It’s Tuesday, the 20th of April, 2004.
“We’ll go away from Santa Ynez,” says Liril.
So they do.
“And do we just run?”
“We’ll go to where I screamed,” Liril says. “To Elm Hill. We’ll take back every god they took and steal every tainted bill and coin and favor they bought. Then we’ll run away to the hills and live richly forever.”
“I didn’t know,” Micah says.
“It’s what people do,” Liril says. “They keep their own gods.”
Micah looks tired. He is still recovering from torture. He is not at his best. But he tells everyone where to find the supplies he stole from a grocery store on Saturday. They find the cache.
“I should have realized,” Micah says, “about the milk.”
“I like the peanut butter,” Liril says. She has opened some up and spread it on crackers.
“We can live off the milk of the land,” she adds.
“That’s a good idea,” Micah agrees. “Please make one for me?”
Liril looks at him. She’s a bit startled. But then she nods, and puts peanut butter on a cracker, and offers it to him. He takes it. He bites it.
“What’s up ahead?” he asks.
“There’s a river,” she says. “That’s where we probably all die, except Tainted John. He probably dies in a train wreck.”
Tainted John looks at her, or rather, doesn’t look at her, because his eyes are all blood and shimmer.
“Oh,” says Micah.
“If we can survive two years or so,” Liril says, “we’re okay.”
“So if I get eaten by a shark,” Micah says, “I should try to hang on for at least two years.”
“Sharks are sharp. But you should try. Or if you get burned. Or whatever.”
“If I’m dangling off a cliff?”
Liril looks at him. Her eyes are deep. “Pull yourself up,” she says. “Don’t just hang on for two years.”
Micah smiles at her.
“Don’t,” she says, in a small voice.
“What happens at the river?”
“There was a gate,” Liril says. “Once upon a time. And ministers in attendance upon it. I was screaming. But they wanted me to grow up and become something else.”
“You can grow up,” Micah says. He’s deliberately ignoring the fact that he’s been the same age ever since he was born. “It’s okay to.”
“I didn’t want to,” Liril says. “Not that way.”
“There were ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too strong,” says Liril. “And ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too gross. It was just the way it was. I couldn’t touch them. But there was one who was pure and bright and kind of cold. His nametag said, ‘Proteus’, and under that, ‘Cruelty.'”
“The monster is really bad at Greek,” Micah says.
“I could touch him,” Liril says, “because he was impartial to me. He didn’t have anything he was for. He was just there. So I gave him a purpose. I said, ‘Proteus, wait for me at the river, and I won’t pass through the gate until I see you there.'”
“And he did?”
“Yes,” Liril says. “And since that time there’s been no change, except when a wind blew off the chaos and brought him strength.”
“Also, I rolled a rock,” Micah says. “It changed things.”
“It did,” Micah says.
Liril touches his mouth with a finger. “It was a cause,” she says. “Things have more than one reason. It’s okay. You’re a good Micah.”
He looks at her wryly.
“You’re delicate with me today,” he says.
“I looked at what she was doing to you,” Liril says. “I was crying the whole time but I couldn’t face her yet.”
“Things have reasons,” Micah says, and he shrugs. He sees her face, and his own face starts to get a little weird.
“No,” Liril says. “We won’t discuss it now. Later. Later, when it’s not—we can’t discuss it now.”
They walk towards the river, carrying their bags of groceries.
“We shouldn’t cross at a bridge,” Micah says. “We shouldn’t cross anywhere people are. But the river’s kind of hard to wade.”
“I know,” Liril says. “But there’s a river-man in the river. He’s part of why it’s so deep. Tainted John’s going to hold his face down in the mud and the river’ll sink. Then we can cross.”
“Kuras did that once,” Micah says. “To defeat Belshazzar.”
“He lowered the river that ran through Babylon, and marched his people in on the riverbed.”
“Oh,” says Liril. She looks pleased, because Micah seems a little less drained when he’s talking about this.
They reach the river. Micah looks at the river. It’s deep and wide.
“Is he . . . can John do stuff like that?”
Micah’s voice is a little resentful now. His greatest talent is surprisingly relevant historical trivia. It bothers him that Tainted John has actual magic powers.
“Can,” Liril confirms.
Tainted John looks at Micah. The boy reflected in those eyes is small and tired and dirty and smells of sweat and pain. Then John grins, and turns to the river, and flows in. The water level begins to fall.
“He’s a jerk,” Micah says.
The water level falls further.
There’s a man standing by the river, rising from the river, falling from the trees, forming from the air. He’s old but in good shape for his age. He’s wearing a white shirt, and there’s a nametag attached that says, “Proteus,” and beneath that, “Cruelty.”
Micah looks at him.
“I think,” Micah says, “that you’re really happy that at last Liril can grow up, and so you’re going to join our rag-tag band, seal a promise of friendship with us by eating a cracker with peanut butter on it, and you’ll accompany us on our magical adventure to Elm Hill.”
“Your theory is flawed,” Proteus says.
Micah looks really tired. “Come on,” he says. “Please? I’m really tired. I don’t want to fight you.”
“I am an agent and a creature of change,” says Proteus. “They called me the Old Man of the Sea. And I have been held in stasis for more than twenty years because I chose to participate in a process otherwise marked only by horror. Now I am resentful and bitter and wish to kill you all.”
“You were there when they were breaking her,” Micah points out. “You could have helped.”
“The sea is cruel.”
“You can’t have the moral high ground at sea level,” Micah says, “unless you’re like a squid or something.”
“I buttress my moral standing with raw power,” Proteus says. He demonstrates, transforming into a tower of flame, a terrible lion, a serpent, a tiger, a silk shirt, a porcelain doll like Liril’s Latch, a dragon whose eyes are like the emptiness, an angel, a twig—
Micah steps forward, sharply, and snaps Proteus in half.
Then he sags.
“What?” Liril says.
“He was a twig,” Micah justifies. His eyes are blinking pretty quickly and there’s a horror at their back.
“Oh,” Liril says.
The river runs dry. But Micah does not stride boldly forward.
“It’s—I mean, I mean, you have to, you have to fight,” Micah says.
Liril tries to take his hand, but he wrenches away from her. He’s staring blankly at the twig.
“Oh my God,” he says. “Oh my God.”
Micah snaps out of it. “We have to go,” he mumbles.
“We can fix him.”
“We have to go. It’s just a twig. Twiggy face Proteus oh God.”
Liril takes his hand. This time he accepts.
“It’s okay,” Liril says. “We can fix him. It’s okay. I didn’t tell you to break him. I didn’t mean you to.”
“He was in the way,” Micah says. “He’s . . .”
Micah’s voice is rising towards a child’s howl.
There are distant sirens.
Liril’s hand tightens on Micah’s. Slowly, he calms.
“All right,” he says. His face is pale. “How?”
Liril looks at the broken twig.
“You can fix a broken twig with construction paper,” she says. “You cut it up into pieces and paste them on as a brace. Then the twig is whole, because paper and twigs are the same.”
“I didn’t know that,” Micah says.
“Most people just leave twigs broken,” says Liril. “Most twigs aren’t, aren’t, aren’t—um.”
“People,” Micah says.
He roots around in the groceries. There is construction paper, and scissors, and tape, and glue, and paste, and crayons, and pens, and paper, because Micah’s life has provided him with a startlingly complete exposure to the lessons of kindergarden. There is also a coloring book that describes the fall of Belshazzar. He had stolen it in hopes that Liril would find time for coloring on their journey.
“Use too much paste and you’ll stick to everything,” Liril warns.
Micah ignores her. He begins to work.
“Uh,” Micah says, as he works. “There’s handwriting on this paper.”
“‘Anger.’ ‘Blood.’ ‘Fury.’ ‘Resentment.'”
“Huh,” Liril says.
“It’s probably to make him hate us,” Liril says. “It’s too bad.”
“‘Mene,'” Micah says.
“‘Mene,'” Micah says. “It just got written on this paper twice.”
“Write ‘miney moe,'” Liril advises.
There’s a long pause.
“It was probably going to say ‘tekel parsin’,” Liril says. “Mene mene tekel parsin. You have been measured and found wanting and will be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”
“I don’t want to be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”
“I know,” Liril says. “It probably won’t happen. I mean, nowadays.”
“Now there’s an illustration of a middle finger,” Micah says.
“Just fix,” Liril says.
So Micah fixes Proteus with paste and cut-up pieces of construction paper. Micah gets paste on his hands and arms. Proteus gets his life back, and transforms himself into a man.
“That was rude, boy,” Proteus says, referencing the fact that Micah stepped on him and broke him in half while he was in a vulnerable ‘twig’ form.
“I tried to fix it,” Micah protests.
“I should kill you now.”
Proteus lunges at Micah. Micah’s face grows paler, but he has not lost the will to fight. He wraps his arms around the man even as they fall over backwards. Proteus becomes a thrashing shark. He becomes acid. He becomes a pony with a mouth full of terrible teeth. Then he is a man again.
“You’re holding on well,” he admits. “It’s practically heroic.”
“I don’t want to,” Micah says.
“What’s that, boy?”
“I have paste on my hands,” Micah says. “I’m sticking to everything.”
Liril looks slightly away.
“Oh,” says Proteus.
“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” rasps out Tainted John.
There is a long silence.
Tainted John looks down and away.
There is a further silence.
Then Proteus transforms into a hissing serpent, a many-limbed horror, a tree, and a cloud, wrestling against Micah and his paste.
“Are you actually going to hurt me, or just turn into things while I’m stuck?” Micah asks.
Proteus becomes a tiger. He bites deep into Micah’s arm. Micah’s arm runs with blood. His brain fills up with endorphins, which allows him to swallow back his scream. Then Proteus is a man again, spitting and cursing.
“Um?” Micah says. He sounds a bit upset. After all, Proteus bit him, and now he’s acting all like Micah’s done something wrong.
“You taste like paste.”
Micah stares at him.
“I don’t like eating paste,” says Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea.
“I’m a boy,” Micah says. “I’m supposed to taste funny.”
“You taste like paste and dirt and sweat and grass and mud.”
“Then don’t eat me,” Micah says. “I dunno. If you learn anything in kindergarden, it’s not to eat paste or boys. They taste bad and you don’t know where they’ve been!”
“Did you even go to kindergarden?”
“I . . . I’m like Kuras,” Micah says.
“His grandfather believed that Kuras would rule over all of Asia, so he ordered his servant Harpagus to set the infant Kuras down on a hillside and watch over him until he died. Instead, a miraculous sheepdog suckled him until Harpagus gave up and said, ‘Fine, he gets to live.’ It wasn’t like kindergarden, but it gave him a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s life lessons without actual attendance.”
“Ah,” says Proteus. “You mean Cyrus.”
“I guess.” Micah grins a little. “He’s kind of my idol.”
“Your story differs from Herodotus’ account of the matter,” Proteus says skeptically. “In his History, he alleges that the miraculous dog-suckling was a rumor Cyrus spread purely for political gain.”
Micah handwaves, as best he can while pasted to a god.
“I think Herodotus is too cynical,” Micah says. “Kuras beat Belshazzar. He’s smart enough to have put forward a less embarrassing animal to suckle him. Like a shark. Or an eagle.”
Micah is actually sounding better, because he likes talking about Kuras.
“Probably not a shark,” Proteus says. “In the mountains.”
“A grizzled mountain shark,” Micah says.
“That’s what I’d say. A grizzled mountain shark, so tough he didn’t need water and could just swim on rocks, suckled me. Then everyone would know I was badassed. But since he didn’t say that, the whole sheepdog thing must be the truth.”
Proteus reaches a sudden resolution.
“Let us not debate the veracity of Herodotus,” he says. “Instead, I will wash you off!”
He begins to run towards the sea. Micah is dragged along with him, and cannot stop him, but he shouts, “Wait! Wait! I have scissors!”
“I have scissors,” Micah says. “You’re running with scissors. Somebody could lose an eye.”
Proteus stops cold, face going ashen.
“Your life did provide a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s lessons without actual attendance,” he says.
“I know,” Micah says.
Proteus looks towards the distant sea. He ponders how long it would take to walk to it while pasted to a boy.
“If we work together,” Proteus says, “we could probably get unstuck.”
“You’d eat Liril,” says Micah. “And then Tainted John. And me.”
“I’d eat Liril, boy. She doesn’t taste of paste. The rest of you, I dunno.”
Micah looks at the river. He looks at Tainted John. His nose curls.
“You could eat him,” Micah says.
“I don’t want to find out what he tastes like,” Proteus says. Micah is annoyed, but can’t help seeing Proteus’ point. “I just don’t.”
Tainted John smiles impassively. He is holding the river down. That’s why he can’t help!
“I can’t let you eat even Liril,” Micah says. “She’s important to me.”
“I’m a startingly accurate rendition of her volition,” Micah says. “I mean, I was. Before. Now maybe I’m just someone who fights for us.”
“Ah,” says Proteus.
“I could give her a head start,” Proteus says.
“Or let us go?”
“I’m not inclined to be forgiving,” says Proteus. “What with the words ‘anger’, ‘fury’, ‘blood,’ ‘resentment’, and ‘mene mene miney moe’ written into my very flesh.”
“Uh,” says Micah. “I only wrote the miney moe part. Who did the rest?”
“Some creepy handwriting girl,” Proteus says. He shrugs.
Micah would investigate further, but right now, he’s affixed to a man who can turn into a shark. It distracts him.
“I’ll help you get unstuck,” Micah says. “Then you’ll give her a head start.” He thinks. “But it has to be a good one. It can’t be like five seconds.”
“What about seven seconds?”
Micah looks at Liril.
Liril judges, “Seven seconds is like five seconds, even though it’s two seconds longer.”
Liril looks unhappy.
“What?” Micah asks.
“Well, it’s not like five seconds,” Liril says, “but it’s awfully short.”
“Ten, then,” Proteus says.
Micah looks at Proteus. “Deal.”
They pull at one another. They wrestle. Eventually the paste succumbs to the transience of all things. Micah and Proteus stumble apart.
Proteus turns into a talking bear.
“Run,” Proteus growls.
Micah turns to run.
“Not you,” Proteus says. He slaps Micah with the paw of a bear and Micah falls senseless to the river bed. Proteus points to Liril. “You.”
Tainted John looks up. He frowns.
Liril looks back.
“Stay,” Liril says to Tainted John, for Micah is in the river bed.
And then she runs.