December 13, 2008
The wind had picked up again. It blew the falling snow around and showed where patches of it had begun to pack down and freeze on the more heavily-driven-upon patches of road. Anthea pulled the curtains shut. “That’s it,” she said. “No chance of your Dad getting home in all that mess.”
Her daughter made a noise like a very small pigeon and pulled off her left sock again.
Anthea sighed and replaced the sock. Between Ann, Ann’s mother, Ann’s adoptive mother, Ann’s friend Polly, and Anthea’s mother-in-law, there was enough tiny homemade footwear in the house for an army of babies. Unfortunately, Kit had proved thus far to be very sensitive to texture, and only her grandmother’s socks were knitted of a smooth enough wool to avoid rasping her skin. Her habit of taking them off and losing them occasionally required all seven ambulatory members of her household to drop what they were doing and participate in a Sock Hunt. It had proved simpler to keep an eye on her and put them back on as quickly as she removed them.
“Clever Kit,” said Anthea, pulling the sock as high as it would go and depositing a kiss on the nearly nonexistent tip of her daughter’s nose. “You’re so clever that you’re bright enough to keep your socks on, aren’t you? Of course you are.”
A stomping sound outside the front door announced that someone, at any rate, had made it home. The lock turned, and a blast of cold air brought the smell of snow and anti-freeze into the house with it.
“Hello!” called Adam, unwrapping his muffler. “Who’s home?”
“Me,” Anthea called back. “And the Misplacer Of Socks. In here. Boots off, please.”
There was a pause, long enough for the unknotting of wet bootlaces and the removing of various of layers of wool, and then Adam came padding along the passage from the front hallway to the kitchen. Behind him, Ellen was leaning on the passageway wall to pull on her slippers.
Adam scooped Kit out of her basket and swung her over his head. She giggled. He was much the tallest person in the house. “Been good today, pet?” Then, to Anthea, “Have you heard from Gabriel?”
Anthea nodded. “He’s stuck at Orly, and they haven’t said yet how long they think it’ll be. Felix rang, too. He’s staying in town in case it’s too messy to drive tomorrow.”
Ellen rinsed out her triple-sized mug under the tap and pressed the button on the coffeemaker. “I told him that contract needed a second look-through before he signed it.”
“You did,” said Anthea. “I don’t think it mattered, though. Yes, thanks.” She held out her cup in response to Adam’s raised eyebrows and proffered teapot. Adam propped Kit on his hip and poured the tea with his other hand. “He’d stay in the dormitory with the students even if the contract didn’t say so. Lots of them can’t go home for Christmas, and being in a Christmas ballet only makes it worse.”
“How many are coming here?” said Adam slyly. “Truth, now, not what you’ve told your mum.”
“Ten,” admitted Anthea. Ellen spun round with a muffled squeak.
“Seven of them have sponsors,” protested Anthea. “It’s not nearly as expensive as it sounds. And it’s not as though dancers eat much, anyways.”
“It’s not that!” said Ellen. “Where are you going to put them all? Max will have a fit if anyone sets foot in his room while he’s gone.”
“He and Cathy aren’t back until after the New Year, maybe later if the Messenger decides they want her piece about the new Academy in Toronto,” Anthea said. “The girls are coming tomorrow night, if the snow stops, and the dormitory will let them back in on the twenty-eighth. And anyways, he’s sixteen now. If he’s old enough to be allowed to tour next summer, he’s old enough to learn what it means not to have his own room all the time.”
“That’s his mother’s business, not yours,” said Ellen sharply. “If Cathy hasn’t said anything to him about it, it’s not your place to—“
“Enough.” Adam held up a hand in a stop-traffic gesture. “I’ll have a word with him about it, man-to-man.” He broke off at the looks on their faces. “What? D’you think just because I bat for the other team, I can’t have a man-to-man chat with someone?”
“No,” said Ellen, laughing. “I just think you’d be better off not putting it that way.”
“And you’d better not be holding a drooling baby when you try it. Here, hand her over.” Anthea held out her hands for her daughter and pulled the ever-present towel out of her belt to deal with the dribble.
“Two of them in Max’s room,” said Adam. “And two more in Cathy’s, I suppose. And the empty room in the attic will take two more. What about the other four?”
“They’ll have to toss up for the beds,” said Anthea. “The four that lose are going to be in sleeping bags in Gabriel’s den.”
“You can’t put them down there!” said Adam, horrified. “It’s a basement. They’ll freeze.”
“Electric heaters,” said Anthea, wiping Kit’s chin. “Ann brought them over today before the snow began. The girls are going to sleep on the pull-outs in the small room at night, and they’ll have it for a lounge during the day so they can study. Felix’s studio is big enough for them all to practice at once, as long as we take all the boxes out. Gabriel said we could, if we moved them carefully.”
“If I moved them, you mean,” sighed Adam. “All right. Come on, Ellen. Let’s see how bad this is going to be.”
“I’ll be up in a sec,” said Ellen. She was rummaging in the pots-and-pans cupboard under the counter. Anthea glanced at the whiteboard over the table. Ellen’s name was scrawled in for Dinner Prep every day this week—she must have taken all Cathy’s turns along with her own.
“Go ahead,” said Anthea. “I’ll see to dinner. There’s plenty of things put up in the freezer already.”
“Oh, would you?” Ellen emerged from the cupboard, red-faced from bending double, and set the biggest pot on the stovetop. “Try the bottom right-hand corner, there ought to be stew there.” She brushed a kiss on the top of Kit’s tiny hoodie and thundered up the stairs after Adam.
Anthea set Kit, now mostly asleep, back in her basket and swept the day’s accumulated rubbish off the table. Newspapers in the box behind the front staircase, sheet music on top of the piano, paint catalogue and electric bill and four magazines in Adam’s and Gabriel’s shared in-tray in the pantry
Howard’s Christmas card had arrived in that day’s mail. It had a family photo on the front. Howard and his wife grinned hugely, each holding a blue-eyed toddler. Next to Peggy stood Professor Murry, one hand wrapped tightly in the leash of an enormous black Labrador. They’d taken the photo in the Professor’s front yard, but Anthea suspected his appearance in it constituted a last-minute change of plans.
Peggy O’Keefe had told Anthea at the wedding that she’d decided, the first time her uncle brought Howard home to Sunday dinner, that she was going to marry him when she grew up. The O’Keefe children (there were seven of them, the oldest Anthea’s age) were accustomed to running in and out of their uncle’s lab at the Institute whenever their parents brought them to Boston. Howard’s first letters home from university had described the distracting effect this had on his studies, but apparently somewhere along the line he’d reached a compromise. Anthea smiled at the picture and used one of Cathy’s post earrings to tack it to the notice-board on her way to cope with dinner.
A loud thump sounded from somewhere in the top floors of the house, followed by a string of swear words. Startled, Anthea banged her head on the inside of the freezer and bit off a similar reaction before she woke the baby. She dragged two large ziplocked plastic bags out of the heap of unidentified frozen objects at the very back, and scraped at the label.
Mu Stu LgWht, said the label helpfully.
Anthea decided that, in Cathy’s mind, this indicated beef stew with white beans in it. She emptied the frozen blocks of (hopefully) stew into the big pot and turned on the stove. While she was peering into the bread drawer, the doorbell rang. Kit jerked awake and began to wail.
“Coming, coming!” shouted Anthea. She picked up Kit and hurried along the passageway, patting the baby’s back and slipping in her sock feet through the puddles of melted snow in the front hall. It was a house rule that whoever was closest to the front door answered it. Adam worked from home most days and had grown to hate the sound of the bell. Anthea nearly tripped over the mat. She caught herself, shifted Kit to her other arm, and turned the lock.
The Goon was standing on her front porch.
Anthea opened her mouth. She closed it. She closed her eyes and opened them again.
“Come a long way,” said the Goon.
“Of course,” said Anthea breathlessly. “And you’re letting in the snow. Come in.” She stepped back and let the Goon duck through the doorway. “Boots…no, never mind, I’ll have to mop as it is.” She heard her own voice, babbling, talking to the Goon as though he were Mr-Davis-next-door, or one of her students, instead of a wizard who’d been missing since she sent him away twenty-four years ago.
The Goon followed her into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Anthea wasn’t at all surprised to see that he chose the chair that let him put his back against the wall and see the rest of the kitchen, just as he had always done in her parents’ house. He and Kit regarded each other with interest.
“I…Here.” Anthea reached backwards to the counter for Ellen’s enormous coffee mug. “Do you want coffee? Or tea?”
“Coffee’s fine,” said the Goon. “Just coffee.” He nodded at Kit. “Yours?”
“Yes,” said Anthea, hoping he couldn’t see her hands shaking as she poured out the coffee. “Catriona Maud, after her grandmothers. We call her Kit.” She turned back to the Goon and handed him the mug. “I’m married. To Felix Doone Penny, the ballet dancer. Well, I mean, he doesn’t dance now, he teaches. Teaches ballet. Where have you been?”
“Lost,” said the Goon. He sipped the coffee. “Good coffee.”
“I’ll tell my housemate you like it, it’s hers,” said Anthea. “I don’t mean when you were lost. I mean, where have you been for the past fourteen years?”
“Told you,” said the Goon. “Lost.”
Anthea put Kit back in her basket and dropped onto the chair opposite the Goon. “You can’t have been. We found the words to take it back.”
“Words?” said the Goon.
“Well, yes.” Anthea felt as though she were back in the Museum trying to explain herself to Mr Hathaway. “I studied. At school. Narrative Logic. Seven years.” Miss Hennon had explained that the Academy of St. Hilary had been established for two basic purposes: to prepare students for professional careers in music or art or theatre, and to teach students to use and control any magical abilities they might have. Her Storytelling and Narrative Logic class concerned both purposes, and the Academy library contained some very unusual reference materials.
“It took years for me to even understand what I’d done,” Anthea went on. “I commanded you. I shouldn’t have been able to. I haven’t any magic, and you weren’t bound to me in any way.”
“Related?” The Goon looked interested.
“Well, yes, if you go back far enough. My mother descended from Hathaway’s son, so if you leave out all the generations in between, you’re a sort of uncle. There are an awful lot of generations, though.” Anthea reached out a finger and Kit wrapped her tiny fist around it. “It would have taken—it took an awfully strong will to shore up that bond enough for the command to take.”
“Strong enough,” agreed the Goon. He chuckled. “Called you Awful, before. Everyone did. You were stubborn, and you could yell.”
“Yes. About that,” said Anthea. “Howard did tell me, eventually.”
“Tell you what?”
"Why you saved your truest story until I was old enough to understand. And why you kept asking me to promise to help you with some secret project when I grew up.” She looked at him. “And why he had to go back and do everything a third time.”
The Goon shifted his enormous feet under the table. “Wasn’t supposed to know.”
“No,” said Anthea. “And if you’d waited a few more minutes, he might not have known. But he was Venturus, and he saw the future. He told me you had it in mind to ask me to help you rule the world.”
The Goon looked mulish. “Not all of it.”
“What is wrong with you?” said Anthea impatiently. “I’m glad I haven’t got any magic, if it makes wizards go mad for ruling over ordinary people!”
“Don’t need magic,” the Goon said proudly. “Enough for both of us. You were the only person more stubborn than me. Keep me from becoming like Archer.”
Anthea closed her eyes. “Did it ever occur to you,” she said slowly, “that it might have saved you a lot of trouble if you’d said that’s why you wanted me to help?”
The Goon appeared to think for a moment. “No,” he said at last. “More coffee?”
“In the glass thing on the counter.” Anthea waved in the direction of the coffeemaker. “All right, look. Whyever you did it, you did it once too often. I was young, and you made me angry, and I wanted you to go away. And somehow, I found just the right combination of words to make what I wanted happen.”
Kit made the small pigeon noise. The Goon reached over absently and rocked her basket.
“If words got rid of you,” Anthea went on, “words ought to have brought you back. The right words, anyways.”
Silence from the other side of the table.
Anthea felt a bit nettled. “So, I studied all the stories I could find about people being lost, and about how they found their way back. And when I thought I’d got it, I went back and set it up again.” They’d waited until Ann had come home from tour, and had even found the same teacup to sit on the table in front of her. Howard had laid out the chair she’d knocked over with her cape. When she’d put on the cape, it had barely covered her knees, and the whole thing had felt extremely peculiar.
“What words did you say?” asked the Goon, as though he were asking nothing more interesting than the weather.
“I said,” Anthea began. “I said…Oh.” She looked all around her kitchen, Adam’s and Gabriel’s kitchen, Cathy’s and Ellen’s kitchen, as though it was the last time she would ever see it. It was warm and brightly lit, and soup was bubbling away on the stove, and there had inexplicably been room for the piano in the corner by the doorway. And her daughter, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, was lying placidly in her basket on one of the kitchen chairs that Max and Felix had painted dark green.
“When you didn’t come to see us again,” said Anthea in a low voice, “I only thought you were angry with me. And when you didn’t come to see Mr Hathaway, I told him you’d been angry with him, too, before. I made the spell, and I thought I found the way to break it thirteen years ago, so I stopped looking.”
“Heard you,” said the Goon. “Heard you saying ‘Go home’. Knew who I was, then. Hadn’t, before. Didn’t know where I was, or where to go.” He ran a hand over his hair, as Hathaway had once done. Hathaway's hair was wispy, but the Goon had let his grow and it flopped into his eyes. “Saw most of the world before I was done.” His jeans and boots were dirtier than she remembered, but he'd found a new jacket somewhere. The expression of deliberate foolishness Anthea remembered was gone, and he only looked horribly tired.
“Those couldn’t have been the right words,” said Anthea slowly. “Your parents had turned you out, your brothers and sisters had gone away, except Hathaway. And Howard. And I had said—I had said you’d come to our house when no one had asked you. Erskine. Goon. I did find the right words to break the spell.” She shook her head..“No, I made the right words. Except that I’d already made it so that the conditions for the spell being broken couldn’t be met.” She suddenly, desperately, wanted Felix to come home.
Anthea looked up at the Goon. He was smiling at her. “Knew you’d figure it out in the end,” he said. “Not stupid, even if you did go to a school Hathaway picked.”
“They weren’t the right words yet,” said Anthea, feeling as though she were watching a sunrise. “It wasn’t ‘go home’. It was ‘come home’.”
The Goon nodded. “Had to be a home where you had the right to invite me. Your own home you made yourself.” Anthea remembered Ann saying, My mother told me I could invite three friends. “Didn’t have to say the words, really. Worked better if you thought them when you weren’t thinking about them.”
A loud thundering noise made them both jerk suddenly, and woke Kit again. Anthea laughed. “Never mind. It’s only Adam and Ellen. All the staircases are hollow. It makes the place sound like it’s inhabited by a herd of elephants.”
Adam dashed headlong into the kitchen and skidded to a stop in front of the stove. “It’s all very well to make dinner, Thea, but no one can eat it if it’s burned.”
“Sorry,” said Anthea. “Adam, this is my uncle Erskine. Erskine, this is Adam Newman. He owns this house. Adam, there’s not anyone staying in the attic bedroom, is there?”
“Well, your students were going to,” said Adam. He smiled broadly at the Goon. “But they’re small. They’ll squash into the basement lounge somehow.”
“Well,” said Anthea quietly, under the sounds of Adam fetching plates and three more mugs. “It seems I’ve got a Goon again. What am I going to do with you?”
The Goon thought about this. “Hold the baby?” he suggested.
“Maybe later.” Anthea reached across the table and picked Ellen’s coffee mug out of his hands. “Right now, you’d better get your boots off. And wash your hands. Dinner’s in five minutes.”
A/N: A thousand thanks to athenejen for the quick and friendly beta, and for shepherding me through my first Yuletide.
A/N2: My stories tend to turn into a game of Spot The Crossover. Ann Abraham and her friends are from DWJ's Fire and Hemlock, James Stanton is from Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, (Felix) Doone Penny and his family are from Rumer Godden's Thursday's Children, Adam Newman is from the 1990s TV series "The Tomorrow People", Gabriel Bowman is from the 2002 TV series "Witchblade", Ellen Carroll is from Pamela Dean's Secret Country trilogy, Cathy Burton is from Gordon Korman's Macdonald Hall series, and Charles Wallace Murry and Peggy O'Keefe are from the novels of Madeleine L'Engle. I've taken varying amounts of liberties with the personalities and histories of all the characters named above. Anyone else who's named or referred to is, so far as I know, my own invention.