Henry found his second venture through the directionless crowd of people milling around the intersection of Main and First—which Patty had fondly referred to as the AM Bazaar—to be substantially easier. Perhaps the sheen of novelty had rubbed off him already, for the familiar faces amongst the mass let him by with only a nod or a wave. It was the new faces, who still required of him a shaken hand and an exchange of niceties, which slowed him down so that he did not arrive on Hyacinth Street and Fifth Avenue until midday.
It wasn’t his fault that Beth Brihte, Clair, and seemingly everyone else in the village thought he was something that he very much wasn’t. There was nothing he could do about it; and there was especially very little he could do to help them, whatever sort of help they might need. That much he could swallow, but to try to convince himself that he wasn’t interested was another matter altogether. He could always go to the sheriff’s office and report what he’d heard, but what would that do? The sheriff herself clearly didn’t want him to be involved, and that was alright by him. But if people wanted to talk so badly that they didn’t care if they’d found the wrong ear, that didn’t make him a villain.
With a long list of things he shouldn’t do swirling about his head, it was a desire for more mundane and tangible progress that drove him forward. Certainly he didn’t need to do anything more than shake hands and see the sights; he’d brought along with him a comfortable nest egg, and the seventy-five cent coffee he’d just enjoyed exemplified that the cost of living in the village would be even lower than previously imagined. He hadn’t lied in the cafe, when he said that his time in Tortus Bay had been great, but for him to stay he knew he had to chase down every opportunity for work that wasn’t as an extra hand plucking fruit or boning fish, and every lead on a place to live that wasn’t a hotel—regardless of how cheap that hotel might be.
He found the large grey warehouse on Hyacinth, conspicuous in the middle of an otherwise residential street, and stepped through an open side door to find color, movement, and a smell that he could only describe as ‘industrial accident.’
The floor space had been completely cleared of the belts and machinery that must have defined its previous life. In their place, streams of paint washed over the hard concrete in unconventional rainbows. Looms, tubs, basins, and drying racks were lined up in long columns. In the corner, a large kiln was halfway through its firing. Several easels stood ready on the west end of an observational balcony that ran around the interior of the building, while the east end had been given over to an enormous, half-finished wall mural of a young boy smoking a cigar.
A balding man leaned precariously against the railing there, brush in hand, staring thoughtfully at the work. Another man, who had perhaps more hair than he knew what to do with, was hanging a strip of leather on one of the racks. There was a woman fussing about with something in the center of the room, and another sitting in a chair knotting a rope. All four of them were splattered in different varieties and volumes of paint.
Henry approached the woman with the rope, who did not look up from her work. “I’m looking for someone named Kara,” he said.
“Hey Kara,” the woman bellowed, “you have a visitor.”
“Great,” the other woman called back, “send them over.”
Henry tripped and tip-toed across the room to find Kara on the other side of a brass barrel, crouched in an uncomfortable stoop and pressing a metal stick into a rectangular strip of uncured leather laying on the floor. Her hair, straight and brown, was at that moment visibly greasy and trapped up into a messy bun. “Not the best way to do it,” she said, by way of greeting, “but it’ll get the job done.”
“Sorry,” he said, “I think I came at a bad time.”
“No, I mean to say that I would get up, but I can’t let off pressure. Can you run over to the kiln and tell me what color the light is?”
Some part of him wanted to deny her, but a much larger part reminded him that he was in Tortus Bay for something different than the usual routine, and besides he had little else to do that day. He darted over to the kiln, a red-brick monstrosity which emanated waves of nauseating heat, and reported: “green.”
Kara wasn’t satisfied by that. “Would you say it’s more of a dark cyan, or a light lime?”
“It’s like a… faded seaweed,” he said.
She nodded. “Can you stir the vat on your left? The one with the golden handle, please.”
So it went. Henry spent the rest of the afternoon jogging circles around the Anderson, performing various menial tasks for what he imagined must be about a dozen separate projects. He stirred, he strained, he flattened, he pressed, he prodded. At one point, he used a pair of tongs to entwine a thin silver chain. As soon as he was done with one inscrutable task, another was waiting. All the while, he and Kara chatted, sometimes quite loudly over the expanse of the warehouse and the rumbling of the kiln.
“So you’re the scientist,” she said.
“Nope. And I’m not a journalist, either.”
“The news on the street is wrong! What are you, then?”
“Looking for a job.”
She chuckled. “Something other than an art go-fer, I presume?”
“I don’t know, does this pay?”
At that, all four of the resident artists laughed. “Not nearly so much as a human needs,” Kara said, “but I might have an idea for you.”
Several hours in, awash in sweat and grime, Henry belatedly realized that he’d been helping all four of them. The brown, grey, and white paints that he mixed went to the woman with the impressive length of rope, who made a quick job lathering it in color. If he was put out by the extra work, his hand in the final product made it worthwhile.
Standing on the ground, he held one end of the rope while the woman climbed to the balcony and attached the other end to the wall mural with a nail gun. “Okay, is it holding?” she called down.
The man with no hair and the man with too much hair looked on nervously. Henry gave it a tug. “Seems to be.”
“Then hang it on that hook there, and step back quickly.”
He did as he was told, looping the heavy rope around a metal hook jutting out of the wall, and as he stepped back the woman on the balcony let go. There was a tense moment of silence, followed by a round of applause as it held in place. Now standing back, Henry saw what the rope was meant to be: a dreaded lock of the young boy’s hair, curling in and out of the smoke from his cigar.
“We’re trying to spruce the place up a little,” Kara said, into his ear. He jumped. He hadn’t heard her come up behind him. “We want to start hosting exhibits here, since we have the space. And it’s easier than hauling everything down to the community center, or the cafe. Thanks for helping.”
“Does that mean we’re done?”
She rolled her shoulders. “I know I could use a break. Step outside with me?”
While the other three artists laughed and clapped each other on the back, Kara led Henry past the mural, through a rough concrete enclosure, and out to the loading bay wall. All three of the docks stood open, revealing the hazy yellow evening sky. A cool breeze rushed in to greet them, goosebumping their overheated skin. They perched there, letting their legs dangle out of the closest bay. Beneath their toes, the broken asphalt of the warehouse’s parking lot was being reclaimed by thin shoots of pale grass. “I got you a thank-you present,” she said.
“How is that possible?”
She drew a necklace out of her pocket. “I knew I was going to be making it today, but I wasn’t sure for who. Guess I know now.”
It was a simple thing, a strip of folded-over leather adhered to a silver clasp chain with a bit of industrial glue. An odd symbol was pressed, or perhaps burnt, into the leather. Four jagged lines arranged in a rhombus, with a fifth striking through. At a squint, Henry thought it could be a house. “What is this?” he asked.
“A protection charm,” Kara said, as matter-of-factly as ever. “Wear it under your shirt, against the skin. Don’t take it off unless you need to. The longer it rests on your body, the more it will learn of you, and the better it will keep you from harm.”