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Epilogue: Zoning In

He is in a warm place. He floats around in the water. Children's laughter echoes off the high ceiling above. He is only one year old, and the swimming pool is deep, but his mother would never let anything bad happen to him. She holds onto him with firm hands and lifts him up above the surface, playfully splashing water at him, and he chuckles and wiggles in her grip …

and he's eight years old, in the amusement park with his family. It's his first ride on the big rollercoaster. He feels the shivers of panicky dread as the carts travel at snail's pace to the top of the first incline, then the exhilarating rush as the carts come swooping all the way down, and his scream turns into a delighted laugh …

and he's drunk. He's 14, drunk for the first time in his life. He walks amongst his peers as they stalk the streets at 11 in the night, laughing, shouting, singing their puerile little drinking songs. He sings along, and for once he feels like he fits in with these people; for once he feels accepted. Hell, he could probably conquer the world tonight if he wanted to. It's not like he's just another dumb teenager celebrating the start of the summer break with some beers. It's not like he's gonna puke his guts out later on tonight and wake up with a pounding hangover tomorrow …

and he's 10 years old. There's a new girl in his class; her family moved to Dampmine sometime in the summer, and now she's in his class at Dampmine School. She's a shy one. Doesn't talk much. She looks pretty, though, with long blond hair and dull blue eyes. During the breaks, she always sits at her table in the far corner of the classroom, next to one of the big windows. Sometimes she stares out the window at the kids playing in the yard. Sometimes she just reads books or does her homework.

She's reading a book now, as he walks over to her table and sits down on the wide windowsill next to her. All the cool kids sit on the windowsills when there aren't any adults around. It's a sunny day, and he blocks out the sunlight in which the girl was reading her book.

"Hi," he says. The girl doesn't even look up from her book, even though she has to strain her eyes to make out the words darkened under the boy's shadow. He tries again, raising his voice a little: "Hey."

She looks up at him. "You're not supposed to sit on the windowsills. They can break."

"Uh, sorry." He jumps down and sits on the chair next to her instead. "You're … Ashley, right?"

"Right."

"What're you reading?"

"A Race Against Time," she says. Her gaze has returned to the book, as though these old, yellowed pages are the only things in the world worth fixing her eyes on. "It's a Nancy Drew book. It's really exciting."

"What's it about?"

"This really smart girl who goes around solving mysteries and catching all the villains."

"Oh. Okay. That sounds cool." He stares out the window at a plastic bag whirling around in the winds. If she isn't going to look at him, he isn't going to look at her. He follows the stray bag with his eyes until it flies up over the roof of the school and disappears. Hopefully, the summer winds will carry it all the way out of this town, all the way to the wonderful lands on the opposite side of the globe. "Sometimes I wish I had a mystery to solve."

The girl looks up from her Nancy Drew book. "Really?"

"Yeah, really." He looks back at her. She's smiling. "Wouldn't it be fun if there was something strange going on in Dampmine, and we were the only ones who could solve the mystery?"

The girl laughs. It's the first time he's ever heard her laugh. "That would be awesome."

"It's just too bad there's nothing strange going on around here."

The girl nods. "That's why I read Nancy Drew."

"Well, I guess there is one mystery around here."

"What?"

"You. I don't know anything about you."

She smiles. "I am not a mystery! I'm just a girl in your class. There's nothing strange about me. You're the one who's a mystery."

"No I'm not!"

"Yes you are. I don't even know your name."

"Zach. I'm Zach."

NOVEMBER 22

(After the Deadline)

The recovery had gone by swiftly. Zach had only needed to stay in bed for a couple of days. On Saturday morning, he'd woken up and found himself blinking with perfect ease. There was not even the slightest twinge of pain shooting through his eyeballs. Asclepius had done his job well.

The police believed Ashley's story about how Zach had merely been lost in the woods. After all, the paths could be quite treacherous out there, and several hikers had been reported missing over the years, some of whom were still nowhere to be found. As for the fact that Zach never used to go hiking in the woods alone, Andy hadn't paid much attention to the habits of his son, and Margaret was in no condition to give a coherent testimony. Of course, there were obvious holes in Ashley's story, but the Damp Mine Town Police Department could think of no other explanations for the boy's sudden disappearance and equally unexpected reappearance. The important thing was that Zach had returned in one piece, and exactly where he had been was not something the police really needed or wanted to worry about. Like so many other people across the world today, they were willing to turn a blind eye to inexplicable events as long as the outcome of those events was a good one.

"So is your mom doing okay in rehab?" Ashley asked Zach as they walked down the dreary Saturday streets. The sky was shrouded in white tatters of clouds, behind which a glimmer of blue came shining down. Twilight was slowly descending over Dampmine.

"She's fine, I guess. It's a good clinic," he said, looking somewhat absent-minded. There were other, more important issues they had to talk through together. He took a deep breath of cold autumn air. "You gave me Memoria, didn't you?"

"Yes. I thought you needed something to …"

"Calm me down?"

Ashley nodded. Throughout the first 6 hours after Zach's painful awakening, she'd given him eight pills. She had held the cup to his lips whenever he seemed to be drifting back to full consciousness and the agony which awaited him in that state.

"Well, thank you." Zach hesitated, as though he wasn't sure what he wanted to say and how he was supposed to say it. "Baal and Astarte … did some things to my body. I looked in the mirror this morning. Most of it's healed now. I still have some marks on my back and, and my chest, from …" The words caught in his throat. An involuntary shudder ran down through him. "But it's not, I mean, it's not that bad. They did some other things to me. Sometimes they would just talk to me, or play these sick games with me …"

Ashley stopped him. She put a firm hand on his shoulder. "Zach, you don't have to tell me this. If you don't want to remember ..."

"I just want you to know why I'm glad you gave me the Memoria." He looked up into her eyes. For the first time since they'd ascended to their hometown together, he looked into her eyes. Until now, he had constantly been averting his gaze from her face, like a humble Dante in the presence of his Beatrice. "They gave me Memoria too. The bad kind of Memoria. It showed me my worst memories."

"Oh God, Zach …"

"That's why I want to thank you for giving me the good Memoria." There was a flicker of a smile crossing his lips. "It made me remember the other parts of my life. It … it healed me. I know that probably sounds stupid, but -"

"It's not stupid," Ashley said softly. "It's not stupid at all. That's just life. You go through a lot of shit sometimes, and … sometimes, everything feels perfect."

They had been standing frozen in the middle of the sidewalk for a minute. Ashley started walking again, and Zach followed. They turned a corner and found themselves on Kyanka Street, the center of the town. It was surprisingly deserted save for a few late shoppers, dog-walkers, teenaged couples on their shy, tentative first dates. In the very midst of the street, an inconspicuous elderly lady sat on a bench with her cell phone pressed to her wrinkled ear. The wind brushed through her dirty, matted strands of grey hair.

Ashley and Zach walked up to the Bench-Lady.

"You're back," she said, not even lifting her gaze from the sidewalk.

Ashley nodded. "It wasn't easy."

"Nothing is ever easy in Pandemonium."

Zach felt somewhat taken aback to see that Ashley was actually speaking to this strange person who had puzzled them so profoundly, back when they'd first taken notice of her unwavering presence on the bench and her endless phone conversation. "You can just … talk to her?" he asked Ashley.

"Yes. And she knows everything. Why don't you ask her a question?"

Zach turned to face Bench-Lady. "Er … What happened to that guy who fell through the trapdoor in the library? I think his name was Ethan …?"

"The librarian is still in the Great City," Bench-Lady said. "He lives with the singer in Hades."

"Lethe," said Ashley. "And it's my fault he ended up there. I opened the trapdoor, didn't I?"

"He doesn't want to go back yet. He has already forgotten Dampmine," Bench-Lady continued.

They were silent for a moment. "Well, good for him," Zach remarked. He looked out at the opposite side of the street. Something caught his eye, and he started heading across the road. Ashley quickened her pace to keep up with him.

"We're not going back to Pandemonium, are we?" she said.

"No." They'd reached the sidewalk on the other side, and here Zach stopped in front of the old Cosmorama Movie Theater. He faced Ashley, looking into her eyes again. "Promise me that you'll never open a trapdoor again. It's too dangerous. I … I don't want you to see or feel any of the same things that I saw and felt when I was down there."

"I promise, Zach. I won't go back to Pandemonium." She thought about Rhea, Ethan, Lethe, Astarte, Belial. "Whatever happens down there in the future, I'll just let it be a mystery to me."

Zach gave a slow nod. "I like mysteries."

"Yeah," Ashley said with a wry smile. "The world would be a pretty boring place without them."

Zach knew exactly what she meant. He'd known it ever since they had first met, six years ago. They had been complete mysteries to each other back then. In some ways, they probably still were.

"Wanna go catch a movie or something?" he said. "They're showing Repulsion tonight." He pointed to the movie theater, where a poster of a young Catherine Deneuve's haggard face hung on the front.

"That'd be great."

They stepped inside and stood in the short queue to the booth where tickets and popcorn were sold. We could follow them as they make their way to the nearly deserted hall where Repulsion is shown, and we could watch as they find their seats. They talk and joke and laugh while they wait for the show to begin. And they slowly realize that, despite the ordeals they have both gone through, nothing has truly changed between them.

We could stay with them, but there would be no purpose in doing so. It is time to leave Ashley and Zach, along with their quiet little hometown, along with the beauty and the grotesqueries that lay hidden beneath it. Past has reached present, and the story is coming to an end.

But before we return to our own time and our own little zones, let us walk across the streets of Dampmine one last time. There's Bench-Lady, still sitting on her usual bench. She speaks into her cell phone.

"I dare say everything will be quite peaceful up here." Her tone is one of hesitation. She gives a slight smile and adds: "For now."