“It’s okay to be afraid, Conor. But everything’s going to work out fine.”
They climbed the stairs, reached the landing, and gathered outside the door. There was nothing to indicate that the room beyond was unused, but Trix had the very real sense that it was not part of the house. In my world, this place belongs to an evil woman, she thought, looking around the landing at family pictures showing smiling people and holidays gone by.
“When we go in, hold on to our hands,” Jim said to Holly. “We’re Uniques, and crossing should be easy for us. But Jenny … it might be different for you.”
“Different how?” Jenny asked, drawing Holly close to her.
“I don’t know,” Jim said truthfully.
“You have Sally’s No-Face Man still inside you,” Trix said. “It might provide a buffer.”
“So let’s go,” Jim said. He reached for the handle and opened the door.
Inside, the room was as they had seen it on their arrival in the Irish Boston. Yellow wallpaper, an antiquestyle bed, clothes hanging in the closet. But on their arrival they’d believed the room was lived-in. Now they knew otherwise, and Trix saw the signs they’d missed before. The bedroom was like a movie set rather than a real room, arranged to look genuine yet somehow tainted with falseness.
Beyond the bed was the door that led into McGee’s terrible room.
She led the way and they all went through. The stench of ash and age hit them as they passed into the ruined room, and she wondered what the family that lived here thought of this place. Perhaps they didn’t even know it existed. Maybe this was a ghost room to that family, and that would mean that Trix and the others were now ghosts as well.
She knew that wasn’t true, but still it gave her the shivers.
“What now?” Jenny asked.
“I can see,” Holly said, her little voice filled with wonder.
“What?” Jenny asked.
“Don’t be scared,” Trix said. “Jenny, please don’t be scared.” She held her friend and hugged her tight, and when she breathed in Jenny’s hair it was Anne smiling in her mind’s eye.
“Come here,” Jim said, welcoming them into his embrace. “And you, too, sweetie.”
Holly came, too, hugging their waists, stretching as far as she could to embrace the three adults and giggling as she said, “Group hug!”
“You think we need to do the …?” Trix said, swirling her eyes around to imitate the first time they’d perceived the weirdness of this room. But she already knew the answer to that. The thing she carried inside her was already urging her to cross the room. They stood on undamaged flooring right now, and when they crossed they would also pivot around reality—a pivot around which Thomas McGee had twisted Boston. He had created splinter cities primed with the potential for tragedy, but it had taken Veronica to realize that potential.
Jim stared at her grimly, and she tried to smile back. Sure, she wanted to say, I’m ready to kill. Sure I am. For everything she’s done, and everything else she’d do. But she had no wish to speak those words aloud.
It was Jenny who urged them to walk. As a group they crossed the room, and Jenny cried out as they pierced the skin between worlds.
Trix’s No-Face Man shivered at the change, a disturbingly sexual sensation.
For just an instant, the whole world seemed to flex outward, and a wave of dizziness swept over Trix. Jenny nearly collapsed with the sudden loss of equilibrium, staggering as though drunk, but her family kept her from falling. For several seconds, the four of them only stood and breathed, waiting for the world to right itself again.
When it did, Trix knew that they were through.
The door stood before them, closed where they had left it open. Beyond, in the depths of the house they had just left—a different version of that house, in which families no longer lived—a voice rose up in fury.
“Veronica’s home,” Jim said.
“And so are we,” Jenny said. “Let’s get this finished. I want my life back.”
And the things inside them craved release.
Veronica was in the living room, waiting for them in the chair where she’d told them about McGee and the In-Between, setting up the story she wanted them to know rather than the tale that was true. There was a tea service on the table before her, a plate of cookies, and several cups steaming with recently poured liquid. Her back was straight, her hands on her knees. She was every image the lady, apart from her face.
She had the face of a killer.
Her lips were drawn, her teeth bared, her eyes narrowed and cruel. Her skin was lined now, projecting every year of her age, and she glared at them with an anger Jim thought verged on madness. She made him want to draw back, grab his family, and run, but that would do them no good. It would do no one any good. Because while she was alive, Sally and the Bostons were still in danger.
“Murderer,” Jim said, and Veronica’s rage exploded.
“How?” she screamed, standing and knocking the small coffee table with her leg. Tea spilled, a cup broke. “How did you …?” She stormed at them and Jim grabbed Holly, pulling her behind him.
Veronica sneered. “You think you can protect her behind flesh and blood?” She waved her hands at the air and screamed, an incoherent outburst that darkened the corners of the room. Shapes parted from the walls—Shadow Men that screamed as they were dragged from the In-Between at Veronica’s behest. They swayed a little, and then solidified as they walked to the room’s two doors and single window. They were guarding the exits.
“All those people,” Jim said. “All those dead people I’ve seen, and every one of them because of you.”
“You don’t think she gives a shit, do you, Jim?” Trix asked. He glanced her way, saw her left hand bunched in her pocket. What did she have in there—a knife? A weapon?
“I think maybe once she would have,” he said. Sally had told them to offer her Holly, confuse her, then attack, but this Veronica was beyond confusion. Her madness and fury were driving her now.
“You should be dead!” she said, pointing her manicured finger at Holly. “You will be dead.”
The girl whimpered and hid behind Jim, grasping his right arm. He could never offer his daughter, as bait or otherwise. She was far too precious. He had always loved her with an honest devotion, but perhaps it took losing someone and finding her again to make you realize just how powerful love could be. Holly was a vital part of him, more solid and precious than his own heart and soul. He would die for her.
He would kill for her.
Jim stepped forward, ignoring Jenny’s gasp of surprise and Holly’s hands trying to pull him back.
“What?” Veronica said, mocking. “Going to paint me to death, Mr. Artist?”
“In my dreams, I’m sure,” Jim said. As he dropped to the floor and reached for a small side table—the only piece of furniture that could be a weapon, and his only hope—he sensed Trix leaping past him to his right, and heard Jenny telling Holly to run.
And then everything froze.
Jim saw the small table before him but could not touch it. Past the table were Veronica’s legs, their shadows confused by those of her moving arms and flexing fingers. He could hear the strange words she muttered but could not move his head—or even his eyes—to look up and see what she was doing.
Trapped, he thought, and he could feel the No-Face Man trapped inside him writhing against its confines. No. God, no. They carried Sally’s mark upon them, enough to allow the No-Face Men into the home that had once belonged to Thomas McGee. The No-Face Men had been the backup plan. If Jim and his family couldn’t get to Veronica, then Sally’s echo creatures were there to help, to kill her the way the Shadow Men had murdered Peter O’Brien. But the No-Face Man inside Jim was just as paralyzed, just as trapped and helpless, as Jim himself.
From the corner of his eye he could make out Trix, her form impossibly unbalanced where she had been halted in the act of diving at Veronica.
“Stupid people,” Veronica said, voice rank with disgust. “You think that defying me bought you the right to come back to attack me. Kill me? Is that what the bitch-girl told you to do?”
Happily, Jim thought, but he could not speak. His blood flowed, his heart thudded in his ears, but his muscles felt like they were made of glass, a fragile skeleton conjured by this woman’s mad magic.
“There’s only one killing happening here today,” the woman said. Jim heard more of those language-less words, and then a shadow passed him by. A small shadow. Holly, dragging her feet as something drew her forward. Her hand brushed against Jim’s cheek as she passed, and he thought, Is that the last time I’ll feel my daughter’s warmth?
Jim struggled and fought and raged, his eyes burning as he defied the spell to lift them. They burned more than when he and Trix had first attempted to see the alternate Bostons, up in that room where Thomas McGee, in his greed and hubris, had split the world asunder. They burned, but he did it, only to see a reality he wished he could instantly forget.
Holly knelt before Veronica, her knees awash in spilled tea. The old woman grinned in delight, reveling in victory, and from behind him Jim heard a faint, desperate whine coming from his wife.
If only we could close our eyes, he thought, because there was nothing he wanted to see less than his daughter’s death.
“I’ll always be here,” Veronica said, “and each Boston will be my Boston.” She held up one hand and pointed a finger at Holly. A blue light gathered on the end of her finger, dancing like a faraway star. And at one word from Veronica, it leaped forward and struck Holly’s face.
“Nnnnn …,” was all Jim could say, but he felt his heart crushed and broken, chewed up and spat out, as Holly’s head flipped back and her arms went wide, and he saw that terrible light burning from her ears and eyes, nose and mouth. It spilled down her body like the In-Between’s mist given form, leaving slick, luminous trails in her hair and on her skin.
“Now, then,” Veronica said, turning around as if to deal with the day’s next order of business.
“You stupid, stupid bitch,” Holly said. It was her voice, but the words … the words were Sally’s. And suddenly Jim understood that the girl Oracle had never shared with them her true plan.
“What?” Veronica turned back, amazed, to see Holly shake her head slowly, then stand.
“You think a mark is sophisticated?” Holly said. “In my Boston, that type of witchery has gone the way of the street-corner card trick. In my Boston, I’m so at one with the city that sometimes it loses itself in me, and I have its magic and its history, its soul, at hand. My Boston gives me real magic.”
“You should be dead,” Veronica whispered.
“This?” Holly picked a dreg of the terrible light from her arm and waved it like a string of spit. Then she breathed on it, and it turned into a blade of grass. “How pretty.” She dropped the grass, and it fluttered to the ground.
Veronica gathered herself quickly, hissing three words that sent her Shadow Men streaking across the room.
What happened next was so fast that Jim could not make it out. Later, he would put events together from what little he saw, and Holly’s few comments about that afternoon, and then the picture would be clear.
He felt a wrench as something inside him burst out. It winded him, shattering Veronica’s strange hold over him and jerking him to his feet, and as he gasped he heard Trix and Jenny doing the same. The darkness moved away from him, and he saw, gathering Veronica in its arms, a No-Face Man—not a prisoner after all, now that Sally’s real mark, the spells she had hidden inside Holly, had been released.
Veronica screamed, but though her Shadow Men heard, they could do nothing. They were being ripped and shredded by the other two No-Face Men, the violence sudden and intense. And when they had finished, they turned their attentions to Veronica.
“No,” Holly said, and Jim could not tell who spoke. Was this his daughter telling those shades not to kill the Oracle? Or was it Sally, through his daughter?
He would never know, and Holly would never say.
Instead, the No-Face Men dragged Veronica from the room and up the stairs. She screamed and railed against them, muttering spells that did not work, incantations that dispersed to the air. And none of them worked because Holly was this Boston’s next chosen Oracle, and such violence against her could not be allowed. That was why Veronica had needed the little girl out of her Boston—the soul of the city, in this reality, would not allow one Oracle to kill the next.
Jim wanted to watch what happened to the old woman, but Jenny hugged him and held him there, and Trix quietly closed the door. Still, they heard the heavy footsteps upstairs as Veronica was dragged across the small bedroom, and then lighter impacts as her feet fell in the farther room. After that, one long scream, fading, growing distant in space and time, until it was finally cut off by a shattering silence.
Jim turned to his daughter. She was still facing away from them, but her head turned ever so slightly to the left and right, left and right. It was as if she was reading something from the air before her.
Without turning, and in a tone that told Jim he might never hear his daughter’s innocent voice again, Holly spoke three words.
“I know everything.”
Epilogue: What’s Left of the Flag
JIM STOOD in the doorway of their new kitchen, watching Holly coloring at the table. Delicious aromas filled every room. Jenny had decided to make jambalaya, and Holly loved nothing more than to help her mom cook. Sometimes she helped cut vegetables or stir eggs or perform some other task appropriate for a girl who was not quite eight. But most of the time she was content just to be with Jenny. If anything, that inclination had only increased in the six weeks since their ordeal in the other Bostons.