1.13: Rambles and Brambles

Henry learned several important things the next day, at his brand new minimum-wage job. Some of them came hard and fast, like the exacting intricacies of Mrs. Fevra’s monstrously long monthly grocery list, and others came over time, like the reason the position of cashier at Horizon Foods had been so long vacant. Howard, the manager, met him in the morning with a wary look, and proceeded to treat him more like an adversary than an employee. Relevant details came out of the man like food from a starving dog’s mouth, while anecdotes streamed out like water from an open tap.

“I’ve lived in Tortus Bay my entire life,” Howard said, “and I’ve never been one of the chosen ones of the Brihtes or the Gauthes. Never had money. I’ve watched a lot of people like me fall flat on their faces. They pump gas; they take tickets at the Plex; they wipe tables down at the bar. I run a grocery store. The only grocery store.”

Later, he went on. “What are you, twenty years old? Did you do a couple years at a Community College, or did you figure you’d skip it altogether? Normally a job like this would go to a teenager, you know. How do you feel about achieving as much as a thirteen year old?”

And later, still more. “A lot of people get excited by a new face, kid. Something to stir the pot. But trust me, the cheese will settle eventually. It always does. And you got to choose if you want to end up sitting on the top of that pot, or the bottom.”

While Howard talked, he ran his fingers through his thick auburn hair, until it lay flat on his scalp and his fingers shone with grease under the florescent light. Henry was the only other employee in the store, and the man seemed to never run out of things to say. It was unfortunate that not a single one of those topics related to instructions on how to operate a cash register. Questions in that line were met with suspiciously narrowed eyes, and indecipherable grumbles.

So, he rang people up on a notepad. Howard watched, leaning against the wall, shaking his head like a disappointed father. Henry had worked his fair share of lousy jobs in the past. The repetition, boredom, and the constant low-level humiliation; it was like slipping on an old pair of gloves. But he thought he’d left that behind. He never imagined he would be back. There was so much about his life now that he never would have imagined.

People trickled into the store in a slow but steady stream, and Henry realized that he recognized a majority of them—even if he might not be able to recall any specific name. Such was the power of the AM Bazaar. From the way their eyes widened at his presence behind the register, he suspected they recognized him as well. The story of his new job would be known to everybody by the next morning. Would that finally convince them that he was an ordinary person?

By the end of his shift, no matter his composure, Henry was ready to pull his hair out of his head and stick it onto Howard’s slimy dome—and he might have, if a familiar face hadn’t walked through the door.

Kara’s hair was pulled back, and dark black smudges lined both of her bare arms, as if she’d recently been working with ink, or charcoal. None of her tattoos were visible, hidden by clothing or the necklace she wore. She grabbed a box of cheese crackers and a case of beer from the fridges in the back, and jumped up on the counter while he ruefully readied his pencil. “You hit the green button to start a new transaction,” she said.

He jabbed the button, and the machine sprang to life.

“From there you can enter the price of the products, one by one. There are codes to tell it what you’re selling, but you don’t have to worry about that.”

“How do you know how the register works?”

She shrugged. “Worked a lot of jobs around the village, and there aren’t that many to go around. I’m guessing inHale fell through. What happened?”

“Current theories range from ‘I’m still too new to the area’ to ‘she thinks I’m taking the job as a cover.’ I don’t know what happened.”

“If either of those are true,” Kara said, “you could wait it out and try again later. It’s not like you’re going to want to stay here for too long. To make this job last, you have to meet Howie’s obnoxiousness with an equal level of your own. Fight fire with fire. That’s why it’s just been Clair, and a constantly rotating cast of teenagers around here.”

“Well, at least it gives me something to do other than loitering around the bar.” He finished ringing her up and bagged her items, but she did not take them.

“How’s the shoulder doing?”

“Fine. You haven’t told anyone, have you?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “Care to prove to me that it’s fine?”

“Not exactly.”

Kara hopped off of the counter, and scooped up her bag. “I know you haven’t had any luck with hospitals. Lucky for you, we don’t have any in the village. What we have is the Brambles.”

“Is that some sort of home?”

“Teresa Bramble, and her daughters. They might not have all of the equipment, or the modern pills, but they’ve been keeping Tortus Bay going for decades. It can’t hurt to let them look.”

“It can, if they tell everyone my secret.”

She rolled her eyes. “They’re very discreet. Go whenever you like—they’ll be expecting you. 41 Spruce.”

With that she was gone, leaving Henry to stare blankly into space for the last ten minutes of his shift, before chucking off his uniform and wandering into the back. There, he found a truck docking bay and a storage space equally as large as the storefront. It was cold back there. Sitting at a desk by the door, staring into the blue light of an ancient, boxy computer, was Howard. “You think you’re coming back tomorrow?” he asked, not looking up from the screen. “You didn’t exactly take to it quick, did you? I’ve seen worse, but lord have I seen a whole lot better. There’s an art to the process that can take a while to learn, if you’re not the sharpest cookie in the box. It can’t be taught, but it can be observed, if you take my meaning, and…”

At some point during that monologue, Henry quietly said “see you in the morning,” and walked out. He swiped his new time card just as Clair entered through the front door, a knowing smile already plastered on her face. He stuck two fingers in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

***

Henry still had nightmares. Months of therapy helped, but he suspected that they would never fully go away. They were rarely of that horrible event itself, the precipitating memory that introduced the concept recurring nightmares into his life. But the anxiety, and the blood-clotting dread, were the same. Shapes and colors, or familiar faces talking about familiar things, but behind it all would be the dreadful certainty that he was about to round a corner to enter the school and see everything again.

He sat up, drenched in thick sweat and free-flowing blood. Normally the wound in his shoulder kept itself dry, but a day of bagging groceries and lifting crates of pancake mix and peach preserves into Mrs. Fevra’s station wagon had agitated the area. He caught his breath. He closed his eyes, told himself that it had only been a dream, and then he hauled himself onto his feet to get cleaned up. Paper towels and pressure would do the trick. They always did.

Afterward, he was awake for the day. Although the sun had not yet fully risen, the pain radiating down through his arm was too great for sleep. So he sat on the edge of the bed in the hotel room he’d now lived in for over a week. There was nothing to do. No television, no radio, and he hadn’t brought any books along for the trip. He hadn’t brought anything that didn’t fit neatly into his backpack. The bar’s kitchen wouldn’t be open yet. There was simply nothing to do, but sit in pain.

Kara told him the Brambles were expecting him at any time. Perhaps she hadn’t imagined that time being the crack of dawn, but he could always take the scenic route over there. 

Henry bandaged his shoulder, dressed, and headed off down the rickety wooden staircase that wrapped around the bar to the street below. It was cold that morning. Not so much to be freezing, but enough to make fog of his breath. Summer would soon be over; fall rapidly approached. Unperturbed by time, he made his way slowly through the silent village. Not so much as a squirrel moved. As he walked, blue retook the sky.

The house on 41 Spruce was not itself dissimilar to any of the others in Tortus Bay, but its front lawn certainly was. A sense of purpose existed there, beyond the growing and cutting of grass. One third of it was devoted to an overgrown garden, another third to a fenced enclosure with no visible animals, and the rest to a swingset and a set of aged patio furniture that sank into the dirt. Henry stepped over a welcome mat that said ‘Check Your Feet,’ let his eyes rest a moment on the sign in the window that said ‘Fuck Off,’ and knocked very softly.

A woman with a creased face and billowing grey hair, wrapped in a colorful patchwork quilt against the chill, opened the door. “Yes?”

“My name is Henry Cauville,” he said. “I was told you would be expecting me.”

“Come on in then,” she said, “before you catch a cold.”  

If the Bramble House was creaky and old, then it more than made up for it with an abundance of human comforts. Built-in bookshelves ran along the hallway walls. Carpets depicting pumpkins, cats, and fanciful creatures covered the floorboards. Art hung everywhere, of such a variety of style and skill that Henry was sure it had all been painted by locals, if not the Brambles themselves.

“I’m sorry to bother you so early,” he said.

“People come when they are hurting, and we are here to help. Whenever that may be.” She eyed him. “Has your shoulder been hurting?”

“Kara told you everything.”

The woman smiled kindly. “I am not a doctor, but please understand that I take my patient’s confidentiality very seriously. My name is Teresa, as I’m sure you know, and I am glad to meet you.” She ushered him through the entrance hall and into the kitchen. “I’ve lived here in the village my entire life, as did my mother and her mother before that. And possibly her mother before even that, but who’s counting at that point? You don’t mind doing this in here, do you?”

The kitchen was beautiful and white, with windows that caught the morning sun like rounded bowls of light. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs lay arranged around the countertops, and through the open pantry door Henry spied a treasure trove of sugary cereals and snack cakes. “Do what, exactly?”

“Nothing more than you want,” she said, indicating that he should hop up on the dining table. “These are my daughters, by the way. Sofia and Lola. Say hello, girls.”

Henry jumped. He hadn’t noticed the two other people in the room. Sofia, the elder of the sisters, was leaning in the windowsill with a steaming mug and an open book. She had long, dark hair and looked to be anywhere from sixteen to twenty years old. Lola was several years younger, and had a head of frizzy brown madness. She was sitting politely in a chair beside her sister, kicking her legs and watching the new proceedings with interest. “Hello,” he said.

The girls waved at him, and he turned his attention back to Teresa. “Do you believe what Kara told you about me?” he asked. “That I have a gunshot wound that won’t heal?”

She shrugged. “I have no way of knowing, so there’s no reason for me to believe or disbelieve. But you are hurt, and need help. That is all that matters. May I see the shoulder?”

 Lola stared with open interest, and Sofia surreptitiously glanced over the top of her book, as he pulled off his shirt and undid that morning’s hurried bandaging. “It was bleeding when I woke up.”

“Is that unusual?” Teresa asked, circling him curiously.

“It’s rare.”

She reached out, and gently touched the skin beside the wound. Her hand was warm. “It hasn’t healed at all?”

“It closed up a little, at first,” he said. “You can see, the back looks better than the front. Then it just stopped. The pain is always there, but it’s been more bearable since I got to Tortus Bay.”

Teresa frowned down at him, her arms crossed. “Sofia, honey, will you grab the salve?” she asked. “Top shelf, next to the balsam.”

Sofia straightened, set her book face-up on the windowsill, and slipped out of the room. From where he sat, Henry could barely make out the figures on the sun-washed pages of the girl’s abandoned book. What he saw was enough.

Diagrams. Sketches. Strange words. And the shape of a curiously constructed leaf, etched out in pencil, that he had only seen one time before—in the journal of Mathas Bernard.

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