Authors: Harper Lin
, I ordered a five-cheese pizza. It was still early in the evening when it came, only slightly later when I’d finished half of it, and properly nighttime by the time I felt I’d digested it. Since I felt guilty about binging like that, I decided to go for a jog around the neighborhood.
Sometimes I resented living in this town. In general, nobody liked to be singled out for gossip, but everybody liked to have a target to gossip about. They would say it was because they cared, and that was easy to believe when almost everybody knew each other. I was always wary about that though. How could anybody really know each other?
On the upside, as I said, nobody liked to be singled out for gossip. That kept most people’s behavior in line. The Wonder Falls police department had nothing to do most days. It was usually a crime-free town, but that didn’t mean it didn’t have mysteries.
It was a chilly night. As my jog went on, I panted out white wreaths of mist. With each step kicking off the pavement, I imagined the momentum taking me one step closer to the solution.
“Cath!” Min’s voice called behind me.
I jogged in place then turned around. “Hi, Min. I can’t stop. I’ve got to keep my heart rate up.”
He was dressed for jogging too. “I’ll race you to the falls,” he said as he jogged alongside me.
“Through the woods? I didn’t bring my flashlight though.” As we turned beyond the glow of the streetlamps though, I saw that Min’s sneakers had lights at the toes. “So,” I panted, as we jogged over the meadow, “did you find Topher?”
“Nuh-uh,” Min replied. He had joined the search party that morning. “I’m still getting to know this town again, so I’m not that much help.”
“Wish I could have joined,” I said, “but, you know, family comes first. We didn’t even catch up on rebuilding the Brew-Ha-Ha today.”
“Is Blake part of the family again?”
I did a double take. “What, who? Him? Why would Blake be part of the family?”
“Bea’s husband,” Min corrected himself. “Jake. Blake. Blah, names.”
I laughed. “It is kind of cute that they’re partners and they rhyme. It sounds like a TV show, but to answer your question, apparently yes—Jake is part of the family again.”
If Bea felt as though everything was all right in her marriage again, then I would support her.
We jogged through the meadow, down the slope, and into the woods.
“It must be good to have a family,” Min remarked.
“Must be?” I gave him a playful shove. “Min, you have a family!”
“Don’t I know it,” Min exclaimed flatly. “I just feel bad for Topher, somewhere out there all alone.”
Bea was usually the one who had intuitions about people. Min had kept things from me before that almost cost him his life.
I peered at him suspiciously. “It’s not just that, is it? What’s wrong with your dad?”
“Nothing!” Min told me. He jogged ahead, over the bridge.
I jogged faster to catch up. “Why didn’t your dad join us at the show?”
“He never was a social butterfly.”
“Was that the reason?” I pressed.
“I’ll race you down the riverbank when the moon comes out!”
“If I win the race to the falls, you have to tell me.”
“Oh, come on!” I whined, jogging to turn around.
“I don’t know what’s going on with my dad,” Min confessed. “That’s why I need to find Topher.”
“What, to distract yourself from your own problems?” I couldn’t believe it. “Is that where your newfound sense of philanthropy is coming from after all?”
Min looked hurt. “Cath, it’s nothing like that! You couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“Enlighten me then!”
During the day, the river waters were clear in the sunlight, never muddy, not even after a storm. Now the full moon cast its white light over the same rivers, and the waves and eddies made oily black shapes like ink. I wondered what could be hiding in those waters.
The moment that thought crossed my mind, something surfaced.
“Get back!” I called to Min.
It wasn’t something coming out of the water, I realized, but someone. That someone lurched onto the banks.
“It told me you’d be here!” a familiar old man’s voice rambled. “It told me to wait, but then it told me to wait, but I’m not waiting another moonshine.” He lifted an emaciated hand to point at Min. “You’re next…”
The figure stepped into the moonlight. It was Topher.
“Min,” I said, “did you bring your cell phone?”
He nodded. “I’ll call the cops.”
“The hospital,” I corrected. “The old man must be freezing!”
As Min made the call, I hauled Topher up on land. One of his trouser legs caught on a nearby reed. As I untangled it, I saw the fading bite mark on his leg. There was no denying it now. If it wasn’t Old Murray, then Topher had been the Unfamiliar’s host all along.
“What did it tell you?” I demanded.
an ethereal voice hissed somewhere about him. “
I told you, not with the witch with him!”
“And the Maid of the Mist so nearby,” I added. “Do you think you won’t lose if we fight it out right now? I’ll call my Familiar, who will call my cousin and my aunt, and they’ll bring their Familiars—then you won’t stand a chance! We’re both at full power at this moon phase. Let’s fly around and blast magic fireworks at each other. Even if Min sees it, nobody would believe him.” It was a boast. I couldn’t fly on full moon nights, not even with a broomstick.
Then the Unfamiliar presence did something unexpected.
“You came into my hometown and threatened my people,” I said to it. “One of them is dead. Then you attacked me. How dare you even ask! How dare you!”
Mercy for you as well,
it said slyly.
I can never win, that is true. But what will you lose so that I lose? Your binding was a mercy.
“And that didn’t work,” I told it. “I won’t try that again.”
Will you do what your mother did? Not even for a child but for the sake of one not long for this world anyway. Give your life, and the life of the one with you, and the life of this body which I hold—all to ensure that I never come back here again. Will you?
“Yes.” I stepped back and reached my mind out to the moonlight—
it shouted desperately.
The other witch said! The other witch thought! At the dance! There is another way. Why would you not take it?
“Why would you suggest that? Why are you trying to help me?”
You are a cat with a mouse. You will play with your prey. You want to find another way. I have a chance if you have a chance.
“I shouldn’t make deals with your kind. They never work the way we think.”
Then came a voice like a rainstorm. “I am bound to this cause, that you understand this arrangement completely.”
I looked around even though I sensed that the voice didn’t come through my ears. I saw the Maid of the Mist flowing toward us from the shaded bridge. In the moonlight, she looked like a sigh of breath in the cold night, wreaths of fog floating in the shape of a woman. She moved like a ghost but with more life and purpose.
“The choice is yours, Cath Greenstone,” she said. “Seal this door with the blood of all those the moonlight touches, or risk this Unfamiliar tipping the balance between my world and yours—for a hope that all may live.”
“You’re the Maid of the Mist,” I said resentfully. “You could seal the door without bloodshed. Don’t you have that power?”
She shook her head slowly. “We keep the balance. We follow our laws.”
This all really was up to me then.
“You have to keep the balance,” the Maid of the Mist said to me. “Find a way.”
“And if I don’t, will you step in?”
“Find a way,” she repeated. “This thing has no power until the next full moon. You have to get Topher to release the Unfamiliar until then.”
When I blinked, she was gone.
Topher curled up in a ball and trembled. “Why isn’t it working? Where’s Dolly?”
Min Park approached me. “Cath, we’re in the middle of the meadows, so I can’t give the paramedics a street address…”
“Tell them to meet us at the corner of Ebb and Eddy,” I told him. “Old Mr. Thompson can make it there without a stretcher if he has our help. Isn’t that right, Topher?”
Mournfully, Topher said to me, “You’ve got yourself a deal!”
I knew that he hadn’t understood a single word I’d said to him.
“Was someone else here with us?” Min asked as Topher laid an arm over one of my shoulders. Min himself got under Topher’s other arm. “I thought I saw someone, but then I didn’t. She looked familiar…”
Topher answered happily, “Oh, yes, my Alice is a beauty. Come to help your old man, Tommy?”
“Yeah,” I said, “there are a lot of people with us, here in Topher’s head.”
The Unfamiliar gave a sinister chuckle.
had sustained no permanent injuries from wandering around. He lacked sleep and, ironically, hydration. He had no frostbite. He was obviously demented, so by morning, the attending doctors agreed to move him to a padded room below the ground level of the hospital.
Min and I went to visit him.
“Like a dungeon,” Min said gloomily. “A dungeon for the insane.”
At least it was clean, and the orderlies didn’t look completely soulless, but I didn’t like it either—and not only because I predicted that I’d be spending some days there, interrogating Topher and the Unfamiliar.
The floor had fluorescent lights everywhere. I think that was the worst part of rooms without natural light. I wondered if Wonder Falls had hidden away many other mentally ill people there.
“Don’t we have an old folks’ home in this town?” Min wondered.
“We do. I don’t think they can help him as much there.”
Min tried to stifle a yawn.
“I’m getting you home,” I said. It had been a long night. “Where is home for you, by the way?”
“With my parents,” he grumbled.
Min had the money to buy a house anywhere in Wonder Falls. A mansion, even, one designed to his tastes and built with the best materials. He’d stayed at a hotel when he first came back—and from that hotel room, he’d been kidnapped, terrorized, and almost killed. Since then, Mrs. Park wouldn’t let him sleep anywhere that wasn’t under her watchful eye.
At that moment, Min’s cell phone beeped. He read the text message with bleary eyes. “It’s my dad. I told him we found Topher and that I was waiting at the hospital… he’s upstairs, ready to take me home.”
“That’s a bit much,” I exclaimed.
Mr. Park had been cold and distant while Min was growing up, and that actually wasn’t all that bad because Mr. Park was cold and distant to everybody. To come by for the sole purpose of hauling Min away was unlike him. Then again, if I’d learned anything from what had happened between Bea and Jake, it was that I should stay out of other people’s relationships.
We had a long pause until he said, “I’ll tell him not to and be right back.”
“Take your time.” In hindsight, I realized that Min had been waiting for me to offer to go upstairs with him. But I didn’t offer, and maybe he’d thought it would be too emasculating or something if he asked.
Eventually, a nurse rolled in a wheelchair with Topher in it.
He looked directly at me. “You witch.”
“Yes,” I said, “this witch. It’s going to be just you and me now.” To the nurse, I asked, “What’s his room number?”
“B2-9.” She gave me a look when I walked alongside the wheelchair. She must have expected me to stay outside the room. “Are you family?”
“I brought him here,” I explained. “My friend called the ambulance. He doesn’t really have a family.”
Topher shook his head. “Dolly. She’s back.”
The nurse frowned. “He’s really not lucid.”
“That’s why we’re rolling him in here, isn’t it?” I sounded too callous. That wouldn’t get anything done.
Topher insisted, “Dolly’s back!”
I explained to the nurse, “Dolores Thompson was his wife’s name. Dolly for short, you see?” I was guessing, but I guessed pretty well. “She passed away years ago.” I continued, affecting a casual carelessness, “I think she was also the sister of Topher’s best friend—Murray Willis. He’s in the heart ward of this very same hospital, in recovery. I heard he was put in here just yesterday afternoon.”
The nurse relaxed. Topher, on the other hand, whimpered protests against what he now knew that I knew.
“So you’re the closest thing he has to family right now,” the nurse said as we stopped at the door.
I shook my head modestly. “I’m just doing what I can to help.” To Topher, I said, “I’ll visit as often as I can.” To the nurse, I asked, “Are there visiting hours?”
She pushed the wheelchair into the room, and I helped her lift Topher out of the wheelchair and onto a padded gurney. “There must be, but nobody ever visits, so we’ve all forgotten. You won’t be allowed in the room after this.” The door shut behind us with a muffled thump. The nurse rolled back the wheelchair and gestured toward the door. “You see, no door handle on the inside. It can only be opened from the outside.” She pushed a panel in the padded wall beside the door, and it sprung open to reveal a single push-button, which she pushed. “We’re really understaffed, so we can’t have anyone just waiting on you for as long as you would visit.”
An orderly came by to open the door.
Topher cried more loudly.
To the nurse, I said, “Could I just stay a little longer? I’ll calm him down and say good-bye.”
The nurse nodded to the orderly and said, “She’s all right. We’ll come back in ten.” Then they both left.
“I’m sorry for everything that’s happened to you in your whole life,” I said to Topher. “I’m also sorry for what’s going to happen, which will actually be my fault.”
I needed to get Topher to talk. I hated what I was about to do, even more that I told myself that I had to do it. I hated that I got into situations where I had to be so awful.