Rain pattered against the windows as everyone finished dinner. Mia and Rianne washed dishes while Cara put away the few leftovers. Shavonne pitched in by wiping down the table and kitchen counters. She also returned the folding chairs to the laundry closet.

The boys gathered in the living room to say out of the girls’ way. Sakari sat backwards on the couch, staring out the window at the rain. David stood beside him and watched the rain too. Bern leaned against the wardrobe. He slowly flexed injured hand, wincing.

“How’s your wrist?” Nico asked him.

“Stiff,” Bern replied. “What a way to start game two, right?”

“How much longer is it going to rain?” Sakari asked no one in particular.

David answered, “Probably a while from the looks of it.”

Sakari turned around and sunk into the couch. He complained, “Man. I was hoping we’d get to fight more of those Gibberish.”

“Really?”

“You nearly got your arm ripped to shreds,” Nico reminded Sakari.

Bern added, “If it weren’t for Rianne, you’d be begging to go back to your place.”

Sakari rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. About that. I kind of don’t have a place right now.”

“What?”

“That lady was supposed to tell me where I could stay.”

“What lady?” Nico asked.

“Oh! Right. You weren’t there for that.” Sakari told Nico and Bern the story he told Mia on the train – about the lady he was supposed to meet by the Phoenix Fountain.

After Sakari finished, Bern asked, “So this lady was supposed to hook you up?”

“That’s what my teacher said,” Sakari replied.

“But since you never met, you’re shit outta luck?”

“Pretty much.”

“I’m out of luck too,” David volunteered. “All the places I could stay likely aren’t safe anymore.”

“Why would…?” Bern asked, but then he remembered. “Oh. Right. That prison story.”

Nico said, “You could crash at my place. We’ve got big sofas.”

A smile spread over David’s face. “Nico. I heard you missed me, but I had no idea how much.”

Nico’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t make this weird,” he told David.

Cara finished her kitchen duties and joined the boys in the living room. She stood between the upholstered chairs and faced the window. “Rain again?” she observed, crossing her arms. “Don’t tell me this is gonna become a pattern.”

“Time will tell,” David replied.

Nico told Cara, “We’re calling it a day. We’ll head home once the rain stops.”

“Fine by me,” Cara said. “But what about tomorrow? Y’all seemed pretty insistent that we aren’t waking up from this nightmare any time soon.”

Bern said, “No way! Party’s just getting started.”

“Hooray,” she answered, echoing none of Bern’s enthusiasm.

Nico answered her original question. “We ought to focus on your leaderboard and getting everyone on it. If these people are behind the collapsing dimensions, they’d have no problems removing everyone at the bottom.”

David reasoned, “Hunting Gibberish is also an excuse to explore and pick up clues about what’s actually going on.”

“And help out any other survivors we find,” Sakari added.

Cara, Nico, David, and Bern stared at him, silent.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure there’s any more survivors to find,” Nico said.

“But what about the park? There were plenty of people who didn’t turn besides us.”

“How many of them do you think are still alive?”

Sakari didn’t answer.

David said, “If there are any more people out there, then I think we need to assume that everyone without a brand is one of them.”

“Them?” Sakari asked.

“The ones using Mr. N, Martinez, and Bubblegum like puppets.”

“And if they do have a brand, that means they’re the competition,” Bern added. “That’s how the game works.”

Cara rested her chin on her hand, thinking. “I wouldn’t normally suggest this,” she finally said, “but what if we split up? We’re a large enough group that I think we could survive it. That way, we could cover more ground, possibly run into more Gibberish, and give everyone who needs it plenty of chances to get on the board.”

Bern replied, “I’m down, so long as I can keep my eye on pretty boy.”

“No way!” Sakari shouted. “You threatened to kill him. Nuh-uh. I’m not letting you two go alone.”

“But you were fine going to the grocery store without him?”

David told them, “Guys, guys, it’s fine. The three of us can go together.”

“What?” they both asked him.

Mia, Rianne, and Shavonne finished cleaning up the kitchen. “What’s with all the yelling?” Shavonne asked as she and the other two walked over to the living room.

“Bernie, you’re not picking fights, are you?” Rianne asked her brother.

“Only people who deserve it,” he answered.

Nico quickly filled the three girls in on what they were planning for tomorrow.

Mia turned to her sister. “You suggested splitting the party? Seriously?”

“I don’t think we need to make any decisions right now,” Shavonne said.

“You’ve got another idea?” Cara asked her.

“I say we meet up at Stone Crossing and let the Gibberish decide.”

Sakari was confused. “We… what?”

“There’s a big clocktower there, and I know how to get up to the top.” She told Nico, “I bet you can scan the entire city from that high up.”

Nico said, “I don’t know. Worth a shot, I guess.”

“If the Gibberish are clumped in one spot, we all stay together. If they’re spread out all over the place, we’ll split up. We can figure out who goes with who once we know where we’re going.”

“That’s a great idea, Shavonne,” Rianne told her.

“So, we have a plan, then?” Cara asked the group.

Everyone agreed.

Shavonne smiled and pulled out her cell phone. “Give me your numbers. I’ll set up a group chat for us.”

©2022 Joyce Lewis. All rights reserved.