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Chinese Lantern

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Chapter Twelve--

Alive and Kicking

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'I never knew you sang that way,' his father said.

'I did,' Luigi said. 'Why do you think I've only hummed since I was little? And I only do that when I'm sure I'm alone.'

--from The Silent Gondoliers, by S. Morgenstern.

--

"I," Maddox said importantly, "am going to make an egg."

This momentous statement was not met with quite the reaction that she had been hoping for, in part because one of her party had disappeared during the night, and the other one had seemingly lapsed into a coma and was lying facedown on the ground, sleep mumbling something about long underwear, a slightly troubled look on his face.

Maddox gave Spot a nudge with her foot. "Morning, Snuggums," she said, at which point he screamed and started clawing at the air, sounding much like a young girl, and Maddox was forced to drop a skillet on his head. At which point Spot sat up, yawned, a calmly began to lace up his boots.

Maddox sat down next to him and began to look through a bag of supplies for the last of the eggs. "You know, we gotta come up with a better way to do this. It's been three weeks and I think you're beginning to get brain damage."

"What? I can't hear, could ya try the other ear?"

Maddox laughed and picked up her skillet. "You know, for someone who 'controls da newsie hierarchy undah his thumb', you have a pretty good sense of humor, Spot Conlon."

"Y'know, for someone who thinks she's so smart, you have a pretty awful fake New York accent, Maddox Brown."

Maddox rolled her eyes. "You want an egg?"

"No thanks."

"Suit yourself."

As Maddox prodded the fire and broke a few eggs into the pan, Spot lay back on the ground and watched her. He watched her burn her finger and wrap it in the hem of her pinafore, toss her dark hair out of her face, unroll a brown paper bag of oat straw as if some sort of medical precision was involved. He watched her take a sip of warm milk as she sat down on a stump and pulled her rolled-up stockings out of the pair of boots she had barely taken off for the past three weeks. He watched as she recited to herself the names of the crowned heads of Gliss, going through the rhyming couplets she had made up to help herself remember them (Carmine of the Tedes designed army ploys/ Valerius Sola liked little boys). He watched her and he thought: there is something fundamentally wrong with this girl. There is something about her that I don't understand, something that makes me want her worse than anyone else I've met, except for maybe Annette Ianucci from the bakery on Prince Street, and I won't leave her alone until I figure out what it is.

And all the while Maddox watched him, and thought: How dirty he is behind his ears. How I would like to take a soap and cloth and wash them, and then, when they are clean, how I would like to kiss him there, and on his mouth as well, and all across his face and gently down his neck, and all below.

And as Maddox was thinking this, Spot was looking, lingeringly, at the warm place between the high tops of her boots, where the hem of her skirt ended, and thinking thoughts of his own.

For one brief moment, they seemed to forget who they were: it didn't matter where they were from and where they were going, didn't matter that Maddox was from one time and Spot from another and that, to annoy him a few days ago, Maddox had made a list called "Things That Are Not Older Than Spot Conlon" and the Panama Canal and ice cream cones had been on it. It didn't matter that when he heard it, Spot had asked what the hell an ice cream cone was. It didn't matter that she missed her friends and he missed his. It didn't matter that she had barely kissed a boy—and only once, with Ram, when they were eleven and both wanted to see what all the fuss was about—and that Spot had brought almost every girl in Brooklyn back to his bed, including Annette Ianucci. It didn't matter that she was a Red Sox girl and he was a Yankees boy (although if anything had mattered, that would be it).

For one brief moment, they were just a boy and a girl, caught up in one another, looking at each other, shyly slyly, in the morning half-light. And then, that moment was over.

So Spot went back into the tent to once again consult the maps, even though he had in the past proved to be completely inept at reading maps or even folding them correctly, and Maddox took a pitcher and a rag and a cake of soap, and went down to the river to bathe.

The night before, they had finally reached the Serrel River, marking the half-way point in their journey to Gliss. For the first time in a very long while, Maddox had felt something resembling relief. And now, as she wended her way down through the stands of birch and aspen that stood thick on the hillside, towards the clear waters of the river, she managed to forget everything that was going on. If she knelt down by the shore and closed her eyes as she reached the tips of her fingers into the freezing stream, she could be anywhere cold. None of this could have ever happened, she could be back home, and it might have all been a dream.

It was October. The weather was getting cold. The World Series was starting—if she was being optimistic she might say the Red Sox were competing, but that seemed unrealistic, so. She was kneeling not by the river but by the fish pond at the bottom of her yard, and up behind her, faint in the darkness, were the lights of the house, the game on the radio, but she couldn't hear it from hear, and it was just as well if the Yankees were winning again, she supposed (Maddox was a dreamer and a soft-hearted romantic, always—but in the world of baseball, she knew her limits).

With her eyes closed she walked up the path, opened the backdoor, and went up the stairs to her room. Not a thin-sided tent or a cubicle in a satin bordello or a place at the cindery hearth of a farmer's house. Her bedroom, and out the window with the blue curtains and her old stuffed raccoon, Noam, on the sill, across the narrow side-yard and fence, was Ram's window, and that night while everyone else was still asleep whey would come to their windows and talk, and try to make sense, as they did every night, of whatever had happened that day.

Maddox opened her eyes, looked around her, and saw the river water, the sun in the sky, the snow, and the white bark of the trees—but nothing, nothing at all resembling home. And it was there, crouched by the side of the river, looking our across the mountains, that she felt her first true pangs of homesickness.

--

When he first heard it, Spot had no idea what it was. He didn't hear words or harmony, only sound, a sound like nothing he had ever heard before. The though that someone was singing may have crossed his mind—but this was too incredible, too pure, he thought, to come from any mortal. Whatever it was coming from, though, he had to find out.

As he stepped out of the tent and walked down towards the river, he began, just barely, to distinguish words. It was a strange song, he thought, with lyrics that he didn't really understand—my baby caught the Katy, left me a mule to ride, the train pulled out, I swung on behind…crazy 'bout her, that hard-headed woman of mi-iiine…--and as he walked through the forest he was wondering who could possibly be singing. A gypsy, a mermaid, Lute maybe. Maybe it was just a kingfisher choking on a frog and only sounded like it was speaking. But none of these speculations could have prepared Spot for what he saw when he got there—Maddox Brown, lying on her back, face to the sun and eyes closed, singing like Spot had never heard anyone sing before.

"Maddie," he said passionately.

She opened her eyes and looked up. "Yes?"

"You have—and I am not exaggeratin' in the slightest here, this is the absolute truth—you have, Maddox…the worst voice that I have ever had the privilege of hearin'."

A fresh blush rose to Maddox's cheeks, going all the way up to the tips of her ears, and she sat up a little. "Really? Are you just saying that?"

"No," he said fervently. "Maddox, you have a gift."

She grinned. "I'm completely tone-deaf, did you know that?" He shook his head. "Well, I am. They found out about it when I was trying out for the part of Peter Pan in the first grade school play. I had to sing this solo and the teacher kept waving her hands around, so I thought she was telling me to sing louder, so I did, you know, and eventually she fainted." She ran a hand through her hair. "She was in the hospital, actually, for a week. She still gets flashbacks and blacks out sometimes. Does your head kind of hurt?"

"A little," he said.

She reached out for him and, out of habit, he flinched away. But all she did was rub her fingers, gentle, at his temples. "Better?"

"Yeah. Please don't sing again?"

She put her hand to her heart. "Promise. I won't even whistle."

--

Racetrack Higgins was a good man. A simple man, but good. He took his pleasures in life. He enjoyed the races, as his name implies (although I guess you would have assumed that without me telling you, since most of you knew Race anyway and even if you didn't it would be pretty stupid for his parents to name him 'Racetrack' if he didn't like the races, although actually it's just a nickname and his real name's Anthony. Anyway). He liked cigars. He was a very good friend, and always there when you needed him, or at least most of the time, and he didn't mind it if you threw up on his shoes.

Sighing, Jack looked up from the speech he had composed for Racetrack's memorial, and glanced around the room. That was all he had so far and he wasn't all that impressed with it. Racetrack had been one of his best friends, and it seemed like he deserved something better to commemorate his death.

Racetrack wasn't actually dead yet, but Jack was certain, more and more as the hours passed, that he would be soon. They had been with the gypsies for three days and were only just now visiting Racetrack back at the abbey, where Daphne had been taking care of him. She had ushered them all into her room, Jack and his boys, the gypsies, Max and Ginnie and Ershey, and Ram and Sapphy, who seemed to be bonded at the hip at this point, and also were talking to each other in a strange sort of way that Jack thought might have been an in-joke. (For instance, Sapphy would say, "what's the time?" and Ram would answer, "well, it's gotta be close to midnight." Like that. Even if it was midafternoon. And whenever Jack brought this up, they would just giggle inanely and skip off. It was driving him absolutely insane.) The room was spare and spartan, decorated with anatomical charts and bundles of dried herbs—lavender, rose mallow, lady's bedstraw--hanging from the rafters. A broken-paned window was letting in the cold air; Daphne had been sitting at her desk, wearing fingerless gloves and scribbling in a ledger, when they came in. She had said that if Race didn't wake up by the end of the day, he was as good as dead. She had done all that she could do.

And if he died, then he wouldn't blame her, or maybe only a little. Although by now, it didn't really seem to be an 'if'—they were all crowded around the bed he was lying in, the room stifling with all the excess body heat, and yet still cold at the same time. It was as good a time as any to start his eulogy. Jack took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and began to speak.

"Racetrack Higgins was a good man. Simple, but—"

"What's all this about was, Cowboy?"

"RACE?"

Racetrack looked up at Jack and smiled weakly. "So, what'd I miss?"

And so everyone took turns coming over and hugging him--except for Jack, who had to prove his masculinity-- and trying not to cry (that was Ginnie and Ershey and, interestingly enough, Kid Blink), and saying how much they had been worried, even if they had never met before. And Ram came over and said, dramatically, "loving ees enough," and tried to kiss Race, who didn't take it very well—and all in all everything was going wonderfully, and everyone was relieved and happy and nothing could go wrong, until Daphne walked over purposefully, an enormous bowl in her hands.

"What's that thing for?" Racetrack asked dubiously.

"Right now," she explained, "you've successfully avoided death. But there are still traces of toxins in your body that could gradually poison your system and cause any number of problems later on, and the only thing you can do is try to purge them, and hope for the best." She handed him the bowl.

Racetrack looked helplessly at Sapphy, who was sitting at the end of his bed. "What?"

"Stick your finger down your throat and hurl until you can hurl no more," Sapphy explained, gently.

"WHY DOES EVERY POSSIBLE SCENARIO HERE INVOLVE ME THROWING UP?"

"I could sing something, if you want," Ram suggested.

Racetrack cocked and eyebrow and looked up at him, unamused. "Yeah," he said. "Actually, that might help."

--

Tumbler liked layer cakes, with pink fondant icing and buttercream roses that melted in his mouth, and cakes with coconut and lemon custard and sticky-sweet raspberry filling, and dense, flourless chocolate cakes, with chocolate frosting as dark and rich as the sky on a summer night with no moon. But most of all, Tumbler liked birthday cakes: anything with candles, really, even if it was just something sweet like a nickel candy bar, as it often had been back at the lodging house.

Candles were what made it a birthday cake, was Tumbler's opinion, and that was why what Crutchy was doing bothered him as much as it did: even if he was doing something that was completely, utterly against the rules—and it was—somehow if he put some candles on it and sang happy birthday to you, everything would be all right. But Crutchy refused to do even that. And Tumbler wondered if Coin was bothered by it as much as he was—because, after all, it was her birthday that Crutchy was ruining, and not his.

But Coin didn't even seem to notice. She was always distracted, waiting in the small room, going without sleep as she waited for Priscilla to make her appearance, and Crutchy was busy too, with the birthday cake that wasn't. Tumbler had never actually tried to build a three-foot-tall gothic castle out of sugar, with working drawbridges and turrets and doors and marzipan swans gliding along the moats, but after watching Crutchy work on it, he somehow felt that he wasn't missing much. In fact, Crutchy had been so distracted the other day, tempering a bath of sugar on the stove as he tried to get it to the exact consistency he would need to make the stained-glass windows in the castle church, he hadn't noticed Tumbler talking to him for nearly five minutes—and then, when he finally did, he didn't even listen.

"Look," he had said, "I'd like to talk to you, Tumbler, I really would, but I'm busy right now—you can see that—so no hard feelings, huh? And hey, if you're in the kitchen already, why don't you give me a hand with tonight's dinner?"

Which was how Tumbler had come to be standing on a stool in front of the counter, pounding an enormous dead octopus with a mallet and trying to concentrate hard enough on his task to avoid thinking of the old Crutchy—the one left behind somewhere in New York City, who had always been there for him, even when the other older boys weren't; the one who had taught him how to cook and how to hawk headlines and how to put his loose change in a sock under his mattress so Racetrack wouldn't "borrow" it; the one who hadn't laughed at him when he cried, and let him blow his nose all over his shirt, even though he only had the one and the next wash day wasn't for a week. That Crutchy was gone, or had disappeared inside this new one, who spent all his time in the kitchen, ignoring the people who used to look up to him, making little marzipan swans.

"Jesus," Crutchy said in alarm, "you wanna tenderize the octopus, Tumbler, not make it beg for mercy."

But before Tumbler could come up with a snappy comeback, or possibly throw his octopus somewhere in the vicinity of Crutchy's head, a voice intruded on their conversation—sleepy, casual, and not at all understanding of quite how much was going on.

"So," it asked. "What're we having for supper?"

Tumbler and Crutchy whipped around to see Bumlets standing slouched in the kitchen door, wearing nothing but a pair of hot-pink satin briefs belonging to Coin. Tumbler wondered, vaguely, if she had given him permission to wear them.

"Bumlets?" Crutchy asked, levelly. "Why are you wearin' those?"

"Oh." Bumlets looked down, idly, an expression almost of surprise on his face. "Well. Sequins chafe me so."

"I see."

"And, y'know, satin breathes."

"Does it?"

While Bumlets was busy comparing the merits of different fabrics, and Crutchy, his head in the oven, was explaining the proposed menu for the night, Tumbler had just enough time to reach into the icebox, find a dish of leftover macaroni and cheese, and dash out the door and into Coin's adopted quarters.

She was asleep when he got there, hair a bird's-nest and eyes red, curled up on the floor, her head resting against her arm. The shimmering rip in the worldwall that had become almost commonplace to him hung lose, a few of its glinting strands resting against her hair—gold entangled with black.

"Coin," he whispered urgently. "You awake?"

He didn't even have time to finish his sentence before she sat bolt upright, her eyes wild. "No," she said breathlessly. "Just resting my eyes." She crossed her legs and leaned against the wall, beckoning for Tumbler to sit down next to her. "What day is it, anyway?" she asked him.

"Day before your birthday." He handed the bowl of leftover macaroni to her and she began to eat ravenously.

"Mmf grlp strp?" she asked him. (She meant to ask how the castle was coming, but it didn't quite make it out that way as her mouth was crammed full of noodles. Still, she was very expressive; Tumbler could more or less understand her.)

"Fine," he said grudgingly. "Crutchy's puttin' the finishing touches on the swans."

"Lovely," she managed.

Coin paused, and looked at her a moment. "Hey listen," he said at last, "it's the day before your birthday, and…you've been here for what, a week? Maybe you should take a quick break. Go upstairs and sleep for a few hours. I'll watch."

All Coin could do for the moment was stare in disbelief at this eight-year-old boy who was somehow nicer to her than any adult she had ever met. He just looked back at her, levelly, quietly.

"Do you really mean it?"

"'Course," he said. "Nothing'll happen in four hours. Oh, and you have a noodle on your lip."

The next few moments would always be hazy in her memory. She set the bowl down and gathered her robes around her, bent down to kiss Tumbler's forehead, while thinking of how many sweethearts he would have one day, and headed out the door. If there was any indication of what was about to happen—any noise or flash of light or anything at all—then she didn't notice it, such was her intent on getting up the stairs, into her apartments, and to her bed, and she would pull the covers up over her head and burrow down and sleep, sleep soundly, for twelve or sixteen hours at least, and fuck everything that was going on because all that mattered was—and suddenly Tumbler was rushing up to her and pulling frantically at her nightgown and she was looking down and asking what and all he could say was that she was here.

For a split-second, Coin wondered who he was talking about. And then she knew.

Looking up, she could just catch a last glimpse as Priscilla as she rounded the corner—a flash of pale slender ankle and black silk—and then she was gone.

After that moment, she didn't need any help remembering.

--

tbc…

A/N: Supreme, sublime, and surreptitious shame for this section's stunning setback—and apologies for the alliteration. Honestly, I sound just like Dalton.

(And for all of you enquiring into his welfare, the annoying yet semi-cute preppie muse is doing fine—still at dance camp, soaking up the sun and playing nice with all the other preppie-muses. He sent me a postcard the other day with a nice picture of Paula Abdul on it, and I'll transcribe it for all of you, here in the authors' note:

DEER DAKKI—

AM HAVING GRATE TIME AT DANCE CAMP DEE SAYS I HAVE EXCELLENT BONE STRUCTURE FOR DANSER. ROOMMATE CHRIS SAYS HE WANTS ME TO BE IN HIS DANCE TROOP IN NYC THIS FALL!!!!! (PLEEZ PLEEZ PLEEZ LET ME GO!!!!! I WILL BRING BACK SNOGLOBE). I HAVE FORTY-EIGHT MOSKITO BITES I COUNTED!!!!!! CAMP FOOD STILL BAD THO. SEND CARE PACKAGE WITH TWINKIES AND MY PICTURE OF EMILIO ESTEVEZ THAT I KEEP BY MY BED NOT THE ONE OF HIM IN BREKFAST CLUB BUT YOUNG GUNS!!

XOXOXOXOXOX (TIMES A SQUILLION!!!!!!!!!!!)

SAY HI TO SARAH AND JACK

Charles Cahill Dalton, Jr.)

--

SHOUT-OUTS!

Coin: JACK: I am NOT a pansy! …Irish dancing socks? Where? ((pause)) You know, I never had Irish dancing socks as child…

Oh, God, Jack's Irish dancing sock story. Cover your ears, Coiny.

JACK: It all begins in the year of 1887. We see a young, preternaturally handsome boy wandering the streets of Lower Manhattan, his toes freezing cold, his eyes welling up with tears…

Lady of Tir Na Nog: I have to agree that "you're blue" is a pretty good pickup line, compared to some of the ones Jack tries on a regular basis.

JACK: ((gazing adoringly at Sarah)) Did it hurt?

SARAH: Did…what hurt?

JACK: When you fell from heaven?

SARAH: …

JACK: …

SARAH: …GOD! I feed you ONCE and you NEVER go away!

--

Sapphy: RACETRACK: ((weakly)) Oh…I'm all right Sapphy…((coughs feebly)) COME TO ME DAKKI, THE LIGHT IS FAAAAAAAAAADING…CAN'T YOU SEE THE EVENING STAR APPEEEEEEEEEEEARING?

DAKKI: …You can sing awfully well for someone so feeble, can'tcha Race?

--

Soaker: Oh, don't worry. Racetrack's died about nine times, he's used to it.

RACETRACL: ((nods))

Anyway, he should count himself lucky…I usually kill Spot in my stories.

SPOT: ((hums cheerfully))

I said I usually KILL SPOT in my stories.

SPOT: Huh? Somebody say me name?

((buries her head in her hands))

--

Chaos89: SPOT: HOW CAN ANYONE NOT BE PLEASED BY WOOLLY MITTENS? ((sobs))

((raises an eyebrow)) …What do you say we give Spot one of those pina coladas right now? …extra rum, of course.

--

Saturday: ((bows down)) Miss most beloved of all cowriters, how could I deniest thou a cameo? Thou shalt live in the pirate village and be a pirate slut.

SARAH: Isn't 'thou' supposed to be plural?

Shutteth up.

--

Checkmate: YAY! ((catches bag of circus peanuts and munches away)) What would I do without you, Checkmate?

JACK: ((points at the circus peanuts)) Those aren't some sort of…gay sex toy, are they?

You must forgive Jack. In his recent paranoia he seems to think everything is some sort of gay sex toy.

JACK: ((stares in horror at the computer))

--

Shooter O'Brien: I must say that YOU are uberly snazzy, my love.

JACK: And these crudmuffins! ((munches happily))

Uh…Jack?

JACK: Yeah?

…Never mind.

--

Ccatt: ((gasps in disbelief)) P-published? ((gasps again)) …You're glad Race is okay?

RACETRACK: HEY!

Sorry. …PUBLISHED! ((goes off to wander around the house confusedly for a few hours picking things up and putting them down again))

RACETRACK: I think you blew a fuse.

--

Splashey: JACK: Damn STRAIGHT real men sing Bon Jovi!

And real men sing Patti Labelle?

JACK: Yes.

And Shakira?

JACK: Yes.

…And Cher?

JACK: HOW DID YOU HEAR THAT?

--

Ershey: Thank you! ((glomps)) I am awesome! Jack, notice she didn't say YOU were awesome.

JACK: It's because I'm beyond awesome. Is there a word for that?

Yes. Flaming.

JACK: I'M FLAMING!

((collapses giggling))

--

LadyRach: YAY, the phantom reviewer! ((grins)) I must say, it's not like I haven't done the same thing thirty-three thousand times. And you should be glad I'm not Lute. Ever since she got hit count with her paid membership she's been tracking down all the people who read and didn't review, and…well, you just don't want to know…

--

Next Up: Chapter Fourteen (Chapter Thirteen is Being Skipped on Account of Supersition), In Which Truths Are Discovered, Romances Blossom, Lute Jumps Ship, and Alliances Are Made With A Very Fierce Dragon Named Fluffy II.

And also, since today is January 30th, BE SURE TO WISH A HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO CHRISTIAN BALE! To the rest of the world he may be thirty-one (or at least that's what I wrote on that cake I sent him. Hope he likes pink icing). But to us, he will always be the dreaming street kid who ends the word "food" with the letter T.