The Little Stranger

The body floated face down in the water, watched silently by the pines that crowded the girding hills, drifting along in the slight swell of the waves. Iron Bay was freezing this time of year, with only its sheer mass preventing it from being sealed beneath thick, icy skin. The body didn’t mind. The body had little to fear from the cold, nor from the water currently filling its lungs.

As for the boy who owned the body, he minded even less. He was listening carefully.

It was distant, the signs almost imperceptible, but to him, they might as well have been cannonfire. Five miles west, and a little bit north, his father was lining up a shot, his rifle primed and ready to take down the thick-pelted deer he’d been stalking for over an hour now.

Still face down in the water, the boy hardly dared move either, worried that somehow, in some unfathomable parental fashion, his dad might discover this latest prank.

No. That was just nerves. He knew it was just nerves. The boy shook himself. Then, he squared his shoulders.

With a gentle arc of his arms, Joseph Allworth pushed his head above the surface of the water, calmly exhaled the fluid in his lungs, and took a breath.

His father took one too. He’d found his target. The wind was accounted for. His aim was set.

With just the smallest of smiles, Joe pressed his lips together, and let out a whistle so low and so loud that almost no one heard it. His father certainly didn’t.

The deer bucked like it had just been struck in the thigh with a riding crop.

Jonah Allworth let off his shot, causing lasting injury to a nearby spruce, and swore in a manner that he certainly wouldn’t have done if he’d known his boy could hear him.

Joe giggled.

Sorry, Dad, he thought to himself. If I’m eating meat, you’re gonna have to kill it where I can’t hear.

He floated out of the water, still some hundred or so feet from the river bank, and shook himself. He might not be bothered by the cold, but the moisture soaking through his parka was going to take forever to drain out. He sat down on the water with a groan, and stilled the surface to a mirror sheen with a tap of his finger.

He hated hunting trips. At least they gave him a chance to see the stars, though.

He leaned back, and for a while just let himself be lost, staring up into those bright, oh so distant lights. With how they reflected off the lake, he almost felt like he was floating in the void between them.

Almost.

“…I don’t wanna learn to shoot,” he grumbled. “Stupid old—”

That was as far as he got before a small, webbed, rime gloved hand rose between his sneakers, wrapped around his shin, and dragged him below the surface with a yelp and a quiet plop.

Joe scowled at the grinning face and dolphin-black eyes of his seaborne friend. He looked about four or five, and had since Joe himself had been that age. The last half-decade hadn’t even fixed the gap in Palaemon’s front teeth. Surprisingly white for a boy who lived on raw fish and seal-meat, though.

Not alright, he thought very loudly, before kicking up back into the air.

Aww, the sea-child replied, his half-unspoken voice rattling through Joe’s jaw like a burst of sonar. Are you mad again, Allworth?

I’m not mad! Joe retorted angrily. Just not in the mood!

Sounds like something you’d say if you were mad.

Well, I’m not! What are you even doing up here? It’s freshwater. 

I never said I only lived in the sea.

Well, where do you live, then?

Wherever I feel like, as long as the big fish aren’t nearby.

Big fish?

Eh. Just some meanie and her dad. They pick on me sometimes. Haven’t seen the girl for a while. 

Define a while?

A few inches below the water, Palaemon shrugged. I dunno. Years are hard. It was back when all those boats were blowing up. He surfaced, floating on his back, the faint blue of his skin barely visible in the evening gloom. You’d hardly notice in the more tropical waters he favoured, even without the half inch of lichen that coated his body. Joseph had once tried to force some hand-me-downs on the other boy. He’d refused the shirt outright and the shorts had rotted through in a month. Joe wasn’t even sure if his hair was black or green. “What are you doing out here anyway?”

Above the water, Pal’s voice sounded vaguely Grecian. He’d mentioned once that he’d been a prince in those lands once, before being drowned and made into a god.

Joe could relate, if perhaps from the other direction.

He sighed. “Jonah’s trying to teach me to hunt again. You know, with a gun.”

“…Why?”

“Beats me. Just a thing that real men are s’posed to learn, I guess.”

“… He knows you’re stronger than a gun, right?”

Joe rolled his eyes. “He’s fully aware.”

Palaemon dived back under for the moment, rising back up again on his belly. “I don’t know why you hang around with that lot, Joe.”

The other boy shrugged, his shirt and parka squelching against each other and themselves. “Eh it beats being lonely. And Mo—” he caught himself, “—Sarah’s alright. Even Jonah, now and then. He let me try a beer last week.”

“Oh? How was it?”

Joe puffed up proudly.

“Totally gross.”

Palaemon wallowed, sending ripples through the mirrored stars. “Daddies are overrated. Me and my mother do fine.”

Joe didn’t ask why he’d never met Pal’s mother1. That would’ve been mean.

It might’ve reminded him of his mother, too.

Pal said, “You really need to hang out with more gods.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Joe lay back against the water, staring up at the stars. “Maybe.”

Pal chuckled.

“Don’t tell Artemis about your dad and the deer.”

Jonah and Sarah Allworth were latecomers to parenthood. They’d both been halfway resigned to widow and bachelorhood when they met, and they lived in a time and place where fertility was as inexplicable and mysterious as time or gravity.

Had they prayed for a son of daughter of their own? Maybe at first. But they had nieces and nephews, and even the odd godchild knocking around Neptune’s Chest. They didn’t need children to complete them.

But that poor, strange man whose shattered legs couldn’t touch the ground had been so scared. And Joseph was a fine boy.

Bloody nuisance sometimes, though.

Jonah scowled around the kitchen table. He was a tall man, seemingly built of dried pine and smoking leather, stretched thin over a frame of knobbly joints. The old man’s eyes were currently fixed on an untouched plate of smoked salmon and potatoes, sullenly surrendering its warmth as steam. “I told him to be back by a quarter to 7.”

“That you did,” Sarah said mildly, absently cutting at her fish. She was thicker set than her husband, her plump face framed by expertly tormented red curls.

“Dang it, woman, why are you eating before we’re all here to say grace?”

“I’m not going hungry on account of Joe being truant. We can say grace twice tomorrow if you’re so bothered.”

“But you going hungry’s the only thing that makes him come home on time!”

“No, the fact my food’s damn good is the reason he comes home. I don’t even think he needs to eat.”

Jonah grunted. “Wouldn’t surprise me. That boy’s always coming out with new tricks. Did you see how he scared off that racoon last week?

“Let me guess. Lightning summoning? Oh. No. Maybe he talked the neighbors cat into chasing it off?” In any other conversation, it would have been a joke.

“I wish! He shot fire out his damn eyes!”

Sarah sipped her cider. “Subtle.”

“It’s those damn Superman cartoons,” Jonah muttered, half to himself. “Never should’ve let him get his hands on them.”

Sarah laughed. “I don’t think Joe’s ever read a Superman comic.”

Jonah glanced out the window at the wall of night beyond. “What the hell’s he even doing out there? The sun set half an hour ago!”

“I really don’t think that’d give Joe much trouble, dear.”

“Probably with that bloody fish-boy again. He followed us to Iron Bay, you know. Reckon he stole half my catch.”

“Honestly, Jonah, I don’t know why you bother dragging Joe on those hunting trips. The boy could take down a bear by flicking a pebble at it.”

Jonah jabbed at a potato with his fork. “I just want to get the kid interested in something for a change.”

“Joe’s interested in plenty. He rigged up the car to run on the ambient background whatever2 of the universe, didn’t he?”

“I mean something I understand! Not just Joe chucking miracles at me like he’s paying rent.” He looked down at his plate. “He makes me feel like the most boring man alive.”

Sarah sighed. “Oh, Jonah.” She reached across the table and stroked her husband’s hand. “That just means you’re his father.”

Joe squirmed impatiently in the back of the Allworths’ black3 Monarch sedan, watching out the window as the road flowed past like a sluggish river of pitch.

“You know I could get us to the Falls in fifteen minutes tops, right?”

Sarah looked up from her map at the car-bumper in front of them. “The thought had crossed my mind.”

Hands clenched around the wheel, Jonah asked, “How do you reckon you’d manage that, son?”

Joe grinned and leaned forward. “Easy! I pick the car up and fly you guys!”

Both his parents were silent for a moment.

“That doesn’t sound very safe, honey,” said Sarah.

“It’s safer than driving there!” protested Joe. “Think about it. If that old guy in front of us stops really fast, you two will go straight through the windshield!4

“Bucket of sunshine, you are,” Jonah said.

“I’m serious!” Joe tried to figure out how best to sell it. “There’s no bad drivers in the sky!”

Jonah had to admit, that did sound like paradise… somewhere above Earth. That is, he would’ve had to admit that, if he weren’t Joe’s father—and thus exempt from conceding any point to him. “What if ya drop us?”

Joe folded his arms and pouted. “I don’t drop things.”

Jonah grunted. “Maybe so, but I betcha some yank radar-jockey will think we’re a nuclear missile or somethin’ and blow us out of the sky.”

“…I wouldn’t let them do that to you.”

“We know you wouldn’t, Joe.”

“Still,” said Sarah, “if you flew us we’d miss out on Montreal and whale-watching.”

“Yeah,” Joe half-muttered. “Wouldn’t wanna miss the whales.”

Jonah looked like he was about to launch into a lecture, but Sarah put a hand on his arm. He nodded, and she twisted around to look at their son. “Tell you what, Joe. If you behave, you can fly above the car the last leg back, deal?”

“Okay.”

Joe knew what that meant. Hours of hiding above the cloud layer, drifting through the air slower than a zeppelin, all so he wouldn’t outpace a metal wagon that used to eat dead plants and dinosaurs and turned a bit of it into motion before he’d gotten his hands on it.

You had to take what you could get sometimes.

Horseshoe Falls looked like the edge of the world. Joe had read somewhere that the falls were only about a hundred and seventy feet high—small pickings for a creature such as him—but human eyes didn’t see it that way. Great curtains of shining blue water gave way to untold depths of white mist, from which rose only the faintest rainbows. Joe could feel the spray on his face even from behind the railing.

It was a welcome distraction from the noise, sweat, and minds of the herd of tourists craning for a view all around him. Joe was used to being swamped by human souls, but Neptune’s Chest was a lonely little town, full of the same folk mostly thinking and doing much the same things year in and out. Like the roar of a waterfall, after long enough you grew nearly deaf to it. The people here though were new and numerous, their thoughts all itching with awe, or joy, or boredom.

Joe looked away from the falls, instead focusing his sight across the border at Niagara Falls, until he could make out people walking the streets and working in the windows of office buildings. With their thoughts so dim and distant, it was the psychic answer to silent cinema. The boy wasn’t sure why the crowds were bothering him so much today. They hadn’t when he’d slipped away to New York City last year, or London just a month before.

Joe’s father dragged the boy from the comfort of his sulk. “Beautiful, innit?”

Sarah had gone off to do some euphemism for urination, leaving the pair alone. Joe suspected his mother was actually hoping for some kind of male bonding, but didn’t dare read her mind to check.

Joe didn’t have enough preteen contrarianism to rebut that. “Yeah, it is.” He did however have plenty of one upmanship stored up. “Did you know there’s a planet out there with molten gold instead of waterfalls?”

Jonah laughed. “Sure I did, boy, well known piece of trivia like that. Think I saw it in a fact a day calendar.”

Joe had to smother a smile. “I’m serious.”

“I’m sure you are. Where is this planet?”

Joe didn’t know why his father bothered asking. What meaning did space coordinates to a Canadian shopkeep who hadn’t left the country since World War 1? Still, at least he was trying to be interesting for once.

The boy tried to remember, but he couldn’t find the answer. He couldn’t recall whether the world was in this galaxy, or if it lay beyond the Milky Way entirely. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t certain if the planet was real, or a dream of his mother’s. His real mother.

Maybe the vagueness was deliberate. Star-gods lived forever. When you measure your life in terms like aeons and kalpas5, you don’t deny your children mystery or new experiences.

Or maybe it was yet another thing his mother hadn’t got to tell him.

“I don’t know,” Joe answered. Unexpected tears were stinging the corner of his eyes. “I can’t remember.”

Jonah wrapped an arm around his son. “It’s alright, Joe, I believe ya.”

Joe fumed at the embrace, even as he sunk into it. What could Jonah know about what he’d lost? What could any human being?

“Not sure about those gold-falls, though.”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked quietly.

“Well, molten gold’s hot as heck, right?”

“Yes?”

“And a place where it just pours down in the open air like that wouldn’t have the right”—Jonah clicked his fingers as he searched for the word—“atmosphere for folks to breathe. You wouldn’t be able to see them up close.”

I could,” Joe pointed out sullenly.

“But you wouldn’t be able to share it with anyone.” The old man gestured towards the Horseshoe. “We can share this, can’t we?”

“Sure,” Joe answered flatly.

That was the choice for him, wasn’t it? Be alone, or paddle in the shallow end of experience, just so everyone he knew wouldn’t drown.

Palaemon didn’t have to choose6. Neither did Joe’s brothers and sisters, riding the strings between stars somewhere out there in the void. He was sick of it.

Jonah decided his son needed some space. He let go of the boy. “I’m gonna go find your ma. You alright here?”

Joe rested his elbows on the railing. “Yeah.”

“Good, good.” Jonah turned and walked towards the park grass. He wasn’t sure why he asked Joe that kind of question. The Russians could drop a damn nuke right now and he’d come out alright.

Joe looked back out at the waterfall. He’d mentioned it to Pal before they left. Turned out the godling had visited the place before white men arrived on the continent.

“You’ve got to try diving off. It’s great!”

Joe wondered where he could find some swimming trunks…

The hungry looking young man in the patched duster coat prowled the pavement rimming the horseshoe, trying to sift through the voices without drowning in them.

…She bolts one more time, I’m buying a leash.

Why does Canada get the best falls?

God, what if she knows? No, she can’t—  

The man slowed his pace, letting his mind follow warbling, clammy string of dread winding through the crowds to its source. It was a fella (American by the tint of his thoughts) wearing the kind of bright, floral shirt you only bought if you needed something to replace a personality, leaning against the railing and staring out at the falls like he was planning on sailing off them.

The man focused on the tourist. Images of a woman flooded his mind’s eyes. Two women in fact.

The man smiled. Perfect. He pulled a piece of scrap paper from inside his coat, and started after the tourist.

Christoper Barbieri would never have called himself a super. Supers wore capes and fabulous, gaudily coloured outfits wrapped around physiques that would’ve struck the Vitruvian Man dumb with envy. Chris Barbieri was a cadaverous, prematurely graying twenty-one year old whose best piece of attire looked like it had been scavenged off a Confederate battlefield and hadn’t been washed since. Supers flew through the air and hefted cars over their head. Chris Barbieri just read minds.

Chris managed to slip the paper into the man’s back pocket and merge back into the human throng without him noticing. He wondered how long it would take Karl Jeffs to find the note:

I know what you did. Two hundred dollars U.S under the bench by the toilet block by noon tomorrow, or I send out the pictures.

There were no pictures, of course, but Chris doubted it would be a problem. The fear was usually enough, especially for love-cheats. Just mentioning his old man’s fling with the laundress got him dumped at the children’s home, after all.

Chris found the bench where hopefully he’d be picking up Karl’s cash and collapsed into it. He pulled a-flask from the pocket next to his many identical blackmail notes and took a hard swig, trying to douse the thought-fires and be alone in his own head.

At least Karl wasn’t another kiddy-fiddler. Ripping those fuckers off was like blood money.

He watched the near-solid wall of human flesh and fabric gawking over the railing. Tourist traps were always a decent hunting ground. People looking for escape. On some level, Christoper knew there had to be a better use for his talents. Poker, maybe? Sometimes he even contemplated offering himself up to the Special Branch7, or even the Yanks, but he had the sneaking suspicion that would end with his brain bobbing in a jar of formaldehyde.

Still, couldn’t he find a better class of guilty moron? The politicians and captains of industry always seemed to be somewhere else when he needed a payday.

Excitement ran through the crowd like flame down a fuse. People were shouting and pointing at the falls like they’d snap-frozen.

“Where’d he come from?”

“Is he standing on a rock?”

“Jesus!”

That last one sounded less like an oath and more like exultation. Curious, Christopher forced his way through the crowd to the railing, swearing and wishing he could actually affect thoughts all the while.

A boy was standing ankle-deep at the crest of the waterfall, waving and blowing kisses towards the viewing platform. All Chris could make out from that distance was that he was very, very blond, and clad in a pair of shorts.

He was just within the psychic’s range—

Chris violently vomited whiskey and middle-grade beef mince into the mist below.

“You alright, friend?” asked a Newfoundland lady with bug-like sunglasses.

Christopher coughed and wiped the bile from his mouth. “Yeah, bit of the bug.” It was like he’d went to open a book and got the whole library dropped on him. From space.

The Newfoundland woman had turned her attention back to the boy on the waterfall. “Oh, God, is he going to jump?”

Indeed, the boy had his leg stretched out behind him and his knee bent like he was poised for a race to start. People were shouting things like “Don’t do it!” and from the more stupid or ghoulish, “Jump! Jump!”

The boy shot forward, fearlessly leaping clear of the water into the open air. He almost seemed to hang there for a moment as he curled into a cannonball, until sullen gravity greedily snatched him down into the mist.

The silence almost drowned out the waterfall. It was the kind of shock that took up space while the brain caught up to the fact it just watched a child die.

The boy exploded up out of the mist, water vapour streaming off his shoulders as he soared into the sky, above the water and the sea of applause that roared long after he disappeared into the clouds above.

Chris clapped right along with them. It wasn’t everyday you saw a proper super in the flesh.

Amidst the wonder, awe, and the odd bulb of fear, two clusters of emotion stood out like mud on silver. Two delicate filigrees of worry, anger, and irritation. Plain old irritation. At a flying boy. They were laced through an old couple, glaring at the sky like their grandkid had thrown a tantrum in the middle of the grocery.

Chris focused his power on the pair.

He smiled to himself. Maybe Karl could keep his money.

As a telepathic space-deity raised by humans since birth, Joseph should have known how his parents would take the dive. As a ten year old boy, that was impossible.

“Why are you guys being so crazy?”

Sarah and Jonah had returned to their motel room to find their son grinning on the bed, his curls still damp, kicking his feet cheerfully.

This hadn’t improved their mood.

Mrs Allworth had her arms folded. “Young man, neither me nor your father are either ‘crazy’ or ‘you guys’ for that  And you know full well why we’re not happy.”

“Why should I?” muttered Joe. “I’m not s’posed to read your minds.”

Jonah’s mouth was hard and thin. “Don’t play dumb with us, Joe. You’re no good at it.”

“…The folks didn’t think it was so bad.”

Jonah groaned. “You know that’s not the point. For Christ’s sake, the dive was bad enough, but that flying malarkey? It’d almost be salvageable if you just stayed under.”

Joe scowled. “What? Let everyone think I was dead.”

Gently, Sarah said, “They’d have gotten over it eventually.”

An eye-roll. “But then everyone in this town would be all sad and confused. It’d be like swimming through really depressed pudding.”

Sarah and Jonah looked at each other. Sometimes they still didn’t know what to say to some of the things their son came out with.

“And you’d probably keep me all cooped up in here till we went home.”

Jonah scoffed. “You think that’s off the table, do ya?”

Joe shook his head in silent outrage. “Why would you?”

“In case someone spots the boy who’ll definitely be in all the papers tomorrow.”

“Oh, get real dad. Human eyes are garbage, nobody there’s going to recognize me. Or did all the other blond boys go extinct when I wasn’t looking? I’m not even the only kid in Canada who can fly!”

“And another thing,” Sarah snapped. “Enough of these cracks about ordinary folks being oh so worse than you at everything. It’s rude.”

“But humans eyes are bad!”

“Little Walt in your class has bad legs. Do you gloat about that?”

“…Why is it so bad if people know I can fly?”

Sarah sighed, pulling her husband over so they could sit on either side of their son. She rested an arm across his legs.

“When Joe Bell brought you to us, he said he was being chased—”

Joe Bell’s namesake pushed away Sarah’s hand, jumping to his feet. They didn’t quite touch the dirty shag carpet. “Stop telling me that story! I remember.”

Joe was panting. Jonah and Sarah always did this. Treating him as though he were some foggy-minded human boy with a memory like a sieve. He remembered Joe Bell; much more than the Allworths did. For God’s sake, he had to tell them he wasn’t his father.

He remembered his mother’s womb, and her teaching him the customs of atoms, and how to find purchase in the underside of reality.

He remembered the creature that killed her.

“That thing is dead! I watched it burn.”

Jonah said, “But Bell—”

“Bell was crazy scared and full of space-poison!”

Sarah looked hard at her son. “We don’t speak ill of the dead.”

“I’m not ‘speaking ill’! I’m telling the truth!”

“We just want to keep you safe, Joe,” said Jonah quietly.

“I don’t care!” Joe screamed. “I’m tired of pretending to be all small because you’re such a scaredy cat!”

Sarah frowned. “Don’t talk to your father like that!”

“He’s not my dad!”

Jonah looked twenty years older in an instant. His eyes shone as though he’d been stabbed in the ribs. Sarah had a hand to her mouth.

Joe stared at his parents, suddenly feeling very small indeed. He felt like he’d put a crack in the world.

The door flung open of its own accord, and Joe burst out into the night.

Jonah ran after him. “Joe!” he cried. “Wait!”

It was no use. Joe was just a patch of night in the sky now.

“Son…”

     ⬖

It was Sarah who convinced Jonah they needed to head home.

“The store needs us. And I don’t want our boy coming home to an empty house.”

She was right, of course. They’d already lingered in Niagara three days longer than they’d planned. For five days, they pulled into every pit-stop hoping to spot Joe leaning against the gas-pump. Every child with a hint of gold in their hair wore their son’s face.

Their home was as empty as a tomb after the Second Coming. But life went on.

“So how were the falls, Mr. Allworth?” asked Johnathan Katzman at the store one day.

“Fine,” Jonah grunted as he rang up his neighbour’s groceries.

Katzman grinned slyly. “Did ya get to see that flying lad in the paper?”

Jonah couldn’t quite decide whether Katzman was being dense or an ass. “No.

“Ah, shame.”

Dense.

“I haven’t seen Joe around since you’ve gotten back.”

Dense and an ass.

“He’s staying with my sister down in Ontario.”

“Hope he’s having a good time.”

What was he supposed to say? That his son was out there in the wilds of the world, doing things neither of them could imagine? That he might never come back?

“I’m sure he is.”

That night, the Allworths sat around the kitchen table, mechanically consuming their supper.

Sarah’s face was hidden from her husband by a copy of the Vancouver Sun.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to read at the dinner table?”

“Special circumstances, honey.”

Mrs Allworth had been studying every newspaper she could get her hands on religiously, searching for any reference to her son. Once the dive at Horseshoe Falls passed from the news-cycle, ready to be resurrected in bars all across North America, none had been forthcoming.

Mr. Allworth looked at the third place his wife had set like the plate of battered shark had personally betrayed him. “You’re wasting good food, you know.”

“Not if Joe turns up tonight.”

“He doesn’t need to eat.”

“You could probably stand to skip a meal a day, but I still cook for you.”

Jonah’s cutlery rattled against the ceramic. “Sarah… do you ever wonder if Joe really needs us?”

Sarah’s answer was immediate, nearly casual, “No.”

“Not even sometimes?”

“Not at all.”

“But he’s so bloody bright! The boy does our taxes every year! Nothing can hurt him!”

“Jonah, is Joe a person?”

“What kind of a question is that?”

Sarah repeated herself evenly, “Is Joe a person.”

“Of course he is! Or he’s close enough.”

“People don’t just need other people to feed them and fight off the wolves and what not. We need each other so we’re not alone.”

Jonah tried to take comfort in the idea. But Joe wasn’t the only one of his kind, was he? There was a whole race of… the Protestant in him wasn’t comfortable with what his son called them.

Was that where Joe was? Had he gone home?

There was a knock at the front door.

Hope and dread both hammered inside Sarah. “Jonah, go—”

Her husband was already standing up. “It’s not Joe.”

“How do you know?”

“What little boy knocks at their own front door?”

There was a man in a patched duster-coat waiting behind the door.

“Hi!” Christopher Barbieri said with forced, rugged cheer. “My car’s broken down. Do you have a phone I could use?”

Two hundred miles off the coast of British Columbia and hundreds of feet beneath the sea, Joseph Allworth was building himself a clubhouse.

It’d have a library, an arcade, and chocolate, and his dad would not be allowed.

It had been a busy fortnight for the boy. For starters, he hadn’t slept since fleeing his family’s motel room. If it weren’t for the subsequent blur of excitement, Joe might have been starting to feel it.

He’d dropped in on Olympus and charmed the deathless ones with gifts8, even the grave and resplendent King Athena. So pleased they were with the strange, barbarian godling, they let Joe taste their sacred ambrosia.

It was okay. Joe was never super-fond of honey.

After that, he’d spent the weekend riding whales with Palaemon, before tapping on the Gatehouse’s windows. Then he’d headed to the Arctic, where he found Franklin’s grave, and the Terror and the Erebus to boot9.

Finally, he’d acquired the autograph of every superhero10 (and not a small chunk of the supervillains) in Canada, from the Blue Tornado to Miss Mighty.

It was that last endeavour that set Joe’s thoughts towards construction. Got to have somewhere to keep the autographs (and the Erebus and the Terror).

First he’d considered the Arctic, but aside from driving himself mad with Superman jokes, with humanity’s success rate at kicking its fossil fuel habit, that could be iffy in the decades and centuries to come. There was the Moon, but did he really want to deal with the Gatekeeper griping about the noise11?

The sea it was.

Naked to the chill of the Pacific, the young god worked in darkness. His bare hands twisted, cut, and shattered metal and rock, material abundance and inhuman power filling the gaps of tools or training.

He’d started with a wreck. Some old hulk from decades back, found on some lazy January Saturday when he was playing with Palaemon. At the time, they’d just been having fun searching the corridors of the place, Pal taking every opportunity to scare Joe half to death with the corpses of the crew.

At first, he’d just come back to bury them. Then, while he was lugging the last load of corpses through the command deck, he’d given the place one last look, and his ever-active imagination had once more run away.

The hull itself was largely intact; besides a few chunks missing from either a decade or two of rust, or whatever had sunk the thing in the first place. It was easy enough to fix. Well, it was so long as he didn’t mind that it’d never be a boat again. All he needed were materials.

That had been three months ago.

A hundred tonnes of green diamond and sapphire, scraped from the hearts of asteroids and poured into window frames in the deserts of the Moon12. Three miles of homespun carbon cabling, and over ten thousand cubic metres of atmosphere, laboriously dragged beneath the surface in what might as well have been an oversized bucket.

Even for him, the process was exhausting. But on the upside, Joe’s jewel was finally taking shape.

Joe was floating a few hundred feet beneath the surface of the sea, admiring how his structure’s silhouette sat against the empty void: a blue rose waiting to bloom, glimmering in the light from the far distant moon, sitting below the waves, moving with the current, but for the leagues deep tether anchoring it to the seabed.

A ways away, he could hear a whale, calling for its calf.

Kinda small13, he admitted to himself, a little grudgingly. But he could always expand, right? This was just the seed.

He wondered what his dad—

Wait, what did he care what Jonah thought about his creation? Wasn’t this all so he didn’t have to go back to his stupid ranch-colonial bleh? And why did he bother installing oxygen in the thing? He didn’t need to breathe, Pal didn’t need to breathe; hardly anyone he’d be inviting over needed to breathe. Yeah, he was starting a garden, but there were plenty of water-plants and coral out there. Why did he want to plant Jonah’s lousy begonias?

Frustrated, Joe shot up to the surface, alighting on the tiny, rocky island he’d raised to keep his clothes dry.

Dressing among the foam-capped waves, he took to the sky, off to do something deeply embarrassing.

          ⬖

Unfortunately, the Allworths did not keep a phone in the house. What they did have was a warm meal and plenty of Christian hospitality, both of which Chris Barbieri accepted with gusto.

“So it turned out these twins’ had both been messing around with each other’s wives! Might as well have swapped pas!”

Sarah and Jonah both laughed. Their unexpected guest for the evening was turning out to be a great relief. Chris seemed full of all manner of salacious stories. Neither Allworth considered themselves gossips, but when folk at their church got up to bemoan their sinful pasts, they both leaned forward a little.

Plus, it was nice having something young and hungry to look after again.

Sarah was in danger of cutting right through her plate. “So you’re telling me his secretary had been embezzling from him how long?”

“Ten years. Poor fool thought it was everyone but her. I think he ended up in an actual pauper’s grave. I didn’t even know they still had those.”

Sarah laughed.

Enjoyable as it all was, Jonah thought there was something odd about Chris’ stories. They didn’t sound fake, exactly. They had too many little details for that. But there was an odd distance to the telling. Chris never bothered to explain how he knew the people in his stories. Were those philandering twins his friends? Uncles? Cousins?

“So, what do you do for a living, son?” Jonah asked.

Christopher shrugged, answering through a mouthful of fish, “This and that. Never really had what’d you call a career. After the home I worked in a tinning factory until the soldiers wanted their jobs back. Sold Bibles door to door for a while.”

That last bit was true. Guilty thoughts had a way of rising to the surface when you waved scripture in people’s faces.

“That must’ve been fulfilling,” Sarah remarked.

“Less money in it than you’d think. I mean, most folks are Christian, but that just means they all already own one. And the Jews get so persnickety if you try selling to them.”

The Allworths both laughed. Chris decided to take the shot:

“So, I heard in town you folks have a son.”

Jonah’s muscles tensed.

Sarah said, “Yes. Joseph. He’s ten.”

“I also heard he’s… talented.”

“Isn’t every child?” asked Jonah, a little more sharply than he intended.

Barbieri smiled. “I mean, talented the way the Blue Tornado is.”

The air in the Allworths’ kitchen could have turned to glass.

Jonah cleared his throat. “Mr. Barbieri, I’m beginning to think your car is perfectly fine.”

“Don’t have one.”

Sarah sighed. “Why are you here?”

Well, might as well go for broke. “I was there at Niagara.”

Jonah didn’t bother trying to deny it, instead only glaring at the young man.

“You folks run the general store around here, don’tcha?”

Sarah nodded slowly. “Yes. My father left it to me. Good honest work.”

Christoper laughed, long and loud. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Jonah was going to rebuke the language, but Chris kept going.

“Your son is an honest to God… god, and you people run a podunk little shop?” His eyes darted from Allworth to Allworth, gleaming like he was letting the old couple in on a secret. “Think about it. A boy who can do what he can, a man of the world like me, you two could spend your dotage in palaces!”

Sarah’s table scraped against the linoleum as she stood up. “Stop right there, Mr. Barbieri. I know what you’re suggesting, but me and Jonah swore soon as we realized what Joe could do we wouldn’t take advantage. He’s our son, not the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

Jonah just say there, his fists clenched under the table.

Chris stammered. “But—but—”

“You don’t strike me as a very… comfortable young man, Barbieri. Trust me, I know how that feels.” Sarah gestured at her husband. “Me and my husband could always use an extra set of hands at the shop. That offers come with free room and board, now.”

Jonah blinked. “Now wait a sec, Sarah—”

Chris threw his hands up. “Don’t worry, Mr. Allworth.” The young man rose from the table, walking towards the hallway to the front door. “I didn’t come all this way to work at a shop. Thank you for the meal.”

“You’re very welcome,” Sarah said reflexively.

Christopher stopped walking. “You be careful now,”  he said over his shoulder. “Wouldn’t want word of your boy getting back to that thing Old Joe Bell was running fro—”

Jonah lunged from his chair, grabbing Chris Barbieri by the throat and slamming him against the wall, a family picture cracking behind his skull.

The man kicked and thrashed like a fish in the air, but Jonah didn’t care. His face was white.

“You bastard! You come into my home threaten my son! A little boy!”

He smacked Barbieri against the blaster and broken glass again. His wife was shouting, but he couldn’t hear her.

“Who sent you? Who?”

Christopher went limp in the old man’s hands. His eyes stared unseeing.

It took Jonah a moment to realize what he’d done. He let go of the young man. He slid down to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut. Jonah’s hands were shaking. His wife’s hand was on his shoulder.

“Jonah… what did you do?”

“I—”

A light thud, almost inaudible, like small, bare feet against pavement.

There was a knock at the door.


1. The goddess Leucothoë, formerly Ino in her human life.

2. It was actually solar power.

3. To aid with solar absorption.

4. This being before the paranoid era of seatbelts or airbags.

5. A Sanskrit term usually referring to a span of about 4.32 billion years.

6. Though he often did—Alexiares, Anicetus, and the rest of their godling cohorts could be such awful snobs.

7. A label usually applied to intelligence units responsible for matters of national security and intelligence in Commonwealth countries.

8. To fleet-footed Hermes, a skeleton key; to rosy-cheeked Aphrodite, a bottle of Lubin perfume; to Dionysus the liberator, a box of margarita mix; and finally, to brawny Heracles, a sewing machine.

9. The two ships that made up the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845, lost to history in the ice. Of the 129 crew, all either died in the Arctic or perhaps assimilated into the local Inuit. All except Captain Crozier, but his is another story.

10. Not a large demographic, mind.

11. Even in an environment that did not carry sound, the Gatekeeper would find a way.

12. The diamond needed to be melted in a zero-oxygen environment in order to avoid it becoming carbon dioxide. Joe also gathered up some moondust in case he wanted to make a tritium reactor.

13. A little larger than a standard suburban shopping mall.

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1 thought on “The Little Stranger

  1. Editorial here. Henry’s going to be on vacation for the rest of month. Book three will start promptly when he gets back.

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