"The entire House is yours," Blind whispers as soon as the door closes behind us. "Except for the First, but you're not exactly eager to go there, are you?"

"I'm not," I say sullenly. "I'm not eager to go anywhere except my bed. I need to grab some sleep and get my head together. It's going to be a long night."

The entrance to the canteen is being patrolled by two sleepy Cases and an alert Spider queen. The three of them follow us suspiciously with their eyes, but none wishes to tag along to watch where we're headed.

And even though the entire House really is ours, we silently tramp in the direction of the dear old dorm. To find out what became of it after the search.

The door is slightly ajar. I remember about Lary's backpack that's been blocking the entrance of late and overtake Blind, so that I'm ready to push that monstrosity out of his way if need be, but I don't even get to see if it is in its usual place before Blind sends me tumbling with a firm shove in the back.

I fall right there, but I end up on all fours in a completely different place. Breathing completely different air. Which is as should be expected, and as I should have been expecting if only I thought about it for a moment.

I am looking at the weathered floorboards, almost like the ones we have on the porch in the House. Except I'm on the deck of an entirely unfamiliar house, surrounded by open fields as far as the eye can see. Blind is sitting at the table.

That's all I'm able to notice before, with a sharply indrawn breath and a swear, I stare in horror at my hands. They're scarlet red, as if someone had plunged them into boiling water. The fingers are a mass of oozing burns.

"Damn! Damn it! What's this shit?"

"Want some coffee?" Blind asks, without moving an inch.

"No, I don't! I don't want anything, except for these to not be that way!"

Fingers, thick as sausages, can barely bend. Because I had to use the hands to cushion the fall, the shiny skin over the burns is now stretched tightly, threatening to burst. I get up gingerly, and carefully go to sit in the creaking wicker chair.

Blind bends down, fishes out a set of keys through a hole in the floorboards and unlocks the safe box in the corner of the deck. Then produces a can of coffee, two mugs and the coffee maker from it, and transfers them to the table. Then returns to the safe box and comes back with the power strip.

I am so mad I almost want to cry. Twice in my life I've had the opportunity to admire my hands. The hands themselves and, separately, the fact that here, on the Other Side, they look like I've been living with them for many long years. That in my absence the fingers somehow acquire calluses and the faint little traces of the healed cuts - clear evidence that the hands were being actively used. Now here is my last chance to look at them, and I am still stunned with the screaming unfairness of it.

"What did you expect?" Sightless One inquires. "Trying to catch dragons with your bare hands and not getting burned, how's that supposed to work?"

"I've paid for it with the prosthetics back there. Why do I have to suffer from the burns here?"

"Anyone who's armless would give up a lot just to be suffering like that."

Blind fiddles with the power strip. He's older here than he is in the House, the face is sharper. The broken tooth is still there, the Dracula coat acquired a leathery sheen. And also he can see.

I am finally able to tear myself away from the grisly sight that is my hands and look around.

"Whose house is this?"

"I am used to calling it mine," Blind says. "And it looks like this is what it is. At least no one else has ever tried to claim it."

"Why did you drag me here?"

He shrugs.

"Where else could we sit and talk in peace? And you have almost bolted by yourself."

I don't reply. What's the use? I don't like it here, Blind is perfectly aware of that, but he is right - where we came from there was no time left for talking.

The deck is looking out to a little backyard, empty except for the motorcycle standing under the roof overhang.

And the deck itself could do with some painting. The previous coat is almost gone, with only slivers of white over the gray wood here and there. The planks themselves are bent and buckled. There's a rotund antique fridge in the corner, plastered all over with stickers, and an even more antique safe box, now open - so massive that it's a miracle it hadn't crashed through the floor yet. Everything looks old and decrepit, with signs of heavy use, and this irks me even more than if it looked brand new. Say whatever you want, but all of this is nothing more than a painted backdrop.

Blind fills the coffeemaker from a plastic bottle and puts the water back in the fridge.

"You know what bugs me the most?" I say. "How this place is like a movie set. Created specifically for our heart-to-heart talk. Total privacy, two chairs, two cups in the safe box, tranquil landscape, peace and quiet... Crickets... Or, rather, cicadas, right? It never happens like that. In real life there would inevitably be something... I don't know, a drunken neighbor showing up and never letting us having any conversation at all."

Blind keeps tapping the spoon on the lid of the coffeemaker, as if that would make the water boil faster.

"Or take this very safe box. You lock coffee in it. And even the cups. Which leads me to assume that there might be thieves around here. And at the same time the bike stands right there in the open, and no one bothered to swipe it."

"And?" he says. "What does that prove?"

I could never get used to the sighted Blind. To his way of looking directly into the eyes, as if he doesn't notice anything else in a person. As if I was only a pair of pupils.

"I have only two neighbors," he continues, throwing over a pack of cigarettes. "They're both a bit out of their heads, and they both have bikes much cooler than mine. It would not occur to them to try and steal it. But free coffee - that's different. That they would happily drink, and leave the used cup just lying there. Or sleep on my bed without taking the boots off, if they happen to get tired while I'm not in and the door's open. It's the same deal with the food. But not if it is all locked and stashed away. By the way, they know where I keep the key. They just never bother."

"What about others?" I ask.

Blind leans across the table, picks up the pack, fishes a cigarette out and puts it in my mouth. Then clicks the lighter.

"There are no others. No one passes by my neighbors. I told you they're out of their heads. And very protective about the boundaries of their property. That field over there," he nods at the grassy expanse before us, "belongs to one of them. Guess what he's using it for."

"Growing weed, I would assume. And also he must be a former Navy SEAL, so the field is booby-trapped all the way around. That's how the script goes, right?"

"Wrong." Blind sighs. "He's breeding prairie dogs. The only booby traps are their burrows. He's crazy about the nature and its preservation."

"All right. I give up. I take it back. About the neighbors."

"And about the cups," he demands. "Because I have two more in the safe box. Go look, while it's open."

"Now you're just being petty! I could only see two from where I was sitting."

"And that was enough for you to spin an entire story around them, supposedly proving the fakeness of this place."

"I took that back!"

"But not the cups!"

I goggle at Blind. He's not joking. He is absolutely serious. Scary as it may seem.

"Blind. I take back everything I have just said about this place," I say.

He nods with satisfaction.


He doesn't feel awkward at all. I do, instead of him, and avert my eyes. I look at the puddle of grayish water on the oilcloth. It must have rained recently in this place. And Blind doesn't come here often enough to push the table under the eaves so that the rain can't get to it.

I catch myself at this thought and put the brakes on it. What is it to me what happens to this table? It could get washed away in a flood for all I care. Blind dragged me over here not to brag about his otherworldly household. In his mind anything can be a secluded spot for a private conversation - the packed Coffeepot, the stairway landing, the corridors, he doesn't care how many eyes and ears are milling around. But he's making an effort now for some reason, and even too much of an effort. Is it to just give me the opportunity to ask all of the questions I wanted to ask? I doubt it. Something tells me that he's putting on this show for his own reasons.

My fingers turn out to be capable of holding the cigarette, but it has already smoldered all the way to the filter while I wasn't paying attention to it. I put the end on the saucer and inhale the clean country air instead. It smells of grass. This is the only comfort left for me now. I long to pass my hands over the railing, over the scratchy remains of the paint. To press the palms to the floorboards still warm from the sun they absorbed. To pick at the wicker chair that I'm sitting on. To fiddle with the hanging edge of the oilcloth. When I am on the Other Side I make so many useless, extraneous movements that it must be driving anyone looking at me crazy. I hate this place, and about the only thing that used to reconcile me to it was my real hands.

Blind pushes the cup closer to me.

"Well? I thought you had questions..."

I look at the road snaking through the fields. A bare gray ribbon. Not a single car, no signs of any life at all. I wonder if it's the same road that Noble and I were trundling along the last time around.

Blind is waiting patiently. But he should be the first to know that on the Other Side questions often lose their meaning. And I had so many of them. Vulture. Noble. Black with his bus. Alexander. Humpback. Lary... I would just like to know if he's thinking of them all as often as I do. Does he wake up in the middle of the night to find his cheeks wet with tears? Does he count hours and minutes? Hate summers? Live his life always looking back? Turn into a humorless stranger? It's silly, I know. Of course he's thinking of them. Just in his own way. Blind is a pragmatist, he would never torment himself with thoughts about something he can't change. Or would he? How to find the words to ask about something like this? Do they even exist, those words?

A gust of wind ruffles the meadow, smoothing out the grass, brushes my face, sways the creaking lamp hanging from the ceiling. Blind is sitting with his legs up on the antique chair and smoking. He's also looking at the road.

He would never talk about the bus. Anything to do with the Outsides is not his business. I got that. He is also never meddling in the affairs of Leaders, wouldn't you know. Never meddling my eye, but just try and prove that to him. So, Vulture is also out. Blind will accept his choice even if that choice is the noose, and what I have to say about this is strictly my own problem.

Alexander... No, it's useless. I doubt even Alexander would be able to answer a single question about himself. And Humpback is a Jumper, I'm almost sure. A recent one, looks like. Jumpers I don't want to discuss. Tubby...

Questions, questions, questions. The House doesn't like them. It only tolerates simple ones. For example, would I be able to hold the cup, or do I have to drink in my usual fashion, bent over it and slurping. Or how about this: would I be able to ask even one question?

"You know who's back in the House?" I ask.

Blind turns away from the road and grabs my eyes with his gaze.

"Yes, I know. Ancient. He is safe, don't worry."

My throat goes dry. Safe, in Blind's terms. That's about the least comforting thing he could have said.

"Come again?"

"I told you. He's safe."

"What does that mean?"

Sightless One holds the pause. Long enough for me to realize how impolite I am being.

"It means that he is where he wanted to be."

Then he's silent again, wearing his favorite meaningful grimace.

I suddenly understand what Wolf must have been feeling. The desire to jump up and shake Blind so hard his teeth would scatter all over the deck.

"In more detail, please."

Blind stares. Then reaches across the table and swipes my coffee. His own he's already gulped.

"There are no more details. He is on the Other Side."

I blow up.

"I'm not stupid! Stop the charade! Where did you stuff him? They could have found him during the searches. They combed everything, every floor, you know that! And this coffee, didn't you make it for me?"

"You aren't drinking it anyway. I told you, don't worry. They would never find him."

My anxiety goes up another notch. Of course they won't find him. What Blinds considers to be Ancient they will not find, and everything else he doesn't care about. I picture Ancient's limp body being discovered behind the far stacks in the library, and then pulled out from there to the accompaniment of Shark's hysterical screams. And what R One thinks about all this, him being the only one of them left in the House who would recognize Ancient on sight.

Blind listens to my silence with rapt attention, as if it were a monologue.

"They are not going to pull him out of anywhere, Sphinx," he says. "Ancient is a Strider. You could have guessed yourself. And Striders go over completely."

I relax a bit, even though I'm still furious inside. To hell with all the House Striders, together and separately! Ancient, and Blind, and all the rest of them. Why is it that they have to be the most insufferable people you could imagine? Why do they have to shroud themselves in mysteries and riddles? Why wouldn't Ancient just tell me the truth instead of having me run around in search of a place for him to hide for the night, when he knew he needed no such place?

To calm myself down I go to sit on the railing. That's the closest thing to a windowsill here.

"Because no one likes Striders," Blind enlightens me. "No one. Not even Jumpers. So no Strider will ever admit it unless he is absolutely certain in the person he's talking to."

He has returned my coffee to its place and put a fresh cigarette next to it. I grab it with the unwieldy fingers and shove it in my mouth. It is not as painful as I imagined. Maybe the fingers would be able to hold the cup after all.

"I too hate Striders sometimes," I say, surprised at my own bluntness. "And how."

Blind nods, as if I have just confirmed what he'd already known.

We are silent for a while.

An ugly jalopy passes by on the road, straining and groaning. It looks somehow crooked, and there's only one functioning headlight. Blind tilts his head without looking at it and freezes, listening. He can see, but all of his unsighted habits are still with him. His fingers are drumming on the table softly.

"Now if you are out of questions," he begins, "how about you answer one of mine?"

I still have plenty left, but I'm too tired now. From the futile attempts to put them in words and Blind's expected answers, from this place and my useless hands, even from the silence and the wind.

"Am I staying or leaving?"

Blind's fingers cease their drumming, and his face turns to stone.

I overcome the urge to stall and say, as gently as I can:

"I've chosen the Outsides, Blind. Sorry."

He still appears calm, it's his breath that sounds suddenly ragged, as if I have just hit him. I look away.


"I don't want to wake up an old man one day."

His eyes are filled with boundless surprise at my obvious stupidity. He appears to be searching for words to express his compassion for my confused mental state, and failing.

"Are you saying it's not going to happen if you're in the Outsides?"

"It will. If I live long enough. But gradually. The important detail here is "wake up one day"."

"I don't understand," he says.

Of course he doesn't. And no one does. No one who didn't happen to wake up from one life into another, which means literally no one. Blind is not beset by visions of himself grinning stupidly on a bed in a mental ward, floating in another universe while his body exists on its own in this one, rudderless, falling apart and stinking of urine.

I can't explain this. For him the real world is here. For me it's there, and only there.

"Remember how when we were little I kept trying to explain to you what the colors were? Blue, orange, yellow..."

He smiles, just barely.

And it hits me what an idiot I've been. I knew that on the Other Side he could see as well as anyone. And I knew he had visited it long before I appeared in the House. Why then haven't I thought of this before? So all those times he was asking me to describe to him this or that back then, incessantly, for hours, and I was jumping out of myself to oblige... he was pretending? Hard to believe, he was just a small kid then. Or is it that age is meaningless for Striders? The emissaries of the Other Side would need to be smart and cunning... And so would those who wish to have anything to do with them. So while these thoughts are whirling around in my head I finish the sentence I've started and begin a new one, with barely a stutter, and then the next one, I am surprisingly calm and reasoned, even though the tired alarms demanding the wagons to be urgently circled keep clanging inside. I tamp them down the best I can, but the panic is slowly taking over.

Why did he bring me here? Just to ask his question? Or to tempt me with the wind, cicadas and my own burned but very much real and functioning hands? If he could guess what the answer was going to be... He's already shown me where he keeps the keys to the safe box, it's likely that the house keys are dangling from the same ring, he's told me about the neighbors, there must be more food in the fridge... So he decided to leave me here even before he's heard the answer? And the scariest thing is that he's sure he is doing me a favor. And there's nothing I can say that would change his mind.

I'm out of explanations.

Blind is silent. He is not looking at me, just listening with his head lowered almost to the table. His index finger is tracing spirals on the oilcloth, and their loops grow wider and wider. The spring that is coiled inside him is slowly unwinding, that spring the existence of which even Smoker guesses at. I follow the moving hand and realize that all my efforts were in vain. Blind's sense of hearing is scary. And almost impossible to fool.

"Still, give it a try," he says. Too impassively. A cold shiver travels down my spine. This time the danger is real.

"Try to explain," he continues. "You were telling me just now how it is impossible to explain why you are so fond of the Outsides. You carefully collected and presented the evidence, but really you told me nothing. Try again. Bury me in words, hide your fear behind them. Maybe it'll work better this time. Maybe this time I won't hear how I abandon you to my crazy neighbors and the two cans of food in the fridge, disappearing in a cloud of smoke with demonic laughter, because that's what I have been ordered to do by my lord and master the Gray Building Three Stories High!"

I shoot up, upending the chair. Never in my life have I heard Blind scream so loudly. Or rather, scream at all.

He also jumps up. In the centers of his wide open eyes are tiny lights, two green fireflies. Humans don't look this way. I am expecting him to charge at me, but instead he smashes his hand against the table with such force that the entire deck seems to shudder. I do too. I can clearly hear something crack. Was it the hand or the table?

We are both breathing heavily, like we just had a fight, but he's shaking even worse than I am. I'm almost sure he just broke his hand.

"Blind," I whisper.

"Shut up!" he shouts. "You idiot!"

He lowers himself back to the chair and closes his eyes. And freezes. He's assembling the loops of the runaway spring and slowly, methodically coiling them back in.

I pick up the chair and sit down. My legs are trembling. The pungent pine smell that had flooded the deck begins to weaken gradually.

"I wouldn't be able to," Blind says without opening his eyes. "Even if I wanted. You are the most screwed-up Strider that ever was, but also one of the strongest. All roads are open before you here, the keys to all doors are in your pocket. But you are choosing to go conquer the Outsides, because you wish to live out the rest of your stupid life as an armless cripple. Go ahead, live, do whatever you want. But at least do it with the knowledge of who you really are."

I don't know what's worse - what he's just said or the words he chose to do it. He's never used them before, and no one else in the House would ever dare to. I sit there stunned by those words and by his anger, gulping the air and trying to imagine how many other new Blinds I'll get to see today. Do I really know this man, this creature, or have I been deceiving myself, while in fact not knowing the first thing about him, or about myself either. Because he wasn't lying, not even Striders would lie about something like this, that is, we wouldn't, because I am a Strider too, looks like, and a sophisticated one at that, if I understood anything from that diatribe about roads, doors and keys.

The stranger sitting across me grabs his head with the hands, one of which is swelling visibly, and hisses ruefully:

"Striders, damn it. I hate you too. Five of you left in the House, and four have made their stupid choice, imagine that. One is too deeply in love to even think straight, another needs to run off atoning for some imaginary guilt or other, the third just wants to see the world and doesn't give a whit about anyone, and then there's one who simply detests the Other Side. So what am I supposed to do with all that? How many lives do you think I have, to spend them searching for people here and dragging them over one by one?"

I am racked with guilt now, stronger and stronger as he goes on. But I don't ask any more questions. Looks like I've lost that right. I knew he was going to try and persuade me, maybe even ask and beg, I just never imagined it was going to be this way. I am almost ready to capitulate. Patience. This too will end, sooner or later.

In the world of the Other Side it's almost dark. The wan strip of light on the horizon has been extinguished, the telephone poles have dissolved in the coming dusk. I know that the sky will soon be full of stars. They are impossibly large here. And very beautiful.

Blind finally falls silent. He's probably exhausted too. I can barely see him in the dusk.

"You didn't break your hand, did you?" I ask.

"I don't know."

"Have you got any ice?"

Blind gets up and shuffles to the fridge. Flicks the light switch. The lamp under the green shade draws a circle of light around the table, pushing away the surrounding darkness. The cups managed to survive the jolt, but the rainwater puddle is no longer a puddle - it spilled over, leaving behind only the grayish streaks.

I reach for my cup. The coffee didn't even spill. The hands don't hurt anymore, or maybe I just stopped feeling the pain. Blind takes ice cubes out of the fridge.

I know that the time for talking has passed, I know that any question I might ask now would just infuriate him further, but I can't stop myself, because I know that when we return he's going to play the serene, unconcerned Leader again, and then I'll never know.

"Why did you question me so persistently about the colors, Blind? Back when we were kids. You can see them just fine here."

"Want me to kick you back to the House right now?"

Right. We're definitely past the heart-to-heart stage.

"No," I say. "Not yet. Can I have some more coffee?"

He turns the coffeemaker on. Takes off his leather jacket and puts ice to his hand, securing it with some kind of suspicious rag that may have been a kitchen towel in its time. Then he has to hold this ugly contraption aloft, so now we have only one functional hand between the two of us.

"I couldn't back then," he says suddenly. "I only ever went to the Forest, and only at night. And not in a shape that's conducive to color vision. What did you imagine? That I was just brilliantly playing the role of a poor unsighted baby?"

Happy that he's deigned to answer, I say:

"Honestly? Yeah, I did."

He scowls.

"Of course. The young emissary of the Other Side. You're paranoid, Sphinx, you know that?"

"I do."

Blind somehow manages to distribute the coffee between the cups without spilling it, and we drink it. The green shade is so deep that the lamp only illuminates the table, leaving everything else in the dark. The night moths beat against it with a dry clatter.

"So the Forest is somewhere else? Not here?"

He looks at me sullenly.

"Is this a form of therapy? Or just social banter? Or could it be your conscience had finally gotten through to you? Since when are you interested in anything that is the Forest?"

"Stop being so bitter, Blind," I say. "I feel lousy as it is."

He shrugs.

"The Forest isn't anywhere. You can't just walk into it. You wouldn't be able to find the way. It either comes to you, or not. The Forest doesn't do anyone's bidding."

Blind's eyes still glint with green. Now these flashes can be written off as reflections of the lamp shade. I want to ask about the pine smell, but don't. There was something unfamiliar in Blind's voice when he was talking about the Forest. Respect? Tenderness? There it is, something new that I haven't seen before.

"And this place does, right?"

"You could say that."

"So how is it possible, to call a place real if it does someone's bidding?"

Blind sighs.

"And what do you consider real, Sphinx? The House?"

"Sure," I say, and immediately understand that I have just blithely walked into a trap. A real place where a packmate turns into a fiery lizard and burns your prosthetics to a crisp?

Blind grins, but ignores the opportunity to rub it in. Instead he grows somber.

"What about Mermaid?" he asks. "Have you asked her what she would prefer?"

I sit up.

"She said she will accept my choice."

"What if she doesn't have the same choice? What if she doesn't belong in that world at all?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He grins again.

"It means what it means. If she's from another world, there is no place for her in the Outsides."

"This can't be," I say, trying to stay calm. "Admit it, you invented that a moment ago."

"I admit." He sticks his nose into the cup again. "What wouldn't I invent just to keep you in."

I realize that the conversation is over. That he would just keep scaring me into submission. All right, so I am paranoid, it doesn't mean he should play on that so mercilessly.

"Blind, stop it," I say. "Have a little respect for my choice. I do for yours, after all."

"Of course." He lowers his eyelids wearily. "Whatever you say."

But now I won't be able to get out of my head the image of Mermaid slipping away, sinking into watery depths and waving at me sadly, disappearing in an unfathomable other world.

A little while later Blind switches the light off. The darkness falls like a thick blanket. But not for long. The unnaturally large stars twinkle on the velvety expanse of the night sky. If you look closely, it is obvious that they are all different colors. I push myself away from the table and put my legs up on the railing. Blind leans against it.

We sit in silence and regard the stars.