Chapter 6

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We didn't talk much on the way back, and when we climbed up through my bed and shut it, we split up. Niko went out the front door, I assumed to take a walk, without a word. I lay on my bed listening to records until I got too creeped out imagining what might be underneath me, and went out to curl up on the porch swing, instead.

The summer air was hot, with only the hint of a breeze, but it still felt infinitely better to me than the cold dead air down there.

I tried to think of anything else, but something kept dragging my brain Downstairs, as if it was too heavy to stay on the surface with me. No matter how often I clawed my way onto other topics, Downstairs and all the things we didn't know about it dominated my thinking.

I had no idea what we should do next.

When Niko came back it was with a brown bag from the liquor store, and he went straight up to his room, not even looking at me. I didn't feel like talking to him either.

We didn't know what was going on; we didn't know how to stop it. We didn't know anything.

We might have stayed in our funk for another couple days, except something happened the next morning.

The local history lady had left me a voicemail at around 7:15, a solid fantasy movie and credits before I normally woke up. She'd been useless when I'd stopped by before, and her tone of voice in the message—"something a bit exciting's come to light about your house"—made me assume she'd dredged up some piece of trivia as a pretense to get me to come back and keep her company again. Maybe get me to join the local history society myself. A warm-blooded young person like myself could even aspire to become the treasurer.

So it was a couple hours before I got around to calling her back and asking when would be a good time to come over.

"Oh, come right away," she said, voice syrupy. "This really can't wait. Just wait till you see what I've found."

Not at all encouraged, I agreed to head over, and biked the mile or so to her run-down house. The visit got off to an ugly start when she asked why I hadn't brought my colored friend this time. "Actually, he's Greek," I said through clenched teeth, and then wished I had the guts to say something else. She served me tea again, weak to the point of tastelessness, and spent so much time making small talk I'd convinced myself she hadn't found anything and this whole exercise was a waste of time. Worse, she kept glancing at my pride bracelet and pursing her lips, and then pretending not to have done either. I wanted to get out of there but was too mentally exhausted to remember how social interactions were supposed to work, what niceties would bring a conversation to an end. She was rolling me out with polite nothings and platitudes, like dough, and I couldn't escape it.

The third or fourd time I pressed her about what she'd found, she got up with a smug smile and bustled out, returning a minute later with a file folder holding a few photocopies.

"I did some digging on your address," she said, "and found something rather interesting." She turned the last two words into an annoying sing-song. Raaaaather intressting. Trying to tune her out, I opened the file and pulled out the first page.

It was a blurry copy of an old newspaper ad, maybe from around the turn of the century. It advertised, in a hand-drawn, swirling font, some attraction called "THE VORTEX."

I noticed the address and almost choked on my tea.

I clutched the page, scanning the smudged text frantically. The ad looked for all the world like one of those terrible roadside attractions desperate for tourist dollars. MADAME ZOLA WILL READ YOUR FORTUNE, MEET BOBO THE CHUCKLING CLOWN, that kind of thing. IF YOU ONLY KNEW WHAT AWAITS YOU.

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