Michael welcomed sleep. The small bumps of the road and the hum of tires on asphalt relaxed him for the first time in days, and his eyes grew heavy. He was an expert at dealing with reality—or unreality—but after what he’d been through lately, if he could pass a little time unconscious, he would be eternally grateful. There had been a lot to digest. Any chance to escape the world and its many ills—he’d take it. Though, fat chance he’d be slipping inside a Coffin anytime soon.
Michael’s head bobbed. He caught himself and sank back into the seat. He knew it was a dream because he was no longer sitting in Sarah’s dad’s car. He was at his kitchen counter before it all began, where his nanny, Helga, had served him breakfast hundreds of times. If not thousands. He thought about the man who’d visited him in prison, his strange speech about dreams within dreams, how the looping logic applied to the VirtNet as well. Things that could drive you crazy if you thought about them too much.
“These are some great waffles,” Michael said. He was surprised at how real they tasted. Warm, buttery goodness. He swallowed a bite and smiled.
And then Helga was there! Sweet, stern Helga. She gave him a look as she put some dishes away. It was a look Michael had seen many times over the years. A look that said he’d better not be trying to pull a fast one on her. A look he normally got when he faked a cough to miss school or lied about his homework.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “This is a dream. I can have as much as I want!” He smiled and took another bite, chewed and swallowed. “I guess Gabby’s still missing, haven’t heard anything from her. It sure is sweet to be back with Sarah and Bryson, though. The Terrible Trio, live and still kickin’. Even if we are crammed into a backseat. Anyway. Who would’ve thought my life could get so weird, huh? Crazy stuff.”
Helga nodded, smiled, bent over the dishwasher; the room filled with the clank of glass and porcelain.
Michael frowned, feeling as if Helga didn’t seem to care one whit. “Maybe you don’t know everything, my little German. Oh, let’s see. Somehow we got tricked into blowing up the VNS systems, pretty much shut the whole thing down. Sarah’s parents—who’d been kidnapped, mind you—show up out of the blue to rescue us from jail, talking about you and a bunch of former Tangents behind it all. You, Helga. Care to enlighten me on that?”
His nanny gave him a guilty shrug, barely pausing from her work. Clinks and clanks rang out, the thumps of cabinet doors closing. Michael knew it was too good to be true—that he could just sit there and enjoy his dream. There wasn’t a place in the universe he could run to escape his thoughts—his own mind less than anywhere else. He stabbed a last few bites of waffle into his mouth, relishing the crisp outside and the soft interior, sensing that the dream was about to end anyway. And Helga had yet to say a single word to him.
“I guess you can’t talk to me in my dreams, can you?” Michael said. “That’s just plain weird. Kaine told me he’d killed you, killed my parents.” Picturing his mom and dad sent a deep ache through his dreaming heart. “Maybe you escaped somehow? I don’t know. Either way, can’t you at least live on in my head? Maybe that’s too much like talking to my—”
Helga turned sharply, her face afire. “The Hallowed Ravine, boy. You know that’s where you’ve got to go. Back to the Hallowed Ravine. End it where it started!”
Michael started to reply, but wouldn’t you know it, that was right when a pothole had the gall to disturb his slumber.
A NICE PLACE IN THE COUNTRY
When Michael woke up, he had the not-so-pleasant sensation of bile rising in his throat. Not the happiest way to greet the conscious world.
He sucked in a slow breath. He wished he’d taken something for motion sickness. Sarah’s dad seemed to think he was a NASCAR driver, and the road wasn’t cooperating. Gerard the Gear Hound, the country’s next great race-car superstar on the world’s twistiest, most torn-up track.
As they wound their way around the tight curves of the north Georgia mountains, Michael leaned into each turn with his entire body, as if that would somehow keep the car on the road. Lush foliage and trees overgrown with kudzu formed a great tunnel through a cave of green, sparkles of sunlight winking between leaves as they drove.
“You’re sure she said Helga?” Michael asked once again, his dream fresh in his mind. Go to the Hallowed Ravine. That’s what she’d said. Which meant, logically, that his own mind was telling him the same thing. They had to go back to the place where it all started if they wanted to end it. Seemed reasonable enough.
Gerard, clutching the steering wheel as if he feared it might try to spin away from him, sighed at the question. His wife, Nancy, shifted in the passenger seat to face Michael.
“Yes,” she said with a kind smile, then turned to the front again. Her patience made it seem as if that were the first time Michael had asked the question, though, in fact, it was probably the fifth or sixth.
He sat in the middle of the backseat, Bryson to his left, Sarah to his right. No one had spoken much since their initial reunion. Between being chased down, imprisoned, and rescued, it had been a long several days, and everyone seemed as dazed as Michael. Michael himself didn’t know what to think. Sarah’s parents had been kidnapped, then rescued by a group of mystery people. Those same mystery people had then directed Gerard and Nancy to pick up their daughter and her friends and take them to an address in the Appalachian Mountains.
But there’d been something about Tangents. And a woman named Helga.
It couldn’t possibly be his nanny, Michael thought for the hundredth time. Could it? His Helga was gone—wasn’t she? As far as he knew, she was a Tangent that had been decommissioned by Kaine, just like his parents. At the very least he’d hastened their Decay. Real or not, their deaths had emptied his soul, and not much had filled it since.
Sarah nudged him with her elbow, then awkwardly fell into him, her whole body pressing against his as Gerard whipped around yet another curve. The tires squealed and a flock of birds exploded from the foliage at the side of the road, screeching as they flew away.
“You okay, there?” she asked, righting herself. “You don’t seem very chipper for someone who just got broken out of jail.”
Michael shrugged. “I guess I’m still trying to put it all together.”