city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //005: Wound Up Toys

Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings, for that matter. Walk down a hallway, end up in a ballroom, double glass doors to a subway station, third exit on the left goes to a used book store. You can find anything you could ever want to read on the shelves, but good luck finding your way back again.

There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it—we’ve got streets which lead to dead ends, roads which criss-cross and loop back around, highways which go nowhere. Literally nowhere, as in "anybody going down that road is not coming back." This is not a good place to wander off unless you like wandering off forever…

Nobody knows where the city came from. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The city exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new people with it.

We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar.

If we’re going to survive this, if we’re going to stay alive and thrive, we need to learn to live in the City of Angles.

…here’s an angle to consider…

Far from the chaos of the city lies the calm of the suburbs. To be a child in the burbs is to be cared for, tended to, provided for, trained extensively, raised to adulthood, and set to repeat the cycle anew with your own children. Coming from money means you have money with which to make money which means the expensive calm of the suburbs stay within reach for generation after generation.

The best way to distract your children—because they will be restless in these calm places, eager for some sort of excitement to punch through the humdrum of the safe existence you bought them—is with consumer goods. Ones that come in a variety of plastics and run on batteries. Which, oddly enough, is also a great way for adults to distract themselves from the canonical emptiness they have taken into their lives.

But all the distractions in the world can’t sway the determination of some youth to break free and challenge themselves with new horizons. That’s just how growing up works. And in a city which supposedly exists just to chew up and spit out those who seek new horizons, woe be to the parent who has to keep such a child from embracing her dreams…


//005: Wound Up Toys

No moving truck was required.

The Yates family had been living out of suitcases for years now. Mapping out the Sideways for a living meant it was better to pick up and relocate each time you’ve exhausted exploration opportunities—either that or you had to commute quite a random distance to bop between your home and your work. Better to rent a small, cheap apartment for a few months while you compile up independently drafted maps of the area for sale to the Department of Resources. Once you’ve fished out all the avenues available, pack up and move on.

Never really any time to get to know the neighbors, of course. Which suited Gregory just fine, as he was a paranoid misanthrope. Penelope Yates knew this because her father got her a vocabulary-building edutainment app on her smart tablet.

But this time around when Gregory announced they were relocating, two things were different.

One, they hadn’t finished mapping all the little nooks and crannies of the Spindles. True, there hadn’t been a major shakeup in the Spindles for years, but plenty of underexplored backdoor routes in and out and between still existed which nobody had bothered checking. Who knew what treasures they held? They were abandoning ship with maps yet to be drawn.

Two, they were leaving the city proper, and heading to the Suburbs.

Penelope had never lived in the Suburbs before. She’d visited plenty of times, either popping out the other end of the Sideways in some strip mall or tracking down a local legend or two… but LIVING here? Gregory would sooner chew glass than leave the familiar and profitable chaos that was the urban landscape. And yet, here they were.

This left Penelope sitting on the front stoop of a quaint little house, suitcases flanking her to the left and right. Giving dad the silent treatment and refusing to come in to her new "home." Silly, really, and she knew it was silly—she’d go in eventually. Once she had time to chew on her current situation a little. Deal with it.

A house was entirely too large compared to an apartment, separated not by a layer of drywall but by a good fifteen feet of well-manicured lawn from the nearest neighbor. Penelope didn’t like houses, and now she was amidst row after row of two-story houses, each with windows all over the place, windows with shutters. (Not that they ever closed those shutters. Purely decorative.)

A quiet and sleepy bedroom community… very quiet. Too quiet. Which, sadly, was probably the point. And was the real reason why Penelope was miffed about all this.

Gregory didn’t actually explain why they were going to live with Auntie Karla. Oh, he did explain—catching up with old friends, taking a breather after recent events, things like that. Fresh air and sunshine, good for a growing girl.

But Penelope knew why they REALLY were out here in the middle of nowhere important. Gregory was worried about how things were going down. About the creepy men who followed them home. About the incident at the Defined Tower, the one they didn’t talk about, the one he only had a vague recollection of and Penelope wasn’t keen to bring up, for that matter… all of it too weird, too dangerous. When Gregory sensed danger, he went to ground and bunkered down. Away from the city. Away from the noise.

No more delving into dark corners and forgotten places. No more tracing the routes in and around and between. She was so close now, so close to understanding the shape of it all, and just like that they were done. Away from the job. Maybe permanently.

It’ll just be for a few weeks, he’d promised. No mapping and no exploring for a few weeks. Focus on your schoolwork. Maybe play with the neighborhood kids or something. Think of it like a vacation. We haven’t had much of a vacation since you started mapping, have we? Well, now’s the time, I’d say.

He was never really happy about Penelope taking up her mother’s cause, after all. She could read between the lines; why not turn a vacation into a retirement? Maybe the kid’ll forget about this stuff and grow to love suburbia. The only reason he let Penelope poke around the Sideways in the first place was because she agreed to do it with him, to keep her safe. Maybe he figured it was time for him to tighten the leash and keep her safe from herself…

Most girls her age would think she was insane for being mopey and depressed about NOT going into the Sideways anymore. But, Penelope wasn’t most girls.

And yet here she was. In the Suburbs. Around most girls. And with nothing to do but interact with most girls, she’d have to deal with that culture clash. Because staying indoors all day wasn’t going to work, either.

In fact… maybe that was the next step for her. She didn’t want to go into the shiny new house? Daddy wanted her to get to know the suburbs? Fine. She’d get to know the suburbs. It was Friday afternoon; kids would be logging out of their online lessons or coming back from public schools around now, ready to face the weekend. The perfect time to get away.

Leaving her suitcases behind, Penelope stepped away from the porch, and into the new world.

---

He let the curtain drop back, as Penelope got to her feet and began marching with purpose down the street.

"Don’t like it," Gregory grumbled. "At least she’s not running away. She’d bring her suitcases if she was. But I’d prefer if she stayed in today… safer that way."

Tea, being poured gently from a kettle to a cup. Soft ticking of a grandfather clock.

A far cry from the rambunctious laughter and occasional fistfight that echoed through the air in the old days, the last time he’d seen Cut-ya-up Karla…

Karla was a far cry from how she looked back in those days, too. When Gregory first got to the city, she was a frontrunner in the gang, wearing all the skanky duds designed by fashion companies exclusively to terrify paternal figures now in Gregory’s age bracket. And if you called her out on her taste in clothes, Karla’d cut ya up. It was right there on the tin, after all.

Except at forty-four years of age, Karla was hardly a street punk anymore. She looked like someone’s matronly aunt, older even than her actual age. Years of hard living accelerating the process, perhaps. It was hard to picture this woman in a sensible sweater and flats back-to-back with a fellow Scavenger, one switchblade in each hand, fighting over the latest find. Pouring tea from a kettle, yes, that was more appropriate.

Even her voice was far more gentle than the grating tone she used to take. But, she could chide Gregory’s behavior all the same, even if it was done in a polite way rather than a brutal way.

"You really worry too much, love. She’s just off to meet the locals. What’s the harm?" Karla Berkowitz asked. "I know the kids around here. Good kids. One of them’s been mowing my lawn for some time now while my husband is laid up with his back injury. Heh. Guess I was just too much for him that night…"

"I just don’t like having her out of supervisory eyesight. Not now. But… it’s inevitable," Gregory admitted, accepting the teacup. "I need to talk to you about that, in fact. I’m not going to be around very much; might not even come home some nights. Whenever I’m out, I’d like you to keep tabs on her. I need to—"

"—investigate the Bedlamites?"

His tea sloshed a little.

"Archie told you," Gregory realized.

"Like he could ever keep anything from me," Karla reminded, with a chuckle. "If you wanted to keep a secret, Greg, you really shouldn’t have told Archie. He likes to talk turkey, and blabbed right away about how he thought the Bedlamites were alive and well and stalking Kegstand Greg. Thing is… he was right to tell me about it instead of protect me from this mess. These little shits who followed you around, they messed with one of us. We’re all in this now."

"No, you’re not. There is no gang anymore. We all moved on, grew up, got our crap together," Gregory insisted. "And that means no more eye-for-an-eye scrapping. This isn’t your fight."

"If it’s not, why are you here? You’re cashing in on the old gang sentimentality, aren’t you?" Karla pointed out. "Looking for a place to lie low, relying on the memories of the good old times to earn you a bed. I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing, mind you. Just saying… you can’t have it both ways. Either the Seventh Street Scavengers have your back, or we don’t. All or nothing. We may be grown-ups but that doesn’t change."

He considered protesting further, but… there wasn’t much use. Even if Karla likely wouldn’t utilize the rather fine array of knives she had in her kitchen ("I make a lot of pies now, love") to make her point, it wasn’t wise to push her more.

"Fine. But it’s not like it changes anything," he said. "I have to head into the city and start shaking some folks down for information about the Cult of Bedlam, and I need you to keep Penny out of trouble. …which may be very long-term, if I shake down the wrong folks and things go south. I just want that up front, that understanding. Between you and Archie there’s nobody I trust more with my daughter if she becomes an orphan."

"Then you’re going to have to shake down the right people, aren’t you? And I think I know where you can start," Karla said, with one of her special vicious little grins. "Which isn’t in the city. You need to go to the Outlands."

"What? C’mon. It’s nothing but cows and grass out there."

"And Bedlamites. There’s a little bastard named Eddie I used to party with, back when I still used to party. He had himself a little truck accident, made the news… and after what Archie told me about your troubles I decided to call my old friend Eddie up and pretend I was worried about him. I think he still thought he had a shot at me, because he told me all about how one of his fellow truckers got hassled by a crazy-looking guy in a bad suit who Picasso’d out right in front of their eyes. He also told me some rumors about a coming war with the Picassos… but, by then he was back to trying to hit on me, so that was that. Even so… sound like a good starting place?"

Again, Gregory had to admit conversational defeat. For someone steeling himself up for a confrontation with mysterious forces, he wasn’t as commanding as he wanted to be.

But… he had no idea where to start to look for the Cult of Bedlam. He knew sources, he had friends in low places, but this was deep and dark. Any tip, even one as nutty as a middle-aged gang-banger’s trucker boy-toy, would at least give him two feet on the floor.

He had to get to the bottom of it, for Penelope’s sake. No choice, really.

Or rather, they’d made the choice as husband and wife thirteen years ago, in the wilds of the deepest and most twisted Sideways. They could have walked away from it all. And been horrible people for doing so, yes, but in those years Gregory hadn’t completely shaken the old ways of the 7SS. Look after your own and screw everyone else. If they’d followed that mantra and left her where they found her… if, if

No. A horrible thing to even think of. He couldn’t imagine his life without Penelope, not anymore. If that meant running headlong into the trouble that came with her, so be it.

"Outland it is," Gregory agreed, raising his teacup. Without extending pinky.

---

While Gregory was choosing the starting place for his adventure, Penelope was faced with an identical choice. Fortunately, her explorer’s street smarts were giving her the starting place she needed.

True, she was out of her element here. The Suburbs were spread out and empty compared to the city; nearly lifeless, particularly these sleepy little bedroom communities. But some things never changed. Kids are gonna play, and they’re gonna want to get out of the house whenever mom and dad will let them risk being out in the open in the City of Angles.

For example: kids ride bikes or skateboards, which scuff up the sidewalks on the most popular routes. That meant slopes and downhills. The Buckles, for instance, were a haven for would-be extreme athletes. Not a single sidewalk or handrail went scuff-free in the Buckles. Sometimes you even spotted dark red marks, telltale signs of unsuccessful daredevils who came home with skinned knees. So unless the Suburbs were under 24/7 lockdown with kids chained to their beds, there’d be marks around she could use to track them down, like hunting game in the wild.

Here—dust from a chalk hopscotch board in a driveway. Kids lived in this house, probably a bit too young for Penelope’s commercial demographic, but proof they go outdoors now and then. A basketball hoop at another driveway. Plastic rideable cars in the front yard. All good, but no signs of life yet. Around the corner…

There. A nice slope downhill, good sidewalks, not too cracked and lumpy. This would be where skaters and bikers hung out.

If there were any. Which there weren’t.

But, as luck or other forces would have it, there was a kid. She wasn’t on wheels, which tossed Penelope’s theory out the window, but was clearly walking from A to B with purpose. Her pace suggested this was a matter of travel rather than pleasure.

The girl was likely a match for Penelope’s age. She came bundled up in a pink jacket, rainbow-hued wooly scarf, and bright red mittens. Which was a bit much, even if it was October and temperatures were starting to drop; it was only 65°F and that level of warm clothing was better suited for 45°F or under. Penelope could see blonde hair peeking out from under her fuzzy hat complete with fuzzy pom-pom on top—

Wait.

No. That was mapping, the kind of visual study that Gregory had trained her for. Survival skills in the Sideways, to quickly get a grip on your surroundings and the threat level of people around you. Penelope was out here with one goal, to be an ordinary suburban girl, in mock protest of her vacation. Ordinary girls didn’t size up everything around them. So: neighborhood girl. A kid. Done.

It only took her two seconds to study the newcomer, and one second to discard that study and focus on being friendly. She smiled, waved, ran right up to them, and announced:

"Hi, I’m Penelope Yates and I just moved into the neighborhood and I was hoping maybe we could be friends!"

Which was completely ordinary to say, she thought. Despite being a people person she very rarely met new people, but presumably the direct approach would work fine, right? She’d directly introduced herself to Dave weeks ago, and they were email buddies now.

Her new BFF did not react in a directly friendly fashion. She let out a squeaky little yelp and immediately yanked her neck scarf over her mouth.

"You moved here from where? From where!?" the girl demanded, muffled slightly by layers of yarn. "There’s a flu outbreak in Hadley’s Hearth and chicken pox at Roland Fletcher Middle School. Or the Buckles! Are you from the Buckles? What part of the Buckles? There’s rumors of head lice there, and— and—!"

"I-I’m not sick! I’m not!" Penelope insisted. "And I’m not from any of those places. My dad and I just moved here from the Spindles. …is that okay?"

"Don’t know. Um. One second please while I check," the girl mumbled… pulling a Cracker phone out of her pocket, trying to fumble the touchscreen through her mittens. Conductive pads in the fingers, hopefully.

After calling up a quick reference app… she nodded, slowly. And started to relax.

"All clear. No major outbreaks or minor incidents in the Buckles in the last five weeks. Anything you had wouldn’t be communicable now. …that’s a relief! Hi. My name’s Milly. Milly Frisk. What’s yours?"

"Penelope," Penelope repeated. "Penelope Yates."

"I’m very sorry for freaking out there, but I’ve made it two months without getting sick and I’m trying to keep my high score going," Milly explained, while carefully replacing her phone back in a pocket, trying not to let it slip through her giant fuzzy paws. "Mother always says good interpersonal hygiene is the key to avoiding disease. It’s also very important to dress warmly! And wash your hands. And… right. Welcome to the neighborhood! So… can I help you in some way, or…?"

"Honestly, I’m just trying to get a feel for the place," she explained. "Maybe meet some kids. I don’t know how long we’re going to be living here, and I do like meeting new people, soo… here we are! Hi."

"Hi," Milly greeted again.

Since she had nothing else to add, awkward silence made itself known silently and awkwardly.

"Where were you headed, exactly?" Penelope asked, to break through the ice. "You looked like you were walking somewhere. Oh! A sandlot, for a softball game? Or a secret tree fort? Or the video arcade? —wait, those don’t exist anymore. The mall? Kids in the suburbs hang out at the mall, right? Seems like it’d be kind of far away, though, and you don’t have a bike. I should probably get a bike, if I’m going to be living here. That way we can go to the mall together—"

"I was just going over there," Milly decided to confess, to cut off the interrogation in midstream. She pointed to the next structure down the lane, which she would’ve reached in seconds if Penelope hadn’t accosted her. "To that house. That’s all."

"Oh," Penelope said, a little disappointed that it wasn’t something cooler.

"But… I’m going to be starring in a movie!" her new friend offered, trying to make it more enticing. "A very special movie for the Internet. We’re filming it in the basement!"

"Oh…?"

"Yeah, I’m going to be a damsel in distress. I get to scream a lot!"

"Oh! I mean… wait, what? You’re… starring in a movie for the Internet filmed in a basement where you’re screaming a lot and in distress?"

"Yeah! And— oh. OHHH. Ohh. Um. That… really does sound completely horrible when you put it that way, doesn’t it," Milly realized, blushing as red as the pom-pom on her knit hat. "Trust me, it’s way cooler than that and… yeah. Trust me. You’ll see. I mean, you want to come along too, right? Maybe you can get cast in a role! —it is completely normal. Honest. For instance, my character is a fish!"

---

"HIIIYYAAAAAAAH!!" Milly Frisk screamed into the microphone, while instinctively making a karate chopping motion at the air.

If not for the impromptu soundproofing on the walls in the form of foam and egg crates, the scream would’ve bounced around enough to rattle Penelope’s ears. Instead they simply twitched uncontrollably for a second or two.

"…I’m just not sure it sounds authentic enough for a kung fu mermaid princess," Milly complained. "I mean, I’m from under the sea and I’m supposed to be a singer, right? Shouldn’t it be a little more melodic and smooth?"

Across the room from the piles of microphone cords and USB cables, a boy was busy setting up the next shot—in which the mermaid-who-was-little dropkicked a terrorist ninja halfway across the tiny cardboard diorama set up to look like Santa’s Workshop. He looked up from attaching the green wires for the mid-air combat maneuver (to be edited out in post).

"No no, it was perfect!" he insisted. "Really, y’know, get in there and YAARGH! at ’em. Fierce, like a tiger. See, that’s where the funny comes in, because it’s completely incongruous with the original character portrayal!"

True to her word, they were filming a movie for the Internet where Milly played a damsel in distress who screams a lot. Specifically, a stop-motion movie with vintage action figures "designed to kick the 30-40 demographic square in the nostalgic nutsack," as Lucas Flynn had so delicately put it.

In stark contrast to the extremely expensive and minimalist adult-world furniture on the floors above, Lucas had taken over his family’s basement to turn it into a very expensive and very specific kind of movie factory. Shelf after shelf was dominated by toys across the generations… action figures and dolls, soldiers and bug monsters, robots of every stripe. Every single wall was slathered in expensive toys, from floor to ceiling.

In the center of the room was the sound stage, also known as a table adorned by scale-model sets and a digital camera on a Lego tripod. Lights bright and hot enough to make the enclosed basement uncomfortable hung above, on articulated arms—three of them were flooding Lucas’s face as he set up the next frame of the animation, enough to wash him out to white.

Given Lucas’s fantastically ginger complexion, that meant he was quite washed out indeed, to the point where Penelope could barely see his face. She assumed he was grinning and grinning big, because he never seemed to NOT smile.

"The whole point is to show a strong female character kicking butt and taking names instead of sitting around waiting for her prince to come," Lucas continued to explain, while affixing a wad of red plasticine to represent the blood spurting from a terrorist’s neck stump. "It’s a marriage of opposites, vis-à-vis the mise-en-scène and QED. Trust me, just HIYAH! as strong as you can. I know you can do it, Milly!"

Turning back to the laptop computer they were recording dialogue on, Milly took a deep breath… and

"HIYAH!"

loudly enough to rattle the action figures on the desk four feet away.

"YES! Perfect!" Lucas declared. "We got it! Right. Okay, skip ahead to scene three where you tell the evil sea queen octopus lady you’re gonna ram a shark up her inkhole. …Penelope? You sure you don’t wanna read for the sea queen?"

"I… think I’m okay just watching the artistic process at work," she decided. "So… you two make movies like this all the time?"

"Flynn-Frisk Funnies! One video a week since, like, ancient times. 2007, I think," Lucas recalled, moving back to the camera to take the next snapshot. "Never missed a week. Tons of subscribers. It’s easy, too; you throw some vintage toys in front of a camera, put in lots of blood and fart jokes, and I swear the Internet eats it up like bacon. We make mad ad revenue off our virals."

At this… Milly pouted a bit, uncomfortable. And deciding bringing up an old topic in front of a new person might open the issue successfully.

"I still think you need to keep some of that money, Lucas," she insisted. "You’re doing all the work here. I just read from the pages, it’s barely even acting…"

Smoothly, he offered his usual justification, without taking his eye off the minute adjustments he was making to the figures. "My folks are rich as crap, I don’t need it. I’m more than happy to pass it along, Milly. It’s cool, it’s cool."

Sparing a glance at the shelving units loaded with old toys, Penelope started to analyze.

"That’s why you can afford all this stuff, right?" she asked. "The computers and video editing software, and the microphones and cameras and all the toys…?"

"Yeah, my folks are Grade A nerds, just like me," Lucas said… with pride. "Tech sector entrepreneurs, high end echolocation software apps for the Department of Resources and the like. They named me after Star Wars, you know. I think it’s destiny in action that I’m making kick-ass movies—"

"Flynn Audio Systems?" Penelope asked. "Seriously? They made EchoMap? I love EchoMap!"

…except normal suburban teenage girls normally declared "I love Insert Pop Idol Here!" or "I love shopping for consumer goods!" instead of "I love industrial grade echolocation mapping software that costs fifteen hundred dollars in its cheapest edition!"

Milly didn’t pick up on it—she was too busy trying to determine her motivation in preparation for next big line reading. ("You’re a part of MY world now, bitch!") But Lucas, who knew exactly what Penelope said and why it was such an odd thing for a thirteen-year-old to say, picked up on it immediately. It was enough to almost make him drop the action figure he was posing.

He ducked out from the glare of the lights, so his expression would be more readable.

"You’ve used EchoMap before…?" he asked.

"Uh… well… yeah," Penelope admitted. No point lying to her new friends, after all. "It’s really good."

"You’ve used software designed for the Department of Resources and the First Action Response Teams to analyze the structure of the Sideways."

"My dad found me a copy for my ninth birthday. Um. Because I asked for it."

"Oh! I get it, just goofing off on a pirated copy for lulz," Lucas decided. "I heard of some high schoolers using it to map out their schools to find good spots to smoke."

"Really? They do that? But it doesn’t work very well outside of an interior structure. Works best in tight and winding passageways like you find in the Sideways," Penelope explained, instinctively eager to talk shop. "It’s really great when you’re on the run from a Picasso and need to know what turns are coming up, to avoid going down a dead end. I mean, the fidelity isn’t the greatest compared to standing still and quiet and getting a full survey, but I find if you turn the gain down and increase the pulse rate you can at least get a vague idea of where you’re going and that’s enough to keep you from getting infected with cubism and turning into a weirdo freakazoid!"

Which was enough to grab Milly’s attention, adding her to the Confused Teenager Club alongside Lucas.

Uncomfortable under those stares… Penelope decided to go for broke. It wasn’t like she was doing anything bad, after all… just unusual. Granted, anything unusual was bad and considered ample fodder for bullying, from what little she knew about real-world social patterns of kids her age, but presumably Milly and Lucas weren’t the bullying types. Right?

"I do some… spelunking, you could say," she continued. "Urban spelunking. Exploring. …I map the city. I’m a professional mapper. I know, I know I’m a bit young for it, but I’ve got some theories about the nature of the city and the only way I can figure all this mess out is by getting hands-on, and I told my dad I wanted to do it and he was all like ‘No way, no how, that’s how I lost your mother’ but then eventually he decided he would let me do it provided he came along to keep me safe because I was probably gonna go ahead and do it anyway and he wanted to— okay, see, my point is, I use EchoMap and it’s really good and please don’t think I’m a weirdo freakazoid."

More uncomfortable silence, just like with Milly on the sidewalk. Penelope hated uncomfortable silences. They seemed to imply that she’d done something wrong. Like when Dad was upset at her, but quietly trying to find the gentlest way to explain himself…

First one to break was Lucas Flynn.

"That is… that’s…"

And then… he let out a weird little yelping cry and a fist pump.

"SO AWESOME!" he declared. "Oh, dude! DUDE. I mean… dude! That’s like something straight off a straight-to-video-movie. ‘Penelope Yates: Adventure Gal!’ Excitement! Danger! Kids kicking butt and taking names! I am SO into this idea. …you’re not screwing with me, right? You seriously explore the Sideways?"

"Seriously, yeah, I do," she insisted… pulling out her cellphone, to boot up her EchoMap app. It wasn’t as good as the one on her tablet, but she had full access to the maps she’s already made in the cloud, which would be enough to prove it. "Look, here’s some maps I made in the Spindles a few days ago…"

Determined not to let the image in his head shatter, Lucas scooted around his shooting stage table to peer over Penelope’s shoulder at the tiny screen. The zig-zagging network of hallways and rooms illuminated itself there, a translucent pile of polygons that represented SpindlesDelve9b.echomap. She spread two fingers on the screen to zoom out, to show him as much of the map as possible.

…and for a moment, paused. Because she noticed something that had eluded her, even while in the middle of making this map. It’s all very angular, yes, but… there’s something of an overall curve to the connecting passages. Arcing around and downward—

Lucas’s sharp inhale distracted her, and the thought fluttered away.

"That… that’s EchoMap Pro v23," he recognized. "You can tell from the icon bar. Penelope… that app costs three thousand bucks. The audio mod to your phone must’ve cost a fortune, too… and you say your dad bought it for your birthday?"

"He likes me to have the best stuff I can get," Penelope weakly explained. "Y’know. To keep me safe."

"This isn’t some hobby, is it? You are seriously a pro-level mapper. This is so COOL! Man, the stories you could tell…! The stories I could film…! Of course Milly would have to play you, we can’t have someone playing herself, that’d mean it was a documentary instead of a summer action blockbuster, don’t you agree, Milly?"

Who was not there.

---

No blurring, no flickering. That was the first sign, they said—your outline getting strange. She thought maybe she saw her fingers get blurry, but that was just because they were trembling. Again and again she checked them in the mirror, turning them this way and that, just to be sure, just to be safe…

Knocking on the door. Milly nearly jumped out of her skin.

"Milly…? Hey, you okay in there?"

"F-Fine, Lucas! I’m fine!" she insisted despite not being fine. She didn’t want to look uncool in front of him, though. "Be out soon! I’m fine!"

Turn out the lights. Any glowing? No. Good. Turn on the light. Anything TOO shadowed where there should be light? No. Good. Check your eyes, tug down on the eyelid, maybe they’re wiggly, that’s always how they do it in the movies, with camera tricks to show you bugging out a little. Was she bugging out? Maybe. No, couldn’t be. Just imagining things…

No cubism. Milly checked out.

But that girl was still out there. And with Lucas. Putting them all at risk.

Knock, knock. They wouldn’t leave her alone.

"Milly, um… it’s Penelope," the other voice said through the door. In case the identity wasn’t obvious.

"Out in a minute!!" Milly insisted.

"I’m not infected with cubism, Milly. I’ve been to the Sideways, yeah, but I’m okay. I play it safe. So, you’re going to be okay too. …I saw the light flickering under the door, I know the usual checks people make for cubism. Sorry."

Defeated. Milly’s shoulders sank, hands braced against the bathroom sink. She was going to look totally uncool now. No helping it.

A few moments later and she exited her self-imposed isolationist exile in the bathroom, feeling kind of stupid. The intimidatingly high design decor of the rest of the Flynn household didn’t help her feel any less small.

But for what it was worth, Lucas only looked… worried, not weirded out, not disappointed. Penelope, too. Although she was looking around to make sure the Flynns hadn’t overheard any of that.

"Look… let’s head back down to the studio, and I’ll explain," Penelope offered. "There’s a lot of confusion out there about cubism. Maybe it’ll help you feel better if you knew what I’ve figured out over the years. Picassos aren’t what people think they are…"

---

The Flynn-Frisk Funnies studio was shut down for the day. More important things than kung fu mermaids were afoot.

Lucas brought another folding chair out of storage; normally it was just him and Milly down here, but it was lecture time with their new guest, and that meant a proper sit-down for all involved. The cardboard set was nudged out of the way, so they could sit around a table to seriously discuss the issues of the day. With a big bowl of puffed cheese snacks and grape soda.

"People say to avoid cubist spaces because they can infect you. And I’ll admit, they can be dangerous," Penelope agreed, continuing an earlier point in the chat. "Like the Fletcher district from the thirties which fell apart, or a construction site which twists overnight. And yeah, cubist space is distorted and you don’t wanna stick your leg in there any more than you wanna stick it in a blender. But infection? I disagree with that. —okay. Look at it this way. Everybody knows that the way it works is you get infected, and that means you eventually turn into a Picasso yourself, right?"

"Right. I mean, duh," Lucas said. "Isn’t that obvious? It’s like zombies. One bite and you’re doomed."

"But it’s not really like zombies. There’s not a whole lot of serious research, but my theory is that there’s no virus component at all, nothing spreadable. Maybe that’s not how it works. Maybe the infection is just a… a state of mind. A meme or a suggestion."

"Like can haz cheeseburger?" he suggested.

"Not that kind of meme. —well, maybe a little. I mean like an idea—one that’s commonly accepted as true even if it’s not—which gets stuck in your head and then gets passed on to be stuck in other people’s heads," Penelope said, tapping her own forehead for emphasis. "Like, everybody KNOWS if you come into contact with someone who’s going cubist or a cubist space, you’ll eventually go cubist. That’s just what happens. It makes sense."

Milly, who was taking this remarkably well despite her ongoing worry, seemed puzzled. "So… that’s just what happens, then? But you said…"

"Right, right, that’s what people know happens. So when it happens, you expect it to happen! And… it happens. Mind over matter. …y’know how they say sometimes people just wig out and turn into Picassos when they go insane, even without touching a Picasso in the first place?"

"Like in Psycho Asylum III," Lucas recognized. "Great flick. Lousy effects on the Picassos, though. They just used a kaleidoscope over the lens, but hey, it was when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Like, the seventies."

"Right, but it’s not a matter of insanity. It’s more like… a state of mind, tied to an infectious idea. Whether you touched a Picasso or not, your own cubism starts to show up when you lose hope. When you give in to fear and worry and everything becomes too much to bear and your life’s falling apart and— um. So, it all fits together. Someone thinks they’re infected, they terrified about being doomed, they start to FEEL doomed, and soon enough…"

"They end up doomed," Milly supplied. Quietly.

"I’m not saying it’s completely impossible to become a Picasso against your will, or that you should go tango with one because you’re super awesome and not afraid of anything. There’s still a whole lot about them we don’t know. But this is how I see it, you know? It’s easy to feel that fear, lost in the Sideways, and once you’re lost in more ways than one… cubism. …look, TL;DR, I’m not infected and it’s actually harder to be ‘infected’ than you’d think. So you guys are safe to be around me. My dad and I play it real safe. And I’m full of hope for the city. For everyone."

One last bomb to drop, Penelope decided.

"One time a Picasso had us cornered, and we survived because we made friends with it," she spoke.

That had a nicely dramatic impact. Alarm at first, then disbelief, then confusion.

"She was a girl scout, selling cookies door to door in the Sideways," Penelope continued. "Picassos do that. They become… unstuck in their memories. No stable frame of mind, totally lost. She didn’t know what she was doing, she just saw strangers and tried to sell us cookies, not understanding that she was a danger to us. Infectious or not, you don’t wanna touch something that heavily cubist or your arm could come off, you know?"

"S-So how’d you escape?" Milly asked, trying not to sound like she was scared.

"We bought some cookies."

They waited for the rest of it.

"That’s it," Penelope supplied. "We bought cookies from her. That’s all she wanted, really. She was scared and alone, maybe for years and years, but she still remembered the joy of selling cookies. We gave her a moment’s peace by helping her out, and she left us alone afterwards. Even said ‘thank you.’ So… I know this is crazy to say, I know the Department of Safety disagrees, but… I think Picassos can be reasoned with. Maybe even saved. Cured, if we could one day figure out how to straighten them out."

With the entire contents of her personal brain file on the subject emptied, Penelope finished off the rest of her grape soda. Her throat was dry, after that little presentation.

Lucas had soaked it all up like a sponge, nodding along, showing the same level of curiosity through the entire speech. The real question was Milly, who had gone into this borderline terrified. Hopefully she found some comfort in Penelope’s words…

Milly still looked uncomfortable. But it was a baseline uncomfortable, the sort she seemed to carry around with her at all times. It’d have to do.

"I just hope I never run into a Picasso," Milly decided. "Then I won’t have to worry, one way or another. I guess it’s not really a problem out here, anyway… there’s not many entrances to the Sideways in the suburbs, right? It’s the city that’s a deathtrap!"

"Uh… I wouldn’t say the city’s THAT bad…"

"There’s nothing weird around here other than the phantom toy store, so I guess we don’t have to worry," Milly said, with a smile.

Now, it was Penelope’s turn to drop the jaw.

"Wait a moment I’m sorry the what now?" she blurted.

With the door opened, the cows got out of the barn and the cat came out of the bag and the milk was spilled so no point crying over it. But Milly did hesitate long enough that Lucas decided to step in to take the pressure off her.

"It’s a local legend. Just a legend," he emphasized. "It’s stupid, really. If you stand in one place and do a ritual chant, turn around two and a half times, walk backwards ten paces, and turn around… you’ll find a haunted toy store which wasn’t there a moment ago. It’s garbage, of course. Just like the rumors that some kid from Sunnybrook River went cubist and turned into a giant human pinball machine. The burbs are loaded with stories like that—"

"s’real."

"Eh?" Lucas said, glancing to Milly.

Who was looking at her feet. Well, at her feet through the solid surface of the table.

"It’s real," she mumbled. "The phantom toy store. It’s real."

"What? C’mon. That’s silly. Don’t tell me you believe in the Easter Bunny, too…"

"I’ve seen it."

The storytime spotlight shifted in an instant. But unlike Penelope, who welcomed the opportunity to give an impromptu TED Talk, Milly shifted in her seat like she had to go pee.

"It… I mean… it’s on the way home from my school," she told. "Lucas has an online tutor but my folks can’t afford that, so I go to Clinton. Home of the fighting Beavers. Um. Anyway… I pass by the spot where they say the phantom toy store is each day, and one day I… I wasn’t going to go in! I didn’t go in. But I had to know if it was true, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to peek, so… I did the ritual and there it was! —and then I ran away."

"You… you never told me about this before," Lucas realized.

"I was too scared to tell anyone! What if my mother found out?" she said. "It’s gotta be the Sideways, right? You don’t get there through a doorway or anything but it’s just like they say the Sideways are, a weird part of the city with weird places and weird things! I was terrified I’d been infected with cubism so I didn’t tell anyone and I checked myself for flickers three times a day for a month! …I was okay, thank God, but…"

But now, Penelope’s itch was starting to itch.

Sideways. In the Suburbs. Without a standard obfuscated doorway…

Something like this could go a long way to proving a few theories. Like when she found a connecting path from the city core right to the Outlands, through the Sideways. Or how the Defined Tower was so impossibly huge and out in the open, yet the whole structure counted as the Sideways. How the Sideways were quite frequently NOT the maze of twisty little hallways everybody assumed they were, but something else entirely, like a bruised and tender spot in the city’s flesh…

Except Penelope was on vacation, wasn’t she? Dad insisted. No exploring. No mapping. Maybe forever.

For lack of a better metaphor, this was like a candy bar you’d just bought from a vendor machine that was hanging on the end of its hook, refusing to drop, tantalizingly out of reach. You could bang on the machine to get it down, and risk the machine falling on you, or just walk way. And Penelope was not the sort to walk away.

It’d serve dad right for grounding her without officially grounding her. And what harm could it do to take a look…?

"I’d like to visit the phantom toy store," she declared. "Maybe go in. Maybe map it out."

Both suburban kids reacted as if Penelope had suggested they go running with scissors and petting strange dogs no matter where they’ve been.

"Are you high or something? The place could be wall to wall with Picassos," Lucas imagined. "I mean, think about this for a second. Haunted toy store. Haunted. Toy. Store. You go in there I guarantee you’ll get your soul eaten by a creepy doll or something."

"I don’t believe in ghosts. And I can deal with Picassos," Penelope declared, trying to look as firm and resolute as her father usually looked. "I’m a professional. This is what I do. It’s my job."

"It’s the weekend! People don’t work jobs on the weekend."

"All the better. We could head out after lunch tomorrow, poke around a bit, and be back by dinner. Kids go out and play on Saturdays, right? Nobody would know we were doing anything funny. It’s perfect!"

"’We’? wait, What we is this of which you speak?"

"Well… I don’t know where the place is, so I’d need at least one of you to show me how to get there and how to get in, right?" Penelope said. "And… I dunno, if you want to come along, that’s fine too. I guess I could go in alone if I have to. …I can do that. I don’t NEED to have someone come with me. I’m not afraid. Honest."

Not as convincing as she wanted it to be. If someone was going to make Penelope Yates: Adventure Gal into a live action TV movie, they’d definitely need a better actress than her.

But… maybe that was the tipping point. Showing that she wasn’t some invincible badass explorer. Because from Lucas’s expression, he was starting to consider it from a safety-in-numbers perspective.

"It… would be nice to scoop up a few new finds for the studio," he considered aloud. "The store’s supposedly been there since the eighties. That means lots of old toys. If I could get some rare find, like a Cabbage Patch Kid or a die-cast complete Voltron lion’s set— OH! Oh! And I can film the whole thing! My first documentary! Just like Super Size Me, or Crossway Points of Light, or the Blair Witch Project! Oh God wait no not that last one. Um. I… guess I could go with you. —we’ll leave at the first sign of trouble, right?"

"Definitely," Penelope agreed. "I just want to get a map. I can do that with EchoMap nice and quick. Sooo…"

That left one.

Who had returned to her earlier levels of terror.

"You don’t have to go," Penelope immediately offered. "It’s okay, Milly. I just need one of you to come to help me find the place, that’s all. There’s no reason you have to—"

"I’mcoming," Milly interrupted. Saying it all as one word, so she could blurt it out before being able to stop blurting it out.

"Uh… but you don’t really have—"

"If Lucas is going I’m going too and I’m going," she continued. "And you said you’re good at this and you play it safe, so… we’ll be safe. He’ll be safe. Everything will be fine. Besides, I’m the only one who’s actually been there, you might need my help. I’m coming."

"…right. Well. Think it over, at least," Penelope suggested. "It’s getting late and I need to get home for dinner, so… just… I’ll be here tomorrow after twelve. If you want to tag along, be here then. If you don’t, it’s okay. And yeah… we’ll play it safe. You’ve got my word on that."

---

The autumn sun, setting nice and quick compared to the lazy days of summer. This was perfect weather for riding your bike home from the sandlot and/or shopping mall and/or nonexistent video arcade, Penelope reasoned. Perhaps she should look into getting a bike, if only so she could make an attempt at enjoying her forced exile from the city… plus, it’d be a fun thing to harass dad about. She wasn’t usually vindictive, but watching him dance for her enjoyment would suit her mood today…

Except her dad wasn’t at Aunt Karla’s house when Penelope got there.

Karla was alone, sitting in a cushy-looking reclining chair. Munching a slice of pizza from a freshly opened box with one hand, holding a beer with the other. She was even watching some kind of bikini contest on cable television. If not for being a late middle-aged woman and the bikini contest consisting of well-built dudes in banana hammocks, she’d be picture perfect for a suburban dad.

"Hey, kiddo," Karla greeted. "Husband’s whacked out on pain pills and sleeping upstairs and I didn’t feel like cooking today. Come on in and grab a slice. Hm. Your dad doesn’t let you drink beer, right?"

"Uh, no," Penelope said—not that she’d lie, given she tried beer once and thought it tasted like what cat urine would probably taste like if she tried tasting that.

"I’ve got strawberry milk in the fridge, then," Aunt Karla offered. And then, in another token gesture to age-appropriate entertainment, changed the channel to some safe sitcom with a laugh track.

Pizza was tempting. All she’d had since they grabbed lunch on the run at the train station was those cheese puffs at the Flynn-Frisk Funnies basement studio. But more pressing matters came first.

"Where’s Dad?" she asked.

"…ah. Now, we come to the conundrum," Karla said, after bracing herself with a long pull on her beer can. "Because I’m sure he doesn’t want me telling you where he is, but he didn’t supply me with a suitable lie, and I’ve always been crap at lying. So rather than insult your intelligence, where do you think he’d want me to say he was?"

Ahhh. THIS familiar dance.

Penelope had a seat on the sofa next to Karla, fetching herself some pizza along the way.

"He’s at the hardware store, then," she supplied. "Or at city hall, looking at blueprints. Or, in one of his less inspired stories, he’s ‘seeing a guy who knows a guy,’ whatever that means. Obvious lies, right?"

"Does this a lot, then?"

"Not a lot, but… whenever he’s doing something sketchy, yeah," Penelope explained. "It’s part of our business to have contacts that run a bit underground. Folks who steal blueprints or trade tips about entrances to the Sideways. Dad likes to be a role model and to keep me out of things like that, so… I sit with the neighbors or something while he ‘goes to the hardware store.’"

At this, Karla let out a semi-drunken giggle. "He’s so clumsy at subterfuge. It’s one of the things Lizzie liked about him. He couldn’t sneak around and cheat on her. Not that he would, but…"

"You knew my mother, right…? I mean, you were all part of the same gang…"

"Club. Well. Okay, gang," Karla agreed. "And I’ve got stories about your dad that’d stiffen your pigtails, love. But… bad enough that I’m not covering for his escapade today. I’m not going to dig myself deeper with tales from the glory days."

With that avenue closed off, Penelope focused on her pizza. Too spicy for her tastes, she preferred extra cheese, but pizza was always a welcome gift.

And she began to analyze.

Dad was off doing something shady, and cut her out of the loop as usual. But what could he be doing in the suburbs that was shady? He didn’t know anybody out here, aside from a few retired friends. None of them were very shady anymore. From what Penelope knew, the "club" eventually just grew up, tired of having to keep one step ahead of the law and the other gangs. So, nobody out here worth a dodgy story…

Turn it around. He wasn’t looking for a skeevy contact out here. He was leaving her out here with one of his most trusted allies because the contact, wherever he was, was TOTALLY skeevy. Like, dangerously so.

And instantly, her anger got as spicy as the pizza.

Two could play that game, after all. He wanted to throw himself in danger without even telling her what was going on? Fine. She had a phantom toy store to explore tomorrow. That’d show him.

---

Despite eating her Angry Pizza, Penelope actually had a reasonably fun evening. Aunt Karla, belying her matronly looks, was a real firecracker. Especially when drunk, Penelope guessed. For instance, she swore more, and was willing to teach a thirteen-year-old how to cheat at Texas Hold-‘Em poker. (Penelope had never been to Texas and didn’t know if it was the official game of that nation or whatever, and Karla didn’t know either. Fun game, even so.)

After that, she retired to the guest room to chillax in bed and catch up on email and funny cat pictures on her smart tablet.

And another email from Dave.

Dave Smith was Penelope’s pet project. If she could help guide this anxious newbie safely into the world of the City of Angles, she could help anybody.

It hadn’t been easy. Not one day into his orientation and he’d come face to face with the Echo Revelation—followed by an unfortunate suicide. He’d reached out to her, as low and broken as she’d ever heard him, desperate for something to hang onto… and somehow, Penelope had provided it. It just seemed like a good idea to her at the time, she didn’t think it was that life-changing of a suggestion…

Training’s going well in the FARTs. (I’m supposed to say the "Response Teams" because the full name’s been a three-decade running joke at this point.) They won’t let me go in on any new building arrival calls, but I’m studying everything they throw at me, and I get to work with the exterior teams. Sometime soon maybe I’ll be in a position to help people like me.

My supervisor, our team’s Department of Safety representative, is impressed I am not half-assing it (which apparently is the thing you do around here.) He’s even encouraging me to keep working on that corporate logo I was doing for Lucid Technologies. He thinks it’d look good on our monthly newsletter masthead or something.

Enclosed is my latest draft. I don’t have any more suggestions from Lucid for changes so at this point I’m just winging it with whatever feels right. It’s a good way to pass the time when I’m bored.

Hope things are going okay for you and you were not eaten by a Picasso.

Dave.

…followed by a weird looking spiraling squiggle shape, done in a cheap paint program.

It didn’t look like much on her tablet’s glowing screen, in the dark of the guest room. If it was cast in bronze and had a nice font under it, maybe it’d work in a corporate lobby. For now at best you could stick it on a T-shirt and look indie, or something. Too weird, way too weird. Maybe that was just an early draft?

Although there was something oddly compelling about the shape, the way the lines curved. Very angular, but arcing around… around, and downward…

Downward, sinking down, spiraling down. Layer by layer. Daylight to darkness, open fields to closed doorways.

Standing alone at the door she’d stood at before, because she was already on the other side. Heart beating fast. The brass knob beckons…

Alone except for her perfect shadow, right behind her and getting closer—

Beepity beep, beepity beep, beepity beepity beep.

Tablet in her lap, screen dark. Must’ve fallen asleep. The beeping was coming from her smartphone, which was essentially just a smaller version of her tablet with little phone bits baked inside.

Ringtone was a generic. She had personalized tones for her father and for Dave. Who could be calling?

Briefly she noted the time, 2:00 AM, before answering.

"urmhello?" she offered, struggling to pull completely out of her dream.

"Shh! It’s me. It’s Milly," a whisper trickled through the digital connection. "Milly Frisk."

Oh, right—she’d left her phone number, in case they needed to coordinate tomorrow. And it was… technically tomorrow, but…

"Milly, it’s two in the morning," Penelope felt the need to point out. "What’s up? Something wrong?"

"I’m packing for the trip and I’m not sure what to bring," Milly explained. "What level of sun block do I need? How bright is it in the Sideways? Also, should I take an antibiotic or a probiotic or both? Do you need me to bring an antivenom supply kit for any snakes we run into? Will I need deep-woods insect repellant or will the normal type be good enough?"

Every query blurred together in Penelope’s sleep-fuzzy brain, so she decided to generalize.

"Just bring a flashlight and your phone," she suggested. "That’s all. I—"

"Flashlight!? It’s going to be dark? Oh no, the horror movies were right, it’s gonna be a giant dark maze of horrible things jumping out of the shadows!"

"No, it—okay, it’s sometimes dark, because not all of the Sideways is connected to the power grid, but—look, my point is, I’ll handle any survival supplies we need," she summarized. "Just wear a comfortable and sturdy pair of shoes and bring a flashlight and that’s it. Make sure you eat lunch before you go. Okay? …y’know, Milly, you don’t have to come along. I said that already, right? It’s late, I don’t remember…"

"If… if Lucas is going with you, I want to go too," Milly said. "Y’know. To keep an eye on him. To keep him safe. Safety in numbers."

"Actually, statistics show that two people are safer than three in a crisis situation, which is the basis for the term ‘buddy system,’ and—ugh. Babbling. Tired. Are you totally sure you want to come along?"

"Sure. Totally sure," Milly affirmed.

"Right. So, that means you need sleep, and so do I. G’night, Milly."

"You’re not… interested in him, right?"

Penelope rubbed sleep stuff from her eye, not quite catching on. "Whhrr?"

"You know. Interested. In Lucas."

"I… no? No," Penelope responded. "No, I’m not. Why—"

"Okay thanks see you tomorrow!"

Click. Well, no, phones didn’t click anymore like they did in old TV shows. But Penelope could practically feel the click from how hard Milly must’ve stabbed that red spot on her phone’s touchpad.

Leaving a very puzzled Penelope, sinking back into her pillow with phone still in hand.

So. Milly and Lucas. Lucas and Milly. …possibly just Milly and Lucas rather than the other way around. Boys don’t mature as fast as girls, after all. It is known.

That’s the sort of thing ordinary suburban girls do, right? Have crushes on boys and take them out on dates. And go around the "bases," as they are termed. It wasn’t like Penelope was a kid anymore, despite her father’s opinion to the contrary. She knew darn well where babies came from. She knew about the bases. Even if the actual definitions of those bases tended to be a bit fluid.

Penelope hadn’t even batted off a foul ball yet, of course. Hadn’t even considered stepping up to the net to score a two-point conversion, or whatever you did in that sport she’d never actually seen. Who had time for boys when you were busy deep-diving into the darkest shadows of the City of Angles? Not that she even KNEW any boys her age, other than Lucas. Besides, no boy would want anything to do with a crazy scary girl like her who actively enjoys poking Picassos with sticks.

Well, okay, Lucas seemed to think it was kinda awesome. And he was kinda cute in a gingery sort of way, which did match Penelope’s ginger-ness, but—

No. NOT the sort of thing to get stuck in your head when you’re about to go exploring the Sideways without a parental permission slip and with two complete newbies in tow.

She set the phone down on her nightstand, pulled the sheets over her head, and tried to get at least thirty of her forty winks back.

On the plus side, now she had ordinary silly and random dreams with Lucas in them. Which was an improvement over the door and the shadow.

---

To her credit, Penelope got through breakfast and a lazy Saturday morning without thinking about Lucas. She was mentally preparing herself for a Sideways dive.

Mentally and physically preparing. She’d packed her backpack in secret, stashing the usual supplies for urban spelunking. Flashlights. Night vision goggles. Length of rope, book of matches, climbing hooks, staple adventuring tools. Backup batteries for her phone and tablet. Water thermoses, filled in secret in the upstairs bathroom. Trail mix and other nonperishable foods, leftovers from their last outing…

Not that she was expecting to be out long enough to need an emergency food supply. But once upon a time, her mom and dad weren’t expecting to be out too long, and they got lost for a full year. Gregory made sure to drill into Penelope the importance of being ready for a longer stay than you could possibly imagine.

Which led her to having second thoughts. Not about the dive—that was a matter of principle, an indirect contest of wills with a father who dumped her off at her fake aunt’s house and then got himself into who-only-knows-what kind of trouble. But bringing Milly and Lucas along, two unproven neophytes… that was dangerous.

She tried to discourage them again, when they met up after lunch. But they’d made their own preparations, and were ready to roll. To varying degrees of appropriate rolling.

Lucas was a one-man film crew. He’d brought a backpack full of detachable lenses and batteries and multiple backup cameras. A head-mounted video harness, for critical POV shots. An expensive-looking digital camera on a leather neck strap rig. Portable lighting worked into his vest. He’d clearly raided his supply of expensive imaging gear and brought most of it with him. On the plus side, he brought enough light for five people, so flashlights weren’t going to be needed.

Milly looked like she was ready to storm Mount Everest. She’d dressed warmly and in layers, puffed up like a marshmallow—and with latex gloves on underneath heavy winter handgear. Thick soled boots suitable for trundling through toxic waste spills. Two layers of paper filter masks over her mouth. And not one, but TWO flashlights; one near-permanently attached by a wrist strap normally associated with motion-based video game controllers, one velcroed to her vest.

It was a miracle their parents hadn’t noticed this crazy amount of equipment being smuggled out of the house. Apparently Milly had bundled her gear up in a plastic bag and lowered it out her window at two in the morning, then waited until nobody was looking to sneak out. Lucas just told his mom he was going to go film a documentary and that was enough for them.

That left three junior adventurers standing on the doorstep of adventure, ready to have an adventure. Even if all three had some reluctance to get started.

The doorstep of adventure consisted of a space between a gas station and a store that exclusively sold watch batteries, in the commercial center just outside the neighborhood. Convenient for shopping and exploring.

"Right. So. How does this work?" Penelope said, deciding it was up to her to take the first step.

"Well… legend has it that those who undergo the ritual are granted passage to the phantom toy store, haunted by the doomed spirit of—"

"Just the nuts and bolts, please," she insisted. "This is a scientific endeavor."

"Oh. Well, you stand on that crack in the sidewalk, turn around two and a half times and recite the… actually, I don’t know if the poem’s really needed, if you’re approaching this practically," Lucas decided. "Might be worth trying without it, right?"

"Right. That’s thinking like a mapper," Penelope said, with a smile of praise. …which earned her a funny look from the girl in the breathing mask(s), so she continued quickly. "Turning around two and a half times really just means you’re turning to face away from it, right? So I’ll try that. Then I just walk backwards, right…?"

She positioned herself on the sidewalk crack, facing the space between the two buildings… then turned, slowly. Took a deep breath. And stepped back.

The Sideways usually was an unseen door, an entrance you couldn’t spot if you were looking directly at it. An entrance in a wall, that is. An entrance in open air was unheard of, and if it DID exist, it’d be an amazing find. It’d prove that the Sideways aren’t a completely contained and indoor phenomenon, that things like the Defined Tower could exist, that anything was possible in the City of Angles…

The air staled. As in, "turned stale," a common indicator of the Sideways. They existed in a low entropy state, locking things in slow or stopped time, and the air was not always pleasant as a result. So even though the sun was shining and the cars going by on the road… Penelope had entered the Sideways.

Two other things confirmed it:

One, her friends staring in horror and disbelief, likely because Penelope vanished before their very eyes.

Two, there was a gigantic toy store behind her.

She’d turned around to look at it. It sat comfortably between the gas station and the battery store, as if nothing was out of the ordinary here. You couldn’t look at it and the entire length of road at the same time, of course—no way to verify space was warped here. And if she tried hard enough she might get a headache trying to verify how things twisted themselves around, so, better not to try.

Somehow, she was expecting a creaky old Victorian-era toy store, like you’d see in some creepy horror movie. Probably full of soulless dolls ready to eat your living essence or something.

But no, this was a retail chain outlet, one which had a presence in the city even to this date. It declared, loud and proud, that they were toys and toys were us. If you were a kid of the same persuasion, as their commercials declared, you would be welcome. The architecture and design screamed mid-80s to her, based on her experience with entropy-locked structures to date, but definitely a mundane chain store. Not terrifying at all. Colorful and charming, really.

(Of course, clowns were colorful and charming too, and everybody knew THEY were terrifying.)

She took a step back onto the sidewalk. The relieved inhales told her she’d become visible again.

"Come on in," she encouraged. "The water’s fine."

Moments later, three children disappeared from a sidewalk in the middle of a busy commercial street, and were never seen there again.

---

The legendary phantom toy store lived up to its legend about halfway. Better than completely living up to the ideal of a terrifyingly strange toy store full of weird things that thirst for human blood, but not far enough into the realm of absolute normality to be comfortable by any stretch.

It followed a very retro design for toy stores of its type. The entrance area had railings to keep incoming prospective buyers on one path and outgoing paid buyers on another path. Those who had yet to empty their wallets on the altar of commerce were run through a long hallway, doubling back on itself in a boxy S-like shape… a gauntlet of cheap and seasonally appropriate toys, so your kids will go OOO MOMMY I WANT THIS long before you ever reach the actual toy you came for.

All very normal—but the spooky aspect came from two out of three overhead lights being shut down, to conserve power. The store must’ve been copied over into the Sideways during an off hour rather than peak business. Also, it was copied in an October, as evidenced by the S-Gauntlet being loaded down in glow in the dark spiders and snakes and witches and ghosts and things staring at them with eyes and eyes and eyes and…

"This is gonna make a killer establishing shot," Lucas commented, getting a nice slow pan over the rows of terrifying plastic goods.

"D-Do you need to use the word ‘killer’?" Milly asked. "I mean, do you really need to?"

"It’s just Halloween junk. It’s not like it’s actually satanic toys forged in a factory staffed by six hundred and sixty-six demons dedicated to making murderous action figures that run on AA batteries charged with the blood of orphans—"

"Do you have to use ANY of those words?!"

"Right. Sorry," he said. "I’m just trying to think up a cool backstory for the movie. I’m kinda disappointed; this is just an ordinary store. Nothing weird about it at all. Right? Right, Penelope?"

Penelope spared a glance down at her smartphone, which she’d tethered to the tablet in her backpack. EchoMap had been tracking their progress so far, as well as scanning the space ahead for any anomalies like bent space or intermixed buildings…

"It’s actually really ordinary," she concluded. "No cubist distortions or conjoined structures. It’s just aisles and aisles of toys. That’s all. I’m seeing some side doors, probably to bathrooms and break rooms and warehouses, but the main toy store’s completely normal. I’d need to get in deeper to be sure, but I’m also not picking up anything moving other than us. Nothing as large as a person would be, anyway. So, no Picassos either."

"Does that mean we’re done here?" Milly asked.

"Since it looks safe, I’d like to map out the main store area completely," Penelope said. "Maybe look in some of the side passages. It’s rare for the Sideways not to be cross-connected to other paths; at least one of those doors has to go to somewhere else. …Uh, we don’t have to fully explore those paths, but getting some echo maps at the entranceways would give me something I could work on in the days ahead with other dives, maybe…"

No sense pushing her new team into a deep dive on day one, Penelope reasoned. If she was looking for new partners, since her Dad was playing silly buggers, keeping them from being scared off immediately would be wise. Plus, experience had to be built up gradually.

Once through the tediously long back-and-forth-and-back snake aisle of cheap toys, it was into the store area proper, near the cash registers. Signs declared the sales of the season, which Lucas poured over extensively, marveling at all the 1980s toys that were being declared as hot new releases. Milly eyed a candy bar on an impulse buy rack, unsure if it was safe to just take and eat it; she hadn’t eaten much lunch due to a nervous stomach…

Penelope, meanwhile, studied a map of the fire exits that had been posted nearby. She snapped a quick photo of it, just in case. It was the sort of thing a customer would completely ignore, since they were too busy shopping to worry about not burning to death in the event of an emergency—surely the store staff would take care of that for you. (Either showing you to the exit or burning to death by proxy so you could be safe.)

Speaking of the store staff, the retail chain had apparently been pushing employees with recognition programs recently. There was an "Employee of the Month" photo wall without a complete year’s worth of pictures. The first few months consisted of various bored-looking employees in matching white shirts and nametags… but the last four months were all of the same person. The only one that was smiling.

An older gentleman, probably taking up a job well past retirement years, given he clearly still thought bow ties were in fashion. The bright red of it stood out against his crisp white company shirt. Matching white smile. Happy to be here, compared to the other wage drones.

He was probably long dead by now; this store was from the eighties, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and they still had steam locomotives. Hopefully he could rest well, knowing he left a tidy store behind, forever locked in time…

Back to the task at hand.

"We’ll scout the outermost aisles, checking for doorways," Penelope explained. "Especially ones that don’t appear on this fire exit map I copied. And if you see any toys you want and can easily carry or fit in your pack, well… this is all legal salvage, so it’s not technically theft. Not until we report the place to the Department of Resources and they claim everything for themselves."

---

The rest of the toy store also proved to be depressingly normal. Poorly lit and creepy, since normally a toy store is bursting with kids and parents and retail workers, but… any toy store at 2 A.M. would have the same effect. A toy store in the Sideways should be creepy for other reasons.

Aisle after aisle of unpurchased toys beckoned to them. Lucas could identify most of the critical brands of the era, having memorized all the manufacturers and their toy lines—he knew which ones had 30-minute tie-in commercials on Saturday mornings, which ones set off sales crazes, which ones were innovative but fell under the radar. His constant chatter of analysis kept the girls company, as both were rather quiet.

Penelope had never really collected toys before. Hadn’t considered collecting them. She had an old teddy bear, a memento of some sort from her early childhood, but that was it. Living on the run meant you couldn’t own anything that wouldn’t fit in your backpack, and living in the digital age meant most of her actual toys were apps on a tablet. She greatly enjoyed matching three gems and making them explode, or raising virtual puppies and giraffes and things. But toys? Physical, hold-in-your-hand toys? They never made sense in combination with her life.

A lot of things kids had when they were growing up—or things teenagers valued in her current phase of life, for that matter—were completely alien to her. She couldn’t interject in Lucas’s tirade of toys because she had nothing to add. She had very little in common with these ordinary suburban teenagers, in the end. Which was a shame, because she kinda wanted to talk with Lucas today for some reason, and just couldn’t figure out what to talk about…

Having Milly around made the situation even weirder. Because while Lucas was studying the shelves, Milly was studying Penelope. Making her a bit antsy. As if mapping the Sideways wasn’t bad enough.

"You’re seriously saying I can take any toy I want?" Lucas asked. "Like, anything? I thought the Department of Resources claimed everything dug out of the Sideways…"

Finally, something Penelope could talk about. She was the city’s most knowledgeable thirteen-year-old when it came to salvage law.

"The Department has to stake their claim before it becomes city property. They haven’t staked this yet," she explained. "Lots of mappers and salvage gangs trade tips about unclaimed property in deep Sideways, valuable stuff the government hasn’t found yet. There’s a big trade for black market maps. But Dad and I always sell our maps to the Department, like you’re supposed to do. It keeps the Departments from bothering us. …usually."

"Where’s your dad, anyway? Don’t you normally do this with him?"

"Yeah. Normally. —anyway, yes, it’s all legal salvage. Take any toy you can carry. But rule is you don’t take more than you can carry in a hurry, because… y’know. Might need to hurry."

Legal salvage also meant Milly could in fact swipe that candy bar from the front of the store without running afoul of Johnny Law. But all assumed knowledge said she dare not eat it. Instead she toyed with it in her gloved hands, unsure, while Lucas filmed and Penelope scanned and the trio walked slowly down aisle after aisle.

When asked why she wasn’t chowing down, Milly finally explained.

"I don’t want to catch any weird Sideways Germs," Milly said. "This store’s been here since the eighties! How could a candy bar really be safe to eat after all that time?"

"Low entropy. It’s how the Sideways work, for some reason. Hmm. How about some trail mix?" Penelope offered. "I brought some extra in my pack…"

"That’s too much roughage! I’m trying to control my diet. I had a bad run of the runs two months ago, and the flu two weeks before that. Threw up everything, all the time. It was awful. I’m trying to be careful."

"And… a candy bar is being careful?"

"Well, it’s… I mean, keeping your blood sugar up is good, right?" Milly reasoned. "But I don’t want to get sick again. I’ve gone two months without being sick and that’s rare for me. Gotta keep it going—"

"OHMYGODOHMYGOD!"

Milly nearly jumped out of her skin. Fortunately, she had three layers of clothes on over it, which kept her from escaping the epidermis.

With a terrifyingly swift motion, strobing in front of the various lights he had attached to his person… Lucas snatched a blister pack off a pegged wall, holding it forth like a divine relic. Row after row of plastic army tanks rattled on a shelf just above, from the force of the pull.

"It’s Duke," he explained, pointing to the tiny blonde army man inside. "Duke! Original leader of the GI*JOEs. 1984 carded figure version, third series! Y’know, they were gonna kill him off in the movie, but when kids freaked out over Optimus Prime biting it Hasbro kludged in his survival. But the third series figure was discontinued in favor of a new wave of characters! And this one’s even got a manufacturing misprint! Do you have any idea how rare this is?!"

The human camera rig swayed a little, when Milly gave him a light shove.

"You scared me!" she complained. "I thought you saw a Picasso or something!"

"Uh… sorry. I just got really excited," Lucas admitted. "I mean… come on, Milly, isn’t this so awesome? It’s a relic from out of time! It’s a free toy store shopping spree! We’re on an adventure! Why are you so worried about things like germs and candy bars? We should be having fun with this!"

"The Sideways aren’t ‘fun’! They’re dangerous and it’s stupid to go into them and I can’t believe you wanted to go in the first place!"

"Well, you didn’t have to come along! I didn’t want you to come along at all."

"And why’s that, huh?" Milly asked, sounding as angry as someone with mild manners could manage. "You wanted go off somewhere alone with Penelope? Is that it?"

(Rather than interject herself in this sudden flare-up, Penelope pretended to be very, very busy studying her echo map. It seemed the safest play.)

"…what? Where’d that come from?" he asked, puzzled. "I didn’t want you to come because I know you hate scary stuff like this. And… I don’t want you getting hurt just because I like scary stuff. That’s all. What’s Penelope got to do with anything?"

"Because… because…!" Milly started, trying to find the best way to word it…

Before stopping. Completely. Freezing solid.

"What?" Lucas asked, confused.

"T-tank," Milly mumbled. Eyes locked at a spot just over Lucas’s shoulder.

Now, Penelope dared to look up from her map, to see what the fuss was about.

Row after row of white plastic army tanks, with realistic rubber treads and working turrets with springloaded rockets. All pointed forward, in parade procession positioning.

One turret pointed outward. Leveled at them, like an eyestalk, peering curiously. It slid up and down along its joint of articulation.

Carefully but swiftly, Penelope reached out to grasp Lucas’s filming harness, and tug him away from the shelf. To turn him to see it, so she wouldn’t have to explain and thus make noise and draw even more attention.

The tank had two turrets, now. Then the rockets were made of die-cast metal. Then they were back to being red plastic.

And then the tank rolled off the shelf, treads crawling, as it vertically descended to the floor despite having no battery powered motor of any sort.

The three stepped away, giving the toy a wide berth. It was ignoring them, now… it rolled along the linoleum with purpose, down the aisle and away. The floor warped in its path, bubbling and squirming, black and white tiles mixing together like oil paint… before snapping back to normal, after the tank passed.

Around the aisle’s corner, out of sight, out of mind.

"W… was that a Picasso?" Lucas asked. Very quietly. "A Picasso’d toy tank?"

"I think it was," Penelope agreed.

"But Picassos are always people, right? I mean, people are big. They aren’t little. It can’t be a Picasso…"

"There’s a lot about Picassos we don’t understand. …and it’s high time we found out more," she decided. "This could be important. I’m going after that tank."

"What? But we gotta get out of here!" Lucas reminded her—flip-flopping from the voice of adventure to the voice of reason, after that sobering encounter. "You said at the first sign of trouble, we bail. That’s the plan!"

"If I stay out of the thing’s way, I should be fine," Penelope reasoned. "Picassos aren’t always hostile. Sometimes they can’t see you at all. —Lucas, Milly, go back to the front of the store. If you see anything strange, just run for it. I can get myself out of here."

Lucas held up one of his many recording devices. "If you’re documenting new facts about Picassos, you need a documentarian. That’s me. I’ve gotta tag along. Milly, you should go back to—"

"I’m going too!" Milly insisted. "I’m an Adventure Gal. I can be just as Adventurous of a Gal. You’ll see!"

"But Milly—"

"Okay, look, whoever’s coming, come. But come quietly," Penelope insisted.

Ignoring for a moment the little voice in her head screaming not to drag these two into her big mistake.

---

Seeing stop motion in the middle of real life can hurt the eyes. Especially when the toy changed shape every third or fifth frame. A stuttering little thing, walking or rolling or flying along case depending, occasionally growing new bullet point features on the fly or changing into a different toy entirely. If Flynn-Frisk Funnies had early demo reels where they were just starting to get the hang of things, Penelope reasoned those experiments would look a lot like this.

Because it wasn’t just a Picasso’d tank. There was a robot dog, barking (and sometimes quacking) as it waddled around. Two remote controlled cars that occasionally tangled up with each other to become one larger car, before splitting up again. White plastic with red racing stripes, with the stripes flickering like flames along a chassis injection-molded in China. A toy helicopter, dangerously buzzing around, sometimes bouncing off shelves and spinning about a bit before snapping back onto its trajectory with a jump cut…

This wasn’t just a toy store. It was a haven for lost toys. Creepy lost toys. In fact, Penelope wouldn’t be surprised if there was in fact a terrifying soulless baby doll that wanted to eat them somewhere in that mix.

But… the toys were ignoring them, just as she’d hoped. They were moving with great determination towards the back of the store. And three teenagers followed them, crouching low and scooting along, like junior detectives embarking on a poorly animated mystery with the Harlem Globetrotters in tow.

Milly and Lucas had taken Penelope’s request for quiet very, very seriously. In fact, Penelope wasn’t sure if Milly was breathing at all, but she was muffled behind a pair of paper filter masks.

Carefully, Penelope raised her phone, to use the augmented internal microphone to take another EchoMap pulse snapshot. It was risky, firing it off so close to a Picasso… or a horde of tiny Picassos, for that matter. Although the frequencies used by the software were beyond human hearing, the Yates family had found out the hard way that some Picassos find the noise quite vexing…

The pulse, thankfully, didn’t alert the toys. And it gave Penelope an idea of what was going on.

They were converging on a door in the back—a door which didn’t exist on her fire exit map photo. So, this was indeed connected to the rest of the Sideways. But what were these toys? Too small to be a person. Cubist house pets? …cubist babies? End result of a Picasso’d daycare center? That was a horrifying thought…

Close enough to the mystery door, she signaled for the others to stop. Not that they knew the hand signals Penelope used with her father on trips like these, but generally people knew an upturned palm meant to halt forward movement. Or it meant "talk to the hand," but she’d asked for no talking, so.

Tank and dog and cars and helicopter stepped at the mystery door. Well, the helicopter tried to stop, but ended up inverting three times before wobbling around in place.

The resounding impact of metal on metal when that heavy door swung open was enough to nearly make Lucas drop his camera.

Darkness. Pure darkness, deep Sideways. The EchoMap pulsed quickly, and Penelope could see a twisting arc beyond it, lots of hard obtuse angles from numerous hallways overlaid and chopped and diced. Maybe seven or eight different hallways jammed in there. The kind of chaos and disorder you only got in the thickest, deepest Sideways, well beyond what should exist in the middle of suburbia…

From this darkness emerged… a tiny educational computer toy on wind-up legs, a pair of action figures joined at the head that walked very awkwardly, and one of those pushable popcorn lawnmower thingies. It popped in a crazy and random pattern as it rolled along on two wheels. Oddly, instead of a rainbow array of hollow plastic balls, it was mostly white and red…

Two waves of toys; one from the aisles, one from the doorway. After a pause, taking in a breath, one single moment of still and quiet… they walked past each other. Tank and car and helicopter and dog into the doorway, figures and computer and popper into the aisle.

The door slammed so hard behind them that it looked like a broken section of a film strip. One moment wide open, the next sealed tight. And that marked the end of the process.

They’re taking turns, Penelope realized. Evening shift replaces the morning shift…

Eager to share her findings despite her own call for radio silence, Penelope turned to face her friends.

Who had been joined by a new friend.

Because one toy was slow to join the crowd. It made sense; the poor thing was crawling along without any legs, dragging itself with plush arms, its pretty dress scraping along the dirty floors. The tiles silently warped and cracked as it moved, distorting space around it. The adorable little toy looked right at Penelope, behind her unaware friends…

A creepy doll.

Of course.

And then it reached out, and grabbed onto Milly’s boot.

Silence shattered by a scream of pain.

Penelope moved on pure instinct. No time for any other reaction, not if Milly wanted to keep her foot.

She gave the creepy doll a savage kick, sending it skittering to the other side of the aisle, amplifying the sphere of chaos around it in the process. That was enough to strip some leather from the toe of Penelope’s shoe, but one more second and the results would’ve been far worse.

With Milly likely wounded, she wouldn’t be able to run. Penelope moved smoothly under one arm, Lucas taking the other—thankfully the two of them were on the same page about this, without needing to go over the plan.

The two of them hustled like never before, running as fast as they could while Milly hopped on one leg, to get away. Away from the toys. Away from the danger.

Because that danger was aware of them, now. She could hear the furious sound of plastic popping behind her, the chirps of an electronic speaking toy spelling out fifteen random words aloud in overlapping fashion. Even the dragging sound of cloth on tile, the doll likely wanting revenge.

But getting to the entrance like this… that wasn’t possible. They were too far towards the back of the store, and Milly was going to slow them down, screaming and barely able to support her own weight. If they just ran for the door, the toys would catch up to them easily. What they needed was a way to break off the chase momentarily, to recover, and find a better way out…

Fire exit map. EchoMap. She could’ve consulted either of these.

Didn’t have to. She knew exactly where to go without being told. The store was in her head, now, and she intended to make it work for her. For the sake of her new friends, and to make up for her stupid error in judgment, coming here and endangering them in the first place.

Penelope kicked open the door of a bathroom which didn’t exist in the first place, and they locked the door behind them.

---

Too weak to continue screaming, Milly had switched to crying. That wasn’t a good sign.

Lucas helped ease her down onto the hard tile floor of the bathroom, while Penelope locked the door. Not that a locked door would hold off Picassos forever, but… maybe they were too small to break through. Maybe Milly would recover, and they could book it through the ceiling crawlspaces, get to the exit that way. Maybe…

Focus. First, Milly.

Penelope squatted down by Milly’s legs, while Lucas cradled Milly’s head and shoulders, saying something about everything going to be fine. But Penelope was the one who could really assess if it’d be fine.

A mapper prepares and packs ahead. Scissors. Penelope had heavy scissors, capable of slicing through the bent and torn boot Milly was wearing.

"This may hurt a little—but that’s just because I’m peeling off your shoe, okay?" Penelope explained. "I’m not cutting you. Trust me."

Working swiftly so there could be no tension and anticipation to add to Milly’s worries, Penelope cut through the rubber and leather. Tough work, especially with Milly wearing two layers of footwear. But…

It worked. And the results were promising.

Two layers meant her boots got warped a bit, like the floor tiles the doll had crawled over, but the damage stopped there. Milly’s sock was a little frayed underneath, but once that was cut away, perfectly blemish free skin was underneath. The cubism hadn’t physically damaged anything important.

Penelope hadn’t thought of using clothing defensively like that against Picassos. Sure, her dad wore a bulletproof vest, but that was for the occasional irate salvaging gang they ran into. Maybe she’d have to reconsider tooling around in the Sideways in a T-shirt and shorts, now.

"It’s fine," Penelope announced. "It’s totally fine. I’m not just saying that, there’s no damage at all! Your boots soaked up the worst of it and you’re going to be fine!"

The news was not coming as a relief.

"It touched me!" Milly gasped, between sobs. "It touched me oh God it touched me I’m infected, I’m infected with cubism—"

"NO!" Lucas replied—holding Milly tighter, his anxiety rising. "No, that’s not how it works, Penelope explained everything! You can’t get infected. That’s not how it works!"

"Wuh, wuh, what if she’s wrong? She said it was a th-theory," Milly replied. "I felt it! It hurt! It still hurts! Oh no, oh no, I’m gonna become a Picasso, I’m gonna… no no no no…"

Someone thinks they’re infected, they terrified about being doomed, they start to FEEL doomed, and soon enough…

Penelope tried to ignore the slight flicker coming from Milly’s left foot. This couldn’t be happening. Couldn’t.

And it was all her fault. She defied Gregory’s singular order. She took two kids along with her on a snipe hunt. She did something that didn’t even need to be done in the first place, and for what? For yet another map of the Sideways? That wasn’t worth this risk. Nothing was worth this risk. She could’ve stayed home, stayed indoors, sat around playing poker with Karla or watching the Flynn-Frisk Funnies being filmed. Ordinary and safe and sane—

"Milly… you are not becoming a Picasso."

Reassuring. But it wasn’t Penelope’s thoughts. Her thoughts were doom and gloom. These were words coming from Lucas.

"I know you think your life is just one mishap after another, that everything always goes wrong all the time. But not this time, not this way," Lucas promised. A firm promise. "You’re going to be fine. And you know why? Because we’ve still got to finish this week’s movie. You have that to look forward to. Just like every single week for the last five years."

Consoling the inconsolable was no easy feat. Milly looked up at him, through her tears of panic.

"Buh, buh, but you don’t need me for that," she mumbled. "Not really. I just do voices. And… and Penelope can do voices now. She can go on adventures. You’d rather be with an Adventure Gal, not a Sickly Gal. You don’t need me—"

"It’s called Flynn-Frisk Funnies because it is us, dammit," Lucas insisted. "Not Penelope. She’s cool and all, but you? You are awesome. I started all this for you! Remember? Five years ago, you got pneumonia, the worst thing you’d ever caught. And I brought my toys and my camera to your house and we made our first movie. We’ve kept it up every week. Every time, sick or not. I wanted something you could enjoy no matter what. …because… I kinda want to make these movies every week for the rest of our lives."

The slightest pause in her sobbing, as that sank in. Even Penelope’s breath caught in her throat.

"L-Lucas? Are you saying…?"

"I… yeah. You know what? Screw it. I am saying that. Mildred Frisk, will you eventually marry me?" Lucas asked. "One day when we’ve both gotten through college and hopefully landed stable jobs so it’s not a completely stupid idea and we can actually afford a nice place to live despite this crapass recession my parents keep whining about?"

"That’s the most romantic thing anybody’s ever said to me," Milly admitted, in half-shock, half-horror, and half-delight.

"Wow, seriously? Ouch. —uh, at the very least, will you walk out of this toy store with me today without dying horribly?" Lucas requested. "You’re not going cubist. The lives we have yet to live are way too cool to allow that."

…and finally, Penelope dared to take another look at Milly’s foot.

It wasn’t flickering anymore. As far as anybody would know, Milly had just taken one of her shoes off for some reason. The cubism hadn’t taken root.

Maybe Lucas was just following Penelope’s advice, handed out the previous day. Bolster hope to fight the despair that lets someone give into cubism. Give someone a reason to live, and they’ll be able to fight off the "infection." Maybe it was all crap—a marriage proposal at their age was pretty silly.

But… Penelope didn’t get that feeling from the boy. The way he held Milly, way he looked after her and wanted her safe and happy…

At least this answered one lingering problem in her mind. She didn’t have to ponder Lucas as potential boyfriend material. Why were the good ones always taken, anyway?

That left one last problem to deal with.

Penelope looked to the door.

"You two wait in here," she said… rising to her feet. "I mean it, this time. Stay behind and then run for it when you get the chance. I’m going to give him something else to think about."

"Uh, wait, you’re going out there?" Lucas asked, refocusing. "Isn’t that… y’know… bad?"

"No, it’s living my life," Penelope announced. "I’m tired of running from Picassos. It’s high time I got the answers I came here for. And I think I know just how to do it."

---

She kicked that door open like a boss.

…which kind of hurt, since she’d kicked the door to open it in the first place. But when you wanna make a statement, you kicked doors. That’s just how it worked.

The toys had gathered. Two got knocked aside by the door; the others scooted back and away, from the shock and awe of her entrance. Good.

With her presence felt, Penelope dashed away—also to distract the toys from the two who were still recuperating in the bathroom. Time for Penelope to be their focus. Time to deal with this, once and for all.

Two aisles away, and she was at the central bike area. Here, bicycles of all sorts were laid out in neat rows… not for buying, of course. They were floor display models. You took a ticket up to a clerk, and they pulled a fresh bike from the back, and your parents spent the next two days trying to figure out how to put the crazy thing together in secret so you’d find it under the tree at Christmas.

It was still October, but Penelope felt like treating herself to a gift anyway. So she picked a nice bicycle with a pink flowered basket, and yanked the tag.

As the toys approached… she held her retail claim ticket high, like a talisman.

"I want to buy a bike!" she announced to them. "I need assistance on the sales floor. Can anybody help me?"

Approaching from all sides, now. The mutated action figures. Popcorn popper. Slightly damaged doll. And, apparently recalled from whatever task they were on, the remote-controlled vehicles and the computer and tank were back as well. The entire messed-up toy factory was on display, and stalking her…

No. Not stalking. Even when one of them hurt Milly, that wasn’t really an attack. She was simply in the way and the Picasso didn’t understand the situation. Not all Picassos were violent or cruel; most were just lost and confused. But when a good employee spots a customer on the sales floor, they offer assistance. That’s baked in so deeply that it digs through the layers of bewilderment and gives the Picasso focus. Just like it did when the cookie-selling scout was after them.

The toys stopped at a distance, to make that point. They weren’t here to fight. They were here for… they weren’t sure, maybe. Split in so many directions, a mind can rarely concentrate. So she tried to help them understand.

"Employee of the Month Roberto Vargas," Penelope called out. "I recognized you from your photo by the entrance. White shirt, red tie. White toys with red accents. This is you, isn’t it? All these toys. Well, I’m going to need your help, because I want to get a bike. Can you help me?"

A lot to bank on a gut feeling, admittedly. But Penelope knew in her heart she was making the right call. This entire adventure wasn’t the right call, sure… but this one moment in time, this was the right call.

Naturally, Milly and Lucas had defied her orders and were peeking around from a nearby aisle. They hadn’t run for it. But the situation was in Penelope’s hands, now; her friends would be okay. Because Roberto didn’t really want to hurt them.

Gradually… the toys began to come together. They rolled or flew or crawled or walked, circling, spiraling, piling together. Action figures with rubber tires, tanks with computers for heads. Other toys from around the store joined them, rolling and bouncing and whizzing down the aisles—Penelope stepped closer to her bike, up on the display stand itself, to avoid coming into contact. Roberto could still hurt her even if he didn’t intend to, after all.

Soon enough, there was a toy man present and accounted for. A man made of toys, in toys in the vague shape of a man. A true Picasso.

And slowly, with so much effort and pain… the man sat near the bike rack. He held his head made of an educational computer in hands made of felt and plastic. The sharp red of his die cast metal bow tie twirled slowly.

how may I help you today // so tired, I’m just so // need to search more, more places at once //
        holiday rush is always the worst // can’t retire, not with little Miguel just getting into day care //
so tired // searching always // help the children, help them // are you looking to buy that bike?

Penelope’s friends were at her side, now. Stepping carefully around the disembodied sales clerk, but willing to set foot in the lion’s den rather than hang back and wait. Lucas had even pulled his camera out again, to film everything.

Where moments ago there was terror and fear, hiding from sight and pondering how they’d ever get out of this terrible place alive… now they had confidence. Good for them, Penelope decided.

"What are you searching for?" she asked. "We saw you going into that hallway. Is that why you split yourself up into so many toys? So you could search better?"

The electronic speaking toy craned upwards, looking at Penelope with eyes made of glowing LEDs. They flickered dimly, batteries running low, as his speakers crackled out distorted words.

the little girl // such a strange smile, so strange // paycheck to paycheck, this is no way to live //
she’s looking for a special toy // special place //
             her heart //
heart of the city, she called it //
  so exhausted from all this //
   so many of me, what’s going on, what’s happening // restocking always calms me, it’s like a //
find the heart for the child of madness // a special toy for making new friends

And, unbidden, Penelope’s own words floated back into her memory.

Long ago and far away, she told a newcomer why she did what she did.

I think the city has a heart. Sometimes, I can almost feel the way this city feels. And if I map more of it, I’ll know that heart. If I manage that… if I can understand the city, right down to the roots… maybe I can use what I learn to help people in this city find hope…

It was a silly notion. New age crystal stuff. Power pyramids and the Gaia Theory.

But someone else clearly held to the same belief—that there was a heart of the city, an origin point. Someone who manipulated… or maybe created Picassos. The "child of madness." The same one a security guard Picasso had been ranting about, in the Defined Tower…

With a sinking feeling, Penelope asked a question she already knew the answer to.

"Who’s the child that wants to find the heart? What’s her name?"

The distant memories of Roberto Vargas shuddered. It started at his wheeled feet and snapped up through the cloud of action figure parts and accessories, a pulsing wave.

// bedlam. // she said her name was bedlam. //

That was enough to put a solid fear reaction back into Milly and Lucas, who had been curious and confident just seconds ago. Because even if none of them were alive during the Cult of Bedlam incident during the 1980s, that name carried mythical weight with it. A concept nobody really understood, except to understand it was bad news incarnate.

Penelope decided to wrap this up, fast. She adopted the most authoritative tone she could, solid and adult.

"Roberto, you’ve been working too hard lately," she declared in a managerial voice. "You deserve a day off. Go home and spend it with Miguel."

With an electronic sigh of relief… Roberto Vargas fell apart.

Toys clattered to the ground, like someone had upended a pile of random charity donations on the floor. Whatever cohesive shape they took before was gone, puppet strings cut sharply.

Odds were the Picasso was merely resting, rather than dead. He’d pull himself together eventually, looping through memories of stocking shelves and satisfying customers and endlessly searching the Sideways. But for now, at least, Penelope had given him a respite from the hell his life had become.

Lucas kept his camera on the pile of toys, the whole time. But he was the first to speak up after the sad story of the Employee of the Month was told.

"Did he say Bedlam? Did I hear that right?" he asked. "Seriously?"

"Seriously," Penelope confirmed.

"I thought Bedlam didn’t really exist. It was just Yet Another Crazy Cult, y’know, like the Echo Chamber or others that pop up all the time in the City of Angles…"

"B-Bedlam exists," Milly mumbled. "My uncle, he was in that cult. I never knew him; my parents only found out about it after the cops shot him that night. But they got his diaries and stuff, and, and… Bedlam exists. Definitely."

"And Bedlam’s a… kid?" Lucas wondered. "Was I hearing that right, too? She’s some little girl?"

Before Penelope could toss in her two cents, something changed.

It was subtle, at first. The dark toy store became the slightest bit darker. Why? Because one of the lights at the back of the store went out. Pop, like that, the harsh flourescents went out. And then another. And then another…

A wave, sweeping from back to front. Something coming, from the direction of the fractured hallway into the Sideways.

"We need to leave. Right now," Penelope emphasized. And, on impulse, decided it was time to exercise her salvage rights on that bike. After all, she’d always wanted a bike she could ride to the mall with her friends.

---

They swiped two bikes. One for Penelope to ride with Milly sitting on the back (since she didn’t know how to ride a bike), and one for Lucas. There was some initial argument about who Milly was going to ride with, but as the sweeping darkness that was eating up the store got closer, Milly hopped on with Penelope without hesitation.

It wasn’t just a blackout. The store was going away, little by little. Whether it was vanishing or just too dark to see for some unexplainable reason, either way they had no intention of hanging around to find out. Penelope had learned more than enough today and was quite ready to take a tactical retreat…

Fortunately she’d ridden a bike before, and they say you never forget how to ride a bike. She hadn’t carried a passenger with her before, but that just meant a bit more leg-pumping action. Years of hiking through the Sideways gave her legs that could indeed pump with the best of them.

The front of the store and inevitable freedom approached in rapid order.

Except all the checkout lanes were closed. In fact, someone had doubled up the checkout lanes, filling the empty spaces between them with more lanes, and the empty spaces of those lanes with more lanes, until the lanes were too small to see. A cubist distortion…

"Back out the way we came in!" Penelope announced, making a hard right into the entrance gauntlet. After that, a left and a right and a left and they’d be home free.

Cold, behind them. Cold and dark and weird. It was closing in, now—strangeness at the corners of her vision, as they dashed around the first corner of the snaking gauntlet…

And then, the voice. Distorted and sourceless like a Picasso’s voice, but far more coherent, without overlaps. A young girl’s voice…

Three // three // three of my friends you’ve taken from me. The scout, the guardian, and now the toyman. I need replacement friends. You three will be my new friends. Everybody will be my friends, one day. Why not today?

"Don’t look back!" Penelope shouted. "Just keep pedaling!"

"I looked back!" Lucas called. "I looked back! Penelope, it’s, she’s—"

"PEDAL!"

Milly clamped her arms around Penelope hard enough to bruise a rib, having already tasted cubism once today and in no mood to dine on more.

The next corner, and then it’d be a straight run all the way to the exit. Almost home, and…

…and the gauntlet repeated. There was an extra turn, a new aisle of toys, stacked in side by side along with the aisles they just rode through. Penelope remembered for certain there were only three segments of aisles, back-and-forth-and-back, no more than that. But now there were more, and more… an endless series. Long enough to tire them out, or to not make a turn and go crashing into a pile of toys. Long enough for the voice and the shadow to catch up.

Bedlam wasn’t going to let them leave.

It struck Penelope as tremendously unfair, first of all. Which was a strange thing to think, that on the verge of falling into a weird abyss, she’d be primarily upset at how bullying it was.

The voice began to hum a jaunty little version of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, knowing she need only wait them out now.

Merrily // merrily // merrily // merrily // life is but a dream…

Milly was crying and Lucas was shouting something and Bedlam was singing and Penelope wasn’t hearing any of it.

All she could hear was a clear voice in her head, probably her own thoughts.

That dream can be what I want it to be.

and

so

the city

changed.

---

The bikes slipped through the five-milimeter-wide gap between a fast food restaurant and a coffee shop, and came to a swift halt after plowing into a number of plastic tables and chairs.

This time, it was a bewildered Penelope who was being rescued from peril, as Lucas and Milly pulled her out of an uncomfortable tangle of furniture. A table had pinned her arm, leaving it bruised and sore, but otherwise she’d got off clean for someone who just smashed her bike into a food court at high speed.

The lights were dizzyingly bright, compared to the gloom of the toy store… but after the afterimages swam away, Penelope had a vague idea of where they were. One which was confirmed by Lucas.

"It’s the mall," he explained, even if he could barely believe it himself. "We’re at the mall! Seneca Creek Mall, two-point-three miles from my house. I don’t know how, but… Penelope? How’d we get to the mall?"

"We… we rode our bikes here," Penelope realized. "Just like I thought we would, someday. …there must’ve been a gap, a Sideways entrance we hadn’t seen before, and we used it to slip back into the suburbs. —wait, she didn’t follow us here, did she?"

Milly, who was continually glancing back at the impossible invisible doorway they’d apparently emerged from, shook her head. "N-No, I don’t think so. We escaped. We got away! Wow! I can’t believe… I… um… uhoh."

Even if the grim spectre of the child of madness was no longer a threat, they had just rode their bikes around a shopping mall and trashed the food court. And the nice men in the grey mall security uniforms were not happy about that.

"I think we’re gonna get grounded until we’re fifty," Lucas realized. And raised his hands in surrender.

---

Mall security was fortunately not quite on the ball as the Department of Safety. When she was hauled in by Safety Officers after a Sideways dive some time ago, they’d kept her apart from Dave and Gregory on purpose—keeping them from getting their stories straight. The rent-a-cops were not clever enough for that, or assumed the kids weren’t clever enough to require separation, or likely just were too busy to care.

In the time it took for various parental figures to show up and claim their offspring, the three had conspired to tell a unified tale, which went like this:

"Lucas bought these bikes at a yard sale so we could film an action movie with a bike chase in it—he was following behind us with the camera. But two people on one bike wasn’t such a great idea, and Penelope’s bike went out of control. Before we knew it we’d accidentally rolled into the mall and crashed."

The story wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny—they had no receipts for the bikes, the "film" in Lucas’s digital camera could’ve been checked, the security cameras could’ve confirmed they ended up in the food court without ever entering the doors, and so on. But it was an ordinary story, overflowing with the mundane and plausible, and nobody really wanted to bother questioning it.

Milly’s parents showed up first, with her mother chastising the girl about the risks she took—how she could’ve got a cut and had it become infected or broken her neck and been paralyzed and so on and so forth. After a tirade of vividly described imaginary dangers, Milly got grounded for three weeks. Lucas would have to get her voice parts by the Internet for the next few Flynn-Frisk Funnies, and the star-cross’d lovers would have to yearn apart, but yearning was a small price to pay for getting away with it all.

Lucas’s parents showed up next and were generally uninterested in the story or the transgressions. They just wanted to make sure he got the day’s shooting done on his movie. "He’s going to go far one day," they declared proudly. He didn’t seem surprised by this; having a hands-off angel investor known as Mom/Dad Productions behind his movies apparently had its upsides. Except now he had to retroactively come up with a script for a bike chase and somehow get the shots he claimed he had if he was going to make this work.

As for Penelope… she knew the story wouldn’t hold up to her father’s scrutiny. So she was bracing for the worst.

Karla being the one to pick her up from the mall security office meant a slim ray of hope, until Karla explained how this was going to go down (while trying to figure out how to fit Penelope’s shiny new bike in her minivan).

"I’m not covering for you," she explained. "Just like I didn’t cover for your dad last night. I’m going to tell him what happened here—that I had to drop by the mall and pick you up after you crashed a bike you didn’t have this morning—and it’s up to you two to sort things out after that. This is your mess and I’m not your janitor any more than I’m his."

Penelope sank in the passenger seat of the minivan, sullen.

"I could just clam up and not tell him a thing," she suggested. "He’s not telling me anything about what he’s doing, after all. If that stuff’s none of my business, then what I’m up to is none of his business."

"You really think that’d help?"

"Help what?"

"Help with what’s going on between you two. Help with whatever problems you’re facing," Karla said. "Both of you could clam up and sulk in your corners, true. It’s a valid response. But think long term about this, Penelope. There’s more at stake here than hurt feelings."

Tugging the front of her urban explorer’s pith helm down over her eyes, Penelope rode home in silence. And thought.

---

Gregory showed up three hours later. He’d been out all day and all of the previous night, but on getting a text message from Karla saying Penelope was involved in an incident of some sort—alive and well, but briefly in trouble with what passes for the law in suburbia—papa bear came running home as fast as he could.

He was out of breath and quite angered when he entered Karla’s dining room, all tasteful furniture and tea cups. Penelope at one narrow end of the table having a hot chocolate; her babysitter/guardian taking an unassuming but symbolic seat along the long edge of the table, to mediate between the two. A chair opposite Penelope had been helpfully tugged away for Gregory to enjoy.

Feeling oddly as if he’d walked into an intervention, Gregory had a seat.

And winced. Hoping nobody had caught that wince.

"You hurt your leg," Penelope recognized immediately. "You’re taking those little baby steps you take whenever you get messed up. What happened?"

"Doesn’t matter. What’s this about you being arrested?" Gregory asked. "You’re lucky it was only mall security and not the Department of Safety. What were you doing? What’s going on here, Penelope?"

"I could lie and spin some story, but honestly, I took two friends of mine into the Sideways," Penelope said, straight away. (She’d been practicing what to say, and by the time he got there, she’d been ready for it.) "We ran into a Picasso, and eventually fled on a pair of bikes. Somehow we ended up in the mall. I can’t explain that one, I guess we found an exit we didn’t know was there. Point is, I broke the one rule you’ve put down for me—not to go exploring the Sideways without you—and I endangered two other kids in the process. It was wrong, incredibly wrong, and I feel completely horrible about it. We’re very lucky we got out safely in the end. And that’s the truth."

Gregory Yates had never been angry with her before.

It wasn’t really his style. From day one he’d never known quite how to deal with children, so he’d treated Penelope like a small adult—granted, a small adult he was overpoweringly protective of and kept at his side at all times. When she frustrated him, or did something silly, he did his best to stay calm and explain the facts of the matter. Never felt hate. There was never anything close to hate there for the only thing left in his world he truly loved.

Here and now, he was angry. And trying very, very hard to keep it in check.

"How could you… WHY did you… what… HOW could you have been so…!" he tried, backing up and restarting each time, trying very hard not to use the kind of abrasive-bastard words he would’ve used around Karla and the gang twenty years ago. "You… went into the Sideways alone—no, not even alone, you put two civilians in harm’s way!—and… agh. Penny, what were you THINKING?!"

"I was thinking you went off and put yourself at risk without even saying goodbye, so maybe I’d do the same!" she barked back.

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Where were you today? Or yesterday? Last night?" Penelope asked. "You dropped me off on Karla’s doorstep and then ran off and don’t think I don’t know where you went! You’re seeing a sketchy contact, or getting in trouble with a gang. You hurt your leg! How’d that happen? Huh?"

"That’s… look, it’s not important. What’s important is that you broke the rules, and—"

"I think it is important!" she called back. "What’ve you been doing? Huh? Why won’t you tell me where you’re going?"

"It’s none of your business and this matter is closed," Gregory declared. "As for you, you’re not to leave this house again for the duration of our stay. Karla, see to it that she stays in her room from now on. If I can’t trust you to do the sensible thing, then—"

A hand with garish nail polish, held up palm first to stop him.

"I’m not playing prison warden, Greg," Karla warned. "You both get two hots and a cot, you get my wise counsel and killer tea brews… but I’m not this girl’s mother. Nor am I yours, for that matter, which is why I let you go off on your crazy adventure without chaining you to my bed alongside my husband. If the kid wants to go poke wasp’s nests—just like you poking wasp’s nests, for that matter—I’m not standing in either of your collective ways."

Now, Karla, that was someone Gregory could get properly angry with. Just like old times, the bluntly-speaking she-devil of the Seventh Street Scavengers butted head with the boys quite a bit…

"Karla, gosh darn it, put a sock in it," he insisted. "I’m just asking you to be responsible about this, okay?"

"Would you have put up with this kind of treatment at her age?" Karla asked. "Hell no. We were wild and free and got into way worse trouble than she does, and we survived. Reason being that we stood by each other through the whole mess of it, open and clear about the crap we were in. You’re not being open and clear. Penelope just laid out what she’s been through—it’s time for you to fess up to what you’ve been through. Because I am not playing monkey in the middle any more."

"Those days were different and you know it, dam… darn it! We were idiot kids who didn’t know any better. I’m a father and she’s my daughter!"

"And we were family too, back then. I’d like to think we’re still family, by blood or otherwise. And on top of that… we were in business together, for lack of a better description. So are you and Penelope. You’re mappers and explorers, in a partnership. Father and daughter, but partners as well. How well do you think that’ll work if you’re not being honest? I can’t say it’s looking great from where I’m sitting. So. How about it, Greg? You gonna tell her… or will I?"

Two against one. It was clear Gregory was going to lose this one; the pain in his hip from where he’d impacted against the street earlier today reminded him that some things couldn’t be covered up.

Above all… Karla had a point. Gregory was fiercely independent as a youngster. It was a trait passed on to Penelope… by blood or otherwise. And if he kept this from her, if he was seen as a hostile and controlling overlord rather than someone who cared and wanted to be involved in her life beyond holding it on a leash… he could lose her.

"We’re being followed," he explained. "It started the day we found Dave. I’ve spotted them a few other times, too. It’s the times I didn’t see them that worry me the most. Word on the street says the… Cult of Bedlam may be operational again. I don’t know what they want with us—it may just be a vendetta against anyone who regularly enters the Sideways. I need to learn more to make sure we’re safe. …and I hurt my hip trying to hang onto a car that was speeding away after I spotted some grungy guy in an overcoat behind the wheel stalking me."

The news didn’t have as much of an impact as he’d hoped. Unfortunately, that was because Penelope had bigger news of her own.

"Bedlam chased us out of the Sideways," she confessed. "The actual, factual Bedlam. …I left that out because it seemed a bit too scary to say up front. Um. I was gonna tell you once you calmed down. She’s angry at us for taking away her friends, the Picassos we’ve been running into. She said one day everybody was gonna be her friend… but I think she’s after me pretty specifically."

Pieces clicked together, briefly distracting him from any shock at the revelation. Things the truckers had told him. The story of the little girl who’d survived the shabby men’s experiments. What little he’d learned so far about the Cult of Bedlam…

Originally, leaving Penelope behind was for her own good, to keep her safe. But even if Penelope avoided the Sideways… there was no avoiding the problem at large. They knew her face, her name. Where was she in more danger? Alone and defenseless with the Cult looming somewhere unknown, or at Gregory’s side with the Cult squarely in front of them?

The good old days, the bad old days, the Scavengers against the worst this city had to offer. Back then they’d know which of those two scenarios they’d rather face. Better the knife in front of you than the knife in the dark. Stand together. Come on if you’re hard enough. Take it to them before they sneak up on you…

He’d made his decision.

"We need to stay here a few days while my hip sorts itself out. Both of us staying here," he clarified. "Then Penelope and I need to get going, to track down the Cult and find out what they’re up to. I’m going to call Archie in on this—assuming he doesn’t chicken out—and see what we can scrounge up in terms of safehouses and additional manpower. One bit of good news is that the Outland truckers are with us on this, they’ve been rallying around some crazy beatnik prophet and are keeping an eye out for Cult activity. So. Penelope… we’re not alone. And from now on, we’re going into this together. Understand? Both of us. Neither of us running off without the other."

Despite the weirdness swirling around them, the threats of cults and insane gods… Penelope was able to smile.

"You’ve got it," she agreed. "Thanks, Dad."

---

Late evening, and once again Penelope was in her room with various electronic gadgets, looking at funny cat pictures. Not much else to do tonight; even with a sinister organization of evil doers after her butt, this was the best place for her to be. True, her dad was sleeping off some of Karla’s husband’s painkillers, but presumably Karla would shiv anybody who broke into the house.

Her phone beeped away, another generic ringtone. Milly again?

She fetched the phone, sliding it open, and answered.

"Hallo?"

"Penelope? It’s Lucas," he identified. "I just emailed you a pic, and, um… I think you’d better take a look right away."

"Okay, uh, hang on…" she mumbled, trying to juggle smart phone and smart tablet at the same time. Booting up her email app, waiting for it to load. "What’m I gonna be looking at here? Proofs for your next video?"

"Yyyyyeahno. This is from the footage I took today," he said. "Remember when you said not to look back and I said I looked back? I was trying to explain something, but… decided I should wait until I had a moment to review the video files, to make sure…"

The email attachment opened, popping full screen.

She had to squint to make sure she was seeing it right. Black on black, barely visible, but the outlines had a distinct shape…

"Penelope? Uh… that was Bedlam, right?" Lucas asked. "The girl that was chasing us in the darkness. I had to run this through some leveling filters, some anti-distortion, but I’m pretty sure this is the clearest and most accurate shot I could possibly get of Bedlam. Soo… why does she look exactly like you?"

Dark on dark, swirls of black and dark green, near monotone shadows in a suggestive shape, but… all of the details were right there. Thirteen year old girl. Pigtails. Even her winning smile.

The face of the child of madness was the same one Penelope saw in the mirror every day.

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. Holy crap, she *is*! Maybe the Big Bad somehow is her future self?

    … Or maybe she’s dreaming all of this, like the last chapter alluded to with the Tommy Westfall reference…

  2. “Tank and dog and cars and helicopter stepped at the mystery door.”

    Should “stepped” be “stopped”?

  3. Started reading recently, loving what I’ve seen so far! Just one thing I noticed in this chapter:
    “All clear. No major outbreaks or minor incidents in the Buckles in the last five weeks. Anything you had wouldn’t be communicable now. …that’s a relief! Hi. My name’s Milly. Milly Frisk. What’s yours?”

    Pretty sure that should be the Spindles rather than the Buckles.
    Keep up the good work :-)

  4. Yeeeeeeeeeees.

    This is a pretty small point, so forgive my neurosis, but when I first saw the phrase “smart tablet” in association with the grandma I thought it meant “cool/new/groovy tablet”. But seeing it used here too, apparently in the same sense as “smart phone” has me wondering…IS there any such thing as a DUMB tablet? I mean, aren’t tablets smart by default? It sounds like a redundancy. Unless this weirdness is intentional and somehow related to the weirdness everywhere in the City? But I haven’t spotted other such phrases.

    • It’s more like “smart phone, in tablet form.” That’s how I’ve heard things like the iPad referred to. I suppose by that point in time (the series does move gradually into the future) the word “tablet” would be enough to describe them without needing an adjective but it feels so odd not to stick some kind of adjective there.

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Copyright 2014 by Stefan Gagne