11. Infinity Box Blues

Customers suddenly multiplied, coming in all at once as if someone had scattered vouchers for free drinks across the city. In reality it was simply afternoon, when Jingians grew tired after lunch and needed a pick-me-up. On this particular day, their exhaustion stemmed from the trauma and activity surrounding the demolished bank.

Bracken made an effort to stay behind the counter, taking orders to help Jaz in hopes he might redeem himself. But he was also tired, and Jaz was sullen and snappish, so he soon slid out of the workspace and escaped to a corner table.

He folded his arms on the tabletop and rested his head on them, watching the activity in the plaza. He was sorry about what happened, but it wasn’t his fault that Aton was easily spooked. And Jaz hadn’t said not to use the camera. In fact, she had barely told him anything before shoving him behind the register. He hadn’t asked to be her helper. He hadn’t asked for any of this.

The more he thought about it, the more irritated he became. If he were outspoken like Kajaani, Bracken would have yelled back at Jaz when she yelled at him about the camera. Kajaani’s response to confrontation was to confront it right back; Bracken’s was to pretend it didn’t exist. Internalize. Seethe quietly until the bad feelings faded away and the trouble passed.

So he sat and seethed, through the afternoon and into the evening. His eyes slowly closed and he slept, head down on the table, until a tap on his shoulder startled him awake.

It was dark outside. The plaza was brightly lit by iron street lamps that curved down at the top like thin black plants, their lights like hanging buds casting circles of light onto the dusty bricks.

Bracken blinked, his reflection coming into focus in the windows. Jaz stood beside him.

“I got us dinner.” She walked away before he could answer.

Bracken stood and stretched. The cafe was empty except for themselves. The sign beside the doors was turned to ‘closed.’ The clock above the wall read eleven forty-five.

Jaz hopped onto a stool at the counter. “You eating or not?”

Bracken walked over to the counter. Dinner was an assortment of white takeout boxes clustered on the countertop. Jaz had one open already. She pushed another toward him. The warm smell of seared meat and vegetables tempted him, and he took it, along with the fork she held out. A hesitant bite revealed the meat was generously coated with a sticky sauce, seasoned with what Bracken assumed was black pepper. The taste awakened his stomach, which had been empty for too long.

He ate quickly, scooping up large forkfuls, standing at the counter. Jaz was quiet on her stool, eating more slowly.

“I’m not good at explaining things,” she said after several minutes. “When you spend all your time in one place, doing the same things every day, you forget about the details that make up the routines. They’re just part of you. Part of life.”

This made sense to Bracken, but he was still a little bit angry at her. Enough to say, after swallowing, “It’s not that hard. You could have told me about the blue people, and the bank, and Aton being neurotic.”

Jaz made a noise in her throat, almost a short laugh. “Well…I did tell you.”

“Only as it all happened.”

She stirred the food in her carton. “You try it sometime. No, tell me now. Tell me all about Cavicea.”

“You know about Cavicea.”

“Pretend I don’t.”

Bracken thought. “Well…it’s bigger than Homburg. There are more streets and parks and houses and stuff—”

“No, I mean details. What exactly were you doing before you left? Every day?”

“Well…” Bracken began, and found he had to stop and think. “I went to school. Mom would make us breakfast sometimes. I stopped going because I wanted to find Sadie…”

“But what was happening? In detail.”

“…nothing happened. Just everyday stuff. Eating breakfast, going to school, coming home…”

“Now who’s vague?” Jaz smirked, then grew serious. “It’s the same here. The daily patterns. Morning rush, afternoon rush. Evening crowd on certain days. The difference is, I’ve been living these patterns a long time. Long enough that I can’t remember it all. I don’t have enough room in my memory for all the memories I make.”

She reached over to a binder sitting on the counter. It was thick, the cover stained brown from coffee spills. Across the front and along the spine it was simply labeled ‘Wednesday.’ “I record things that happen each day in these binders. So I can recall details. Past events, people. Stuff like getting slugs for Aton and arranging a meeting between him and Joli.”

Bracken stared at the binder. It was at least three inches thick, and small bits of colored paper stuck out here and there, marking certain pages. “How long have you been here?”

Jaz swallowed a mouthful of food before answering. “Longer than I’d like.”

“How come you can’t get out?”

“The Defiant is like a train, right? Except with this train you can only get off at the same station you got on. The home station.”

“You don’t have a home?”

“It’s gone.” Jaz tilted her carton toward her and poked at the contents with her fork.

“What happened to it?”

“Ceased to exist.”

“How?”

Jaz shrugged, stabbing the vegetables but not eating them. “The day my world ended, I was here in this cafe, sitting at the counter. I don’t remember what I was doing there. This guy with white hair was sitting at the counter, and he turned to me and said something like, ‘Sorry to inform you, but your world is about to disintegrate.’ And then…it did.”

“All except for this place.”

“He said he liked it, so he saved it.”

“Why did he let you live?”

Jaz frowned. “I asked him to. And he did. But in exchange, I have to run this shop.”

“Where did he go?”

“I wasn’t sure, for a long time. First I had to find out what he was…” Her face became still, almost expressionless, her eyes distant. “Eventually I tracked him down to one of the worlds The Defiant visits. Thursday. He’s there, somewhere. I just have to find out where, and get a message to him. Get him to come here and free me.”

Bracken held his carton of congealing meat and vegetables between his hands, watching Jaz with widening eyes. The memory of laying on the rug beside Kajaani, listening to his aunt’s stories when she came for one her rare visits, came back again. “This place is…it’s like an infinity box.”

Jaz’s forehead crinkled but she said nothing.

“My aunt used to tell us stories about a princess who got trapped by an evil king inside an infinity box. It kept whoever was inside from leaving, so this princess has been living her whole life inside this box…”

Their eyes met over the takeout boxes.

“…And the princess had blue h…oh…”

Jaz’s eyebrows twitched upward into her blue bangs.

“Oh.” Bracken sank back in his chair and said it a third time. “Oh.”

Jaz sighed, glancing up at the clock above the doors.

Bracken straightened, shoving the box away from him. “I knew it! She was here! You lied to me!”

“What? I didn’t lie to you.”

“You didn’t tell me she traveled with you!”

“I couldn’t tell you anything, just like she couldn’t tell you anything!”

Bracken wished he hadn’t moved so quickly. His legs wanted to fold under him. “And all the stories she told us. The ones we thought were fairy tales. The princess and the infinity box. The brown bird and the trickster king. Tuoni the raven. The North Wind. They were about these…worlds or whatever they are.”

Jaz glanced at the clock above the doors again. “Something like that.”

Bracken clutched at his head, dragging his fingers through his hair. “So the camera…”

“Came from Langston.”

“The ink pen she gave to Riva?”

“Grayson’s Gulch, I think,” Jaz said, tapping the Wednesday binder. “We’ll be there tomorrow.”

“The candy tree?”

Jaz smiled briefly. “From Joli, of course.”

Bracken turned and leaned heavily against the counter, staring at the cafe reflected in the windows. The street lights were only just visible beyond the reflection. “She told us she traveled. We thought she meant around the country, but… Holy bugs. I should have guessed…”

It was easy to imagine his energetic, eccentric aunt Sadie traveling in The Defiant. She would breeze into town three times a year with new presents and stories about the princess in the infinity box, or the brown bird, or Tuoni the raven, and breeze away again, not to be seen or heard from again until the next year. His family hated that about her. She was too flighty, too different.

That was exactly what Bracken had loved about her.

Bracken’s focus shifted to himself in the windows’ reflection. He still wore his human disguise of pants, shirt and shoes. And of course, the blue jacket that had belonged to Sadie. Now here he was, on the same adventure she had taken. Bracken found he was excited by this discovery. More excited than he’d ever been.

He smiled at his reflection. “So, where is she now?”

Jaz pushed the binder along the counter toward him. “Find the most current page and read it. I’ll be back. And turn off the faucet please.”

As Bracken turned toward her, she vanished.

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