Han Cambiado (They've Changed)
Han Cambiado (They've Changed)
"Are you surprised to get this letter? It all seems so long ago..." (Celtas Cortos, "20 de Abril")
Friday morning, April 20, 1990,
April Flowers Faire, Seattle, Washington
Nick let the closing notes of "If I Were A Rich Man" fade in the backlot air, like the sparks drifting to earth from Malawi's dance. He wiped his face with a verbena-laced handkerchief, saving a cleaner rag for wiping rosin and sweat from his violin. He lit a piece of charcoal for Malawi's brazier. On second thought, he added a bit of incense for that artsy feel the locals liked in their fairs. It also helped cover the reek of sun-warmed port-a-johns. Nick liked practicing in the morning - those mornings he was off bally - only bread and chocolate chip cookies beat out music for pulling in the foot traffic. However, it would never do to give folks too much of a free show. Always leave them wanting more!
The break left of his break left Nick alone in his head to think. That was rarely a good idea, so he sat and let the hustle, bustle, noise, and smells pull him back into the show's eternal now.
Seeing her last night, now, after all the years, that had been a magical moment.
Jennie'd grown, of course. Time runs so fast away from here. Her long, brown hair had been braided and pinned up, precariously safe from her baby's greedy hands. Was it still scented with lilac and honeysuckle? A man who was surely her husband carried the next youngest on his shoulder. Two more tykes with them pretended that they were Big Kids who were Not Too Tired Yet for one more ride or two. A wink and a hand signal flashed to Maddy ensured the family kept their belongings with them until they were off the grounds. Nick knew better than to worry. Large families tended to be as generous as they dared without encouragement.
His interest must have been too obvious. During the late evening meal, Maddy kept singing "Nickie's got a girlfriend!"
What would a girl know?
Maddy could be an angel or a terror at times, but she knew full well Jennie'd left a hole in his heart. Nick closed his eyes and slipped back into his memory.
He'd been wrapping up his second "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" run of the evening (Best two mason jars' worth of poitín he'd ever poured into a songwriter. So what if he'd had to hide from the local yokels until his breath no longer qualified as a fire hazard and then got docked for missing lot call the next-ish day?) when he saw her guiding her family toward the midway busker. Was that really her, or was it just a cruel trick of the lights and shadows?
It was the summer of '78
Jennie and Nickie were hanging out at her place, watching Saturday rerun movies after spending all their quarters at the local arcade. Jennie'd managed to get a top ten score on Polybius. That was so cool. Nickie'd scored a few extra games of pinball. The long, hot days of summer were good for things like that: filling that brief time when you're too old for dolls and action figures but too young for after-school programs, dates, and social obligations. The future was still simple, still filled with promise of fun things to come. Jennie was going to grow up to help people; Nickie would have his music.
Jennie waved her hand in front of Nickie's face in case he'd fallen asleep or was zoning out on the background music. The avocado green shag carpeting in front of her family's sofa was new, but it wasn't that comfortable. That was the problem, wasn't it? He was comfortable playing the extra in life. He had no idea how to be the romantic lead. Jennie was a good friend, but that didn't fit right with the idea that some day he was supposed to find a girlfriend.
"Nickie! Why do you always play those old, boring songs?" She gestured at the TV, "They've got the excuse of being in black-and-white. I know no friend of mine can be that much of a square."
"I play violin," Nickie grumped. "Most of the sheet music is classical. The rest sounds like someone pulled it off 'Hee-Haw' or 'Grand Ole Opry'."
"What about 'Dust In The Wind'? That's rock. As far as sheet music goes, so what? Guitar players learn songs by listening." Jennie lowered her voice: "'I find your lack of faith disturbing.'" Heh. She knew he was still normal enough to love Star Wars.
Nickie's brain finally clued him in on the fact that he was missing something important. Jennie had less and less free time to spend with him lately, but she wanted something from him. The one-year age difference was eroding into a chasm between them, and there wasn't a bridge in sight. He had to do something.
"Fine. Pick a song, and I'll give it a try."
"You name it!"
Just yesterday evening
Nick played the opening riff twice before he noticed what he'd started playing. Playing once was a promise to the crowd. Playing twice more, and he'd be committed... If the achingly familiar woman really was Jennie, would she notice? Would she even remember?
Take me now, baby, here as I am
Pull me close, try and understand
Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe
Love is a banquet on which we feed*
He hadn't understood Patti Smith's lyrics back then, but his best friend had dared him to learn the song. Nick had listened and learned the music. Surprise! She picked a song both sets of parents disapproved of. Hers didn't seem to approve of him so much either... Scratch that. The hints about high school being a time to buckle down for college weren't subtle at all. Had they figured out that he might not be following his parents into medicine or law?
No one wanted to take him as he was.
Had Jennie been suggesting a different kind of taking?
They can't hurt you now*
That's what he'd thought. He'd been so wrong.
Can't hurt you now, can't hurt you now*
Out of habit, Nick watched the kids for any tell-tale tics of problems back home and the cowboy she was with for any hints of aggression. He couldn't directly interfere – that would be against the Rules – but endangered children could end up... misplaced. That much could happen without breaking the peace. In fact, it was enspelled and spelled out in the fine print that chumps never checked before accepting their tickets.
Because tonight there are two lovers
If we believe in the night we trust
Because tonight belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to lust*
As the song ended, Jennie and Her Guy weren't the only couple holding hands and blushing. Good. Nick's accomplice, Maddy, tugged her earlobe and winked. This vein was played out — time to move on, mine other pockets for silver. Nick gave the gathered tip his exit patter before picking up his case, pocketing the takings to be divvied up later. The agents in the booths all around this spot had had plenty of time to set up their joints for the next round of players.
That was what always mattered, wasn't it? Money. Boys were supposed to go out and earn it. Girls were supposed to marry for the influence and and the pretties it bought. That made three of the many things a working musician playing dead men's music couldn't bring to the table unless he was both very lucky and the very best of the best. He'd been old enough back then to know that much. He'd seen it played out in a thousand variations on a thousand lots since then. Could he show up on her doorstep, hat in hand? No. That was not ever happening. She'd made it clear that autumn night, before he left, that the good old times were behind them: she couldn't wait for a little boy to get a clue. Two nights later, Jennie had a real boyfriend, and Nickie the Loser was on the jump.
She had never listened to him play her song. What on earth could he say to her now? Restless thoughts circled his cot until he dug some clean parchment out of his belongings and lit a candle for light.
It's already past midnight. Well enough and it won't be the first time!
"April 20th, 1990,"
How time flies.
"Thought I'd write and say hello..."
I walked out this morning
His mind firmly back to the present, Nick looked down at a stuffed envelope in his hand. He knew Jennie lived in the area. Beyond that, he did not know where she lived, how she made a living, even her new name. He did know how Jennifer had laughed when little Anna tried feeding her Dada pieces of yummy cotton candy — straight up the nose! Last night he'd spent his free time watching, listening... letting her walk away from the pieces of his too-human heart: tasks made easier by looking as young as he did.
All things considered, the price of a mostly-accurate delivery shouldn't cost Nick more than he could afford. If he asked for it to be delivered as needed most, the bloodletting might even be reduced to somewhat reasonable (for certain values of 'reason'.) Once she read the letter, he'd be free of the final tie to this world.
Long before then, Seattle would be just another town in the rear-view mirror. The next town on the season's circuit might be one lit by a too-big or too-small moon, maybe two moons too many, where the locals arrived on horses, in cars, or by stranger steeds. It might even be a port where every cat was a king. Best get some catnip and herbs before the faire pulled up stakes.
Northern Acadia, Trans-Maritime Marches
This realm was too close to Nick's own. He didn't care for it. This morning, he hadn't had to shave, and the mirror showed him a young lad only a year or two into puberty. He stared, searching for a tell-tale change in eye color (other than being bloodshot. He felt like a dog's breakfast.) Did he have a week left to cut and run, or was it less? This wasn't exactly a friendly place for people like him.
Too many early season gigs had been cut from the faire's circuit. To make up lost income, they'd swapped dates with another operation running from worse luck. That put them headed north through foggy boreal forests, in a realm where 'April showers' meant humping the show's gear through a muddy slog from the train depot to the lot and back again once the show's over. The mud was always deeper and more barnyard-fresh for the return trips. At least the plane was terrestrial enough for steam to power a train or run a generator.
There was something in the set of the Manager's jaw, something to the way that Madame Cassander stepped out of her rail car almost every hour to scan the sky. All the fortune-teller should be seeing were lead-gray clouds above a canyon of black and green forest. Nick couldn't take a chance on that being all that she saw.
Another day, another whistle-stop
Like any other stop, this one was met with a bustle of activity, though the troupe wouldn't be unloading for a show here. The locals wouldn't quite kill to see something different and colorful, but the cabin fever from long winter months still ran high. The show's animals needed to be walked, watered, fed, brushed, and combed as much as the human workers. If anything, they were more mindful of their hygiene than said humans. Nick had been with the show long enough to know where many of the animals had come from. He made sure to be careful around those that still bore a grudge against him for it.
If Nick hadn't been so ill, that ass never would have gotten close enough to bite him, sending him back to a half-lit sleeping car for iodine and gauze. A sprig of cyclamen and marigold bound with thyme lay on the folded blanket Nick had been using as a pillow. He stuck the sprig in his lapel and treated his wound. Damn! That iodine burned like fire in the broken skin. Nick saw a few flickering sparks in the dim light. Maybe he had a migraine coming? Or, maybe... No. Next stop: the baggage car for the medicinal pipe mix he kept locked away before going back to the loading and unloading.
Bloody-eyed, if the desilvered mirror over the sink was to be trusted, and weak as he was, Nick seriously considered not being on board when the train pulled out. No doctors, though. Depending on the trouble Cassander must have seen waiting for the crew down the line, he couldn't afford to make himself a sitting duck by getting quarantined. He couldn't exactly stay where he was either, so Nick scrubbed his face and staggered out of the washroom...
... straight into a familiar pair of breasts. Lithe hands caught him up by the armpits. There was a muffled sound of a body being dragged off. Nick heard voices, but his head hurt too much to squeeze any meaning from them. There was a thing he had to do. Wasn't there? He blinked.
Nick caught himself staring into Maddy's eyes. Maddy (Madeleine when they argued) looked upset. Ergo, Nick was in trouble. Again.
"You're sick," said the girl with Maddy's eyes and the voice Maddy'd used when they first started working together.
Nick agreed with the assessment, if not the concern. "Probably."
Maddy said, "I saw the warn-off left for you," as if it were something she'd long expected. She went on, "The station master and I dragged your luggage here. You've known this was coming, Nick, so you better have something up your sleeve."
"It's supposed to be a Get Out of Jail Free card, but it could be a joker."
Nick's smile failed to make a dent in Maddy's composure. Shit. He really was in trouble. She said, "Compared to being hunted down by the Gentry as a rebel Briton in this province, it's an ace. Spill."
Nick willed cramping muscles to unclench. When he opened his eyes again, Maddy said, "New contacts? They look like silver or maybe fish scales."
"Like earth, but with more fancy syllables? Tell me what I don't know. Baudet. I wasn't that young when I ran off to join the sideshow. And?"
"And I haven't been off the lot, not this side of the dreaming lands, since I joined the Show. Delaying the inevitable with smoke and fairy dust until I close out my contract or call in that marker."
"A wet-behind-the-ears Peter Pan wannabe. Who knew? I'm going to need more dirt than that. What were you delaying?"
"Ever hear of mutants?"
"The kind that end in miscarriages or worse? What do you think?" Maddy only asked the obvious to rule it out, "Or do you mean the kind that starts the rubes pissing and moaning whenever we hit your home realm and they see the freaks? Is that what's happening? You're ready to grow another set of arms or something?"
"Or something. Sometimes things go wrong. People die. Last time I dared ask for a reading, Cassander saw fire."
"Great. Well. I can't very well leave you here to screw it up all by your lonesome and no one but Malawi to remind you they told you so."
How many times had she complained about feeling like she came in fourth place behind Nick's music, the enigmatic fire spirit, and that girl you never had a chance with in the first place?
"Sure. Why not? It's possible that the train doesn't get stopped on the other side of the border. It's possible they won't want to send someone here to take me into custody. D'enfer, it's even possible I might still be breathing this time next week."
This was for her safety too! "You should've gone ahead to Innsport, then."
"The faire's not going to Innsport. Even if it were, I can't get there from here by myself. Look. We've still got a few hours to try it your way. We might have until tomorrow morning if the roads are bad as they look, so that will have to be good enough. Who picks up when you phone home?"
"The folks who pay my beer money, if they haven't forgotten me. Here." Nick pulled a slip from one of his pockets to write down a multi-digit number. "Phone should be in my jacket. Code word's 'Nyx'. In case I pass out."
"In case you pass out again." Maddy grabbed Nick's jacket, not sure what she'd find.
"Yeah, sure. Y'used to think I was cute, sleeping."
"You weren't bouncing like a jumping bean between chills and a bone-wracking fever back then. The bathwater got hotter when we tried cleaning you. You didn't moan in pain so much, either. Well, except for that one time..." Maddy held up a sleek metal and glass slab. "Seriously?"
"Something about devisor tech. It's worked before..." Nick trailed off. He just needed a short nap. Was that too much?
April 19, 2007,
Red Level, ARC, Whitefield, NH
Nick hurt all over. Strung out like cheap rawhide staked out under the sun. There was too much white everywhere. White, whiteness, and beeping. Luckily for all concerned, he recognized the thing stuck into his arm as an IV that needed to be there. Probably. A hospital? The place did kind of stink like one. Downstairs, his bladder felt like he needed to but couldn't stop peeing. It sure didn't feel comfortable trying too hard to stop either.
"I'll bet that you're making that face because you've just discovered the joys of a urinary catheter."
The speaker looked like he could be Maddy's brother. His voice was that of a teen discovering the joys of puberty. Younger brother? Something didn't add up. Had the Arkham people bailed on them?
"Tha's rich," Nick said. "Y'sh'see yoursel'. Where are we?"
"Here's called ARC Red. Think of it as your locally-operated, well-armed Mutant Hospice, where you've been recovering for the past couple of weeks or so from a near-fatal manifestation."
"Wha'bout you? Where's Maddy?"
"Still here, idiot. Maddy's short for 'Madison' now. Well, again."
Huh. "Di'n't look like a Madis'n." Kind of cute for a kid, though...
"Go back to sleep, Nick. You need your rest so I can kick your ass proper for that comment."
April 20, 2007,
Red Level, ARC, Whitefield, NH
Nick was taken off the IV line and catheter the next day. Dr. Chris Summers introduced himself as Nick and Maddy's Madison's caseworker.
"How are you feeling? Is there something you need that we haven't brought in?"
Nick shook his head.
"We have a slight problem with finding The March Hare. We only had one field agent tasked with keeping tabs on them, and maybe you can see him in the mirror some morning, once you're old enough again to shave."
Nick let the jibe go. He said, "Everyone always comes back. Debts incurred have a way of doing that."
"The Nickster's got a point, just backward." Madison looked back at the still-recovering musician, "You sure you weren't born a drummer? The Manager owes us. Not much, but if it's possible to book some paying dates to dock the payout, the Show will come to us. Kind of like leaving with a crocked balance. That works on promoters all the time!"
Dr. Summers had heard worse schemes, "In our line of work, that's called entrapment and blackmail."
"Tomato, tomahtoe. Until then, Doctor, someone needs to get his keister in motion. Mal's got to be hungry by now."
Madison said, "Malawi Amzimu, also known as the hot mess of a reason you ain't touching Nick's stuff."
"That's not one of his manifestations?"
Good to know the "experts" still get things wrong now and then.
Madison explained to the doctor, "They were together before, during, and after we – Nick and me – were a thing. Even during that water-bothering phase of his. Do the math."
"That's a trained animal?"
Nick growled, "No more than you. Doctor."
"Yes, Doctor, it would be worth a paper or two if you ever figure that relationship out. That would be after you apologize to the teen male with the testosterone poisoning before he gets any more cranky..." Madison's smile turned wicked. "I'd say rolled-up newspaper always worked for me, but I don't think that would work out so well with you doing the swatting."
The silence in the fireproofed hospital room threatened to go on for several more equipment beeps. A false start, and then Madison asked, "Speaking of burnt offerings, did you ever post that love letter to your old flame?"
"She wasn't an old flame," Nick whined. Danger: Feelings Ahead! "First crush, maybe? I sent it through ARC, who, I was told, asked a precog to ensure it got to where it needed to go when it needed to arrive."
Madison asked him, "A precog, like a fortune-teller? What if they got their dukkering wrong?"
Nick shrugged. How would he know? He said, "I've done my part toward building a bridge and getting my ass over it. Maybe someone got a chuckle out of it before throwing it out?"
Dr. Summers stepped in, "Let's not let that sidetrack us. What do you feed Mal, er, Malawi? The sooner we can get his cooperation, the sooner we can take a chance on moving you out of this bunker."
"They like aromatic softwoods like cedar, but charcoal flavored with incense, or low-sulfur coal might be better. Their brazier is in my pack."
Whateley Academy, New Hampshire
Terrance made it a point of pride to execute his job as befits a professional. After all, he was one of a very select few teleporters allowed to jump directly into Whateley Academy (security compromise as that was). The Academy wasn't even the strangest place ARC had sent him for pickup and delivery! However, dealing with kids who didn't understand a courier's or an escort's role soured the experience for him. It wasn't like he was dumping their grandparents' ashes in their Cheerios.
"Miss, my job is to deliver what I'm told to, where and when I'm told to. Sign here, take it off my hands, and then you can do whatever you want with it."
What Kit wanted to do was perform an excision of the broomstick embedded deep in the courier's rectal cavity. Failing that, she signed for the damned envelope so he'd be on his way. The envelope's address block should have been more disturbing:
Miss Catherine Jennifer Fox
7:36 PM, April 20, 2007,
3rd Study table from the south, 2nd Floor, Beck Library,
Whateley Academy, Dunwich, NH
How very Harry Potter. After seven weeks here, the creepy level of detail passed for normal.
Siona spoke in Kit's mind: I do not sense any magical traps or curses on the package, only faint traces of divination, perhaps used in arranging delivery. Intriguing, isn't it?
Kit opened the envelope. Inside was another sealed envelope, from Arkham Research Consortium to a Mrs. Potter, Dunwich, New Hampshire, with the internal mail routing code omitted. This could get annoying. Inside that was a parchment envelope with no return information, addressed... It was addressed?
Kit's mouth went parchment-dry.
The letter was addressed to Jennifer.
Jennifer Claire Rose
Or closest living relative
Least Harm Delivery
To Siona's amusement, Kit refused to dwell on what "Most Harm Delivery" might entail. Wrapping the letter around a brick and tossing it through a living room window would be such a waste of fine stationery!
The obverse side of the envelope tingled in Kit's hands where a wax seal held it closed. Nothing suspicious about that. According to books chained down in the research section of the library, the sigils or symbols were protective in intent. That ruled out Overlord as the sender. The handwriting on the front looked male, but that could be faked. The sensible approach would be to incinerate the message unread. Kit knew she damn well couldn't resist the urge to paw at the mystery.
Inside the envelope was – to Kit's relief – an actual letter. Who sent letters anymore? The letter was dated April 20th, 1990. Again, no return address, just "March Hare Faire" crossed out in favor of "April Flowers Faire". She remembered taking Jennifer and the kids to some alternative fair that had a good rep, going by word of mouth. Conner'd never thought to ask Jennifer how she'd found out about it. She'd always been good at finding things like that, things that their whole family might enjoy. Anna was just a baby back then.
Where does all the time go?
I apologize for that, just as I should have long ago, for presuming too much. It was rude of me then, foolish of me now. You grew up. Maybe I haven't. I am still sawing on a fiddle after all this time. It pays the bills as long as long as I travel light.
Say! Did you recognize that Patti Smith song you dared me to learn? :)
One of the many odd things they'd seen that night had been a young busker working the crowd. That was unusual because it was a sure-fire way to distract visitors from a pickpocket. The KCSO didn't appreciate that kind of entertainment.
I should have asked Maddy to get your address from your Conner's wallet. Hindsight's always 20/20 the morning after! But then, I'd be too scared to write if I'd known exactly where to send the letter, care of Jennifer, Conner, Max, Claire, Will, and Anna. Ha! Did you think I didn't listen? To you?
I always listened. I just didn't know how to hear or how to answer in return. That's my fault, by the way.
You deserve someone who listens to and hears you better than that. You deserve to be happy. Life's too short to settle for less than that.
Not "yours truly" or "sincerely", or even "screw you", just "Nick" with the "Spelman" tacked on. There were a couple of suspicious wrinkles in the paper here and there. Not a trace of damp, not until now.
A card or something had fallen from the folded sheet. Kit picked it up. It was an old carnival booth photo of two young teens. The boy wore his dark hair feathered in one of those awful late-seventies styles that should have doubled as birth control. He looked happy to be there, unlike the girl he was with. Kit knew every curve of her face better than Conner had known his own. Looking back at the boy, who was probably minutes from being dumped, Kit mentally trimmed the hair to something less disastrous: he'd be a dead ringer for that busker (who hadn't looked older than his early teens, if that.)
Do you want to incinerate it now?
No. It's still too soon to let her go.
Thursday, May 25, 2007,
Administration Level, ARC, Whitefield, NH
Mid-week meetings were rare enough that this one had Nick and Madison wondering what had gone wrong this time. Madison's manifestation had created more questions than answers and had answered some questions that didn't need answers. Nick had finally gotten the hang of not setting his room on fire while he slept. Madison was getting better at maintaining elementary psychic shielding. If Nick expected Madison to stay out of his mind – no, penetrative sex in the back yard did not translate into automatic consent to psychic probing as payback – he'd need to put more effort into his exercises. He still forgot them entirely the second he picked up a bow—one milestone and a move or two down, three steps back.
Chris's late arrival to his own meeting didn't alleviate the teens' anxieties. No matter their subjective age, they were both experiencing life through the blurred lens of puberty. Thus, they didn't need to know he'd asked Kam to back him up telekinetically if things went pear-shaped when the bandaids came off.
"Madison, we have a good match with you and a deceased Madison Jay Wrightson, born the third of March, 1993, in Sioux City. I've got someone working on the paperwork. They'll go over what you need to put in your application to Whateley. We can work with you both here, but it costs more in devoted resources to do that instead of sharing costs with the Academy's donor pool."
"Nick. Okay, now here's the thing..."
Bend over, here it comes.
"Your parents are still alive. Divorced, remarried, but that's how the Eighties went for everyone. Congratulations on your new half-siblings and step-siblings. They've all ... moved on. We've been advised to place you in Witness Protection with a DPA employee living in the Four Corners area. Taos is a lovely town. Lots of large open spaces north of there with a shortage of things to set on fire. Nicholas Aaron Shipley celebrates his fifteenth birthday on the second of August."
Nick padded his words with dry sarcasm: "But wait, there's more?"
Chris nodded. "Nick, there's no easy way to say this. According to the DPA and Seattle news reports, Jennifer Fox, née Rose, and her husband, Conner Fox, are dead. I know y—"
The oceanic surf roaring in Nick's ears blocked out whatever else the therapist had to say. The lost words didn't even echo in the cold, endless pit that replaced his gut. The last time he'd seen them, they were a happy family eating too much cotton candy and somehow beating the digger to get the toys each kid wanted. It just wasn't that long ago! Before that, sure, Jennie'd bawled him out for acting like a little kid. She needed someone who'd do something with his life. Practically yesterday, she'd been very loudly sorry for thinking a dork like Nickie Spelman might qualify as that someone.
When Nick woke up, he saw that Malawi's brazier had been moved to an end table from which they could keep watch on him. Madison's arm was draped over his torso. Maddy's feet were still as cold as they'd ever been. If anything had to change, why couldn't it be that?
"Quit whining and go back to sleep."
Madison said, "We forged your answers and signature while you were breaking down. A warper's dropping us off in Taos tomorrow for a summer of getting our shit together and our stories straight. Then, it's off to Whateley Academy for our edumacation." There was no point yet in telling the Nickster that the two youngest Foxes were also enrolled there. Yippee Ki Yay.
* Patti Smith & Bruce Springsteen, "Because The Night"