No one said anything to him about the state of his room. He made a clear effort in putting things away, and it was his private space. His sister sometimes twitched when she passed his open door, resisting the impulse to step in and straighten things, but she respected that he had things the way he wanted and suspected that some of the mis-stacked things were intentional. If a toddler snuck into his room and tried to abscond with one of his toys, they would make enough noise to draw an adult down the hall.
Hyrum Charles Munson, 48 going on 7, sometimes 10 on a good day, sometimes 5 on a bad one, more than anything wanted to be good. Part of being good was rising before the sun, a habit left from a childhood that demanded it from him. He woke a little after four in the morning and quietly got dressed; from age seven on he crawled out of bed before dawn to help his mother get everything ready for breakfast, making sure the kitchen was spotless as she cooked, double-checking to be sure his father wouldn’t find a speck of anything on the table that didn’t belong there.
Life was better if Levi Munson left the house without anger. It wasn’t wonderful and it wasn’t happy, but it was better.
Now he could sleep as late as he wanted, but the habit was ingrained, and he knew if he were up by four-thirty, he would have a quiet half-hour alone with his brother-in-law. They sat together at the kitchen table while Jax sipped at his coffee and tried to wake up enough to go for a run with the Emperor, or while Jax mentally prepared himself for a long day of royal duties.
On days that Jax ran with Will, Hyrum made the coffee and when Jax was ready, he often went outside with him and sat on the steps at Union Square, where he cheered them on with each lap. On days Jax had a schedule that precluded running, Hyrum made breakfast for him. Jax had given up telling Hyrum that it wasn’t necessary; he was capable of getting his own food and didn’t want to impose, but Hyrum insisted.
He wanted to help; he wanted to be good.
This morning, I was curled up at the foot of Hyrum’s bed, watching as he stretched and yawned, waiting for that deep breath he often took before sitting up. When it came, I carefully stepped up the side of the bed to greet him, rubbing my head against his arm, gently so that I didn’t scare him.
“Wick, hi.” He lifted me up and nuzzled his face to the top of my head. “Did you sleep with me all night? I didn’t kick you or anything, did I?”
I spent a few hours here. You barely moved.
“I had a dream about my daddy.” He grunted as he got up, then shuffled toward his bathroom. “Or maybe it wasn’t really him. It was like when we were at Shivan’s and Jax wanted to shoot my daddy. That wasn’t really him. I don’t think, anyway.”
It wasn’t. But I understand your confusion since he wore your father’s face.
“In my dream he was yelling at my mom because I didn’t know how to tie my shoes and it was her fault that I’m stupid. But I know how to tie my shoes, Wick.” He finished up in the bathroom and slipped his jeans on, then grabbed his shoes. “Look. I’ll show you.”
I’ve seen you tie your shoes. You’re not stupid. Even if you couldn’t, that doesn’t make you stupid.
“I learned how when I was eight, I think. Red taught me. Mom thought it was a pain and it took too long, so she used to tie them for me. But Red knew I would learn. He didn’t think I was stupid.”
Not knowing how to do something just means you haven’t learned it yet. That’s all.
“Anyway, at least I didn’t set Daddy’s hair on fire in the dream. Sometimes I do. I always put it out, though.”
I followed him down the hall to the kitchen and waited on the breakfast bar while he started a pot of coffee. He never drank any; he didn’t like the taste, and really didn’t like what it did to his bowels. He loved the smell, though, and was inhaling deeply when Jax shuffled into the kitchen.
Jax greeted him with a kiss on the top of his head. It wasn’t likely that he would do more than grunt until he’d had a few sips of his coffee. Hyrum knew this; it bothered him when he first came to live with Jax and Aubrey, worried that he was upsetting Jax, but after a week or so he understood that Jax just wasn’t quite awake and he was getting up earlier than he needed to, for no reason other than he wanted that quiet time with Hyrum.
After Jax had enough of the coffee and the last bits of sleep lifted, Hyrum asked if this was a running day or a workday.
“Work,” Jax grunted. When Hyrum started to get up, Jax gestured for him to sit back down. “Breakfast meeting. There will be coffee and donuts. Don’t tell Aubrey.”
Hyrum giggled, which turned into a snicker when he heard Aubrey coming down the hall, wanting to know what was being withheld from her.
“You’re up early,” Hyrum said, trying to keep Jax’s sugar-laden-breakfast secret. “Is today a babysitting day?”
“Wick has a checkup today,” she answered, reaching across the breakfast bar to rub my head. “You have therapy right after. I thought we could go together, if you’d like some company.”
She also had appointments throughout the morning and would be taking a car. Hyrum scrunched his nose at the idea of sitting in the back seat while someone else drove them around; he might have agreed if he was the driver, but these were official appointments, requiring an escort from the guard.
“I can take Wick to his appointment,” Hyrum offered. “I’ll put the basket on my bike, and he can ride there, and then he can go to my doctor with me.”
“Is that safe?” she wondered.
“Drew made me a new basket. It has a special top and everything so Wick can’t fall out. But he can still see everything if he wants and even if I fell, Drew says he would be okay. I’ll be careful.”
“How about it, Wick?” Jax asked. “Who gets to take you to get poked and prodded this year?”
I jumped from the breakfast bar to the table and went to Hyrum. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go with Aubrey; it was more that Hyrum looked hopeful.
“I’d say my feelings are hurt, but you’ll have more fun with Hy.”
“Why isn’t Will taking him?” Jax asked.
Will had three toddlers to wrangle all morning and didn’t want to drag them to the vet. Instead, he was taking them to the Ozoo complex, where they had a playroom connected to his office and frequent interlopers coming in to visit with them.
I wasn’t sick; had I been, Will would have gotten someone to watch the kids and taken me himself. This was just a checkup, something Hyrum could handle on his own. As soon as we left the building, Aubrey would be on the phone letting the vet’s office know who was bringing me, making sure the doctor knew to withhold any upsetting information, should there be any.
Riding his bike was, hands and paws down, Hyrum’s favorite thing to do. He rode it everywhere he could, exploring San Francisco in a way he’d never been allowed when he was younger and living with his parents in Florida. He avoided sections of the city where cars were allowed, though sometimes he braved the lighter traffic near Golden Gate Park; none of the hills bothered him and he now knew the city as well the natives did.
I sat on the guard’s desk near the door while he retrieved his red bicycle from under the stairs and clipped the basket on. He chatted happily with the guard on duty—it didn’t matter who was at the desk; Hyrum rarely left without at least saying hello and often had conversations with the younger guards about comics he’d read or a TV show they were both interested in.
He’d added “TV” to the lexicon in the royal house, from the King down to the newest guards. There was confusion at first—what does he mean, he watched TV?—but it was easier to adopt his terms instead of convincing him that what he did was watching entertainment videos, or vids. Drew joked that it was only a matter of time before it filtered to the public, and soon everyone would use centuries-old words to describe current tech.
“Well, they already do in Florida,” Jax reminded him. “Hell, we do. Look at cell phones. Cellular tech vanished three hundred years ago, but the term held on.”
As Hyrum clipped me into the basket, making sure the stiff mesh bubble top was secure, the guard reminded him to be careful on his ride. That used to bother him, as if he wasn’t careful and needed to be told, until Will explained that they weren’t hinting that he wasn’t careful enough. They were telling him they cared about him and didn’t want him to be hurt.
“Is that like when Drew tells me to have fun when I go somewhere?” Hyrum asked. “Aubrey says it means ‘I love you.’”
The guard outside held the door open so that Hyrum could get his bike out, and he called back, “Thanks, I will be!”
I had no doubt.
That was why I was willing to get in the basket.
He might think like a child a good part of the time, but he would never do anything to get me hurt and would pay closer attention to make sure I was safe.
What I didn’t expect was how nervous Hyrum would be, sitting in the waiting room at the vet. He held me on his lap, bouncing on his toes, whispering to me that it would be okay. He took Lazybones to the vet when he was little, and it was always okay. “They might do things you don’t like, but you have to let them because it’s the doctor.”
I know. There’s a lot of unnecessary touching involved.
“Lazybones hated it on account of he always got a shot, and he always got a temperature thing shoved up his butt. But it doesn’t hurt. The temperature thing, I mean. The shot might, but just a little.”
There would be no piercing of my feline flesh with a needle and no invasion of my nether regions. Hyrum had little experience with medicine in Pacifica; he watched, quietly, as the vet looked in my eyes and then prodded my belly, and he bit back a whine when told it was time for my vaccinations.
Hyrum hated shots, and he hated inflicting them on me.
The vet took a long swab on a stick from his assistant, swiped it in my left ear, then got another to do the same for my right, and was done.
“That’s it?” Hyrum asked. “No needles?”
The vet blinked, trying to think of a reason why he needed to use needles, and coming up with nothing, said, “No needles. I need to pry his mouth open and get a good look, so don’t be upset if he fights me a bit. Cats generally don’t like this.”
Hyrum scrunched his nose. “Just ask him to open his mouth. You don’t have to make him do it.”
Hyrum bent over and looked at me. “Wick, can you open your mouth for him? He needs to see your teeth and stuff.”
“Really, he won’t—”
I sat on the table, looked up, and opened my mouth as wide as I could.
“See? If you ask him nicely, he’ll do it.”
No one ever asked me before, I said when the vet was done trying to look down my throat. That was a nice change.
I was proclaimed healthy though still a bit underweight, which was said in a manner that suggested that every time he’d told Will to feed me more had been ignored. Hyrum picked up on it, and as he scooped me off the table said, “Wick gets to eat a lot, whenever he wants. But he runs around a lot, too, so he’s never gonna be fat. He’s just little, that’s all.”
“I know. He’s always been small, but—”
“I eat a lot, too, and I’m small and skinny. Some of us are littler than others.”
He’s not wrong, you know.
The vet caved; I was fine, I was healthy, Hyrum was absolutely right. He hovered behind the front counter while Hyrum asked how much the visit was and if he could use a cash card because he didn’t have any “real” money—there was no charge, the Emperor had set up an account with them for me—and on the way out the door I heard the vet whisper, “Oh, of course, I forgot he’s from Florida.”
Hyrum heard it, too.
“Well, that’s not my fault. I’m glad you didn’t get any shots, Wick. I hate shots. The last time I had shots, Daddy said I was a wimp because I cried. But it hurt. It hurt a lot.”
Well, sure, you got stabbed. I’d cry, too.
He held me close as we crossed the street, even when people waved and said hello to him. He jutted his chin in response, something he’d picked up from Drew, and his mood lifted as people asked how he was, but he didn’t ease his grip on me until we were in the waiting room of his therapist’s office.
I’d been to the building before, once, when Will waited there for Aubrey and Hyrum. The video monitor had been on and he suffered through children’s programming, blurting an expletive at an anthropomorphic elephant just as Hyrum and Aubrey exited the office.
I didn’t mind being here. There was no sterile, antiseptic fog hanging in the air, stinging my nose and eyes. The waiting room was bright and cheery, with each wall painted a different color, and a toddler-sized whiteboard took up considerable real estate on the back wall. There were dozens of markers scattered about, and as many names as there were markers had been spelled on the board in new-writer scrawl.
Hyrum glanced at the board but didn’t add his name, whether from disinterest or a want of not having the world know that he saw a therapist once a week, sometimes twice if he’d had a particularly upsetting day. This was one of those weeks; he’d been here three days earlier and asked Aubrey to make him another appointment.
She didn’t ask why; she got up and made the call, refusing to pry. If he wanted to talk, he would. It might be her, it might be Jax, or it might be Eli, but it wouldn’t happen until after he’d been here and sorted through his thoughts.
In tiny letters near the bottom, someone older, perhaps thirteen or fourteen had written in block letters are loved.
I wondered if any of the children who had written their names had ever seen that.
I wondered if Hyrum had.
Dr. Graham Cheshire was younger than I expected. I’d had a mental image of Hyrum’s therapist as a wizened older man with a lock of gray hair flopping down in his eyes, wearing a suit a size too big, his dress shoes scuffed and worn. The man who had been tending to Hyrum’s issues for the past six years was younger than he was. His hair was dark and neatly trimmed, and he wore jeans with a blazer thrown over a t-shirt. He was young enough that I wondered why Aubrey had picked him, not only for Hyrum but for Oz as well.
The room Hyrum carried me to resembled someone’s living room, not a doctor’s office. There were comfy chairs and a sofa, toys on the floor and on a kid-sized table that was under a window, complete with tiny chairs. What it lacked was a coffee table, and when Hyrum bounced onto the sofa, he wasn’t sure where I should be. At home, he would have set me on the coffee table and let me decide for myself where I wanted to be. Here, the protocol was unclear.
Dr. Cheshire reached for one of the tiny chairs and set it near the sofa. “You must be Wick,” he said as Hyrum set me on it, thanking him at the same time. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Of course, you have. I’m awesome.
“Hyrum tells me you’re a very good listener.” He held out a hand, letting me sniff his fingers before touching me. Most of the time when people did that, I rubbed my face on them so they would know I welcomed a well-placed head skritch, but this time I opened my mouth and gently closed my teeth around his middle finger, much to Hyrum’s horror.
“Wick, that’s mean! Don’t bite him.”
Dr. Cheshire knew. “He’s not biting me, Hyrum. It’s a warning.”
I felt Hyrum’s fingers tapping my back. “Wick, you have to let go! You’re gonna get in trouble.”
I wasn’t, and I knew it. I looked up at Dr. Cheshire and noted how his mouth twitched at the corners, holding back a grin.
“It’s fine,” he said. “I think Wick wants me to understand that he’s very protective of you, and I appreciate that.”
I let his finger go.
“I’m really sorry,” Hyrum said, voice shaking. “He’s never done that before.”
I’d bitten quite a few people in the past, but he didn’t need to know that. Dr. Cheshire repeated that it was fine, and then asked me if he could pet me.
This time, I rubbed up against his hand.
After that, I did not exist, which I was fine with. Hyrum cut right to it, and the therapist sat back in his chair and listened to Hyrum describe the dreams that were bothering him, waking him night after night, all revolving around his father. He’d hit his breaking point and couldn’t take it anymore.
“When did the dreams begin?”
“Around my birthday. Maybe before. Or maybe after. I don’t know why.”
Hyrum grunted. “There was this man named Tobias. Maybe he’s why.”
The doctor waited, giving Hyrum time to think. I waited, too, because I didn’t see a way that he could explain having met his dead father in a simulator, nor realizing that Jax wanted to kill him all over again. I wasn’t even sure Hyrum understood that we were in a simulation and that none of the people he’d met were real.
“He looked just like my daddy,” Hyrum finally said. “But I know it wasn’t really him.”
“Because your father is dead.”
“No, that’s not why. I think Jesus would let me see my daddy if it was important enough. But I know Tobias wasn’t my daddy because he said I was a good man. And he said I was loved. Daddy would have never said that on account of he thought I was bad, and he never loved me.”
“And following that, the dreams began.”
He listened as Hyrum described the dreams in detail, dreams that sounded more like memories taunting him at night. These were all things the doctor had heard before, tales of abuse that Aubrey had also listened to. The doctor kept his composure and talked Hyrum through the ugly facts of his life, while Aubrey fought to stay quiet and tried desperately not to cry.
“I know Daddy can’t ever hurt me again,” Hyrum said as he wound down. “And I know Aubrey and Jax and Will and Aisha and Oz and Drew and Zed and Jay and Eli love me, and they want me here, but I don’t know why I still dream about my daddy.”
“Have you spoken to your mother lately?”
Hyrum nodded and seemed to deflate. “I didn’t tell her about the dreams. She would just say it’s nonsense and to stop thinking bad things about him on account of he’s dead. Jesus wouldn’t like that.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Stuff.” Hyrum shrugged. “She decided she wants to live in her own house again, so Red and Joe and Spencer are fixing it up for her. I think maybe his wife told her to get out. She’s kind of nosy and pushy.”
“Spencer’s wife, or your mother?”
“Both.” He giggled. “That’s mean. I’m sorry.”
“It’s the truth of your experience. And it might explain your dreams. On top of meeting a man who looks like your father, suddenly your mother has plans of her own. Does it bother you that those plans don’t include you?”
Softly, “I’m scared that they do.”
We rode the rest of the way down California Street—his therapist was two blocks up—looped around at Market and having built some speed, he reversed direction and began the long climb up a street so steep that Jax nearly killed himself barreling down it when he was a teenager. I heard the gears on his bike grind, and then Hyrum chuckled. His guards were behind us and one uttered, “Holy fucking god,” as he crested the first intersection.
“Watch, Wick,” he said, pumping harder. “They hate this.”
He pulled away from the two guards behind him, nearly cackling with glee, and when he crested the third intersection, I heard the familiar whine of an air bike coming from Sansome Street. It waited until we passed and then slipped in behind us, following close, but not too close, allowing him the illusion of riding alone.
Usually, he turned onto Grant, cutting through Chinatown on his way home, but this time he turned onto Kearney and headed for Columbus, which prompted the guard to speed up and settle beside him.
“Slow down and let them catch up.” The guard was as amused as Hyrum. “It won’t go over well if one of them has a heart attack.”
“I’m just going to the chocolate place,” Hyrum said. “Can they catch up there?”
The guard nodded and fell back into place and let Hyrum ride as fast as he wanted. By the time he was done at Ghirardelli, the others would be waiting, probably breathless and very liking wanting to vomit, and the guard riding the air bike would be gone.
“Jax said if they wanna keep their jobs they have to keep up,” Hyrum said, changing gears. “Is it okay, Wick? Should I take you home first?”
“I think you’re okay. I wish I could understand you like Will and Drew. I don’t want to make you mad.”
You hear words sometimes. We’ll get there.
He slowed down when we reached the street in front of Ghirardelli Square, but instead of getting off and locking up his bike, he let out a tiny squeal and said, “It’s Denny!” He rolled across the road and pulled up next to the bright red bike taxi and the driver who had given Hyrum his first ride in one not long after he came to San Francisco.
Denny lifted his hand for a high-five. “Hyrum, my man. How’s it hanging?”
“I dunno. Should I look?”
Denny barked out a laugh. “I was just heading back to Market. Up for a fast ride?”
Hyrum glanced over his shoulder at the guards who had just arrived. “You might miss people who want a ride.”
“I get better fares from the Ferry Building. How about it?”
If they can’t keep up, they can get another assignment.
“Loser buys a root beer!” Hyrum squealed, taking off.
His laughter trailed behind us, and I wanted to know which guard would throw up first.
He did not lose. He edged Denny out by the length of a tire and then waved off the root beer when Denny was approached by a tired tourist who just wanted to get to Pier 39 and had no idea how to do that without taking a walk for which he no longer had the energy. Instead of collecting on the bet, Hyrum locked his bike up—using two locks, the way Aubrey asked him to, even though the guards would never let anyone steal it—and we headed into the Ferry Building. There were cheeseburgers there, he told me, and since he’d ridden all the way up California, he’d had enough exercise that he could also have a milkshake.
Have a root beer if you want.
Root beer, he said, had too much sugar. The milkshake had milk, which made it healthy. It was the same mental gymnastics routine he often did to justify what he wanted. Pizza was purchased by the slice, because a whole pizza would be greedy; he ignored the fact that the slices were 8 inches long and the personal-sized whole pizza was only 6 inches around. Donuts were bought two at a time, but only one ever had chocolate glaze because getting it on both was decadent and probably a sin.
He loved chocolate shakes, but not with whipped cream, and he asked three times to be sure he wouldn’t get any.
His server knew him, knew he never wanted the whipped cream but humored him anyway. He also knew who I was, and asked Hyrum if I wanted steak or shrimp today; they had both, and he would be happy to get some for me.
“Both,” Hyrum said. “That would make his day.”
You know me so well.
He turned to look out the door, down the long hall that led to ferry exits, and at the very end, Sophia’s new café.
“I hope I can still eat here when Sophia opens up,” he said with a sigh. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings by coming here.”
Sophia’s café, Sof y Z, would serve fusion foods with an emphasis on Mexican. She wouldn’t be offended if Hyrum kept going to his favorite burger place, though she might tease him if he didn’t stop in for dessert. I made a mental note to tell Will; he could pass it along to her, just to make sure he’d thought about it.
We were at a table near a window with a view of the dock, and beyond that, the bay. Hyrum watched as ferries slipped past, waving at people who wandered by on their way home. More than half recognized him and returned his wave, and half of the rest at least smiled at him.
When he paid the bill, he calculated the tip carefully, muttering under his breath about percentages being too much like fractions, even though they weren’t minuses and fractions were minuses and he was done with that. Aubrey could try all she wanted, but he graduated from school and that meant no more fractions.
He didn’t mind her history lessons; those gave him things to talk to Jax about. He loved spelling and grammar and was learning about poetry. He enjoyed adding and subtracting and things like half cups and quarter cups in baking didn’t count. He refused to learn fractions or admit that he had a grasp on them. I watched as he ticked numbers off on his fingers, and then head-butted him when he asked if he’d gotten the number right.
Close enough. You might be on the high end, even.
I rode through the Ferry Building in the crook of his arm. He stopped a dozen times to greet people, mostly those running small stores and spots where tourists and ferry riders could grab quick bites, and when we were almost to the end, where Sophia’s café was under construction, he dug into his pocket for his wallet to make one more purchase. Outside, he searched the Embarcadero as I perched on his shoulder, bouncing on his toes as he looked toward the Bay Bridge, anxiety building with each push off his toes.
I’m gonna fall, dude. If I don’t fall, it’ll be because I used my claws and neither of us wants that.
He slowed, giving me a chance to re-center myself before he twitched hard at the sound of his name coming from the back of a pack of tourists.
“Hi, Hy! Hi, Hy! Hi, Hy!”
He almost launched me when he jumped up, trying to spot his friend. “Ash! Hi!” He raised the bag he’d been clutching in his other hand. “I got you some lunch!”
Ash, someone I had never heard of much less seen, skipped around the group he’d been following and was reaching out before he was close enough to take the bag.
“It’s egg salad, the way you like it with mustard on the bread,” Hyrum told him. “And there’s chips and a drink.”
Ash opened the bag and sniffed, inhaling as if he were taking in the aroma of the best meal he would ever have. “Weren’t expecting you today, Hy. Dumb luck I was trailing them people.”
“No stealing. You promised.”
“No stealing. But I can ask. If I’m nice, people will give me munchies and drinks. Or beer. One old guy, he bought me a beer last week. Another guy, he tried to give me happy pills. Nope, nope, nope. That’s what I said. Nope, nope, nope. Ash don’t do that. Those make you slow and stupid. I said him that.”
We followed Ash to a bench near the pier entry and Hyrum sat down, leaving space between him and his friend. “Don’t be mean, okay? Why don’t you go ask the shelter for help? I know they would. Will says they help anyone who wants it.”
“Don’t wanna work,” Ash said around the huge bite he’d taken from his sandwich. “Don’t wanna live inside.”
“But they would give you food. You wouldn’t have to ask people every day.”
“Make me live inside. Nope, nope, nope. I get food outside, and when I stink I shower at the beach. Lots of places to poop. I like outside.”
Hyrum knew it was not an argument he would win. I pieced it together as they talked while Ash wolfed down his food. He was good at convincing people to feed him—clearly, Hyrum was buying lunch for him at least once a week—and he’d learned where he could trade his dirty clothes for clean ones. I suspected wherever he went for that, it was connected to the shelter system, but even if Hyrum could understand me, I wouldn’t have said so.
My ear twitched at the sound of someone sitting on the ground nearby; one of Hyrum’s guards had pressed close while another walked past, making sure Hyrum knew where he was. Ash seemed oblivious to the men who looked like tourists, his concentration on Hyrum and his food, and not necessarily in that order. They were pushing closer to make sure they could hear; Hyrum had freedom to roam, but not freedom to overly extend himself.
I had the feeling that they were comfortable with Ash, that this had been going on long enough that it was nothing more than Hyrum helping someone in need, but no one was taking a chance. I eyed the distance Hyrum had placed between himself and Ash; he wasn’t taking a chance, either.
When the last bite was gone and Ash had drained the drink cup, Hyrum asked if he’d gotten enough. If not, he could go get him another sandwich.
“I’m good. Thanks. Lots of thanks, Hy. You’re a good guy.”
“Where are you gonna go today?”
“Up to the beach. Take a shower. Throw rocks into the ocean. Someone’s gotta keep ’em off the beach. Little kids, they can get hurt, you know?”
Ash left, and we wandered down the pier to watch ferries come in while Hyrum let his lunch settle. He’d learned the hard way, he said as he tucked me close. If you eat a burger and fries and have a milk shake, then when you ride your bike home, your tummy starts to rumble. When that happens, you have to stop at the place that sells cookies and cupcakes and four kinds of milk to use their restroom, and they’ll let you because they’re nice, but you really should buy something, on account of that’s polite.
For the record, it had happened to him three times, and each time he bought little bottles of chocolate milk to share with Rhys and Marco. It was before Alex and Charlie were old enough to drink chocolate milk, otherwise he would have gotten them some, too.
Jonathan wasn’t even born then, and neither was baby Eli.
He promised that as the babies got older, he would buy more chocolate milk to share.
“I like the name Eli but they shoulda given him a different name than his grandpa,” Hyrum said, sighing. “How’s he gonna know if we’re talking to him or not?”
You always call him baby Eli.
“Maybe they’ll give him a nickname, like Red’s got. No one calls him Redmond except Mom when she’s mad.”
Kinda hard to truncate a three-letter name, but okay. I suppose we can just call him E. Get three or four people yelling down the hall for him at once and it’ll sound like a torture chamber.
Eeeeee. Eeeee. Eeeee.
Or maybe crows.
Or bats in the belfry.
Half an hour later, after giving up on renaming Oz and Drew’s infant son, and after waving at three incoming ferries, he decided his lunch was settled enough, and we went back for the bicycle. As we passed his guards, one sighed, “I swear, if we go back up California, I’m asking for a new assignment,” and the other laughed and said, “No, you won’t. You’ve never had this much fun at work.”
For certain, he’d never had this much exercise.
Mrs. Strauss, owner of the shop that sold cookies and cupcakes and four kinds of milk, was crossing Market Street carrying boxes that obscured her view, causing her to lean her head to one side just to see where she was going. With every other step the top box shifted, she paused, and once she seemingly had things under control, it happened again.
Hyrum pedaled faster and when we were near the shop’s door, he stopped the bike and then ran to help her. He left me in the basket with the top closed and darted into the street, and despite the vehicular traffic ban, he looked both ways first.
“Always look, Hyrum,” Will reminded him on a day when he started to run across Geary Street. “Cars aren’t permitted downtown, but there are still delivery vans and taxis to keep an eye for.”
He didn’t want to be squished, because that would hurt; even when it was a cursory glance, he made sure to check for something coming at him. If there had been, he still might have jumped out just to grab Mrs. Strauss, though I’m not sure what he would have done about her boxes, which had started to slide again when he reached her. He took two and would have taken the third if she’d let him, but truthfully, Hyrum was quite a bit shorter than she was and his view was almost as blocked by just the two.
She extended her gratitude to him with an offer for a free cupcake. Hyrum beamed but politely declined since he had just had lunch and didn’t want to throw up while riding his bike, and eating a cupcake might do that since he was full. Besides, he had me, and he already felt bad about leaving me in the basket.
You handled that nicely. I know you wanted the cupcake.
“I really am full,” he said to me as he mounted the bike. “Also, I want to ride a little more. I can take you home if you want. Just meow and I’ll take you home.”
I did not meow.
The basket was not entirely comfortable, especially when he rode over the cable car rails or the small round things in the street intended to separate the red bike lanes from the green bike lanes. The red, he explained, were meant for people like Denny who rode bikes for work, like taxis and delivering food. The green lanes were for people like him, who were just riding around.
The riding lanes were newish, installed after a surge in bicycle ownership that followed in the wake of interest over the royal offspring and their Uncle Hyrum taking to the streets with brand new bikes several years earlier. There were the curmudgeonly few who mocked them for using such an antiquated way of getting around, but so many more saw the joy in Hyrum as he raced Drew down the Embarcadero or his giggle-laden laps around Union Square, and wanted to try it for themselves.
Bicycle rental kiosks popped up, followed by specialty retail stores, then repair shops. Riding was popular downtown, where there was no competition with traffic for safe street space, but plans had been made to extend the bike lanes around the city. It all stemmed from Hyrum’s desire to learn how to ride a bike.
Riding had become now fluid motion for him; he switched gears with ease and he tackled the city hills as if he’d been born to them. He could also easily jump the curb, but only did it once with me, quick to apologize when my head slammed into the top of the protective mesh on the basket.
He’d stopped again. Just outside the Paper Hut, a man on his knees was picking up a scattered mess of dropped pens, and Hyrum wanted to help pick them up. He greeted the man by name, and said, “Hi, Mr. Hoover,” as he dropped the kickstand and then squatted to begin scooping up the pens. “What happened?”
“I sneezed, that’s what happened. I sneezed, and everything went flying. Hyrum, if you’re holding a hundred ink pens in an old, flimsy bag, don’t sneeze.”
“Okay. I won’t.”
“How’s the new drawing paper? Liking it?”
“I like it a lot. But I feel bad because I’m kind of hiding it from the babies. I let them use the other paper, though. The stuff Jay gave me.”
The last of the pens had been stacked on the ripped bag, which Mr. Hoover began rolling around them. “Ah, don’t feel guilty. They’re happy with the paper you let them use, right? And I bet your friend Jay doesn’t let anyone else use his professional art supplies. Sometimes, you need to keep something nice for yourself.”
“I know, but I still feel bad. I should share.”
“They’re happy to draw pictures on the other paper, I promise. Now,” he grunted as he got up, “thank you for helping me. I’m too old to be on my knees like that.”
“Maybe next time you should carry them in a box, in case you sneeze again.”
Mr. Hoover wasn’t much older than Hyrum, so I’m not sure why he was too old to get down on his knees while it didn’t bother Hyrum at all. Then again, Hyrum often sat in a deep squat while he played with Rhys, and Jax couldn’t fathom how anyone over six could still manage that.
Why doesn’t Mr. Hoover call you Mr. Munson?
I might never know.
It seemed like Hyrum was taking the long way to get back to Ghirardelli, where he’d forgotten about the chocolate in favor of riding with Denny. There was no getting around a hill or two, but none were as long or as steep as California—well, there were bigger and steeper hills, but not between Hyrum and the chocolate—so the guards had less to whine about.
I was certain that’s where he was headed, until he made a sharp turn and reversed direction to head up Taylor (which was a bit of a climb, though I didn’t hear anything from the Queen’s bad word list coming from behind us.) He stopped at Grace Cathedral and locked the bike to a utility pole near the front steps, and then stood on the sidewalk and stared up at the centuries-old church.
Oz and Drew got married here.
Oh, remind me later to tell you about their reception.
There was a fly…
“I’m not Catholic,” he said, mostly to himself. “But I see people going in all the time and I think they’re tourists. Would it be okay?”
It’s okay. It’s open all the time so anyone can go in.
“I like the churches here.” He set me in the crook of his arm and started up the steps, slowly, still unsure. “They’re really pretty. Back home, church is just a place like a store with pews. Daddy said we’re not supposed to decorate them too nice, because then everyone is looking at the walls and not thinking about the Lord.”
And yet he built a bunch of super expensive and ornately decorated temples.
Hyrum had never seen the inside of a temple. His own father deemed him unworthy and ripe with sin, denying him the most sacred rites of their religion, the things that would guarantee him a spot in the highest level of heaven.
Once inside, he sucked in a deep breath. “Oh. Oh. Wick, this is really pretty.”
He took tiny steps up the aisle and stopped near the center, dazzled by all the stained glass. Without meaning to, he pressed me to his chest, and I could feel the increasing beat of his heart and how quickly he was breathing. He turned round and round; this was more than he could absorb in a minute or two, but it rapidly overwhelmed him and he needed to sit down.
“Will anyone get mad if I sit here?” he whispered to me.
Sound carries in the cathedral. A deep voice came from the tiny room where Oz waited before the wedding, “Please sit. Enjoy yourself.”
Hyrum turned sharply, feeling as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t. There was another sharp breath as the priest approached, but he relaxed when the priest held his hand out to Hyrum and introduced himself as Father Dan.
“I’m Hyrum. This is Wick.”
“I know Wick,” he said, touching the top of my head. “And I haven’t met you, but I do know your sister. Please, feel free to explore the church if you like.”
“I just want to sit for a minute. This is so pretty. It makes my stomach hurt.”
Father Dan gestured to the closest pew. “Wick is allowed on the pew or the ground. Don’t worry about whether it will upset anyone.” He sat next to Hyrum. “Wick’s a bit famous here. He was the highlight of the Princess’s wedding.”
I was, wasn’t I?
“I didn’t get to see that. But my mom did, on TV. She told me about it later.”
You were too busy walking across the country when they got married.
“I missed a lot of things,” Hyrum went on. “Is it a sin if I say I don’t miss my church? It would be a lie if I said I did.”
“Church is a place to connect with God,” Father Dan said, carefully. “Do you miss God?”
“Nuh. I talk to him every day. Aubrey says he hears me and he’s always with me, no matter what my daddy said. But I don’t go to church anymore and that makes my mom mad.”
“Would you like to go back?”
“To Florida?” Hyrum flinched. “Nuh.”
“I meant to church.”
“Oh. I didn’t really like it on account of it always made me feel bad. But I like bible stories and talking to Jesus, and my sister helps me read her bible. I can read the kid’s bible that Will bought for me, but hers is hard. It has really old words and they don’t make sense to me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a children’s bible, Hyrum. Whichever brings you joy and touches your heart, that’s the one you read.”
Hyrum enjoyed both, and he cherished the time spent cuddled up with his sister on the sofa, reciting the bible verses his father used to force upon him. The difference now was that she didn’t require him to memorize them, and if he did and got them wrong, she didn’t anger.
Aubrey loved his take on most of the bible verses he recited. He understood the spirit, even if he tripped over the words.
“Did Aubrey tell you about me?” he asked after a while, half an hour into a conversation that Father Dan steered into shallow waters meant to make Hyrum feel safe. “That I’m not smart?”
“We’ve spoken about you. Her exact words were, I believe, that you’re warm and wonderful, and you deserve as much happiness as you wish for.”
“I’m happy. I like living here.”
“But?” he prompted.
“I’m scared that God is mad at me. I’m not sad that my Daddy is dead, and I don’t miss my mom. And I have bad dreams about my daddy. I think God is trying to talk to me in my dreams.”
Tread carefully, Padre. I’ll bite a priest if I have to.
“God is not mad, Hyrum. I promise. He understands why you don’t grieve. And he understands that men grow up and live apart from their mothers. Most men don’t long to be with them again.”
Softly, “But I’m not honoring them.”
“I think you are. You have a relationship with the Lord, and you speak with him daily. You work hard and think about others first—your sister is certainly proud of you.”
“She doesn’t go to church, either.”
Father Dan nodded. “Her attendance would make services difficult for others and she doesn’t want to interrupt their worship for the sake of her own. She has spiritual advisors and speaks with them often.”
“People like you?”
He nodded. “She listens to people of many faiths and gives each of us equal consideration.”
“She met me a rabbi last week,” Hyrum mused. “I liked her. But she kept asking me to turn on lights and then turn them off. I did it but she coulda done that herself. I’m pretty sure she had all her fingers and stuff.”
“It was her sabbath,” Father Dan explained. “Part of her religious law is to leave untouched the trappings of modern life that require work. She employs someone to do that for her, lights and cooking, things like that.”
“Oh. Okay. It’s a God thing.”
“It’s a God thing.”
“I’m not Catholic.”
“I know,” Father Dan said. “Everyone is welcome here and there are weekly multi-faith services.”
Hyrum’s nose scrunched as he considered what he wanted to ask. “Do you do blessings here? The last blessing I got was from my brother Red, and it was a long time ago. But it’s okay if you don’t or I can’t get one because I’m not Catholic. I don’t know what I am.”
“You,” Father Dan said as he rose from the pew, “are one of God’s children. That’s all that matters.”
He placed a hand on Hyrum’s head and bowed his own, which made me think I should get a good hard look at the floor, too. I listened to the blessing, and then as they prayed together—Father Dan went along with Hyrum’s off-the-cuff, conversation-with-Jesus kind of prayer—and didn’t look up until I heard him say “amen.”
Brace yourself, padre. The hug of all hugs is coming.
I was not wrong.
Hyrum threw his arms around Father Dan as he thanked him and then asked if he could come back some day.
“Come back, we’ll explore the church together. There’s more to see than this.”
“That’s the biggest church I’ve ever seen,” he said as he secured me in the basket. “The prettiest, too. And I like Father Dan. It feels like his blessing was a really good one and I think Red would have liked it. My mom would have wet herself.” He let slip a tiny giggle. “Mom peed herself a tiny little bit in church once, but she was really pregnant, so it was okay. Daddy got mad, anyway. But he was always mad so it doesn’t count.”
He glanced over his shoulder, looking for the closest guard, and with another amused giggle, took off down California. He didn’t pursue the same death-defying ride Jax had at 17; Hyrum slowed for intersections and kept a sharp eye out for people. But the guards were not as attuned to the steep downhill and when one shot past him, Hyrum yelled, “Don’t ride your brakes, you’ll wear them out!”
This particular guard was Catholic, as evidenced by him crossing himself when he reached the flat part of the street.
Hyrum was still laughing as he sped past. He coasted toward the plaza, stopping near the fountain. Several small kids were playing nearby, watched closely by mothers who sat on the steps to talk, and Hyrum waved at them. One small boy roughly Rhys’s age broke away from his friends and ran over, excitedly asking Hyrum if he could play today.
“I can’t today, Brian,” he said. “I have Wick and it’s not fair to make him sit and wait for me that long.”
“Aw. He can play, too.”
“I’m sorry. We’re just gonna sit for a minute today. Maybe I can play next week.”
Brian shuffled back.
I have a request, if I can make you understand.
“You want out? Okay, but I really am only staying for a minute so the guards can catch their breath.”
I need something to drink, Hyrum. I’m getting thirsty.
He set me on the flat edge of the fountain. The water was tempting, but if I stretched to get a drink, I would fall in, and I wasn’t sure it was safe, anyway.
Please hear that.
“Sometimes I stop and play with them,” he said, gesturing to the kids. “One day I was sitting here, and their ball rolled at me and I rolled it back, and they kept doing it. I made sure their moms were okay with it, on account of they might think I was weird. But they didn’t.”
I pawed at his arm, trying to get him to hear me.
I haven’t had water since this morning, dude.
“It’s only gonna take them a minute until they can ride again.”
The last thing I wanted to do was make Hyrum feel bad, but I’d reached the point where going for a swim seemed like a good idea. I backed up a step, opened my mouth, and started panting.
That got him to his feet. “What’s wrong, Wick? Are you okay?”
Oz would have understood. Jax would have. But Hyrum had no idea what a panting cat might need, and he went from mild concern to panic so fast that I felt awful about it. I turned and stretched to see if I could reach the water in the fountain, risking that it was loaded with not-cat-friendly chemicals.
He snatched me up before I fell in.
“No, Wick! That might make you sick. Little kids pee in there!” Then the realization hit him. “Oh no. Oh no. You’re thirsty. I’m sorry, Wick. I’m really sorry.”
He pressed me to his chest and ran, leaving his bike to the mercies of whoever might want to take it and headed for the small coffee shop near the old Hilton. He was near tears when he reached the door and thundered inside, yelling for Mrs. Welby. She was behind the counter and, I guessed, knew him well enough to take him seriously when he shouted across the room, “Wick needs water before he dies!”
Mrs. Welby, a woman his mother’s age, didn’t match his level of panic, but grabbed a glass and filled it, and told him to bring me over. She set it on a booth table and told Hyrum it was all right to set me on it; she would disinfect the tabletop when I was done. I stuck my face in and began lapping the cold water, hoping that Hyrum would calm down by the time I could tear myself away from it.
“I coulda killed Wick,” he sobbed. “I never got him a drink today. It didn’t think about it.”
She rubbed his shoulder. “He’s all right, Hyrum. It’s not a hot day, and surely he had something to drink earlier.”
“But not when he was with me and we’ve been bike riding all day. I got him lunch but forgot to get him a drink. He started doing this” —he mimicked my panting— “and it was really scary.”
“Cats do that sometimes. My Tinker does it when she’s hot or upset.”
“It’s not hot out,” he sniffed.
“Then all he needed was a drink. That’s what he was trying to tell you.”
I sat back on my haunches, water dripping from my chin. He looked terrified, like he was waiting for me to shrivel like a raisin, which made me realize I’d gone too far with the panting.
I rubbed against his arm.
Thank you. I feel better now.
“Take another drink, Wick. I gotta be sure.”
I did as he said and lapped up a bit more water, as much as I could without getting my head stuck in the glass. He started to calm, satisfied that I wasn’t going to curl up and die, and then remembered he’d left his bike near the fountain.
“I hope it’s still there.”
You have guards. They won’t let anyone take it.
“It’s okay if it means you got a drink,” he said, though I knew he’d be crushed if it were stolen. “I’m really sorry. I should take you home. Maybe we’re done riding bikes today.”
I’m fine, I promise.
His bike was waiting right outside the coffee shop, an arm’s length away from the guard who had whined the most yet had thought to move it closer, right where Hyrum would see it as he exited the coffee shop. He gave Hyrum a thumb’s up and went back to his usual position, mounting his black bike, and they waited to see where Hyrum wanted to go. His mood had taken a turn; he was slow to secure the mesh basket cover and slower to get on his bike.
He decided against taking the guards up California again, choosing to head down Market instead. It proved to be a good decision; otherwise, a woman might have been gored by a tree limb, right there on the sidewalk outside the drugstore.
Partly because teenaged Jax was an idiot had ridden down California on an old bicycle, not stopping, not slowing down, cars had been banned from the downtown area. There were exceptions: taxis could drop people off and pick people up if called—no loitering for fares—and delivery vans could come into the area to unload. Air bikes were permitted, with speed restrictions. Vehicles for the differently abled were allowed. But personal air cars, personal land rovers, and buses were not.
There was ample parking on the outskirts of the restricted area, and the city was walkable. Locals had long gotten over their anger about the ban, and tourists learned quickly how they could get their trinkets and souvenirs delivered to their hotels, eliminating the need to carry everything around.
Mid-afternoon was generally quiet along Market Street. The lunch rush was over and people who worked downtown were mostly inside. Tourists were closer Union Square or wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf and Per Thirty-Nine. Market was a major avenue that ran down the center of the city so there were nearly always a few people out and about, but there could be a block or two between groups of people.
The important thing here, though, is that because there were few vehicles on the street at any given time, the trees had been allowed to grow and weren’t trimmed as often as they had been. Without the worry of impeding traffic or damaging cars, the decision was made to allow for some natural growth. They were taller than in other parts of the city, with thick canopies that stretched over the street and sidewalks.
They were also very old.
Hyrum pedaled slowly, still upset, and he was quiet. He’d talked to me all day as we rode around, but now he fell silent, and I let him be. He only rarely heard a word I said and I didn’t think talking nonstop, hoping he would catch something, would be helpful. I watched him instead of looking at where we were headed, and saw his eyes go wide a fraction of a second after I heard the first crack.
The bike was still in motion when he jumped off, letting it fall to its side. I went down with it, protected by the mesh and I bounced once, but not painfully. I was able to turn as the bike landed on its side and skid forward a few feet, and watched as he sprinted to sidewalk. His voice was loud and abrupt as he shouted, “Watch out!” at a woman who had not heard what he had, and certainly had no idea that she was a breath and a half and only one or two heartbeats away from having a tree limb as big around as Hyrum land on her head.
He grabbed her by the arm and yanked her, ignoring her shriek to let go, into the alcove of the drug store doorway, shielding her from the little twigs and leaves that tipped the fringes of the broken limb. He only let go when he was sure they were safe, when his guards—their own bikes left on the street—began shouting for him, ordering him to speak out, as they tugged on the branch to pull it off the sidewalk.
“I’m sorry I touched you,” Hyrum said as he stepped back. “I didn’t want you to get squished.”
Her indignity over being grabbed vaporized and she clutched at his arm, trying to pull him back. She pressed one hand to her chest, trying to catch her breath, trying to thank him without being able to speak, trying to do anything other than meltdown. Hyrum promised her she was all right, and that one of his guards would make sure she got home okay, but he had to check on me, on account of he let his bike drop and I might be scared.
I was not scared.
“I’m sorry, Wick,” he said as he carefully picked his bike up. “I didn’t have time to think.”
You did good.
And I mean that literally.
“But now we can tell Drew that the basket works. Oh! Maybe we shouldn’t tell Aubrey. She’ll just get upset and then she’ll make you show her that you’re okay.” He leaned toward the basket and whispered, “Sometimes that ends in a bath and you wouldn’t like that.”
No. I would not.
He pedaled a bit quicker the rest of the way home, a bit lighter, and after he stored the bike, he sat on the stairs with me, staring out the front door.
Hyrum’s mood was better, but there was a bubble of anxiety forming around him, but I couldn’t fathom why. He’d saved a woman’s life; he should be flying high on the adrenaline rush.
Will was coming down the steps from Union Square.
Before Will had stepped inside, Hyrum was on his feet. “I made a big mistake with Wick and I didn’t know he needed water and he did this” —he panted for a few seconds— “and I’m really sorry and if you’re mad that’s okay.”
“I’m not mad.” Will reached down and tucked a finger under my chin. “You don’t look any worse for the wear.”
It was my mistake. I should have found a better way to let him know I wanted a drink. I wasn’t that bad off.
“Wick only wanted to convey the idea that he was thirsty, Hyrum. The mistake was his.”
“Was not,” Hyrum grumbled. “I shoulda known.”
“Clearly, he’s fine. We’ll come up with a signal he can give you in the future, so he doesn’t alarm you again.”
“I’m still allowed to take him for rides?”
“Did he enjoy it?”
“Then you’re allowed.”
Visibly relieved, he followed Will up the stairs. At some point, he’d brought the kids home and they were in Aubrey and Jax’s living room with Marco, stacking wood blocks as high as they could before throwing stuffed animals at them. Aubrey was at the table where she could keep an eye on them, thumbing through a cookbook, and she smiled when she saw him.
“You’ve been gone a while.”
“We did stuff. Wick’s checkup was good, and he doesn’t have to go back for another year.”
She didn’t ask about his appointment; if he wanted to talk about it, he would, and she knew that. She glanced at her watch and said, “That was a few hours ago. Plenty of time to get into some mischief.”
“Nuh. I was good.”
“You’re always good. What did the two of you do all day?”
Hyrum set me on the table, and then shrugged.
“Nothing special. Just a bike ride. What’s for dinner?”
(c) 2019 K.A. Thompson