“Hey Lou — any messages?”
“Even better,” Lou said, hooking a thumb towards the back of the store. “Check the office.”
Isabella pushed open the office door warily. She’d learned caution long before Ms. Hannigan’s, and Lou’s sense of humor was sometimes — weird. But he was right. “Mom! Dad!”
“Isabella!” Her mom swept her up into a hug, and her dad wrapped his arms around both of them.
“You did great,” he told her. “Are you okay? How’s everyone holding up?”
"We're okay. Well. Tessie's okay, I think. Pepper's holding it together for Mia. Ms. Hannigan threw away everything in her medicine cabinet, but now she’s locked herself in her room and no one’s seen her since yesterday morning.”
“What?” Lou wasn’t even pretending not to eavesdrop.
She shrugged. “I don’t know what’s going on with her. We were focused on Annie. So? Did it work?” That had to be the reason both her parents were there at the same time, right? Either it had worked, or something had gone way, way wrong.
“We think so,” her dad said, and her mom nodded.
“Ninety-five percent probability, remember?”
As if she could forget. Still, it was sort of — wow. “Wow,” she said.
“Speaking of wow, did you know Annie can’t read?” her dad asked.
It took a second to switch away from thinking about what came next. (What did come next?) She said, “Yeah, of course. We all did.”
“And you didn’t think that was something you should share?”
Isabella shrugged. “She didn’t want anyone to know. It kind of felt like — we were already messing around with her life a lot. Besides, there was nothing you could do about it till now anyway, and if we’d told anyone else, they might have taken Annie away. Pepper was already coaching Mia to go with her, just in case.”
Lou cleared his throat. “I, uh — I knew too, actually. I just sort of — forgot to tell you?”
Her dad sighed, but she was pretty sure the noise her mom tried to cover up was a laugh. “That’s her gift, Nash, it’s why this works. Is it really any surprise she started early?”
“Now that I’ve met her? No, not really. I’m not sure anything would surprise me at this point.” He shook his head. “Lou, if you want to go check on Ms. Hannigan and the kids, go ahead. Andrea and I can cover the store for a few hours.”
Lou nodded, but he said, “How’d you manage that?”
(It was pretty unusual for both of them to get time off together. Her dad was on call all the time, and her mom had been picking up extra shifts so she could keep an eye on everything.) “Spontaneous company holiday,” her mom said, and answered Lou’s raised eyebrows with, “I know, right? Everyone has the day off. Paid time, even.”
“Huh. Well, I won’t fight you for it. I’ve got something of Ms. Hannigan’s that she left here I’ve been looking to return, anyway. If you figure out how to get the key machine to work, write it down, will you? Thing’s got a mind of it’s own.”
It was her mom’s turn to look raise her eyebrows. “Lou. I’ve seen you rewire a mini-bot in the back of a moving truck. While it heckled you in Spanish. While we were being shot at. You’re telling me an old-timey key machine is giving you trouble?”
Isabella kept quiet. It wasn’t often that they talked about before. She figured it was sort of a special occasion, though, with Annie back with Mr. Stacks and Grace. Lou just laughed. “Pretty sure if someone started shooting I’d find a way. As it is, I’m kind of enjoying the novelty of not knowing.”
He headed out the back, and her mom looked serious again. “So,” she said. “The big question now is: should we tell Annie?”
“You’re from where?” Annie’s eyes were wide. Mr. Stacks was frowning.
Isabella tried not to sigh. They’d been over this a couple times already. Her dad repeated, “The future. Sort of. Not anymore, which was the whole point.”
They’d gone with ‘yes, tell Annie,’ but it was turning out to be a harder sell than they’d expected. Isabella thought they forgot, sometimes, how crazy it all sounded. Also, they’d planned out a whole timeline, which had been thrown out the window when the thing Lou needed to return to Ms. Hannigan turned out to be a winning scratch ticket. Suddenly she was out of the foster care business, and it wasn’t like they didn’t have families to go to. It was just — hard to explain.
Pepper said, “Basically, the future was awful, so a bunch of really smart people got together and figured out how to go back in time to fix it. Just like in ‘Terminator.’”
Annie nodded, but Mr. Stacks shook his head.
“That sounds crazy,” he said. “No offense. Nash, you believe this?”
“I lived it.”
“And you’re all — related?” Grace asked. It was a pretty nice way of saying ‘who are all these people,’ but Grace had always been nice. It was weird seeing her so young, though.
Mia and Pepper’s mom cleared her throat. “Nash and Andrea are married; Isabella is their daughter. Lou is Tessie’s father. Pepper and Mia are sisters; they’re my daughters. They all grew up together.”
Mr. Stacks said, “Why do you look so familiar?”
“I work in the lobby. Andrea works here too; on the communications team.”
Grace looked around the room. “I feel I need to ask this. Where are Annie’s parents?”
Isabella blinked. Had they really not answered that? Her dad said, “Right here. They’re you.”
Annie jumped up. “You mean they’re really my parents?”
“In like, twenty years, yeah,” Pepper told her. “It was a thing. Sorry I made fun of your note.”
Mr. Stacks held up a hand. “Wait. What note?”
And then they had to explain about the note, and how they couldn’t send everyone back to the same point in the past because even time travel had rules, and Grace and SARA had figured out the arrival schedule and it had worked, right? So there was no need to keep going over it again and again. No need to rehash the details, which had gotten scary a lot more times than she wanted to remember.
Isabella’s mom said, “Look, it was important that we all be here. You built a learning AI, but you didn’t give her very good role models. No offense.”
”None taken,” said a new voice.
“Hello SARA,” Grace said, while Mr. Stacks mouthed ‘Sara?’ “Finally decided to start talking, I see.”
“So what do we need to do?” Mr. Stacks sounded determined, but Isabella wasn’t sure what he was talking about. They were waiting for Annie to finish her latest creation in the kitchen (it involved a blender, so luckily it also involved Grace).
“What do you mean?”
“To stop whatever it is, the bad thing that’s going to happen. Pepper said the future was awful, and you sent Annie back to stop it. Seems like a lot of pressure for a kid, even Annie. I want to help.”
“It’s already done,” she said. “We’re doing it.” And then she added, “95% probability, anyway,” without thinking.
“95% what, now? And it’s done?” Mr. Stacks leaned in closer. “Wait. Was it me? Was this some kind of a Scrooge intervention? Because I have nothing against Christmas.”
Isabella shook her head, and wished that Annie would hurry up. “No! You were very heroic; we learned about you. It’s — um. It’s what my mom was talking about, before.”
“Before.” He paused, clearly trying to think back. Then he said, “You mean SARA? You’re not serious. My house? My house becomes Skynet?”
He narrowed his eyes. "And you're fixing it."
She shrugged. It wasn’t like she’d been part of the logistics team. “SARA figured out family on her own, it just took a while longer. Then she felt bad. So we came back to show her sooner."
"A fact for which I am most grateful," SARA said calmly.
Annie bounced into the room with her hands full of cups, and started passing them out. Isabella saw Mr. Stacks catch Grace’s eye, and saw Grace’s thumbs up behind Annie’s back.
“Stop pestering her and drink your smoothie,” Grace said.
“I’m not pestering! I like facts; I’m just being prepared.”
“It is a lot to take in,” Grace allowed.
“Exactly,” Mr. Stacks said. “You know what’s funny, though? The thing that’s tripping me up with—“ He waved his hand. “All of this? I don’t even like cannoli.”
“I do,” Grace said dreamily.
Annie cheered, and Mr. Stacks looked surprised, but he obviously wasn’t going to be able to resist them both. She was pretty sure his pause that time was for dramatic effect. Finally, he said, “Well, I guess I know where we’re going for dinner tonight.”