DF Part 8: Lullaby

There once was a boy named Lars

His life was a dank stinky farce

No love or happiness he had

But he had weird dreams

And they drove him mad

 

There once was a boy—

I gasped awake. The verse had played on repeat while I slept, recited in a silvery, cheerful voice, a voice that sounded like it belonged to a happy young woman without a single care in the world. But the words had me sweating and my heart pounding. Not that they were threatening in any way. They weren’t. But they were sinister. The verse scared me.

That was the second night I’d dreamed about it all night long. On the third night I woke before dawn drenched in sweat, panting like I’d run a marathon, with a swimming head. It would have been a little – no, immensely – better if the bed had not been empty next to the sweat stains I’d left but it was. Sian had left two weeks ago, after I told her everything.

She didn’t say I was insane. She didn’t accuse me of lying to her to cover for a worse truth. Her eyes watered a little but she didn’t cry. She said I should’ve told her earlier. And she left. When I told Sonia, she said “Well, did you expect anything else?” which didn’t help, either, though she was very gentle while she explained how people got hurt when other people they cared about did not trust them enough to tell them something so important. I understood. And I called Sian every day. She hadn’t answered yet.

It was twenty past five on a Thursday, New Year’s Eve was in three days and all I wanted was to cancel the holidays and spend the next two weeks in bed. But first I got up to take a shower. The sweating was from fear, I had no doubt. You don’t sweat in your sleep from pleasure. Well, not if you dream of someone reciting a snarky poem about you, that is. I woke up afraid. Only I didn’t know what I was afraid of. The voice that recited the verses wasn’t scary, it was quite pleasant. But still I woke up in a sweat of fear, for the third night in a row.

I made the water as hot as I could stand it, hoping I’d be able to wash off some of that fear that clung to me like fog, and forced myself to think about something else.

Sonia and I had decided to take the last week of the year off as business was slow, as usual for late December, and had parted with happy holiday wishes. Sonia was visiting her brother in Munich. I was staying home and had no plans whatsoever for the holidays. I’d spent the last two days wondering what that dream could mean and coming up with nothing.

I worried about Tony. She had asked why Sian had left and I’d told her we’d had to separate for a while, putting into these words my belief that I was telling her the truth and she would come back. “I still love you, Daddy,” Antonia said and hugged me.

That was the second time in as many days I’d been so close to tears I was horrified I’ll just burst out crying and won’t be able to stop. I didn’t but I had effectively deprived my daughter of a proper holiday season. We spent Christmas at home, watching all the ancient Christmas classics I could think of, from Home Alone to Christmas with the Cranks. I stopped short of Love Actually, though.  I was walking on the edge of depression already. That film would have tipped me over.

I stopped the shower when my skin turned bright pink and the heat dulled the fear. I’d thought about calling Vlad, about making him tell me more about this guardian scheme I was apparently part of. But he wouldn’t tell me. He’d made it clear. I’d have to figure things out on my own. Again. For now, I pushed these aside. I owed my child attention.

 

“What do you want to do today?” I tried to sound casual, like it was a question I asked every day, which I didn’t. “Do you want to go out, maybe spend the day at Tivoli?” As usual, the more I tried to cover my awkwardness, the more awkward it all became.

“It’s okay, Dad, I don’t want to go out,” Tony said. She had a book next to her breakfast bowl and her eyes were fixed on its contents. A story about some girl who could talk to animals. I sympathized.

“Sure?” I was sure there was no hint of relief in that question. I did not feel relieved. I felt guilty for training my daughter to prefer staying at home than going out and getting some fresh air. But underneath the guilt there was relief.

Antonia looked up and smiled at me, flashing a gap in the neat row of milk teeth. She had pulled that one herself after I tried and gave up, afraid I’d hurt her. She was very proud and so was I. A heat wave hit me as I looked at my girl. Love, I guess. I really, truly loved my child even if she wasn’t really, truly mine.

“I want to finish my book,” she said. “We can go tomorrow if you want.”

“Sure thing.” I kissed the top of her head and took the empty bowl to wash it with my plate. I was still eating hearty breakfasts, fat lunches, and rich dinners. I didn’t dare risk another visit from my annoying mentor and the memory of that crushing weakness I’d felt after I’d helped Bozhana was a very strong motivator, too.

I started trying to spend a quiet day at home, however long it took. Tony had her book – and another three because the story about the girl that talked to animals was a series – but all I had were my thoughts and my laptop. I browsed news aggregators simply for the pleasure of seeing how nothing much was happening in the dead days ahead of New Year’s Eve. I was bored and I tried to enjoy it. I also tried to not think about Sian but I gave up on that as hopeless and called her. She did not pick up. I made lunch for Tony and myself – her favourite spinach and rice soup, crab cakes and coleslaw for me.

“Are you sure everything is all right?” I asked my daughter as I watched her absent-mindedly dip her spoon in the soup and put it in her mouth awkwardly while she read.

“Sure, Daddy.” She finally tore her eyes off the page and smiled at me. I’d begun to worry she was sick and it was serious but her smile was the usual one, wide, sunny and sincere. I smiled back.

“I just have nothing to do and I’m looking for things to worry about, I guess.”

“You should read a book. When was the last time you read a book?” Antonia lifted her own book from the table and waved it at me. “You can’t get bored with reading.”

I didn’t have many books in the house. My parents’ house had a big library but that was only to be expected from a couple of linguistics scholars. I used to love to read but I now realized I had forgotten how to make time for reading.

“I’ll give it a try,” I said.

Sonia had given me a book as a gift for my birthday in May. “I always give books as presents,” she’d told me. “You can’t go wrong with a book.” I could argue against that assumption but I liked Sonia so I just accepted the book. Now I pulled it out of the shelf where my scarce collection of fiction sat and settled into the sofa. “We, the Drowned.” I had a vague memory of it being a best-seller which immediately made me suspicious. But I’d promised Tony I’d try so I tried. Three hours later a call from James jerked me out of the book.

“Do you have time for a pre-New Year’s Eve drink? Bring Tony, it’s been ages since Martina and Nora have seen her.”

I was relieved to have something more social to do than read but I was also surprised by a stab of annoyance. This book was good. I had a very smart daughter.

 

A tiny incessant drizzle accompanied us next morning on the way to Tivoli. It was really half-fog half-drizzle, the kind that wouldn’t be any good for the water supply or crops and that seems to strut in the air flashing its uselessness at you. I’d dreamed of those verses again last night and I wasn’t in the best of moods even though we’d had a nice time with James and his family. Now that I was completely over Martina, I could appreciate the family atmosphere in their house and enjoy being part of it.

“Dad?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Can I have a hot dog?”

We were crossing Town Hall square and there was a hot dog cart in the middle. For some reason it looked suspicious. There was nobody around, no tourists, no visitors to the Town Hall, closed for the holidays. Just a few bored passers by like us. But the cart was there lurking in the center of the square. I stopped.

“Can I?”

“Yeah, of course.” I gripped her hand more tightly and we went to the cart. I ewas being paranoid.

“No onions or condiments, please,” Antonia said.

“One hot dog with no onions or condiments,” I relayed to the lady in the cart. She didn’t look suspicious at all and I wondered what had made me think there was anything suspicious about the cart at all. It was a regular hot dog cart with a regular hot dog seller in it, a fiftyish, blond, and bulky woman with a warm smile.

“That would be five newros,” she said and passed me the hot dog in a paper bag.

“Here you go, Tony.” I passed the hot dog on to her and let go of her hand to take my wallet out.

“Thank you,” I told the woman and my voice broke on the you. Out of nowhere panic gripped my throat and squeezed it almost shut. I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t move to see where Tony was. The square was empty, there was nothing threatening around and I was having a panic attack.

“There once was a boy named Lars, his life was a dank stinky farce, no love or happiness he had, but he had weird dreams, and they drove him mad.”

My feet grew roots that stuck into the concrete and pinned me into place sending liquid lead up into my legs and my body. I had to move and face this wind-chime voice, and I couldn’t. The cart lady looked over my shoulder. I expected to see shock on her face but she just looked puzzled.

“We’re not really here,” the voice said and the cart lady’s puzzlement melted away replaced by boredom.

“Lars, do you know how the second verse goes? Because of course there is a second verse.” Wind chimes in high winds, that’s what the voice sounded like. A melody both sweet and frantic as it sang about a coming storm. And it had my daughter.

“Tony?” I managed to croak. “Tony?”

“She’s here with me, don’t worry about that. She can’t speak because I told her not to. Are you turning around any time soon? I know you have all day but I don’t.”

I took as deep a breath as I could through my tightened throat and it relaxed a little. The lead that filled my bones relaxed, too, and the roots holding me in place dissolved. I turned around.

She was tiny, in an elegant double-breasted beige coat, she had huge round eyes the color of chestnuts and straight, long hair like ripe wheat, hanging limply around her heart-shaped face in the drizzle. The corners of her small mouth pointed upwards in what looked like a polite smile but wasn’t. It was a sneer and it was directed at me. Part of my brain yelled at me to run, run away right now but another part saw Tony, it only saw Tony, standing by the woman, holding her hand, gazing at me without seeing me. The woman’s hand held Tony’s so tightly the knuckles on her thin fingers were white.

“What do you want from my daughter?” I could speak again but this question was the hardest sequence of words I’d ever uttered. She clearly didn’t want to take Tony to the rides across the street.

“Oh, I want nothing from your daughter. I want something from you,” the woman said and tilted her head playfully to one side. I couldn’t hold back a sigh of relief. “I want you to die.”

“What?” For a split second I thought I hadn’t heard her well. Half a second later I gave up on that hope. This woman whom I’d never seen before wanted me to die for reasons I couldn’t fathom. “Why?”

The woman straightened her head and her smile vanished. I didn’t break eye contact however much I wanted to, however much I wanted to rush to Tony and tell her everything will be okay.

“Because you’re a plague. You and all the other so-called guardians are a plague. You interfere with the lives of people you don’t even know, you change the course of history, and you make me sick. So that’s why I want you to die,” she said like she was laying out a rational argument.

“Who are you?” My first idea was she was a mentor gone rogue. My second one was she was a regular human with some irregular abilities such as spotting guardians and making people do what she tells them to do.

“I’m Adelaide,” the woman said, adding an extra emphasis on the name as if she expected me to know her. “I’m a guardian, but I’m not like you or that old woman I found in Brazil last year, or the kid I pushed into traffic in St. Petersburg. You are all so full of yourselves, so sure you are doing the right thing. But you’re not. You’re a plague.”

My phone began vibrating in my pocket, which was when realized I was standing with my arms raised as if the woman was holding a gun to me or my daughter. My left hand dived for the phone before I could stop it.

“Don’t move.” She let go of Tony’s hand and wrapped her hand around her neck. My girl let her do it without the slightest attempt at fighting. I froze with my hand on my pocket. The phone was still vibrating but I wasn’t taking that call. I swallowed.

“How do I know you won’t do anything to Antonia after I die?”

“You have my word,” the woman said and let go of Tony. “Go say goodbye to your Daddy, sweetie. Go on.” She pushed her gently forward.

My heart lodged in my throat while I watched my seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter cross the three feet that separated us and hug me. I hugged her back and pressed her to me.

“Goodbye, Daddy,” Tony said and let go. Her arms simply hung by the sides of her body while I still clung to her. Tony’s movements resembled those of a machine that had fulfilled a task and was now at rest until the next task was given.

“Come here, sweetie,” the woman, Adelaide, called and my daughter started pushing at me. I let go. She walked back to Adelaide without a second glance at me. I’d always thought the most horrible thing I could imagine happening to me was Tony dying of that brain tumour that had first brought her to me. But this here was even more horrible, seeing her turned into a breathing puppet, completely vulnerable and exposed to this woman’s whims. And there was nothing I could do to help her except kill myself. Or stall in case Vlad happened to sense what was going on and came to the rescue.

“I’m not sure I can trust your word,” I said. “I don’t know you. You could just kill her after I die.”

“That’s true,” the woman said, tilting her head again. In someone else the movement could probably be attractive but in her it gave me shivers. “And I think you’re stalling, maybe waiting for help. And it will come but it will be too late. Let me give you some motivation.” She took her free hand out of her coat pocket and caressed Antonia’s neck with it. Something red spurted out from underneath Adelaide’s hand but I couldn’t understand what it was.

“Catch,” the woman said and threw something small and silver at me. I caught it without thinking. It was a scalpel and it was bloody. The ground turned into treacle and so did the air. Looking up took me years, only to see Adelaide had disappeared and Tony was lying on the ground in a small, pale heap, the red stuff pooling on the left side of her head. Moving felt impossible but I moved, scalpel in hand. I was holding it like Tony’s life and my own depended on it, like I could undo what Adelaide had done using the same tool.

“Tony?” I knelt by my daughter and winced at the sheet-like paleness of her face.

“Daddy,” she said. No, she whispered it. Her body was shivering, so I dropped the scalpel and took her in my arms and held her close to warm her. She was so light and so cold, her breathing shallow, hitching every other second until it stopped. I held on to her.

Nobody was bothering us. Nobody wanted anything from us, so I could hold her a while longer before I put the scalpel to the use Adelaide had meant it for. She was doing me a favour, really, sparing me the trouble to spend who knows how many years killing people I didn’t mean to kill, maybe even hurting Antonia. I kissed her cool forehead, wet from the drizzle.

A vague noise I’d been hearing for a while became more distinct: somebody was running, coming closer. I held Antonia closer. Nobody was taking her from me. With me, she was safe. Besides, I had a job to do with that scalpel. I felt for it, never taking my eyes off Tony’s face, found it and gripped it. What had Adelaide done? She’d caressed Tony’s neck with it. So that’s what I would do, too. I was raising my hand to the side of my neck when someone grabbed my wrist and yanked on it.

“Not going to happen today, friend.” Vlad was holding my wrist in what felt like an iron fist while I struggled to complete what I’d started. “Quit it.” But I kept on struggling, one arm holding Tony close to me, the other burning with pain already.

“Lars!” This was a familiar voice, a woman’s voice, like Adelaide’s but a familiar one, a good one. “Lars, stop struggling.” This woman was crying, she was speaking through tears. “Stop, please.” Sonia swam into view, kneeling in front of me, sobbing, reaching for Tony. I let go of the scalpel and pulled my hand back to hug my daughter again. “I’m so sorry, Lars. So sorry.”

I closed my eyes and started rocking my daughter.

 

The funeral was family only. James and Martina came nevertheless and I didn’t object. I didn’t object when Vlad told me he would be visiting me every day until I got better. I didn’t tell him there was no chance of me “getting better” as he so amusingly put it, I just nodded. I didn’t object when Sonia informed me she would move in with me because that would be easier than calling me ten times a day to check if I was all right. I think she and Vlad looked at each other in a weird way when she said that but I didn’t really care. If she wanted to live in the house, that was fine by me. I had other things to think about. I had to dream Tony back or if I failed that I had to find a way to put an end to it all. I didn’t tell Sian. I had finally accepted she was out of my life for good and it was better this way. I had nothing to offer her. I was only going to be around for a while longer, until my daughter came back and then we were out of here.

“Toast or oatmeal?”

I forced my eyes open. Sonia was standing by my bed in yellow pyjamas with a sheep pattern. She looked like an oversized toddler in it. I winced at the “toddler” part.

“Toast or oatmeal. Or I can make you eggs if you want.”

“Whatever.” I closed my eyes and turned on my side facing the window, away from Sonia.

“Fine then. All three and you will eat every last bite.”

“No.” I was sure Sonia was feeding me on Vlad’s instructions and though I had told her there was no point she didn’t listen. Some day I might get mad enough to try and force her to stop but right now I couldn’t be bothered to tell her I didn’t need the food. I wasn’t dreaming at all.

“So, do you have any plans for today?” Sonia asked when she settled into the chair that faced the wall at the small off-kitchen table. The first day she’d sat opposite me, where Antonia used to sit. I felt sick but before I could tell her to move away she remembered and moved, apologising again and again, which made me sicker.

“I have no plans for today or any other day and you know this. When do you want to do the paperwork for the company?” Speaking was difficult and unpleasant but Sonia insisted on us having conversations, no doubt as part of the therapy Vlad had prescribed.

“I’m not taking over the company, Lars. You’ll get better and come back.” When she spoke so confidently I felt like tearing the skin off my face just to get my mind off this confidence. Nothing I said made a difference. No matter how confident I sounded in my own ears when I said I was done with everything and just wanted to stay at home at sleep, Sonia refused to respect my wishes.

“So I’ll just kill myself,” I shrugged.

Sonia put her buttered toast on the plate, sighed and stood up, sending a quick glare my way. She went into the kitchen, far enough that I lost view of her for a second. She reemerged holding her phone to her ear.

“Hi, he’s talking about killing himself again. No, that’s the first time today but it’s still early. Right. Thanks.” She put the phone on the counter. “Vlad is coming in an hour.”

A surge of heat set my face on fire. I was always cold these days but now I suddenly felt very hot.

“Why the hell can’t you leave me alone, Sonia? Why? I don’t want things to go back to normal. I want my daughter back and I’m getting her back.” I threw my spoon into the bowl full of oatmeal and it splashed in the middle. Sonia just stood where she was, under the ark between the kitchen and the living room, her arms crossed. I waited for a few seconds but she didn’t say anything.

“I’m going back to bed,” I said. Sonia didn’t try to stop me.

 

“Get up.”

I groaned and pulled the covers over my head. I’d been trying to fall asleep for an hour and all I’d achieved was that muddy state between sleep and wakefulness that sometimes led to sleep and other times only left you tired and wanting.

“Get up, Lars.”

“Hi Lars.” It was Sian.

I pulled the covers down and opened my eyes. There she was, as real as Vlad who was standing next to her. She tried to smile when I looked at her but her lips trembled before the smile formed and a tear ran down her cheek. She sat on the bed and tried to hug me.

“I’m so sorry, Lars. I’m so sorry. You should’ve told me.”

I hugged her back and sat up. Her warmth, her smell felt like home. I had to clench my teeth to stop myself from crying with her.

“Guys, I’m happy for you but we don’t have much time.” Vlad sounded nervous, which was new and unpleasant. I had no time for Vlad’s problems.

Sian pulled away.

“I’m sorry.” She leaned in again, pecked me on the lips and took my hand in hers. Then she looked at Vlad like she was waiting for an official announcement.

“What is it?” I asked. Sian’s hand felt so good, so mine while not mine at all. I squeezed it.

Vlad cleared his throat.

“Get up and let’s go in the other room.” He pointed his chin at the door as if I hadn’t understood what he’d said and left.

“What’s going on?” I asked Sian. I really didn’t want to leave my bed and I couldn’t see why Vlad could not say what he had to say here.

Sian shook her head.

“It’s best he told you himself. It’s not good, Lars.” She looked down for a moment before raising her head and allowing me to see her face. “I’m really sorry for Tony. Please let me help you. Please.” She hugged me again.

“I don’t know how you can help me,” I said and stroked her hair, so soft and familiar. “I’ll just dream her back and everything will be back to normal.”

Sian sobbed and hugged me more tightly.

A knock on the open door made her drew away, wiping her eyes.

“I’m sorry but Vlad says you really need to hurry up.” Sonia’s crooked smile and the eyes that met mine for the briefest of seconds told me she did not want to do this. But she had done it.

“Okay, fine, I’m coming.” I got up and took Sian’s hand again.

Vlad sat on the living room couch I sometimes slept on. He was browsing something on a tablet with a deep frown.

“Well, I’m here.” I heard Sonia whisper to Sian, asking her if she wanted coffee and Sian said yes. Sonia slipped off to the kitchen.

“Sit down,” Vlad said and put the tablet on the coffee table. I hesitated, annoyed at being asked to sit down in my own home but eventually I did. I sat across Vlad in the armchair Madeleine had liked so much. Sian perched on the armrest and sought my hand just as I sought hers. Vlad slid the tablet to us. “Have a look at these.”

I picked up the tablet. There was a news story on the screen, one written in a language I didn’t speak but I recognized a name. Bozhana Done. There was also a photo. It was her. This had happened on Monday, two days ago.

“You can use the translator to read it but basically it says she killed herself. Jumped off the roof of the police HQ. It’s not very high but it’s high enough for a successful suicide.”

My stomach heaved. Sian’s hand tightened its grip on me as I struggled to not throw up on my coffee table and Vlad’s tablet.

“Look at the other ones, go on.”

I swiped the news story. Another appeared after it, this time in English. “Local Star Doctor Found Dead” it said under the “Cape Times” head. It said a popular Cape Town doctor by the name of Moatsche Moiloa had been found dead in his home on Sunday. That was three days ago. I swiped again. “South China Morning News” and another report of a death, this time of some local businessman, a refinery owner, who was killed in an explosion at his refinery, a week ago. While I scanned the story Sonia came back with Sian’s coffee mug, which steamed and smelled deliciously. She handed Sian the mug and sat on the couch, as far from Vlad as she could.

“There’s one more,” Vlad said when I tried to put the tablet back on the table and ask him what all this was about. I swiped again. “Schoolgirl Drowns in Freak Ice-Breaking Accident” in “Ann Arbor News”. The girl had been sixteen and had drowned while skating on a frozen part of the river. This story was from ten days ago. I put the tablet on the table.

“And?” I said.

“All these people were guardians,” Vlad said. I glanced at Sonia whose face remained as grim as it had been for most of the past two weeks. She knew.

“And?” I still couldn’t fathom what all this had to do with me.

“They were all killed by Adelaide, like your daughter.”

I thought I’d learned to brace myself for the blow that was every mention of Antonia’s name but I hadn’t. The stab of pain was as sharp and deep as the first time her name had slipped off Sonia’s mouth one evening.

“I’m sorry to hear that. If you know where Adelaide is, I’ll be only too happy to take care of her for you.”

“Adelaide is a guardian, too,” Vlad continued, ignoring my attempt at irony. “She manifested a year ago and has been quiet for most of that time, working with her mentor to hone her skills and—”

“What are her skills?” I said though I suspected what the answer would be.

“She can make people believe whatever she says. She can… she can make them do things.” Vlad had the decency to stumble on the reference to what she had done to my daughter and I was grateful for it. He had something human in him and it was good to know that.

“Right.” The image of Adelaide running her scalpel across Antonia’s skin, severing all blood vessels in the side of her neck tried to sneak back into my head but I forced it out. I’d been doing this for most of the last fourteen days. “And she thinks we’re a plague so we should die. Understood.”

“Yes. It seems she managed to deceive her mentor she was eager to use her skills only when necessary and for the benefit of humans and encouraged her to leave when Madeleine learned Adelaide’s negator had passed away.”

I wasn’t really surprised to hear Madeleine had been Adelaide’s mentor. I also wasn’t getting any closer to understanding what all this was about, why Vlad was here, wasting my time with his problems when I had my own.

“She kept a low profile for months and then, two weeks ago, she apparently decided to strike.” Vlad shifted, manifesting, as would probably put it, another human characteristic. Vlad was embarrassed.

“She decided to start with me.” I said. “And you had no idea she was coming.”

“No.”

“He was busy with me, Lars,” Sonia said. Her cheeks were flushed and she had trouble looking into my eyes but she persevered. “He was training me, has been for a month now.” She blinked quickly a few times and looked away.

“What?”

It had hurt when Sian left me. It now hurt just as much to discover Sonia, my partner, my friend had effectively betrayed me. She had lied to me and she had kept a secret from me. An important secret. She was at least partly responsible for Antonia’s death.

“Lars, it hurts.” Sian’s voice came from somewhere far away through the new, thick thrum of anger in my ears. “Let go. Lars!” She was trying to pull her hand free. I was squeezing her so hard I was hurting her. I let go.

“I’m sorry.” I had trouble focusing on Sian through the thrum. “I didn’t mean to.” She smiled and started rubbing her hurt hand.

“Take it easy, Lars, it’s not Sonia’s fault.” Vlad trying to play the referee was not the best idea right now but I resisted the urge to beat the crap out of him, not least because he would probably beat the crap out of me. I was in no shape for direct confrontation. One more addition to my “To Do” list.

“Whose fault is it, then? Why did you keep this a secret? I could’ve helped, like you helped me when I blew up that bank. Why, Sonia?”

Sonia hesitated and looked at Vlad for support or permission or whatever but it made me angrier.

“We don’t encourage guardians and their negators to forge close relationships,” Vlad said. “It’s not really wise. Friends don’t block friends and that’s what a negator is supposed to do, block a guardian’s powers.”

It hit me then. I jumped out of the chair and closed the space to the couch in two steps. Sonia pulled back as I leaned over her, blocking her escape route.

“How could you do this to me, Sonia? That’s what you’ve been doing here, blocking me, isn’t it? Why? Why would you not let me have my daughter back. Why?” I was shouting and I was sobbing and in the end I was only sobbing when I felt Sian’s hands hold my arms and gently pull me away from Sonia who was crying as hard as I was. “Why?” I turned to Vlad not even bothering to wipe my tears away. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Because you can’t dream her back, Lars. You can’t bring someone back from the dead twice. I’m sorry.”

I fell back into the chair. Sonia got up and murmured she’ll be just a second. We waited in silence.

“I’m sorry, Vlad,” Sonia said when she came back. Her eyes were red and so was her nose but she’d stopped crying. “I wanted to tell you but it wasn’t the time.”

“The time is now,” Vlad said. “We need your help.”

“With what?” I didn’t care. I was numb all over, exhausted, and incapable of feeling anything except the relief of Sian’s touch on the back of my neck where she held her warm palm and even that was muted.

“You have to dream a negator for Adelaide and you have to do it soon.” Vlad’s face contorted in a grimace of pain. “I know it’s a tall order, Lars, but she’s already killed four guardians and that leaves just you and Aidana, and I’m not sure if Adelaide hasn’t got to her already. She travels fast, damn her, she could already be in Kazakhstan.”

I stared at him for a while and burst into laughter. He was placing an order – a tall order – and I was supposed to simply fill it, as if it he’d ordered a coffee and a piece of custard pastry. I couldn’t make custard pastry and I was pretty certain I couldn’t dream a person into existence.

“I’ll go back to my place,” Sonia said quietly. “But I want you to know, Lars, I wasn’t here to block you. I was here as your friend, not your negator. I’d understand if you don’t believe me and, god, I wish I could help you more but…” she glanced at Vlad who hung his head, “There’s only so much I can do, apparently.”

“Wait. You really are asking me to dream a person into existence?”

“I am. We are. Madeleine and Alisher – he’s another of ours – are scanning the planet constantly for signs of a negator but with no luck so far. We need this negator now, Lars, before she returns for you.”

The fog in my head began lifting. Something didn’t make sense. More than one thing didn’t make sense.

“Why didn’t she kill me? Why couldn’t she make me kill myself like she did the others if what you say is true? And what’s the big deal if she kills everyone? Is she going for world domination or something?”

Vlad grunted and buried his fingers into his thick hair. He scratched his head vigorously for a couple of seconds and then let his hands drop in his lap.

“We don’t have time for this,” he concluded and stood up. “Come here, Lars, now.”

I hesitated but since it was clear he needed me more than I needed him, I walked around the table and stood in front of him.

“It will just take a second,” Vlad said and put his hand on my chest, right in the middle, where the ribs fused. Something I couldn’t see struck me in the solar plexus, kicking all the air out of my lungs. I blacked out.

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