Part One is here! Further adventures of a dictionary blogger, a park ranger, some dinosaurs and scientific cover up below!
One long, long Q train ride with my squirmy blue companion and a couple of trashy romance novels later, I made the quick walk over to the location, dodging nannies with strollers and Hunter students wearing their house colors and hissing menacingly. (My purple hoodie must have betrayed some assumed alliance.) Past a half dozen Starbucks, Duane Reedes, and Chases, with the occasional shoe shop with wedges and stilettos more than my rent and an outpost of Housing Works specializing in installation art projects, I found the place--a limestone public library with neoclassical features, but no telltale Patience and Fortitude holograms stalking the lobby. Must have been repurposed, but by whom? I sprinted up the short steps, Noodles at my heels, and rang the intercom, which had been strung with bright fairy lights, matching the ones winding up the sculpted columns. If it was squatted, then they weren’t doing much of a job of laying low.
A brief light flashed in my face, a pleasant tone sounded, and the door slid open. I gathered Noodles in my arms as she squawked in annoyance at the bright light (her giant eyes were super sensitive) and made my way in.
The first impression I had of the space was light, and color. Books in rainbow hues covered every wall space, and the tall windows were hung with deep blue curtains. A matching blue scrollwork rug was underfoot, and above--I gasped--were immense models of a blue whale and two calves, speckled faintly with white stars. Not as big as the ones in the Museum, of course, but impressive enough for a home or maker space or whatever this was. To my right was a beautiful Victorian-style aquarium, full of yellow boxy cowfish, striped eels, and shimmering flashes I couldn’t identify--and a rumpled curtain below showed there was a very modern pumping system below the glass and ironwork. Noodles, entranced, skittered her way over and pressed her nose to the glass, looking for all the world like a tourist kid at the Coney Island Aquarium.
Taking my eyes off the breaktaking room, I noticed I was not alone. In fact, I was very not alone. Over behind what would have been the circulation desk (now painted in white and covered in kid-level crayon drawings), Marisol, grinning widely, was passing out books to a crowd of schoo lkids, in uniforms and sports outfits and brightly-colored play clothes, and, a few, in costume, as well as some harried looking teachers. She waved, and I waved back, and I saw that the books were the dictionaries she had so recently liberated from the office. I made my way over, one eye on Noodle the entire time. (She might have been calm, but the swish of her tail betrayed her interest.)
“You made it!” Marisol never stopped stamping books and handing them out, beaming at each kid and murmuring a kind word to each teacher. “Meet my helper!” A little dude, probably about eight, beamed up at me with the same bright grin, minus a tooth. “This is my brother Isko, he’s helping out today.”
I saw the Pokemon cards he spirited quickly under the desk, and the guilty look on a couple of the other kids, and knew that “helping” was probably pretty subjective--but he looked happy to be there, and Marisol gave him a look with such warmth and sisterly pride I was almost jealous for a moment.
“This place is amazing, Marisol.” I spun around. "I can't believe what they've done here...who are they, by the way?"
Her eyes twinkled, and she never stopped stamping and handing out books. "Friends and makers and writers and chaotic good miscreants and artists and dancers and a couple accountants and property law experts. My friend bought it from the city for a buck when the 96th Street library moved into the arcology in the park, she lives upstairs with her girlfriend but there's a whole ton of space for the rest of us to make things. And teach things. And occasionally throw a party, but that's not really Annika's thing."
A gentle headbutt at knee level and "mama" chirp alerted me to Noodles looking for something new to explore. I picked her up, and settled her on the desk, where she paced, flexing her little chicken legs, and settled on a pile of fliers. "Sorry...she just loves paper."
"No sorry, so does Tike back there." A long skinny neck unfolded, with an impressive beak and eyes like saucers. Isko threw his arms around that neck, before going back to his under-the-desk card game. "This is Isko's buddy, he helps out a lot, not only little bro but all of us. Too smart for us, he is," as she scratched his chin affectionately. I noted there was a pile of shredded paper as high as Tike’s football-shaped body. "Greener than an electronic shredder, and it keeps him out of trouble."
"We'd do that at work, but Noodles is as likely to run off with paper as to shred it." I itched my leg with a sneakered foot, eager to know why I'd been invited, but afraid to ask outright and spoil the invitation. Marisol must have noticed my antsiness, and gestured to a room off to the right.
"What you're looking for is in the public makerspace."
I gathered my dino up in my arms and made my way off, gently picking my way through a crowd of hip-height kids who were lined up out the door now (when not staring at the whale or fish in wonder, or making fun of the turn-of-the-last-century fish phenology charts.) Cleaning my glasses with my free arm, I pushed my way through the next swinging door, taking advantage of the fuzziness to get a softened lay of the land.
My first impression was two people-shaped blobs, talking softly, one tall and one short, the short one wearing what looked like a marshmallow body suit. On the floor next to them was a shag rug, the color of a ripe banana. Replacing my glasses, I blinked and focused on the two women in the room, squeezing Noodles for comfort as she snuggled into my arms and mrrd. "Hi...Marisol sent me...I'm Havela."
Now clear, I could look over the two women. The tall one was a sweet-looking brunette, hazel eyed with a very gentle expression and a small screwdriver perched between long, delicate fingers. She was adjusting a baggy silver-and-white jumpsuit covering the shorter women. This girl had round, soft features and a serious expression, long black hair tied up messily behind her head. She was at least a foot smaller than her friend, probably even smaller than me.
"Marisol said you would come," said spacesuit girl, and her voice was low and musical. I heard a low grrr from her feet, and the shag rug turned out to be a dimetrodon with their frill close to their back, a chubby, yellow and brown one that curled at their human's feet and looked up with black liquid eyes full of love. "I'm @parksdepartmentgonewild. This is Floop, and you're Havela, and you had questions. Oh, and this is Annika, she's a genius."
Annika blushed, hiding behind her hair as she adjusted another connection. "Hardly. I just create useful things."
"Annika, a full fire suit is a lot more than a useful thing." She shook her head, then turned her attention back to me. "You're the dictionary girl, and this is Noodles. I tune in whenever I'm stuck in the office during a rain or frog storm."
Noodles purred at mention of her name.
"I won't pet her with these big gloves on."
"This...this is impressive. But what are you doing, and why did you invite me?"
The park ranger turned at Annika's touch, but kept talking while faced away. "Because we have mutual interests, and the interest is the volcano."
"The very hot hill."
She laughed, a short friendly bark, and Floop echoed it, earning a head scratch. "You know, and I know, but did you know that NOBODY has ever investigated? They've routed all flight paths to avoid Manhattan, no helicopter can take a look inside, but NOBODY knows what's actually in there?" The girl raised an arm, scratching an armpit. "These things are so sweaty. Well, as someone who's been obsessed with volcanoes since she was born in the shadow of Manua Loa...that was unacceptable. I got my degree, I came to New York, and now I'm hiding in plain sight while doing geological surveys and directing tourists to the prehistoric megafauna petting zoo. Someone has to look inside that very hot hill eventually. That someone is going to be me."
"That's..." Incredible. Inspiring. "Illegal."
She shrugged, and Annika made a soft annoyed sound, but returned to her detail work. "But necessary. Someone needs to do it. Besides, I need a good hook for my doctoral thesis, and what better than the Central Park volcano?"
Floop fwumped over towards me, chunky body lifted off the ground much like a crocodile, and settled on my feet, looking up with nothing but love in his eyes. Noodles chittered in annoyance, but Floop ignored her and unfurled his sail, covering me to the hip. "Who's this?"
"That's Floop, we call him that because if he likes you he" and I felt a full body lean, warm and scaly, "floops on you."
"He's so warm!"
"Scaly early mammal. Doesn't look like it, but it's all in the inner ear and some teeny tiny bones. Nature is amazing, even though I focus on the explosive parts," and Annika lowered a space-girl helmet over her head.
Muffled now, she waved. "Come with me tonight. We're going across the park, and we're going to solve this once and for all. The seismograph says the conditions are right, and I can't wait any longer--and I knew you can't either.
Sweat trickled down my brow, and I tried to slow my breathing, matching it to the little body curled in my arms, cuddling close as she felt my heart race. "I can't...I could never...not in one of those."
"Oh hon," and Annika lifted the helmet. "No, no, you wouldn't have to wear one of these. I wouldn't put one on someone who didn't know what she was doing anyway. I want you to let everyone knew. I want you to spread the word."
I tilted my head. "But our business is, well, words."
"You've got their attention, Havela." She tipped an imaginary hat. "And that's exactly the kind of help I need."
Dinner was delivered by a cranky, stunning girl with freckles and a paisley apron, who left covered trays at the door, looked, sniffed, and stomped away.
"Don't mind Arissa. She doesn't get animals in the workroom, probably because they tend to eat her materials." Annika spoke her first words since greeting me, flipping her desktop over for a clean space, pulling up some tall, turquoise-leather padded stools and spreading a clean blue tablecloth she'd produced from some secret drawer. "We've got plenty, you should stay for dinner. Curry, tonight."
Marisol strode through the doorway, carefully shutting the door behind her. "Nana just picked up little dude. I'll hold down the fort during your mission. Let's have some of Sheelzebub's grub."
Annika shot her a look, but dished out bowls of thai curry--I could smell pumpkin and spices and coconut milk. "That's seitan, in case you're allergic. Do you need anything for your little friend?"
I shook my head. "Noodles likes rice, but she's going to nap until late evening." A gentle snore accompanied my response, and I let one front claw curl around my finger as I spooned in rice with one hand.
Marisol poured--"mango juice or Thai iced tea?" and I had one of each, relaxing into dinner. The Ranger had taken off her space suit, revealing a strong but soft physique--reminding me of a teddy bear that likes to brawl but likes hugs just as much. Her hair was loose, and she was very intent on dinner--but she occasionally smiled in my direction, making me blush and pat Noodles for comfort.
The girls were old friends, and I envied their easy give-and-take. They chattered projects with words I didn't understand, romances about people I could barely keep straight, and--when the ranger looked up from her dinner--Floop's latest adventure at the vet. I was happy to listen, because they were just so friendly, so warm, and I felt included even if they hadn't asked me anything.
"Havela works with me at the dictionary outpost." Marisol pointed with a glass of juice in hand. "She reports directly to Chadarino."
The ranger grinned. "My condolences."
"He's not so bad, he's just....Chad." I turned to Marisol. "You know, you can ask for overstock. He's kind of a doofus but he's pro-good works. Especially if they can become good publicity. And tax write-offs."
She tipped her hat. "On it. I'll talk to him tomorrow, before I take the next batch. The public schools really appreciate them, by the way."
"I bet...especially with kids draining their solar batteries on Cubecraft under their desks." I smiled at the memory, and the memory palace I had built--"When the teacher saw what I was doing, she encouraged me to keep it on the desk and use it all the time. I was so anxious, I'd get mixed up--but it helped me keep things in their place." It was the most I'd spoken about my anxiety to--well, relative strangers, but the table was so friendly, and they listened so well, I couldn't help it.
A lapping noise clued me in to Noodles nomming spilled rice in front of my bowl.
"I get it," said the ranger, who still hadn't given her name. "I was obsessed with volcanoes and lava and the layers of earth when I was a kid. You know how kids do the vinegar and baking soda volcano? Mine spewed ketchup jello. And had sparklers. The classroom smelled for a week."
"Homeschooled," said Annika, "lucky for me cause I spent a year just making fish tanks and keeping them alive. Also lucky there was so much math in that."
"They stuck me on the school paper so I'd stay out of trouble snooping in the teacher's lounge and trying to liberate kids' confiscated goods." Marisol sat back, folding her arms in pride. "We all got pretty lucky."
I hugged Noodle tighter. "So what are we doing tonight?"
"Well I, Nanea," and here was her name, finally, "will be suiting up and climbing the very hot hill. Marisol will be misdirection in case my coworkers or law enforcement get a bit snoopy. Legal this time, Marisol."
Marisol threw up her hands. "Is it my fault so much public whimsy is against graffiti laws? A bane to artists and free thinkers everywhere."
"Try some a little more busking and a little less bath bombs in the fountains. Annika, you'll be on hand for last minute tweaks, and back up help on the hill."
I looked curiously, and Annika noticed. "Got my own suit. Of course I tested it on me first?"
"Crawled inside Arissa's oven."
I shuddered. "So, what about me?"
"The ranger station is away at night." Nanea unclicked a pen that had been hidden in her silky fluff of updo, and started sketching on the paper placemat. "Here's the layout...here's the volcano, here's me," her little sketchy girl had a big poofy hairdo too,"here's Marisol at the fountain" another with a guitar and bubbles,"and here's the ranger station, where you'll stay behind and tweet from the main account as I update you from the personal one. It's voice commanded, so you'll have to do some cleanup, dictionary girl---and there will be video, that I want up in 30-second clips." Nanea drew a heart around the whole thing.
"I'll be...alone?" My heart started pounding again--as much as I hated crowds, being alone in a dark government building was just as scary and way more law-enforceable.
"No," and Annika made a long-legged stick girl next to me. "I'll be stationed with you. You can bring Noodle, if you like, just make sure she doesn't get loose. Floop has to stay, sadly, he doesn’t hide so well.”
Floop responded by flattening his frill and rolling over for belly scratches, squirming ecstatically when Nanea complied.
"Nobody's alone in this. Not even Nanea--we're wired in together, and if things get hairy, I'll be right there to help." They shared a companiable look, nodding in agreement.
"As long as it doesn't end up like the first suit--folks, we are on the brink of a major scientific discovery, right in middle of the world's most famous parks."