"Okay, mom!" Stephen called back. "Be down in just a minute! Sorry, Val. I have to go."
Val's exasperated sigh huffed from the phone. "Have you even been listening to me, Stephen? Someone's been spying on us! He followed me home! He put a note in my bag!" Those last words were shrill, panicked. Clearly the intrusion on her property was the worst of the offenses.
"I am listening," Stephen said. He kept his voice calm, hoping it would help soothe Val's distress. "And I understand why you're upset. There's just nothing I can do about it now."
"Well, I'm glad you won't be losing any sleep! I don't really have that option!"
"Val." It was just one word, but he put his will into it. He heard Val's breathing slow. She was listening, at least. "I am taking this situation seriously. You have my vow: I will figure this out." His voiced softened. "Okay?" he asked.
He heard Val take a deep breath. "Okay," she said. "Thanks, Stephen."
"You're welcome," he replied. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"What was that about?" Stephen's mom asked as he finally made his way to the kitchen. "Did someone need your help with a homework problem?"
Stephen shook his head. "Problem yes, homework no," he said, taking a seat at the table. "That was Val. She thinks someone's stalking her. And, by extension, Gregory and I."
"That certainly sounds like a problem." Mom dished out some casserole while Stephen poured himself a glass of iced tea. "What makes Val so certain?" she asked.
Stephen told her what he knew, which wasn't very much. Val had been breathlessly eager to get out the whole story, so it all had become a jumbled rush. "It was the note that upset her most," he concluded. "That bag is practically sacred to her." It was difficult to imagine just how violated Val must feel, since he had no similar frame of reference. Her reaction made it clear that it was serious, though. He had to find the writer, if only to put her at ease.
Mom listened in silence, her eyes closed. Stephen loved to watch her think. "So," she said, "here are the elements: an unseen stranger on the bus, a joke contest, and then a mysterious note. Not much to go on." She opened her eyes. "Can you make anything of it?" She smiled, knowing that he could. Mom was unashamedly proud of Stephen's mind, and encouraged him to use it as much as possible. Stephen wasn't sure if her encouragement had made him the way he was, or just allowed him to cope with it. Either way, he was grateful.
"There are a few missing pieces," Stephen said. "I thought I heard someone outside our meeting room earlier. Val said the message was addressed to her character, not her, so it was most likely the same spy."
"Well, it would have to be, wouldn't it?" Mom asked.
Stephen shook his head. "Not if there are more than one. But this feels too personal to be a conspiracy, so I think it more likely that we're dealing with a single person." Or there's one driving mind guiding the others. He ignored the voice; paranoia had its limits. "So, what do we know about the mysterious Edric? He's male, judging from the bus conversation, and has a talent for quiet movement and quick escapes. He's not overweight, then, and probably at least somewhat athletic."
His mother smiled. "Brilliant, Holmes."
"But that's not the heart of it," Stephen went on. "The motive is the sticking point. He was interested in Val, but at least partially because of her character." He was interested in all of you. "He has a way with people; otherwise he wouldn't have been able to win Val over so easily. And he's bold, confident, yet still wants to remain at least somewhat anonymous." Such a one should be easy to find among self-conscious children. "Perhaps it's embarrassment that's holding him back, or he has something to lose. He's popular." Stephen laughed softly. "And we clearly are not," he said.
"So you think he's a bully, then?" Mom asked.
Again, Stephen shook his head no. "A bully is not this careful, or this subtle. I think he's invited himself to our game. All of this was an application to the Otherworld Club." And he's a pawn of the cloaked one. Or hadn't you noticed?
Stephen's mother leaned across the table and took his hand. "Honey, are you all right? You suddenly went pale."
He didn't hear her. "Of course," he whispered. The empty air outside the club room had felt familiar, and now he knew why. Val's spy was another part of Stephen's dream, another element of that strange, malevolent figure's plan. Just as Val and Gregory were, just as Stephen himself was. Something was at work here that went beyond bullies, beyond ridicule and social acceptance. The humming fabric of the world was wrinkling, distorted. But how to fix it?
"Stephen, you're scaring me," his mother said.
He blinked. "Sorry," he said. "My thoughts got ahead of me. I'm fine."
"What on earth sent you away like that?" Mom pulled her chair around the table and put her arm around him. "You looked frightened."
Stephen leaned into the embrace. For all his calculating reason, sometimes a hug was still in order. "It wasn't fear," he said. "Not completely, anyway. There's a problem I've been working on. It's been like trying to unravel a knot when all you have are closed loops. Just now, I found one of the ends."
She raises an excellent question. "I'm not sure, exactly," Stephen said. "A dream. It could be anxiety, or a reflection of how I feel about my friends." Or the end of all things, if the signs are to be believed. "I've been noticing familiar parts of the dream in waking life. Val is a part of it. So is Gregory. So is this mystery person, this Edric." He swallowed. "And so am I," he whispered.
Mom hugged him a little more tightly. "A dream often seems more important than it is," she said. "Maybe you keep seeing reminders of it because it made an impression. I've had dreams that felt truly momentous, and most of them just turned out to be particularly vivid imaginings."
"Just?" Stephen looked up at her. "Vivid imaginings are among the most potent forces in the world," he said. "They presage every great invention and every sinister plot. They topple empires and bridge continents. Pure visualization is at the heart of magic; it is the first glimpse of the future we work to bring about."
His mother stared down at him, and deep within her, hidden by her love, he detected a trace of fear. She was more frightened for him than of him, he knew, but sometimes his perception scared her. She never let it get between them, though. "I've never heard you speak that way," she said. "Where did you learn that?"
It felt inadequate, but Stephen's first instinct was to shrug. "From myself, and not from myself," he said. "It's difficult to be clearer than that. But in any case, fiction or not, I can't ignore the dream. Especially if my friends are bound up in it. I can't risk ignoring something that could affect them."
"I see." Mom hugged him tightly, then let him go. "Well," she said, turning back to her neglected plate. "What will you do now? About the spy, I mean."
Stephen took a bite of his dinner. "He's violated Val's privacy, and seems to be living out some elaborate fantasy in which he's a charming sneak." He swallowed, and took a sip of iced tea. "Tomorrow I think I'll have to talk to Eric and invite him to the club."
"Eric Holt," Stephen said. "The boy behind Edric the Unseen."