Phillip woke early, about twenty minutes before his alarm was to ring. This wasn’t necessarily wrong, he thought, as he tiptoed down the steps; it was just unusual for the cool weather. He hadn’t been overly warm, he didn’t have any pressing need to use the bathroom, and overall he didn’t want to get up just yet; he simply seemed incapable of falling back asleep. He knew better than to fight the signals of his body, and so he was going downstairs early.
What did seem immediately wrong to him was that both of the kids’ doors were also open. The bathrooms were occupied, though, with light filtering from under the door. He exhaled slowly, glad that there wasn’t anything seriously wrong. A glance into Jeanne’s room showed an unmade bed, while Gene’s bed was made. Matsuri was completely oblivious to his presence, as well as that of the world beyond the inside of her own eyelids.
Without much prompting, the kids typically managed to get themselves sorted out fairly quickly in the mornings. To this end, Phillip decided the best thing to do would be to go down to the kitchen and act as if nothing was wrong; he would offer to pass the time, once they were ready, with a couple of hands of cards. It was, he thought, the best way of handling an unexpected early morning.
When the radio started the top of the hour news, Phillip started to worry. The kitchen was still empty save for himself. He carried the mug of tea back upstairs to see Jeanne’s bedroom door closed, and Gene dressing himself. “Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” Gene mumbled. “It was way too hot last night, huh?”
“It was just a little warm, yeah,” Phillip said. “You didn’t sleep well?”
“No,” Gene snorted. Phillip recognized the faint note of contempt in his voice. “I said it was hot.”
“I heard that,” Phillip said. “Sorry about that. I could bring a fan up…?”
“Nah,” Gene said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”
“All set already?” Phillip asked. “You haven’t even had breakfast yet.”
“‘m not hungry,” Gene said, returning to a mumbling tone. “Not feeling too well.”
Phillip came into the room and put his hand on the boy’s forehead. “You’re not feverish, I don’t think,” he said. “Kinda nauseous?”
“A little,” he replied.
“Feel like the room is swaying back and forth?”
“Yeah,” Gene said, his voice picking up.
“Lights going in and out?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s it,” Gene said. “You know what’s wrong with me?”
“I do,” Phillip said. “You’re highly suggestible. Let’s go get some cereal, huh?”
“But I am,” Gene said. “I really am feeling sick.”
“You’re probably just still sleepy,” Phillip said. He came in closer to give the boy a hug, but Gene recoiled slightly. “What? What’s wrong?”
“N-nothing,” Gene said, his voice wavering. “Yeah. Just still sleepy.” He wrapped his arms around Phillip, a little tighter than he figured the boy was capable of. “I’ll get breakfast.”
“Is Jeanne up?” Phillip asked, knowing most of the answer.
“I heard her when I was in the potty,” Gene said. “I think she’s asleep again.”
Phillip knocked gently on her door. “Jeannie? You up?”
“Go away,” Jeanne said. This was new, Phillip thought. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“Come on, sweetie, just one more day,” he said. “We can pull through one more day, right?”
“Today is a bad day,” she said firmly. “I do not like this day. So I’m sleeping until it’s tomorrow.”
“It kinda doesn’t work that way,” Phillip said. “Can I come in?”
“No,” she said. Phillip hoped she’d explain a bit more, or at least give him something else to work with, but there was only silence on the other side of the door.
“Well, it’s getting late,” he said, “so come down and have breakfast and we’ll see what we can do to make today better. Okay?”
Jeanne made exaggerated snoring noises in response. Phillip rolled his eyes and knocked twice more. “I’m asleep!”
“Awfully loud for sleep-talking, Jeanne,” Phillip said, trying to hide the annoyance in his voice. “Look, we need to get you to school, but you have to come out so I can find out why you don’t want to go.”
“I don’t want to go because today’s a bad day,” Jeanne said.
“And why is today a bad day?”
“Because school is going to suck.” She was closer to the door now, judging by the sound of her voice.
“And school will suck, but for what reason exactly?”
“Because today is a bad day.” The door opened, and Jeanne stood there in penguin-print sleepwear. “I don’t want to go,” she said, but her voice wasn’t as much of a declaration as a soft plea.
“Sweetie,” Phillip said, hugging her. She didn’t bring her arms up to return the hug immediately, but after just a slight hesitation she was wrapped tightly around him. “It’s not going to be that bad. Come down for breakfast and we’ll see how we can make it better.”
“Okay,” she said. “Can I get dressed first?”
“Did you wash up?” She nodded. “Okay, then,” he said, “but be quick about it.”
Gene was already eating when Phillip came down again, and Jeanne followed him just a few minutes later. Neither child gave any more indication of why they were in such odd sorts this morning, instead acting as if everything was normal. It was a marvel, Phillip thought, what a little sugar can do to improve the mood of a child. In the end, the kids were out the door at around their usual time, cheating him out of his game of cards. Still, as he prepared himself for his day, he had to wonder at how difficult they had been at the start of the day. He’d handled it well, he felt, but he just didn’t get it.
“He doesn’t get it at all,” Gene said, as he and his sister rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill. Jeanne nodded her silent assent.
The conference room hadn’t changed at all in the span since he’d last left it. Well, Phillip thought, not exactly; the trash cans were emptied. Still, the atmosphere in the room was considerably brighter than the day before. Phillip felt honestly confident that there would be no problems at all.
Not even Daniel, staring across the table, could sour his optimism. “Your letter is slapdash and somewhat suspect,” he said, not taking his eyes off of Phillip. “Still, I believe that we can make this work. I will contact the family at once.”
“Thank you, Daniel,” Chloe said. Daniel excused himself and left the conference room, pointedly sighing at the letter in his hand once more. “Maybe ‘slapdash’ was a little harsh. Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Phillip said. “Truth be told, it’s mostly a copy-and-paste job of the last letter we sent.”
“As it turns out, that may be all we need,” Katherine said. Her tall cup of gas-station cappuccino was all but empty, judging by the light filtering through the thin styrofoam. “I think the MacKenzies were just on the edge about this whole thing. At least we’ll have them in.”
“Phillip, you are sure that another interview with Rob is required?” Chloe said. “It’s an awful expense to have to rack up, especially if it turns out poorly.”
“The film we have from the last interview is a good starting point, but there are a lot of questions that need to be asked differently,” he said. “First among them being why he’s not doing better in school.”
“Our analysis shows he’s in our general archetype,” Katherine said. “Resistant to unreasonable or arbitrary authority, with a particular emphasis on refusal to complete tasks viewed as pointless. That seems clear to me.”
“Right,” Phillip said, “but it doesn’t say why he’s not trying harder in school. Given what we know– or, rather, what I’ve seen of him– I would figure that he’d be working his butt off to make his dad happy.”
“His father, you say?” Katherine replied. “What does that have to do with this?”
“You missed that, sadly,” Chloe said. “We all did. Phillip believes there’s a large mental block with Rob that is, at the very least, keyed to his father. Depressive or obsessive behavior, I think you said.”
“It’s hard to pin down,” Phillip said, nodding. “It’s like, one second he’ll forget about his father, and the next he’ll be in abject terror of him. I don’t have enough degrees to figure that one out.”
“I don’t either,” Katherine said, her voice dry, “but I don’t have enough data, either. All I really have is a very vague recollection. I’m with Phillip on the interview.”
“Should we have Phillip actually conduct the interview?” Chloe asked.
“I don’t think that’s a hot idea,” Phillip said. “We want to keep my involvement as secret as possible. Who else could do it?”
“I’m not qualified,” Chloe said, raising her hands in surrender. “I’d probably blat out all our secrets.”
“As always, it falls to me,” Katherine sighed in mock exasperation. “It’s what you pay me for, anyway. I think we could also ask Ihab or Seth to assist.”
“Maybe Daniel would be a good fit,” Phillip added. “He seems to have a connection to the MacKenzies that we might be able to leverage.”
“Daniel has already asked not to be too deeply involved with this situation,” Chloe said. “I don’t understand the details myself, but he’s unwilling to participate in the interview process.”
“All right,” Phillip said. “So, what’s our next move?”
“That’s your job,” Katherine said. “Spill it. What questions should we be asking?”
Phillip nodded to her empty cup. “Get yourself a refill first,” he smirked. “This is gonna take a while.”
Mr. Walsh did the best he could to settle the class down, but Jeanne could feel him getting more frustrated as the bell crept closer. Already the clusters’ proposed leaders were being crowded around. While the Antarcticans were all seated and chatting quietly, the other continents were not so composed; Fran Ballathy was making sweeping gestures and posing dramatically, to the amusement of her fellow Africans. Further across the room, Deacon Flay stood, arms folded, while the rest of the Asians stared at him, silent, but not amicably so.
“This is going to be really cool,” Nick said. “We’ve just gotta win. Your idea’s too cool to lose.”
Gene blushed slightly. “Thanks, but we don’t know who else has this idea. I bet Fran thought of it.”
“I bet she didn’t,” Tegan said.
“We’ll see,” Gene replied.
The bell rang; almost immediately, the students fell into silence as Mr. Walsh closed the classroom door. “All right, are we ready to have a look at our contenders?” The students cheered half-heartedly at this, humoring the thin teacher; he was used to this, Jeanne felt. “Okay. Now remember, there’s three important things that you have to keep in mind when you pick out the candidates. The first is if you want this person to be able to speak for the class. The second is if their plan is something that everyone can enjoy doing. And the third is, what plan you want to do.” He paused. “Yes, Mister Flay?”
Deacon lowered his hand. “Are we allowed to vote for ourselves?”
“Of course,” Mr. Walsh said. “I’m getting to that. What we’re going to do is to have each of the continents’ leaders come up and explain their ideas. Once everyone’s had a chance to speak, you’re going to write down the three different ideas you like best, and we’ll count them up. You have to pick three different ones, or they won’t count at all.” There were some groans at this, and a few murmurs expressing the belief that there might not be three ideas worth doing, but he raised his hands for quiet, and the commotion passed. “All right, let’s see, we’ll start with Antarctica this time. Who’s your leader?”
Gene stood up and timidly stepped forward. “I am,” he said.
“Excellent,” Mr. Walsh said. He gestured to a spot on the left end of the chalkboard, and Gene stepped there without any visible hesitation; his mental reservations were multitude, but he willed himself not to let them show. Out of the corner of his eye, Gene noticed Deacon sneering and rolling his eyes. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Walsh didn’t see this, as he was writing a large number 1 above Gene’s head. “All right, Antarctica, why don’t you go ahead and tell us what your idea for the class period is.”
“I think,” Gene said, “that it would be a good idea to watch a movie.” There was some applause from the students; the Asian cluster remained dead silent.
“Really?” Mr. Walsh said. “Which movie?”
“I hadn’t thought that far, but a Thanksgiving movie might be a good idea,” Gene replied.
“Well, I do have a movie in mind, but let’s keep that a secret,” Mr. Walsh said, writing more over Gene’s head. “All right, so Antarctica says a movie. Let’s go with South America now. Miss Parker?”
Jeanne tuned out Celine’s idea; she wasn’t the brightest bulb in the class. Gene’s idea was thinking big, she thought, and most of the kids had seemed to like it. A few others had sighed when he announced it; maybe they too had thought of it, or had regretted not speaking up. It seemed like a good plan, and as she glanced at the rest of the Antarcticans, it appeared that they shared her optimism.
Fran’s idea was the only one that really interested her. “It would be a lot of fun if we went to the computer lab,” she said, “and all played some games there.” The students gave some cheers to this idea, and it took Mr. Walsh by surprise as well. Jeanne knew it would be rough picking a third option after that, and that it would be a close race if it came down to Fran and Gene.
“All right, then,” Mr. Walsh said. “I think Mister Flay is the leader for Asia,” he said, to Deacon’s high-raised hand. “So let’s hear our last option, then.”
Deacon stepped to the far right end of the chalkboard, where Mr. Walsh was waiting for him; the number 7 was already there. “We’re going to play tag,” he said. The sound of his voice sent chills up Jeanne’s spine; it was calm and confident, just like always, but it just sounded so wrong right now. “If the weather’s good, we can play outside, or we can play in the gym. It’s going to be a lot of fun, I promise.” His smile was disarming as Mr. Walsh wrote the idea over his head; sweeping his eyes across the classroom, inch by inch, he made sure that his classmates knew just what kind of tag he meant to play. “So vote for me.”
“All right,” Mr. Walsh said. “We’re running short on time, so let’s make this quick. Paper out, write the numbers of your three different choices on it…” He continued the redundant explanation, but Jeanne had already made up her mind. The papers were collected and brought to Mr. Walsh’s desk. “Okay… All right, it looks like we have our candidates,” he said, grinning. “Oh, this is going to be fun. Our first candidate is Fran Ballathy’s trip to the lab.” The cheers and applause died as quickly as they were raised. “Next, we have Gene Nagy’s movie.” Again, there was some short congratulations. “And finally, with the most votes, Deacon Flay’s game of tag.”
Only Deacon’s cluster cheered.
“So,” Phillip said. “I think we’ve got every angle covered.” The meeting had ran longer than even Chloe had anticipated, and as a result the conference table was covered in as many documents as empty or discardable foil sandwich wrappers. Chloe had ordered lunch in, after extracting promises from Katherine and Phillip to conceal the expenditure from Daniel.
“I’ll go get Ihab prepped for this,” Katherine said. “Maybe we should also look into whether or not Daniel was able to contact the MacKenzies again.”
“I’ll handle that,” Chloe said. “Thanks for your help, Katherine.”
“Anytime,” the doctor said, patting the last of the ketchup from her lips with a paper napkin. “If you’ll excuse me, then,” she said; it took her a few moments to gather her papers.
“No problem, Kath,” Phillip said. “Let us know how Ihab does.” Katherine nodded and left, closing the door behind her. Phillip turned to Chloe, who was gathering up the detritus of the lunch. “So, what do you think?”
“About the interview, or about Rob?” she asked, not looking up.
“Both,” Phillip said. “Start with the interview.”
“I think we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Chloe said. She stuffed an armful of wrappers into a paper bag, rather more forcefully than Phillip expected from her at the moment. “I don’t know if the MacKenzies can be convinced with another interview.”
“That’s not all of why I wanted it,” he said. “We need to sell Twilight Wings to them one last time, and I think we’ve covered all of the bases in doing that. But I want to know more about this mental block of his.”
“It is curious,” she said, slowing her collecting. “You keep referring to his father, but there’s no data and nothing on the tapes that indicate a connection like that. Frankly, you’re starting to sound like the kids.”
“I choose to take that as a compliment,” Phillip said, “because I imagine you meant it as one.”
“I did,” she grinned. “It means we’re on the right track.”
“We don’t know that,” Phillip said. “What about Rob?”
Chloe tossed the paper bag into the wastebasket and flopped back into her chair. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “He’s adorable, that’s true, and I’m sure he’s sweet…”
“I was referring to his fit for Wings,” he said, smiling wryly.
“Well, that’s part of it, isn’t it?” she said. “Those are traits that we’re looking for. His attraction. His force of personality. The pull he has… they’re all indicators of–”
“Let’s stick to the data. Those will help him make connections, that’s at least verifiable. God, I sound like Kath now.”
“You’re right,” she said. “We can’t lose our objectivity. We have to make sure that we’re not acting on emotion… not yet, anyway.”
“But at what point do we remember that these kids aren’t just sources of data?” Phillip snapped. “These are kids, for Christ’s sake. Children. Josef Mengele probably once thought like we did.”
“I doubt Katherine is going to start vivisecting them,” she shot back. “You’re right, we have to be compassionate as well. It’s just hard to walk this line.”
“Imagine how much harder it must be for Katherine,” he said, his voice softening.
“I don’t have to imagine.”
“It was rhetorical,” he smiled. “Besides. You know why else I want to look into this.”
“Phillip,” she said, “I’m not so sure this is the right thing. We’re starting to get into territory where we ought not to be treading. This might be overstepping our mission just a bit.”
He paused before answering. “All or nothing, Chloe. Twilight Wings is all or nothing for us. If I’m wrong, then no harm done– Rob will join up and we’ll have a better understanding of the mental block.”
“And if you’re right?”
“Then God help us. God forbid I’m right,” he sighed.
The breeze felt good on Jeanne’s skin; coupled with the falling pressure, it was a pleasant afternoon. It was overcast but not threatening rain just yet. The dark clouds to the west were moving, but slowly enough to delay the coming storm for at least a few more hours. She leaned back against the chain-link fence and smiled. “Nice day, huh?”
“It is now,” Gene said. “At least for a while yet.” He sat on the steps opposite the fence on the edge of the playground; Tegan sat beside him.
Rob sat down next to Jeanne. “You think something’s going to happen?”
“Probably,” Gene said. “We have gym at the end of the day.”
“Oh, relax,” Jeanne said. “Deacon’s not going to try anything in gym.”
“You don’t know that, and besides, you’re safe, being a girl,” Gene snapped. “Or did you forget this morning?”
“I didn’t forget,” Jeanne hissed. “But that could mean anything.”
“The dream, right?” Tegan said, leaning forward. “It was just a dream, right?”
“Isn’t it just a little weird,” Gene said, “that we all have the same exact dream? That doesn’t happen to other people.”
“We don’t know that,” Rob said quietly. “We know it happens to us. We haven’t asked anyone else.”
“It’s weird, yeah, but it’s still just a dream,” Jeanne said. “Besides, those weren’t even us in the dream. And even if it was,” she added, closing her eyes, “’cause we know who Sammy really was, then he has to know us, too.”
“How do you figure?” Tegan asked.
“We knew each other,” Rob replied. “You were Ruby, but I knew it was you, too.”
“Maybe we should ask for help,” Gene said. “We could tell Mr. Walsh what Deacon’s going to do…”
“But he hasn’t done it yet,” Jeanne sighed. “We can’t go and do anything about it until he’s done something.”
“But he did,” Gene shot back. “We saw him kick Andy the other day.”
“Yeah, but who’s going to believe us?” Rob said. “We can’t tell on Deacon because the teachers always believe him and never anyone else. Just like everyone.”
Jeanne’s eyes widened at this, and Gene met her gaze, but neither one reacted openly. “Maybe there’s a way,” Jeanne said, after a moment. “Look over there.” Deacon and his two buddies were again by the balance bars; unlike yesterday, however, they were simply talking among themselves and ignoring the rest of the children in the playground. The balance bars were therefore off-limits to any student who wished to enjoy the recess period. “He’s not bothering anyone now. That’s fine, and if we go after him now, he’ll know it was us.”
“He always knows who tells on him,” Gene said. “I don’t know how he does it.”
“The same way we know he’s always the one who starts it,” Tegan snorted. “Duh.”
“You take that back!” Gene said.
“Hey, keep it down,” Rob said. “Deacon might hear us.”
“Yeah, you little spaz,” Jeanne said. Gene fumed for a moment, but a quick glance over to the balance bars verified that the outburst had gone unnoticed. “Okay. So Deacon always knows. But what if we could find a way to make sure he can’t know it was us?”
“There’s no way,” Rob said. “He always knows, and he always finds out. He and Joey and Ian always find out.”
“I didn’t say it was going to be easy,” Jeanne said, “but we’re all smart. Maybe we can figure it out.”
“Figure what out?” Fran stood at the top of the short steps, towering over Gene and Tegan. “Pfft, whatever. Anyway, I wanted you guys to take these.” She handed a slip of paper to each of the four.
“What’s this?” Gene asked.
“It’s a campaign sticker, duh,” Fran said, rolling her eyes. “But I don’t have anything to stick it on you with, so get some tape when you get into the class.” It was a small slip torn from a lined notebook page, reading ‘Vote for Fran’ in the girl’s ornate cursive handwriting. Flowers and hearts covered the remainder of the sticker’s white space.
“Fran,” Rob said, “why are you giving one to Gene? He’s going to vote for himself.”
“You don’t know that,” Fran said, the contempt obvious in her voice. “The votes are secret. And anyway, going to play games in the lab is way more fun than a movie, isn’t it, Gene?”
“I really want to see a movie,” Gene said, closing his eyes. “But good luck, Fran.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Fran said, walking off. “At least I tried.”
Jeanne rolled her eyes, then stopped halfway through. She began to grin as she held out the sticker. “I got it,” she said. “I know how we can get him.”
“We’re going to make stickers?” Rob asked.
“No, silly,” Gene said. “We can tell on him when we vote. The votes are secret, right? Deacon will never see them. He’ll never know it was us!”
Jeanne nodded. “I think it’ll work out,” she said. “After all. We’re way smarter than he is.”
Daniel knocked on the door, and Phillip looked up from his proofreading; the accountant was not one prone to hesitation before entering a room. “Phillip, do you have a few minutes?”
“What’s up, Daniel?”
“A meeting will shortly commence,” he said, “which will discuss Rob MacKenzie. Chloe and I believe that your presence would be beneficial.”
Phillip frowned. Lots of words, short message, he thought; things would move a lot faster around here if Daniel would just shut his mouth sometimes. “All right, I’ll be right there,” he said.
“One moment,” Daniel said, motioning Phillip to re-take his seat. Daniel gently shut the door to the office and pulled one of the task chairs from the wall, closer to the desk. “I have certain reservations about your involvement with this situation.”
“I never would have guessed,” Phillip said. He hoped that the sarcasm in his voice would not be lost on Daniel, and the slight wince evoked by it was proof that it got some kind of a reaction. “You’re worried I’m trying to be the big hero.”
“No,” Daniel said, “I am concerned that you will become emotionally invested in young Master MacKenzie to an inappropriate degree.”
“I don’t think I like what you’re implying,” Phillip hissed.
“Perhaps I could have phrased that better,” Daniel grimaced. “I do not wish to insinuate any malfeasance on your part. What I mean is that perhaps, in this case, you should strive to remain emotionally detached from Rob.”
“You, shall we say, have a history of overacting on your protective tendencies,” Daniel said. “Two incidents in particular come to mind.”
The implication was obvious to Phillip. “So?”
“There cannot be a third,” Daniel replied coolly. “You know why.”
“Dammit, Daniel, if Rob is in danger–” Phillip was cut off as Daniel motioned for quiet again.
“If there is wrongdoing in the MacKenzie household,” Daniel said, “your discovery and revelation of such does not automatically require you to take up the responsibility of rectifying the situation. Put another way, and possibly more colloquially, you saw it broken; you did not break it yourself, so you are under no obligation to buy it.”
Phillip stayed quiet for a moment, but nodded. “I understand.”
“Do not misunderstand,” Daniel said, smiling. “I do not think you were in the wrong with Gene and Jeanne. I can only hope that I will learn well from your example.”
“You’re older than me,” Phillip pointed out, “and I’ve never heard of you having a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend.”
Daniel smiled even wider. “It is as you say.”
“But, well,” Phillip sighed, “it’s like you said, too. I saw what happened with the kids, and I thought, you know, ‘nobody else is stepping up. I can help these kids, and if nobody else will, then I have to.’”
“It is a common trait among us,” Daniel said, “that we find ourselves compelled to act, without always understanding that we may not necessarily need to act. In the face of injustice, we are often frustrated by the rational need to simply wait and see. But the irritation we experience now, as it were, is merely a down payment on the greater good to which our energies are ultimately expended. I share your sentiment, and ask you only to trust in the course that we shall pursue.” He glanced at the clock near Phillip’s computer. “We are late. Please come with me to the conference room.”
Phillip grumbled a bit, still trying to parse through the minor speech, but followed anyway. Chloe and Katherine were in the conference room as well; the table was empty save for Katherine’s styrofoam coffee cup. “What’s on your mind?”
“Ha ha,” Katherine said. “We’ll make this quick.”
“Daniel has arranged for the MacKenzies to come in for another interview,” Chloe said. “I’d ask how you managed to get such a fast response, but…”
“You are aware,” Daniel said, “of the need for secrecy.”
“It’s more like she’s afraid you’d have to kill her,” Phillip snorted. “Anyway. So we have an interview.”
“Yes, but there’s a catch,” Katherine said. “You’ll be observing from Lab Four, Phillip.”
“Wait, observing?” Phillip asked. “When is this going to happen?”
“Tomorrow afternoon, during the childrens’ calibration tests,” Chloe said. “It was the only time we could do it.”
“Sorry to spring this on you,” Katherine said. “But we have no choice. This really is a do-or-die for us.”
Phillip seethed a bit, but quickly calmed himself. “All right. So we’re going to have it tomorrow. What if the MacKenzies–”
“They will not discover your connection, nor will they learn of the participation of the children,” Daniel said. “You will arrive early enough to prevent this.”
“Daniel,” Phillip said evenly, “have you ever tried to get kids to leave the house early on a Saturday morning?”
“I fail to see the difficulty,” Daniel replied. “I was merely stating what will happen.”
“The MacKenzies aren’t slated to arrive until later in the day,” Katherine explained. “Don’t worry. We’ve covered every possibility. If you’re right, then there’s no way this can fail.”
Phillip and Chloe exchanged glances. “I hope we’re all right,” she said finally.
Phillip had expected to hear the children when he arrived, but how he heard them was a surprise. The first few drops of rain were starting to fall outside, and he counted himself lucky that he’d arrived before the storm started in earnest. Inside, however, the lightning had already been loosed.
“You give that back, Gene Nagy!” came the shrill cry. Phillip dropped his bag and rushed toward the source of the noise. He was in the library, alone, when the second shout came.
“Leggo, Jeanne!” Gene said, with some effort. Phillip saw two heads bobbing on the couch in the television room. The television itself was off, so obviously the kids were arguing over something else.
“Hey, break it up,” Phillip said, stepping quickly to the couch. Jeanne and Gene had their hands clasped together, and they were now trying to pull the other’s arms out of the sockets. Phillip put his hands onto their knot, and they let go, falling gently to the ends of the couch. Gene held the prize in his left hand, a small silver key attached to a blue blob-like keyfob. “What’s all this about?”
“Jeanne was gonna open the cabinet,” Gene said. “I was stopping her from getting into trouble.”
“Were not!” Jeanne said. “You wanted to open it to play your game!”
“I was not!” Gene shouted. The two came at each other again, but Phillip’s hands gently pressed into their chests, preventing them from making contact.
“First, hello there,” Phillip said, chuckling. The two children sheepishly said their greetings and welcomes. “Secondly, regardless of who started it, the cabinet’s off limits in two situations. What are those situations?”
“If you’re not in the house,” Gene said smugly.
Jeanne paused. “If there’s a storm,” she said. “And… oh, it’s raining now.”
“That’s right,” Phillip said. “We don’t want anything getting fried. So, let’s have the key.” Gene handed the key to him; Phillip stepped around the couch and put it back on the handle of the media cabinet. Through the glass of the cabinet, he saw that none of the myriad playback devices or video game machines were on, or even in their standby modes. “Anyway, you kids have to do your study guides tonight.”
“We already did them,” Jeanne said. “We just finished, like, a few minutes ago.”
“Yeah,” Gene said. “They were really easy.”
“Rob didn’t come by tonight?” Phillip asked.
“No,” Gene replied, flopping back on the couch. “He said his dad was really mad about yesterday.”
“I’ll have to smooth things over later when I, ah, call,” Phillip said; he had caught himself barely in time. “Let’s go get some dinner, huh?” He led the kids into the kitchen, and the three reheated some of the leftover pizza in the microwave. The rain was picking up a bit, and the first rumblings of thunder were starting to rattle the windows a little.
“Phillip,” Gene said, “we had the dream again.”
“When, before I came home?” He hoped that the tone of his voice would soothe them.
“No, this morning,” Jeanne said. Her voice was wavering, but whether it was due to the storm or the effort of revealing the dream, he wasn’t able to tell. “It was kind of like all the other times, but a different day.”
“You wanna talk about it?” Phillip asked. He led them back into the television room, and sat on the couch; Gene sat on his left, and Jeanne to his right.
“Yeah,” Gene said. “We started out in different rooms again.”
“Wait a second,” Phillip said. “Is this in the gardens, or the weird school?”
“The school,” Jeanne said. Recurring, synchronized dreams were not uncommon among the kids, but there were several different settings for them, and Phillip was trying to piece together the narrative they told. The children’s capacity for lucid dreaming, Katherine had said, was naturally going to be far greater than average. He suspected that the kids didn’t tell him every time they had a dream such as this, but short of saying so, he had no way of knowing. “Like Gene said, we were in different rooms.”
“I was Patrick again,” Gene said, “and Jeanne was Lilly. We met up with Te– I mean, Ruby and Will in the locker room.”
“The coach came out,” Jeanne said, “and told us we were having another battle. It was weird; we all felt kinda worn out, like we’d just had a battle.”
“Yeah,” Gene said. “When we went up, it was like we were too tired to hold the platform up for too long at a time.”
The ‘battle’ was in essence a very strange form of capture the flag. Students were able to fly, through means that the children had not been able to adequately describe; for their alter egos Patrick and Lilly, flight was as instinctive as walking was to Gene and Jeanne. Older students carried wooden swords or other sparring implements, while the younger children held aloft a light wooden platform on which there were spare weapons, and a flag. The objective was, as could be expected, to steal the opponent’s flag and carry it to your own base. The fact that the bases were mobile, and high in the air, was simply an added dimension to the game.
Phillip listened as the children described the battle; their perspective was skewed, as they were perpetually underneath the majority of the action. Despite their insistence that they were getting old enough to be part of the strike teams, in every depiction of these battles, they were always among the base-bearers. Their group did eventually prevail, as Gene-as-Patrick had made the decision to guide the platform through a patch of fog rolling in on the playfield by coincidence.
“When we came down, though,” Jeanne said, “the coach called us away first thing. He said our parents had come to see us.”
“That’s never happened before,” Phillip said. Within the dream, Patrick and Lilly were blood-related siblings; Patrick was a year older. The school had all the hallmarks of a military-style academy, but the descriptions always felt a little off, as if the students there were not as rigidly disciplined as the setting might have dictated.
“I know!” Gene said, frowning. “It was really important. So we got changed and went out to the cafeteria, to see them.”
“It was… Phillip, she was my mom,” Jeanne said. “My real mom. And Gene’s real dad.”
“Yeah,” Gene said. Jeanne’s eyes teared up, and Gene’s were wavering just a bit as well. Phillip put his arms around them and gently pulled them close. “I never thought I’d see him again.”
“It was just a dream,” Jeanne said, “but I knew it was her. I mean, it was really really her.”
“If they were Lilly and Patrick’s folks, you’d feel that way,” Phillip pointed out.
“Yeah, but they looked exactly like how our parents looked,” Gene said. “And, Jeanne’s mom felt like my mom, too, but I knew she was hers.”
“They looked so sad,” Jeanne sobbed. “And we knew why.”
“Our grandpa was sick,” Gene said. “They came to tell us that he was dying.”
Death, Phillip thought, haunts them even in their dreams. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not that,” Jeanne said. “Just then, Sammy came by.”
“Oh, no, he didn’t,” Phillip said. “What did he do?”
“He laughed at our parents,” Gene hissed, “and said his dad knew about it all along.”
“That sounds like Sammy,” Phillip said. The boy, one of the few named actors in the nightly dramatics, had antagonized them since the first time they had the dream. “What happened then?”
“We woke up,” Jeanne sighed. “Phillip, it was awful. Our parents… the first time we saw them…”
“And stupid Sammy has to ruin it,” Gene growled. “I really hate him. One of these days, I’m gonna let him have it.”
“Are not,” Jeanne said. “‘Sides, there’s nothing we can do.”
“You’ve been practicing the spell Katherine gave you, right?” Phillip asked. Katherine’s ‘spell’ was simply instructions to aid lucid dreaming. “Did that help?”
“It never works for this kind of dream,” Gene said. “Jeanne’s right, there’s nothing we can do. All we can ever do is watch.”
“But you have some control,” Phillip said. “You saw the red team coming for the base, and you moved it.”
“That’s the weird part,” Gene said. “It’s like, I knew he was coming, but not because I saw him. It was more like, I remembered he was coming, and I remembered that Patrick moved the base then.”
“It was like when we have deja vu here, only all the time,” Jeanne added. She had calmed somewhat, and Phillip was thankful for that.
Lightning flashed in the windows, and Jeanne buried her face in Phillip’s side. A few seconds later, the thunderclap provoked a shriek from both children. “It’s okay,” he said, rubbing their backs gently. “It’s just the storm.”
“Too loud,” Jeanne cried. “Way too loud!”
“It’s too bright,” Gene said.
“I think maybe it’s time we got ready for bed,” Phillip said. “We’ve got a long day ahead for tomorrow.”
“Come with us,” Jeanne said, not moving an inch.
“Okay,” Phillip said. “Let’s all go up together.” They gripped his hands hard enough to turn them white as the three climbed the back stairs to the common room. “I’ll be right here,” he said. The kids dashed into their rooms, turning on lights and tossing off their clothes almost in the same actions. Matsuri was fast asleep in her cage, apparently unperturbed by the rainstorm. Phillip’s clothing was casual enough that he could stand to wait until the children were calmed before changing himself.
Within a few moments, the kids were in their pajamas and again clinging to his wrists. “Let’s go down to the den,” Jeanne said. “I don’t want to be this high up.”
“The lightning can’t get you inside the house,” Phillip said. Jeanne’s eyes indicated that she was in no mood to explain why it most definitely could and would do so. “All right. Down we–”
The power went out at that moment, plunging the common room into darkness. A flash of lightning showed the children, in strobe-light freeze-frames, inhaling deeply enough that their combined screams nearly drowned out the thunderclap. Phillip pulled the children closer, and their shouts reverberated into his thighs. “Down we go,” he said, gently. “Stay close and move slowly so we don’t fall.”
It took them a few moments, and a few more lightning strikes, to make it down to the front den. Jeanne was shivering, and Gene was on the border between catatonia and a full-blown panic attack. Phillip sat both of the children on one of the overstuffed easy chairs, and covered them with a heavy quilted blanket. “I just need to check the front door,” he said. “I’ll be right back. Keep your eyes on me.”
“Okay,” Jeanne whispered. Her head traced him as he stepped through the archway to the foyer. The front door was quickly shut and bolted; he stepped briskly back into the den. The children had slid down the front of the easy chair and were on the floor, huddling together underneath the blanket. “Just to be safe,” Jeanne said, explaining their descent.
Phillip knelt on the floor and leaned in to hug them both; they split apart and took sides of him, clutching an arm apiece. He turned slowly, back against the chair, and the children dragged the blanket over him as well. “It’s gonna be okay,” he said.
“The rain sucks,” Jeanne said.
“But we need the rain,” Phillip said, “to make the sunny days much better.”
“I know,” Jeanne said. “Just, does it need to rain so much all at once?”
“Listen,” Phillip said. “Do you hear that?”
“What?” Gene asked. “God saying ‘no more rain’?”
Phillip chuckled. “Not quite,” he said. “Listen closely. And count.”
“One, two, three… one, two…” Jeanne began. “It repeats.”
“Yeah, I hear it,” Gene said.
“That’s the rhythm of the rain,” Phillip said. “The rain is giving us a song.”
“But it’s changing, too,” Gene said. “A little bit at a time, but it’s changing.”
“Each loop is different than the last,” Jeanne said. “Like, a few drops are off here and there.”
“The storm is alive, just like we are,” Phillip said. “But like us, it’s not going to hurt us as long as we don’t hurt it. It’s singing to us, and asking us to just listen.”
“What if we don’t want to listen?” Jeanne said. “Why does it have to sing to us?”
“The more we refuse to listen,” Phillip said, “the angrier the storm gets. We’re hurting its feelings.”
“I think I get it,” Gene said. “We need to listen to it, so it will go away.”
“Exactly,” Phillip said. “Just listen. Listen and find out what the song means.”
“What does it mean?” Jeanne asked.
“It’s different for everyone who hears it,” Phillip said. “I hear a beautiful lullabye.”
“A lullabye? In this noise?” Gene laughed. “That’s nuts.”
“Wait,” Jeanne said, her voice slowing. “I hear it, too. It’s gentle… calming now.”
The lightning flashed, and the children jolted in response. “That’s not a lullabye!” Gene shouted.
“Gene, calm down,” Phillip said. “The lullabye is working, but you need to close your eyes.”
“Close my eyes?” Gene replied, incredulous.
“Yeah,” Jeanne said. “If we can’t see the lightning, it can’t hurt us.” Phillip felt no need to correct her, as the explanation would serve his purposes for now. “Just close your eyes, Gene, and listen again.”
“That’s right,” Phillip said, closing his eyes himself. “Listen. Listen to the rain.” He felt the kids unclench their bodies, relaxing with each imagined measure of the rainsong, and their breathing slowed. It was a gradual process, but as the storm started to kick into high gear, the children were fast asleep on the floor of the den. Phillip felt satisfied that his gambit had worked, but it had an unintentional side effect in that he was now too drowsy to leave their side.
Well, he thought, there are worse places to spend a night. But far, far fewer better places.