Page 13

“You’ve been there,” Jim said eagerly. “To these other Bostons.”

“As Oracle, I can never leave my city. My Boston. But I’ve met those who have traveled from one to the other—”

“Like Jenny and Holly,” Trix supplied.

Veronica shook her head. “Not really. Well, perhaps like Holly.”

“What do you mean?” Jim asked worriedly.

“Holly is a Unique, of course,” Veronica said. “In the other two Bostons, there was no Jim to fall in love with Jenny. In those cities, Holly Banks was never born.”

Jim looked as though he might be sick. “And Jenny?”

“No. There are facets of Jenny.”

“Facets,” Jim murmured, like he was testing the word on his tongue.

“So it doesn’t happen often?” Trix prodded. “People like Jenny, who aren’t Uniques, crossing over?”

Veronica seemed to consider her words a moment before forging onward. “Think of the cities as all existing in the same location, just slightly out of sync with one another. A kind of membrane separates them, and that is called the In-Between. It’s a limbo place, a vast nothing, but it … I suppose you could say that it breathes. Better yet, imagine the sea, waves rolling up onto the shore. When there is a storm or some other disturbance, the tide rises higher, sweeps farther inland before it withdraws and pulls things out to sea. The membrane can be like that. It expanded into our Boston for just a moment, and when it drew back it took Jenny and Holly with it. On rare occasions people have been pulled across. Where the cities are identical, those people vanish from one Boston and appear in the same spot in the other. But where the cities are different … sometimes there are voids, and there have been cases of people being dragged into the In-Between and lost there.”

“Jenny and Holly …,” Jim began.

“No. That is why I wanted you to take me to the bookstore where they vanished. The store exists in all three Bostons. Jenny and Holly have not been lost in the void. They’re in one of those other Bostons right now, probably very confused and very afraid, but alive.”

“So, how do we go after them?” Trix asked.

“I’ll show you the way,” Veronica said. “The existence of a Jenny in each world provides a kind of counter-pressure on that membrane that works to hold each facet in its place. But Uniques have little more than expectation and perception holding them in place. If you know how to look for the other Bostons, how to see the places where they are different, you can walk through in places where others would be lost to the void.”

“But which Boston are they in?” Jim asked. “The Irish or the Brahmin?”

“That,” Veronica said, “is something the two of you will have to find out for me.” She corrected herself. “For yourselves.”

Trix studied the old woman. “The people this has happened to before—have any of them ever come back?”

Veronica shook her head. “I’m afraid not. But usually they are never missed. Ordinary people, those with facets in the other Bostons, never even know that they’ve lost someone. The splintered cities change around them. The two of you both remember Jenny and Holly because you’re Uniques. The rest of this world has forgotten them. They’ve been erased.”

“Erased,” Jim repeated, his voice hollow. “Jesus. That sounds so permanent. What happens when we bring them back? Is it even possible to bring them back?”

Veronica’s expression turned darker than ever. She turned to look out the night-black window. “There are thin places where you might get them through. Once I show you how to see properly, you’ll be able to tell.” She glanced upward to indicate the half-burned study. “But now that you understand, there’s something else you need to know.”

“What’s that?” Jim asked.

“Every time someone is drawn from one Boston to another—someone with facets in the other cities—the schism deteriorates more. And if Jenny encounters her other facets, which seems likely, given that she and Holly will be searching for traces of the life they’ve known, that will exacerbate the situation.”

“What do you mean, the schism is deteriorating?” Trix asked.

“I suspect that the three Bostons might be reintegrating.”

“Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Jim said. “This is all … well, it’s unnatural, isn’t it? What this McGee did? It’s not supposed to be like this, so what’s wrong with it all going back to normal? With there being only one Boston?”

“It could be a good thing,” Veronica said, glancing away as if distracted, “but there’s also a chance that the city would be left in ruins.”

Trix stared at her a moment, then reached out and drank her tea down, wishing it was whiskey.

“So, you’re saying Jenny and Holly being over there could trigger this thing?” Jim said.

“No,” Veronica said, “it’s happening already. But they could speed up the process. I may be able to stop the deterioration, but not alone. I need the help of the Oracles of the other Bostons, but I can’t pass through into their cities myself. I’ve written letters to them, intending to find a Unique ally who would carry them for me.”

Trix nodded. “That’s why you said this was providential, us coming to you.”

“It does seem that some greater power is at work here, yes.” She smiled, and Trix couldn’t help thinking her expression skull-like.

“You want us to deliver these letters to the two other Oracles,” Jim said.

“And they will help you locate Jenny and Holly,” Veronica replied.

Jim stood. “Come on, Trix. We know all we need to know. We’re wasting time.” He looked at Veronica. “Show us, please. Show us how to cross over. And give us those letters. We’ll deliver them for you.”

Veronica exhaled, and Trix saw a flicker of something pass across her face. Fear? She thought not. It was something lighter but deeper.

“Remember to hurry,” Veronica said. “And you must not give the letters to anyone but the Oracles themselves, and only at the addresses on the envelopes.”

“The Oracles don’t live in the same building in each Boston?” Jim asked, waving a hand around them.

“Of course not,” Veronica said. “Too dangerous. A catastrophe across the In-Between could wipe out this place, and all three of us, at the same time.”

“Right,” Jim said, uncertain and unsettled.

“And do not open the letters yourselves,” Veronica continued. “In addition to my warnings and pleas for help, there are incantations that the other Oracles will need to protect our cities. But if an ordinary person were to read them … well, without a mastery of such things, you could accidentally trigger an immediate and total integration.”

“And destroy the city,” Trix said. “Right. Important safety tip.”

Jim glanced over at her in surprise at the reference—a quote from Ghostbusters—and smiled. “We can do this, right?” he said.

“We have to,” Trix replied.

“Or die trying.”

Trix grimaced. “Aren’t you just a ray of fuckin’ sunshine?”

By the time they had returned to McGee’s study, the lightness of that single moment had been forgotten. Jim stood in the center of the room, one foot on scorched wood and the other on whole, undamaged floorboards, and felt a dreadful trepidation. Hours ago, the things he had been forced by circumstance to believe would have seemed absolutely absurd. Fantasy. Now, even as he straddled the two sides of that room, he felt torn between the fear that Veronica’s story might be the product of an unbalanced mind and the terror that it might all be true. Veronica unsettled him, but he had too much to lose by not doing as she asked.

Splintered cities—the barriers separating them now degrading—in danger of collision? It was daunting enough to think of finding Jenny and Holly in some parallel Boston, especially since they could be anywhere. A hundred anxieties came along with the prospect, not least of which was whether or not he could find them, and how they could all get home again. Would the world realign itself? Was reality truly that malleable? It had undergone a metamorphosis to account for Holly and Jenny no longer existing in this world, so he supposed it could happen.

Jesus, listen to yourself, he thought, staring down at the burn line in the floor, and the half-starburst pattern that—he suspected—marked the explosion that had killed Thomas McGee.

In the end, though, hope must hold sway. Jenny and Holly were the whole of his heart, existing outside of his body, and if they were now somehow elsewhere, then he would have to follow. Any other choice was inconceivable.

“Jim,” Trix said, and from her tone he realized she had called his name more than once.

“Sorry,” he said, turning to see her and Veronica watching him expectantly. “Were you saying something?”

Trix gave him a knowing look. He saw the pain in her eyes as she took a deep, worried breath and exhaled. Then she glanced at Veronica.

“Okay. We’re listening.” He patted his back pocket where he’d folded and stored the two envelopes, unknown names and strangely familiar addresses on their fronts in surprisingly untidy script. “Tell us what we need to do.”

The old woman stood at the open doorway, and every shred of her body language screamed that she did not want to be there. In the charred cavern of that half of the room, she looked almost in need of rescue herself.

“You both should be on that side of the room,” Veronica said, pointing toward the end opposite her, where the writing desk remained intact and the door to the small bedroom—perhaps once servants’ quarters—was tightly shut.

Jim reached out his hand to Trix. She took it, and together they crossed to the desk. They turned their backs to the desk, hands still clasped, and faced Veronica across the length of the room. “What now?” Trix asked.

“Look away from each other,” Veronica began. Jim started to turn. “No,” Veronica said quickly. “Not like that. Continue to face me, but let your eyes shift to one side. Stare at the wall with only your peripheral vision.”

Jim let out a breath, trying to focus. He felt uneasy, until Trix squeezed his hand reassuringly. He glanced at her and nodded, and then both of them followed Veronica’s instructions. Jim started by concentrating on Veronica and trying to push out of his mind how absurd the whole thing felt. He had to remind himself that he had accepted all of this, that he believed it. You have to believe it, he told himself.

And that was the truth. He didn’t have anything else.

Facing Veronica, he glanced to his right, away from Trix, assuming she was doing the same thing. The floral wallpaper was faded, and there were water stains along the seams. He focused on the flowers and those seams.

“Still without turning your head, try to look farther back, into the very edge of your vision,” Veronica said. “Your eyes will feel the strain. They may moisten or burn.”

Just as she predicted, Jim’s eyes hurt. He narrowed them slightly, fighting the urge to close them or to look forward.

“Keep them open. Force yourself,” Veronica said. “You may feel dizzy—”

Jim had to shift his feet to maintain his balance.

“—and your vision will start to blur eventually.”

“Start?” Trix said. “It’s blurry as hell.”

“Good,” Veronica said, her voice barely a whisper, coating the room like dust. “That’s very good.”

Good? Jim thought. This is bullshit. And what is that? Is she chuckling?

“Concentrate on the blur. There will be two or three variations on what you see, one laid on top of the other, shifting, out of focus.”

Jim’s eyes were tearing up badly now, but he did think he could see two different variations on the wall to his right, slightly out of sync with each other. One of them had the faded floral paper and water-stained seams, but the other … the other blurred version of the wall was just as charred as the far side of the room, where Veronica stood.

“I see them,” Trix said, startling him.

Jim’s heart began to thunder in his chest. His eyes burned. He wanted to look away. But he couldn’t, because this was real. Oh, God, Jenny, it’s real. I’m coming to get you—you and our baby girl. Just hold on.

“Jim, do you see them, too? The variations?” Veronica demanded.

As she spoke, he noticed the third. At first it had been difficult to see, because in that variation the walls were equally scorched. “Yes,” he said, hating how small and alone his voice sounded.

Trix squeezed his hand, reminding him that he was not alone after all.

“What now?” Jim asked.

“You’ve got to separate them visually. Shift your vision to follow only one of the variations that you know is not the image you should be seeing. Then begin to turn, slowly.”

Jim and Trix both obeyed, still clasping hands, turning together.

“Let your eyes relax slightly. Continue focusing on your peripheral vision, but not so painfully. Uniques can see all three variations, and this should work elsewhere as well, but it will be simpler here. The parallels are more unsettled here than anywhere else in the city. You’ll be able to see such places clearly after this—places where the Bostons don’t quite match up. Holly is a Unique. You can teach her, as I’m teaching you. In such places, you’ll be able to bring Jenny back with you.”

“But the void you talked about,” Trix said. “The In-Between. People get trapped there.”

“You’re Uniques,” Veronica said, as though it was the simplest thing in the world. “You can guide her through.”