Ana dreamed again of the maze in the ceiling, but it was smaller, close around her and cluttered with animatronic limbs wrapped in moldy clothes and stuffed with rats and wires. The air she fought to breathe was hot and thick, a poison brume. She crawled on her belly, her head bumping the top of the maze with each frantic lunge forward, but gained little ground. The maze had her and it meant to keep her. Her boots found no traction on metal walls made slick with blood. She struggled onward, as all trapped things struggle, without hope of escape. She was not alone up here. The sounds that followed her in the darkness were at times the ticking of a clock and at other times the whine and wheeze of old servos and gears.
Ana looked back and even though the maze was lightless, she could see it, the thing her aunt had become, the thing she had perhaps always been. That white face, laughing and weeping together, black sockets for eyes, spiders spilling from the trapdoor of its gaping mouth—the Puppet. Long bone-white arms blistered with iridescent scales, straggles of blonde hair and dusty cobwebs hanging before her like a bridal veil—the Mermaid. Then it spoke, although the mouth didn't move, and in spite of the low scratch of static that came with it, the voice was familiar—Aunt Easter.
"Just a little further, Honeybunny," this nightmare amalgamation crooned. "You're almost there."
Ana scrambled away, slapping and clawing at the bloody walls of the maze in a futile search for a handhold, but the nearest corner wall that might offer some leverage was just out of reach, as it had been since the start of this dream.
"We missed you," Aunt Easter said and her voice was just the same—light and laughing, young and pretty—while the hand that reached out to clutch at Ana's ankle was white as bone, torn open to expose her inner framework and stained padding. "We've all been waiting for you."
Ana kicked away and fled, inch by excruciating inch, gasping for breath and choking on the little she found.
"We had a deal," Aunt Easter called, coaxing, pleading. "We can be a family now!"
"No!" Ana rasped, kicking blindly as she pulled herself away. She hit something. She felt the impact, heard the cry. She kicked again and again and again, until the sound of her aunt's moans silenced and all she could hear was the wet crunch of meat and bone, and still she kicked, rasping, "No! No! No!"
"That's my girl," a purple voice whispered, breathing out of every part of the maze at once.
Ana looked up and suddenly the maze was gone, but she was just as trapped lying on Aunt Easter's bed in the purple room with Erik Metzger's arms around her. His glasses caught the sun streaming through the window, filling his eyes with burning light. His shirt was unbuttoned, exposing his bare chest, smooth as sculpted plastic. She could feel his inhuman heat, hear the tick of gears and wheeze of fans. He smiled; there was a second set of metal teeth behind his perfect white ones. "My, my," he said, pulling her closer. "How you've grown."
But there, thankfully, the dream ended as horror far greater than the mere perception of her senses swelled up in protest and slapped her right the hell out of sleep.
She came thrashing up from Bonnie's lap and fell back in a clumsy sprawl, knocking her head against the leg of the table.
"Are you ok-k-kay?" Bonnie asked, not reaching for her, not yet, but with his hands up and ready.
Ana nodded, still charged with dream-panic, but able to see the real world around her and herself firmly planted in it. Her heart still raced, her head still throbbed with adrenaline, yet this was Bonnie, and seeing him, she understood immediately that his had been the arms around her, his the heat and stink and prisoning squeeze that had transformed the dream into a nightmare.
"Are you sure?" he asked, venturing a touch on the safe territory of her forearm. Just a touch, brushing the backs of his fingers once along her skin. He wouldn't grab at her, not Bonnie. His voice, his eyes, the tip of his head and the angle of his ears—all demonstrated nothing but concern.
Ana gathered her legs under her, crawling back to him just long enough to drop a reassuring kiss on his muzzle. "That's the last time I eat beefaroni right before going to bed," she told him and got up. "I've got to go clear my head. Don't move, okay?"
Bonnie nodded, but braced a hand on the floor. "If you give me a minute, I c-c-can come with you."
"No, I want to be alone." Ana ran a hand over the top of his head, restlessly massaging the base of his quivering ears. "But when I come back, I want to come back to you. Okay?"
Ana found her phone for light and headed out. She intended to slip out through the door at the end of the West Hall, take a walk around the empty lot, ground herself beneath the stars, but just before she reached Tux, her feet unexpectedly turned her down the corridor to Pirate Cove.
Her bare feet made no sound on the thin carpet and the light from her phone clearly never made it past the purple curtain. She could hear Foxy humming to himself up there on the deck of the Flying Fox, dum dum diddly-dumming his way through that rapey little lullaby of his. If he knew she was there, he gave no sign.
Ana slipped into the mouth of the Treasure Cave on the upper level and made her way through the fake cavern to the Mermaid's Grotto. She thought seeing the mermaid behind the thick glass, inanimate, would help unhook the last clinging shreds of the dream, but if anything, it made them stronger. She found herself remembering, or inventing, new details she had already forgotten until she was all but dreaming again, wide awake. In the end, she did not so much leave as sleepwalk out of the hidden room and around the corner.
She removed a section of the maze's wall, then another and another, drifting in a more or less straight line from the Grotto to the back wall. The skull carved into the foam concealing the utilities door watched her come, leering right up until she stabbed her fingers into its sockets. When she heard the twin clicks, she set her shoulder against the wall and pushed. It was easier the second time; most things were.
Ana stepped over the threshold, thinking this time, she'd see them—the springtrap suits, her aunt's body, maybe a cage where the last celebrants of the building's grand opening still huddled, waiting for rescue.
Nope. Just a basement utilities room. The most evil thing in here was the water in the tank of the heater, which considering it had been sitting stagnant for twelve years, was probably pretty damn evil. And what did she feel, staring around at all this normal nothing? Relief? No. Her dream had not ended just because she was awake and all the horror of discovery was still out there, just waiting for her to walk into the right room.
But not this one. Ana stood, watching the silence and listening to shadows, numb. When the eyes lit up behind her, Ana 'woke' with a start and spun around, thrusting her phone forward like a cross at a vampire and illuminating, of course, Freddy's frowning face.
"I. THOUGHT. I. MIGHT. FIND. YOU. HERE," he said.
Ana lowered her phone. "Why were you even looking for me?"
His eyebrows shifted in a very slight well-duh expression. "BONNIE. SAID. YOU. WERE. OUT. SIDE. AND. YOU. WEREN'T."
Ana managed a weak smile. "And you thought I was getting up to shenanigans, huh?"
"NO. I. THOUGHT. YOU. WERE. UPSET."
"I'm not. I had a bad dream, that's all." Ana turned deliberately away from him and looked at the room, seeing what it held this time and not what was missing. "Just trying to shake it off."
"HERE." Freddy made a point of looking around, including his own cracked body in his incredulous stare.
"Yeah, not the most relaxing venue, but the three Ms will always get me through."
"I'M. ALMOST. AFRAID. TO. ASK. BUT. WHAT. THREE. M."
Counting them off on her fingers, Ana said, "I could medicate, I could masturbate, or I could look at broken machines. Would you like to pick one for me?"
"WHEN. YOU. PUT. IT. THAT. WAY." Freddy ducked through the door with a grumble and a scrape of plastic. Brushing crumbs of foam off his arms, he came to stand beside her, his eyes following the light as she aimed her phone around.
She started with the water system, because she already knew what it was and its examination served as a restful exercise, much like the stretch before an endurance workout. When she had exhausted all it had to tell, her gaze moved on to the real mystery—that boxy contraption occupying the rear wall from which the metal post sprouted.
Sprouted. That was a good word. All the other posts she'd found thus far were interconnected, one to the other. Although she hadn't removed all the walls and couldn't say she'd performed a thorough investigation, this was the first post that represented a terminus point.
No. Not a terminus, a genesis. This was not where the mystery of the hollow posts ended; it was where it began. Only that wasn't quite right either, was it? It really began on the roof.
Ana stared, her physical eyes gradually losing focus as her other-vision sharpened and the purely material features of the mechanism before her blurred out, revealing whole new dimensions of purpose and possibility. The restaurant sketched itself invisibly outward from the place where she stood, an unimportant and increasingly awe-struck witness to a truly grand design.
For a while, the echoes of her breath and his fan bouncing around the small concrete chamber was the only sound. Then Ana said, "Huh," and like he'd been waiting for it, Freddy folded his arms and bent his head in an attitude of grim resignation.
"The hell is that about?" she asked, looking at him with half a smile.
He shook his head—Nothing—and indicated the machinery ahead of them with a flick of his restless fingers. "WELL?"
"Funny you should say that." Ana pointed at the more mundane array of pipes and tanks set up beside the apparatus whose function she had been mentally exploring. "You're on a well here. Did you know that?"
"IF. YOU. SAY. SO." Freddy shrugged. "WATER. COMES. OUT. OF. THE. WALL. WHERE. THE. WALL. GETS. IT. IS. ANYONE'S. GUESS."
"Right," she said with a short laugh. "Well, the wall is getting it from one of the many, many underground aquifers hiding beneath all this deceptively dead-looking desert, as opposed to getting it piped in from the city. Which doesn't mean much to us, until you factor in this bad boy." Ana gave the boxy machinery from which the metal post sprouted an amiable pat.
"WHAT IS IT?"
"I don't know the name for it. I'm not a hundred percent sure there is one. All I can tell you is what it does."
"ALL RIGHT. WHAT. DOES. IT. DO."
"It's hard to explain…" Ana raked her fingers through her hair, seeking and massaging the scar buried there. "I don't suppose you know who Nikola Tesla is?"
She looked at him, surprised, but he merely looked back at her with his ubiquitous Freddy-face on. "Really? You're not just saying that?"
"OH. YES." He raised a hand, gesturing vaguely at the speaker set in his throat. "IT'S. HARD. TO. PROVE. IT. GIVEN. THE. WORDS. I. HAVE. BUT. TRUST. ME. I. KNOW. ALL. ABOUT. HIM."
Now Freddy smiled, his eyes slanting slightly upward in an expression of hopeless yet affectionate exasperation. "THE. MAN. WHO. MADE. US. WAS. A. FAN. AND. LIKE. YOU. HE. LIKED. TO. TALK. TO. HIS. TOYS."
Ana thought of Fredrich Faust, that small boy in a black-and-white photo hugging his first animatronic bear, and laughed. "Yeah, I can believe that. Well, the thing is, this guy Tesla had a lot of pretty wild ideas, one of which had to do with generating so-called cosmic energy. The crackpot conspirators of the world like to imagine it as some sort of magical antennae that could produce limitless clean power at no cost, but I was sort of a fan of the guy myself when I was younger and I actually read up on his notes. Although he uses some weird words, what he describes as the generator is essentially a solar panel. Nothing miraculous about that." Ana gave Freddy a pointed glance. "You had one on the roof. Did you know that?"
Freddy shook his head. "I. DON'T. EVEN. KNOW. THE. WORD. WHAT IS IT?"
"A solar panel? It makes electricity out of sunlight." Seeing that his expression hadn't changed, Ana laughed a little. "Let me guess. Electricity comes out of the wall. Where the wall gets it is anyone's guess."
"MY. LIFE. IS. HERE," said Freddy, indicating the room, the restaurant, the Edge of Nowhere and the nothing beyond with a short sweep of his arm. "WATER. LIGHT. SODA POP. I. DON'T. KNOW. WHERE. ANYTHING. COMES. FROM."
"Well, let's just say that the rest of Mammon gets their electricity from the city power grid, through wires. You remember our little talk about all the wires that aren't here?"
"Well, long story sort of short, you are off the grid here and I mean super-off the grid, and that's something that normal solar panels can't usually do, especially when you're only talking about one of them, and super-especially when it's powering a building this size. See, normal solar panels work by using photons to separate the electrons from atoms and then a gadget called an invertor turns all the potential energy into usable electricity. Tesla's version had something called a condenser to do the essential conversion and storage, using a system of pipes as the distribution process, similar to irrigation. Semantics, right? A rose by any other name and all that jazz, but the thing is, they had electrical wires back then. Tesla might not have known the word 'invertor' because it genuinely might not have been coined yet, but he knew the difference between a wire—" Ana reached out to knock on the metal post growing out of the back of the boxy machine. It sounded a deep, ringing tone; hollow. "—and a pipe."
"THIS IS VERY EDUCATIONAL," Freddy said with one raised eyebrow over heavily-lidded eyes. "WHAT. DOES. IT. MEAN."
"Well, I tell you one thing it means is that solar panel is going back on the roof first chance I get, because unless I am very much mistaken—and when it comes to mechanical crap, Freddy, I am never very much mistaken—what we have here is a Tesla condenser and cosmic energy irrigation system." The words sounded as ridiculous coming out of her mouth as they felt right in her heart. She had to laugh. "God, can you imagine the head on that guy?"
"He wants what he wants and he wants it now," Ana murmured, smiling. "It would have taken half a year for the city to run power out here. Even he couldn't have pushed it through any faster and he didn't want to wait. It's actually easier for him to build a goddamn Tesla condenser than to delay the grand opening of his pizza parlor for six months. That is…Words fail me. So many people would flip their shit if they knew this thing even existed that it might permanently alter Earth's rotation, but here it is."
"HERE. IT. IS," Freddy echoed, still looking at her rather than the machinery. "WHAT. ARE. YOU. GOING. TO. DO. WITH. IT."
"Well, I haven't got it completely figured out yet, but I will, and as soon as I do, we can have the power back on."
Freddy did not react with cheers and praise. His head tipped, shadowing his eyes as he studied her. At last, he folded his arms and said, "WHY. WOULD. YOU. DO. THAT."
"Uh, okay. Number one," she began, counting them off on her fingers. "A coffee maker I could plug in. Number two, the use of a refrigerator. Number three, I could actually use my Easy-Bake Oven. Number three-b, Chica could use my Easy-Bake Oven. Number four, I could get the water working, which means flushing toilets and real showers. Number five—"
"YOU'RE. NOT. GOING. TO. TELL. ANYONE."
"No. Hell, no, even." Ana hid a yawn against the back of her hand and shook her head. "It's fun to imagine a world where everyone had one of these in the basement and a flying car in the garage, but the reality is, it would be seized and weaponized, I'd be arrested and possibly permanently detained just for knowing about it, and the greater public would go right on using the same old environment-killing city-regulated power until the last drop of profit had been squeezed out of it. So no. I'm not telling anyone. I just want to be able to play with it. What do you say, b—uh, Freddy?"
Freddy rubbed his forehead, growling at the lowest register of his speaker. "AN-N-A. IT'S. LATE," he said at last. "CAN. WE. TALK. ABOUT. THIS. TOMORROW."
"Sure. No rush. I've got plenty on my plate right now and that isn't really why I came down here anyway. I just…had a bad dream. It relaxes me to think about mechanical problems instead of, you know, real ones."
Freddy grunted. "DO. YOU. WANT. TO. TALK—"
"—ABOUT. YOUR. DREAM," Freddy finished.
"Oh." Ana glanced at him self-consciously. "You sure? Most people think listening to other people's dreams is boring."
"MOST. PEOPLE. HAVEN'T. SPENT. YEARS. IN. AN. EMPTY. RESTAURANT. TO. LEARN. WHAT. BORING. REALLY. IS."
"Good point," said Ana, but she didn't go on to tell him about the nightmare.
Freddy didn't ask again, not with words anyway, although Freddy was awfully good at saying things without talking. His stare itched at her as she explored the innards of the thing Ana was already thinking of as a Tesla condenser, and like any other itch, the more she tried to ignore it, the more intensely it itched, while the more she actually distracted herself, the harder it was to keep from thoughtlessly scratching.
At last, and perfectly aware that she was not quite changing the subject, Ana pointed back at the door to the Grotto and said, "I didn't touch it, by the way. I've been good."
Freddy went over to the door and put his hands on the wheel hatch. It resisted, not as much as it had the first time, and opened with an ear-splitting metallic groan. Freddy stood aside, motioning within as tiny spiders, disturbed by this midnight invasion, scattered over his feet (some of them crawling inside the cracks of his casing to seek sanctuary within his body). "ACCESS IS RESTRICTED. MEANS. I. CAN'T. LEAVE. THE. DOOR. OPEN. BUT. IF. YOU. NEED. TO. GO. IN. THEN. GO. IN. IF. YOU'RE. LOOKING. FOR. SOMETHING. I'LL. HELP. YOU. LOOK."
"No," said Ana. And after a moment, she said it again. "No. Why would I want to? I found what I was looking for, didn't I?"
"DID. YOU." Freddy waited, but when Ana didn't answer, he released the wheel hatch and came back to her. "WHAT. WERE. YOU. LOOKING. FOR."
"You know. The glowstick."
"NO," said Freddy. "I. DON'T. MEAN. THE. TOY. I. MEAN. WHAT. WERE. YOU. REALLY. LOOKING. FOR."
"Oh Jesus, you can't guess?" Ana touched a pipe, following where it led from the source, through the filters, to the tank. "My aunt, of course. Aunt Easter."
His eyes were glass and plastic, servos and springs. They had no emotion and therefore, did not bleed away that grim stare she so often attributed to Freddy, nor did they fill again with pained understanding. He was an expressive machine and she was an imaginative person. "OH."
"Yeah. Oh." Ana went over to the water treatment system. She looked at it, into it, finding comfort in the familiar layout of hoses and valves, pumps and tanks. She thought of Mr. Faust again—not the boy and not Mike Schmidt's murderous accomplice, but just the old man with the awkward, intense way of talking, telling her he'd never met a man half as trustworthy as the least machine. Its needs were simple, its wonders many, its flaws predictable and usually reparable. And not alive, that was the important thing. Operational or out of order, functional or non-functional, but not alive and therefore, unable to die.
"I really thought I was going to find her when I got back," she heard herself say. To Freddy, of all people. "Not alive, but I'd find her. Because…Because she wouldn't leave, you know? She'd never leave. If you knew her, you'd know that. She kept David's room exactly the way it was when he left. She built him a playroom and bought him movies. She fucking destroyed her house making sure he'd have everything he could ever possibly want when he came back to her, so how could she leave him? How could she…How could she leave me? God, that sounds so stupid when I say it out loud," she muttered, rubbing at her eyes. "Like I was ever coming back. Maybe I didn't have a choice back then, but I've had ten thousand opportunities to come back and I didn't, so I left her, just like everyone else. I'm part of the reason she did…what I know in my heart she did."
He reached for her. She saw his shadow-arm stretch out and moved away. He lowered his arm to his side again and said nothing.
"The problem is," said Ana, inspecting the machinery from her new position, "that I keep thinking of her as my Aunt Easter. But she was her own person. She had this whole other life and I was such a small part of it. I'll never know who she really was. I'll never know the demons she was wrestling with or how hard it was for her, to go on living in that empty house. Maybe she started drinking. Maybe one too many postcards got left on her windshield. Maybe she reached out to David and he told her he never wanted to see her again. I'll never know what happened. And that's the first thing. I'll never know. And if you…oh damn it, why am I crying again?…If you only knew how it feels not to know…maybe you'd understand how I could actually want to find her here. I believed it…because I wanted to believe it…because as bad a story as that is, it's still a better one than believing she could just walk up into the mountains and eat a bullet where no one will ever find her.
"And that's the second thing," she said, taking an access panel off the side of the condenser to get a look at its works. "No one's found her, so there's no body, so she's not really dead, is she? And she's sure not alive. She's just like David now, gone. Have I ever told you about David?"
"I'VE. HEARD. YOU. TELL. BONNIE. ABOUT. HIM."
"He was my cousin. Still is, I guess. He was my best friend, my only friend. He and his mom were my everything when I was a kid, and then one day, I guess his dad came and got him and that was that. He was gone. I called her that night, looking for him. And she was here. Well, not here," she said, shaking her head. "I mean the other Freddy's, Circle Drive. They're all the same place in my mind."
"I called her and she told me to come over. David was there. And his father, I guess. And she must have known that would be the last time and maybe that was her way of letting me say goodbye. It was my one chance, you know? And I blew it."
"YOU. DIDN'T. GO."
"No. No, I've never been in any of them. I tried once." She glanced at him, remembering that day, the smell of the air, the sound of the tires, the smell of pizza wafting through the door as she lay on the curb…
"I never made it," she finished and looked back at the machine. "This is the only Freddy's I've ever really known." She thought about it and managed an ironic little laugh. "It would be, right?"
"WHAT. DOES. THAT. MEAN."
"It means…I don't know. The Freddy's I wanted was all full of bright lights and happy noise and pizza. You were there, and you were…clean and gentle and kind."
Freddy looked away.
"But this is the one that I got," Ana said. "The one where nothing works and everything's rotten and broken and stinks…and empty. If this were a horror movie, the big twist would be that I've been dead since that night when I was fifteen and this is my personal hell. You know, sometimes when I see you guys performing, I find myself thinking maybe the place really is open. That it's clean and bright and full of kids and I only see it this way because I'm dead. Bonnie says this place is haunted." She glanced at him, dredging up half a smile. "What if I'm the ghost?"
"I. DON'T. BELIEVE. IN. GHOSTS," said the talking teddy bear.
"Me, neither. But something has to make all this make sense and the alternative is that we're not dead, that not only are we alive, but we have to go on living. In this place, of all places." She tried to smile, but it wasn't a joke and Freddy wasn't laughing. "In this mess," she said, letting the smile bleed away. She shivered. She wasn't cold. "And the whole world's moved on and left us behind. And even if you fixed what was broken, it'll still be dark and empty, because the only people who remember you are the ones who want to hurt you."
"WAS. THAT. YOUR. BAD. DREAM," Freddy asked, startling her a little. She'd forgotten that was how this conversation had started. "WAS. IT. ABOUT. THIS. PLACE. DID. ONE. OF. US. HURT. YOU." His head lowered, shadows eclipsing his features in a frown. "WAS. IT. ME."
"No. It was this place, the maze in the ceiling. The mermaid was chasing me. I think it was the mermaid," she said, more to herself than to him. The dream was already hazy. All she could remember now was the white face glowing out of the darkness…and her aunt's voice. "I think I've had it before. The dream, I mean. It feels familiar. And I really don't like that mermaid."
"IT'S. JUST. A. TOY."
"That's what Bonnie says, but it's an evil toy. I don't like it." And before she knew it, out came the truth: "It looks like my aunt."
His ears came up. "WHAT?"
"Sort of. I mean, obviously, she didn't have a tail, but she was blonde…and she's dead. Not much of a similarity, I know." She glanced at him. "I have a tendency to humanize inanimate objects."
He didn't answer, but he smiled.
Ana went back to staring at the condenser. Freddy waited with her. The quiet was companionable.
"I kind of want to do something," she said at last. "You won't like it."
"YOU. WANT. TO. GET. RID. OF. THE MERMAID."
"Not exactly. Look, I'm just going to ask. You can say no. I won't argue."
Ana took a breath and turned to fully face him. "I do want to go back inside. Just one more time. I want to clean it. I want to leave her…in a good place. And then I want to weld the door shut," Ana said, before he could say no.
"ALL RIGHT. BUT. PROMISE. ME. YOU. WON'T." He broke off suddenly with an electronic pop of static and tipped his head back to squint at her. "WAIT. YOU. WANT. TO. WHAT."
"Weld the door shut," said Ana, knowing that was the part that had hung him up. "Think of it as super-glue for metal stuff. I want to close the door so it never opens again."
Ana didn't hear a hiss, but he must have released a puff of air because some of the hanging webs behind him in the Grotto swayed, catching the draft.
The movement caught his eye. He looked at the webs, then at the mermaid, then at the hatch itself, and finally at her again. "CAN. YOU. DO. THAT."
"Sure. I've got a welder's torch."
"Oh, Rider took me to this Renaissance Faire once and this chick had a stall with all these incredible steel sculptures, like dragons and shit. I was stupid-high, so I said, 'Hey, I could do that,' and Rider fucking whipped out his phone and ordered me one on the spot. I wasted a couple months trying to be all artistic and shit, but I am not a fabricator. I get some use out of it every now and then, but it's pretty much just sat there ever since."
"NO. I. MEAN. WHY. WOULD. YOU. DO. THAT."
"Yeah, I know what you meant." Ana sighed and ran a hand through her hair until it knotted up in her braid. "I don't know. Because I'm stupid and even though I don't believe in ghosts, I still sort of believe in dreams. And I think this one's telling me that my Aunt Easter is gone, but she'll always keep coming back because there's nothing to stop her. There's no body and no grave to put it in, nothing and nowhere to mourn. There's no closure. Do you…Do you at least kind of know what I mean?"
"YES," he said, and weirdly enough, she thought he did.
"Well, that's what I want. I want to close the door. I don't just want it to be closed and I don't care if access is restricted and no one can ever open it or even find it. I want to be the one to close the door. I want to dig the grave and put her in it and close the fucking door so hard that no one can ever open it again, not even me. I want to close the door…so I can open the one that leads to the rest of my life. And I want to fumigate first," she added after a moment's thought. "Because seriously, so many spiders. But the door will never open again," she repeated, making sure he heard her and knew it wasn't a metaphor. "So if that's a problem for you—"
"It's just that I know how you feel about vandalism and it doesn't get much more vandalized than that."
"VANDALISM. ISN'T. ABOUT. WHAT. PEOPLE. DO. BUT. WHY. THEY. DO. IT." He glanced down at his hand, flexing the fingers as if testing them, then visibly braced himself and reached out to clasp her shoulder. "THIS. IS. A. GOOD. THING. JUST. DON'T. DO. ANYTHING. UNLESS. I'M. THERE. ACCESS IS RESTRICTED. MEANS. I. HAVE. TO. LET. YOU. IN. IF. YOU. GO. IN. WITHOUT. ME. IT'S. TRESPASSING. AND. I. HAVE. TO. TAKE. YOU. OUT."
"Does that mean yes?"
The web-curtains in the Grotto caught another phantom breeze.
"Okay. Today? I mean, in the morning, but you know…today?"
"FINE. BUT. FOR. TONIGHT…" He went to the Grotto door and closed it, giving the wheel that extra quarter-turn to do the job right before turning back to her again. "BED. TIME. BEAR. SAYS. IT'S. TIME. TO. GO. TO. SLEEP."
"Damn that Bedtime Bear," said Ana with a sigh that turned into a yawn. "Why did I ever sign up for Sleepytime Toddler Camp?"
"I. CAN. ONLY. ASSUME. HUG. A. BUNNY. SNUGGLE. CAMP. WAS. FULL."
Freddy grunted, ducking out into the maze and standing well back as she pulled the heavy door shut. He stared over her head at the condenser right up until the end, but she guessed that wasn't really so odd as it seemed; it was what she'd been staring at, after all. And once the condenser was out of sight, Freddy looked down at her without needing any further prompt, saying, "CAN. YOU. FIND. YOUR. WAY. OUT."
"I found my way in, didn't I?"
Freddy grunted, switching off his eyes and limping away into the dark. "GOOD. NIGHT. THEN."
They went their separate ways at the first T-section, Freddy to his endless watch and Ana back to her bunny. Settling once more against Bonnie's soft, insanely toxic fibracene-flocked shoulder, Ana's brain gathered in all its loose thoughts—Aunt Easter as the mermaid, Mr. Faust as the old man and young boy, Erik Metzger with his shirt unbuttoned, and the Puppet, laughing and crying—and let them go.
"Everything-ing-ing okay?" Bonnie asked, smoothing her braid back once before putting his arm around her.
"All good in the hood," she assured him, closing her eyes, as down in the Mermaid's Grotto, unseen, a long, dark arm emerged from the narrow shaft set in the ceiling. Something small dropped from the Puppet's claws, landing with a metallic jingle in the web-choked kelp beds, almost exactly where the glowstick had fallen earlier that day and where, with luck, it would be as easily found.