Jim knew how his daughter felt. Ever since they had come back to their own city, he had rarely been parted from his family. At first, he had been unwilling to leave them at all, and had even insisted that Holly sleep in with him and Jenny. He had not worked at all, not a single brushstroke on canvas or anything more intricate than a casual sketch on a napkin, for almost a full month after their return, and had only left them twice to meet with Jonathan. The first time had been to assure himself that the world had returned to normal and that Jonathan was not, in fact, dying of cancer. The second had been to visit a gallery where Jonathan had arranged a display of his work.
Yet the past weeks had been anything but stable. They had put their apartment up for sale and moved into Veronica’s house. Thomas McGee’s house. With the passage between realities so much easier through that upstairs room, they could not allow it to be sold to some ordinary, unsuspecting family. For weeks they had been redecorating the place, moving in their own furniture, refinishing floors and painting walls, and buying new appliances. No matter what changes they made, though, Jim found it impossible to think he would ever feel at home here.
But what mattered was not what he and Jenny felt. This wasn’t really their home, it was Holly’s. She was the Oracle, chosen by the city. At first, Jim had feared that there would be many complications in attempting to buy the building from Veronica’s estate. When his attorney had done the research, however, he had found that there had been two names on the deed—Veronica Braden and Holly Banks. Holly’s name had been added to the deed on the day she was born.
There was no way that Veronica had done such a thing, but somehow, through its influence, the city of Boston had arranged for it to happen. It had chosen its next Oracle that long ago.
Jim felt a familiar sadness engulfing him as he watched his little girl color. Holly sang to herself, a little snippet of a song from some Disney Channel series, and did a little jerky dance movement while kneeling on the chair. He smiled but could not chase away the melancholy in his heart.
“She’ll be all right,” Jenny whispered, coming up behind him and sliding a hand around to rest on his stomach. She kissed his neck. “She’s got us with her. We can do this together.”
Jim nodded but couldn’t speak. In Sally Bennet, he had seen what happened when a child inherited the role of Oracle. She knew the city intimately, knew the secrets and mysteries of its people, the joy and hatred and despair that seeped into every brick and beam. She had inherited the city’s ancient magic, yes, and a profound wisdom far beyond the capacity of a child to wield. In years to come, she would benefit from that wisdom and power, but now she was simply too young to process it all. She knew of murders and infidelity and perversion, and there were months yet before her eighth birthday.
“No child should have such things in her head,” he whispered.
“I know,” Jenny said, pressing her warm body against his back, kissing his neck again. “But the city chose her. We can’t erase that. All we can do is help her carry the weight of it.”
“I’ll be all right, you know,” Holly said.
Jim stiffened and stared at his daughter. She hadn’t looked up from her coloring. He didn’t think they had spoken loud enough for her to hear.
Now Holly turned to look at her parents, her eyes full of a wisdom beyond her years. “Trust me, Daddy. Everything will be all right.”
The doorbell rang. Holly’s eyes lit up, and suddenly they were a little girl’s again. “Auntie Trix!” she cried, jumping down from the chair and bolting past her parents.
Jenny caught Jim’s hand, and as he turned, she kissed him. “We’ll be all right. Think of all of the people we’ll be helping.”
Jim nodded. It would feel good to know that they could do so much good, but he would never feel it had been worth the sacrifice of his daughter’s innocence. He vowed to protect her childhood as best he could.
“Without you, this would have broken me,” he told Jenny, gazing into her eyes.
“Duh, I know that,” she said. “That’s why I knew you’d find a way to come after us. Your life would be so boring without me in it. And who would nag you to take out the trash?”
At last, he smiled. Together, they walked along the hall into the foyer, where they heard voices fussing over Holly, telling her how big she’d gotten.
Trix had arrived, but it appeared that their other dinner guest had come at the same time, for Jonathan crouched down in front of Holly and, with a flourish, produced a small gift-wrapped present from inside his coat. “For your new bedroom,” he said.
Holly made little excited noises and asked if she could open it immediately. Jonathan insisted, and she tore off the paper and opened the little box to find a small crystal prism inside.
“You hang it in front of your window, and on sunny days, it makes little rainbows all around the room,” he explained.
“Uncle Jonathan, I love it! Thank you so much!”
Holly darted to the window to see if she could make the prism throw rainbows, which gave the adults a few moments to exchange greetings. Jonathan shook hands with Jim and kissed both Jenny and Trix. He nudged Trix’s overnight bag with his toe. “Spending the night?” he asked, turning to gaze at Jenny in mock admonition. “No one told me it was a sleepover.”
Jenny and Trix seemed awkward and at a loss for a reply. Jonathan seemed to sense this, and seemed about to apologize for something he could not possibly understand.
“It’s a girls’ thing,” Jim said, rolling his eyes. “They’re all going to camp out in Holly’s room tonight.”
A lie, of course. But they had all agreed not to tell anyone the tale of the Oracles and the other Bostons. Jonathan might have been able to believe them, but perhaps not. Jim thought that his own life had been better, and simpler, before he had learned the truth of the world, and he didn’t think they had a right to spoil that simplicity for anyone else.
Tonight, Trix would be leaving their reality, going to live permanently in the Collided Cities, and they would need to make an excuse to tell Jonathan. The wider worlds of the Collided Cities were still coming to terms with what had happened and the staggering implications, but this world—the place Jim was thinking of as the first Boston—was protected from that. After all they had been through, he was glad.
Through McGee’s room upstairs, Trix might visit them from time to time. But she had promised Anne she would return, and wanted very much to find out if fate had allowed her to have her heart’s desire. She’d already returned briefly, and told Anne that she had things to finish here before moving over for good. Today’s date had almost taken on the importance of a wedding.
It was strange for Jim and Jenny to know that Trix would give up her whole world—her friends and family in this world—for a chance at happiness with Anne, the Jenny of another world. They didn’t talk about it much, but Jim could see that Jenny looked at Trix differently, because the two of them loved each other even more deeply now that the depth of Trix’s feelings for her had become known.
Anne wasn’t the only reason for Trix’s decision. The Collided Cities were full of people who needed help, not just to recover from the earthquake but to come to terms with the merging of two realities and what that meant for them—meeting their twins from an alternate Boston, or discovering that in that other world they had led very different lives.
Jonathan smiled at Jenny and Trix. “Next time you have a girls’ night, include me, will you? It’s not like I have anything else to do.”
Jenny touched his arm. “You’ll find someone else. Someone who loves you in spite of yourself.”
“Gee, thanks,” Jonathan said, with a laugh that did not reach his eyes.
“Don’t be sad, Uncle Jonathan,” Holly said, coming back from the window with the prism clutched in her hand. “You don’t need to find someone else. Philip still loves you. He misses you every day, and thinks what you do—that you’re both too stubborn to say it.”
They all stared at Holly. She had been easing into her role as the Oracle, only helping people who went through the usual ritual to contact Veronica. They were surprised to find a little girl in her place but happily accepted Holly’s help. They wanted the Oracle, and Jim supposed it didn’t matter to them who the Oracle was. But this was different. Jonathan didn’t know anything about the Oracle of Boston.
Jonathan looked at Holly, a range of emotions playing across his face. Finally, he forced a smile.
“That’s sweet, Holly darling, but Philip has moved on with his life. It’s all right. I’ll try not to be sad, okay?”
Holly shook her head, looking almost petulant. “You don’t have to pretend you’re all right just because I’m a kid, Uncle Jonathan. But I’m trying to tell you … you don’t need to be sad. If you love Philip, go and see him. He’s been sad, too. He doesn’t think you’d ever take him back after the things he said, but I know you would.”
Jim and Jenny and Trix all shared a look, and Jonathan caught it. He glanced at them in confusion.
“What are you guys not telling me?” he asked. “Did you hear from Philip? Has Holly been talking to him?”
“Jonathan,” Jenny began, but Holly interrupted.
“Listen to me, Jonathan,” she said—no more “Uncle,” and her voice had suddenly become startlingly mature. “Philip is sitting in the café in the big bookstore at Downtown Crossing. He’s alone. He’s reading and drinking—what is that?—chai tea. The sadness in him is so strong that even the people sitting around him can feel it.”
Jonathan stared at her, then looked up—not at Jim, but at Jenny.
Jenny took his hand. “We have a lot of things to talk about,” she said. “A lot to tell you. But before we do, maybe you should take a quick drive over to Downtown Crossing. It’s so close.”
Confused, Jonathan looked at Holly’s wise expression and laughed uncertainly, then turned to Jim. He tried to speak but could not. Jim realized that Jenny meant to tell Jonathan everything, despite what they’d agreed, and though he was worried he also felt relieved.
“Go, Jonathan,” Jim said. “You’ll be glad you did. Come back here after. Bring Philip with you. We won’t start dinner until you get back.”
“You’re serious,” Jonathan said, staring at him as if he were insane, and then looking around. “You’re all serious?”
Trix tapped his shoulder. Jonathan spun to stare at her. “Dude, seriously,” Trix said, grinning. “Go. You won’t be sorry.”
Jonathan laughed, a smile stealing over his face. Jim could see that he thought they had done something wonderful for him, that they had been in touch with Philip and somehow conspired to arrange a meeting. But that was all right. He would learn soon enough that they had not spoken to Philip at all during the breakup, and then they would have a lot of explaining to do.
“I’ll be back,” Jonathan said, pulling his keys out of his pocket as he pushed open the door. He paused and looked back at Trix. “By the way, I love the hair.”
Trix smiled and thanked him, and then Jonathan was gone.
The four of them stood in the foyer, silently acknowledging the bond that would always exist between them and the secrets that they shared. Jim reached up and touched Trix’s hair. When they had brought Jenny and Holly back to Boston and reality had adjusted to their return, Jim and Trix had both found that the changes they had undergone had been reversed. But Trix had liked her body and her look, and scant weeks after their ordeal she had dyed her hair the same bright pink. She was even thinking of piercings.
“It’s a good look,” Jim told her.
“Come on,” Jenny said, taking Trix’s hand. “If we’re going to be saying good-bye, I’m going to want wine.”
Trix allowed herself to be led toward the kitchen. “It’s not forever, you know. I’ll be back to visit.”
Jenny changed the subject, talking about the people who needed help in the Collided Cities, and she and Trix ventured off on that discussion path as they went down the hall to the kitchen.
Jim looked down to see Holly watching him. “Do you think Auntie Trix will be all right over there?” he asked his daughter. But, really, the question was for the Oracle of Boston. “Do you think she’ll be happy?”
“Silly Daddy,” Holly said, hugging him and staring up into his eyes. “I know all the secrets from the past, and I can tell you what’s going on in the city right now. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Nobody does.”
That aged wisdom flickered in her eyes.
“That part,” Holly said, “is up to us.”