Part 2600 – You Are Not Alone, Carthage.

Carthage’s phone rang, disrupting the moment. He answered it. “Hello? Yes, this is Carthage. Ah! Hello, Investigator Jerunge.” He frowned. “What do you mean? I am here at Mark Caten’s Funorium in Pinkerlee. Where are you at?”

He let out an indignant huff. “What? I was told that you’d meet me here! What are you doing there? What? No, never mind. Never mind. What do you want me to do?” If they tell me to come back to Henspence, I will flip my car. He managed a strained smile. “No, of course I don’t mind waiting here for you. No, not a problem at all. Yes, I’m sure you’ll be here as soon as you can. Please drive carefully. Oh, no! Please. Don’t feel you need to hurry on my account. Yes. Yes, of course. I’ll see you in a little bit. Bye.”

Carthage ended the call and jammed the phone back into his pocket. “This day is just getting—” An orange light flared and vanished in the shadows of the standing ruin. “What…was that?” He frowned. Did I really see that or—

It reappeared. Only this time it was further back and there was more than just one. Two of them, spaced close together, hovered in the air. They gave Carthage the eerie sensation that they were looking right at him.

He took an uneasy step back.

They continued to stare at him, as if they were assessing him.

Carthage shivered. He scurried back to his car, opened the door, got inside, slammed the door shut, locked it. He looked up at the ruins.

The orange lights were gone.

What was that?

What did I see? 

***

Sarah followed John and Clarice into the clothing store. She glanced all around, intrigued by everything there was to see. True, it was not her first time in such a store. Still, this one was different and yet it was the same.

So clean. So well-lit and the lights were not harsh and mean.

Lazy, daydreaming piano music played on the overhead sound system.

If they served food here, the food would be delicious to look at and to eat. Sarah was 100% certain of that. There was absolutely nothing about this whole place that even remotely reminded her of The Institute and she was glad.

The other customers looked at her in surprise. Undoubtedly, they had never seen a girl her age wear such a gorgeous dress in public before. Maybe they were wondering who she was.

Sarah grinned.

Maybe they thought she was a princess come to visit America. If she could only laugh, she would have laughed. They would all be so surprised if they knew the truth…that someone in such a fine dress could be an XQ.

Who would guess it?

Who would ever suspect?

No one! And it was just so funny to her. She wanted to laugh out loud, but her laugh was silent. Her vocal cords, if they were even there, were still. All she could do was smile.

She stopped beside John at the YOU ARE HERE station.

“Let’s see…” John said.

Sarah studied the map with him, searching for the children’s section. She tapped the hard plastic-plastered map. There! The children’s clothes were—-

She tapped the map again.

—-right there!

She gave John a pointed look.

“Ah, I see you found it first.”

She nodded, feeling quite proud of herself. Flames circled her wrists in hot yellow-orange bracelets.

“Do you think you could lead us there?” Clarice asked.

Sarah looked at the map again. Really? It seemed simple enough. She’d seen much more complicated maps at The Institute. She nodded with absolute certainty.

John smiled. “Then, lead on.”

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