As Shades did some practicing of his own, attempting to assimilate some of Max’s wilder moves into his own repertoire, he couldn’t help overhearing his friend singing in the shower. On one hand, he was impressed that Max had already learned most of the lyrics, but on the other hand, he found he was a little envious. Then again, he always was with people who could sing better than he, and that was a pretty long list. Once upon a time, on a whim, he had attempted to sing backup vocals for Nowheresville. They never made it through even one song. After all of them had a good laugh, Shades never brought it up again.
Some of those songs spoke of things that have (will have) happened in some world or another. It made him wonder what Max would have prevented if he could go back. Just what his friend lost so many years ago that could still bring such sorrow to his eyes. That could make him sing some of those songs as if from personal experience.
As for himself, if it didn’t make him think of John, then he thought of Amy. Just another reason why he couldn’t go back anymore. The endless questions. The endless questions family, friends, associates— the authorities— would pose to him. Not to mention how he would face John and Amy’s folks after that night. That, and he didn’t want to return to Earth without John and Amy, or at least finding out what became of them.
And of course, he was still worried about the guards. There was an intensity to that battle that was greater than any he had ever fought, even more personal than his desperate struggle on that terrible night, the like of which he had never experienced before. He was proud of himself for putting up such a good fight under such awkward conditions, but he was beginning to suspect that Max had fought tougher adversaries, as fighting them hardly even seemed to break his stride. As if even his run-in with Tranz-D’s robo-guards may not have been his first real combat experience.
And the guards’ injuries were escalating with every encounter, they would really be on the lookout for the two of them in the future. They would have to lay low the next day, and think of new ways to lower Max’s profile in public. After that door-to-door manhunt, though, he was even more worried about Bandit.
That they were on the alert for a black-and-white panther didn’t bode well for their long-term safety. Though they kept a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign up when they were out and about, they had to let the cleaning staff in sooner or later, which always meant sneaking Bandit out about every day-and-half. He hoped they didn’t notice the toilet plunger he bought, or the unusual number of newspapers he picked up in the lobby. Or that they were hiding a scratching post in the closet. Or any of the other more subtle measures they had resorted to in order to conceal their feline secret.
One thing he now understood: a panther was definitely not a house pet.
Nothing to do but be as vigilant as possible, Shades reflected as he trained. When Max emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, Shades decided to see just how well he had it down, unleashing his own version of Max’s kick.
“Whoa!” Max remarked as he watched his friend. “I didn’t know you could jump that high!”
“Not as high as you,” Shades conceded.
“Still,” Max told him, “it’s like on the diving board— you just have to get used to moving around in the air.”
“Yeah. I suppose.” Shades pulled off his other headphone, again telling himself that it was because it wasn’t part of the Shorin-ryu arsenal, “I just never trained in aerial moves.”
“Say Shades,” Max asked, fishing a plastic card out of his robe pocket, “who is this Dexter guy? Is he your brother or something?”
Shades was in the midst of switching off his Cam-Jam and wasn’t fully paying attention, so he reflexively snapped, “Don’t call me Dexter!”
When he saw the perplexed look on Max’s face, he realized that he had never told Max his real name. And that the card was his driver’s license, which must have fallen out of his pocket while he was changing earlier. During his time here, he had experimented with different identities, playing different roles without anyone here to wave his “normal” self in his face, building a new persona for himself. Something that more closely matched on the outside what he was on the inside. In all that time, he had never given his real name to anyone, save for DJ.
“Well, he’s me,” Shades finally answered, somewhat chagrined. All of his old friends knew that name, but since coming here, he had almost forgotten his old name, like something from a past life. “I didn’t mean to lie to you… It’s just been a long time since anyone called me that. I haven’t gone by the name of Dexter since I was in middle school. Everybody calls me ‘Shades’,” he laughed, tapping his shades, “so I guess it kind of is my name anymore.”
“Shades,” Max agreed, handing him his license back. Then he said, “There’s something else I’ve wanted to ask you about.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Well, it’s about this place…” It had been bothering him for some time, and now that he wasn’t busy swapping stories and learning the ropes, he had begun to sense it more and more the longer he was here, and he still couldn’t think of the words to describe it. “You’ve been here for a while… Doesn’t this place creep you out?”
“Yes. Very much so.”
“I’ve never felt anything like this before.”
“I have,” Shades admitted, “but not on this level.”
“Yeah. A long time ago.” Shades’ own imagination had spooked him out on more than a few occasions over the years, but what he had to deal with now was that this place was real. “Back before my dad disappeared, he was stationed in Alaska for a while. Well, one time we went out camping on the Deshka River, and my cousin Charlie was along for the ride. This place was out in the middle of nowhere, we had to go there by boat, it was so far from the nearest town. About the only ways you could get there were by boat or by helicopter. Dark side of the moon…
“Anyhoo, Alaska is also called the Land of the Midnight Sun because, during the summer it doesn’t get dark. We were there during the summer, and I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn’t get any darker than twilight for a few hours, then it gets light again.”
Land of the Midnight Sun… To Max, it sounded as fascinating as any place else he had heard of.
“That night,” Shades continued, “Charlie and I sat out on a dock on the river. I don’t remember what we started talking about, but it eventually turned to spooky stories. We just kept telling each other ghost stories, and the whole place just seemed to change. As I said, it doesn’t get dark in the summer, but after a while it was as if something happened to the place, it just got really creepy. And there was the tree.”
“Next to the dock, along the bank, there was this weird, twisted tree. It probably wouldn’t have looked so bad from most angles, but from where we sat, it looked almost alive… I mean all trees are alive, but there was just something wrong about this one. Like it was gonna pull up its roots and attack us or something…”
Max couldn’t help shuddering; the thought of a tree up and attacking someone was so unnatural to him, he had a hard time picturing it.
“For a while, we were afraid to move, we had scared ourselves silly with our own stories. In fact, we sat out there all night, neither of us leaving our lawnchairs. After that, the tree didn’t look so evil anymore, but we never looked at it the same way again.”
Shades wondered for a moment why he had told this story. He knew it had just been their own childish fears, and sitting there well past their bedtime— as fathers are more likely to allow— messing with them. He had meant to use this as an analogy, but it worked all too well with the evil aura here. Now he found that his attempt to make light of their fears was starting to backfire on him.
“This place does the same thing,” Max told him after a moment of silence. “Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it.”
“Shades, how do you sleep with this going on?”
“Very carefully,’ Shades said, borrowing one of Arthur’s favorite answers to such questions. He himself didn’t get as much sleep as he would have liked, but he was fast adapting, finding that he didn’t need a lot of sleep to function. “Remember, it can’t hurt you unless you let it.”
“I guess, but it’s still creepy.” Now that the conversation had shifted this way, he found himself recalling old stories. Many tales passed through the Islands, but few as scary as this one. “You know, I remember a story I heard a long time ago. It’s about this ship called the Twylight.”
Just the name gave Shades the chills.
“It is said that this ship only appears in foggy weather.” Max had heard the tale of Twylight around the campfire, and now he felt the same tingle he had experienced back then. “People would just stumble upon it out of the mist. A derelict, never anyone onboard. No one knows what happened to her crew, but some of those who come aboard disappear one by one. Those who manage to get off always said that when they looked back, the ship was gone…”
“I’ve read similar accounts,” Shades told him. He wanted to laugh, but Max’s tale was too eerie to really make light of. Not in this atmosphere. Highway mythology had its ghost-cars, and the high seas had a much longer history of spook stories. “It makes me think of all those Bermuda Triangle stories I—”
“You know about the Bermuda Triangle!” Max remembered that strange book he had flipped through back at the Centralict Library, and he wondered how Shades knew about it.
“Yeah…” Shades paused for a moment, more spooked by this than by Max’s story. Chris Nimrod’s ridiculously long science-has-all-the-answers trip immediately came to mind, and he wondered what the little know-it-all would make of that. That Max had heard of the Bermuda Triangle held implications that sent his mind reeling. “But where did you hear of it?”
So Max told him about the book, and Shades realized that he had read the very same volume years ago. Then Shades indulged in his years of research on the Unknown, telling him of ghost ships, haunted houses, and other disturbing accounts he had read. The more they talked, the more a nameless fear began to permeate the room, as if something malevolent had settled in and refused to leave, simply staring at them. Even when they tried changing the subject, the conversation always found its way back to all things spooky.
And so it went until they were at last too tired to be creeped out, settling into an uneasy sleep.