Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Atticus awoke sharply to a particularly loud crack of thunder. It was a sound that he was beginning to get used to, but forty years of sleeping with both ears open made the habit hard to break. He glanced at the red numbers on the little digital clock he'd bought for himself the day before, and sighed. 4:30. Could be worse.
He groaned as he sat up, rubbing his eyes wearily. Another bolt illuminated his sparsely-furnished room, with the still packed up boxes stacked tall in one corner and two empty bookshelves standing next to the door like sentinals. A thin coating of dust still lay on the dual windowsills, from the house's long emptiness before they'd moved in. Atticus resolved to clean as soon as he had the time, or sometime eventually, at least.
The long downstairs hallway of the brick house was empty. He moved along it silently, headed for the kitchen. A soft clicking greeted him as he made his way in, and a wet nose shoved itself against his hand. The dog was trembling, scared stiff of the thunder. He scratched her soft ears and made a comforting noise, which sounded so strange coming from his own throat. The lightning flashed again, and Dragon dashed back under the table. She cowered in her dog bed, and Atticus sighed. He was no good at this comforting thing.
He flicked on the kitchen light, and moved to the sink. The dishes from all three day they'd been there were piled in the sink, and takeout containers overflowed from the white trash bin. He vaguely considered starting breakfast, but then realized that they were out of eggs, and the toaster hadn't been unpacked yet, and the diner wouldn't be open for another half-hour, at least. The dog's wet nose found his hand again, and he scratched her almost subconciously, mulling over the situation.
He wondered if Ben would mind leftover pizza for breakfast. Probably not, come to think of it.
Another crash of thunder sent the golden retriever skittering under the table again, and Atticus wondered how Ben was doing. The boy had been doing better, as far as he could tell, but an illness like this could reverse in a moment. He sighed, and headed upstairs to check on the boy.
The old wooden stairs creaked wearily as Atticus went up. The second door on the left was cracked open, and the orange night-light shone through like a beacon. Atticus pushed it open with all the quietness of a man who's long known how to move unheard, and stepped in.
He made slightly more noise when he nearly fell on his face. He cursed under his breath, and warily let go of his death grip on the doorframe. Water. There was water all over the floor. A quick glance upwards told him why as a water droplet hit him in the face
The roof was leaking. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his nightshirt, barely refraining from cursing again. Bloody American craftsmanship! And in the one place in the house where it actually mattered! Ben needed dry air, for...
Ben. He glanced over at the bed, and was relieved to see his young charge still sleeping. The twelve year old's small frame was twisted all around the blue-checked bedspread, and both of his pillows had somehow migrated to the floor. But he was still breathing, and still sleeping, and that's what mattered at the moment. The two de-humidifiers next to his bed were both still functioning, though the puddle was beginning to reach the one on the far edge. Another drip hit him in the back of the head, startling him. He sighed, and went back downstairs.
He wasn't entirely sure if they'd unpacked a bucket, or if there even was a bucket to unpack. Atticus eventually grabbed his tea kettle off the stove and a towel out of the downstairs bathroom and creaked his way back up the stairs.
Benjamin almost stirred this time as another huge flash of lighting broke the sky. He twisted another rotation, wrapping his bedspread more tightly around himself. He mumbled something as Atticus set down the tea kettle where he thought the drip was. One of Ben's feet was sticking out from under the covers now, and Atticus almost smiled. And then another drip hit him in the shoulder. The smile vanished, and he went back downstairs.
He returned this time with the frying pan. The dog followed him upstairs, tail tucked between her legs. She slid across the wet floor, suprise and fear painted on her face. He rubbed her head again as Ben flopped one arm out, still sleeping, looking for his pillow. Atticus handed it to him, and in a moment the boy was still again.
And then the splash of water in the puddle hit his ankle, and he knew there was a third leak.
All he could find this time was a teacup. By this time, the kettle was beginning to get full, and the dog smelled wet, and there was a fourth leak somewhere, he was quite sure of it, because a full half of the ceiling was shining with water at this point, and he went downstairs to get another teacup.
Nearly half an hour and his full tea set, two cocoa mugs, a couple of dirty glasses and a cereal bowl later, Atticus sat on the now-mostly-dry floor, leaning against the annoyingly-damp wooden door and staring at the absurdly-wet ceiling and feeling almost helpless. Ben had started coughing, and no matter how many times he emptied the teacups, the room wasn't getting any drier. The dog picked it's way through the teacup maze on the floor, headed for the closet as lightning flashed again, and in a panic Dragon knocked two of them over. Atticus sighed, and grabbed another towel from the pile he'd set outside the door. He hadn't felt this frustrated since... well, for a very long time.
He didn't know why this was bothering him. He'd stayed in leaking houses hundreds of times, many times worse than this. It barely crossed his mind anymore; if it didn't mess with his mission, it didn't matter. He'd always been able to deal with it himself. Why was this different?
He threw the wet towel at the bathroom across the hall and stared upwards. He was retired now. The mission wasn't what mattered anymore; he knew that. He'd spent the past year trying to convince himself of that, but forty years is a heavy weight to shake off.
Lightning flashed. Ben coughed. The dog wimpered, and Atticus swore under his breath. Bloody rain, bloody leak, bloody retirement. He wasn't himself without a mission.
Or maybe he was himself, and he had yet to figure out what that looked like.
He sat back, taking stock. Who was Atticus Knott? Not a spy anymore, not a retiree, technically, not even who he'd told them he was. Just an old man who'd spent his life learning what to do in situations that he would never encounter again. He didn't even have a family anymore.
He sat in silence for a moment, listening to the rain hitting the roof and the drips falling into the teacups, and thunder rolled in the distance, and Ben was breathing softly, with the same sick rasp to his voice that had brought them both to America, and to this bloody leaking house. This bloody leaking house that was going to keep him sick, with this bloody rain that had followed them all the way from England and this whole bloody situation, and Atticus wished that he just had to steal someone's briefcase so it would be over, and he could get on with the next bloody mission.
And then it hit him.
Ben. Ben was his mission. He was in another country, in a leaking house, with unknowns on every side and the odds against him, and he had an objective and a base and a full town to recon and two people to report to and quite possibly some enemies. And maybe, he barely thought, he did have a family, kind of. He twisted his ring around unconciously as he mulled it over.
And quite suddenly, he was alright.
“Alright.” He stood, stepping around the near-overflowing teacups to pick up his twelve year old charge. “Come on, Ben, we're going downstairs.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dr Doctor and the Viking Kid

“Is it on?”
Timothy peered up at the camera from under his plastic viking helmet. Seth nodded, making the camera rock up and down.
“Ok! Um... Hi! I'm Timothy! And... um... Seth?”
“You're introducing your story.”
“Start with Joscar.”
“Yeah! Joscar's great. He's a pirate, and he fights bad people and stops them from taking stuff cause that's what pirates do! I wanna fight crime with Joscar someday, so I've got my viking helmet cause I'm gonna be the viking kid!” The camera followed Timothy as he climbed onto a picnic table in the middle of the park. “And this is the story of... Viking Kid!” He posed dramatically, and the camera shook slightly as Seth tried to keep from laughing. Timothy looked out of the corner of his eye at the camera. “Is that good?”
“Yep.” Seth pushed the stop button on the camera and set it on the table next to Timothy. “Now all you have to do is think of a story.”
Timothy scowled. “This assignment is hard.”
“It could be worse, you know. She could've made you write it.”
“No she couldn't have, cause we don't know how to write yet.” Timothy crossed his arms over his knees as he sat on the tabletop. “I don't know how to make a story!”
“Well, you've got your protagonist already, so it shouldn't be that hard.”
“Pro..” Timothy struggled to pronounce the word. “Protag...”
“Main character. Hero.”
“Oh! Hero! Ok.” Timothy thought for a moment. “But if there's a hero, there's gotta be a villain.”
“Oh really?”
“Yeah, there's always a villain! Haven't you been paying attention?” Timothy stood up again, and Seth quickly rescued the camera from being kicked to it's death as Timothy marched up and down the table. “Whenever we go to the store, there's a villain, and whenever we go to the bank, there's a villain, and sometimes even when we're at the park! Villains are everywhere!”
It momentarily occurred to Seth that Timothy was actually right, and he didn't know quite whether to be disturbed by that or not, but he shook off the thought and went on. “So your story needs a villain, then.”
“Yeah.” Timothy thought for a moment, hovering without actually meaning to. “But if I'm Viking Kid... You're the villain!”
“But if I'm the villain, who runs the camera?”
“You do. You can hold it up with your powers, right?”
“Tim, that's not how we're supposed to use our...”
“But you can!”
“Ok, you're the villain!”
“Fine.” The teen sighed, and put his free hand into his jacket pocket. “But you have to tell me what sort of villain to be.”
“An evil one,” Timothy said, as if it were the most obvious thing since the sky being blue, or his parents being able to fly. “What other kind is there?”
“Um... Misguided...”
“Those are boring! You're evil.”
“Ok, I'm evil. What's my villain name?”
“Um... Dr Doctor!”
“Dr Doctor.” Seth was not impressed.
“Or you could be Dr Dentist, cause that would definitely be worse.”
“Let's stick with the first one.”
“So you're Dr Doctor, and I'm the Viking Kid, and I'm gonna stop your evil plan!” Timothy was looking heroic again, and Seth almost laughed.
“What's my evil plan?” Seth went digging through their big red bag of costumes, looking for something evil. Timothy flew down next to him and started helping.
“I don't know, it's your plan!” Timothy examined a jester's hat and stuck it on Seth, looking critical.
“But it's your story!” Seth took off the hat and continued looking.
Timothy pouted. “This is too hard!”
Seth looked a top hat over, removing two plastic daisies from the rim, and put it on. “How's this?”
“Not evil enough!”
Seth tried to look very evil. “Now?”
Timothy thought for a moment, then shook his head. “You don't make a very good evil.”
“I'll take that as a compliment.”
“A what?”
“A good thing.” He found a fake mustache and went searching through the bag's infinite pockets for the glue. “Now what's my plan?”
“You're trying to take over the world, I guess.”
“How am I gonna do that?”
“Um...” Timothy thought for a moment as Seth tried to stick the mustache on with double-sided tape. “You're gonna... um... You're gonna use a baseball bat.” He pulled the offending item out of the bag, and examined it. The purple plastic could not have been less intimidating.
“To take over the world.”
“Um...” Timothy tried on a pair of purple glasses as Seth's mustache fell off.
“Destroying the world would probably be easier.”
“Yeah, probably.” Timothy put the jester's hat on top of the top hat. “That way we can just say you're using a bomb.” The hat fell off, but Timothy wasn't paying attention anymore. “A really big bomb.”
“Is that alarm clock still in here?” Seth wondered aloud. “That would make a good bomb...”
“Yeah, I think so!” Timothy laid waste to the bag as he searched. “And we can use the beach ball for the world! My mom drew a map on it a couple weeks ago!”
Seth decided against objecting to using a red-and-yellow striped earth, and clipped a bow tie to his collar. “Right. So I'm blowing up the world, with my evil alarm-clock bomb, and you're going to stop me.”
“Right!” Timothy thought for a moment more. “I need to be saving someone.”
“You're saving the earth.”
“That's not the same! Joscar always has to save one person every time, even if he's saving the earth too! So I've gotta save someone.”
“But if I'm evil, and you're the Viking Kid, who are you going to save?”
Timothy thought for a moment. “You.”
“But I'm Dr Doctor.”
“You can be the daring explorer too! He's always getting captured.”
“But then I'd have to capture myself.” Seth looked skeptical. “And that wouldn't work.”
“This is too hard!”
“Just think it through, it's not that bad. We'll get ice cream when we're done.”
Timothy sat silent for a moment as Seth rustled through the bag, finding a black sheet that made for an excellent evil cape. He shed his jacket and tied the sheet around his neck.
Timothy suddenly had a moment of epiphany.“Maybe I'll be the daring explorer for the first part when you capture me, and you'll be the daring explorer when I rescue you!”
“But then it'd look like there were two explorers.”
“Not if we have the same hat!” Timothy had that it's-so-obvious expression again. “And we have an explorer hat, see?”
Seth blinked, and shook his head. “Right. Well, we'd better get started, then.”
“Right!” Timothy jumped on top of the table again. “I've come to stop you, Dr Doctor!”
“Not until the camera is on!” Seth shoved most of the costumes back into the bag and stood. “And don't I need to capture you first?”
“Oh! Right!” Timothy snatched the explorer hat from his bag, and switched it with his viking hat. “I'm exploring, daringly, exploring for all the world to see!” he sang, switching keys in the middle.
Seth winced. “Um, no singing, ok? Just look like you're exploring.”
“I need to explore over there! Trees are much more exciting to explore!”
“Right, um, ok.” Seth followed his young charge over to a big pine tree. “Ok, so you're exploring here...”
“And you kidnap me.”
“Cause you're evil! Duh!” Timothy adjusted his hat. “Is the camera on?”
“Um...” Seth flicked the switch to the on position. “Yep.”
“I'm exploring, exploring, oh look a tree!” He shot Seth a sharp glance, which Seth took to be his cue. He suspended the camera carefully by it's own battery power, giving it a faint blue glow as it hovered. “A fantastic tree of wonder!”
“Not so fast, er, Daring Explorer!” He tried to look dramatic as he burst into the camera's field of view. “I, the villainous Dr Doctor, am here to capture you!”
Timothy tried to look shocked. “Oh no!”
“Muahaha!” He picked the first grader up and slung him over his shoulder. “You'll never escape from me!”
“The Viking Kid will stop you, evildoer!”
“The Viking Kid has no hope against my bomb of evil!” Timothy produced the alarm clock with a flourish, taking care to keep the camera on them. “When it goes off, the world shall be destroyed!” He finished with another flourish of maniacal laughter, vaguely hoping that no superhero was in the neighborhood to hear and come to the rescue, then turned off the camera. “Good. Go get your viking hat.”
A sudden jingle filled the air as the ice cream truck rolled past the park, and Timothy's attention span followed it all down the street. “Are we done?”
“Not unless you want the world to get destroyed.”
“Ok.” Timothy was off like a bullet after the truck. “Come on, we're getting ice cream!”
Seth sighed, and stuffed the camera into his hat as he followed Timothy across the park.
Destroying the world was easier anyway.