“Why would I wanna start it there?” Mabel asked, frowning sidelong at the Institute’s newest member. “If I’m drawing the barn, shouldn’t I start with the door?”
“Nah,” Adam grinned, shuffling over to the younger girl, a drawing pad balanced on his lap. He pointed at the barn resting down the hill from them. “If you start drawing the door, then you’ll just have a door. Some weird rectangle thing like you get in kiddie drawings. If you go from the outside in, then you can kinda focus on the shapes a little more, you know?”
“…No. Nothing like that.”
“Better, but no.” The boy put a guiding hand over Mabel’s. “Take more time with it.”
A small, mostly involuntary smile. “Fine, fine.”
Adam, as Mabel had slowly begun to conclude, was pretty alright.
“Why’s it okay for him to teach you and not me?” Myriad asked sourly from the slab of rock she was lying on, sunning herself like a goanna.
Mabel huffed. “Because he actually knows how you learn to draw.”
Myriad muttered something age inappropriate. Beside her, David crossed his arms, pouting. “I could’ve helped, you know.”
“You power-cheat as well, Maelstrom.”
Mabel put her hands on her hips. “Okay, teach me how to spray stuff with water so I feel them.”
Maelstrom and Myriad both looked at each other, rolled their eyes, and stalked off towards the big house, at first together, then seeming to peel off as they got close, David heading down to the river.
Mabel pulled her gaze back to the barn, scowling. An awful, mean part of herself had cheered a little at her friends’ spat at first. They were getting way too clingy. Maybe David would play with her more again. Now, though, there seemed to be peace between him and Allison. An uneasy peace, brokered by occupying forces.
But they were still so mad at everything.
Mabel practically gouged at the paper, snapping off the point of her purple pencil1.
She wasn’t even done swearing before Adam had his hands over the dropped pencil. The air shimmered, and the pencil leapt back into Mabel’s hand, fine and sharp once more.
She blinked a few times. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t, either.”
“How many powers is that now?”
Adam had to think about it. “…Six. Seven counting rainbow breath, but I don’t even know what that one’s for.”
Mabel giggled. “Lawrence is going to take ages picking you a name.” For some reason, she really hoped he did.
“Probably.” Adam took Mabel’s hand again. “You know what your problem is? You always point the pencil straight down, like you’re gonna stab the drawing or something. Hold it at an angle when you shade.”
He steered her into scratching a gradient—iris to eggplant—across the page. So that was how you did that.
It took Adam a while to really get Linus. The Institute’s first male student was a constant presence in The New Child, lauded by Lawrence for his cheerful, earnest manner—even has he bemoaned his continual insistence that his father was the god Apollo:
I’ve explained to the boy—gently, mind you—that the posthuman (probably the latest in a long line) who claims to be Apollo generally keeps to Greece. Oh, sure, more often than not, Linus nods and says “Yes, Lawrence,” like the good lad he is. But there’s always that smile. That secret smile children indulge us silly grown ups with.
Adam couldn’t help but be curious how a boy who claimed such a thing about himself kept the hot air from broiling his brains. First night they were both after-dinner dish-duty, he had sidled up to Linus, grown tall and golden past the The New Child’s epilogue.
“What’s up, new kid?” he asked. He grinned crookedly. “You aren’t thinking you’ll pass on all the work to me are ya?”
Adam laughed, flicking some suds at the the older boy. “Shut up! I just wanted to get to know you lot. I mean, I’m going to be here a while, right?”
He nodded thoughtfully. “You’re probably right about that, sorry to say.”
Adam shuffled his feet. “It’s alright. I mean, it seems nice? Even before I got here, Laurie’s book, you know?”
“Well, I’m an open book. What’s on ya mind?”
Linus stopped scouring the dried pasta sauce off his plate, tilting his head at Adam. “Whad’ya say, mate?”
“…How did you get your powers?”
Stupid, stupid Adam, he knows you read the book, idiot!
“Oh.” Linus went back to scrubbing. “Not much of a story there. My dad’s a god.”
His father could have been a banker or a glazier, if you missed the last word. There was no bragging in his tone. Maybe once, long ago, but not anymore.
“Which one?” Adam asked.
“Apollo. He does pretty much everything my uncle—half uncle, actually, granddad owned a bike—didn’t snatch up first. Prophecy, healing, light… music.” A smile like the sun. “You can probably guess where I take after him.”
“You ever meet him?”
“Few times. It’s been years, though.”
“What’s he like?” Adam wasn’t sure if the “he” needed a capital letter.
Linus shrugged. “You know what dads are like.”
Adam found it hard to believe this boy was a father three times over.
The other thing Adam couldn’t get his head around was Linus’ power. From what he had gleaned from The New Child, Linus’ gifts were more less covered under the umbrella of “being really, really, good at music.” And Adam reckoned if that qualified for the Institute, Lawrence would need to buy up all of Northam to have enough room.
At least, he didn’t get it till that first Friday night in Lorikeet dorm. Lights out had been called three hours ago, but Linus and Gwydion were only just ambling in. That was one of the perks of fatherhood: you got to stay up till 10:30.
Linus quickly threw himself onto his hammock. Almost as soon as it stopped swinging, Windshear was tiptoeing through the dark over to him.
“Linus,” the little girl trilled in his ear, whispering louder than she usually spoke, “play us a song.”
All around him, Adam saw and heard his dorm mates sit up or murmur expectantly.
“Not tonight, Windy,” Linus groaned with the resignation of the already defeated. “Tired.”
“And he’s not that good anyway,” Haunt called out, raising laughter. “Well he isn’t!” Haunt often claimed to be immune to Linus’ music, or as he put it, “impervious to bullshit.”
“Come ooooon,” Windshear whined. “It’s Friday, you can sleep in.”
Linus smacked his pillow into her face. “Fine. Just one, though, then you’re all going to let me sleep2.”
Linus reached for the Maton six-string leaning beside the hammock and started plucking at the strings. “Oh, yeah, I’ll tell tell ya something, I think you’ll understand…”
The notes streamed like rivers from Linus’ guitar; staining the moonwash crimson and gold; flashing with every soft strum of the boy’s fingers, quick as gum-leaves on the wind. He had started off singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” but that wasn’t what the other children heard.
Adam didn’t even notice when he started singing along. That was the thing with Linus’ songs. You couldn’t help being washed away by them. He was singing along with the older boy, reciting lyrics to a song he didn’t even know the words to, dancing with a complete lack of self consciousness he hadn’t known for years. Soon he realized he was crying. He wasn’t the only one. Most of the children were. Not the weepy, screechy sort of crying, or the type where the lungs began to clench. The clean kind, where every tear gave air to some old hurt. Those pains circled the dorm, passing from child to child as freely as a tune, building up force until it was like a rip current flowed through each of their bodies.
Each was a part of the song. Maybe the space between notes that gave them definition. Windshear, still wondering after all these years how her brother hadn’t turned out super with her. Snapdragon, trying to shake the memory of those raw, seeping burns across his father’s face. Mabel, wondering if she should have burned instead of her own father. Fey of Femurs and Peter James dying all over again.
Adam glanced toward Myriad, moving with that perfect, almost grim grace, and followed a line through the air to Maelstrom, play-waltzing with Growltiger right across the other end of the dorm. A melancholic, resentful note still rang loud between the two children. You couldn’t lie when Linus sang, not even to yourself.
Haunt was still in his hammock, his teeth clenched with his arms wrapped tight around his legs, lest they betray him too. Adam felt something bitter tease at his soul; the face of a mother, only half remembered. Then he looked to Elsewhere, and felt confusion brushed with sadness; a note of longing. Elsewhere, for his part, was staring right at Maelstrom. Were it not for the honesty of the song, Adam might have laughed at him or worse. Maelstrom simply gave Arnold a sad smile.
Nobody sang the same words, but they were all the right ones. A dozen piping, out-of-key voices, a couple cracking with puberty, and all made and tuned for just this very song.
The song and the spell died down as Billy looked at Adam.
“… You killed her?” he asked, a small frown pulling at his features.
“She tried to hurt my Mum,” Adam replied. A soupy, endorphin thick exhaustion had settled on him, like he had been dancing for hours instead of minutes. “I’m not sorry… What does that say about me?”
“Maybe you’re like a soldier?” Elsewhere suggested. “I know my dad’s killed people, and I’m not sure if he’s sorry. Or the same kind of sorry.”
For some reason, the idea hurt didn’t Adam as much as he thought it would. If he couldn’t be like the Crimson Comet, at least he could still be something besides a murderer.
The dorm caught its breath as the door swung open. The teachers usually ignored Linus’ after-hours singalongs, probably because they couldn’t bare to put a stop to them, but you never knew.
“Aww, did we miss a Linus thing?” Artume jeered as she stepped inside, her sister and Metonymy following behind her.
“Sure did,” Windshear answered dizzly.
“The party kind or the weird touchy feely sort?” Metonymy asked.
“Weird touchy feely,” Haunt grumbled from between his knees. “Stay out of my head, Linus!”
“You gonna do another song?” Ēōs asked giddily.
Haunt shouted, “No!”
Linus through a hand up. “Alright, alright, I’ll tone it down a bit. Didn’t mean for it to come out so heavy anyway. Maybe you all needed to vent.”
“Why the fuck would anyone need that?”
Growltiger and Ēōs both let out an “ohhh” while Artume shot Haunt a look. “Don’t knock it,” she told him. “Linus sang that way after me and Metonymy’s married day. It kinda hurt, but things made more sense afterwards.”
“The married day made more sense,” Haunt specified flatly.
“Not that.” Metonymy weaved his hand into Artume’s. “Us. Being friends.”
Haunt looked around the dorm, trying to find a comrade in scorn. “You needed Linus magic to figure that out?”
Linus just smiled. “Happy to be of help.”
As promised, his next song was more sedate, and let the children stay in their own heads. Honestly, after the cathartic scouring of the last song, a simple (if strangely full sounding) rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a relief.
For lack of anywhere else to sit, Artume and Metonymy settled down beside Adam on his hammock, watching Ēōs dance with Growltiger.
“So, Institute treating you good?” the girl asked Adam, making small talk.
Adam shrugged. “So far. Food’s nice.”
Metonymy nodded. “We really need to get Alberto to make dessert more.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Adam glanced at Artume. “So, what was your married day like?”
In the time it took the other children to face him, Linus had already slowed his tune, his lyrics becoming quieter. There was anger there, a note of hurt far more profound than Allison and David had contributed. Lucy, it seemed, was falling.
Lawrence hadn’t waited long to explain the Institute’s stirpiculture3 to the boy. As the old doctor had admitted, he used to leave it many months, till new students had adjusted to the school, and the neuroses of human society had faded somewhat.
“Cowardice on my part, dear boy. Unfair on the students, making them keep things from their brothers and sisters. Especially our brave young women.”
Adam had just sat there in the headmaster’s study, waiting for Lawrence to say something that would make sense of all this. He didn’t. “…How old do we start?”
At that, the old man’s upper lip twitched like he was speculating about the weather that week. “For girls, about fifteen. Fourteen if they’re early bloomers, but we try to play it safe. Boys, though, we can afford to start a little earlier. It’s funny, really. Girls might start down the path to womanhood younger, but boys may be men before them.” A chuckle “Far away as it is, I look forward to seeing what you bring to the table, Adam. I mean, how often is it when a Naming is delayed because I’m spoiled for choice?”
The whole concept had itched at the boy ever since. Giggled, whispered rumours had told him enough about sex that he knew this arrangement would be scandalous back in Kalgoorlie, but he couldn’t quite remember why. Every objection he could think of felt fake, like Sister Scholastica trying to explain Original Sin for the fiftieth time. Sometimes it was felt like it was on the tip of his tongue, but he just couldn’t grasp it. Lawrence got to be be right by default, like the only horse at a race. Maybe the rules were just different for supers. If they could run around in costumes punching crooks, why not have babies sooner?
Artume was looking at Adam hard enough he worried she might leave bruises. “You want to know what a married day is like? Do you really?”
Metonymy squeezed her hand. “He’s not trying to be nasty, Arty.”
“I-I didn’t mean to.”
“I know you didn’t,” she said, firmly. “So I’m going to tell you.”
And so, in a voice like brittle iron, Artume explained the whole process. The wetness, the heat, that shuddering moment when sight abandoned her, the scratching. As she spoke, Linus’ song grew sharper, more jagged: Lucy in the impact crater with very bad acid.
Adam was white by the time she was finished, his fingers digging into the flannel of his pyjamas. Artume, for her part, was gripping Met’s hand like some sort of life buoy. A tiny part of Adam found that strange. How could he be a comfort to her, after all that?
There was a suspicion of guilt in Artume’s features. “Ah, sorry. Was that too much?”
Adam didn’t answer.
“Here, I’ll get you a drink.”
Blackness bled from the air, Artume plunging her hand into the wound in search of a Coke.
Adam closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure which emotion was deeper in his skull at that moment, shame or pity. He couldn’t look at the older girl after a story like that.
Artume found her coke, and began to pull it free, frosty cold from the chilled space of her dimension, when the portal growled. Her portals never growled. She flinched, and that reaction was the only reason she didn’t lose a finger when the gap snapped shut, shearing off a length of skin along the side of the girl’s palm.
For the first time in his life, Linus missed a beat. Then Artume screamed.
1. Adam had suggested purple over black for the darkness in the barn windows.↩
2. This had never worked before, and there was little reason to suspect it would now.↩
3. It is a matter of historical conjecture whether or not Herbert Lawrence borrowed this eugenic euphemism from the Christian perfectionist (and future silverware giant) Oneida Community of the mid-1800s. All that can be certain is that it was a ghastly portmanteau. ↩