River Gum - Chapter EightPosted by omnipredation on 2007.11.18 at 06:05
Current Location: Home, office.
Current Mood: drained
Current Music: DELERIUM - Fallen Icons
Got a little bit sidetracked with that trip to Philadelphia, but here's a chapter. I've actually finished the first book of River Gum, so I'll post all these chapters and then introduce the second book, which, thankfully, has already been blessed with a tentative title. :)
Previous Chapter EIGHT. It took Nat several attempts to explain to his uncle that he had met a girl with no name while having an hallucinatory episode of epic proportions. Oddly enough, Teddy seemed more preoccupied by the details Nat could furnish about the young woman than about the fact that his nephew had almost certainly fallen prey to a bad combination of drugs. “You say she wore a black suit?” asked Teddy. “Yes, and I think you should call my doctor and tell him I don’t need all these damn pills, because I don’t want to see that kind of thing ever again,” Nat said in a deceptively mild voice as he shook his cup of pills, some of which seemed to be half as long as his little finger and just as wide. He knew that all the tea in the world wouldn’t wash them down, nor dinner, either, though the table was laden with roast chicken and several platters of vegetables. “Did she have dark eyes and hair?” “Yes, and would you just look at these things. I don’t need to take like ten pills at once, do I? I’m not even in that much pain,” replied Nat, giving the cup another shake. He resolved to leave all the medication be unless someone hovered over him and insisted he take it; he was tired enough, stressed enough, and sore enough to not want it at this point. He sipped his apple juice, then had a swing of water and a slice of meat, followed by a mixture of shredded beans and carrots. “Maybe you had better describe to me exactly what you saw today, or what you think you saw,” said Teddy in a tone that hinted at acceptance either way – tolerance of Nat’s visions as a reality with which to enforce his own mania and paranoia, or concern for the nephew he now cared for. Nat took a deep breath. He gathered his thoughts. He assembled them in what he hoped was good order and opened his mouth to say his piece only to find his voice caught. It all seemed too strange and separate now. “I’m sorry. I don’t know where to start.” “Well, start with how you met the girl.” “Oh.” That seemed a reasonable enough request. Nat would have begun immediately had not a soft suggestion of thunder resonated from the north. A flicker of lightning caught his attention beyond the dining room windows. “There were no thunderstorms forecast,” he said. “I’m sorry?” said Teddy, having assumed that this was the beginning of Nat’s tale about meeting the nameless girl. “No, no! Not that,” Nat said as he pushed his chair back several feet in order to peer out the window. “I thought I heard thunder, and there were no storms forecast.” He felt himself tensing, because these storms could only bring bad tidings and terrible consequences. There was an electric frisson to the air, the sort of static field that would have fluffed a cat like Saint George out to twice his normal size. The anxiety was all too familiar; it felt like the oncoming night was watching, groping with tendrils of lightning as the light died away in the west. “What is it? Did you see something?” asked Teddy. “It’s a storm coming,” Nat said. It felt like a hand had reached under Nat’s breastbone and got a grip on his spine and was now giving him a thorough shaking. He angled himself back a bit further and fixed his eyes out the window over the kitchen sink just in time to catch another stab of the lightning. Like the one before it, this storm felt sentient. “Of course. It had to happen right bloody now,” said Teddy, and he sounded irritated, as though the weather were committing some minor infraction rather than completely disavowing the applicable laws of nature – or at least the science and sense of meteorology. The next bark of thunder was more clearly audible, and the lightning dazzled even through the glass and gauzy curtains hanging in the window. Nat swallowed. “We should go watch the weather.” “Absolutely. Absolutely,” muttered Teddy, getting up from his seat and flinging his napkin down on the table with disgust. The thunder came again, and this time it was a resounding clap and bang that set dishes rattling faintly and made Nat’s ears ring. With a few choice words, Teddy gave a tremendous shudder and scrambled away from the table, both dinner (and dessert) forgotten. He seemed to be dashing upstairs, leaving Nat to navigate away from the windows and back toward his lounge, which was rather impolite, all things considered. Nat vacated the kitchen, rolling himself with purpose, though he didn’t know what he might do when he got to his own space and had a moment of peace to relax and sort through his thoughts; he almost wished he had brought along his mug of juice and his cup of pills, because even if they transported him into the sort of world where his uncle thrived, they kept him from worrying, and kept him from pain. In his hurry, however, the only thing he had brought away from the table was the cloth napkin still draped over his thigh. Even if I took all those pills in that cup, I would just keep worrying, because pain pills can’t stop or change the feeling that something is watching, Nat thought. At the same time that he felt the storm’s fury rocking up against the house, he also felt its purposefulness. He knew he would never again be able to accept a storm and its passion for what it was; some part of him from this point forward would always question the gusting winds and driving rains, asking if it was not part of some larger ploy, something that watched Nat even as he lowered his head and denied its power to control him through fear. He parked himself, stiffened, and told himself that he was immobile. The storm could wash over, could pass, and would not touch him. Just when Nat had settled and declared himself completely unflappable, Teddy charged in with a sword – an honest-to-goodness sword, not a fencing foil, nor some replica cutlass, nor some useless made-in-China ornamental thing. He slammed the lounge door shut and backed up, panting, swishing the straight blade to and fro occasionally as though he meant to protect his nephew from something unseen, or even redirect the lightning itself as it flashed about outside. “What’s going on?” asked Nat, far more calmly than he felt. His heart was hammering and through the few small round windows that circled his lounge he could see some of the storm flashing its pink lightning all around. At once he was reminded of the river, branching into streams and rivulets. How much rivers are like lightning, he thought, or trees in slow-motion. Nat gripped the armrests of his wheelchair and stared at the windows fearfully, watching as the lightning flashed, faint mutters of thoughtful thunder came on its heels, and then it all passed. Teddy remained on guard throughout it all, his sword held up though the effort and the weight of the blade caused his arms to tremble; he kept his back to Nat, as though determined to follow through with some act of protection that seemed unnecessary. When the storm had passed, not nearly as abruptly as it had arrived, Nat thought it might be alright to ask a question or two, beginning with, “What’s going on with this weather?” “Turn it on and take a look. You won’t see that storm anywhere,” said Teddy with a sigh as he lowered his sword, sheathing it in a length of leather that hung from his belt. He sat down on the sofa carefully, as the sword giving him a bit of difficulty, and ran his hands repeatedly through his sweat-darkened hair. “No, I know it wouldn’t be,” said Nat, quite surprised by his own firmness. He cupped his mouth in his palm and coughed weakly, his entire body aching with the weight of his decision. “I believe you,” he said. “As well you should. I didn’t know protecting you would take this much effort,” said Teddy tiredly. He seemed about to doze off, but jerked upright into some semblance of alertness as the soft squeak and creak of Nat’s wheelchair crept toward him. Nat stared at his uncle, all his emotions tumbling and tugging one another about in his heart so that he hardly knew which way was left or right, up or down. He knew the house. He knew this room, his room, and so he focused on it, and on his uncle, to the exclusion of all the misty influence that seemed to want to seep in. “What is going on here?” Nat asked, his eyes blinking rapidly as he jolted from some sort of stupefied sleep to full awareness. Had not that strike of wakefulness jolted him, he may have continued to wonder at his own temerity – questioning others when he knew that they knew better than he did! Now he knew that it was his right to question, even to demand. Nat gave his head a violent shake and very deliberately laid his hand on top of Teddy’s, which still gripped the hilt of the ineffective-looking rapier. “Tell me what’s going on,” he insisted, finding that such insistence required him to shut his eyes against the world and rely on what he supposed was some sort of second sight, which laid images out before him in bright lines of white and grey and a diamond chrome that was singular and bright. Angles and shapes were apparent, but no colours. “It’s the weather,” said Teddy softly, “and a whole lot else besides. It took your father. You can’t even begin to understand what you’ve inherited, and I’ve hardly even got the faintest idea what I should be doing to protect you from it!” The man buried his face in his hands, and his flashy-looking sword, which reminded Nat of the shiny pen Teddy used to write himself reminders, flopped over sideways onto the couch. He reached out and caught the swaying hilt and laid it safely on Teddy’s knees. “Can’t you just tell me?” he whispered. “Why are you trying to protect me, anyway? And with a sword? And what from? It’s not like you can stop the weather.” Teddy took a deep breath that seemed to rattle him to his very core. He held it and then let it out softly, trembling as he removed his sword from his belt and laid it across his knees. It gave him something to hold onto. “There are – things,” he began haltingly, “which I am unsure you are ready to hear. The last time I spoke of your father’s murder…” “I’m ready to hear it now,” said Nat, though his heart pounded more fiercely and his legs ached and every part of him felt ready to throw the truth back in his uncle’s face. As much as he was ready to accept it, to contemplate it, to turn it over and over in his head, he suspected his body might not let him. “You saw ____,” said Teddy. Nat had a moment of confusion before he connected the strange gap in his uncle’s speech to the girl he had met down at the pink river while he was hallucinating. As much as he still wished he was only imagining all he had seen, the storm, the feeling in the air, and his uncle’s terrible fear suggested otherwise. “You mean the girl with no name,” he said, just to be sure. “Yes. Before she was that, she was ____,” explained Teddy, followed by a frustrated shake of his head, his fingers rising to give his lips a reprimanding pat. “You met her?” “Yeah. I think so. And everything got dark and strange, and most of the plants were black and blue and the sky was lavender,” said Nat. “I thought it was bad drugs. Are you saying it wasn’t?” he asked. Teddy shook his head and looked up at Nat. The look in his eyes was intent and, more than Nat could credit his parents, completely honest. He said, “It wasn’t. You’re the right age to be experiencing your, ah, second sight. For the first time.” Nat closed his eyes and put his face in his hands. “I thought I was imagining it. All those colours. They’re real?” “Yes. Every time you see the world shift and turn into something you’ve never seen before… that’s the sight. It’s showing you what’s lurking underneath, or beside. Or beyond, if you want it that way,” said Teddy with a sigh. “Which is it?” asked Nat, feeling confused and frustrated. “All of them and none of them,” said Teddy, and that was no answer at all. Nat sighed and rolled himself back. “Whatever.” “Pick one. Did it feel underneath? Did it feel like you’d stepped aside, or beyond, or just lifted a coverlet and looked under it and found the nightmare?” Teddy pressed him, curt and quick. “All of that at once,” said Nat, and he understood in a flash of insight why his uncle had answered the way he had. Which is it? … all of them and none of them. Nat rubbed his forehead as though pained, and he supposed it did hurt a little. While he was able to focus on his lounge and everything around him, there was a chance it could all shift at a moment’s notice into the other place, the other whatever-it-was: so alien. So familiar. “Yes, yes. That’s what it feels like,” said Teddy. He did not elaborate further but sat staring at his hands on his sword, looking glum. “Well?” said Nat. “Can I use my second sight – ” this he weighted with heavy sarcasm, “ – to see these storms coming in time to avoid them or something? I don’t see how this all connects, and it all seems awfully useless.” “Sometimes it seems that way, yes. But it all – oh bother, I can’t say it, I haven’t the foggiest idea where to begin because I’ve never explained it all to anyone ever before!” exclaimed Teddy, looking at the glinting sword through holes in the patchwork leather that covered it. It was getting to be too much. Nat heaved a sigh and waved a hand in front of his uncle. “Alright, fine. You should put that thing away. Whatever happened is done happening now. You can just take it slowly, one bit at a time?” “Your mother,” Teddy said suddenly, “I need to speak with your mum, Nat, immediately. How can I reach her?” Nat wondered and doubted. What if it really was bad drugs, and Teddy was humouring him, and now he wanted to tell Charlene as quickly as possible – no, he told himself firmly, that doesn’t come close to explaining everything. But it did make him quite annoyed. “By phone, I suppose, the way most people get hold of each other. You can see if she’s still at the house, but she might have gone off already and shacked up with that awful bloke she likes.” “Has she got a cellular?” demanded Teddy as he hauled himself purposefully to his feet, mopped his brow, and made as if to throw his sword on the sofa. He changed his mind and set it on Nat’s lap, across the handlebars and making movement difficult for him. “You’d better hold onto this for me. I’ll need both hands to use the phone. I hate phones.” “I don’t know what to do with a sword,” said Nat, struggling to find a way to hold onto it that would still allow him to wheel himself. Teddy saved him the difficult by grabbing the chair and pushing Nat along at a good clip. He hung onto the sword as though it were a lifesaving restraint on a roller coaster, and with how Teddy was hustling, it was almost as exciting a ride. He veered back into the kitchen, parked Nat speedily near the table and letting the boy catch himself as he ran to the phone and took a few deep breaths. His hands were spread wide and hovering anxiously over the telephone, as if afraid to touch it. “Just hold on to the sword and let me worry about the rest.” “What are we worrying about again? I still have no clue.” “Yes, yes, yes, I’m getting to that. I’ve got it under control. It will all be fine,” said Teddy confidently. Oddly enough, Nat didn’t believe him. “Suuure,” he said, but Teddy was too distracted to notice his nephew’s sarcasm. Nat was doing his best to get a peek out the windows, checking both for lightning and telltale spatters of rain, but all was dry and still. So dry, in fact, that Nat could feel the prickle of potential energy tapping on the back of his neck and making the hairs on his arms stand up. He watched his uncle as he put off touching the telephone, making a great show of thoughtfully running his finger down a yellowed list of names and contact numbers. The list probably began its life with tape securing it to the wall, but it looked like nothing more than dust kept it in place now. It presided over the stand where the old orange rotary phone crouched, keeping its own counsel. “Alright. The number I’ve got for your house is still current,” said Teddy. He checked it against a pocket notebook he had pulled from somewhere on his person while Nat was staring out the windows or at the ugly old phone. “I’ll try that first, then her mobile if I can’t get an answer there.” “Sounds fine. Um, if you want me to do the calling, I can do it,” said Nat, taking note of how distressed his uncle appeared; he walked round and round the phone on its stand as though he were some sort of cowardly predator circling a wounded animal, searching for an opening, the best angle to close in for the kill. Nat felt he had to offer, like he always offered in an attempt to accommodate his father, fully expecting the offer to be declined. “No, I – I’ve got to do this,” Teddy said, while Nat was experiencing a rippling sense of déjà vu. “Fine then. But it’s okay to ask me for help if you want it. Or are you and my mum going to be speaking in madperson pidgin?” asked Nat, trying to make light of things to allay his uncle’s fears (and quash some of his own unease in the bargain). “That’s more right than you know. Alright, alright. Just a moment. Just a moment more,” said Teddy. He ran his hands through his hair, then bent over and took deep huffing breaths with his hands on his paunch. When the dripping sweat became too much for him he fetched a dish towel and used it to mop his face. Finally he waggled his fingers and reached out for the earpiece. He eased it off the cradle and held it carefully away from himself for a moment before gulping and taking a listen. He sighed with relief and extended his index finger to dial. Nat felt relieved as well; obviously Teddy was hearing a dial tone or else he wouldn’t be going through the motions of dialing. There followed silence. Teddy stood and sweated, shivering occasionally. Nat sat and listened, certain he could hear the phone ringing, ringing forever. He imagined the sound echoing all throughout his mum’s empty house, sneaking up the stairs, swirling around on the floor like a sonic fog. Maybe, if his mum had left in a hurry, she might have left Saint George behind, and the lonely and starving cat might even now be wailing back at the ringing phone in either resentment or desperation. Nat wondered if his mum really had moved out. It didn’t seem like a real possibility, and he wouldn’t believe that she had left for good until he went and saw it for himself – saw a sign in the yard declaring the property FOR SALE; went and peered in the windows and saw the place empty and barren, all the traces of home stripped and shipped away. His heart hopped up into his throat and became a hard lump that he told himself was absolutely, positively, inarguably not any emotion resembling grief. He thought, I really, really am not ready to deal with that yet, on top of all of this, on top of everything else! Nat watched Teddy, who finally gave up. “There’s no answer. It just keeps ringing,” said Teddy softly, replacing the receiver. “What’s your mum’s mobile number?” Promptly Nat recited it from memory. Teddy wrote it in his book, then dialed it. “She usually answers her mobile,” said Nat hopefully. “If it’s on.” And not being used as a paperweight somewhere, he added silently. “I pray she does,” said Teddy, listening intently. “Come on, Charlene, answer your bloody phone.” Gripping his uncle’s sword with one hand, Nat crossed the fingers of the other, fervently pleading to whatever powers-may-be that his mother would pick up her phone. If she didn’t perhaps a message would suffice? “Oh, ah, hullo Charlene!” Teddy said loudly. Nat’s head jerked upward and he almost rejoiced until Teddy, haltingly and with strain plainly visible on his face, continued, “answering service, eh, well… this is Teddy, with Nat. We’re doing alright – spot of bother with the weather, ha ha! But, ah, well… just calling to check on you. I, ah, hope everything’s well, of course. And if you’d give us a call back I’d appreciate it. Goodbye for now, then. Um. Goodbye,” said Teddy in an awkward rush. He all but threw the phone down and backed away from it as though it were a viper. “Will she have your number?” asked Nat, absently running his fingers over the hilt and elaborate guard of the sword. “Of course. I mean, it’s unlisted so that no one calls me, but she’ll have it. She should have it,” said Teddy as he chewed on a thumbnail. A frown creased his brow and he mopped his face with the towel again. “Oh, well that’s perfect,” sighed Nat. “Why are you so worried about my mum anyhow? I really think people should start telling me more. Or telling me something, anything!” “I suppose you need to be informed. I’m not really sure how to go about explaining all that needs to be explained. It’s quite a difficult thing even to begin, but I will do my best for you.” Teddy took a seat at the table and gave his face another wipe. “Then I guess you begin at the beginning. That’s always best, you know. Whenever possible. Weather permitting.” Nat tried not to smile at his own joke, but couldn’t help himself. He grinned and stroked the sword. “Heh. Well, now that the time has come for some great boastful long-winded expository sequence is at hand, I’m simply at a loss,” Teddy muttered, half to himself. “Don’t know if you’re waiting for a drumroll or a fanfare or some sort of obvious segue to make it easier, but how about we go back to what you said before about my dad’s dying. About it not being an accident,” Nat said reluctantly. He squeezed the sword hilt a bit more firmly. “Maybe you can start there.” The dam in his heart and throat cracked and he was forced to patch it and build it back up with determination stemming from the anger that nearly always frothed just below his average thoughts. He knew that anger and confusion could be gainfully employed, and so he put them to work. “I suppose I can,” Teddy agreed, “but it’s all much larger than that – not that I mean to belittle Oliver’s life, or his death, by saying he was only a very small part of a larger picture. This picture is made in the colours you saw outside today, the colours of the second sight.” Since sitting still for the tale was too much to ask, Teddy rose and went to the fridge to get fresh cans of soda, the ones they had opened at the start of their abandoned meal having long since gone flat. Teddy spat an unfortunate mouthful of it into the sink and cracked open the two cans. “I get that much. What does that have to do with my dad getting all killed and what not?” Nat asked, immediately unhappy with himself for how careless and conversational his question had sounded. Teddy poured the soda into crystal cups and added a generous dash of gin to his before reseating himself. He slid Nat’s glass to him and gulped from his own. “A lot more than you’d think. The nature of the world is not exactly what it seems. There is both good and bad with little neutral ground between them, and even less room for compromise. The world as you saw it today, darkened and in different colours, is part of the world beneath which supports the world we see on a regular basis. This house sits at a fragile place, a boundary of sorts. Your father and I come from a long line of men and women who have kept this piece of land and those like it in careful guardianship since the earth was new.” Teddy fortified himself with another drink from his glass. “Sort of like the hollow hills?” Nat asked. “Are you going to try and tell me faeries killed my father with a thunderstorm?” “No. What you fined in the world beneath or above is the template for all sorts of myths. May I continue?” said Teddy wearily. “Yeah, sorry,” murmured Nat. He clutched the sword and tried to suspend his disbelief for just a little while longer. He tried to slouch in his wheelchair, feeling too despondent to remain upright. “Very well. As I was saying… what was I saying? Ah, yes, the few facts of guardianship. Oliver was a custodian, the firstborn son, and as such he inherited…” Teddy spread his arms to indicate the room, the house, the grounds. Everything. “…this. Unfortunately for me, your dad wasn’t all that interested in the deal. Thus it fell to me to take up the guardianship. Your father left here, though he was far from free, and here I stayed; one of the rules of the family is that there must always be a custodian, some person who keeps watch on the border. Do you understand?” Nat nodded solemnly. “So my dad ran off and met my mum, and left you to man the gates? Or patrol the watchtower or whatever?” “Close enough. There’s an interesting story there between your mum and dad. While there are people who guard the low places, such as this one, there are likewise those who keep the high places,” said Teddy, gesturing at the ceiling. Nat fought the urge to look up. “And as fate, or perhaps bad luck, would have it – Oliver met Charlene, the third daughter of a family of custodians as old as ours.” “But what are the odds of that?” asked Nat in disbelief. “Slim to nil, and not in their favour. What’s more, your mum was a guardian of the higher lands. We call it Terra Venustas. My theory is that custodial… power… can call to its like, and thus your mum and dad found one another and broke every bloody rule in the book by marrying and begetting a child.” Teddy’s hands turned his crystal glass in slow circles. “What do you call – um, your lands? If you’ve got a name for those other ones, what do you call these?” enquired Nat, aware that his uncle had declined to mention it. Teddy was a long time in answering, and when he did at last reply, it was in a cautious tone that betrayed the fact that this was a sensitive issue. “This place guards… what you saw today. It is called Terra Immaniter. These are the oldest names we have.” “I know what ‘terra’ means, but what are the other words? What do they mean?” “I’ll translate for you later. For now, just see how they taste. I wasn’t around to put in my bit back when they named these places. Custodians live a long time, but not that long,” said Teddy. He stopped turning his glass and took a drink, then got up and fetched another can of soda while Nat tried to remember and pronounce the words to himself mentally, his lips moving silently. He just knew he was making a right mess of it, but he was afraid to ask Teddy to repeat himself. “So these names aren’t the real ones?” he asked. “Real enough, I suppose, though they’d only date back to Roman times. Maybe they were adapted from Greek, and maybe the older people had other older names for them. They vary from culture to culture. I’m giving you the most common. The true names are of a surety long since lost to time. Here. Have a bit of the chicken. No sense wasting good food,” added Teddy as he uncovered the dish with one hand and cracked the tab on his soda with the other. “Do you want your sword back now?” Nat raised it from where it still crossed his body over the arms of the wheelchair. He wouldn’t have thought he was in the mood to eat, but found to his surprise that he was quite hungry after all; he wondered if every weighty conversation he might ever have with his uncle would be accompanied by some variety of victuals. “Oh yes, I’ll take that back.” Teddy hopped up took the sword in its battered cocoon of leather from Nat, propping it up against the empty chair beside him. “And here, have some of the vegetables…” He served Nat a portion of everything, then served himself, and then seemed ready to continue his story. To Nat, that was what all this had to be. Even the parts that made sense surely should be rejected. The rest indicated he was mad along with his uncle. All the same, Nat knew he would still listen, and because the easiest way to get Teddy to keep on talking was to be a good lad and eat his food, he did so without comment, patiently waiting. “And so now I come to the part where you’ll no doubt laugh yourself sick. The world right here in front of you is real, is solid,” Teddy said, demonstrating this by knocking hard on the wood of the table, “but it is balanced and sandwiched between the Immaniter and Terra Venustas. If it makes it easier you can think of the forces each exert on either side of the world we live in as positive and negative –” “Or good and evil?” Nat interrupted. He remembered just in time not to roll his eyes. “Not words I would use. I prefer terms more neutral terms, such as polarities, because they imply the force and not necessarily the intent behind it. Intent can be anything or everything in the struggle for balance. Order versus chaos, Nathaniel. Do you understand what I mean?” This all sounded rather more reasonable than a spooky conspiracy or a classic battle of good-versus-evil, so Nat nodded. Wouldn’t do to reply with his mouth full. “Alright. Imagine then that the principle forces that govern both the Immaniter and Terra Venustas are perpetually straining to… ah, I’ll say to outweigh each other, and gain more control over the space between that separates them. This has interesting effects on our world, as one might infer. Storms are the least of it,” said Teddy gravely, “and I suppose ice ages are the worst.” He took a few bites of his supper, his plates barely touched due to the fact that Teddy was doing most of the talking. “I imagine an ice age would be pretty bad. I don’t really want to find out, though. I don’t much like the cold,” said Nat. He hated to admit it, but he found himself being slowly taken in by Teddy’s story, or “explanation.” After all, there had to be something that would explain the freak storm that had taken ¬– killed – Oliver. Nat knew something natural could have produced the storms, but the timing of the one that had leapt upon the house inside the last half hour could not be discredited so easily. Even as Nat continued to doubt, some seed planted in him was slowly growing into acceptance, allowing him to think (for the present moment) that his uncle’s story was the truth. Teddy was an honest man with an open face and could lie with about as much finesse as a brain-damaged toddler. Nat worried about the rumour that madmen believed their own tales, their madness leading them to spin their stories with this sort of veracity; it was shaky ground at best. “Oh indeed, an ice age would be terribly traumatic. I doubt many of us would survive,” said Teddy sadly, but he made a dismissive gesture with a forkful of chicken, as though ice ages were unimportant. “The point being that events occurring outside this world can still affect it. There are accidents, like earthquakes, tsunamis, etcetera. Then there are more malignant invasions… such as droughts, floods, and storms. Who would ever suspect a thunderstorm, I ask you? Who indeed.” He sighed heavily, shaking his head sadly. “That makes a funny sort of sense. And obviously you suspect a thunderstorm. D’you really think it was an invasion? Like, it was sent on purpose, and perhaps whoever, um – stormed in, or sent it, did it hoping that what happened would happen?” asked Nat, and he was so afraid of the answer that it seemed his question suffered for it and came out all a mess. “If you’re asking whether I believe you and your father were targeted, the answer is a resounding ‘yes,’” said Teddy. He was quite solemn as he gestured again with his fork, and a bit of gravy flew slantwise across the table. “This is just the sort of sneaky action the Venustas would take!” “So the Venustas killed my father.” The word was easier to pronounce now, and he could hear that the root word sounded rather like “Venus,” though Teddy’s pronunciation has the first consonant sounding like something between a W and an F. “Now you need to tell me why.” His jaw was clenched tight on a fury that was swelling up from his guts and lodging somewhere in his chest, making it difficult to breathe. His mind’s eye was full of dark wet shapes and the bright headlamps of the truck. He could hear the rain patter as though it struck him still, and sirens in the distance, and thunder, receding, chuckling in satisfaction. Nat hoped he was imagining this rather than remembering it. Given how madness was congatious and how perilously easy it was to buy into Teddy’s well-spoken theory, Nat knew he should check himself, remain as skeptical as possible, and keep even his most horrific memories pure in his mind. Despite that, he was too angry at the world (maybe even at all three of them) to heed his mind’s own cautions. “I can only guess at the why of it. I have no idea how the Venustas think, but their rumours filter down to the Immaniter through the common ground we share. My impression is that they wanted you dead. Oliver scarcely mattered after he had passed on the guardianship to me.” Teddy was ignoring his food and staring intently at Nat. “Someone wanted me dead?” Nat echoed incredulously, staring right back, a forkful of vegetables frozen some distance from his mouth. “Picked right up on that, didn’t you?” “But why? I’m not – I mean, I’m – I’m pretty much worthless in the scheme of things. I’m not a guardian custodian person or whatever or anything special at all. I was just caught in the crossfire,” he protested. “What you are is the son of two guardian-bred people from opposite sides of the playing field. While the Venustas say you shouldn’t exist at all, the fact remains that while you live, you are the only truly neutral custodian in living memory, owing entirely to your, ah, unique parentage,” explained Teddy. He smiled as though afraid his face might break, and had another bite of chicken, chewing automatically. It took Nat several moments to process the idea, and when he was sure he had, and probably had not misheard, his response was even more incredulous still: “Hold on a moment. It might be I’ve got this all wrong, but it’s beginning to sound like some sort of staple ‘Chosen One’ scenario only with different words and evil weather. If you’re expecting me to just hop right onto the cliché Boy-Who-Lived bandwagon, you’re going to have hours of arguing ahead of you because this stuff just – it all – it doesn’t happen!” Nat’s objection was accompanied by an unsettling tingle in his spine as a cold sweat broke out on his body. He shivered and tried to muster some scorn, some real reason why he should wheel out of the room now and leave his uncle to his delusions; his mind was strangely blank but for the colours teasing the edges… colours he had seen before on hazy days or in dreams or those patches of time between slumber and true wakefulness. All those strange colours that had no earthly name. Fit me for my very own straitjacket and reserve me a padded room, Nat thought bitterly. Teddy began to chuckle, and it turned into a laugh before he could smother himself with a mouthful of food. Nat wanted very much to catapult a spoonful of mashed potatoes directly into his uncle’s face. “I really don’t see what’s so funny,” he snapped, and adopted eating as his defense. He felt himself blushing, but he wasn’t sure which outburst had caused it. Maybe all of it was some elaborate prank, with him going along, helplessly, a complete and utter fool? “I’m sorry, Nathaniel, but it’s been years since someone’s – oh goodness, how much you reminded me of your dad just then! He was always such an absolute sceptic himself, he was. Simply not cut out for the task. But you, Nat: you, I think, will do a fine job.” Teddy gave a small smile that turned Nat’s arms watery with guilt. Quietly, he set down his utensils. “I miss him too,” he put forward, and Teddy took a huge breath and broke into tears, burying his face in the dish towel that had been draped over his shoulder all the while. “Ollie never should have died like that, never! If I ever so much as sniff a blighted Venustas presence within five hundred miles of my land, I swear I’ll – oh no, oh why… I don’t know what I’ll do!” he sobbed into the towel. Well what do you know, thought Nat. It seems neither of us have really grieved properly. Most of his anger subsided to a simmering feeling not unlike indigestion, and Nat was moving before his thoughts caught up with his body; he was not going out of the room to allow his uncle to cry in peace, but rather to the kitchen counter, where he picked up a roll of paper towels and set it on his lap before wheeling himself over to Teddy’s side. He lightly tapped the man on the hsoulder, and when the flooded blue eyes met his, he gently tried to prise the sodden towel away. “Here. Use these. I wish I knew where you kept the tissues,” Nat muttered as he tore off a few paper towels and proffered them. “Don’t keep them about. I’m not normally…” Teddy snuffled loudly and tried to laugh, but it was still a sob, “…I’ve never normally been given to crying, you see. Or catching colds, and I haven’t got allergies…” “I don’t know what to do either. I guess it’s fine that way. Maybe if I were to get my grief out of the way I’d find it easier to believe what you tell me,” said Nat with great care. Teddy accepted the paper towels and blew his nose into the entire handful, and after htat wadded the heap together, snot-side in, and dabbed his chin and cheeks. He cast the wad away into his empty vegetable dish and took the entire roll. “You could always ask your mum sometime. Might be good to let her have her say to you.” “Well, I don’t see any harm in trying, but I’m more thinking about what to do right now,” said Nat. “I don’t know, my poor boy. I don’t know a thing either. All I know I’ve already told you – as much as I think you could accept. Or hoped you would.” Teddy tacked the last bit on miserably and blew his nose again. “For a start, let’s clean up here. I’m sure you’ve got a dessert hiding round here somewhere, right?” Nat suggested with a twitch of his lips. It was the start of a smile, and it couldn’t help but grow into an honest smile when his uncle pouted and stated stubbornly, “Wouldn’t want it even if I had!” “Sure you do, and you know you’ll feel a bit better if you have a bite of something sweet. There’s comfort in good food,” Nat said persuasively. “Fine. You check the pantry for biscuits, I’ll clean up,” huffed Teddy, a flush staining his round cheeks. “Where is the pantry?” Nat asked, gazing round uncertainly. “Over there. Somewhere. I think there,” he said, pointing. He dabbed his nose again, dried his eyes, and began covering dishes and storing them in the refrigerator. Nat rolled to where Teddy had pointed and searched for anything resembling a door, all the time suspecting that this was simply a clever ploy designed to hide Teddy’s hoard of cakes. “Nevermind. I’ve found a sponge cake,” called Teddy gleefully. Nat gave up on searching for a pantry door and smirked privately as he turned himself about and returned to the table. The cake Teddy presented was fresh and hidden under a cover. He moved it from the counter to the table and began slicing away. “Say, why don’t we go watch the weather for a bit? We can always talk more later if you like.” “I don’t know about that, but I was right about the cake. It works. You’ve cheered up already,” said Nat, trying not to appear too smug as he bit into the slice of cake he was handed. When he realised he was experiencing a moment of simple contentment, and that his smile was genuine, he knew the cake was working on him, too. Next chapter--->