While he sometimes liked to pretend he didn’t, Dr. Herbert Lawrence always looked back fondly on his time at Balliol College. Getting blind-drunk and gathering by the garden shed to shout the Gordouli over the wall at the neighbouring Trinity college1; satirical rhymes that had already outlived their context by Lawrence’s day; that sense of radicalism that he felt set it apart from so many other halls of learning at the time2. And most of all, he cherished his days at the Hysteron Proteron Club3.
The Hysteron Proteron Club was a dining society born out of the upper class fad for odd dinner parties. Eating in drag, stitching together chimeras of roast pheasant and pig, slathering your face with shoe-polish and going to North African restaurants4, that sort of thing. The gimmick of the Hysteron Proteron Club was comparatively modest. Simply put, they took their meals backwards. Liquors and desert would be followed by savouries, and finally conclude with soup.
“You had to be there,” Lawrence told people. “And we didn’t have television back then5.”
At least once a term, though, the club endeavoured to live the whole day in reverse. And so did the Institute.
Myriad awoke to the sound of Mrs Gillespie bellowing at the children of Lorikeet dorm to settle down and get to sleep. All around her, children were up and dressing in the most clashing colours they could find. A few were pulling socks over their hands. For once, some of the students were assigned skirts and dresses, but only the boys.
Rubbing her eyes, Myriad asked, “What’s going on?”
“Backwards Day,” Talos buzzed mechanically, the green of his oversized dress standing out like aged copper next to his bronze skin.
Breakfast was ice-cream, followed by roast lamb with all the trimmings. Myriad didn’t even want to ask how early the teachers woke to set this up. They were all sitting around the head of the table, smoking cigars in dinner jackets, even the ladies. All except for Żywie. She sat among the children, picking half-heartedly at her plate. Occasionally Basil would glance over his cards at her.
Tiresias stalked into the dining room, a wine bottle in his hand. He was scowling like he was auditioning for Richard III. He waved the bottle, hissing, “Who did this?”
“Did what?” Melusine asked mildly.
Tiresias pulled the bottle’s cork out with his teeth, before snatching up a child’s empty glass and filling it up. He slammed it down in front of Abalone.
Lawrence smiled wryly. “Now, now, Tiresias. We don’t approve of underage drinking.”
“Lay off, Bertie.” Tiresias repeated his demand. “Drink.”
Abalone eyed the glass suspiciously. Tiresias couldn’t have poisoned it, could he? Oh, well, there was always Żywie. Abalone screwed his eyes shut and gulped it down, before smacking his lips. He grinned up at the psychic with red-stained teeth. “Grape-juice.”
Tiresias’ eyes shot around the table, the hexagons under his cheeks an angry red. “Who?”
Metonymy shrugged grandly. “Backwards Day.”
“You’ll all die for this.”
“Do you do this every year?” Myriad asked over the racket.
“Oh yeah,” David answered with his mouth full. On a dare from Abalone, he had mixed some half-melted ice-cream into his gravy. “Since before I was born. Lunch is always a bit disappointing.”
“Same both directions.”
After that was class. Or what passed for class on Backwards Day. The teachers had prepared a syllabus of artful nonsense. Science with Miss Fletcher consisted of discussing the properties of thiotimoline6, while Mrs Gillespie lectured at length about a history all of her own:
“And that was when Mr. Lincoln leapt from his seat, said ‘Cop this, mate,’ and flung John Wilkes Booth down into the orchestra!7”
Myriad listened with rapt attention. It was rare for a history lesson not to sound like repeats. Besides, Mrs Gillespie could be very funny.
Żywie just sent the children to play outside. “I couldn’t think of anything funny,” she said, straining to smile. “I did not think any of you would object to double-recess.”
And so Myriad found herself running through the grass, drifting in and out of the loose, undeclared series of games that formed among her schoolmates like ripples on a lake. The sun was warm on her back, the air thick with pollen and song.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lawrence sitting on the porch, watching his students play with a drink in hand. She hadn’t seen him so at peace in weeks.
Then the front door opened, Reverb stepping out. Myriad’s new eyes could see a dark patch on the front of her shorts.
The older girl tapped Lawrence on the shoulder. Myriad couldn’t hear what passed between them, but the old man looked pleased. He stood up, and put a hand on Reverb’s shoulder. Magnified by his student’s power, his voice rang out across the school:
“Children, I would like you all to prepare to welcome a new member of our family.”
Backwards Day, it would seem, was over.
Reverb’s labours outlasted the sun. Myriad knew this wasn’t anything unusual. If anything, Reverb was progressing quickly.
Not surprising, really. This was her third time at it.
Dinner hadn’t been served in either order. Bedtimes came and went unnoticed. Most of the children were keeping to the margins, trying to enjoy their unusual license before the grownups remembered they existed.
Myriad, though, was curled up on the parlour couch. “…Three, four, five—”
A clattering cacophony. Screams, almost drowned out by the sounds of vacuum cleaners, power-saws, Lawrence shouting louder than thunder produced by Reverb’s contractions. As with every other sound created by her power, distance did little to dull it.
Myriad clapped her hands over her ears. On the carpet, Haunt looked up from the game of Cluedo he and Growltiger were playing.
“She better not be doing that on purpose.”
Woken wasp-nests and hammer-blows.
“Why would anyone do that on purpose?” Billy asked, a little too loud from blocking his ears.
Haunt shrugged. “Look, if I had to push a kid out of me, on a holiday, I’d want everyone to be miserable, too.”
“Did the other girls do stuff like this?”
“Worse. We had to get the ceiling replaced when Ophelia was born—”
Myriad shouted, “Will you two shut up!”
AU’s voice suddenly rang out. You fuck right off, Lawrence!
Myriad shrieked, and buried her face in the couch leather.
She grew aware of a small hand stroking her hair. Even if its owner had stayed silent, the fur gave him away. “It’s okay, Miri, he’s not really here.”
Reverb’s memory of AU’s voice kept going. You’re not talking me into it! It’s sick.
Haunt was awkwardly patting Myriad on the ankle. “Uh, it’s going to be alright?”
She looked at the older boy, her cheeks stained with tears she couldn’t even feel. “Haunt?”
“Could you… check?”
“If Reverb’s… gonna be done soon?”
Haunt frowned. “Aww, gross, Myriad. Can’t you do that yourself?”
She’s like my sister!
Myriad shook her head. “Please?”
After a long moment, Haunt sighed and glanced up at the ceiling. His pupils went white, and he grimaced. “I guess I’d need a diagram or something to say for sure, but I think she’s closer to the end now.”
The unnatural cries thankfully dissolved back into random clamour, but then the three children heard Lawrence’s voice, all too real. He was arguing with someone.
“Oh, don’t be so prudish, Basilisk.”
“Look, I don’t think this is the right time. They’re so young, anyway.”
“Nonsense! Maelstrom was five years old when he witnessed his first birth.”
“And then he cried about it all night.”
“To be frankly, I’ve been wondering lately if we ought to have toughened that boy up some more. Regardless, this is a valuable learning opportunity, and I will not deny it to our students because of some cultural taboo!”
“…You’ll never listen, will you Lawrence?”
It was an odd sound, two sets of footsteps stomping away from each other.
Lawrence poked his head into the parlour, smiling when he caught sight of the kids. “Ah, Growltiger, Myriad, glad I found you two. Would you kindly follow me upstairs? You can come too if you wish, Haunt.”
Haunt tried to look as impassive as possible. “I think I’m fine Lawrence.” No way was he going to see that again if he could help it.
“Suit yourself. You two, come along.”
The old man led the pair up to the Physician’s office, expounding without looking at them. “I want you two to remember, as intense as birth is, it’s a perfectly natural, life-affirming process. I’d go so far as to call Reverb a heroine. The Spartans certainly would have8.”
Myriad didn’t hear him. She was too busy listening to Reverb. They were close enough now that they could hear Reverb’s human screams under her powers. They hadn’t taken those from her.
Elsewhere was sitting cross-legged by the Physician’s office. “Oh,” he said, “you found them.”
“That I did,” Lawrence replied. He knocked on the door. “May we come in?”
A tired, wood-muffled voice. “Please tell me you brought more towels?”
“Afraid not, my dear. I’ve brought the children to check on you and Reverb.”
A sigh. “Come in.”
Lawrence opened the door, beckoning the children ahead of him. Growltiger and Elsewhere walked in pensively, but Myriad couldn’t move. Her breath was caught in her lungs and her muscles were nailed to her bones. It was as though the air around her had turned to glass.
She felt Billy take her hand. “It’s alright, Miri,” he said. “Me and Else are with ya.”
Myriad nodded. “Okay.”
Before she could move, Lawrence put a hand to her back, pushing her forward. “Come on, Myriad, we don’t want to take up too much of the ladies’ time.”
Żywie had Reverb crouching, her fingers white around the Physician’s examination bench, mousy hair darkened by hours of sweat. Most midwives and doctors would’ve had her lying down, but Żywie knew how helpful gravity was to labour.
“That’s it, you’re doing great.”
Crying babies, explosions in the night, and underneath it all, a girl screaming at a familiar enemy.
“I can see the crown.”
And Myriad saw it, too. That child-to-be, hanging on the line between their life and everything before it. And that pain, like claws reaching in and tearing you and half, the girl knew that much. If that’s what it was like for the mother, what about the baby? What was the air and light to something that only knew water and darkness?
Growltiger covered his eyes. Elsewhere went pale. Myriad, though, just looked at Reverb’s face. But she didn’t see her.
She vanished. A second later, the door flew open of seemingly its own accord.
Invisible, Myriad ran. But that night, there was no escaping Reverb’s cries.
“You sure she’s this way?”
The beam of David’s torch flickered around till it landed on Arnold. Apparently, David could see without any light at all, but only if he was underwater. Arnold wondered how that worked on rainy days.
Like most of the other children, the boys had been dispatched to search for Allison. Torch-lights dotted the campus like fat fireflies, while Automata’s toys and Phantasma’s pictures scanned the landscape with eyes of glass and pigment.
Somehow, both boys had wound up searching along the same stretch of the river.
“Yeah,” David said. He pointed out over the water. “Unless there’s another girl over the river9.”
Arnold eyed him dubiously. “Can you really tell someone’s a boy or a girl like that?”
“Yup,” David answered casually. “The water’s shaped really different.”
Arnold tried to ignore the implications of that, squinting towards the river’s far shore. “I don’t see anything.”
“Must still be invisible,” David replied. He stepped towards the waterline, but Arnold blocked his path.
David frowned, asking flatly, “What?”
“If you go over there and talk to her, you’ll just make her happy.”
“…And that’s bad?”
“Yes! I mean—yes! You’ll just swim with her or something for a while and then she’ll go nuts again later.” Arnold tried to remember how his mother put it once. “We gotta rip off the plaster10.”
David protested. “I can do that!”
“No, you can’t. You’re not mean enough.”
“I can be mean!”
“Not on purpose. The only thing you’re meaner than is puppies, David.”
“Well, can’t we talk to her together?”
Arnold sighed. “No,” he said. “She’d listen to you more.” He turned towards the dark water. “…Um, do you mind helping me across?”
No response. Arnold twisted his head to find David standing there, arms folded.
“Oh, come on. Don’t be a baby.”
“Fine,” David muttered. His eyes glowed that vivid new green of theirs, but nothing seemed to happen. “Start walking.”
With some trepidation, Arnold stretched a leg out in front of him, toeing the river’s skin. It froze under his sole.
Like a cut-rate version of his mother’s saviour, Arnold set across the river, the water freezing a few paces ahead of his stride, like a carpet unrolling for a prince. The ice caught and reflected the moon and stars; a band of night-sky across the river’s waist.
It occured to Arnold that David could melt this bridge anytime he wanted. He tried to forget the notion, lest he hear somehow.
Soon, the boy made landfall. The frozen path begun to break apart as soon as his feet touched solid ground. Arnold had to wonder if that was some sort of challenge.
He looked around the shore. This length of river was a lot deeper in the rainy season. A bank wall lay exposed in the night, riddled with tree roots. No sign of Allison, though.
“Allie!” he shouted. “Come on! I know you’re here! David used his peeping powers or whatever.”
“Fine! I’m just gonna sit here all night then!” He flopped down on the dried mud. As loudly as possible, he tunelessly sang, “La la la by myself la la la la la!”
Allison appeared, her knees under her chin and her arms wrapped around herself. “Go away, Arn.”
Green crackled under the girl’s skin. “Yes.”
For a moment, Arnold just looked at her. Then he crackled in turn, and she found her seat vanishing out from under her. She let out a yelp, before falling on her rear in the dirt.
“Stop it!” Arnold demanded. “Stop being so mean. Stop being rude. Why can’t you just talk to me?”
“Because I’m not real!”
Arnold raised an eyebrow.
“I’m not a real person!”
“Um,” Arnold replied, a little off footed. “I mean, uh, duh. You’re a girl.”
He hoped she would laugh. Or yell at him. Or try to kill him. Instead, she just started to cry.
“I’m just bits of other people! There’s not anything that’s me.”
“I’ve never learned anything myself! And I think—I think my me’s other people as well.”
Arnold didn’t take nearly as long to reply to that as Myriad had thought he would. It was barely more than a second after she’d finished, in fact, when he cocked his head to the side, and spoke.
“Well that’s dumb,” he muttered. “Why’d you think something as dumb as that’d be true?”
“I… when we saw Reverb… having it, I didn’t know what I felt.” The sobs came back harder and stronger. “And it’s happened before, all the time! I don’t know what I feel about the married days! I asked loads of people about it and I still don’t know! And when Adam died, and even before that when the Physician! I don’t know!”
“… So you think you’re not you anymore because big stuff’s scary?” Arnold asked slowly, sounding more confused than anything else. “Allison, you uh. You know you’re a doofus, right?”
She glared at him. “But I don’t know if it’s scary! I mean, Lawrence said me and David were gonna have a married day, and I thought that wouldn’t be so bad cuz I like him! But it also made me feel all weird inside! And babies are weird and they hurt and I don’t know which is me.”
“… I uh,” he stammered, moving to sit alongside her on the ground. “I… don’t get it. At all. Isn’t it all you?”
“But how do I know? My power takes so much from other people, why not feelings and stuff?”
“Oh,” Arnold muttered, understanding. “… Ohhhh. Okay. I get it. That’s kinda scary.” For a few minutes, they sat together like that. Then, she felt him punch her in the shoulder. “You’re still a dummy, tho. I know who Allison Kinsey is, and you’re totally her.”
Allison huffed. “And who do you think that is?”
Arnold snickered. “Honest? You’re the girl that laughed when I tried one of my dad’s cigarettes and spewed in my mouth. You’re the girl who laughed at my mum’s Bible lunches and tried to get me kicked out of the Christmas play.”
“There were no rainbow lorikeets in Palestine!”
Arnold ignored her. “You’re the girl who used to tie my shoelaces together when I wasn’t looking, and giggled her bum off when I fell on my face. You’re Allison Kinsey, the dumbest, meanest bestie I could ever have.”
Allison stared at him. “That—that’s horrible.”
“Well, who else could you have nicked all that from? Your power only lets you learn stuff that’s right, right?”
“So where could you learn to be so dumb?” He stuck out his tongue.
“There were lots of mean kids at school… and I’m not mean!”
“You’re so mean. You’re Meanie Mc Meanface, mayor of Meanville. No one at school was as bad as you.”
“No, that was you! You’re being mean right now!”
For a minute or two, Arnold just grinned at her. Then, she felt his arm around her ribs, pulling her close.
“I don’t know how to feel about married days either,” he admitted. “S’not weird. Just… confusing.”
“It’s not just me?”
“Well, duh,” he rolled his eyes. “I kinda think it’s just… Maybe Lawrence is kind of a weirdo?”
“But, then, what are we supposed to do? For kids like us?”
“I dunno.” Arnold shrugged. “I don’t think we’re supposed to do anything?”
“That sounds it’s own kinda scary.”
“It is,” Arnold groaned.
For a little while, there was only the conversation of crickets and the churn of dark water.
“You know those feelings a lot of us get in the dark?” Allison asked.
“I think I know it is.”
Dark water, pressing on her limbs.
“I think it’s something being born.”
Breakfast the morning after was a sedate, somewhat slapdash affair. Everyone had slept in, to the point they were practically eating lunch. Reverb sat at the head of the table with Lawrence and Żywie, her new daughter squirming under a blanket as she nursed. Gwydion had been offered a seat of honour as well, but he politely declined.
Do you think she will talk? Reverb asked the healer. Her customary voice sounded smaller than usual. Younger.
“I don’t see any reason she won’t,” Żywie said gently. “Chant and Chorus show all signs of normal speech development.”
Reverb nodded. That’s good. She turned to her headmaster. You thought of a name yet?
Lawrence swallowed his mouthful of scrambled egg. “My dear, she’s only been on this Earth for thirteen hours. Give a man time.” He reached under the blanket, tweaking the baby’s cheek and saying fondly, “Not that she hasn’t provided me with plenty of options.”
It usually took months for a baby’s powers to become clear, but that was before Myriad. With her blearily playing the new arrival’s song before bed, they already knew she had inherited the bones of her father’s power, and her mother’s range. She could project brightly coloured planar shapes to points far away from herself, like a giant child dropping building blocks from the clouds.
It was this service—and Żywie’s protests—that let the girl escape punishment.
She was sitting further down, between David and Elsewhere, scoffing down marmalade drowned pieces of toast. Turned out identity crises made Myriad hungry.
“You feeling better?” David asked.
Myriad thought about it. “…Not all the way. Still not sure about some things. But Elsewhere helped a lot.”
Elsewhere smiled. David though, blinked.
Elsewhere grinned and punched the other boy in the shoulder. “Shut up.”
Dust sprinkled from the ceiling. Across from the Watercolours, Tiresias sighed and set down his cutlery, leaving the table and the room without a word. Nobody noticed.
“Hey,” Mabel asked. “Has anyone seen Basil?”
The ceiling collapsed onto the table, plaster chunks and dust raining down like an avalanche.
There was screaming, coughing, and the kind of shocked laughter that confusion brings.
But then the clouds settled, and everyone saw what lay at their centre.
Żywie clambered onto the table, kneeling over Hugo Venter’s still form. The remnants of a leather belt were tied tight around his neck.
“No, no no…” The healer’s fingers rubbed at the white dust covering the man’s face.
David climbed onto the table beside her. “Żywie? What happened? What’s wrong with Basil”
She didn’t answer him. “This—I can fix this. I have to fix this…”
David looked at his father. His blood lay still in his veins, and his chest didn’t rise.
There was shouting. Weeping. But it all reached David slowly, like he was underwater. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Allison crawl beside him. Her hands were wobbling beneath her.
“Żywie,” she said shakily. “Basil’s song’s gone.”
Żywie shouted, “I can bring him back! I’ve done it before!”
But she didn’t. All she could do was clutch his chest, her tears mixing with the plaster dust.
Eventually, David felt aged arms wrap around his waist, lifting him of the table. Mrs Gillespie. “Oh, child,” she whispered into his ear, “you shouldn’t be seeing this.”
David didn’t even really know what he was seeing.
The old woman set the boy on his feet, before laying her hand on Żywie’s back.
“Żywie—” she said, holding back tears. “—Eliza. You need to let him go now.”
David watched as Żywie threw her arms around Mrs Gillespie, sobbing in a way he had only seen her do once.
David reached for his father’s hand, trying to find him in his grip. But he wasn’t there.
1. Owing to a boat race in the Dark Ages, Balliol and Trinity have held a rivalry that has long since become self sustaining. It would last until the destruction of both Oxford and Cambridge in the 2070s.↩
2. Especially Trinity College. “A crowd of stuffy, racist old codgers in boys’ skins,” Lawrence often called them. ↩
3. Hysteron Proteron: a phrase meaning the reverse of the rational or logical order of things, such as “first the thunder, then the lightning,” or “first the superheroes, then the supervillains.”↩
4. It was a different, much worse time.↩
5. The traditional, half muttered response was that the Institute didn’t have television either. ↩
6. A fictional substance invented by writer Isaac Asimov in 1948, so soluble that it dissolved before contact with water. Invented briefly for real later that year by Maude Simmons.↩
7. Not the most unlikely of possible timelines, given the president’s wrestling background.↩
8. Admittedly, they would only have given her a headstone if she’d died in the act.↩
9. Recent sightings of a badger-haired girl and her blue friend in the distractingly fabulous hat notwithstanding. ↩
10. The Yankee translation is band-aid.↩