3.12: Onwards, Upwards

As night wore into dawn others showed up at Teresa’s home, until they were virtually a party in her perpetually overburdened kitchen. Niles came around after waking to find himself alone in bed. Kara followed the same logic as Clair, only slightly delayed, and arrived after checking out all of Henry’s other usual haunts. Sofia and Lola were even allowed to stay and watch, after being told to go to bed several times, on account of their mother’s general level of distraction. She lit candles, and set them in a wide circle around the room. She pored over texts. She washed her hands. 

In the meantime, the man of the hour sat silent on the dining table. Henry had his shirt off, and his bandages removed. It had been a while since he looked at his wound. At some point it had become his custom to change the dressing in the dark, or while he looked resolutely away. The black rot looked ever more like a bubbling tar spill, running from his shoulder all the way down his chest. Breathing burned. His vision swayed and faltered. But despite his sober mood and questionable health, the atmosphere in the kitchen was joyous. Kara and Niles chatted happily about plans for another art exhibit. Clair entertained the girls with inappropriately gory stories. Lola continually pitched the idea of breaking out a puzzle, but everyone artfully pretended not to hear.

Henry’s nerves jangled like bolts in his stomach, making him queasy. He closed his eyes and tried to still himself. Tried to concentrate on something—anything—other than what was about to happen. All that came to him was that intrusive thought: he couldn’t feel anything. There was no magic about them.

Eventually Teresa closed her notebook. “I am ready.” 

“Do you think it’s going to work?” Henry asked.
“This will be my only time trying this particular spell. But I understand how it works.”

“There’s no magic.” He didn’t need to say the rest. By waiting too long, he had inadvertently chosen Emmaline’s path. The wound would slowly eat through him, as perhaps she had always intended, and one day it would be his bones ambling down the village’s terrified streets. 

She smiled. “I’m not mending skin or setting bones, dear. I never did explain the details, did I? I’m attacking whatever wicked thing has nestled itself into your shoulder. And knowing Emmaline, I think it will not go without a fight. Now everybody stop talking, I need silence.”

The background hum ceased. Nobody moved a muscle. Pale purple light, the first rays of a new day, illuminated the window—and Teresa began her spell. Her eyes drifted shut. She hummed something, a poem or a song, under her breath. Then with a deep exhale she placed her steady hands on Henry’s shoulder, and for several long moments nothing happened. Clair cast a sideways glance at Kara. Lola looked away. Niles bit his lip. 

Teresa’s fingers shook, and glowed. Faintly at first, then brighter and brighter until they were like ten blinding headlights searing into his skin. Henry pulled away but she followed, knocking him flat on his back on the table to keep her hands in place over his wound. Steam, white and fluffy like dissipating snow, billowed from the rot. It filled the room in rolling waves, more foam now than snow, and extinguished all thirteen candles. The only light was that of her molten hands, battling against the occlusion of the mist they spewed. The only noise was screaming.

Henry shut his mouth to make it stop, but he was not the source. Teresa shouted like a wounded animal, or else like someone strangling a despised foe.

The door clattered open, and closed. Sofia and Lola had seen enough. Niles surged forward, unsure of what he was doing but committed at least to trying to help, but he faltered in amazement at the edge of the table. Where Teresa’s hands passed over Henry’s flesh, the rot shrank away. She started near his stomach, at the faintest edge, and worked upward. When she got to the shoulder, to the deep and long festering bullet hole, she cupped her hands and pressed. 

White blanketed them. The light went out. Nobody could see—not even Henry, who was only inches away from Teresa. Her hands went slack. They slipped off his chest, and the first noise to break the stunned silence was her hitting the floor.

“Teresa?” Kara said. A blind, groping search began, in which the most that was accomplished was the bumping of many heads against one another, until Niles finally discovered and opened the window. The thick white fog caught the breeze, slipping outside. By degrees the room cleared. 

“She’s okay. Henry, help me lift—Henry, oh my god!”

“What?” he asked.

“It worked!”

He didn’t need to look down at himself to know that was true. His shoulder felt whole in a way it had not in nearly a year. That constant pain, which long ago he had disassociated with the condition of his shoulder and begun to think of as a fundamental value of life, was gone. He felt strong enough to fling Teresa over his arm—which presently he did, transporting her to the couch.

They roused her with cold water, and covered her in blankets. They cheered and bellowed and generally acted like wild people. Clair insisted that she make breakfast. Everybody forbade Teresa from moving. She repeatedly told them that she felt fine, but each time she tried to leave the couch somebody pressed another glass of water into her hand.

Henry sat dazed in the corner, holding Niles’ hand. His friends afforded him that space.

***

Taylor leaned back in his chair, and fiddled with the badge pinned to his chest. It didn’t sit quite straight, lilting off to the left or right depending on how he adjusted. In time he left it lopsided. He lifted his hand, and snapped his fingers. “Nothing. No matter how hard I try, nothing. It’s not coming back, is it?”

“No,” Henry said. “I don’t think so.”

“I’ve been going down to the shore in the evenings. Watching the tortoises. I guess they’re around to stay. And the pigeons, and the gulls. Squirrels. I kind of forgot that squirrels even existed. It might not seem like a good trade, to most people.”

“But to you?”

“Well, it’s not really about me, is it?” He tossed a copy of the tell-tale issue of the Tortoise Bay Examiner on the desk between them. “You’ve caused quite a sensation with that.”

Henry frowned. The man was no Leia Thao, but there was no doubt that he could cause enough trouble on his own. “That wasn’t my intent.”

“It’s garbage. A tabloid. Don’t understand what anyone sees in it. You know some of the villagers even believe this stuff you write?”

He worked hard to master the impulse to smile. “It’s just a warning, then?”

“If you did these things you said you did, and Noel Gauthe wanted to press charges, then maybe we’d be talking about something more than a warning. But seeing how it is…”

“The mayor doesn’t want to press charges?”

“Don’t know. Nobody can find him. Empty estate, just like the Brihtes. At least we got instructions on what to do with their stuff.”

“So Lucy and Beth really left.”

Taylor squinted at him. “You haven’t heard? I figured you had a hand in that one. They donated the proceeds of the estate sale to cover the new Tortoise Shell.”

“And Aria let me go on thinking that she was paying for that out of the goodness of her heart.”

“Maybe a journalistic test for our preeminent newsman? You seem to have failed.”

Henry grabbed the paper, and shoved it into his pocket. “I’ll be sure to practice a more moderate hand in the future. You know me—it’s not my fashion to stir the pot. But am I free to go? I’m running late for something important.”

The sheriff squinted again. Maybe he thought it was intimidating. “You can go. I don’t want to see you in here again though, alright?”

He departed with an ironic salute, and broke into a jog the second he hit pavement. Passersby waved and called his name, but he was stopping for nothing. He made it to the edge of the village in record time, and there met the usual crew just as they were starting the goodbyes. Niles wrapped him in a warm embrace, and planted a kiss on his forehead.

Kara pressed his charms back into his hand. “Now that they’re nothing but jewelry?”

“Of course. Thank you.”

“Thought you were going to skip out on us. Bus schedules wait for no man,” Clair said. A heavy pack was strapped to her back. Sofia stood beside her, with an almost identical pack on hers. A red-face Lola was hugging tight onto Teresa’s leg.

“Never imagine it,” Henry said. “What are you guys going to do first?”

“Probably get a burger. See how bars not run by Jamal operate. My guess: better. But we really have to run!”

The farewell party stood watching on the grassy slope leading down to Tortus Bay, waving away their friends. Tears shone in their eyes, and smiles on their faces. It was a beautiful, clear day. The perfect sort of day to start something new.

Clair and Sofia trailed down the road until they were little more than distant blobs on the blue horizon. Then Clair paused, turned, and kicked off into the air.

THE END

3.11: Recollections

A late autumn snowfall briefly dusted the eaves and sidewalks of Tortus Bay. It fell overnight, and melted away by morning, so few people knew it happened at all—but Henry was one of them. He sat awake by the window, chin in hand, watching the large flakes drift by the chilled pane. It snowed every year, back home. He’d come to hate winter, and all the unnecessary difficulties it imposed on daily life. Now as he watched he was filled with happy memories of days spent stomping through snow banks and nights sipping hot cocoa in an oversized sweater on the couch. None of that would happen in Tortus Bay. It would rain for the rest of the season, which would bring along with it a different set of difficulties. And perhaps, opportunities for new pleasant memories. 

It rained on his first night in the village. A storm, as he remembered. He hadn’t touched his umbrella since then—it still sat where he last left it, in the cramped attic apartment which Kara had so kindly set up for him. Some of his less important possessions remained there, awaiting some point in the future wherein he would go cleaning. He loved staying at Niles’ place. There was the constant supply of good food, a dog always at hand to drool on his knee, and the privilege of spending uninterrupted time with the man who had become both his best friend and his lover. But at the same time, there was a sense of security in having the back up.

Bruce grumbled in his sleep, and his legs twitched. “Chasing a rabbit, buddy?” Henry asked, scratching him behind the ear. The dog licked his lips, repositioned himself, and drifted back into a peaceful slumber. Henry tore his eyes away from the window, returning to the newspaper spread on the table: an advance copy of the next Tortus Bay Examiner, due out later that day. He personally wrote, or read and approved, the entire thing, so he didn’t know why he felt the compulsion to pore over the final product. Yet there he sat, unable to stop himself.

Every detail of his encounter with the mayor was painstakingly detailed in black and white. Whatever anyone might say about his behavior, they at least would not be able to call him a liar, or accuse him of obfuscating the facts. Who knew if the people of the village were ready to believe what he discovered Noel to be. Even if they did, it seemed like there was little official to be done about it. There were no codified laws about magic in Tortus Bay. But what he’d done fulfilled the definition of assault and battery, no matter the justification.

Something told him that the mayor would not be around to meet the repercussions, whatever they might be. He stood, displacing Bruce, who registered his complaint with a deep-seated grumble. The matter of this political fallout was trifling. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that he was only fixating on the smaller issues to avoid engaging with the stormy cloud looming overhead. So he folded the paper, stuck it beneath his arm, and headed out into the lazily drifting sheets of snow in pursuit of a more productive place to think. 

His feet brought him to the skeletal wooden framework of the new Tortoise Shell Inn. The walls were partially complete, and the floor entirely—placemarkers were already set out for the bar and the tables. Henry sat there, on a nonexistent stool, and let the falling snow melt into his hair. There wasn’t much of a chill in the air. If anything, he felt warm. Comfortable. He closed his eyes, and thought he could fall asleep.

Footsteps foiled this ambition. He looked up to see Clair stepping through the area where one day a door would be built. Her cheeks shone as red as her hair, and her breath fogged out of her mouth. “I need to stop hanging around here after midnight,” he said. “You run into the strangest people.”

“Oh? And who else have you met?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

She sat beside him, claiming her own invisible stool. “What are you doing out here?”

“Came to think. You?”

“Looking for you. I don’t know if you’re aware, but you have something of a habit.”

“Is that so?”

“On the night before a festival, you wander around the village like a zombie. Every damn time.” She snatched the paper out of his lap. “This the new issue?”

“Uh-huh.”

Her eyes tracked rapidly down the main story. “I see why you need to think. You could pass this thing off for a fantasy magazine.”

“I’m sure that’s how some people will take it.”

She tossed the paper into the snow. “You know, this is where we met. I remember the seating being more comfortable, though, now that I think about it.”

“That’s funny. I remember there being a drunk at the end of the bar.”

Clair laughed. “Clint’s been doing really well.”

“He seems upset with me.”

“Oh, he hates you. And he’s not shy about telling it, either. That’s what you get for saving a man’s life, eh?”

Henry shook his head. “I don’t get it.”

“I think he made peace with what the rest of his life was going to look like. Namely, drinking himself into the grave. Then you came along and hurt yourself to give him a new lease.” She shrugged. “Now he feels like he’s got to do something with it.”

“Maybe he’ll wind up feeling real foolish in a few hours.”

“Maybe.” She glanced over to the corner. “We met here, but then we moved to a table.”

“By all means, let’s scoot.”

They swept clean a section of floor against the wall and, following custom, sat facing each other across an imaginary table. Henry considered her. “You’re not going to ask me about my decision, are you?”

“I already told you how I feel. You’re smart, you don’t need to hear it again. Besides, I’m fine either way. I have two plans all worked out.”

“Let’s hear them.”

“Plan number one: let’s call that the contingency. If you make the stupid decision—sorry, sorry, couldn’t help myself. I’ll get a job here. Already talked to Jamal about it. He needs a numbers person, and someone to help out with the orders. He’s getting older. It won’t be glamorous, but it might just be the best job I’ve ever had.”

“What’s plan number two?”

“I’ve been talking to Sofia. You turned her on to me, didn’t you? We have an outing planned. See the world, find a therapist. Maybe reconnect with a long-lost friend. You know, girl stuff.”

He nodded. “You’re covered either way.”

“Have to be prepared to weave, when the bull in front can’t decide where he’s going.”

“I’ve felt like I’m living on undeserved time.”

“Sorry we’re all making it so difficult for you.”

“No, this helped. I think I know what to do.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

Henry led the way out of the bar, and as he walked the snow stopped. It melted into the earth under the cold light of the moon, leaving in its wake deep emerald grass and slick, clean streets. This time he did not mindlessly follow the whims of his feet. He knew where he was going, and as he approached he was pleased to find light streaming through the windows. 

Teresa opened her door on the first knock. A smile spread on her face. “You came.”

“I want to be healed.”

3.10: Intervention

The truth hung heavy around Henry’s neck. He related his dream to Niles—so vivid in his mind that it felt like recalling memory—but the man didn’t seem interested in talking about it. All he wanted to discuss was their plans for the next festival: healing Henry’s shoulder, maybe taking a look at the tortoises down by the shore, and so on and so forth. So he sat inside, curled alone in bed, and quietly dreaded the passing of time. He often found himself wishing that he had not learned the plan. Never tempted the dreams. He devised fantastical scenarios in which he might have walked blindly into his fate, and given Emmaline what she desired without becoming intimate with the strife of choice. 

One morning he woke to an unexpected commotion in the living room. He turned over. The alarm clock flashed one in the afternoon. Squeaking and scraping, the noise picked up. Was Niles moving furniture around? Were those voices?

He stepped out a dishevelled mess, and was met with a collection of sombre faces. Niles, seemingly caught somewhere between anxiety and embarrassment, stepped forward. “I love you, Henry,” he said. “You haven’t been yourself lately. I know it’s difficult to talk about, but from what I’ve heard, the pieces aren’t hard to put together. We’re all here because we’re worried about you. Please, tell us that you aren’t considering what we think you might be.”

Clair rolled her eyes. “Tell us you’re not about to kill yourself.”

Henry hovered in the doorway. “It’s not that simple.”

“Seems simple enough to me,” Clair said.

“This is why Emmaline called me here.”

“To what? Walk out into the ocean like she did?”

“That’s what she wants.”

“Does it seem like I give a fuck about that? Do you think any of us do?”

“If I don’t, the things that make Tortus Bay special will fade away. Her magic will leave. All of your magic will.”

Clair popped up off the couch. Niles laid a hand on her shoulder. “We thought that’s how you might feel,” he said. “We’re here—we’re all here—to explain what we think. Clair, tell him. Henry, no more talking. Just listen.”

“I haven’t known you very long,” she said. “None of us have, but in particular I spent a while hiding out in the woods. There are times that I’ve hated Tortus Bay. You know that. I’ve wanted to be able to leave with every ounce of my being, but that trade-off isn’t worth it. I would rather be stuck here forever than be anywhere else at your expense. And if you can’t see that, then you really are stupid.”

Aria stood up next. “I also haven’t known you for very long. For some of it, I think you might have hated me—and for good reason. I didn’t believe in you. I thought you were another wash-out who wandered into our village and would wander back out before anyone noticed your presence. But I was wrong. You’ve changed more about this village in the short months you’ve been here than it’s changed in all the time I’ve been alive. And for my money, all of it has been for the better. Now you want to die to preserve the status quo? What a waste.”

Lola and Sofia held hands. Only the elder sister spoke, staring determinedly down at the carpet. “Everyone else seems to be saying it, but I’m pretty sure I know you the least of everybody in this room. But I came, because I think you’re important. You’ve meant a lot to me, at least. Don’t do it, okay?”

Teresa placed a hand on her daughter’s head. “When I first met you, and saw that wound on your shoulder, I knew interesting times would be coming. I never could have guessed how interesting they would be. I built my life on this village’s magic. I’ve helped many, many people with it. But please understand that I did so because there was no other choice. You think that every time I treat a patient with a broken bone, or a chronic illness, I don’t wish I could send them to a hospital instead? If without your sacrifice the magic of Tortus Bay will fade, that will indeed be a loss. But as a healer, a friend, and a fellow human being, I need you to understand that the loss of a life is so much deeper.”

Jamal wrung his hands, and spoke softly. “I’m only your bartender. I never counted us as friends, exactly, though I know we’re close. Oh, you know I’m a busybody. Everybody says it, and that’s the truth. I figured out more about you than anybody else in this village before you even arrived, and I’ve kept that lead right up to today. When my bar collapsed, I ran for help—so I never saw what you did for Clint. But that’s not important, because your love for people is so clear that the blind could see it. You love life, no matter how gloomy you act. Which is why I don’t believe that you’ll do it. Just like I didn’t believe you’d stay away from Tortus Bay, remember? But in case you’re really thinking about it: don’t. It’s not you.”

Kara smiled at him, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes. “What more needs to be said? You’ve been the best friend I’ve ever had, and the thought of losing you hurts. It hurts. We’ve lost a lot of people recently, and losing you would be too much. That might be selfish. I don’t care. Killing yourself is selfish, you know? And if you do, I would never forgive you. I love you.”

“And so do I,” Niles said. “I love you with all of my heart. I’m excited for our future together. A future that I never imagined before. We made a deal. Or did you already forget? You told me that you were ready to move beyond your past. This is wallowing.”

Silence lingered for a long moment, then Leia Thao stood from the corner of the room. “I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. More things than I’ve ever been right about. When we first met, I told you the only way to survive here was to get a job at the orchards, or the fishery, and blend in. You didn’t do any of that. What I think I really meant, though, was that you had to ingratiate yourself with this community. Back then, I thought I was the leader of that community. Now, I see that you were doing it all along.

“The decision is yours. That particular decision  is always a personal one. But let me tell you that if you leave my sights tonight without making me believe that you don’t intend to go through with this idiocy, then I will hound you. You care about Emmaline’s legacy? Well, I care about my own. It will be mistakes and bodies. I’m not adding yours.”

Henry breathed. He tried to still himself, but his head spun like a marble in a bowl of jell-o. “You understand, then. You don’t want your legacy to be my death. That’s my responsibility. I don’t want my legacy to be the death of this village. I didn’t come here to tear everything down. This is something that I’ve always been trying to do. Don’t you see that? When I walked into the school, when I healed Clint, when I jumped into the middle of that pack of wolves… it’s the only thing I’m good at. It might be the only thing I have to give. And god, if I’d known this day would come I never would have talked to any of you, because this pain is unbearable.”

***

Long after the hullabaloo died down, Henry stood out in the lawn, leaning against the fence, looking out at nothing in particular. The chill in the air had become a freeze, and he was dressed in his ratty sleep-shirt, but he wasn’t going back inside until everyone else left. Their words left his forehead hot, and his thoughts no less muddled than they’d been before. 

When he heard footsteps approaching, he assumed it was Niles bringing him a sweater. Or possibly Clair, to kick his ass. Teresa’s voice surprised him. “I hope we didn’t gang up too much.”

“You made yourselves clear.”

“But you knew all of that already, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

She leaned on the fence beside him, choosing her own indeterminate spot in the middle distance to gaze into. “Then let me fill you in on something new. When Niles told me about that dream of yours, and what he thought you took from it, it made me curious. I started playing around with some numbers. I told you that magic likes numbers, right? It waxes and wanes in patterns which might be hard to see in the moment, but which can be traced over large periods of time.”

“Hmm.” 

“Maybe you don’t care about any of that right now. You’ll have to forgive me, I have a hard time breaking out of lecture mode. I’m a doctor, a wizard, and a mother all wrapped up in one. What I’m trying to say is that our next festival is on track to be the weakest showing of magic in the recorded history of Tortus Bay. It’ll make last month’s nothing seem like nothing.”

“You think I have time to make my decision?”

Teresa chuckled. “A smarter person than I might lie, and say yes. But I have a lot wrapped up in being right. Plus, I think you’re a smart kid. And there are people who love you. I believe you’ll make the right choice. What I’m saying is that our next festival looks like it will be the pivotal moment when the village slips out of whatever strange grasp Emmaline has on it. It will be exactly two-hundred years since her death—to the month, as close as I can figure. Her magic will leave.”

“And never return again, unless I do something about it.”

“Which I sincerely hope you do not. I’ve met every person in Tortus Bay. I’ve learned a lot of their secrets. The Brihtes and the Gauthes are both good at their own little branches of magic, but whenever they needed healing they came to me. I’ve seen people lose themselves entirely to their gift. Like Noel. Please, don’t follow him down that path.”

3.09: Phantasms

In bundles and carts and back-bending armfuls, the last of the Tortoise Shell Inn’s rubble was cleared away. Most of the village continued turning out to help—dispelling any potential rumors that some were only trying to put in a good face. Many threw in day after day, chipping away at the seemingly insurmountable work until it shrank in scope before them. From a mountain, as it were, into a blank slate. At first there was little oversight. Helpers showed up, milled around, and eventually got the idea that they should be taking broken stone and shattered glass off site. In time, Aria stepped in to give direction.

She brought in an outside contractor, who took one look at the site and declared that, before even thinking about building anything new, they would need to demolish the portion of back wall which had stayed standing. A few days later, a bulldozer entered the scene. Aria, wearing a bright orange hard hat, watched the wall come down and be transported in chunks down to the dump. From that moment she was on site every day. Advisors, architects, and professional construction workers occasionally came along with her.

“How is this being paid for?” Henry asked one particularly exciting morning, while everyone was unpacking and sorting the lumber which would be the new Tortoise Shell’s frame.

“Business has been good,” Aria said. “And it’s not like I’m not being compensated at all.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Jamal says he’s going to name a sandwich after me.”

Jamal still presided over an endless keg, but as time passed his attitude changed. No longer did he trap people in endless conversations wherein he made nothing but tearful dad jokes. Instead he began helping more and more with the actual project, in time performing more work than anybody half his age. He politely listened to the stories of the day, whatever they might be, but did not contribute any of his own. 

It took Henry a week to corner this new reticent version of Jamal, taking a rest on the rough stone foundation where the wall had recently been toppled. “How are you holding up?” he asked.

Jamal jumped at the sound. “Henry! I didn’t see you there. Sorry, I must have dozed off.” He was damp with sweat, his forearms red and bleeding with days of hard labor.

“You should rest, if you need it.”

He struggled to his feet. “No, no. It’s all for me, isn’t it? That wouldn’t look right. I just wish I could do more.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. The village is doing this because they want their bar back—not to break your back.”

“I used to be the helper,” he said, then shook his head. “Ah, don’t mind me. Just a big adjustment, you know? But the Tortoise Shell 2.0 is going to be even better. And I’ll tell you what: I have a surprise for you.”

“Yeah?”

Jamal lowered his voice. “I wasn’t going to say anything until it was official, but once we get this place built, you can say hello to the new distribution center and sales point for the Tortus Bay Examiner. If you like the idea.”

“Of course I do. It was sexy for a bit, running an underground newspaper, but I suppose there’s no need for that anymore. Are you sure you’re okay?”

The frown hadn’t left his face. “It’s foolishness. Do you know the feeling of being given some sort of great gift, and feeling ashamed? Like you’re not able to look it in the eye?”

“I think I do.”

***

Henry spent his nights on a timer. He slept out on the couch; even with limitless patience, Niles didn’t deserve to go through that with him. It wasn’t a natural way to live. Every two hours, after being pulled out of deep sleep, he silenced and then switched the alarm tone on his phone. If he got used to them they would become ineffective. They would meld into his dreams.

They were, and needed to remain, of Emmaline. It was the same thing every time: he brought offerings to her molding bones, and she looked at him as though there was something she wanted to say. But she never would. Sometimes she was missing her mandible. Other times it flapped uselessly at him, producing no noise. 

He woke, and switched the alarm. He read the trance to himself again.

It was a spell he found in a book titled Projection Dreaming—the only volume he had taken from the Gauthe estate. The pages were filled with dry musings on the philosophy of dreams, practices for astral projection, and a stanza which the authors guaranteed would reveal the truth behind any recurring phantasm. Henry followed the instructions. He repeated the lines over and over to himself, until he could no longer keep his eyes open.

Emmaline crinkled. She popped and scraped wherever she moved, her empty joints complaining against worn bone. Henry crawled to her. He kissed her fragile toes in supplication, but from her mouth received only the senseless chattering of teeth.

***

Clint scarcely seemed to leave the construction site. At first this came along with the obvious jokes—he’ll do anything to get another beer, even rebuild the bar himself—but as the weeks wore on a difference could be distinguished in the man by even the most casual observer. His complexion improved, his eyes cleared, and his wild tangle of a beard was regularly trimmed; in every regard he was a new man, and seemed to relish every second he was afforded to toil under the sun. But Henry was not one of those casual observers, content to observe and praise from afar. He still wanted an explanation for their abrupt encounter outside of his apartment, but every time he approached, Clint found somewhere better to be. For several days they played cat and mouse, until Henry finally decided to call it quits.

If the old man didn’t want to talk, that was his own business. He put it out of his mind, and focused on the task at hand, until late one evening—shortly after the frame of the new Tortoise Shell went up. All of the other volunteers had left for the night, and he was just considering following suit himself, when he saw movement from within. A brief flash of plaid.

“Can we talk?” Henry asked. “There’s nobody else around.”

Clint froze, and then rapidly shuffled off in the other direction.

“I’m not going to chase you. I only wanted to clear the air,” he said, but it was no use. The man was already gone.

“I think it would be grand to clear the air,” an unanticipated voice said. Noel revealed himself from the shadowed beams of the framework, dusting off his rumpled sweater. “Unlike you, I would be willing to give chase, if necessary.”

Henry’s hand instinctively reached for his back pocket, where he felt the reassuring presence of the silver spoon. Carrying it on his person at all times had become something of a paranoid tick, but now it would pay off.

“There’s no need for anything dramatic,” the mayor said. He stayed far back, and spoke quietly. “You made sure of that, didn’t you? I’ve spent weeks digging back through your work. You found out about what I am through the Brihtes. I had no idea how far that family had fallen. But the rune? That threw me for a long time. You got it from Emmaline, didn’t you? How did you learn her craft? How were you successful where nobody else has ever been?”

“I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know myself. But you’re misinformed; I’ve seen others use her magic.”

“Is that so? Well, maybe they can help, then. You have to reverse it.”

“Even if I could, why would I?”

Noel took a single step forward, entering the relief of a streetlight. He was thin. Coarse, unwashed hair covered his face. “Because you’re ashamed. I’ve been silent to the public’s eye lately. They probably assume I’m out on one of my infamous vacations. But I’ve been waiting for the tell-tale issue of your ratty publication to surface. May I ask where it is?”

“We’re waiting until we -”

Noel cut him off. “Do you have any idea what it’s like? What you really did to me? That was a gift I’ve had since I was a child. It wasn’t all illusion and sleight of hand to scare the locals. There are real wolves out in those woods, and I’ve been speaking with them for decades. They’re my friends. Do you understand that? You must, or else you would have spilled it all already.”

“I did what I had to do.”

“And who have you told of this proud accomplishment?”

“Everyone will know. As soon as I have the full story. As soon as I figure out this thing with Emmaline.”

“Emmaline! You’re even dumber than I thought. Where did that woman end up? At the bottom of the ocean. That’s the path you want to follow?”

“It’s better than yours.”

“Everything can go back to normal. I know when I’ve been bested, and this is it. You have my word that I will snoop no further in this Emmaline business—as long as you reverse what you did to me. Or else, I will tell everyone what you did.”

Henry drew his hand from his pocket. “They believe me. They believe in my paper. You have the rest of the month to get your things in order, or else to get out of the village, if you can. Everything we both did is coming out. The public can decide which of us acted worse.”

Noel’s eyes became little reflective plates under the bright fall moon. He stood there in silence, digesting those words, then nodded his head and turned away, melting into the shadows.

***

That night Henry fell straight into sleep. He didn’t have the energy to lull himself with the book’s doubtful incantation. Perhaps because of this he found himself in a different dream than usual. Something familiar, but which he had not been forced to endure in months.

He stood outside of the middle school, thoughts drifting a million miles away. But the door stood ajar, and there were noises from inside. Popping popcorn? Bottle rockets?

Something deep in his mind told him what it was, but even that couldn’t stop him from entering. His feet fell with absolute dread. They echoed off the lockers, off the squeaky linoleum. At the end of the hallway a classroom door opened. That something in his mind started screaming. Don’t look don’t look don’t look!

There were no desks inside. No chalkboard, no cubbies, and no tiny limp bodies on the floor. In fact, there was no floor at all. Emmaline hovered above the crashing waves of the endless ocean, her arms spread wide, smiling down at him.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Give yourself to the water.”

3.08: Expectations

Kara opened her door with a stern expression on her face. “Figured I might be seeing you tonight.”

Henry stepped inside. “Have you thought about it at all?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Then you’re going through with it?”

“I’m doing something that I have done every month since I moved to Tortus Bay.”

He wanted to shake her. “You don’t understand.”

“What don’t I understand?”

“Things are different! You saw what happened last time, and the time before. It’s dangerous. You can’t expose yourself to -”

“I can do what I want to do.”

Henry pulled his charms out of his pocket, and thrust them at her. “I did something to the mayor. Something serious. I don’t want to explain it all right now, but I think that he might be out looking for revenge tomorrow.”

Kara wasn’t listening to him. She was staring at his hand. “Do you have any idea how much work went into those? No one’s ever given one back.”

“Well, I am.”

“No,” she said. Her eyes reddened. “No, this is what I do. Why don’t you understand that? It’s important to me that -”

“I can’t save you again! I already watched you die once. If your game goes wrong again, I won’t watch it a second time.”

“My game?”

Henry let the charms fall out of his hand. They clattered against the stone floor.

***

Once more, Henry slept not a wink the night before the festival. He hauled himself out of bed well before dawn, spent a useless hour trying to convince himself to read more of the books he had liberated from the Gauthe estate, and then resigned himself to laying on the couch, waiting. Sometime after the sun rose, Niles set a cup of coffee down on the floor beside him. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I’m too old to be pulling all-nighters.”

“You took care of Noel.”

Henry sighed, and sat up. “I think I did. I carved that symbol onto him, but I didn’t exactly stick around to do any tests. Maybe it didn’t work at all, and he can still do his magic. Or maybe he has some way to get rid of it. Or, hell, maybe he doesn’t need to do anything spooky. If he knows what Emmaline is really after, all he would need -”

Niles took him by the shoulders, and pressed his lips against his head. “Today is about you. Whatever else happens, nothing changes that. We’re looking after your arm. Speaking of, are you ready to get going?”

“I don’t get to finish the coffee?”

“Take it with. Teresa said we should start as early as possible.”

“I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

***

Day proper came along with chilly winds and downcast sky. The ground in the old graveyard was hard from the night’s frost, and the leaves around paled toward autumn yellow and orange. “I don’t understand why we have to do this here,” Teresa said. She had brought with her several bags stuffed to their brims with herbs, phials, and notebooks.

“He’s scared of boney down there,” Clair said. She was perched on a headstone opposite the Cass monument, yawning and rubbing her eyes.

“I’m not scared of her,” Henry said, “I just think it would be wise for us to keep our eye on things. We don’t know how long this will take, and we don’t know what’s going to happen here. Two birds, one stone.”

Niles nodded. “Let’s get started, then.”

Teresa began rummaging through her many bags. Henry cleared his throat. “Actually, I wonder if we couldn’t start with something else.”

Clair laughed. Teresa paused, and looked up with ice in her eyes. “We are a month behind, as it is. And, like you said, we don’t know how long this will take.”

“She talked to me, the last time I was here. Emmaline. You told me yourself that one of the sigils on this spire allows for communication. We don’t know what’s going to happen today. But we do know that we have a chance to do this now.”

“You’ve been acting very strangely recently, Henry.”

Niles frowned. “You’ve still been dreaming about her, haven’t you?”

He ignored him, focusing instead on the woman with the bags. “Something serious is happening right now. You know that better than I. What we need is knowledge. We need to figure out what’s happening.” 

Before he finished speaking, he knew the argument had worked. Teresa scowled, but approached Emmaline’s grave nonetheless. Once again she closed her eyes, and spread her arms to either side of her body, but this time her feet did not leave the ground. Neither she, nor the monument, glowed. The sigils remained dormant. Her eyes opened.

“What happened?” Clair asked.

“There’s nothing,” Teresa said.

“What do you mean, nothing?” Henry asked.

“Can’t you feel it? Concentrate.”

As soon as she said it, he felt it—but still he closed his eyes and reached out. That growing sense of electricity which had come to him during the past two festivals was nowhere to be found. It felt, in every way, like any other regular day. “What happened?”

Teresa shrugged. “There are ebbs and flows. Some months are like this. The average festival was something more like this, before you showed up.”

“We have to keep trying.”

And so they did. They made a strange party, arrayed in silence around the graveyard. Teresa and Henry sat under the monument, waiting for a hint that the magic was going to come. Niles leaned against a tree trunk, reading a ruffled paperback. Clair wandered through the woods, surfacing every fifteen minutes or to check that nothing had changed before disappearing again. Time passed. Whenever one of them opened their mouth to suggest that maybe they were better off changing course, Henry would glare at them until they fell back in line. The sun passed over their heads and was well on its way into the west when Teresa broke the silence. “It’s time to take care of the shoulder.”

Henry screwed his eyes shut tight. 

“Didn’t you hear her?” Niles asked. 

“I’m not going to do it,” he said.

Silence followed those words. Henry did not open his eyes, but he imagined that each one of his friends had affixed him with some bewildered look or another. Clair was the first to speak. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I agree,” Teresa said. “I told you how serious this was, did I not? Was I not dire enough for you? This thing will kill you, if given the time.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

“Then why? What in the world could possibly make you not want to at least try to save your own life?”

Hesitantly, Henry opened his eyes. Found Niles’ face. There, he expected to see betrayal. Hurt, or even anger. But it was none of that. Niles looked at him with a sadness, it could not be denied—but also an understanding. Support. “Emmaline once sacrificed herself to save this village,” Henry said. “She is the reason Tortus Bay still exists. She is the reason that magic lives here. And she called to me. That is why I am here. She wants to talk to me; she thinks we have some sort of connection. And whatever her bones might have done, I’m not convinced that she is the villain here. Noel is trying to pervert her legacy, or replace her in some way. And he offered to heal me. That is enough for me to take the risk to carry on with the wound.”

Silence. Then again, Clair gave the group’s reply. “That is the second dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

***

Henry walked alone in the small hours of the night. Though the village’s attitude toward activity after dark had softened, few people took advantage of it. Especially on a festival day, and especially at the truly absurd hour that he drew up outside of the Anderson warehouse. “I’m not waking you, am I?”

“Not at all,” Kara said.

“It must have been a light day.”

“Still not used to sleeping until it’s all over.”

He held up a greasy bag of take-out food. “Hungry?”

“You haven’t heard, have you?” She smiled, and stepped outside. “You’ll have to tell me what kept you so preoccupied. Come on, let’s eat somewhere more scenic.”

She led him down the road, away from the Anderson, and then away from the village entirely. He trailed behind, asking where they were going, but she refused to answer. Finally, it dawned on him. They must be headed for the lighthouse.

The tall white spire loomed into their vision on the horizon, and Kara veered off to the side. She brought them through the open grass field which buffeted the lighthouse and the village, then continued onto the beach. There, she stopped. Waves lapped at the shore. The water carried the light of the moon better than the dirt, or even the sand, casting illumination forward and back on the shadowed forms of moving beasts. They milled in lofty circles, unconcerned with their new spectators. “Tortoises,” Kara said. “They came back.”

Dozens of them roved the beach. The smallest was no larger than a dachshund; the largest, in the distance, might have rivaled an economy car. That one looked like a wandering mountain, casting shifting shadows on the glittering sand. “When did this happen?”

“If I had to guess, I would say the minute the festival started. But nobody noticed for a while. Most people hunkered down. Old habits die hard, and who can blame them after the last few months?”

Moss covered many of the tortoise’s shells. Henry guessed those were the older ones. The rest—the younger ones, as he supposed—had brown or dark green colorations. Nothing fantastic. Nothing magical. Still, he thought they were more striking than an entire forest full of ethereal wolves. “I’m sorry that I tried to tell you what to do. I was scared, but that doesn’t give me an excuse.”

“I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have jumped down your throat. All my life people have been telling me not to do the things that I love doing. I guess it threw me off, hearing the first good argument.”

“Friends?”

“Friends.”

They sat on the outskirts of the shore, sharing stale tacos and congealed fries. Kara had nothing to say, when he told her his decision about his shoulder. Instead she hugged him. Together they watched until the last of the tortoises slipped away into the grey-blue ocean, and the crest of the rolling horizon broke deep purple.

3.07: Extreme Measures

“Why are you still looking through those?” Niles asked. It was late in the evening, and the last of the light was burning out of the sky. “We already have enough for Teresa to go on.”

Henry sat huddled on the couch, flipping gingerly through the yellowed pages of the bestiary. None of the books were titled, at least in any meaningful way; the ones which bore text on their cover often contained nothing to do with those words. But there was interesting information nevertheless. He could not tell how much of it was real. A little part of his brain argued that at this point he’d seen enough that he ought simply to assume all of it were true. Yet some things were too fantastical for even him to accept. “There’s a lot more to know.”

“I’m worried that you might be psyching yourself out.”

“No,” Henry said, closing the book and rubbing his eyes, “I’ve been trying to put something off. I’m going to visit the mayor.”

Niles’ eyes flicked toward the darkened window. “Tonight?”

“I need to see him before the next festival. If he’s planning something, I’ve been too distracted to notice it so far.”

“And you imagine that he’ll spell it out for you?

“I think he’ll talk around me for a couple hours, offer me some weak tea, and I’ll leave knowing a little more than I went in with.” 

Niles pursed his lips. “This doesn’t have to be your fight.”

“It does. I might not be sure about everything yet, but that much seems clear to me.”

“Well, it’s dangerous, then.”

“I’m going to the man’s house. You know where I’ll be.” He stood. “If I’m not back by midnight, come looking for me. And bring some whiskey.”

***

The Gauthe estate lay at the tail end of Glosspool Lane, which whipped around itself in a well-manicured cul-de-sac. No gates, watchhouses, or alarms impeded his way, despite the opulence of the looming mansion and the exaggerated time of night; there were only lines of emerald hedgerows, arranged almost to be a maze.

The knocker was a gaudy golden teardrop, which Henry didn’t have occasion to employ. No sooner had he set foot on the bottom step than the door swung open, spilling golden light onto the broad lawn. “Henry,” the mayor said, beckoning him inside, “I’m so glad you came by. Can I interest you in something to drink? Darjeeling? Green? Honeysuckle?”

“No, thank you.” Upkeep was the only differentiator between the gross displays of wealth in the Brihte and Gauthe estates. Where in the former there hung an air of disuse, in the latter Henry walked through an impeccably dusted and lovingly polished showcase. Noel led him through several crowded drawing rooms. “Do you live here alone?”

“My wife and children are here, as well. I have three of them. The real trick to parenthood, you know, is in securing a home large enough that if you stand at one end, you will be incapable of hearing a child’s wails from the other. But this is the reception wing, and it is quite late, you know.” They landed eventually in a narrow study, where the mayor insisted that Henry sit in a plush office chair behind the desk. He himself took the leather armchair in the corner. “I was overjoyed, of course, to hear what you did for Clint. The entire village owes you a debt of gratitude. Perhaps even more than gratitude. But how is that shoulder holding up?”

The desk was littered with old envelopes and pens. A few books sat on the ground by his feet. “It looks worse than it is. Teresa says I’ll be doing handstands again in a matter of weeks.”

“That is excellent news. I heard through the grapevine that you wished to speak with me. I was overjoyed at this, as I also wish to speak with you. It was my impression that you might be hesitant to meet. Yet here you are. So tell me: what can I do for you, Mr. Cauville?”

“It isn’t long now until the next festival. I only wondered what your intentions were.”

The mayor’s eyes widened, and then he laughed. Booming, echoing laughter that seemed inappropriate for his slender frame filled the room, and he held his stomach as though trying to keep it in place. He wiped the corners of his eyes. “A farewell to gamesmanship. I am honored, honestly, that you feel we know each other well enough that we can dispense with the lies.”

Henry gave a one-shoulder shrug. “I haven’t heard a word about you, in the last month. Or seen anything of you.”

“I’ve been studying, as I think you have as well.” He pressed himself deep into the chair. “What plans I had were complicated—as you must know, since you were that complication.”

“That’s something I still can’t figure out. What were you trying to do?”

The mayor considered him, then stood and excused himself from the room. When he returned he bore a tray with two steaming mugs, and an assortment of sugar cookies. “Scrounged it up from the kitchen. Most of the help has retired for the night.” 

Henry took what was offered to him, and arrayed his selection on the desk before him. The liquid in the mug was a pale yellow; the cookies were slightly hard, as if they had been sitting out most of the day. Noel took the rest with him, and set them on the bookshelf beside his seat. “Doubtless you understand more than I might be compelled to give you credit for,” he said, swirling his mug in his hand before taking a timid sip. “But you cannot know enough to be a player in this game. You must be aware of that. This must be why you have come here like this, and layed all of your cards on the table, as it were. It happens that you have caught me in the opposite position. I know much, and find myself with few routes to action. At this curious intersection I have little more than my friendship to offer. Is your friendship also up for offer?”

“Depends what I hear.”

Noel smiled. “I think perhaps you and I may speak frankly. I hope you appreciate the magnitude of that statement. Speaking frankly is one of my least favorite things to do. But tell me first: how much of this puzzle have you figured your way through?”

“Emmaline wants something from me. I don’t know what it is, but she called me here to provide it. Now I’m living on borrowed time, and I’m nowhere closer to finding it than I was my first night in Tortus Bay.”

“You think I might know what she’s after?”

“If you don’t, nobody does.”

The mayor sipped his tea contemplatively, and nibbled on one of his cookes. “You really should eat. You look thin.” Henry took a cautious bite. It was delicious. Whoever the Gauthes employed, they were good enough to give Niles a run for his money. “As with everything else, it is a matter of power. Emmaline once sacrificed herself, and in so doing provided protection for the entirety of the village. You’ve heard this story, I trust?”

 “I have.”

“That much of it seems unassailably true, though I can’t imagine how she managed the feat. But let me ask you this: if you have the absolute protection of a thing, what else must you hold over it?”

“Control.”

The mayor raised his mug in cheers. “A woman dead for hundreds of years still fiddles with the lives of her descendents. I will tell you that I do not know her plan. Whatever craft she may or may not have had in her day, it is long since vanished to us. In truth I suspect that even the most powerful of us now only follow in her footsteps.”

“So you’re the hero, freeing us from tyranny.”

“Tortus Bay is unique. Maybe the most singular place in all of the world. You lived on the outside, so you know this even better than I. That must be preserved. But it is the living who should direct the living, not the dead.”

“Then you would be our new tyrant.”

Noel waved his hand. “Emmaline has put forward an incredible effort lately. Calling a newcomer from halfway across the country, and lifting her old bones out of the earth. They are moves which reek of desperation. I feel that she is weak, or else weakening, and now is the time to move.”

“You’re the one who dug her up in the first place, aren’t you? So you broke through her sigils, and never thought to speak with her? Or was she not impressed with your ideas?”

The mayor stopped mid-sip, as though stricken by a bolt of lightning, and lifted his gaze up and over the desk. “Well, that is why we speak with those we may easily assume are the irrelevant players in our lives,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “That is often how we learn the most.”

“I wish I could say the same.”

“I do apologize if I haven’t been helpful. But we each hold a piece of this puzzle, as I said. I have the strength to take the mantle. You have Emmaline’s ear. I never imagined, but can’t you see how easy that makes it?”

Henry set his mug aside. “Whatever Emmaline wants, I think it’s important that we hear it out.”

“We could make that discovery together.”

“After everything I’ve heard,” he said, “I’m not convinced that you’re the right person to lead.” 

Noel mimicked him, setting his mug on the hardwood floor with a muted clink. “Our magic has been unstable, this past month. Waxing and waning without any attention to the moon. I mentioned that I’ve been studying, and I’m happy to report that it has been fruitful. What once I could only manage on a festival day, now I can bring upon myself at will.” He smiled, and the crinkles on his cheeks grew dark. Fine silver hairs sprouted from them. His nose widened, and began to grow.

Even after everything Henry read—even after seeing it in front of him—he still didn’t fully believe. But belief was always less valuable than muscle memory, in times of crisis. He leapt across the desk, scattering the remains of his uneaten cookies to the floor. He fell upon the mayor before the man had a chance to react, drawing from his back pocket an antique he’d rummaged from Niles’ garage. Henry clamped the silver spoon against Noel’s thrashing arm, and it seared. Smoke billowed from the skin, and Noel screamed. “Stop! Stop! Where did you get that from? How did you know?”

He threw the writhing man onto the floor. “The Brihtes and the Gauthes have been keeping each other in check for decades, haven’t they?” He held the mayor down, and tried to tear open his shirt, but his flailing grew desperate. “Settle down!”

But Noel was no longer in control of his own body. Thick puffs of grey fur grew from his forearms. The nails of his fingers became thick, and sharp. “Your shoulder!” he said, his voice breaking over and over again. “I know how to fix it. If you let me be, I can fix it!”

Henry finally tore the man’s shirt open, and pressed the silver against his left breast. He stilled.

“You win,” Noel panted.

“Not yet.” Henry leaned in, and the lip of the spoon broke flesh. Horrible wailing once more filled the study, drifting off to die unheard in empty chambers. Henry twisted his instrument this way and that, trying to concentrate. He hadn’t anticipated the smoke. When he stepped away, he looked down and judged his work to be fairly accurate. The sigil Teresa drew for him had straighter lines, but that had been done on a piece of smooth paper—not a quivering, crying lump of flesh.

“What did you do to me?” Noel asked, patting his chest to staunch the blood. “What did you do?”

3.06: Deconstruction

The restoration of the Tortoise Shell Inn got started quickly. With the entire village united in a singular goal, they proved that they could accomplish greatness. Together they established a dumping site, cleared the loose rubble, and sold whatever of the refuse was of any value. It remained unclear whether the mayor backed the project or not. Nobody imagined that he hadn’t heard—it would have been impossible for anybody to miss the news—but he did not show himself at the site.  

By contrast, Henry was there almost every day, helping out however he could. Generally that meant moving small objects, and providing moral support. People seemed to appreciate it. But Jamal had him beat on both counts. The man never left, and he presided over an endless keg of beer. He made incessant jokes about drinking while on the job. If anyone stuck around too long, the jokes would become sincere and sometimes tearful thanks—so most of the volunteers took their cups and ran.

Long days sweating under the autumn sun became the only times in which Henry could see his friends without the dark cloud of his worsening condition hanging over their heads. They could pretend, if only for a little while, that the only injustice that existed was the destruction of the Tortoise Shell Inn. And that, they were fixing. The problem was with others. 

“Can you help him?” a tearful Mrs. Donald asked him one afternoon. “I’m so sorry to bring it up, it isn’t fair… but… but could you? Could you bring him back?”

Kara, standing nearby, rushed in to save him from stuttering and stumbling. “We all miss Ted,” she said, “but he’s gone. I know it hurts.” Henry went home early that day.

The memorial service for the three deceased was held in the Anderson warehouse, in order to accommodate the turnout. More people than expected still showed up, and by midday the ceremonies were moved outside. Relatives and friends who hadn’t been seen in the village for years came to pay their respects. Henry met Benny, the man who technically owned the house in which he was little more than a squatter. The man embraced him, kissed him on the cheek, and loudly announced that he was proud to provide housing to someone such as himself. 

Leia Thao came dressed in a plain black dress. She stood in the back, hung her head, and did not speak to anybody. After an hour she left, and wasn’t seen around the village for several days to come.

***

“Do you think what you have is a ‘wycked spreading rott?’” Niles asked. He was stretched out on the sofa, flipping through one of the Brihte family books. They kept the three in recognizable English, and farmed the rest out to Teresa, Kara, and Clair—who each promised to find some way to help, digital translator or otherwise.

Henry closed his own book. Largely, it seemed to be a bestiary of animals and creatures which he had never heard of before, and did not in any way believe in. “Description matches,” he said, joining him on the sofa. “What does it say?”

Niles read down the page. “Spreads rapidly, sometimes unpredictably, across the body. Inflicted by a powerful magus. Horrible punishment, agonizing death, so far and so forth… oh, it says it is sometimes attached to an opposing magus’ ‘animus’ to prevent them from using their magic.”

“That sounds like it might be it!”

“There’s nothing else here,” he said, turning the page back and forth. “Only instructions on how to cast it. Which, if you’re curious, make no sense to me. But nothing on a cure.”

“Maybe that’s because it doesn’t have one.”

Niles pulled him close. “Well find something. Now we have a name. Teresa can work with that.”

***

This was the new order of things in Tortus Bay: if someone needed a drink, they stopped by the Tortoise Shell construction site. If someone needed a drink, and silence in which to enjoy it, they went to the park. Word had long since spread that Mathas Bernard’s remains wound up amongst the trees, and to honor his memory people had gotten into the habit of taking long walks and spitting at every pile of disturbed earth. 

Henry was one of the only people who knew the true location of the corpse. It was there he liked to drink, with his back against the wide trunk of the gnarled oak, and a cooler at his feet. Oftentimes he took to staring at the ground. He thought about the man decomposing underneath, and the woman buried not too far away who had finished that process a long time ago. Two people—two dead people—who he put back into the earth. Two people who knew far more than he about magic in Tortus Bay. If they could talk to him, would they have anything to say about his condition? Would they help him, if they could?

A rustling of leaves announced that he was not alone. Sofia’s angular face appeared through the greenery. “Mind if I join you?” she asked. 

“Sure. I’d offer you a beer, but I think your mom is mad enough at me as it is.”

The girl was dressed warmly for the season, and her face seemed paler than usual. She sat beside him, and stuffed her fists into her sweater. “She’s not mad at you. I think she’s mad at the world. Or him.” She spat at the ground.

“I would be mad at me, in her place.”

“We already did it once,” she said. “What was the harm in doing it a second time?”

Henry tried to catch her eye, but she turned her head away. “I don’t know. What is the harm?”

“I didn’t come here to complain.”

“Just wanted to sit and spit? Come on, we all have the right. And you more than most.”

“You’re the only person I can think of to talk to. I know that sounds messed up, but it’s true. Everyone keeps saying that I need to talk about it, but there’s nobody. You were here. You know what happened.”

Henry finished his can, and cracked a new one. “That might be true. I still can’t imagine what it’s been like, for you.”

“I’m scared,” she said. “Don’t tell me that it doesn’t make any sense, because I know. I’m scared all of the time.”

“Of people like him?”

She shook her head. “Mom used to treat people from outside Tortus Bay. I don’t remember all of them, but I definitely remember a couple. They were dirty. They were mean. I don’t know what the matter was with them. The worst we had here was Clint, and he was never mean.”

“Tortus Bay used to be filled with the good guys. Now it seems like anybody in the world could be evil.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I guess that’s it.”

Henry took his time with the second can. “I’m sorry for what happened to you. And I’m sorry for what you had to do, but to be honest I’m glad that you did. It went a lot better than it might have. I’m sure you know that.”

“It felt good, at first. Both times.”

“I think you do need to talk to someone. Someone qualified.”

“My mom wants to bring in a therapist, but it’s hard. And digital appointments just aren’t the same.”

“Have you ever tried leaving the village?”

“Never seriously. I ran away a few years ago. The deeper you get into the magic here, the harder it is to leave. For me it would be impossible.”

Henry’s pocket buzzed. He checked his phone, and denied the unknown number. “This might be nonsense,” he said, “but a lot of what you’re talking about reminds me of Clair. Do you know Clair?”

“I know of her.”

“Let me introduce you sometime. You might get along—at least until something better can be figured out.”

“I would like that. Now answer your damn phone.”

Same unknown number. “Hello?” he said.

“Hello, Henry,” a familiar voice said. “I hear you wanted to have a meeting with me. I must confess, I was surprised to hear it—but also impressed. Perhaps we can settle things in a sophisticated manner. That’s all I ever wanted, as you remember. Yes, I think we ought to talk.”

3.05: Possession and Dispossession

The Tortus Bay Examiner

Issue Two

Readers, we hear you loud and clear. Everyone in Tortus Bay wants to know what happened last week, and you deserve to be told the truth. But to understand the explanation, you first have to hear the history.

There is magic in this village. Not happenstance, or coincidence, or strange phenomena that don’t deserve to be investigated. Magic. And it is not new. It was born of a woman named Emmaline Cass—whose skeletal remains, as some of you will be aware, terrorized our streets. She was one of the original founders, and it is due to her sacrifice that Tortus Bay still stands today. When the land turned sour and neighboring settlements began to fail, Emmaline stayed behind with those doomed to die. Instead of accepting her lot, however, she chose to meet her own fate by walking out into the sea… 

***

Swirling, sworling, endless water. Long thin hair, caught up as in a drain. The frosting on a cinnamon bun. Then her face, bone. Bone white flesh, and thin lips forming a perfect immobile circle. Her tongue whipped and wagged within. Flecks of saliva painted her cheeks. “You owe me. Will you do what needs to be done?”

Henry shot up out of bed, drenched in sweat, momentarily disoriented. The dream had been so real. Salt water still stung his nose. “These aren’t dreams.”

“Wazzat?” Niles snorted, rolling over heavily. It was a few minutes before dawn; weak yellow light streamed through the window.

“Go back to sleep.”

“Nah, I’m up. Why is the bed wet?”

“Sweat. Sorry. Nightmare.”

He pulled him into an embrace. “Again?”

“Every night. I don’t… listen, it’s crazy, but I don’t think they’re just dreams.”

“You think Emmaline is communicating with you,” Niles said, and laughed at the expression on his face. “Come on, it’s not that hard to figure out. She talked to you before you put her back in the grave, and now she’s figured out how to get into your dreams.”

“You’re taking this much better than I am.”

He kissed his forehead. “I’ve lived here my whole life. Can’t say I’ve seen anything more strange, but I got a lot of practice on a wide variety of things just slightly lower on the scale.”

“You don’t think I’m losing my mind?”

“No, I don’t. How do you feel about pancakes?”

Henry returned the kiss. “I’m pro-pancake.”

“Mmmm. Banana or chocolate chip?”

“Both.”

***

Glosspool Lane was as radiant that morning as ever it was, but Henry brought to it his own personal dark cloud. His useless arm had recently begun to itch or sting in places. Teresa called it good news, but he preferred the thing lifeless. No matter how he scratched, nor how much ointment he applied, the sensations would not leave him alone.

So it was that he rolled up to the Brihte estate heavily distracted with his own pinching and scratching, and took a moment to notice the unusual level of activity on the premises. The wrought-iron gates hung open. A series of trucks were parked on the driveway, and from them many men hauled objects to and fro. Tables, shelves, and candelabras.

Henry skirted around the work with a minimum of questioning eyes, slipped through the front door, and found Lucy and Beth Brihte sitting on a couch in the far corner of their foyer, sharing a glass of deep red wine. “Henry!” Lucy called, “if you’re intent was to rummage, I’m afraid you’ve been caught.”

“What are you talking about?” Beth asked.

“Did I never mention? I caught this one breaking into my bedroom, rooting around for imagined details about Mathas Bernard.”

“Yes,” she said, “he pulled a similar ruse at my house, I think. Taking advantage of the emotionally distraught. But he had a good reason, I’m sure.”

The room was in a state of disarray. Everywhere the furniture was half pulled apart, or else packed into tidy boxes. A table against the wall was covered with nick-nacks and old letters that the two women had apparently been in the process of sorting through. Henry felt the strange urge to bow as he approached them, but mastered it. “I guess it didn’t matter what I did, in the end,” he said. “Everything seemed to work itself out.”

Beth smiled. “Humble, now.”

“He’s always been humble,” Lucy said. “That’s his saving grace.”

“What’s happening around here?” he asked, watching a man walk out of the house with a rug thrown over his shoulder.

“We’re liquidating,” Beth said. “There used to be a whole host of Brihtes in this village, but now it’s just me and my sister. And she’s been bothering me to do this for ages.”

“There’s nothing here for us anymore. Oh, we had our distractions. A hiking club, a husband. Now that’s all gone. Wine?”

Henry awkwardly stepped forward to accept the glass. “So that’s it? You’re leaving?”

“You’re the last person I expected to be upset by that,” Beth said. “Do you see this house you’re standing in, Henry? And I have another, only a little smaller. What happened with Emmaline made it clearer for me than ever: the Brihtes have been a drain on this village for decades now. I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that we have been funnelling money into the mayor’s office and the sheriff’s department, to maintain the fiction that Tortus Bay is a regular village filled with regular people. You have done more damage to that narrative with one issue of your newspaper than we allowed in the last hundred years.”

“And about time!” Lucy said quickly, raising her glass.

He took a drink. “What do you imagine the Gauthes will do? Are they also going to skip town?”

“No.”

“Then I suppose your parting gift to the village will be to leave it diminished. I would imagine that the immense resources of this estate could be put to a lot of good.”

A sort of well-humored scowl settled into place on Beth’s face. “What did you come here for?”

“To convince you of several conclusions you appear to have reached for yourself, if I’m honest. I heard from a friend that the blood of the Brihtes and the Gauthes runs deeper than money.”

She leaned forward, subconsciously rimming her wineglass with her forefinger. “What are you getting at?”

“Books,” he said. “Secrets. Magic that nobody else has access to. How your family got ahead in the first place.”

“No such thing ex-” Lucy began, but her sister cut her off. Beth stood, and motioned for him to follow. He set his glass down, and she led him on a meandering route through the house. As they plunged deeper, they passed progressively fewer of the movers, and the opulence with which he was familiar re-asserted itself.  

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Beth said. “Me and my sister get like that, when we’re together. I wanted to thank you, for everything you did in my husband’s case.”

“You want to thank me?”

She laughed. “I know the truth. Teresa told me everything. Or at least, as much as I could stand to hear. What a legacy, for this family. What a disgrace.” She led him to a locked door in the rear of the house, which opened onto a modestly sized library. The majority of the titles appeared to be assorted fiction, literary analysis, and poetry. Henry wondered if she had understood his request.

“You never knew, then?”

“Could I have been more attentive? Could I have cared more about the red flags? The answer to those questions is always yes. But I did not.” They stopped in front of a single squat shelf tucked away in a dark corner of the library. She unlocked the sliding cover with a rusted old key, and revealed a collection of twelve dusty tomes. “There you have it,” she said. “You said we would leave Tortus Bay in a worse place than we found it? Let this be the first step in fixing that: the collected knowledge of the Brihte family. Including, yes, a fair amount of secret magic.”

He stooped down to inspect the titles, of which only three were in English. “You mind if I take these with me?”

“Help yourself. I don’t want to see them again.”

“Thank you. Would I be pushing my luck, to ask for one more favor?”

She crossed her arms. “What do you need?”

“A meeting with the mayor.”

3.03: Game Night

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?”

“No.”

“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.

3.02: The View From The Top

Henry wandered for a time that night. Many people insisted that they accompany him, but he was more insistent on being alone. There was a pressure—a sort of buzzing—building inside of his head through which he couldn’t talk. It wouldn’t let him think. 

What Kara told him about the village was true. Though he discharged himself from Teresa’s converted field hospital well after nightfall, and cast his eyes down, people in the street still spotted him and tried to approach. Gone was their characteristic fear of the dark. Now it felt like a real festival in Tortus Bay; everywhere people chatted loudly and drank deeply beneath the moon. Whenever he was spotted, he hunched over and hurried on. That was enough for most of them. For the rest, there was the cold shoulder. They were still too polite to be that much of a bother—and there was still somewhere that none of them would go. Somewhere Henry could be alone.

The door to the lighthouse sat ajar, unobstructed by boards or police tape. It was completely scrubbed out. No evidence remained of the crime which had been committed there. The crime, or its inevitable repercussion. Regardless it was with hesitation that he stepped inside. The window he’d smashed was now whole, and the splintered staircase reinforced with new wood. Up top, additional boards had been fitted to occlude the sky, but not so completely that he was unable to wedge his way in-between. There he saw the moon again, reflected infinitely over the ocean’s placid waters. He sat on a block of broken stone. 

Teresa put his useless arm in a cast. Kara told him that they might yet find a cure. Niles said nothing at all, but looked at him with sad eyes. Henry couldn’t hold any of it in his mind. He watched the waves, and thought about nothing.

***

He did not properly sleep that night, but neither could he claim to have stayed awake. All he knew was that eventually the sun rose, arced through the sky, and beat down from overhead. He made his way down the stairs, and out the lighthouse door. 

Tortus Bay had not yet fully risen. Those few who roamed the streets did so with destinations clearly in their mind, and coffee cups clutched in their fists. Litter built up in the gutters. Henry arrived at the Police Station just as three figures departed the building.. Teresa, Sofia, and Lola looked briefly in his direction, but not one of the three acknowledged his presence. The daughters huddled around their mother’s skirts, and they hurried the other way down the sidewalk.

Leia Thao sat at her desk, looking worse for wear than Henry had ever seen. The bags under her eyes stretched down to her jaw. Her greasy hair stuck up in clumped horns. There were yellow stains around the collar of her t-shirt, and her sweatpants were torn and bloody. She glanced up at him, and sighed.

“I came to talk about Mathas Bernard.”

“Save it.”

“If you listen, I can ex-”

“I said save it!” she snapped. “There’s nothing more you need to say.” A crumpled bag of sunflower seeds sat on the edge of her desk, which she now seized and upended into her mouth. For several seconds she chewed. “Do you remember what I told you three months ago, when I picked you up in the park?”

Henry thought back. “To get a job and fit in?”

“I did, didn’t I?” She smiled, but there was no hint of joy in it. “I also told you that I had never once fired my service pistol. Never one time, in all the years I’ve worked as this village’s sheriff.”

“I’m not sure that shooting a skeleton breaks your record.”

“Three people died last night,” she said. “Heath Tiller, Patil Derderian, and Tod Donald.”

Those words struck him. Heath, the fisherman. Patil, the friendly waitress at the SS cafe. And Tod, the portly bird watching enthusiast. “I didn’t know.”

“We found the bodies this morning. That’s me talking to a journalist, alright?” She spat out a shell. “From what I hear, there would be a lot more names if not for you, Kara, and Teresa.”

He shook his head. That buzzing was back, drowning out the world.

“And what if I had helped? What if I had done my job, as it should have been done? Would that number be zero?” She paused again, but continued on when Henry made indication that he was about to talk. “Do you know what it’s like, to fight for the wrong thing for your entire life? To choose to believe on faith, despite the evidence of your eyes, and in the end have it cost human life? After today I will no longer be the sheriff of Tortus Bay.”

“You’re resigning?”

Leia nodded. “I will stay on in a volunteer capacity, to help clean up. Then Taylor will take over as interim chief, until something more permanent can be arranged. My last official act as sheriff was closing the Mathas Bernard case, which I did today.”

“Oh?”

“The man died of a heart attack outside of his home. There is no basis for further suspicion.”

Henry didn’t trust the strength of his voice to last for long enough for him to say what he needed to say, so instead he turned to leave—and made it nearly to the door before she spoke again.

“How’s the arm?” she asked.

“Very bad.”

***

Exhaustion finally caught up with him. Henry took the long way home, to avoid the devastation on main street. He could not bring himself to look at it, yet. Along the way he did not bother to cast his head down or disguise his appearance, but no passersby attempted to stop him. Perhaps they had also heard the news.

On the curb outside of his apartment there sat a lump. Henry squinted. It was a plaid lump. As he approached it stirred, and stood. Clint was red-faced. “You,” he said. The man staggered. He wore the same outfit as he had the day before, torn apart and spattered with his own blood. “I never asked you.”

Henry took a precautionary step back. “Excuse me?”

“I never asked you!” Clint surged forward in a hail of finger jabs. “I never asked you for anything, okay?”

“Fine!”

“It’s not fine!” he yelled. His eyes were clear, and there was no scent whatsoever on his breath. “I didn’t ask you for anything. Ever. Alright?”

“Alright.”

Clint huffed, and shook his head like a wet dog. “Didn’t ask,” he said again, and spun on the spot to wander off down the street.

“I’m glad to see you’re feeling better,” Henry said, but he wasn’t sure that he heard. He watched the man disappear into the distance, wondering what in the world he should have said instead of what he actually did, and by then he didn’t feel like going to bed any longer. Instead he made a phone call.

“Hey,” Niles said. “Glad you called.” 

“I don’t know where you and I stand.”

“I don’t know either.”

“I don’t know what we’re doing.”

“Neither do I.”

Henry breathed. “I want to see you.”

“Then come over.”