Kool-aid and coffee. That’s all Grace has to offer, but things are getting tense and weird, and it’s easiest, really, to fall back into old patterns. Comforting as the familiar skirt that Sir liked her to wear, although she prefers jeans now. How else is there to cope?
Besides, people are getting cranky and thirsty, with more and more bodies being crammed into Pen’s place, and all airflow cut off by the storm shutters and the plywood over the windows. The hand-cranking fans that Pen had the foresight to buy are whirring away busily, but it’s not nearly enough. They can’t count on any power, and they don’t want the house live when the real wind-force hits, and the temperature is slowly climbing into the fairly uncomfortable. Grace inquires after everyone’s comfort, pouring liquid into plastic or styrofoam cups and neatly printing each person’s name on the side. After a while, she gives up and shoves the marker into her skirt pocket. There are so many people here that she doesn’t really know all of their names. Ah well, they’d just have to keep track of their own cups.
Callie has attached herself to Grace, carrying the jug of kool-aid carefully. Grace smiles into the kid’s eyes. Good. She looks more normal now, less like a victim and more like a third-grader being allowed to help the adults. Talking to Callie is good for the grownups too. It steadies them. She’s good with adults, Grace notices, with mixed feelings. Callie moves with the practiced ease of a performer; she’s got resilience, but there’s a shadowy look to her, too. Grace wonders what she does, in the Circus.
There are folks crammed everywhere. In the cellar, a frail child-like woman with clouds of white hair as fine as spiderwebs crouches on top of a storage shelf, poking at the floor joists.
A gaggle of teen-aged Circus girls sit sprawled on the stairs, cracking their gum and laughing about guys. They call out their hellos to Grace. A few people she barely knows sit in the bathroom smoking, with one of Pen’s precious few cranked fans duct-taped, pushing the smoke out the overhead duct. Grace cringes and thinks about the fire hazard. She doesn’t see Pen, or many of Pen’s usual crowd, among the groups sprawled asleep on the living room floor, or rocking babies. People keep coming and going.
“Who’s watching the door? Where’s Pen?”
“Dunno. What’s he look like?” says a loud woman with fluffy pink hair, smiling at Callie as the child pours a cup full.
When she checks, it’s not Pen guarding the entrance, but Ruby and her shotgun. “Do you know where Pen is?” Grace asks. She should ask him if it’s okay to have strange people in the house. Given his mania for security, she thought she’d find him here at the door. “Who are all these people?”
Ruby fixes her with startling amber eyes. “What would you have me do, cher? Doan tell me you’d have me turn good people out in dis.” She nods at the peek-window they’ve left in the glass of the door. “Now dat jus’ would not be right.”
“Of course not. But how can you tell that they’re good people, if you don’t know them?”
Ruby smiles, a bit nastily. Grace has seen her chuckle, or even bark laughter, but she never smiles. Her sharp white teeth seem too big for her narrow face. “I smell ’em, darlin’. Trouble flat-out stinks. Dese people are ok, cher. Dey won’t be causin’ any fuss. And if dey do…” She smiles again, scarily. Ok. Point taken.
Ruby sobers. “Pen’s upstairs wit’ Estelle.”
Grace leaves Callie with the cups and the awesome responsibility of pouring kool-aid. “I’ll be right back, sweetie.” She drops a kiss on top of Callie’s hair. Callie grins and serves the next cup with a comic flourish. The tired and dirty boy she hands it to drinks thirstily, then gives her a colorful smile, his upper lip stained blue. She laughs and moves along to the next person. The kid looks like she’s having fun.
Grace knocks softly, coming into the room when Pen answers. He’s on the bed with Estelle, holding her hands and crooning to her softly. Estelle stares with sightless black eyes, her mouth gaping open, panting in avian panic. Wow. It looks like he’s having a hard time holding her together.
“What… what’s wrong? Is it the storm?”
“No,” Pen answers sadly. “It’s Dance, m’dear.” Grace gives him a look of utter confusion, so he elaborates. “The tail guy, didn’t you see them carry him in? All of him, not just the parts you can really see?” Grace remembers people staggering under loads of what looked like so much static. She wasn’t sure what it was.
“He’s a viper. Estelle could smell it. A snake.” Pen’s voice is almost too soft to hear over the wind. The rafters groan louder up here, too.
It takes Grace a second to make the connection. She’s only really been exposed to domestic animals, pets trained to tolerate each other in deference to their masters, the way the human pets do. It’s never occurred to her that these animal-humans might clash with each other. But she’s watched enough educational television that it dawns on her. Discovery Channel to the rescue. “Snakes prey on birds.”
“Yes,” Pen answers dryly.
Her heart is wrenched in pity for Estelle, so panicked that she is more animal than human. Poor thing.
“Can’t be helped,” Pen says. “They are here, and we are all-in, whether we like it or not, m’dear. I’ll try not to explode.” Estelle turns her head sharply to him, at that. “Kidding, love, kidding,” he whispers. Then he looks back up at Grace. “I’m sorry to leave you higger-jigger, but they…” and he’s sketching a gesture almost of defeat and looking at her apologetically. “I’ve got to stay here, I’m sorry. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, Pen. Honestly. I know you have to stay here.” Grace reaches out and squeezes his shoulder. “We’re all fine downstairs, your kids are safe.” She takes a moment to lightly stroke Estelle’s shoulder, smoothing her lovely plumage. She wishes she could do something to ease her mind, somehow.
There’s really nothing she can do, so she goes to the hall closet for more blankets to spread on the floor downstairs. The pile of children has grown, and so has Drake’s story. They have taken to calling out suggestions and shaping the action, much to their delight. It now involves pirates and fairies and some sort of floating island in the sky. The older man just grins and takes it all in stride, adding a princess with a magic ball for good measure. They are giggling, eyes shining, forgetting all about the storm and the heat and the danger. They make Grace smile. Perhaps they should have story time like this every night. Lucas and Marcie seem enthralled by it, and even Dav looks interested.
Grace stops just short of the closet door, hearing furtive rhythmic thumps and vague cries. Someone has shut themselves away in there to have a bit of privacy. There are folded towels flung on the hall floor, trampled now. Overcome, Grace leans against the wall outside. There it is — the familiar hollowness inside herself, the ache that trickles down the inside of her arms, across her wrists, to pool in the palms of her hands. She wants so badly to touch someone, to be touched, that it makes her a little nauseous. Six, seven years. It’s a long time.
Time to get out of here, forget the blankets. She feels like a voyeur. She trots down the stairs, weaving around the girls on the stairs, frowning at herself and the weakness of her body. Even with the power out, she’s sure that there is something to do to take her mind off the storm. She finds Callie is doing just fine keeping everyone hydrated. Laundry is impossible with the storm, maybe she should go to the kitchen and see if something needs polishing.
She rounds the corner too fast, and runs smack into the large freckled man that arrived with the snake man, Dance. He moves so fast he catches her in time. He doesn’t grab, he doesn’t close his hands on her. He just holds out his arms for her to stumble into, until she can get her feet under her. And then he lowers his arms, and looks at her gravely. Looks all around her face, steadily, as if he has all the time in the world to study her smudged face. The power of it is enough to jerk her still under that regard. He takes his time looking at her, as if he has the time for anybody who comes in front of him here, as if there aren’t dozens of bizarrely troubled souls crammed together here, in need of anything he could give them, and more.
As if there’s no shortage.
As if there is time, and space enough, and leisure to wonder at things, and cherish them, and fix all the things that are broken.
He bends down a little, and he looks squarely into her eyes, and he says, “Thank you for helping us, Grace.”
For a moment she’s frozen under his extraordinary gaze, then conditioning takes over. Grace sinks to her knees, head bowed, and offers her crossed wrists, palms up. Please, please, please, take this away from me, all this uncertainty, all this fear. Please make me feel safe again. Please take away all these choices, all my choices. Please, please.
The big freckled hands come out and touch her head lightly, a benediction, pressing her hair lightly. Then he whispers, “I know, love. I know what it’s like. C’mon, now, up. Up, dear. You’re a whirlwind keeping this house together, people are counting on you. They’re saying, ‘Oh no, don’t worry, Grace has got it.'” And he smiles at it. “God knows they need you. We need you.”
She looks dazed for a moment, almost unsure about what has just transpired. Then she chokes, gulps back tears, sharply, so she doesn’t make any of those ugly noises, the way she was taught to restrain herself. She rocks forward slightly until her toes are under her, and rises as she’s bid in one smooth motion.
He looks at her with the most terrible clear eyes, knowing it. All of it. “There’ll be a time for tears later, trust me. You don’t have to carry it all. Ruby’s at the door, right? Has Pen got Estelle calmed down yet? I’d never do this to her, poor girl, bringing in my guy Dance, but this damn storm–” And he’s walking, with his arm out like a wing, scooping her along with him, and yet never actually pushing or grabbing or gripping. There’s no claiming involved.
She looks at his face, puzzled. He looks as if he knows exactly what she is, how she’s been trained, that he could run her through her paces as rapidly and expertly as fingering exercises, if he determined she was worthy–but he acts as if she’s claimed. As if she can’t belong to him, she’s not an abandoned lost little girl, she already belongs to somebody, as clearly as if she was wearing their livery. He’s as carefully courtly as if he was looking after a girl who belongs to a good friend of his, making sure she’ll be back to them in good enough shape to serve properly.
The certainty is perfectly clear, rolling off him in such reassuring waves it makes her dizzy. She doesn’t stop to wonder who he thinks she belongs to – that thought is tucked away for later, when there is less to do.
“C’mon now,” he says briskly, “we gotta find you some helpers.”
When she gets back to the kitchen, certain they’re run out of coffee by now, she finds a large, slow-moving person in there who blinks at her from the sink. This person looks remarkably like the frog totem on their tee-shirt. But they are washing the coffeepot with care, and they smile with a very wide mouth, and say, “Nice clean ship you run here, m’dear. Looks like you’ve got some more folks tumbling in at the front end. There’s flood warnings out all over the parish.”
Grace smiles wryly. “There are perpetually more tumbling in at the front. Pretty soon they’ll be oozing out the back.” She nods toward the back door. She doesn’t see Drin smile tiredly and go back upstairs with a glass of water. “Thanks for the help. I’m Grace. Don’t think we’ve ever met before.”
“Haroldine Stalks-Fish,” the other person says, and holds out a powerful damp hand, and they squeeze Grace’s fingers very carefully, very gently.
“Those windows, they worry me, they do,” says a high, sighing voice.
Haroldine answers, “So whatcha gonna do about it, Penelope?”
The skinny, dandelion-haired woman has come up the stairs and begins testing the edges of the plywood for stress. “Oh, my,” she breathes, “this is not good, this is not safe….” The plywood wiggles under her skinny fingers. She grins at Haroldine. “Shall I fix it?” she asks slyly.
Haroldine chuckles. “Like we’re gonna stop you, honey. You need a hand up?” She turns to Grace. “Give her enough time, Penelope here could have this house meshed together tight enough and stable enough to sit through a nuclear blast, I swear. You oughta see the beautiful little beehives she builds of straw for the beekeeper down the way. Works of art.” She clears away dishes, drying them and putting them away as comfortably as if she already knows where everything goes. She hands dishes to Grace, perfectly comfortable with expecting taller people to reach the high shelves for her.
“Penelope, you get you a step up here now so you can work on this kitchen window, right?” And she holds out the wide hand to her friend.
Penelope steps up onto the cleared counter prettily, like it’s a platform for the high wire, and begins to fix the window with some whitish fiber that seems to appear out of her fingertips. “There,” she lisps with a satisfied air. She hops down and wanders along into the living room, looking to see if more windows might be coming loose.
Then Haroldine turns toward the living room, and smiles all across her face. “Why, Hal, you pretty boy you, I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age. You come here and give your Aunt Frog a hug.”
This bit is so named because the storm is forcing all the wierd little micro-realities that exist on Pen’s Back Forty together like a bag of marbles. This was a collaboration between… well, all of us, I guess. Things got a little muddled after a while. Like a good curry.