind you. Those ones have their names printed right on the label, so you can’t get confused.”

Henry laughed. “I suppose I deserve that.” She laughed along with him for a moment, but there was a distant look in her eyes. And that exhaustion, written all over her face. “Are you feeling alright? You look a little rough.”

“I’m fine. Do you still have that charm I made for you?”

He pulled the chain out from under his shirt. “Haven’t taken it off. Is that why you hunted me down here?”  

“No. And it wasn’t for gossip, either,” she said, crossing her heart. “I’m sure you’ve had as much of that as you can handle, and you know I’m around to talk whenever. No, I bring you something much better: an opportunity to avoid the shit-show currently developing down at the bar.” With a flourish, she produced a set of keys from her pocket.

“The apartment?”

“All yours.” Kara tossed him the keychain. “You did have locks where you came from, didn’t you? Big one’s for the outer door, small one’s for the inner door.”

“Shut up.”

“Sorry, couldn’t help it.”

Henry’s eyes stung. He swiped at them uselessly. “Thank you.”

“I would do a lot more for a friend. And no matter how recently we met, I know that we’re friends. That’s something you can feel right away.”

***

That night the black clouds that swirled over Tortus Bay broke into heavy rain, forcing Henry to pull his coat over his head as he made his way down the street. Past the park, the village ended. There were no more lawns, houses, or businesses; only the snaking street, which led him closer with every step to the crashing waves of the ocean. Wells of mud bubbled through the cracked asphalt.

He drew up to the squat, abandoned lighthouse amid the onset of crashing thunder. This was where Clair claimed to have found Mathas’ journal. She may have returned the offending article to hide her crime. Or, there might be something more interesting inside. More likely, there was nothing—but he could not know until he checked. And if she could get inside, that meant he could as well.

The heavy iron door was not only locked, but barred. Henry circled the structure, trying to figure out how Clair had done it. There was no evidence of any previous entry. Had it all been a drunken lie? Besides the door, there was only a small, cylindrical window, about twenty feet off the ground. He began to climb.

Crumbling stonework provided ample, if precarious, handholds. In the streaking rain his hands slipped against the jagged surface, his blood mixing with the sodden chalk. He angled himself atop the door-frame, sprang upward, and scrambled the rest of the way to the narrow windowsill. There, he stopped to breathe. Then he pulled the stone out of his pocket, and smashed the glass.

Peels of thunder masked the noise. Henry slipped inside, finding purchase on the steps of a winding staircase. He flicked his flashlight on, and cast the beam of light up, where he saw that a good portion of the roof had collapsed. Fractured stone littered the stairs. He followed the detritus down to the base of the lighthouse, and more peels of thunder masked the noise of his scream.

Thick, red-brown splashes stained the walls. Puddles of it gleamed in the exact center of a chalk circle on the floor. Books, daggers, and jewels lay scattered beside. The circle was surrounded by a dozen symbols, one of which Henry recognized immediately.   

1.15: Arresting Conversations

Golden rays of sunlight roused Henry from a deep and dreamless slumber. He was laying on a beaten-in leather sofa in an equally beaten-in living room, with mushroom grey walls and brown carpet. A chipped glass coffee table held stacks of tattered fiction paperbacks. They were roughly sorted out into Romance, Mystery, and pulpy Sci-Fi. A book titled The Alpha Alien Patrol Saves Jupiter… Again! sat on the stack closest to the couch.

He found it comfortable, and comforting, after more than a week in the sterile and barren environs of the Tortoise Shell Inn. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a striped yellow armchair, upon which sat a spotted lab mix named Bruce. The dog regarded Henry curiously, head tilted to the side. His floppy ears twitched.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Niles replied, rounding the corner and making Henry jump. Sleep still pulled at the man’s puffy eyes, and his hair stuck straight up on the left side of his head. He bore two steaming mugs. “Like tea? It’s black, with raspberry and honey.”

“Sounds great.” He sat up, acutely aware that he was still wearing his outfit from the previous day.

Niles looked from one graphic mug to the other. “Do you want ‘Judith with Holofernes’ or ‘Giant Squid Attacks City?’”

“I’ll take the squid.”

“Thought you might.” He set the chosen mug down atop one of the more structurally stable stacks of books, and took his own back with him across the narrow hall to the kitchen. “I’m making omelettes, to thank you for the company last night.”

A long night, during which they hadn’t talked about anything. By the time they got Bruce settled down and Henry had apologized a hundred times for stopping by so late, exhaustion had taken them both. Niles insisted that he take couch. “Why were you up so late, anyway? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“I went down to talk to the sheriff. Had to stand in a line.” Niles spoke loudly to be heard across the hall and over the clattering of pans and the subsequent cracking of eggs. “She didn’t take me seriously. Didn’t take a single note. She told me that everyone has their ‘own theories,’ and that she’s ‘investigating every angle.’ Whatever that means. I was too anxious to sleep, after that. Until you showed up. It’s good to have somebody who understands.”

Bruce, belatedly recognizing that the target of his curiosity was awake, stretched his way out of the armchair and padded over to sit on Henry’s feet. “Were you close with Mathas Bernard?”

“I was. The man could be a bit arrogant, but he put his money into what he loved. Not anything that he knew even the first thing about, mind you, but the things he loved all the same. Plus, he always took me on for catering jobs. Take a look at that bookmark beneath your mug.”

Henry scratched Bruce on the head while he negotiated his hot tea to safety and pulled an aged photograph out from within the yellowed pages of Alpha Aliens. It showed a visibly younger Niles, chin round and eyes bright, grinning over an elaborately decorated birthday cake. Standing beside him, giving a thumbs up, could be nobody but Mathas himself. The man was dressed in a suit that matched the grey tone of his receding hair, and there was a serene—if somewhat distant—smile plastered on his face.

A small group of people fanned out behind them, including Beth, dressed in bright yellow, and her sister Lucy, who looked as insubstantial as ever. Crowded around them stood several other people Henry didn’t recognize, but who all bore the distinctive jagged jawline and dominant brow ridge that marked them as Brihtes. Behind them were a varied assortment of others, hovering a slight distance away from the family. The bald man from the Anderson warehouse waved. Aria Bethel glowered at the camera, and beside her Patty wore a confused expression.

“I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately,” Niles continued. “I’m sure everyone has. Things like this don’t happen very often around here. People tend to pass away from old age, and believe me when I say that age tends to be particularly old.”

Henry swallowed. Seeing an image of Mathas Bernard made it real. A weight he had not noticed in his chest now dropped down to settle in his stomach, where it festered and kicked. A man was dead. Perhaps murdered. All he had managed to worry about was how foolish the village was acting, or how unfair it was that he was involved. Suddenly he felt silly, sitting there on a stranger’s couch in his day-old clothes.

The scent of egg, pepper, mushroom, and cheese filled the living room. Bruce drooled on Henry’s leg. Niles continued to talk, his voice drifting in from the kitchen, apparently unconcerned with his audience’s prolonged silence. “I guess I did what I could, but I still feel like an idiot. I don’t have any evidence. Nothing real.”

“We did what we could do,” he said, but it sounded thin coming out of his mouth.

“Then what was keeping you up so late last night? If you don’t mind my asking.”

He could have told him everything before, and saved him the concern over Beth Brihte. He should have. Henry pet the dog absent-mindedly while he told the story about his night in the park with Clair, his run-in with Beth at the cafe, and the mixed results of his excavation the previous night. By the time he was finished speaking he was sitting at Niles’ alcove-style kitchen table, halfway through a delicious omelette.

Niles toyed with the locket, thumbing it open to reveal the gem inside. “Emmaline Cass,” he said.

“Does that name mean anything to you?”

“She was one of the original founders of Tortus Bay. The wife of the man who led the expedition that discovered this valley. If this really belonged to her, I know quite a few people who would be interested to know.”

“Do you know why Clair would have it?”

A strange look crossed his face. “The park was named after Emmaline Cass, not that you would know it. No signs, obviously. There’s a lot of history to that name. A lot of things a person can’t know until they’ve been around for a while.”

“You keep saying that.”

Niles closed the locket, and slid it across the table to Henry. “I don’t think Clair had anything to do with Mathas’ death.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“I’ve known her almost my entire life. She grew up here. She loves Tortus Bay. She used to love her job down at the orchards, too, until the fire. The Brihtes say it started on her shift; she says she wasn’t even scheduled to work that day. Either way, it made her unemployable afterward. You can’t imagine how hard it is to have an entire community, your only community, turn against you. But she would never have killed Mathas. She knew better than anyone what he meant to the people she loved.”

“I do know,” Henry said, “what it’s like for a community to turn against you. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Beth had anything to do with the murder either. Not after what she said to me at the cafe.”

Niles was silent for a moment, but then nodded and took a thoughtful bite of his omelette. “So where does that leave us?”

***

Talking would get them nowhere. Taking no action would be unconscionable. Speaking to the sheriff again would be pointless, without some kind of proof. So the only thing for them to do was to find it. They emerged that afternoon into the dreary cover of black clouds, intent on doing what Henry should have days ago: speaking with Clair. 

Not ten yards from Horizon Foods they knew something was wrong. A throng of people were gathered there, in the street. The mob watched, silent, mouths hanging open as though they had interrupted some ongoing scandal. Two police cruisers were parked on the curb, flanking the fluorescent-haloed grocery entry.

Henry felt what was going to happen even before the door opened. A uniformed deputy stepped out, clearing the way for Clair. Her arms were pinned to her sides, held on the left by sheriff Leia Thao and on the right by a second deputy. Together they hauled her forward.

“This is bullshit!” Clair screamed, straining against the twin vice grips. Her face was a curtain of red. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Clair Knoss,” Leia said, in a smooth and steady voice, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “you are under arrest for the murder of Mathas Bernard. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say now can and will be held against you in a court of law.”

The crowd broke into raucous murmurs. A few people nodded. Some jeered, and many others cheered. “I didn’t do anything!” Clair screamed again. She twisted and turned, dragging her feet on the pavement, but the officers pulled her on regardless. “I can’t have! I already told you!”

Niles wasn’t standing beside Henry anymore. He’d stepped forward, placing himself between Leia and the police cars. “What’s happening here?”

“Make way,” the sheriff demanded.

The unencumbered deputy stepped forward, and placed a hand on Niles’ shoulder. Half of the crowd tried to peel back, away from the unfolding confrontation, while the other half pressed forward—and in that moment Henry was stuck in the middle, shoved left and right simultaneously, unable to move. Leia’s jaw tightened, and the deputy by her side let his hand fall to his belt.

The moment passed. Niles raised his arms, and stepped aside. They marched Clair past him, her head swiveling frantically from side to side. Her eyes fell on Henry.

She opened her mouth, a new brand of urgency written on her face, but then her lips twisted and she closed it again. The fight left her body. Leia folded her into the backseat of the squad car, barked at the crowd to disperse, and wasted no time vacating the scene.

Henry and Niles watched their tail-lights disappear around the bend in the road, and with them their chance at an easy way forward.

1.14: Digging Up Dirt

Henry tried to convince himself that the two drawings were not the same. The first he’d seen for only a second, while drunk and overwhelmed. The second, he could barely make out in the windowsill of the Bramble’s kitchen. They were only leaves, above all; but somehow he was certain. Teresa bustled around, still wrapped in her colorful quilt, asking seemingly disconnected questions while she pulled various ingredients down from her shelves. How old was he? Where was he born? What was his grandmother’s name? Did he enjoy the taste of peppermint?

He answered them all automatically, his mind occupied with a more important question: how could he have forgotten that he saw the journal of Mathas Bernard? At the time, it had been a half-interesting curiosity from a recently deceased public figure. Now, it seemed a lot more important. Clues to the man’s death—his murder, as it now seemed—might be within those pages. And Clair had mentioned nothing about it.

Sofia, the elder of the two Bramble daughters, re-entered the kitchen with a tub of translucent paste. She handed it off to her mother, then perched by the window once more. Teresa piled the salve and her gathered assortment of ingredients into a bowl, and began mixing it all together with a large wooden spoon. “I’ve never heard anything quite like your situation before,” she said. 

“Hm?” He pulled his mind back onto the topic at hand. “Oh, right. Do you think you can help?”

“Today, I’m going to give you something topical, to help with the discomfort, but you’ll have to come back to me so that we can reassess.”

“I appreciate it,” he said. In the windowsill, Sofia resumed flipping through her book, and try as he might to stop himself his eyes repeatedly strayed to those pages.

“I’m not promising any miracles,” Teresa said. “It might take us some time to figure out what makes this thing kick.”

He couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer. “What are you reading over there?”

The look the girl gave him suggested that he had failed in keeping his voice casual. She flipped the book over to display a brown leather cover, complete with an ornamental brass latch. “An old diary,” she said. “I like to draw.”

Lola looked back and forth from Henry to her sister, mouth slightly open. He coughed. “That’s great.”

Teresa scooped her mixture into a small container, and pressed it into Henry’s hand. “Apply this to the front and back of your wound, once in the morning and then once again before you go to sleep. Keep your bandages fresh, and it should at least ease the pain. We can go from there.”

“Thank you.” He pocketed the salve and pulled his shirt back on. “Do I owe you anything?”

She smiled as she took his elbow and guided him back through the hallway to the door. “The Brambles have lived here for a very long time, doing what we do. We have never charged for it. The village pays us back in different ways. Perhaps you will stick around long enough to see what those are yourself.”

***

The biggest advantage to having a cashier position at Horizon Foods was the unobstructed time if afforded Henry to think. At any given moment his job was to stand behind the register, and wait for a customer to appear. This was interrupted only ever briefly by the actual function of ringing someone up, taking their money, and engaging mild small-talk. The people of Tortus Bay, or at least that subset which came in to shop that day, seemed interested solely in sly remarks about how much nicer it was to pick up their groceries now that Howie wasn’t involved in the process.

Howie (or Howard, as he preferred to be called) was the biggest disadvantage to having a cashier position at Horizon Foods. The man made himself more scarce that second day, especially after learning that Henry had somehow figured out how to operate the register himself, but every five minutes in his presence felt like an hour. He’d given up the jabs at his new employee’s lack of intelligence, and moved on to self-congratulatory speeches—into which he inserted long pauses to allow his audience time to produce the appropriate verbal reactions.

“Never married, myself. Had plenty of opportunities, and plenty of committed women, but none of them were right. It takes a lot of experience, and a good lot of wisdom, to realize that the women around here will never be right. Out there in the world, things are different. You couldn’t imagine. Here, there are no more values. They want me to give them everything. And for what? Ah, it’s nice to have another guy around for a change. No girlfriend, right? I’m sure you’ll find a woman soon enough.”

Clair arrived a few hours earlier that day, and took over from Howard. Apparently she was trusted enough to deal with the keys and the inventory herself. She set to stocking and organizing the shelves, her demeanor so much different at work than in the bar, and Henry watched her while he chased his thoughts in circles about what to do.

Perhaps nothing at all suspicious was at play. Sure, Clair had access to the journal of Mathas Bernard—but there was nothing to tell him that she hadn’t already gone to the sheriff with what she knew. Moreover, maybe what she knew was nothing. The journal looked a lot like it may have been an art project, or a piece of fiction. On the other hand, she had admitted to stealing it. Plus she had more or less claimed to despise the man, on the evening of his funeral.

He could ask her, straight out. That would be the simplest way… but what if she did have something to do with the death? She wouldn’t tell him, and he honestly wasn’t sure if he would even want her to, but it would certainly get him involved either way. It would show his hand. At best, it would call into question one of the few friendships he’d managed to cultivate so far.

By the time he swiped out that afternoon he knew what he had to do, even if the idea still sounded insane in his own head. He had to see the journal again himself. That way, he would know what was happening without having to involve anybody else. And most likely, it would be nothing.

Henry whiled away time at the bar. He sat beside Clint, but the old man was in one of his gruff moods and didn’t want to talk. The action of repeatedly raising glass to lip consumed him. Jamal was still busily explaining to anyone who would listen how he was the first one in the village the sheriff trusted with important news. True dark fell outside, Henry made a point of excusing himself to his room, and then snuck out the back way.  

Few people roamed the streets at night, but his heart thumped in his chest regardless. Nobody could possibly know what he was doing. Except Clair. He made fast time stealing through the village, and entered the park with a few furtive looks back over his shoulder. If anyone in the surrounding houses noticed him, they would be liable to notify the sheriff. That was an incident he was keen to avoid a second time.

It took an hour for him to find the spot. His memories from that night were hazy, and crowded by more dramatic trappings. But by weak and occluded moonlight, tripping over exposed roots and repeatedly circling back on himself, he finally found that particular gnarled tree and the subtly displaced earth at its base. There he dug, and after a few minutes unearthed the old leather satchel.

Inside, there was only the locket. Plain silver, with an emerald inlaid where a picture might have been, and the name Emmaline Cass engraved on the case.

He dug a little deeper, meeting only worms and compacted dirt. He circled the tree, displacing bushes and removing sticks in the vain search for a second hiding place, but it was clear that Clair’s cache had been emptied. Had Clair herself done it? Was this proof that she had brought what she had to the sheriff? Or was it emptied to keep him from doing exactly what he’d just tried? Either way, why had the locket been the only thing left behind?

What had Sofia told him about the book she’d been reading? An old diary. Not necessarily her own. Henry tried to blink away his exhaustion. It was nearly one in the morning, and all he really wanted to do was sleep, but he knew that he couldn’t leave this unresolved. If he had stumbled onto something important, it was his duty to report it as quickly as he could.

Those were the things he told himself. They sounded logical. But as any night wears too long into morning, the power of the brain in the decision-making process weakens, allowing other entities to have their say.

***

Henry trudged up the walk toward a small, but respectable, single-story bungalow in the northernmost part of the village. He hesitated on the walkway. Some small part of him knew that he was being rash. Nothing would change, if he left it for tomorrow. Then a light came on in the window, the warm glow of a living room cast forward on the blinds, and he was knocking on the door.

The first reaction was the deep booming of a dog, followed by the scrabbling of nails on tile as it rushed to investigate the disturbance. A few moments later there was a voice, the sound of man and dog negotiating a small area, and then Niles’ face appeared through an opening crack in the door.

“I’m sorry to come over so late, but I needed someone to talk to.” Henry pulled the locket out of his pocket and held it out like it would be some sort of explanation.

Niles seemed to accept it, still wrestling with the dog behind the door. A slightly stubby snout made it out of the crack, snuffling madly. “Do you want to come in?”

“Is that okay?” he asked. “Would I be disturbing anyone? Wife? Girlfriend?”

He might have imagined it, but he would have sworn that Niles’ mouth brightened into a smile for some fraction of a second. “No. No wife, no girlfriend. Only me and Bruce here. Come on in.”

1.13: Rambles and Brambles

Henry learned several important things the next day, at his brand new minimum-wage job. Some of them came hard and fast, like the exacting intricacies of Mrs. Fevra’s monstrously long monthly grocery list, and others came over time, like the reason the position of cashier at Horizon Foods had been so long vacant. Howard, the manager, met him in the morning with a wary look, and proceeded to treat him more like an adversary than an employee. Relevant details came out of the man like food from a starving dog’s mouth, while anecdotes streamed out like water from an open tap.

“I’ve lived in Tortus Bay my entire life,” Howard said, “and I’ve never been one of the chosen ones of the Brihtes or the Gauthes. Never had money. I’ve watched a lot of people like me fall flat on their faces. They pump gas; they take tickets at the Plex; they wipe tables down at the bar. I run a grocery store. The only grocery store.”

Later, he went on. “What are you, twenty years old? Did you do a couple years at a Community College, or did you figure you’d skip it altogether? Normally a job like this would go to a teenager, you know. How do you feel about achieving as much as a thirteen year old?”

And later, still more. “A lot of people get excited by a new face, kid. Something to stir the pot. But trust me, the cheese will settle eventually. It always does. And you got to choose if you want to end up sitting on the top of that pot, or the bottom.”

While Howard talked, he ran his fingers through his thick auburn hair, until it lay flat on his scalp and his fingers shone with grease under the florescent light. Henry was the only other employee in the store, and the man seemed to never run out of things to say. It was unfortunate that not a single one of those topics related to instructions on how to operate a cash register. Questions in that line were met with suspiciously narrowed eyes, and indecipherable grumbles.

So, he rang people up on a notepad. Howard watched, leaning against the wall, shaking his head like a disappointed father. Henry had worked his fair share of lousy jobs in the past. The repetition, boredom, and the constant low-level humiliation; it was like slipping on an old pair of gloves. But he thought he’d left that behind. He never imagined he would be back. There was so much about his life now that he never would have imagined.

People trickled into the store in a slow but steady stream, and Henry realized that he recognized a majority of them—even if he might not be able to recall any specific name. Such was the power of the AM Bazaar. From the way their eyes widened at his presence behind the register, he suspected they recognized him as well. The story of his new job would be known to everybody by the next morning. Would that finally convince them that he was an ordinary person?

By the end of his shift, no matter his composure, Henry was ready to pull his hair out of his head and stick it onto Howard’s slimy dome—and he might have, if a familiar face hadn’t walked through the door.

Kara’s hair was pulled back, and dark black smudges lined both of her bare arms, as if she’d recently been working with ink, or charcoal. None of her tattoos were visible, hidden by clothing or the necklace she wore. She grabbed a box of cheese crackers and a case of beer from the fridges in the back, and jumped up on the counter while he ruefully readied his pencil. “You hit the green button to start a new transaction,” she said.

He jabbed the button, and the machine sprang to life.

“From there you can enter the price of the products, one by one. There are codes to tell it what you’re selling, but you don’t have to worry about that.”

“How do you know how the register works?”

She shrugged. “Worked a lot of jobs around the village, and there aren’t that many to go around. I’m guessing inHale fell through. What happened?”

“Current theories range from ‘I’m still too new to the area’ to ‘she thinks I’m taking the job as a cover.’ I don’t know what happened.”

“If either of those are true,” Kara said, “you could wait it out and try again later. It’s not like you’re going to want to stay here for too long. To make this job last, you have to meet Howie’s obnoxiousness with an equal level of your own. Fight fire with fire. That’s why it’s just been Clair, and a constantly rotating cast of teenagers around here.”

“Well, at least it gives me something to do other than loitering around the bar.” He finished ringing her up and bagged her items, but she did not take them.

“How’s the shoulder doing?”

“Fine. You haven’t told anyone, have you?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “Care to prove to me that it’s fine?”

“Not exactly.”

Kara hopped off of the counter, and scooped up her bag. “I know you haven’t had any luck with hospitals. Lucky for you, we don’t have any in the village. What we have is the Brambles.”

“Is that some sort of home?”

“Teresa Bramble, and her daughters. They might not have all of the equipment, or the modern pills, but they’ve been keeping Tortus Bay going for decades. It can’t hurt to let them look.”

“It can, if they tell everyone my secret.”

She rolled her eyes. “They’re very discreet. Go whenever you like—they’ll be expecting you. 41 Spruce.”

With that she was gone, leaving Henry to stare blankly into space for the last ten minutes of his shift, before chucking off his uniform and wandering into the back. There, he found a truck docking bay and a storage space equally as large as the storefront. It was cold back there. Sitting at a desk by the door, staring into the blue light of an ancient, boxy computer, was Howard. “You think you’re coming back tomorrow?” he asked, not looking up from the screen. “You didn’t exactly take to it quick, did you? I’ve seen worse, but lord have I seen a whole lot better. There’s an art to the process that can take a while to learn, if you’re not the sharpest cookie in the box. It can’t be taught, but it can be observed, if you take my meaning, and…”

At some point during that monologue, Henry quietly said “see you in the morning,” and walked out. He swiped his new time card just as Clair entered through the front door, a knowing smile already plastered on her face. He stuck two fingers in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

***

Henry still had nightmares. Months of therapy helped, but he suspected that they would never fully go away. They were rarely of that horrible event itself, the precipitating memory that introduced the concept recurring nightmares into his life. But the anxiety, and the blood-clotting dread, were the same. Shapes and colors, or familiar faces talking about familiar things, but behind it all would be the dreadful certainty that he was about to round a corner to enter the school and see everything again.

He sat up, drenched in thick sweat and free-flowing blood. Normally the wound in his shoulder kept itself dry, but a day of bagging groceries and lifting crates of pancake mix and peach preserves into Mrs. Fevra’s station wagon had agitated the area. He caught his breath. He closed his eyes, told himself that it had only been a dream, and then he hauled himself onto his feet to get cleaned up. Paper towels and pressure would do the trick. They always did.

Afterward, he was awake for the day. Although the sun had not yet fully risen, the pain radiating down through his arm was too great for sleep. So he sat on the edge of the bed in the hotel room he’d now lived in for over a week. There was nothing to do. No television, no radio, and he hadn’t brought any books along for the trip. He hadn’t brought anything that didn’t fit neatly into his backpack. The bar’s kitchen wouldn’t be open yet. There was simply nothing to do, but sit in pain.

Kara told him the Brambles were expecting him at any time. Perhaps she hadn’t imagined that time being the crack of dawn, but he could always take the scenic route over there. 

Henry bandaged his shoulder, dressed, and headed off down the rickety wooden staircase that wrapped around the bar to the street below. It was cold that morning. Not so much to be freezing, but enough to make fog of his breath. Summer would soon be over; fall rapidly approached. Unperturbed by time, he made his way slowly through the silent village. Not so much as a squirrel moved. As he walked, blue retook the sky.

The house on 41 Spruce was not itself dissimilar to any of the others in Tortus Bay, but its front lawn certainly was. A sense of purpose existed there, beyond the growing and cutting of grass. One third of it was devoted to an overgrown garden, another third to a fenced enclosure with no visible animals, and the rest to a swingset and a set of aged patio furniture that sank into the dirt. Henry stepped over a welcome mat that said ‘Check Your Feet,’ let his eyes rest a moment on the sign in the window that said ‘Fuck Off,’ and knocked very softly.

A woman with a creased face and billowing grey hair, wrapped in a colorful patchwork quilt against the chill, opened the door. “Yes?”

“My name is Henry Cauville,” he said. “I was told you would be expecting me.”

“Come on in then,” she said, “before you catch a cold.”  

If the Bramble House was creaky and old, then it more than made up for it with an abundance of human comforts. Built-in bookshelves ran along the hallway walls. Carpets depicting pumpkins, cats, and fanciful creatures covered the floorboards. Art hung everywhere, of such a variety of style and skill that Henry was sure it had all been painted by locals, if not the Brambles themselves.

“I’m sorry to bother you so early,” he said.

“People come when they are hurting, and we are here to help. Whenever that may be.” She eyed him. “Has your shoulder been hurting?”

“Kara told you everything.”

The woman smiled kindly. “I am not a doctor, but please understand that I take my patient’s confidentiality very seriously. My name is Teresa, as I’m sure you know, and I am glad to meet you.” She ushered him through the entrance hall and into the kitchen. “I’ve lived here in the village my entire life, as did my mother and her mother before that. And possibly her mother before even that, but who’s counting at that point? You don’t mind doing this in here, do you?”

The kitchen was beautiful and white, with windows that caught the morning sun like rounded bowls of light. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs lay arranged around the countertops, and through the open pantry door Henry spied a treasure trove of sugary cereals and snack cakes. “Do what, exactly?”

“Nothing more than you want,” she said, indicating that he should hop up on the dining table. “These are my daughters, by the way. Sofia and Lola. Say hello, girls.”

Henry jumped. He hadn’t noticed the two other people in the room. Sofia, the elder of the sisters, was leaning in the windowsill with a steaming mug and an open book. She had long, dark hair and looked to be anywhere from sixteen to twenty years old. Lola was several years younger, and had a head of frizzy brown madness. She was sitting politely in a chair beside her sister, kicking her legs and watching the new proceedings with interest. “Hello,” he said.

The girls waved at him, and he turned his attention back to Teresa. “Do you believe what Kara told you about me?” he asked. “That I have a gunshot wound that won’t heal?”

She shrugged. “I have no way of knowing, so there’s no reason for me to believe or disbelieve. But you are hurt, and need help. That is all that matters. May I see the shoulder?”

 Lola stared with open interest, and Sofia surreptitiously glanced over the top of her book, as he pulled off his shirt and undid that morning’s hurried bandaging. “It was bleeding when I woke up.”

“Is that unusual?” Teresa asked, circling him curiously.

“It’s rare.”

She reached out, and gently touched the skin beside the wound. Her hand was warm. “It hasn’t healed at all?”

“It closed up a little, at first,” he said. “You can see, the back looks better than the front. Then it just stopped. The pain is always there, but it’s been more bearable since I got to Tortus Bay.”

Teresa frowned down at him, her arms crossed. “Sofia, honey, will you grab the salve?” she asked. “Top shelf, next to the balsam.”

Sofia straightened, set her book face-up on the windowsill, and slipped out of the room. From where he sat, Henry could barely make out the figures on the sun-washed pages of the girl’s abandoned book. What he saw was enough.

Diagrams. Sketches. Strange words. And the shape of a curiously constructed leaf, etched out in pencil, that he had only seen one time before—in the journal of Mathas Bernard.