Erik cringed and froze. He knew it was going to happen eventually. He was a lot better about moving now, and he was trying to be braver about playing outside. He had made several forays into Green Dragon Alley and even gone out of the yard a couple of times. He had gone all the way to the end of the block with Maggie and Hyacinth to get paintbrushes, but they were with him the whole time and he didn’t see any kids he knew really well.
He had just been playing on the back stairs, not pushing his boundaries or anything, but now here was Soup.
Soup was this blond kid with freckles and, for some reason, a red bow tie. He was older than Maggie, but still not old enough to be out of short pants and stockings. He did not appear to have parents or any kind of family or a house, he just walked around all the time. It kind of showed; he was always smudged up and dirty, and when he tore his clothes he didn’t get new ones or even patches. He stole stuff and he ate in soup kitchens, or wherever else they had food and they’d give him some. Maggie taught him a little magic, and he taught Maggie how to pick pockets. He knew how to boost cars, too — not for stealing, apparently just to annoy people. He couldn’t work the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time, so he just drove until he crunched into something, usually three feet or less.
Erik thought Soup had to be the coolest kid in Strawberryfield, maybe in all of San Rosille, if you didn’t count teenagers.
He was carrying a crumpled paper sack in one arm. Possibly something he stole, definitely not food. If it were food, he would’ve been eating it.
“Is it Erik?” he asked, grinning. Soup had met Auntie-Enora-in-Erik out in back of the house not too long ago.
Erik looked down and away. “Yeah, it’s me.”
“What happened to the old lady who blows smoke rings?”
“Went back where she came from.”
“Aw, that’s too bad. She was pretty awesome.”
“Yeah…” Soup had brought half the neighborhood to meet Auntie Enora, or maybe just the weird green kid who was acting all crazy. Erik was not too thrilled about that.
“You look better, though,” Soup said. “You looked like hell.”
“She didn’t let me eat anything.” Erik shrugged. “Just coffee and cigarettes.”
“Wow, that’s rough.” Soup reached a hand into his shirt pocket. “You wanna cigarette?” He offered the pack, which had three left in it. He stole cigarettes, though, so he didn’t mind sharing.
Erik looked stricken. Oh, boy, he did. He really did, but he couldn’t just say so.
Auntie Enora had smoked a lot of cigarettes. Not even as many as she wanted to, because she couldn’t do it around Uncle Mordecai, but enough that Erik got a taste for them. Coffee, too, but he was allowed some coffee. His uncle said no cigarettes at all for two weeks, and after he had waited that out he got one, and he had wanted to like it, but there was a problem.
He didn’t know how to smoke. He might’ve remembered it if he picked it up right away, but he wasn’t allowed to do that and by the time he got his one cigarette he had no idea. He remembered smoking. He remembered watching himself do it, and feeling it (he just didn’t get to have any say in whether he did it or did anything) but he couldn’t do it that way anymore. He couldn’t take a long drag and relax and enjoy it. He took a short one and coughed everything back out, and kept coughing. He persevered through the entire cigarette, because he remembered liking them and he did like having it — and he had waited so long! — but his eyes and nose had run, he had wanted to spit, and he had nearly peed himself.
He wanted a cigarette, yeah. He wanted Soup to teach him how to steal cigarettes, so he could sneak them out back in the alley whenever he wanted. But if he tried to smoke a cigarette in front of Soup, he was going to look like an idiot.
On the other hand, he couldn’t say that, nor could he refuse cigarettes on the grounds that he was not supposed to. That would also make him look like an idiot, and a big stupid baby, too.
So he sat there looking pained for a few long moments before he finally put together some words that might prevent his seven-year-old ego from further bruising.
“No thanks.” He tipped his head back and adopted a jaded expression. “I’m tryna cut back.”
Soup snickered at him. “Pssh. Yeah. All right.” He drew one out with his teeth and stuffed the pack back in his shirt pocket. His hand went automatically to the pants pocket with the matchbook. “So, you wanna play marbles?” he asked around the filter. He tucked the paper bag against him so he had both hands free to light up. “We can use your eye.” He grinned and blew a smoke ring. (Auntie Enora taught him how to do those.)
Erik touched a hand against his metal eye. He turned his head aside and shrugged.
“That old lady,” Soup said, belligerently smoking, “Auntie Enormous or whatever. She said we should quit teasin’ ya. You don’t mind, though, do ya?”
“Yeah, I knew you didn’t. You’re cool.”
Erik did not think for one minute that Soup thought he was cool. Maybe Soup thought Maggie was cool. Soup probably just thought he was weird and sometimes amusing, but he appreciated the compliment. He smiled faintly, though that comment about using his eye for a marble still stung. (He thought Soup would do something like that, if he got hold of it.)
“I got some cans for Miss Hyacinth,” Soup said, lifting the bag.
“Any good ones?” Erik said suspiciously. Steel was good. Tin was not, and altogether more common. Hyacinth used tin to patch him, but that was only because they didn’t have anything else after all the burned girls. She’d even used up Milo’s screwdrivers.
Soup shrugged. “I guess a couple. You know I can’t tell.”
Erik frowned, but he nodded and accepted the bag. Everyone in the house could tell — not just Hyacinth who knew right away from touching — because they practiced and paid attention. He thought Soup could tell if he wanted to, he just wanted it to look like he brought a lot of cans so they’d feed him.
“So, you got anything to eat?”
Yep, thought Erik with a sigh. He stood up. “I guess so. Come on. Wait.” He put up a hand and smiled. “You can’t smoke that in the house. My uncle gets sick.” There was still half a cigarette left. Soup would have to throw it away. Ha.
“Oh,” Soup said. He licked his fingers and pinched out the lit end, then he removed the ash and tucked the rest of the cigarette behind his ear.
Damn it, thought Erik. He wearily opened the back door.
Hyacinth was in the kitchen doing a touch-know on a wailing infant, or maybe just checking its temperature, but probably both. “Upper respiratory,” she told the young mother. “It’s a cold, I mean.” She bounced the child for a few moments before giving in and handing it back. “Let me write down what you need to get at the drugstore. You’ll have to have the liquid stuff, and a syringe…” She picked up the kitchen pad from the table. “Oh, hey, Erik. Soup.”
“Do you mind if I feed him, Auntie Hyacinth?” Erik said, since she seemed to be busy. “He brought us some cans.” He lifted the bag.
“I guess…” said Hyacinth, frowning.
Erik sighed. He knew she wasn’t reluctant to feed Soup, cans or no cans. “I won’t drop anything. I’m better.”
She made a smile. “Yeah, honey. I know you are.” She just remembered when he wasn’t and she was so sick of mopping and sweeping the floor. “It’s okay.”
Erik found the bread on the counter, dragged over the stepstool, and began to assemble peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Hyacinth watched him for about a minute and flinched when he picked up the peanut butter and jelly jars (Those are glass!), but when disaster failed to result, she relaxed somewhat and returned to the kitchen pad. “Here.” She ripped off the top sheet and handed it to the mother.
The young woman put up a hand and took a half-step backwards. “We were sort of hoping not to give her a lot of drugs…”
Hyacinth folded her arms across her chest and tipped her head to one side. “Lady, that kid is miserable. I’m not saying to give her soothing syrup,” (She’d had a look at the label on one of those bottles after completing her training as a medic and scared the hell out of herself — “Whole opium and cannabis sativa? How did we never have this stuff at parties?” — but she kept some in her doctor bag for adults.) “this is just for the symptoms.” When the woman still appeared reluctant, Hyacinth smiled sweetly and tried the magic words, “It’ll make her sleep through the night.”
The woman plucked the note from her fingers and tucked it into her purse. “Thank you.”
“No trouble. Now, listen,” she lifted a finger and prevented the woman’s escape, “you are gonna take that kid down to the free clinic and get her her shots when she’s old enough, right?”
“Lady, shots are not drugs! They are vaccinations!”
As Hyacinth lectured an exhausted woman with a bawling baby about science and the immune system and teeny-tiny coffins, Erik and Soup sat down at the kitchen table and had sandwiches. It was early for lunch, Maggie wasn’t even down yet, but it seemed silly to make sandwiches and not even have one.
“Did you have your shots?” Erik asked. He knew he’d had his. Hyacinth said his uncle cried.
“Beats me,” Soup said, through a mouthful of sandwich. “Miss Hyacinth always fixes me when I get sick, anyway.”
“I think it’s s’posed to be so you don’t get sick,” Erik said.
“I don’t get sick a lot,” Soup said with a shrug. “Are you gonna finish that?”
Erik protectively finished his sandwich. Soup had already gone through three.
“I was gonna go to school later if nothing fun happened,” Soup said. “You wanna come?”
School? thought Erik. He had a vague recollection of school. He didn’t think he’d gone a lot. Hyacinth and Uncle Mordecai taught him stuff — reading and writing, and math. A little bit of music, too. When he got hurt and he needed to relearn things, Hyacinth helped him. She never said anything about sending him to school. He probably couldn’t have done school when he was hurt, anyway. It was cold, and loud.
He thought the man who taught school was nice, though. He couldn’t remember the name, but he was pretty sure the man was blue, and Hyacinth and Uncle Mordecai knew him a little.
There would be kids at school. Maybe kids he knew, like Cornflakes or Bethany.
Maybe kids who’d seen him out in back of the house being Auntie Enora.
He winced. They might tease him, worse than Soup did. And they might just think he was crazy and not like him anymore.
But the man who taught school was nice, and he’d be there, and he’d keep the other kids from being too mean. They’d have to listen to him, because he wasn’t like a parent or anything, he was just the guy who taught school — and the kids liked him. He had to be nice so that the kids would like him or else they wouldn’t come to school.
Maybe it was better to go to school and meet a lot of kids at once with someone nice there to help out than to just wait to run into them in the neighborhood, and they could be as mean as they wanted because he’d be all by himself. He could just sort of test things and see how everyone was going to be. And if they were going to be really mean and not like him, at least he’d be ready for that when it happened later.
“Yeah, I guess,” Erik said. “Lemme ask my uncle.”
Uncle Mordecai was in the bedroom with the door closed doing spacing exercises on the violin. He didn’t like to play where anyone could hear him because he hadn’t played a violin in a long time and he still screwed it up sometimes. Erik knocked before he opened the door so he could stop playing and not get too embarrassed.
“Oh. Hello, dear one. What’s up?” He was already putting it back in the case. It really bothered him that he couldn’t play it right.
“Is it okay if I go to school?” Erik asked.
Mordecai winced. “By yourself?” School was a block down and a block over. He didn’t think Erik had been that far from the house since he’d been hurt, not even with someone to look after him. He used to range all over, he even took buses, and Mordecai hadn’t minded that too much at the time, but all that was before.
He would have to cross streets. There might be cars. There might be horses.
“No. Soup’s gonna go with me.” Erik pulled open the door a bit more. Soup leaned in and waved.
“Hi, Mr. Eidel.”
Mordecai put a hand to his head. “Oh. Soup.” Soup would do perfectly well guiding Erik around cars and street-corners, possibly even a riot, but if Erik happened to have a nervous breakdown around some horses or get attacked by a dog, Soup would stand there and laugh at him.
But he knew Erik was trying to get used to being out of the house, and the kids in the neighborhood, and just being normal again. It would not be normal to have his uncle walk him two blocks to school, and deliver him there in front of all of the other kids. If Erik had been going alone, maybe he could’ve walked him up near the school, and then broken off and let him make the rest of the distance by himself so the other kids wouldn’t see, but Soup was already here. If he expressed an intention to walk two steps out of the house with Erik, Soup would tease the poor kid about it, and then tell everyone else so they could tease him, too.
So, the only face-saving options here were, No, Erik cannot go to school, because I am a mean person who doesn’t let him do things, certainly not because I am worried in any way, or Sure, go for it.
He didn’t like either of those. He tried to split the difference, “Erik, tell me which animals are safe.”
Erik heaved a weary sigh. “Cats are safe, dogs are not safe. Goats are safe, sheep are not safe. Cows aren’t safe, but oxen are. Donkeys are safe.” He shut his eye and turned his head aside. “I know horses aren’t safe.”
“I know you know that,” Mordecai said and brushed his cheek. He wanted to say something about being afraid of horses. Like, that it was okay if he was, he could just come home, and he shouldn’t be ashamed, but this was not an option in front of Soup. “If you see any of those animals, you cross to the other side of the street. Even in the middle of the street, right?”
“Yeah,” said Erik.
“What do you do before you cross?”
“Look both ways.”
“Right. And try to cross at street-corners, okay?”
“Okay.” He drew a sharp breath and let it out slowly. “Take your own pencil and paper and bring Seth something to eat.”
Erik broke into a grin. “Yeah!” he said. He and Soup took off across the dining room.
“Come home before dinner!” Mordecai called after them.
Hyacinth was sorting the cans at the kitchen table. So far there were two good ones and six tin. The good ones would go in the basement with the remaining steel nails, the tin ones into a pile in the yard (tin was good for some things, sometimes Hyacinth made utensils out of it, or patched stuff). She had successfully exacted a promise that the baby would be vaccinated at an appropriate age before allowing the mother’s release.
“Auntie Hyacinth, can I have paper and a pencil? I’m gonna go to school.”
“School?” She blinked and considered him. “Your uncle said it was okay?”
Hyacinth stood up. “Let me get some things together for Seth.”
“Uncle said to bring him something to eat.”
“Yeah,” said Hyacinth. “A few things…” She went down to the basement to see what they had.
“Your uncle worries about you, huh?” Soup said.
“Yeah, I guess,” Erik admitted with a shrug.
“That’s weird,” Soup said. He never had to ask people’s permission for stuff, he just did what he wanted. Well, what he could get away with. As long as it didn’t get him arrested, it was okay. Nobody cared if he looked both ways before crossing the street.
“Sometimes he’s dumb about stuff,” Erik said. “He’s always saying what I shouldn’t do, even if it’s not bad.”
“Yeah, but it’s because he likes you,” Soup said.
“Yeah, I guess.” Erik didn’t really mind the worrying or the liking, but it was a considerable impediment to his ever being cool — and sometimes he thought it might be nice just to be able to do whatever he wanted.
Like smoke cigarettes, he thought, eyeing the half-a-one behind Soup’s ear.
Hyacinth repurposed the paper sack Soup had brought the cans in and filled it. She made four sandwiches, two peanut butter and jelly and two ham and cheese, and wrapped them in paper towels. She added three apples and two cans of soup and a bottle of milk. “Here, Erik. Is that too heavy for you? Can you manage it?”
Erik took the bag, first in one hand, then quickly added another. He shifted it against him and walked a few paces. “Yeah. It’s okay.”
“I’d like you to take him a fire blanket, but I think that’s maybe too much. Soup, could you…?”
Soup smiled at her, displaying that heartbreaking gap in his front teeth. “Yes, Miss Hyacinth?”
Hyacinth frowned. No, she could not give Soup a fire blanket to carry, or the bag with the food. He’d run off. He’d eat the food, or sell the blanket and buy food. “No. Never mind. Erik, here’s paper and pencil. Leave him the pad.” There were spare notepads in the kitchen drawer, she gave Erik one of these. Milo might’ve had a box of pencils somewhere, but she didn’t want to steal from him while he wasn’t home. She just gave Erik the one from her purse. “You don’t have to bring the pencil back, either.”
Erik added the notepad and pencil to the paper sack. “It’s a lot of food,” he noted.
“That way I know he’ll eat some of it.”
Erik nodded, somewhat mystified.
They were barely three steps out of the yard before Soup demanded a sandwich.
“Come on, you just had sandwiches,” Erik said.
“One for later,” Soup said. “They’re wrapped up. Come on, then you don’t have to carry it.”
Erik sighed. He could either give Soup a sandwich or keep telling Soup he couldn’t have a sandwich all the way to school. He set down the bag, opened it and drew one out. “There. Just a sandwich.”
“Right.” Soup removed the pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, crushed it around the two remaining and stuffed it in the back pocket of his pants. Then the sandwich went into the shirt pocket, although he had to roll it to get it to fit. He smiled. “I’ll carry the bag if you want me to. It’s a long way.”
“No thanks,” Erik said. He clutched it a little tighter against him.
“Can I get one of those apples?”
“Come on, Eyeball. Be a pal.”
“I’m not… pals with people who call me… Eyeball,” Erik spat. He was starting to wonder if he couldn’t maybe get to school by himself. He knew it was under a bridge, he just wasn’t sure exactly where…
“Dog,” said Soup, stopping him with a hand. It was a stray, sniffing among some trash cans in an alley.
Erik wobbled and took a step backwards. Those ones were dangerous because they didn’t have leashes and people to stop them. It wasn’t like dogs and cows and things got mad at them, his uncle said they were scared. Sometimes they just ran away, but sometimes they thought they needed to defend themselves.
The horses had been in a pen, and they couldn’t run away. He remembered that much. Then it all got kind of confused, and painful.
Soup grinned at him. “Come on, let’s go.” He motioned Erik behind a mailbox, then a lamppost. “Okay, wait a sec.” He regarded the street, and searched it for horses. There was a man with a handcart, and a lumbering truck with wooden slatted sides, and a few people walking. He waited until the truck went past. “Okay, now go. Go!” They ran, and when they’d made it across, Soup dragged him behind another lamppost. He looked over at the alley where the dog had been. Erik looked at him.
Soup liked it that there were a lot of animals out there that would like to hurt Erik. Dodging dogs and horses was more fun than stealing stuff, because the police didn’t care. It made the streets into a big arcade game. Erik had forgotten about that.
He wasn’t sure if he was okay with it…
Soup pointed and plotted them a path past the alley, just in case the dog should happen to look over. “Behind that trash can, and then those crates out in front of the store, then the lamppost. Okay?”
Erik nodded. “Yeah.”
“Okay, let’s go!” Soup dragged him by the hand. Erik held the paper bag tightly under one arm, squishing the sandwiches. They failed to engage the dog’s attention, and by the time they made it to the street-corner, they were both laughing.
“Hey! Made it! Awesome!”
Soup went around the corner and reconned the area.
“Anything?” Erik asked.
“Nah, I think we’re safe.”
“Maybe we could pretend there’s something,” Erik said shyly.
“Look!” said Soup, drawing him near. “A sheep! Coming right up the middle of Eddows Lane! I’ve never seen such a thing!”
“Must’ve got away from the zoo,” Erik said.
“Aw. I bet Lucky the Hippo is missing his friend.” Soup pointed a path. “Let’s duck in those tables outside of Hassan’s! Then I think we can make it into that alley!”
Over the next block they dealt with the sheep, a cow, and two real dogs that a man in a cloth overcoat was walking. Soup also managed to wheedle an apple out of Erik, but his attempts to get another sandwich proved ineffective.
“You don’t even have a… place to put it!” Erik said.
“I could eat it!” Soup said.
“Auntie Hyacinth gave it to me for… school! Go… away!”
“How about one of those soup cans? Come on. I think Seth doesn’t even like tomato.”
“Then he can say so, ‘cos we’re here,” Erik said, pointing.
The railway bridge was built of iron and stone. It arced over Cinders Alley, which consisted mostly of gravel with a few brave sprigs of grass, and was framed by the jagged edges of two bombed-out buildings. New construction in Strawberryfield had not proved profitable enough for anyone to rebuild so close to the noise of the trains. Under the bridge was the school.
This was not a school in any traditional sense. There were no bells and no recess and no attendance taken. There were neither lockers nor playground. There were a few warped tables, a scattering of chairs, and a couple of real school desks with the hinged tops — but old, split and sagging ones that nobody wanted anymore. There was also a chalkboard. In front of it, the teacher’s desk was a plywood board resting on orange crates. It was somewhat crooked. There was a paper bag and two cardboard boxes resting on top of it. Behind the chalkboard was a nest of blankets and a few pillows — that was the teacher’s bed. There was also a broken down trunk with a sprung lock for the teacher’s belongings.
At the chalkboard, Seth Zusman was teaching all the school that the street kids of Strawberryfield could afford: a free one that he supplied out of his own pocket and with various discarded items that nobody would miss. He was also wearing cast-offs — patched black denim trousers, a stained white t-shirt and a ragged sportcoat with holes in the sleeves and loose threads where the buttons should have been. All of these tended to come up a little short on his frame, especially when making large gestures. He had medium-blue skin, gray eyes and a prominent nose — perhaps not conventionally handsome, but altogether it was not too disagreeably-arranged. The faint lines in his face all went in the right direction; he did a lot of smiling. He had picked up three kids at the moment. It was a fairly nice day. School was more popular when it rained or snowed, because of the bridge — and he’d do a little magic to keep it comfortable enough to facilitate learning.
The lesson of the moment was on ‘the silent E.’ He had an eight-year-old, a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old. It was approximately appropriate for those ages. He’d add a little more information for the ten-year-old and a little more explanation for the seven-year-old, and then break away from the board to give individual assistance. On the board, he had drawn two gingerbread-like people holding hands, one labeled ‘VOWEL’ and the other ‘E’. The vowel had an open mouth, the E had a closed ‘X.’ He had written, E makes the vowel say its name, in neat cursive below this. It the middle of the board, he was writing large words. Cane was at the top, under it was Tone. He had just written, Win.
“Win,” he said. “The ‘I’ is a short vowel. The short sound for ‘I’ is ih, like a little mouse. Ih! Now if we…”
A freight train trundled by overhead, spraying the cinders that gave the alley its name. Seth stopped speaking and stood patiently, waiting. The kids winced up at the train and covered their ears. The chalkboard rattled, as did the rickety desks and chairs. This went on for a good ten minutes. Seth had to put a hand on the pencil box to prevent it from working its way onto the ground.
“So if we add an ‘E,'” he added one, “then what word do we have?”
The eight-year-old spoke up, “Wine!”
He smiled and nodded. “That’s very good, Natalie. But please raise your hand. The ‘E’ makes the vowel say its name. Do you remember which letters… Oh, hello, Soup.” He waved at them. “Erik. Please…” He blinked and wobbled. “Erik?”
Erik turned his head aside and touched a hand to his eye. The kids had seen him — most of them, anyway — but he hadn’t been back to school since before he got hurt, and he guessed Seth hadn’t been to the house. He thought Seth showed up at the house usually in early summer, but he couldn’t quite remember why.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Erik said. He braced himself for questions. He didn’t like to say it happened because he was stupid around some horses, he preferred to say he just got hurt, but sometimes people wouldn’t leave it alone.
“Um,” Seth said. He smiled again. “Welcome. Do you need pencil and paper?” He gestured to the boxes on the table.
“I do,” Soup said. “Leave the bag on the desk, there,” he advised Erik, aside. He knew Erik had forgotten a lot of stuff. He had seen Erik when he was a lot sicker.
Erik removed his pencil and paper and set the bag with the food on the desk. Inside the two cardboard boxes were loose pieces of paper in various colors and sizes weighted down with a brick, and a scattering of pencils in various states of use, some sharpened almost all the way up to the eraser. Soup took a couple sheets of paper and a pencil with a good three inches left on it. Erik felt absurdly wealthy with five inches of pencil and a whole notepad.
Seth leaned forward slightly and worry creased his expression as Erik approached, but he did not lose his smile, and when his two new students had settled themselves, he continued the lesson. He added, A E I O U and sometimes Y, to the left half of the board, and changed Run into Rune in the center.
“Who’s the little girl with the black ponytail?” Erik asked Soup in a whisper. (They were sharing a table. It wiggled when either one of them wrote.) He recognized Natalie, with brown curls, and Jonathan, with short black hair and green eyes.
“That’s Kelly,” Soup said. “She lives on Sabot Street. Quiet, though.” Seth never yelled at them for talking in school, he just asked them please not to and looked sad about it. That was way worse.
Seth finished up by changing Her into Here and then broke away from the board to answer individual questions.
“What about Purse?” Jonathan asked him, writing it.
“That’s a different rule,” Seth said. “A lot of words that end with an ‘S’ sound are spelled with an ‘E’ at the end.” He wrote Lease and Tease. “So it doesn’t look funny if you need to add another ‘S.'” He changed them to Leases and Teases. “If you have a word that does end in an ‘S,’ and you want to add another, you have to add an ‘E’ as well.” He wrote Dresses. “Can you think of another one?”
Jonathan considered for a moment and then wrote Stresses.
“Excellent,” Seth said.
Erik requested Soup’s assistance in getting all of his letters going the right way.
Soup was mystified. “That one’s right.” He pointed to the ‘N’ in Tone. “Why don’t you just make them all like that?”
“I can’t tell,” Erik muttered, frustratedly erasing.
“Trouble?” Seth asked them. He noted Erik’s letters. “Ah, I see.” He drew a dotted ‘N’ on Erik’s paper, lowercase like on the board. “This way. It’s half the size of the capital. Can you trace it?”
Erik sighed. Hyacinth had done that for him a few times. It helped back when he couldn’t make letters at all. It didn’t do anything for him now. He traced the ‘N.’ He could do it fine that way.
“Good!” Seth said. “Now you try one.”
Erik attempted an ‘N.’ He cringed and waited for the verdict.
“That’s right. Now you’ve got the hang of it! Do another.”
He did another.
“Ah. No, that’s not quite it. The stem is on the left side. Like this.” He wrote an ‘N.’ “Do you see it?”
“No,” Erik said weakly.
“No?” Seth said. “Is it…?” He touched his left eye, mirroring where Erik had lost his.
Erik shook his head. “No. It’s not the eye. It’s because I got hurt.”
“How did you get hurt, Erik?” Seth asked softly.
“I hurt my head.” He did not mention the horses. “Hyacinth fixed it, then I had medicine from Auntie Enora, but they couldn’t fix everything. I mess up my letters and sometimes I don’t talk right.”
Soup piped up, “He talks all right, he just slows down sometimes.”
“How did you get medicine from Auntie Enora?” Seth said, blinking.
Erik shrugged. “I called her.”
Seth dropped his pencil. “You did?”
“Seth, don’t bother about him!” Natalie called over. “He got kicked in the head and he’s crazy now.”
Seth straightened and frowned at her. “Natalie, that is unkind. Please apologize to Erik.”
“But he is crazy!” Natalie protested. “He was out in Green Dragon Alley smoking cigarettes and talking all weird! He didn’t remember any of us! He didn’t remember us before!”
Erik winced and dropped his head.
“That is not crazy,” Seth said stiffly. “That is being ridden by a god. It’s very dangerous and a very hard thing to do. I did that during the war, to protect the city. I spoke differently and I didn’t recognize people because I wasn’t me. I smoked and drank and did whatever else they wanted me to do, too. I had to, so that they would stay and help us. Do you think I’m crazy, Natalie?”
Natalie looked pained. Seth lived under a bridge. But, no, he wasn’t crazy. He was just really, really nice. She shook her head.
“I appreciate that, Natalie,” Seth said, smiling. “Please apologize to Erik.”
“I’m sorry, Erik.”
“It’s okay,” Erik said. He wasn’t sure if it was okay, but he was talking on auto-pilot. The guy who taught school used to call gods?
“I think it’s about time we broke for lunch,” Seth said. “Does anyone need a lunch?”
Jonathan and Kelly and Soup put up their hands.
Erik elbowed Soup in the side. “You… have a… sandwich!” And he’d just eaten an apple, like, ten minutes ago!
“That’s for later,” Soup said.
Seth walked to his makeshift desk and opened the paper bags. “Well, let’s see what we have. Oh! My goodness!” Natalie’s bag had yielded two sandwiches and a bag of chips, while Erik’s contained a bounty. “We have soups!” he noted, lifting both cans. “Let’s see, now. It looks like everyone can have a sandwich. We’ve got ham and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly, and pastrami on rye — Thank you Natalie, that’s my favorite. What would everyone like?” He produced a pocket knife and divided the sandwiches, then the apples. He opened the bag of chips and told Kelly to take one and then pass it down. He opened the soups with a different tool from the same pocket knife and sought out a cooking pot from the broken trunk. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about the milk. I haven’t enough cups.” He didn’t have enough bowls for the soup, either, but he could pour some of it back in the cans. He could drink out of a can, and he thought Soup might manage it also without cutting himself.
“Why don’t you have the milk, Seth?” Kelly said.
There were voices of agreement all around, even from Soup.
Seth smiled at them. “Thank you, my dears. But it isn’t quite fair. I think I’ll put it in the soup. Does anyone mind cream of tomato?”
No one minded, or at least not enough to bother Seth by saying so.
He had a hotplate that took sacrifices. He warmed the soup on that and then dished it around. “Erik, you’re not eating,” he noted. Natalie had her own paper bag. “Do you want soup? Or some sandwich?”
“I ate before I left home,” Erik said.
Seth frowned at him. He occasionally had kids that said that and only rarely had they actually eaten. Erik’s home situation seemed better than that, and he had brought quite a lot of food, but Seth wasn’t willing to let it slide. “Will you have a little bit of soup? And half a sandwich? Just to be polite?”
“Uh,” said Erik. He really had eaten and he wasn’t hungry and he didn’t like to take food away from people who were, but he didn’t like to say ‘no’ to Seth, especially since he’d said about it just being polite. “Can I just have the soup? You said those were your favorite sandwiches.”
“They are, but I don’t mind sharing them at all.” He sliced one in two.
Erik accepted a mug of soup and half a pastrami sandwich.
After lunch, the lesson was addition and ‘carrying the one.’ He expanded this to multiplication for Soup and Jonathan and put some times tables on the board. There were two breaks for trains. There were more trains in the afternoon and evening. Jonathan and Natalie had to leave midway through. He thanked them for coming and assigned no homework. Kids in Strawberryfield had neither the time nor the resources for homework. It was hard enough trying to get across basic math and literacy. He’d had to abandon science and history and all the humanities. (He would try to slip in a taste of them if he had a small group that seemed to have the basics down reasonably well. This rarely happened.)
As he was switching back to literacy (making plurals of words that ended in ‘Y.’) Mordecai put in an appearance.
“Mr. Eidel!” Seth called out. “Welcome. Do you need paper and pencil?” He smiled.
Mordecai snickered. He put up his hand. “I’m not staying for lessons. I just thought you might want a fire blanket.” He held up the folded parcel. “Hyacinth wanted to send one with Erik, but he had his hands full with lunch.” He reached into his coat pocket and drew out a small glass bottle. It had white pills in it. When he shook it, they rattled. “I’ve stolen some of her anti-nausea medicine, too. Just so you have it.”
“How considerate of you!” Seth knelt and flipped open the lid of his trunk. “I do seem to be blanketless again. Thank you so much. You have me all ready for summer.”
Mordecai shrugged. He gave the blanket and the pills and Seth tucked them away. “Sometimes we get them in the spring, you know. We wouldn’t like you to get caught short.”
“No, and I don’t like poor Hyacinth having to come out in the rain to rescue me,” Seth said with a laugh. “Thank you, Mordecai. And thank her for me, too.”
“Please, it’s no trouble. I’m glad for the walk.” He was glad for the excuse to check up on Erik. “Did you get enough lunch, Seth?”
“Yes! And thank you for that, too. It was almost too much!”
Mordecai did not think it was possible for Seth to have too much lunch. He would just give it to people. “I don’t suppose you’d like to come over for dinner?”
“Oh, thank you for offering, but no. I try to be here at night. That’s when the workers get home.” There were a lot of people in Strawberryfield who needed tutoring in math and literacy, not all of them children.
Sometimes they brought dinners. He’d share those out as well.
“I know,” Mordecai said. “But I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Erik?” He turned and smiled. “Would you like to come home now? I’m making cookies.” …Specifically to get you to come home now.
“Cookies?” Soup said. “Can I help?”
Can you help yourself to some cookies, you mean, Mordecai thought. But he nodded. If Soup was leaving then Erik had to come.
“Yay!” Soup said. He abandoned his papers on the table top.
Erik stood and folded his. He picked up the pad and walked it over to Seth. “Auntie Hyacinth says you can have the rest of this,” he said, “and the pencil.”
“Thank you, Erik. I do appreciate that.” He put them in the cardboard boxes, and he put the brick on top of the notepad. “It seems like I’m always short of paper and pencils.” And glue. And scissors. And crayons. And books. And just about everything else a school ought to have.
When Erik and Soup and Mordecai had gone, that left him only with Kelly. Kelly had been there since seven o’clock in the morning. He had given her breakfast. (He had some cereal bars in the trunk. He just let her have all of them.)
It was after three now.
“Kelly, my dear, do you not want to go home today?”
Kelly frowned and shook her head.
“Are they fighting again?”
She nodded gravely.
He sighed. “I’ll go with you. I’ll talk to them. I’ll see what I can do.” He offered her his hand.
She took it.
They walked off together, a blue man with longish white hair and a torn sportcoat who was wearing shoes with no socks, and a little dark-haired girl with a ponytail and a patched gray dress whose wool stockings had holes in them.
When he got home two hours later, someone had stolen the box with all the pencils (they had also taken his bed pillows, but he didn’t notice that right away). He curled up in his blankets on the ground behind the chalkboard, put his face in his hands and cried.