“Hi!” she said brightly, and slid off the hood. “You must be Sal. Ooo, and that means you must be Nathan. Gosh. I thought you’d be taller. I bet you get that a lot, don’t you? That you should be taller. Not you, I mean, Sal, you’re just like I figured you’d be, but I’ve also seen you before, so I guess that’s cheating. I’m Tansy. Did you know that SymboGen totally tried to follow you here? Because they totally tried to follow you here, even though you’re not supposed to have a following detail anymore. Don’t worry, they lost your GPS signal when you crossed Treat Boulevard, but you should be careful about that sort of thing if you’re going to be sneaking around behind their backs, which you so are at this point. Congratulations!” She stopped talking, finally appearing to realize that she wasn’t pausing long enough to let either of us get a word in edgewise. “Oh, and also, you know. Hi. Welcome, and all that stuff.”
“Who are you?” asked Nathan.
Tansy smiled indulgently. “I just told you, silly. You should really try to keep up if you want to come out of this with all your sane bits still in the order they started out in. What’s the password?”
“We don’t have a password,” I said. “We came here because—”
“Oh, I know why you came here, and I know what you want to learn while you’re here, but what I need to know is whether you know what the password is, because that’s what starts the next phase, which is… hang on a second, I’m not good at this part.” Tansy paused, dipping a hand into her pocket and producing her phone. She checked the screen before beaming at the two of us. “The next phase is me letting you inside.”
“And if we don’t know the password…?” I said slowly.
“If you don’t know the password, that means I get to decide what to do with you. I don’t know what that would be, exactly, but I’m pretty sure it would hurt. Did you know that nerves are like, really densely packed on certain parts of the body?” Tansy’s eyes grew wide and earnest as she spoke. Her irises were two different colors, one brown, one a slightly unnerving shade of blue. “It’s cool, because it means it takes longer for pain to stop happening if you focus there. Other places go numb way, way too quickly. Like the fleshy part of your thumb. You’d think that was a great place to target, given how meaty it is, but you stop feeling things there way too fast.”
“Uh,” I said.
“ ‘The broken doors are open—come and enter, and be home,’ ” said Nathan, spitting the words out quickly.
Tansy beamed. “My darling girl, be careful now!” she said. It didn’t sound like she was quoting. It sounded more like a message meant directly for us. “And don’t go out alone. You remembered the password!”
“You provided excellent incentive,” said Nathan.
“You know, that’s what Doctor C says? She says I’m the best incentive.” She bounded forward, sweeping me into a hug before I had a chance to react. “It’s so nice to finally meet you! I’ve been hoping for this for ever and ever and ever, but Doctor C kept saying I had to wait, and so I waited, but it was hard.” She pushed me out to arm’s length, bicolored eyes wide and grave. “It was so hard. Don’t make me do that again, okay, Sal?”
“Um,” I said. Being restrained by people who clearly weren’t operating under my definition of “sane and balanced” was a new experience for me. Something told me that pulling away still wouldn’t be a good idea. “I’ll do my best, but I didn’t know I was making you wait this time. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay! I forgive you!” She pulled me into a second, shorter hug. This time, when she let go, she let go completely, and went skipping toward the bowling alley. She produced a key from the pocket of her overalls and unlocked the door before turning to beckon us forward. “Well? Come on! We’re not getting any younger out here!”
“I suppose the broken doors really are open now,” Nathan said, looking unsettled.
I took his hand. “You’re not going alone,” I said.
Together, we followed Tansy into the bowling alley.
She closed the door behind us.
Inside the bowling alley turned out to be a dark, windowless antechamber. Once the door was closed, there was no light of any kind. Nathan squeezed my fingers, hard. I had to wonder whether he, like me, was worried about the fact that we were shut in with a woman who had a questionable grip on reality and had already threatened to hurt us both if we didn’t say what she wanted to hear. More and more, this whole expedition was feeling like a bad idea.
“Don’t move,” said Tansy. “The floor’s a little rotten in here, and you wouldn’t want to wind up in the basement. There are black widows down there.”
“This day just gets more and more delightful,” muttered Nathan.
“Doesn’t it just?” said Tansy. There were footsteps to my right, followed by a click. The overhead lights came on, shining dully through a thick layer of dust. Tansy was standing on the far side of the room, and beaming brighter than the lights. “Do you like it? Helps your eyes adjust, since we don’t want to flash-blind anybody, and leaving the dirt on means that anybody who managed to break in wouldn’t realize there was anyone in here. Until they hit one of the rotten patches on the floor and went to the basement to visit the spiders, and then I bet they wouldn’t care that there was anyone in here. The spiders can be really distracting when they want to be. Anyway, come on! Doctor C told me to bring you to her as soon as you got here.” She opened another door, this one marked EMPLOYEES ONLY, and started through.