You know what it’s like when you go to a person’s house that you used to go to a lot as a kid, and it’s like your home away from home, but when you come back after a few years, it’s suddenly alienating? It’s not like you and that kid had a falling out, or even drifted apart like childhood friends are wont to do. You just come back to that part of town, find the house, and something just feels off. Like you moved on, or at least should have.
That’s about as close as I can get to describing standing in front of Evangeline’s house for the second, and most possibly last time. Something felt wrong. Maybe I had dimension-hopping after sickness. Maybe I was turning drunk from being near Carina for as long as I have. Or hell, maybe I was just afraid to go in and watch my world suddenly turn into a martial-arts movie with broken philosophical concepts.
I know, I know.
We’re almost through—even I can see that—and I’m bagging on the The Matrix Reloaded. I’m running out of material and willpower. You try going to a place called Ultima—in and of itself being ridiculous—and try being witty and sarcastic right after.
“This is the place?” Carina asked after clearing her throat a few times.
There was no mistaking it. The bad paint job and the light hint of pot emanating from the walls made it a Familiar’s dwelling each way you cut it.
“This is it,” I said.
“So…why aren’t we going inside?”
Why aren’t I going inside?
Why aren’t you going inside, Henry Collins?
I’ve got a better one, world. I’ve got one for that damn Evangeline with her red hair and intentionally vague answers and time-travel subplots and doublecrossing.
I banged on the door. She answered, dressed in bright red so as to keep in line with her usual modus operandi. She looked at me, then at Carina, and back to me again. The deadpan blue eyes gave me nothing, and I instantly felt like an idiot for expecting that they would.
Nothing about this…I don’t know, “reality” has changed much. The Jack and Paloma are gone. That’s all.
Hell, that hurt to think about. If not to physically contemplate the jibber-jabber from their mouths, then to realize the idea that Paloma was the entire reason for most of my actions.
“You’re back from Ultima,” Evangeline said. “Come inside quickly. We do not have much time.”
I snapped out of my head and back to that front porch. Evangeline opened the door wide and motioned us to follow her, back to her tiny bedroom with yellow walls and positively dainty furniture in the farthest back room. I made sure to close the door as we went in. I don’t think I can take any more surprise goon appearances.
Evangeline’s room, just as I had expected, remained exactly the same as how I left had it. It wouldn’t be an unfounded guess to think that the bed was even untouched. To be honest, the extent to which Familiars are human is a question I’d need another summer serial to think about.
Carina sat across from Evangeline. I opted to lean against the wall, like a genuine hero. Or like a genuine Keanu Reeves knockoff. Granted, he’s one of the best ‘hero’ actors of our time, so it’s perfectly fine.
After a short silence, Carina groaned and got the ball rolling. “So I hear the world’s ending. That’s not something you come across much as an operator these days.” She tried to hide the shakiness in her tone and failed.
“Indeed, it isn’t.” Three word responses? I didn’t have the patience for that.
“Cut the shit, Evey. You know what this is about.”
“Then answer me one question.”
“What did the Jack of All Trades tell me before returning to his plane? Or perhaps, what is the weapon the Jack left to you and how does one wield it?”
Two good choices, but I had a better one.
Carina put her head in her hands and groaned like the grinding metal. I ask one loaded question and she’s already pushed to the facepalm technique. Man, she really needs to get out more. Note to self.
“Sorry, Evangeline, but this goes way beyond being the high school hero. I’ve done some cool shit in the past, I’ll own that, and Carina and Kenneth were there almost the entire time to prove it. But this is…this is nuts.
“I mean, alternate dimensions? Time travel? Sundered people? Why is this all on my shoulders? It’s not right, and to be honest, I’m getting fed up really fast.”
“Perhaps you do not want that answer. This is mixed company, Henry.”
Since when is Carina considered ‘mixed company’? She jumped through time with us. She’s part of the team.
“I don’t give a hell, Evey. Tell me. Why is it me?”
“Because of Paloma’s feelings for you.”
“Paloma, as a Familiar, has the same clairvoyant abilities we all do. She has watched you, and knows more about your life than you do now. Both her sundered, absent self and the human, Becky half had bonded with you. This is how the time loop is structured.”
“The loop is built around reforming Paloma’s abilities and having her bond with me? Like you and Forest.”
“Exactly like that.”
Carina jumped in, her fingertips dancing a happy dance on her lap, searching for a handle—in this case, keyboard—on the moment. “And the loop repeats in a never-ending cycle, right? That’s what Jack said. Meaning…”
She turned to me, eyes wide not with fear or anything like that, but with wonder. With a look that Carina had never given me before. A look that said I was unique.
“It’s you because Paloma falls for you each time. It’s always been you, Henry.”
Stupid lousy time travel, dimension-hopping logic.
“Now that you brought her up, we can discuss the plan of action.” Evangeline’s voice must have dropped at least a good octave, maybe two. I hadn’t heard a serious note come from her voice yet. When somebody like her gets serious, you can tell. It’s like when mom gets pissed off at home. I can throw bitch fits all year long, but when mom’s not happy, there’s trouble.
“Paloma is your Familiar, just as I am Forest’s. However, Forest is different. Being bonded to me for as long as he has, and abusing my abilities for as long as they have, has made Forest vulnerable to Familiar power. Think of it as adding more burns to a seared body.”
Don’t tell me. “You’re saying me and Paloma have to fight you and Forest?”
“This is not guaranteed. We are out of a time loop, and thus I have my own part to play now, but this is the gist.”
“Paloma’s not even here anymore,” Carina said. “Isn’t she…” She pointed upward. Good choice of words.
“She is in the Ultima reality, and thus she will keep Forest from easily merging it into Miranda Cove. Henry, you have to defeat Forest on this side. Only with your combined efforts can this work.”
Defeat him. Didn’t I get a weapon or something for this?
“Paloma is your weapon. You do not understand yet, but I can only hope you do when the time comes.”
I’m not alone though, right? I’ve got Carina and Kenneth still. It’s not like I have to go into the world-saving final dungeon with the grit of my teeth.
God, that’s a disgusting phrase.
“That’s true.” She looked at Carina. “Knowing what you know, do you still want to help?”
“Don’t I have to? I’m kind of the operator.” Which is funny when you count how many times she’s actually been useful so far.
“Not at all. There is always a choice in the matter.” Unless you’re me, apparently.
Carina nodded, lips tense and eyes stern. The Carina look for when it’s time to kick ass. “I’ll need a computer.”
“You’ll find that outside my home,” she said. “My powers are no longer as potent as they once were inside the loop, but I do still possess some future sight. Forest is at the boardwalk. You have four hours. Good luck, Animal House.”
Is that it? Really? The boardwalk, four hours, good luck? Goddamnit. Even when he’s not technically alive, the Jack can be a completely useless jackass.
Hey, does that count as a pun?
Carina thanked Evangeline for her help as we left, still blissfully unaware of the fact that our helpful redhead is playing for the opposite team. Ten bucks says I’ll have to fight her. Watch me on this.
Unless I just jinxed it, and that won’t happen. Or I just lulled myself into a false sense of security, and we will definitely have to fight. You know what? Screw this. What happens happens. Morpheus told me so.
We stepped outside of the house, taking care to avoid landing on any of the stoned worshippers littering her carpet. I hadn’t forgotten about them earlier, but I didn’t think they were very important. It’s one thing if they’re doing some bizarre Igor impersonation; it’s another if they’re just tripping balls.
A red cruiser had parked itself directly outside. A cowlick’d and slightly bruised Kenneth leaned against the door, grinning like a fool.
“I like the part where you guys disappear and come back looking all clean and shit.” Always one with words, that Ken. “When you guys went ‘poof’, Forest and his Alchemists took off. Anybody want to explain that to me?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, Ken.” Would you believe that we’re gearing up for a final goddamn showdown?
He rolled his eyes. “Well, Jack told me to be here at this exact time with a Macbook in the back seat. You guys showed up. There’s a lot of things I’d like to believe.” Kenneth finished with a smirk. “Especially if I’m going to help you take that asshat down tonight.”
I looked back at Carina, then at Kenneth. Premature, slightly frightened grins all around. The best kind.
“Drive us to my place,” I said. “I’ll fill you in.”
I could start by saying that some guy just like me is going to throw a different reality against this one.
I could end by saying I won’t let it happen.
The end of this story.
Read the next installment here.