Sun’s Day, after an attempt at breakfast (“Come on, Erik. At least drink the milk. You’ll get hypoglycemic and pass out on the way to the bus stop.”), they got on the bus. They sat downstairs, Erik feeling shy of the noise and chaos on the top deck. Hyacinth let him have the window.
“Explain about how I slow down,” Erik told her, repeatedly. “Make sure he… knows I’m not… dumb.”
“I will. I will. I promise. I’ll make him say it back to me so I know he’s got it.”
“And he didn’t… break me. I’m not… broken.”
“You’re a little broken, kid,” said Hyacinth. She covered her mouth with a hand. “I mean, your eye.” She did mean his eye. At least, she had been thinking about that, how obvious it was, but she knew his brain didn’t work right, either.
Nor did hers, which was why it took so damn much effort to keep from saying these things.
“I… still… work!” Erik declared.
“I know,” said Hyacinth. “I know how you mean ‘broken’ and I know you’re not that. I promise I’ll explain it. You don’t have to worry about that part. I’ll tell him what happened and what’s going on. You take it from there.”
He nodded firmly.
“You sure you don’t want me to stick next to you?”
He shook his head. “Not… right next to me.” Ideally, close enough that he could go running to her if he got too scared or upset, but not so she could hear him or comment.
“I’ll see what I can work out,” Hyacinth said. “There is the slightest possibility his mother may throw me out of the store and call the police.”
“Be nice to her,” Erik said, frowning.
“Yeah, that’s not really an option,” said Hyacinth.
The bus stop was right out in front of the store, so they didn’t have to do any walking. Erik noted the red elephant painted on the shop window. He has an elephant, too. It had to be a Priyati elephant, and a girl, because there weren’t any tusks.
Hyacinth took him by the shoulders and positioned him on the cobbled street, in the gutter beside the curb. “Okay, sit here so the bus knows not to stop for you. They have a dog, so you shouldn’t come in unless whatever’s out here is worse. If you have to take off for some reason, try not to go far. If I can’t find you when I come back out, I’m going to get super scared. It’s okay to scare me, but not for no reason, right?”
Erik nodded. He glanced up and down the street for any sign of horses. Downtown usually meant more cars than horses, but the occasional piles of poop in the street and gutters proved that some had been by already today. And there were always dogs everywhere.
“Is it a… big dog?” he asked her.
“Midsize, but I’d still like to keep you away from it. Are you going to be okay out here for a little?”
He nodded again.
“Okay. I’ll try not to be long.”
“Tell him about how I slow down.”
“I will. I will.” She left him sitting on the curb and entered the shop. Some bells rang when she opened the door. Erik rested his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands. He appeared small and pensive, like a moss-covered rock in a landscaped garden. His hands wandered and his fingers etched trails through his hair. He missed his watch. He should’ve brought a soldier with him, but he’d been afraid of losing it so far from home. He wished he had a cigarette.
First, first he was going to make sure the man understood he wasn’t dumb. Then he guessed he’d probably have to explain about how he knew stuff sometimes. If that went okay, and that was a big ‘if,’ then he wasn’t sure. He wanted to know why, but he also knew the man didn’t know why. Why anything.
Why didn’t you help me? Why didn’t you see me like I was a real person? Why did you hurt me? Why did everyone else stand around and let you hurt me?
Am I different?
He sighed. He traced his fingers along the lines between the cobbles, imagining mountain pathways. He knew he was different. It didn’t feel like he was, most of the time, because everyone at home was really great about it, but he was green and he had a metal eye. Never mind all the god stuff, you could tell he was different just walking past him in the street.
That was why it happened. That was why he got kicked instead of helped. Not the eye. The eye was new. The eye made people feel sorry for him. The eye was something that happened to him. Green was… Like he was a bear, or a lion. A bear could have a metal eye, but the important part was the bear part. It was a bear first. He was green first. He was a person second — maybe even third, or not at all.
But he didn’t know why that was! It couldn’t just be because of the magic. Other people did magic. Normal people did magic. People got mad at Maggie and the General when they saw them doing magic, but Maggie and the General were still people first. If Maggie got hurt, someone would help her.
Am I bad?
That was a thing he couldn’t ask. If he even got near it, his uncle would say, “No!” like he was under the kitchen cabinets and about to drink out of the bleach bottle or something. There would be a lot of talking. This thing where colored people got treated differently was complicated. But his uncle — and everyone else, too — insisted it wasn’t because they were bad. It was bad to even think that.
Yeah, but am I, though?
He guessed there were lots of other people who thought they were bad. That was why there was a candy dish at the movies and they couldn’t check out the new books at the library. People made laws and stuff. He had been taught that these people were wrong. But his uncle was teaching him new stuff, since he figured out how to call gods and he was learning about them. Stuff about magic being dangerous and hurting people. In the context of being careful, not bad, but the idea of badness was still there. Hurting people was bad, wasn’t it? If he wasn’t careful, he could be bad…
Worse than normal people? Worse than anybody else? Like the green witch?
That didn’t seem like it was right… A whole bunch of people, worse and badder and scarier than everyone else? It didn’t seem like that should be how things were. It didn’t have to be wrong, though. There were real lions and bears. They were… maybe not bad, but they could really hurt you. They were dangerous. You had to put them in zoos.
He thought of sitting in one of the empty cages at the zoo, with Uncle Mordecai and Seth. People could throw peanuts at them. He wanted the image to be funny, but it wasn’t.
It’s dangerous… It’s like thinking we’re bad. Some people might think that, but if we start to think that, we might really let them put us in zoos. We shouldn’t be in zoos. We’re people.
Yeah, he decided, frowning. It doesn’t matter if I’m scary or dangerous. I don’t belong in a zoo. I’m a person first.
He was mad about what happened, he realized. Not just hurt or scared. There was no point in saying, ‘Why did you do that?’ He wanted to say, ‘Don’t do that! That wasn’t okay! You were wrong!’
He wanted to hurt the paint man.
This was the sort of thing where his uncle would sit him down and start being really patient with him. It’s not okay to hurt people. We don’t throw things. Are you feeling mad right now? Please talk to me. Try to tell me why. I’m not going to let you throw things, so we have to come up with something better to do about it.
You know, sometimes he really wanted to hurt his uncle, too. Stop understanding me! Don’t make me think about everything all the time! I don’t have to have a reason, I just want to hurt things!
My uncle hurt the paint man, he thought smugly. I guess we do throw things, huh?
But that wasn’t fair. His uncle didn’t have someone to sit him down and tell him to think.
I guess I feel mad because it’s not fair how things are, he decided. That isn’t the paint man’s fault. And I didn’t like being hurt. I really didn’t like finding out about it that way, that hurt more. That wasn’t fair, either. I want things to be fair. And I don’t like that I can’t do anything about the Invisibles hurting me.
…It’s not fair to hurt the paint man just because I can. That’s just making more things hurt and unfair. He already knows it wasn’t okay, that isn’t why I want to talk to him. And I know he doesn’t know why. I can’t ask why.
I want to know he’s a person. I want to know he’s not scary. I want to not be scared, that’s why I’m here.
And I want him to know I’m a person, too. I want to know he knows that.
Okay. He laid his hands across his lap and sat up. So I guess I’ll say…
“Um?” said the paint man, lifting a hand.
Erik shrieked. So did the paint man. The paint man sat down on the sidewalk, with the soles of his shoes showing. He put up both hands. “Sorry! I’m sorry!”
“Bells!” Erik accused him, pointing a finger. There were bells on the door! What the hell happened to the bells?
“Sorry?” said the paint man.
“It’s… I… Gah…” Erik put both hands on his head and shut his eye, the one he could. The other one tried to wander off and he snapped open his real eye right away because it looked super weird when that happened. Like he was a lizard or something. “Did… she… did…”
“She said the gods told you what happened,” John Green-Tara said. “She said you didn’t remember it, they told you about it, so you know a lot more than you should. And the gods talk to you. It’s not normal and it’s only since you got hurt.”
“No!” said Erik. “I…”
John looked relieved. “Okay, I was sure that couldn’t be right. What part do I have wrong?”
Erik shook his head broadly, struggling with words on the tip of his tongue. He knew what he wanted to say! It was like having a hair in your mouth. “No,” he managed.
John sat forward and drew his knees under him. “Are you okay? You want some water? We have water…”
“Shut up!” Erik said. He blinked. Oh. That came relatively easily. Like both words were in the same box. He glanced up at the man, who was not currently trying to talk to him. “Let… finish.” He didn’t like dropping words like that, it made him sound even more stupid, but it was faster. He suspiciously regarded John Green-Tara.
“Okay?” John said, since something seemed required.
Erik lifted a hand, “Ah!” and John closed his mouth. “Did… Auntie… say… talk… slow?”
John spoke rapidly, “She said you slow down sometimes when you talk but it’s not because you’re stupid.”
Erik sighed and dropped his head. He put up both hands. “Okay,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Huh? What for?”
“For… ‘shut up…'”
“Oh, gods, no, that’s all right. I’m talking too much. I’m nervous.” John sat cross-legged and cuffed his hands around his ankles. He had shoes with no socks and no laces, brown trousers, and a white shirt with embroidery on the collar. Flowers, it looked like, in purple. His shirt was hanging out but it didn’t have tails, or buttons all the way down. Maybe you were supposed to wear it like that.
He had big eyes, but not like Milo. He did look worried, but… It was sort of like he’d sat down in the middle of the picture and he was trying to figure it out. When he turned his head, you could see the gold flecks in his face where Hyacinth had patched him, like freckles.
Erik put his hands up again. “Could you… not talk…”
“When you have your hands up like that?”
Erik groaned and folded his arms across his chest.
John winced. “Sorry.”
Erik put up his hands. “I… finish… sentences!” he said. “Just… let… me!”
“Right. Yeah. Ah… Would it be easier for you to write? I think we have a chalkboard…” He shifted as if to stand.
Erik shook his head. He made a small smile. “It’s… not… faster. I might… do better… if you gimme… a couple seconds.”
“Uh, do you want to just sit here, or…?”
“No. That’s… weird.”
“Yeah,” John said. “Weird.” He leaned back and looked up at the sky. Painfully blue at the moment. It was going to be warm today. “How was the ice cream?”
“I… spilled it… when they… told me about you.”
“So, that thing where the gods talk to you about stuff…?”
“Yeah, that’s how it is.”
John blinked and sat forward. That was almost like regular talking, there. “What do gods sound like?”
Erik shrugged. “Like different people. Not like talking out loud, I can tell they’re not real people, it’s just in my head. But they don’t always talk, like voices. Sometimes they show me things, like memories.”
“Did they just talk to you about it or did they make you remember it?” They were dancing around it, and neither one of them wanted to say what it was.
“I remember it,” Erik said sadly.
“Were you scared?” John asked him. “Did I…?”
“I don’t remember it happening to me,” Erik said. “I remember… what you… remember.”
“Oh, gods, I’m sorry,” John said.
Erik shook his head. “Not… your fault.”
“Yeah, um, that isn’t right,” John said. “At all.”
“Not… the part… where they told me,” Erik said. He put up his hands and went on, “You wouldn’t have… told me like that if you got to… pick.”
“No,” John said. “Not everything I remember.” He looked pained. “Everything I remember?”
“How I felt about it?”
Erik nodded. “But… mixed up with how you feel now.”
“Okay, yeah, that is terrible,” John said. He lifted a knee and wrapped both arms around it. He looked like a little kid that way. He wasn’t very tall.
“How old are you?” Erik asked him, eyes narrowed.
Ten years, Erik thought. It was nice that the math was easy like that. Ten years seemed like a long time. Maggie sure did a lot with it. “That sounds like it should be really old,” Erik said. “But you’re not.”
“I’m kind of stupid,” John said.
“Yeah, but not like that,” Erik said. “You don’t think like you’re old. You think you’re a kid.”
John shrugged. “I mean, yeah…”
“You have long pants,” Erik noted.
John plucked at the fabric, straightening it at the pleat. “Yeah. For a while.”
“My uncle was nineteen when he married that lady he didn’t like. That’s…” Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen… “Two years.”
“I, uh, I don’t think I’d like to get married,” John said. “Not in two years.”
“My uncle didn’t like it, either,” Erik said, nodding. “I guess maybe that is too young. His parents thought so, but he was mad at them because he thought it was their fault his little sister died.” Erik closed his mouth with a click. He sighed and touched a hand to his brow. “He didn’t tell me that. They did.”
“Did they tell you or do you remember?”
“I remember, but only a little. If I keep… thinking… I have to remember more…”
They had her picture on the piano. It’s a still but the eyes aren’t right. They painted the eyes. They used to do that. They said, “Do you want the eyes open, or we can have it like she’s sleeping…”
“I don’t… like it…” Erik said weakly. Maybe Violet noticed him and she was mad Hester threw her out of the house.
She was coughing… Like my mom…
Oh, no, please, not that…
So much blood…
John waved a hand near his head like he was shooing an insect. “Can you…? I mean, are they around? Can you get them to leave?” He stood up and walked a rapid circle around Erik, even into the street.
Erik snickered. “Not like that.” The part where the paint man was acting silly had distracted him pretty well, but he didn’t notice that right away, being distracted and all. It was just funny.
He’s not the paint man. I can’t keep thinking of him like that.
“Are you Johnny or John?” Erik asked. He couldn’t remember which one Hyacinth said.
“I’m John,” John said. “But my family says Johnny. It’s like a nickname.”
“You like it better?”
“It depends,” John said. He shrugged. It was kind of annoying when his family did it, but he had quite liked it when Ed called him that.
Erik considered it. “John might be easier.” He wasn’t sure how much one extra syllable was going to trip him up, but he didn’t think it was gonna help.
“Is that because of what I did?” John asked him. “The talking…?”
“No. You didn’t kick my head. You didn’t like the blood.”
“Yeah.” There it was. That was what he did. I kicked this kid. This green kid with the short pants… Gods was he even wearing the same clothes? Maybe just the same kind of clothes. It was enough. More than enough. He sort of wanted to grab the kid up and run him to the hospital right now — too late to make any difference at all. He hung his head and he ran his fingers back through his hair. “I… Look, I… I don’t know…”
“I know,” Erik said. He looked down at his shoes in the gutter and inched then from side to side. “I wish you knew why, and you could tell me, but I guess it doesn’t really matter.” He looked up. “It’s probably really complicated and we’re too little. A lot of stuff’s like that.”
“But…” He put up both hands so he could finish it, “You know I’m not… like… a big… scary… dog… now… right?”
“Oh, gods, yeah. I know. I know.” He collapsed on the curb beside Erik, not looking over, not looking up. He was bent double like maybe he was going to he sick.
Erik put a hand on his back. The shirt felt sort of rough, like a dish towel. You could see through it a little. “I think you’re not scary,” he said. “It’s scary it happened, but you’re not.” He took his hand back and tilted his head to the side. “Do people ever get scared of you because you look different?” John didn’t look different like a colored person, but there was a differentness to him.
“I don’t think scared,” John said. He examined the backs of his hands, which were darker than most. “Sometimes they don’t like it. I look like I’m not from here. They call me names, or they tell me to go home.” He snickered. “Took me a while to realize they didn’t mean the store.”
“Maybe it’s like that,” Erik said. He craned his head and examined the top two floors of the building behind them. There were lace curtains in the windows. “It’s neat you live over the store. Auntie Hyacinth fixes people in the kitchen, but it’s not like we have a store. Do you get potato chips whenever you want?”
“No. Only if Mom says.”
“I guess that’s normal. Does your elephant have a name?”
“Uh… We have a dog.” Wow. That one kid wanted to know if they had a pet snake, but he’d never met anyone who thought he had a whole elephant.
“No. That one there.” Erik pointed at the painted sign on the window.
“Oh.” John regarded it. He wasn’t sure why his dad had painted an elephant there in the first place, it wasn’t anything to do with papers and magazines. Maybe it was lucky. It couldn’t be very lucky, because the siege had taken out the front window and they had to paint another one. “I guess not.”
“Mine doesn’t, either. I was kind of embarrassed to. It’s red like that one.”
“A whole elephant?” John said, blinking.
“It’s a little one,” Erik said. He made the space with his hands. And, as that did not seem to dent John’s shocked expression, “It’s stuffed.” No, that didn’t do it, either. “It’s… a… toy!” He laughed.
“Oh, gods, yes. That makes sense.” He had gone straight from assuming some kind of imaginary elephant to wondering if those stories about tiny underwater elephants were real. Right. People stuff toys, too. “I guess I thought maybe you had a pet god. There’s an elephant god.”
“God of elephants or does it just look like one?” Erik asked. He knew the Invisibles didn’t have to look like people. He’d seen some pretty weird ones. Dr. Beetle was supposed to be a great big bug in a top hat, Erik was always on the lookout for him.
I need a book like a birdwatcher, he thought with a grin.
“She looks like one,” John said. “She used to look like a regular person, but there was an accident. I don’t think she’s a god of elephants, she’s a god of a lot of other stuff.”
“I’ll have to ask my uncle,” Erik said, rising. He dusted the back of his pants. “What’s her name?”
“Dayashri.” John stood as well. It seemed like they had concluded their business, although he couldn’t recall that they’d settled anything. He didn’t even think he’d apologized. But it didn’t seem like it mattered. “It means ‘compassionate one.'”
“Compassionate,” Erik said, examining the window. “That’s like, being nice to people?”
“Yeah, but not just because you’re a nice person. Because you understand about them.”
“That’s a pretty cool god,” Erik said. “Your mom looks really mad at my auntie.” Auntie Hyacinth had her back to the window, but John’s mom was facing her from behind the counter and frowning with narrowed eyes.
“Er, maybe I’d better…” John said, stepping forward. He paused and turned. “Uh, you wanna come in for a second?”
“Will your dog eat me?” Erik asked.
“No. He’s upstairs.”
Erik went with him. John pushed open the door and automatically snatched the string of bells to silence them. “Just me, Mom.”
John’s mother, resplendent in purple today with her upswept gown pinned to her shoulder by a gold sea turtle, neither looked over nor acknowledged them. Hyacinth, staring across at her and without breaking eye-contact, slowly removed a single potato chip from a small bag on the counter, took a single bite from that potato chip, and chewed it.
John’s mother darted a finger at her, “The minute you finish that…!”
“I have half the bag left,” said Hyacinth. Mrs. Green-Tara had attempted to invoke the store’s ‘tables are for customers only’ policy and throw her into the street, so Hyacinth had taken coins from her purse and become a customer. Surprisingly, the woman had sold her the bag of chips. Hyacinth was pretty sure she would sell her another one, but, just in case Mrs. Green-Tara showed a sudden spark of ingenuity, she was conserving this one. Also, it was fun to annoy people. She crunched another bite from her chip, barely suppressing a grin.
Erik sighed wearily. Hyacinth had that ‘I enjoy being a pain’ look again. “Auntie Hyacinth, I think maybe we ought to go home.”
“But, Erik, I’m a customer,” said Hyacinth. She lifted her bag of chips.
John’s mother gasped a breath, staring at the little colored boy. She turned on Hyacinth again, “You said he wouldn’t…”
John interrupted her, “Mom, this is Erik. I hurt him when I should have helped him and we’re going to be nice to him and his family from now on, okay?”
“Johnny, Argos will bite him and we’ll have to have him put down!” John’s mother wailed.
Erik hugged his own shoulders and cringed. He was honestly unsure whether John’s mom meant putting down the dog or him, but he wouldn’t like that to happen to either of them. Frowning, Hyacinth abandoned her chips and stood by him. She put her hands on his shoulders.
“Argos is upstairs, Mom,” John said. “I don’t think Erik is usually going to come to the store. We’ll have to be careful if we want to visit each other.”
“I… don’t… want….” Erik said.
“What’s the matter with him?” John’s mother asked Hyacinth.
“Mom, let him talk,” John said.
“Don’t… want… dog… die,” Erik said, very softly, just to John. “If… bites… Accident.”
“We’re not gonna call the cops on the dog if it bites him,” Hyacinth said, louder. “I don’t think they’d put down a dog for biting a colored person, anyway, but what do I know?” She cast her eyes aside at John. “I’d appreciate it if you don’t call the cops on Mordecai if he bites you, too.”
“I’ll be really careful,” John said. “But if he sees me, it’s my fault.”
Erik nodded firmly. “My… fault… too. The dog.”
“Johnny,” his mother broke in, “these people… these people…”
“Erik is being nice to me even after what I did and Hyacinth was kind enough to put me back together when the hospital couldn’t fix me,” John said. “That’s all you need to know about these people.” He sighed. “I guess we’re going to have this argument anyway, but I don’t want to have it now. Can you wait five minutes while I get Erik a soda and send him back home?” He felt a tug on the edge of his shirt. “Huh?”
“You… have… more… ice cream?” Erik asked shyly.
“Oh. No. Not here. We only have a cooler. Mr. Patel at the drugstore has ice cream.”
“Wanna go get ice cream?” Erik asked him
John glanced up at his mother’s horrified expression. “I… I better…” He frowned. “You know what, though? Okay.”
“John Govinda Green-Tara don’t you dare…”
He leaned over the counter and pecked a kiss on her cheek. “Keep the store open, Mom. Gotta keep the store open. Lunch rush is coming. You can chain me to the counter when I get back.”
John put one hand on Erik’s back and one hand on Hyacinth’s back and propelled them towards the door. “Walk fast,” he said tightly. “She might decide to leave Tommy in charge and come after us.”
Hyacinth laughed, but she did walk fast.
Gita Green-Tara watched open-mouthed as her son wandered off in the company of magicians, one of them colored (if very small).
There was a photograph of a dark, mustachioed gentleman in a military uniform on a shelf behind the counter, beside it was a melted candle end in a soda bottle and a stick of incense in a holder shaped like a sympathetic god. The enchantment had worn of the photo ages ago, and the man was frozen with a shy, half-smile — which he would have found embarrassing in life. She lit the candle and the incense with a paper match and knelt down by the makeshift shrine. “Singh, where did I go wrong?”