Home 16-II

Lions And Tigers And Bears.

Frost crunched under my boots as I strolled along the path. It had been another night of almost-but-not-quite snow, and the sky was still mottled with inconsistent grey and white tufts. Despite it being late morning, the sun was only barely up: less than half of its mass poked out above the distant forest behind me. That was winter for you, I suppose. I personally found it annoying. Made the days feel way too short.

But now the sun was up, and I'd eaten a breakfast that had been thankfully Mom-absent. Dad had successfully defused the tension the night before, but that didn't make it go away, and if I hadn't been avoiding her all morning, it would've come right back up again like spoiled meat. So I'd gotten up early (comparatively speaking, for a winter’s Saturday morning), scarfed down a bite, scarfed up and walked out into the pre-dawn chill. Not just to get out, although sometimes I did do that when the weather was a little more hospitable; no, I had a purpose.

I was making a house call.

A left turn took me onto a familiar street, rows of houses of varying sizes stretching until a T intersection a couple of hundred meters further down. These houses weren't shabby, most of the Wedge wasn't, but they were… more cramped, and maybe ricketier, a little less well-put-together. The street was a lot narrower, for one. Most of the houses didn't have lawns, or very small ones, and there was a lot more verticality to them than around mine. And I know, comparatively speaking, they still had it well off, but it had been kind of an uncomfortable realization for me as I grew older. I know, I know, rich people problems, I get it.

The Anders household was the fifth on the left, a three-story that was familiar to me like the back of my hand. More, actually, because I don't think I could actually tell you the first thing about the back of my hand. I mean, the back of the hand isn't exactly a distinctive area anyway; it's not like it has a lot of detail to set it apart. That's actually a really weird expression, now that I think about it. Does it come from an idiom, or something? Did it originally mean something else and just got poorly translated or just shifted? Maybe knowing something like the back of your hand used to mean that something was generic and not that interesting.

The point is, I knew the house really well. About a meter of grass, dead and covered in frost, on either side of the path leading up to the front door, three steps up to the porch, wooden, an old rocking chair on the left that Mrs. Jackie, Sabah’s grandma, used to sit in. On the right, some potted plants covered by a see-through plastic tent, and a bike with the wheels missing. The door, pale tan plywood that had replaced the old, darker one when Sabi had tried jumping her bike up the stairs and gone straight through it instead, had a small, opaque glass window in it, and through that I could see little flashes of movement.

I reached for the doorbell, paused, reconsidered, and rapped the wood lightly with the back of my gloved hand. The movement behind the glass stopped for a moment, then resumed again, and a second later, the door creaked open, and a small head with a shaven scalp poked around it. Nadia, the youngest of the Anders kids. A bucktoothed grin spread across her face as she recognized me.

“Haaannnahhhhh!” she squeaked excitedly, pulling the door open all the way. “Look at my new book!” She thrust her hands out towards me, and in them was, indeed, a book. A very, very thick book, bound in dull green, with the words 'Advanced Calculus’ printed across the top.

I smiled weakly. “That's… great?”

She nodded, her entire body practically vibrating. “Uh huhhhh! It's super cool, and it's reaaaaaaaallllllly heavy so I can hit people with it!” She promptly proceeded to demonstrate this by whacking me on the arm with it. “See?”

I winced, drawing my arm away. “Haha, I believe you. Please don't do that, though.”

She frowned. “Sabi says that too. She's just being mean, though.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but she'd already turned and run away, carrying her heavy book in front of her and making whooshing noises like it was an airplane. “Moooom,” she called as she ran around a corner, “Hannah’s here!”

I never knew how to deal with Nadia. She’s an, uh, unique child: I don't doubt she'd already read that book cover to cover, despite being six years old. I wasn't great with little kids anyway, so that just compounded the issue.

I stood awkwardly on the porch for a few seconds, listening to the sound of Nadia running around, before louder footsteps heralded the arrival of someone else.

“Oh, Hannah! How are you, dear?” Elizabeth Anders, Miss Elizabeth as childhood instincts still insisted I call her, had a default setting of ‘bone-tired’. With dirty blonde hair swept back into a ragged ponytail, and a thin, lined face and similar figure, she didn't really look like any of her kids, with the exception of maybe Hanan, the second-oldest, who had her hair. All of the other kids took much more strongly after her wife, Maha, especially Sabah, who was her spitting image.

“Good morning, Miss Elizabeth,” I said politely. “I'm good, thank you. How are you?”

She laughed tiredly. “Same old, same old. Come on in, you must be freezing.”

I was. “Oh, it's not so bad,” I said as I stepped inside, shedding my boots and layers, hanging the latter on the rickety coat stand. “I see Nadia has a new obsession.”

“Mm-hmm,” she said with a tired… you know what, just assume that whenever she did anything, it was tired or tiredly. A little smile, is what I was saying. “She's read that thing twice through already, and now she's running around whacking people with it. Some days I almost wish she was a stereotypical gifted kid, all quiet and studious.”

I laughed politely at that. “Where would the fun be in that?”

“True enough,” she acknowledged. “Maybe I should print that out and stick it on the fridge.” She ushered me into the kitchen, where a pot of beans bubbled on the stovetop. “Have you eaten, dear?” she asked me as she picked up a cup of coffee and took a sip.

“Yeah, I'm fine, thank you. I wouldn't mind a cup of-” A mug was pressed into my hand before I even had the chance to finish the sentence. “Oh, thank you.”

“So, how are you holding up?” she asked me as she leaned back against the counter. “With the… ah, incident at school.”

“Well, it's been nice to have the time off,” I joked, half-heartedly. “But mostly I've just been trying not to think about it.”

She nodded sympathetically. “And your hand? Sabah said it got injured.”

I stared at her blankly. It had?

“With the copy, remember?”

Ohhh, right. “Uh, yeah, it's fine.” I held up the hand that had been 'injured’. “Right as rain, see?”

She leaned over, frowning, to take a closer look. “Are you sure? This doesn't look like anything happened to it.”

I shrugged, trying to conceal my nervousness. “I dunno, it wasn't very deep?”

“Lizzie?” asked another voice, interrupting our conversation. “Are you in here?” Walking round the corner was a woman who looked like Sabah, aged up thirty years and with a few extra kilos, wearing a dressing gown and fuzzy slippers. “Oh, Hannah! Good morning.”

“Good morning, Miss Maha,” I said to her with a slightly relieved smile. She returned it, then turned to her wife. “Liz, I can't find Hanan’s-”

“It's under the stairs,” the other woman replied instantly. “Second drawer on the left.”

“Ohh, of course. You're a lifesaver, you know that?” They shared a little chuckle. “Now I just have to get her out of bed.” She turned to leave again, but not before taking the silently offered cup of coffee. “Lifesaver." She blew an air kiss to her. "Sabah!” she called as she exited through the doorway.

“No need to shout,” replies my friend’s voice from out of sight, “I'm right here.” She rounded the corner from the left, saw me, and froze, her body still hidden by the doorway. “Hannah?” Her eyes darted to the side. “Uh, hold on, I just remembered I left the tap on. Back in a sec!” She dashed away back the way she came.

I looked quizzically at Miss Elizabeth, who shrugged. “Well, I guess I'd better go find out what that was about. Thank you for the coffee!”

“You're welcome, dear.” She pursed her lips. “Maybe… just be gentle with Sabi, okay? She’s been having a rough time recently, especially yesterday. And I know she hasn't told you that, because she doesn't want to make you feel like you have to help, but isn't that what friends are for?” She sighed. “I don't know.”

I gave her a thumbs-up as I ducked out of the kitchen. “Ten-four. Friend powers, activate!”

A rough day yesterday? I thought to myself as I ascended the stairs. When she was home doing nothing? Combine that with the reaction I'd gotten just then, and...

What is going on with you, Sabi?

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