“Anger keeps you going,” Mauer said. He kept his voice quiet and seductive. “Sometimes it’s all you’ve got left to give.”
The very upper floors of the Academy building were burning now. The inhabitants were stubbornly staying put. The fire wasn’t really making its way down, but it still took a stern spine to remain in a burning building.
A stern spine or a degree of determination.
This was a problem.
“I think,” and I said the words carefully. “I don’t have a problem going. If I’m going to run into problems, it’s going to be stopping.”
I stood at the top of the stairs. At the upper level of the Lady of Hackthorn’s torso, this staircase led to the head, which was a higher security storage area for materials. Incidentally the place where I’d been deposited after being brought into the Academy. I had a view of the upper floor of the torso, and windows and openings in the architecture also let me see along the length of her arms and where the one dormitory burned.
Mauer, Mary, Evette, and a few nondescript characters kept me company.
Below me, rebel forces moved at a run. Hand gestures were commonplace with leaders and subordinate. It was a good thing, because a lot of people were shouting. The fire was a universal concern at this point. One of the lady of Hackthorn’s arms was reaching out to touch the dormitory building. If the fire spread, then that bridge could burn. It made accessing the dormitory difficult to impossible.
If the dormitory couldn’t be accessed, that would be another kind of problem altogether. We needed that fire put out.
We’d sequestered students in the dormitories, among other areas, knowing they might try something. We’d searched them and searched their rooms, anything that might be used in biological or chemical warfare chief in our minds.
They’d gone for something more basic. They’d lit a signal fire.
“There’s an obvious solution here,” Mauer said.
“Speaking of my having trouble stopping,” I said. “Yeah, that’s the entire wrong line of thinking. It’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Put that brain of yours to good use,” Mauer said. “Consider all the options.”
“Killing an entire dormitory of kids is a sharp, jagged rock I’m supposed to hit way further on in my tumble down this mountainside,” I said.
“I guarantee you that this particular strategy is being driven by a few key actors,” Mauer said. “Turn things around. Think of how the Lambs interact. One Lamb suggests the reckless plan-”
“Me,” I said.
“-and pushes for it to become reality. You put your meat where your mouth is and take the associated risks yourself.”
“Only natural,” I said.
“Less than you’d think,” Mauer said. “I’ve known generals and leaders who choose the dangerous road and make others take the risk, and I’ve known berserkers and monsters who take that path because it’s the only one they’ve been given, as a rule. For you… and I would say for the students leading the rebellion in that particular dormitory, there’s a greater sense of what’s in play. The plan takes on a special importance. You and they put themselves into the plan, stake something personal in it. Taking the lead is a way to force the hands of allies.”
“Manipulative,” Mary said, looking up from the blades she was sharpening.
“If you made someone else take the lead, they could abandon the plan or balk. You know you won’t. The students who came up with the fire there know they won’t. That’s one side of the coin,” Mauer said. “The other side draws on unity of the group. They reluctantly accept the need for the plan, their comrade or comrades take the lead, and now they’re forced forward. To hesitate is to let their ally charge in and die without support.”
“Like I said, manipulative,” Mary said.
“Which is all a roundabout way of saying…” I said. I left the statement open for Mauer to finish.
“…You’ll only need to kill a small handful to wrest control of the situation back from the students there.”
I laughed at the audacity of it, loud and abrupt. Rebels on the floor that weren’t actively in the middle of doing something stopped to look up at me. I’d been sitting in the mostly unlit stairway, taking in the situation. Now I had an audience, and this was more of a stage.
“Damn it, Mauer,” I said. I smiled. “Forcing my hand.”
“Entirely you, Sylvester,” he said.
Mary looked up. “Are we doing something now?”
“Suppose,” I said. I made my way down the stairs, fully aware that people would expect me to arrive with a plan in mind. Having a deadline, even one that was a matter of seconds from now, it really helped me get my thoughts moving.
Evette stuck with me, but she was like glue at this point and was liable to be until the Lambs returned. She was keeping her mouth shut, at least. Mauer remained in the shadows of the staircase, happy to have planted a thought in my head.
“Sylvester,” Davis said. “This is a problem.”
“Mail boat arrived and left without incident,” I said. “I think they wanted to set the fire so the boat would see it while leaving, but it took too long with the rain. I don’t think we have any boats due anytime soon. There’s no need to panic.”
“I’m pretty close to panicking, Sy,” Davis admitted, at a volume that was just for me. “The mail boat isn’t the only boat that comes.”
“We very rarely get a boat in the evening,” I said.
“Sometimes we do,” he said.
He was pretty close to panicking. There was a point in fear, anxiety, depression, all of the negative emotions, where the person afflicted was almost captivated by the emotion, and argued with any attempt to pull them out of that state.
“Listen,” I said. I put a hand on his shoulder. “We have boats. See if you can get anyone who can sail, Pierre will know if any of the people we picked up in Neph’s city have the know-how. Get boats out there. If we can get the word out there first, then we control the story, change expectations. Tell them we’re smoking out a very intractable warbeast we were making into a fairy tale monster.”
Davis didn’t look very happy with that.
“If the boats’ searchlights are turned in the direction of Hackthorn, as if they’re keeping an eye out for the monster on the cliffside, it’ll sell better than most of the other explanations we give. Quarantine raises questions and doesn’t wholly explain the fire. Telling any degree of the truth is the sort of thing that gets reported to aristocrats, nobles, and other Academies.”
“Yeah,” Davis said. He shoved his hands into his pockets, but the moment he did so, his foot started tapping, as if he couldn’t keep still. He was frowning.
“Want me to take over?” I asked.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I sort of expected you to jump at that and say yes. It’s been three days of maintaining the siege from within, three days since Jessie and Helen left. You’re giving me every impression you’re needing a relief.”
“I am. I’ve had some people take over, but it’s during the quiet periods, and I’m not sleeping a lot. I’m constantly worried something’s going to happen when I’m not looking. Like this.”
“Then take my offer. Take a minute where you can put this whole thing in good hands.”
“I’m just-” he started.
“He’s not able to relax if it’s you,” Mary spoke in my ear.
“Alright,” I said, jumping in as she finished talking, so that I wouldn’t do the thing where I was pausing too long while listening to others. I barely had time to feel stung by Davis’ opinion of me. “Alright. How about this, instead? Let me take lead. You back me up, since you know people and you can be the level head to balance me out.”
He still looked reluctant.
I glanced at Mary. “You’re a perfectionist. I get it. It’s hard to give up control once you’ve invested yourself into this.”
“It’s not me, it’s you,” he said, again in a volume that was chosen so only I would hear.
Again, that stung a bit, even if I knew it was the case. “I was in the middle of dancing around that particular reality, as a matter of fact.”
“You’re talking to yourself an awful lot,” he said. “Your eyes track things that aren’t there. I knew it happened sometimes, but it seems like most of the time now.”
“And it doesn’t inspire confidence,” I said.
“I’m in charge here because of a whole succession of times when I was forced to take the role, and a whole succession of other times where I volunteered to take it. I’ve fallen into this role. I know an awful lot of faces there, people I’d be putting at risk. I feel a responsibility.”
“And that’s fine. That’s good. It’s a large part of why I respect you as much as I do,” I said. “And nothing I want to do is going to contradict that.”
“Alright,” Davis said. He sighed. The near-panic wasn’t the only thing he was clinging to, it seemed. He had to work to let go of his stance here. A deeper-seated insecurity was in play here.
I could address that later.
“I need a bit of explosive, a way to make smoke, some shackles, and I need you to get your people ready for me. If and when there’s an opening, you’ll be able to take advantage and get that fire under control. I’ll handle the rest. No risk to your own.”
“Easy enough,” he said.
I walked over to the stairs that led further down into the body of Hackthorn, while Davis went to go get everything else in order. From where I was at, I could see the bridge and the northern face of the dormitory. Lights were on throughout, and students within were watching proceedings.
This wasn’t a duel with a great mind like Fray’s. It wasn’t a contest where one side took the upper hand and felt secure. There was tension on both sides. A hundred boys and girls on both sides of things were close to crying, or to pissing or shitting themselves, they were so scared. Scared about what was happening, what the future held.
It was a fight with the Academy, after all. With the Crown, in a roundabout way.
“You’re keeping the army back. Is it because of what I said before, about the ways different leaders handle reckless plans?”
Mauer was back, it seemed.
“Maybe this isn’t so reckless,” I said. “In fact, this might be a nice way to stretch my legs, a casual way to keep my skills honed and stay active.”
“Maybe,” Mauer said. He used his voice to give the word the perfect sort of emphasis, mocking but not mocking, but also emphasizing it in a way that highlighted how maybe that maybe was.
Then he was gone.
I wanted to smoke, but I doubted I had time, and the actual cigarette would be dangerous when handling explosives and when trying to be covert. I didn’t like sitting still. Smoking kept my hands busy and made me feel like I was more in this world. It made me aware of the smoke in my lungs and the acrid smells, the sensations of touch. The smoke that obscured my vision helped my eyes slide off the things I was seeing.
And all the other excuses.
“There you are,” Davis said.
“Here I am.”
“How much explosive do you need?” he asked. He held a small wooden box so the edge of the box rested on his beltline.
“Not a ton. Lemme eyeball it,” I said. I peered over the edge of the box, and I claimed several sticks of dynamite. I stuck them down the front of my pants, so they stuck up and out, then pulled my shirt down over it.
He handed me a canister. I hooked it to my belt. He provided the shackles.
“I’ll whistle,” I said. “Keep an ear out.”
“I will,” Davis said.
“And if you want to make a commotion over at the other arm, move a lot of lanterns and lights over that way, even turn on lights in that direction, that might help,” I said.
I pulled off my shoes and socks, and popped the window open.
Going by the company, Helen, Mary and Evette were joining me on this excursion.
The wind was utterly merciless, and I was still indoors. The rain wasn’t great either, but I at least had the benefit of the armpit and other structures above. They’d avoided any outgrowth, garden or other things that might have given the illusion of armpit hair for the Lady of Hackthorn, but there were eaves and shelves that jutted out. The water wasn’t so bad. Not here.
It would be worse in other places.
I climbed outside, finding handholds and footholds as I went. It took almost a full minute for me to make the transition from windowsill to being fully outside and situated on the wall outside the window.
“Are you going to be alright?” Davis asked.
I would have spoken, but my body was pressed tight against the wall, and I really did believe that speaking might involve motion and an expansion of my chest that would cost me my perch. I gave him a smile instead.
It was slow going, and the clouds were heavy. I could taste the smoke in the air from the fire blazing at the top of the nearby dormitory, and the water that ran down over me was cold.
As I made my way further under the armpit, I found one of the places where the water ran in a near-continuous stream down the wall. A miniature waterfall. The downward pressure of the water was one thing, threatening to wash me off and down. But today was not the first or tenth time it had rained. It had rained hundreds of times since Hackthorn had been erected, the water had found its way down this same path in varying intensities, and cracks that might have served as normal handholds had been eroded down to smoothed out indents.
“Keep your hips against the wall,” Helen said. “It’s easy to overthink hands and feet and forget about the hips.”
In the gloom, barely visible, perched on another part of the wall, she swished her hips back and forth, water streaming off of her wet skirt. Had she been anyone but Helen, it might have been tantalizing.
I drew my knife, and I stabbed it into one of the handholds that had been washed out. I repeated the process, stabbing through the waterfall, and even with one arm in the downpour, the force of the water was enough that it almost tore me down and away.
After a few more stabs, I reached over, and dug my fingers into the gap I’d hacked into the dense, smooth wood-like material that formed so much of the Lady of Hackthorn. The water was washing away the loose splinters, but there were less loose splinters.
I decided that splinters were fine because they were grip, and I pushed the pain out of my mind.
I hung from that notch I’d hacked out, stomach pressed against the wall, and swung around so I was most of the way through the waterfall, my back against the wall. I made sure to follow Helen’s advice and keep my hips against the wall throughout.
Back against the wall, hanging by one hand, water pounding down on me, a good six hundred feet of empty air beneath me, I swayed for a minute, waiting for the wind to stop pulling at my feet and changing the direction of the water.
Once things seemed mostly settled, I very carefully transitioned the knife from my mouth to my free hand, and stabbed out blindly, aiming for the same general area.
It took a minute before I managed to land enough strikes in the same general area that I felt like I could get any fingertips into the notch.
It was a relief to get out from under the water. I climbed up into the armpit, happy to find handholds now and again.
Any passage over the bridge would be noticed. Under the bridge, I was entirely out of the light from the fire above.
The wood had cracks, knots, and seams. They were growing pains. On other parts of the Academy, they’d been places for scattered seeds to take root, and make the Lady of Hackthorn a little more green. They served as places for ivy to find a hold. Sometimes small birds nested in the spaces.
Now I moved along the underside of the bridge-arm, and the handholds I’d made use of earlier were still here, but the process of using them was different. I needed to exert more strength, periodically needed to wedge fingers in.
Mary and Helen climbed with me, and in an abstract way, they were likely serving as a way for my brain to remind me how to climb, a way for me to track the handholds and footholds. Where my head and hands went, I needed to note places for my toes to wedge in later, places for my feet and toes to press or hook in so my weight wasn’t hanging entirely by my hands and arms.
Mary climbed ahead of me, and from my vantage point, I could see more of her legs than I normally might. Her clothes were wet and clung to her. All practiced strength, grace and concise movement, she was perfect Mary in that moment, and it was an utterly fantastic image that hit me in a rush.
I had a thought, imagining a situation where too much appreciation of Mary’s form might push my hips a prince’s span away from the surface I was clinging to. The thought of me falling into the wind and darkness with a full fledged appreciation for Mary at the ready made me laugh out loud.
The moment gave me strength. I moved with more confidence.
What could have been two or ten minutes later, in a timespan punctuated only by a hammering heart that wouldn’t slow down and a course of adrenaline, my feet slipped.
I dangled from my fingertips, my arms trembling with strain. My midsection protested with what I was asking for it as I arched my body, bringing my feet back up to the surface above.
I was going to feel that tomorrow.
I continued my climb. As the angle of the arm changed, I had a slightly less horizontal surface, one that was still dark and fairly dry.
I reached the dormitory. A vertical surface. The next best thing to a horizontal surface that was actually under my feet instead of over my head.
“What now?” Helen asked.
“Now, you might want to look away,” I said. I shifted my hold on the wall, and I undid my fly.
“Sy!” Mary admonished me.
“Well, if you’re going to protest, you can look if you want,” I said. “It’s cold though, so there’s less to look at than usual.”
“What are you even doing?” she asked, turning her head away.
“Being very, very relieved,” I said. “Felt like I was going to piss myself a few times back there. Might as well celebrate my victory over that particular feeling, yeah?”
“Why?” Mary asked.
“Well, for one thing, I just haven’t had a chance to go in the past while, and now that the adrenaline isn’t suppressing normal urges to relieve myself, I really had to go,” I said. I cleared my throat. “For another thing, keeping in mind I’m halfway done-”
“Gross,” she said.
“-Or three quarters done. Here we go. One second.”
“I don’t need the moment by moment updates, Sy,” Mary said.
I zipped up. “Yep. That’s probably the most exhilarating leak I’ve ever taken. Highly recommended.”
She made a sound I couldn’t make out. I glanced at Helen, who hadn’t looked away or complained, who simply gave me a smile and one-shoulder shrug.
“I don’t understand how your mind works sometimes, Sy.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, few people can. It’s an advantage,” I said.
“Getting back on track…” Mary prompted me. “Why are we even here?”
“Well, for this, I wanted to thank Mauer for getting me to think about how the opposition here thinks. They’re insecure leaders.”
“He compared you to these leaders, for the record,” Mary said.
“Shush,” I said. “Come on now. Don’t be peevy with me now. They’re insecure leaders. They’re worried that if they don’t control the situation, take charge, and take the lead, then their people might lose momentum or surrender.”
“Right,” Mary said.
“So… natural conclusion of that. They’re managing the fire.”
“I can hear the chopping of wood,” Helen said.
I could, too. It was distant, but the ‘thok, thok, thok’ noise could be heard past the bluster of wind, patter of rain and the hiss of water pouring down the side of the dormitory.
“Taking furniture apart,” I said. “Or they’ll start taking parts of the dormitory building apart. Most likely, the wood of the floors and walls are fire resistant, not fireproof. But that’s not something that they need to control. Their focus is on us. They’re terrified of what unfolds if we attack, or if we deploy something. They saw us use the gas in other parts of the Academy before we shuffled them over to the dormitory buildings. So if they’re the type that has to lead from the front…”
I’d chosen the under-the-bridge route to keep out of sight, because they would have a hundred eyes watching the bridge to look out for potential attack, because it was sensible and because they were scared and emotion dictated the same.
Now my approach brought me up around the side of the bridge. Unless they were outside or actively leaning out the window, which they wouldn’t be in this gloom, they wouldn’t see me standing right at the door.
I pressed my hand against the wall, visualizing.
If they were the type to lead from the front, putting themselves between ally and enemy, so their allies wouldn’t flee or surrender, then they would be by the door. Standing guard not just against potential incursion, but against potential excursion.
I set a stick of dynamite into the wall above the door. Then I took a moment to judge the construction, and decided against using the second stick. Mauer’s urgings to kill were in the back of my mind, and I was happier with playing it safer. I hung my jacket over the stick to keep it mostly dry, and lit the wick, which was now sheltered from the downpour.
Swiftly, I ducked down under the side of the bridge. I clung to the exterior wall, with the idea of putting the thick and sturdy bridge and the fingers of the Lady of Hackthorn between myself and the imminent blast. I was glad that the nature of the growth of the arm and bridge and its interconnection with the dormitory building gave me sturdy handholds.
The blast was more intense than I’d anticipated. It wasn’t intense enough to send me flying, but it did knock me for a loop, my thoughts and senses rattled.
I gathered myself together as quickly as I could, and rose, climbing. The blast had affected the ones sitting in chairs a short distance from the door, damaging thick exterior walls with the shockwave knocking them out of their seats and sending them sprawling. They’d been hit worse than any of the others, and now some of those others had already rushed to the defense and aid of the two stunned individuals.
They didn’t even see me. They’d taken it for a cannon shot or mortar rather than anything else, as far as I could tell, and the idea that an enemy might be right outside the door, on a cracked bridge, it didn’t even occur to them.
I threw the smoke canister, throwing myself into the room a moment later.
I disabled, rather than hurt or maim. It was a fight in smoke and gloom, only a few moments after an unexpected explosion. Nobody was about to open fire on what might include friendlies, and I suspected that even the students that were hurrying into the dormitory lobby to see what was going on were still unaware that there was even a person present.
I pushed away the helpful bystanders, grabbed the ones who had been sitting by the door, and hauled the first and most active of them back.
He didn’t have a sense of balance, and getting him to move where I wanted required only a few timely pushes and shoves. He tumbled to the ground, and I used the shackles Davis had given me to connect him to the railing that ran along the bridge.
“There’s someone there! They’re attacking!” A girl called out.
“There weren’t any alerts!”
“There’s one hundred percent someone there! They got Eric and Neil!”
Feet tromped on floorboards.
I screamed, and I made it the scream of someone who was being hurt. A gargly tortured person scream, or the scream of a person who’d just been stabbed.
“Neil!” the girl who’d spoken before shouted.
Guess I knew who she was sweet on. Poor Eric.
The scream had given hesitation to people who had been relying on this pair for their forward momentum.
I grabbed the second of the pair and hauled them back. They weren’t as responsive and they weren’t trying to climb to their feet, so I couldn’t direct their movement. I had to drag, and I wasn’t strong enough to drag someone. I got him a few feet, and then I noticed the smoke was clearing up.
That was another problem. Small in the grand scheme of things. I tugged again on the heavy lad, dragging him closer to the door, then finally got him close enough to his buddy’s ankle.
I wasted no time in immediately heading to the wall. Every part of my fingers and feet protested, my stomach clenched into a knot as I made yet another climb.
Tommyboy or Tommy was the very first person they thought of when their leadership disappeared.
They were a trio, very likely. They might have thought along the same lines we were thinking, in choosing to take shifts, to conserve strength, and play the longer game. Tommy had rested so he’d be more alert later.
He’d have heard the explosion. What had I seen inside? I tried to think of the lobby and its layout, and to correlate that to what I knew was outside.
Damn my short memory.
I made my way to the first window. It was shuttered, and the latch for the shutters were inside, but that was easy enough to fix. A swipe of my knife through the gap lifted the latch. I had a chance to peek through.
I saw Tommy run by, flanked by a small crowd of students. The lobby was an open room with stairs running along one side, leading further up into the building. Tommy made his way down to the lobby, and stood well back from the door as he stared at the scene – a destroyed door and slightly damaged frame and exterior wall, the other two shackled to the bridge outside. It wasn’t no man’s land, but it wasn’t safe either. To help them they needed to step outside, expose themselves to gunfire or other dangers.
There was a girl in an Academy uniform talking to Tommy, telling him about me, no doubt. That something had been there in the wake of the explosion, pushing her away.
Their focus was on the outside.
I simply needed to be where they didn’t think I would be.
I drew my gun, mindful of what Mauer had said and taunted me of, shifted my position, and then broke the window with the gun handle.
Before they could react, I had my gun trained on Tommy, pointing at him through the window.
Slowly, he raised his hands in surrender.
“You’re going to put out the fire. Whatever you can’t put out, you let die.”
I could feel the tension, see the people exchange looks. So very many eyes were looking to Tommy for guidance. It said a lot that his hands were already up.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice carrying to me.
Taking out these individuals was the lynchpin here. Tommy raised his hands in surrender, and without the forward impetus of their leadership, everything in flux, the rest lost heart.
I signaled for Davis, with my best sharp whistle. We had ears that would catch it.
“Some of the ships are staying out there,” Pierre said. “I thought about being more stern about coming back, but I don’t do well with confrontation. It feels unpleasant. I don’t like being the one that’s staying put while others are moving.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Not the part about you being uncomfortable, but if that’s what they want to do, it’s good.”
“It’s a lot of resources we have to put in, to ensuring they have food, that they’re not overtired out there,” he said. “It feels very spread thin.”
“It’s really fine,” I said. “It’s about control, isn’t it?”
“You usually use that word as if it’s an epithet,” he pointed out.
“Well, look who’s paying attention. But it’s really fine. They want to play their part, have a role in this. They’re keeping an eye turned outward, for external threat. If it reassures them, let them.”
We sat at the dining area above Lab One, below the top floor where I’d had a view of the fire and Davis’ efforts to organize his rebel soldiers. This was the heart, a fantastic place to see just about all of the movement here and there through the center of the Academy.
Paul, formerly Poll Parrot, was sitting with other kids, eating. He’d had too many surgeries in the last few days, and he looked drawn out, not enough body fat, but he was smiling, laughing. He ate with one hand. Even with good students and doctors turned to the task, we’d only salvaged one arm. The other was a stump, and we would fix that soon.
He sat with Mauer, which was my own affectation, a younger parallel. He ate with soldiers, which was his own affectation, a good indicator of his mindset, that the anger was still there, and the possible direction he might take from here.
There were others gathered. Many of Ferres’ experiments had been glad to get their modifcations removed and undone. Some of the more extensive ones had been harder to fix, put off until later, or until we had the resources. We didn’t have a spare human face for Red Riding Hood. No arm for Paul.
“Do you think I should go under the knife?” Pierre asked.
“Not my decision to make,” I said.
“Might be that I’m thinking about it,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
It had been so long that I’d known him, that I hadn’t asked. I’d felt like I couldn’t. That it would be crossing a boundary.
“If you told me to, I probably would, and I’d probably be happier for it,” he said.
“Maybe I like you the way you are. Maybe you like you the way you are.”
“That’s true,” he said.
I saw some students come down the stairs. It wasn’t an outright defection, but some of the students from the dormitory had changed their minds about things. They were working for us in a limited capacity, with a strong guard. Fearing for their security more than they likely ever had in their lives, they’d taken the security we offered over the security they had as prisoners.
“An Academy can’t run like this, you know,” Lillian said, from further down the table. She’d seen me looking. “With only a few hundred, when it needs more. Even this small defection, it’s not enough.”
I agreed, but I didn’t want to go and talk to Lillian when I was sitting and eating with Pierre. That would look curious, give others more reason to worry.
There was so much more to do. Power and control. The students we’d herded elsewhere were elsewhere as a group. The were banding together, becoming factions unto themselves. The fire at the top of the one dormitory was one thing. There was another dormitory that was actively trying to fight back. We had access to the Academy’s guns and arsenal, we had barricades and the warbeasts, chemicals for gas and more. They had sheer numbers, and weapons of a medieval sort, improvised and fashioned using resources they’d had in the dorm. Curtain rod spears, pokers, knives and clubs made from bedposts.
The others had wanted to gas them, but I was hoping that we could get them to expend their strength and stamina. We needed to turn some of them. Everything was about appearances here.
On the topic of appearances… I watched Mabel hurry down the stairs, taking them two at a time, one hand on the railing so she wouldn’t take a spill. She gave me a glance and a smile.
“She’s going to avoid me,” I said.
“Did things sour?” Pierre asked.
“No, not sour, exactly,” I said. Mabel saw me and gave me a little salute.
I gestured. Come. Sit.
Brain work. Mabel signaled. Hands.
Research she couldn’t leave alone?
She didn’t glance back at me before hurrying on her way.
“Maybe I shouldn’t push it. Just bothers me sometimes,” I said. “People avoiding me.”
“I’ve experienced that too,” Pierre said. “Sometimes it’s the way things are.”
Someone settled onto the bench next to me.
Bo Peep. Twelve or so, dressed in borrowed clothes that were too large for her.
Reaching up and over, she took hold of my arm, hugging it.
“Hey critter,” I said.
Her head rested against my shoulder.
I shifted my position, and I hugged her closer.
“Still haven’t gone under the knife, huh?”
She shook her head.
“S’alright,” I said. “Another time maybe.”
She shook her head again.
“No,” she said. Her voice had a bit of a croak to it. Newly fixed vocal chords. “No more surgeries.”
I looked over at Pierre. His expression was unreadable, but his ears had an angle that made me think of worry.
Well, she wasn’t the only one who had expressed the sentiment.
“Well, would it bother you if I said that at least you have the best head of hair in the world, so if you’re going to keep it, it’s a pretty neat thing to keep?”
She shook her head, then said, “But it’s a head of wool.”
“I stand corrected,” I said. She nodded in response, her head rubbing against my shoulder.
I wasn’t sure it counted for a lot, that she said she wasn’t bothered. I could have told her pretty much anything, and she would’ve bought it. I’d rescued them, and that counted for an awful lot.
I wasn’t sure that was a good thing, that I had their absolute trust.
“Did you just need a hug?” I asked her. “Always an option.”
She shook her head, then seemed to remember that she had a voice, and that she wasn’t largely limited to head movements and gestures. She stated a simple, “No.”
“No? Not always an option? Or you didn’t need a hug?”
“I wanted to say,” she said, and then she hesitated. She pulled back a bit and looked up at me anxious. “Can you stop talking?”
“Stop talking?” I asked. My head went through all of the paradigms, trying to figure out the angle I was supposed to interpret that. Did she want the hug, without words attached? She was five or so years my junior and that wasn’t really a thing. It was-
“Stop talking to them,” she interrupted my thoughts. “People who aren’t there?”
I opened my mouth to respond, then stopped. It hadn’t been an angle I’d considered.
No Lillian at the table. That much I’d known. But no Pierre either.
“It makes me uneasy. It makes others uneasy too, and I don’t like them being uneasy with you.”
“It’s okay, Peep,” I said, jumping in before she could say any more. “I get it. I get it. I’m sorry.”
She nodded, and then she hugged me tighter.
I gave her mop of wool a tentative, reassuring pat, and she nodded again, as if this was good.
Setting one elbow on the table, fingers pressed against my mouth, I used my other hand to stroke her hair while she sat next to me, clinging to me.
Sitting next to Paul, Mauer looked my way.
I thought of the conversation, about moving forward and about stopping.
I don’t think I can stop, I thought. Let’s at least hope the others are moving forward.