Chapter 168

               Alice took a deep breath, emptying her mind of stress, fear, and expectations. That last one was the most difficult, given what she was here to do, but she hadn’t spent the last few months working on meditation training with Mary for nothing. She tried to push at the boundaries of her mind, opening up the pathways. According to the texts they’d read, this was supposed to “open one up to the cosmic energies of the universe,” which she took to be new-age bullshit. It did, however, make it easier for someone with mental powers to access her mind, and that was something she very much wanted to achieve.

                She felt the presence on the outskirts of her mind; it took willpower to not reflexively shove it away. This one had a different sensation than Mary’s entrances, which had grown so familiar in their training that they two barely had to work at it anymore. No, this was older, stronger, and somehow more distant. Somewhere, in the physical body she’d dulled her awareness of; Professor Stone was still holding her hand, pushing her awareness through the connection between them. For a time, it was impossible to say how long, that was all there was: a lingering presence on the outskirts of her mind.

                Her first hint of change was when she felt a pull coming from somewhere in her memories. Alice’s awareness drifted through them, weaving throughout her first year at Lander, trying not to cringe at the entitled debutante she’d once been. The trip was mercifully short; as she plunged into the second year she began to slow down. She saw their first meeting as a team, and the scavenger hunt Nick sent them on. She saw the team trial, felt the surge of pride that had run through her as she grabbed the enemy’s flag. Then it was Halloween, and she was creeping along. The horror house, being separated, ending up at a table with Nick, Mary, and Rich. Time slowed even more as Rich banged on the table, their eyes turning to his. As she fell into his gaze and the world began to shift, the progress stopped entirely.

                “Are you ready?” Professor Stone asked. She was standing at the edge of the table, a place she hadn’t been the first time around, waiting patiently for Alice to respond.

                “As I’ll ever be.”

                Professor Stone nodded and the memory shuddered back into motion. The world fell away in a fog, then reshaped itself as Alice found herself at a luxurious spa being waited on hand and foot. She knew this place as soon as she saw it. Not in the way that she’d been there before, just that everything about it somehow felt like home; that fleeting sense one could only capture for moments upon returning to a familiar place. The entire place practically radiated that sentiment.

                “This is my subconscious core, right?” Alice said. She was watching a different version of herself be pampered, not without a bit of jealousy, amazed at how Past-Alice seemed so unconcerned about the sudden change in her surroundings.

                “By all accounts, that’s where Rich put you all. He stuck you in your home base, somewhere that you’d be safe and happy,” Professor Stone replied.

                “Interesting.” Alice wasn’t at all surprised that her idea of home wasn’t the mansion she’d grown up in, a part of her had always recognized that house for the empty place it was. She wondered if this spa was still what she imagined her mental safe place to be, though. Somehow, she doubted it. After everything in the past year, Alice suspected that if Rich hit her with the same whammy, she’d wind up in the Melbrook common room, surrounded by friends. And maybe a few of the attendants doing pedicures, they were really showing some top-notch work.

                For time, which was the only thing that could be said about the passing of moments in this place, nothing happened. Then a man stepped in from the fog. He wore a well-made suit with no tie, his cocoa-colored skin showing through the open buttons of his shirt. He looked around the area a few times, then he approached Alice’s chair.

                “My, this is a strange scenario.”

                “I didn’t realize there were any other customers here today. Please, take a seat and join me.” Past Alice motioned to an open chair, which the stranger took after stepping into her view. The Alice watching all this play out tried not to be too hard on her past self for not thinking this odd, after all, losing the sense of reality was part of Rich’s ability.

                The man introduced himself as Abridail, and accepted a glass of champagne from Past Alice. He went on to explain that he was a dream-walker and that he had visited Alice many times before. When he mentioned having a message, Alice felt her nerves tighten and had to force them down. Now, when she was this close, she couldn’t afford to put up any accidental mental walls. She had to see it through, to learn what on earth he’d told her.

                “This message of yours, who is it from, anyway?” Past Alice asked.

                Abridail drained the last of his champagne in a single gulp. “That’s the part that generally piques your interest in the first place. The truth of it is, I’m here on behalf of your mother.”

                “You must be mistaken,” Past Alice said. Her eyes drooped a bit, and the attendants rushed over to bring more champagne and comfort. “My mother passed away when I was born.”

                “I’m afraid that’s not true,” Abridail informed her. “Though I’d agree that your mother isn’t exactly what I’d call ‘living’ she does still draw breath. And her incapacitation didn’t happen until you were almost a year old.”

                “I don’t believe you.” Past Alice’s sadness had slipped away replaced by a quickly mounting anger. In the distance, Alice and Professor Stone could hear the rumble of thunder. “If my mother were alive, she’d have come for me. Everyone talk about how wonderful and loving she was, she’d have never left me alone. My mother would have found a way to get to me.”

                “My poor, dear, child. She did. I am that way.” Abridail didn’t rise to meet Past Alice’s ire, he stayed seated and calm, like a mountain in the fury of a storm. Past Alice stared at him for moment uncountable, then lowered herself back to her seat.

                “Let’s say I believe you. What’s this message supposed to be anyway?”

                “Your mother wants you to know that she loves you very, very much. She’s proud beyond words at the woman you’ve become, and at what you have the potential to turn into. Shelby loves you every day, and she wants you to know that she doesn’t regret any of it. When you find out the truth, it’s important to her you know that. She has no regrets. And she doesn’t want you to search for her, if you can help it.”

                “If my mother were alive, why on earth wouldn’t I look for her?” Past Alice asked.

                “Because most of the time, when you look, you find her, and that means you uncover the truth.”

                “The truth about-” Past Alice’s voice crackled into static as the world swirled into fog once more. Slowly, things reshaped around them, turning back into Screamtopia’s lounge area where Past Alice was groggily waking up.

                “You have to be fucking kidding me!” Alice yelped, ineffectively trying to shake her past self. “That’s it? That’s all I got? Not a GPS location, or a town, or even the goddamned country she’s in? He gave us nothing!”

                “He told you that your mother loved you and thought of you every day,” Professor Stone said, setting a hand on Alice’s shoulder. “Perhaps it is just me, but that seems quite a ways off from nothing.”

                “But I wanted to find her.” Alice let herself lean against the older woman as the anger fell away from her; replaced by the same knot of emptiness she’d carried since being old enough to realize she was one parent short.

                “Yet it seems she doesn’t want to be found,” Professor Stone pointed out.

                “I don’t give half a goddamn whether she wants to be found or not, if my mother is our there then I’m going to look for her.”

                “Then you’re in luck, Alice. Hunting down the unfindable is one of the skill Subtlety Heroes specialize in. You’ve been getting exactly the training you need to make that possible. So long as you’re following the rules of course.” Esme Stone allowed one of her own smile to break through the veneer of an instructor she wore so expertly. It was a small gesture, but one that Alice didn’t miss.

                “Of course, Professor.”