2.04: Covert Messages

Howard, the unfortunately proportioned manager-owner of Horizon Foods, leaned against the register with a frown on his pale lips. The store had been open for almost an hour, but the doors remained locked. “You missed two full shifts.” 

Henry tried his best to remain calm. They were going around in circles. “I had no idea I was scheduled.”

“You’re my only employee right now,” he said, for the tenth time in a row. “Do you know what happens when you decide not to show up? I have to cover for you. Don’t you think I have more important things to be doing?”

“I think about five people come through this store on a busy day.”

“Shipping. Receiving.” He stuck up a finger with each over-enunciated word. “Inventory. Payments. Advertising.”

Many aspects of life were different in Tortus Bay. Some were down to the slower pace of a small town, and others were downright fantastic. The one unifying constant between the old and new worlds seemed to be a reddening man listing off vague business terms as a threat. Henry couldn’t imagine why that would be the case, but there was the proof throwing spittle in his face. “Howie, do you believe in magic?”

“What?” His face contorted in fury. “You think I’m being funny? Do you know what you are? You’re a criminal. That’s right, I know where you were: in the clink! That’s what I get for trusting a reference from Clair. That’s what I get for offering people second chances. What do you think about that?”

“I think you should either fire me, or let me get to my job.”

“Then start working!”

After a confrontation like that, there was a soothing simplicity to be found in the inventory. Henry knew from long ago that the trick to endurance was in maintaining a healthy mental distance from the world. To that end he focused his thoughts that morning on the beautiful engravings on Emmaline Cass’ headstone, and the comforting warmth of Niles’ lips. He held that beauty and that warmth up as a shield, and with it could have bore a century of pointless abuse. 

In the storeroom he busied himself with the rote repetition of grouping like with like—creating mountains of vegetables and imposing bunkers of colorful cardboard boxes. It looked as though nobody had touched a thing in his absence. That, at least, was how he wanted it; there was no reason to waste extra time sorting out whatever chaos Howie would have created. 

He saved the most cumbersome group of the lot, the canned goods, for the end. It was there, halfway through unboxing a crate of baked beans, that he noticed a torn label. Underneath the tear, the label bulged as though someone had stuck something inside. A folded slip of paper. There was a single line of clean print inside: ‘Help. I’m trapped in the beans! Can anyone hear me?’

Howard’s footsteps startled him. The man was making quite a show of walking around the place in a huff, talking loudly on his phone about all of the vital store functions which were now hopelessly delayed and which he personally had to set right. His voice and his heavy footfalls echoed around the empty space. He had forgotten to unlock the front doors. 

Henry set the can aside, and went about the rest of his shift, thinking idly of how nice it would be to have a different job. Even the orchards, or the fishery, didn’t strike him as that bad of a prospect in that moment—if only he could keep up. As it was, his shoulder hurt too badly for him to do the job he already had. He stocked the shelves with his good arm, one item at a time. Box after box after box after box.  

He imagined a life in which he could craft necklaces for a living. He imagined a life in which he could mix poultices in peace in his kitchen. He imagined any life, in a healthy body. The shield over his heart melted into a dagger pressed into the flesh. At the end of his shift, he returned to the storeroom and scribbled a short reply on the opposite side of the hidden paper: ‘Only I, lowly grocery servant. Can you swim?’

***

“I don’t know, he probably never changed the locks.” Henry walked down the street at a brisk pace, his phone pressed to his ear. “And I doubt Clair turned in her keys.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Kara said.

“Who else could it have been?”

“You’re right. At least now we know she’s nearby. And that she has access to food.”

The roads of Tortus Bay were rapidly emptying, as evening veered off toward night. Those occasional stragglers waved as they passed, but thankfully didn’t stop to talk. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Implicate your friends, I guess.”

He ignored that. “I don’t want to turn her in.”

“Presumably you also don’t want to be linked with a woman who’s been accused of murder.”

“Preferably.”

Kara was silent for a moment. “I know some things have changed. You told me how she acted in the woods. Do you think she had anything to do with Mathas Bernard?”

“I think there’s still a lot that she hasn’t told me.”

“But murder?”

“No.”

“Then if you want my two cents, I say you sit on it. At least until you know more.”

Henry turned onto Spruce, and into the oncoming wind, bracing himself against the chill. The weather was turning. Summer was almost over. “Wouldn’t that make me an accomplice?”

“I don’t think anonymous conversations with beans can be tried in Tortus Bay. We got rid of that ordinance a long while ago. Now, can we move on to what you really called to talk about?”

He smiled. “I don’t know. We kissed in the forest.”

“Romantic!”

“Right outside of the graveyard.”

“Still romantic.”

“He seemed nervous. Or surprised, maybe?”

Kara cackled. “That’s Niles for ya. I swear, I was starting to think that boy was a potted plant for how little…”

Their conversation trailed off as Henry approached number 41. He picked through the overgrown garden of the Bramble’s front yard, gave brief pause at the prominent window sign (which brightly told him to ‘Fuck Off’) and knocked on the door. When it swung open, he found himself looking down at the older of Teresa’s two daughters. She regarded him with cool eyes under long locks of dark hair. He worked for the name. “Sofia.”

“Mr. Cauville.” She inclined her head. “Like my sign?”

“Yeah. Does it work?”

Sofia smirked. “Not as well as you’d think. Come on in. My mom is with someone right now, but you can wait.” The girl led him inside, through a long hallway laden with eclectic art and dusty bookshelves, sitting him in a straight-backed chair outside of a door which he knew opened onto the kitchen. She sat across from him, joining her younger sister on the floor. “Say hello, Lola.”

Lola was curled against the wall, worrying a stuffed bear in her hands. Her corkscrew curls hung in an obscuring mess over her face. She gave no indication that she heard anything.

“It’s been a long day,” Sofia said softly.

“I understand.” He twisted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. “The last time I was here, you were reading a book. Do you remember that?”

She flashed him a guarded look. “I read a lot of books.”

“You told me it was an old diary, and that you liked to draw,” he continued, and she stared at him with tight lips. “I only bring it up because I thought I saw a strange plant on one of the pages. Jagged on one side, smooth on the other, with six or seven fingers?”

“Oh.” Sofia relaxed a little. “Aldounis. And they’re called ‘leaflets.’ I guess it doesn’t grow much outside of the village, you might have never seen it before. Mom has us collect it for its ‘natural soothing agent.’” Her impression of Teresa was spot on.

“Soothing? Is that all it does?”

Lola mumbled to her bear, under her breath: “it regrows the skin.”

“Our bodies mend themselves over time.” The smile on the elder sister’s face became forced. “Something like Aldounis makes the process a little more pleasant.”

Henry held his hands up. “You don’t have to hide anything from me. I know the village’s little secret now. I know what the Festival is.”

“I believe you,” Sofia said, in a tone of voice that also told him she didn’t care, “but I’m not trying to hide anything. It’s a mildly medicinal plant. There are probably hundreds of sketches and pictures of it around here.”

“Okay.” He relented, and an awkward silence settled over the hallway. From the kitchen, muted sounds of shuffling cloth and the indistinguishable cadence of a quiet conversation. The sisters settled in and stared off in opposite directions, boredom glazing their eyes. Plainly they were accustomed to this process. He wondered why they weren’t sitting in on their mother’s appointment, as they had during his original visit. “That’s a very nice bear,” he said.

It happened very fast. Lola repositioned herself, not meeting his eye, and for a second he mistook the motion for her offering out the toy. He likewise turned in his seat, leaned forward, and reached out. Her eyes, wide and terrified, jumped up to meet him—and then she sprung up, and sprinted away through the kitchen door.

“Shit.” Sofia shot him a bewildered look of disgust, leapt up right after her, and likewise disappeared. The stuffed bear lay forgotten on the garish carpet, arms splayed open.

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