Originally written for Shousetsu Bang*Bang.
1. ONCE UPON A TIME
October felt like it would never end. In the rainy late-afternoon haze, it was hard to distinguish the ponchos from the ghost costumes, the umbrellas from the vampire capes. Tom kept a firm grip on Howie's sticky hand. Whenever they came across a wide puddle, he would give Howie arm a little tug, and Howie would float over the puddle before landing toes-first on his shiny new rain boots.
The usually peaceful bookstore was now jam-packed with adults and children alike in a flurry of colorful Halloween costumes. Near the main entrance, several young women wearing dresses made of realistic flowers giggled and took pictures of each other next to a poster on a wooden stand, until the security guard shooed them away to make room for more people.
Meet Brennan Stone, the poster read. Hear Brennan read his latest book and join us for an evening of fun and games—face-painting, Croon checkers, make your own pop-up page, and more! Don't forget to buy a raffle ticket for a chance to win a giant stuffed Buttermumsy! All proceeds will be donated to our Free Books for Children Fund. There was a picture of a man with dark curly hair and clear blue eyes—a perfectly ordinary young man at first glance, handsome by most standards—but there was something atypical about his appearance. On a closer look, his whimsical smile seemed both impish and wise, and he could have been any age between twenty and forty years old.
There was a crowd at the back of the bookstore where the event was taking place, but the frosted glass doors were already closed. Howie's hand squirmed in Tom's grasp, but Tom gave him a stern look, refusing to let go.
"Please quiet down!" came the raspy voice of the bookstore employee, who sat upon a high stool next to the double doors. Tom recognized her as one of his previous students. "We are not letting any more people in. I'm sorry, that's all the space we have."
Some adults groaned and left. Others lingered near the room entrance to get a peek at what was going on side. Tom looked around, trying to find the easiest way through the crowd. To his surprise, he was one of the only adults there who had a small child with him, and certainly the only man among all the women. A few of them smiled at him and Howie while others just stared.
He knelt down beside Howie, shielding him from the flow of people. "It's very crowded in there," he said. "Do you still want to go in?"
Howie nodded, trying to shrug Tom's hands off his shoulders.
"All right, then. Come on." Tom picked him up by the waist and propped Howie in the crook of his arm, feeling a familiar pang of worry at how small and light Howie still was at his age. Howie kicked his legs in the air and pounded Tom on the chest with his little fists, but Tom pretended not to notice and continued to make his way toward the event entrance.
The bookstore employee looked up from her clipboard with an exasperated sigh. Then her eyes widened. "Professor Furst! Wow, I would never expect to see you here!"
"I didn't expect to see you either," said Tom, restraining Howie by the wrists with one hand. "Could you do us a favor? My son is a fan of Mr. Stone's books. Is there any way you could let us in?"
"Oh, he's so cute," Jenny crooned, wiggling a finger at Howie, who scrunched up his nose and barred his teeth. "Here you go." She opened one of the doors for them, and Tom slipped in with Howie in his arms.
The door closed silently behind them. They were inside.
At least two hundred people had been squeezed into the same room. Most of them were standing, although some were sitting in the few chairs that had been set up for the event. A group of children around Howie's age caught Tom's attention. They were all sitting on a large fuzzy rug in the center of the room.
"Why don't you join the kids over there?" said Tom. He lowered Howie and released him, expecting Howie to slide off his arm, but Howie clung to Tom's sleeves with both hands, lifting his legs so that his feet wouldn't touch the floor.
"No," he whimpered, climbing up Tom's leg, digging with his boots and leaving streaks of mud on Tom's pants. "No-o-o!"
"Shhh!" hissed a tall woman in front of them.
Howie shrank away from her, wrapping his skinny arms around Tom's waist. It took all of Tom's effort to hold back the wistful joy bubbling inside him as he picked Howie up again. "Don't do this here," he whispered through his teeth, "or we're going home."
When Howie settled down again, Tom swung him onto his shoulder so that the boy could look over all the heads at whatever was supposed to be so interesting.
That was when Tom first heard a voice—deep and powerful—in the middle of reading a passage from a story Tom had heard somewhere else before. A distant memory flashed in his mind: Howie curled up on a creamy leather couch next to an older bearded man, who held a giant pop-up book in his lap. The pop-up page featured an exquisitely-crafted paper castle, with what seemed like hundreds of see-through windows and tiny life-like figures, also made of paper. The man read the story in a quiet voice while Howie used his pinkie to jiggle one of the little people inside the castle.
Tom glanced up to see if Howie had felt him tremble, but Howie was looking straight ahead, his large gray eyes unmoving, focused on someone in the very back of the room whom Tom had failed to notice earlier.
The man speaking was the same man from the poster. Tom could catch a glimpse of his dark hair whenever the tall woman in front of him tilted her head to the right. After a while, he gave up trying to see and just listened, letting that warm rich voice lull him into a world of knights and castles and Buttermumsies.
After the reading was over, the doors opened up again and several large tables were brought out for different activities. All the youngest kids flocked over to the face-painting station, while another long line formed for those waiting to get a copy of their book signed.
Tom followed Howie over to the table which had a taped handwritten sign that said Make Your Own Pop-Up Page! A bored employee sat cupping her face in one hand, gazing at the people coming in and going out through the door. Two other girls, a few years older than Howie, also joined the table. They were already talking to each other in hushed voices, so Tom didn't bother introducing Howie to them.
Some plastic scissors and pre-illustrated pages had been laid out on the table for anyone to take, and a handout provided simple diagrams for how to put the page together. "Do you want the Red Fortress, the Bee House, or the Buttermumsy?" said Tom, spreading the options in front of Howie.
Howie grabbed the sheet closest to him—the Bee House—and turned it over so that the blank side was facing him. Then he rummaged through the marker basket until he found a working black marker and began to draw. The two girls stopped talking to each other began to watch Howie draw with some interest.
"How old is he?" one of them asked Tom.
"He'll be nine in December."
"Oh. He draws really well."
At this, Howie slid further away, shielding his drawing from view with his free hand.
Tom felt a surge of kindness toward these two girls. He talked to them for a while and asked where they went to school and what subjects they were interested in. A few minutes later, they explained that some friends were still waiting for them and left the table. After they were gone, Tom flipped over the half-colored page they left behind and kept himself busy by coming up with elaborate new problems for his astronomy course.
Several younger kids sat down where the girls had been sitting. The kids' mothers kept smiling at Tom in that sort of way which suggested they were being a little too friendly, but Tom didn't feel like speaking to them. He folded up the paper he was writing on and scooted closer to Howie so he might catch another glimpse of Howie's drawing.
From the tiny crack between Howie's face and his hand, Tom could see a dark shapeless creature with many arms—at least twenty arms—shaded to look as if they were protruding from the page. Each arm held something that looked suspiciously like bloody flesh to Tom. A few of the larger objects even had a sinewy texture, with shiny red beads hanging from their surface.
"Do you still want to get your book signed?" whispered Tom. He gave Howie shoulder a little shake, but Howie ignored him. "The line is gone."
"That's because I snuck over here," said someone behind them.
Tom's heart skipped a beat. He must have jumped too, because when he turned around, the man was laughing.
"Oh, Mr. Stone—"
"Brennan," Tom repeated, shaking hands with the celebrity hovering over him. He couldn't help but notice Brennan's fingers, long and elegant, as if they were meant only for making the most intricate pieces of art.
"And you are…?"
"Can I sit with you?" asked Brennan, pulling out the empty chair next to Howie.
Tom thought the question was directed at him, but the two mothers sitting across from them answered enthusiastically and introduced themselves. He must have been wrong, since Brennan didn't seem bothered at all by this and began to talk to the women. Tom turned his attention back to Howie, who was still drawing.
"It's Brennan Stone, Howie. Don't you want to meet him?"
Howie still didn't respond, his face still half-hidden behind his hand.
"Look at me," Tom muttered, trying to pry Howie's hand from the paper. "You told me you wanted to meet Brennan Stone. Well, he's right next to you." He began to worry, hoping that Brennan wouldn't leave before Howie got a chance to speak to him. But just as he was about to point out Howie to Brennan, Brennan excused himself from the ladies' conversation.
"A heart-stealing monster," said Brennan quietly, propping his chin in one hand as he watched Howie draw from the other side. "Interesting."
"It's going to steal your heart too," said Howie, not looking up. "It's doing that right now."
Tom frowned, wondering how on earth Brennan could have known Howie's creation was a heart-stealing monster, of all possible things.
"What's its name?" asked Brennan.
"It doesn't have one."
"What's your name?"
There was a long pause before Howie finally told him.
"I'm Brennan," said Brennan, also after a pause.
"He loves your books," Tom added on Howie's behalf, hoping that Brennan wouldn't think Howie was unimpressed. "We have all of them at home. I haven't read them, but they're beautiful."
To Tom's surprise, Brennan seemed genuinely pleased—even flustered—by Tom's opinion of his books, although he must have heard the same praise more than a thousand times before. "Thank you," he said. "That means a lot to me, especially coming from someone like you."
Tom raised an eyebrow. "Someone like me?"
Brennan chewed his lip thoughtfully. "That wasn't meant to suggest anything offensive. It's just… I assume you don't read fiction at all?"
The uncanny way Brennan had guessed such a specific fact about him made Tom both uneasy and giddy at once. He was like a fish on a hook, and Brennan's pale blue gaze was the cord drawing him in. "No, I don't."
"Well, I'm flattered ." Brennan picked up his chair and moved it behind Howie, so that he was closer to Tom. "So are you a professor?"
"Yes," said Tom. This time, he was not surprised at all that Brennan knew: there were three universities in town and chances were that if you dressed like an academic, you probably were one. He excused himself and rummaged through the files in his briefcase, finally pulling out a thick colorful book.
"You want me to sign that?"
Tom glanced at Howie, who still didn't look up. "Please." Then in a lower voice, he added, "Make it for Howie, obviously."
Brennan grinned and pulled out a Sharpie from his breast pocket. "Is Howie an only child?" he asked.
He was writing a longer message than usual. Tom caught the words drawing and talented. "Yes," he said as Brennan closed the book and handed it back to him, thinking that Brennan might leave now and Howie would be satisfied enough with his generous dedication.
But Brennan wasn't about to go anywhere. "Just out of curiosity, where's Howie's mother?"
Tom took a deep breath and clenched his teeth, struggling to come up with an appropriate answer without having to lie. He began stuffing the signed book back into his briefcase.
"I'm adopted," said Howie unexpectedly. "I don't have a mother." He held up his finished drawing—a skillful illustration of his nightmare vision—showing it to Brennan. "Look, that's your heart," he said, pointing to one of the flesh-like chunks. "And this one is Theo's. And that's Sammy's and Kyle's and Mandy's and Mrs. Jackson's…"
Everyone around them had their eyes on Howie and his gory drawing. A few mothers even shook their heads and led their kids away.
"…Sarah's and Yasha's and Ashley's—"
"You're very lucky to have a dad like yours," Brennan interrupted, perhaps to amend the situation.
"Tom's not my dad," said Howie. "Theo's my dad."
"Is Theo a friend?" asked Brennan, turning to Tom.
"It's… hard to explain," said Tom, looking past Brennan so that he could avoid Brennan's eyes. He placed a hand on Howie's shoulder. "It's time to go, Howie. Come on."
Howie looked at Brennan, then at Tom. Then he lowered his head, and slipped his hand into Tom's grasp, following him to the exit.
"You forgot your drawing!" Brennan called, picking it up.
Howie didn't go back for it. People gave them funny looks as they left, but Tom pretended not to notice. Only when they were outside the bookstore did Tom loosen his grip on Howie's hand. He took his umbrella out of his bag and popped it open, tucked in Howie's sweater for him, and headed for the parking lot.
"Theo," murmured Howie, his head still lowered. He was shaking, despite the warmth of his sweater. "Theo. Theotheotheo—Ow!"
Howie had perhaps been expecting Tom to squeeze his arm, but Tom only grabbed him lightly. He gave Howie another pull and felt a little better as he watched Howie soar over a particularly deep puddle on the sidewalk. That was when he realized someone was following them. He had a feeling he knew who it was, but didn't bother turning around to check. The idea that Brennan would follow them out of a store full of adoring fans right in the middle of an event was preposterous.
"Tom, wait." Strangely enough, it was Brennan, wearing a blue windbreaker, soaking wet and out of breath.
Tom waited. He tightened his hold on Howie's arm, looking down to make sure Howie was all right, but he couldn't read Howie's expression.
Brennan reached into his coat and pulled out a roll of paper, which he handed to Howie under the umbrella. "Your drawing. It's breathtaking."
There was also something breathtaking about the way Brennan was kneeling in front of Howie. Tom could see how the droplets of rainwater left thin trails down the sides of Brennan's face, where a five o'clock shadow was barely visible, and the way a few stray curls of his dark hair stuck to his forehead as if they were drawn in ink. Some of the droplets came to a rest on his thickly-curved eyelashes before falling to the ground.
"Say 'thank you,' Howie," Tom chided, giving Howie a nudge.
Howie crumpled up the roll of paper and slipped it into his pocket. Brennan stood and frowned, shutting his mouth as soon as he opened it, as if searching for the right words. He was a couple of inches taller than Tom and a lot more famous, but for some reason, Tom was not intimidated by him. Perhaps it was Brennan's awkward lack of discretion, or the inappropriateness of his presence at the moment, which put them on equal grounds.
"Tom, I know this might sound weird," Brennan began, "but I'd like to offer Howie a chance to collaborate with me. I'm starting a new project this year, and his monster is just the kind of character I was looking for."
"Oh." Tom gripped Howie a little harder. "Wow."
"Of course, we can talk about how he'll be compensated and credited for his idea. He could even be my co-author or artist."
Before Tom let himself get carried away by the idea, he searched Brennan's expression for any sign that this was a joke, but Brennan's sharp gaze remained unwavering. Whether or not the offer was sincere, Brennan still had him trapped—he had no good reason to believe Brennan was lying, or refuse such an amazing opportunity for Howie.
"Howie, what do you say to that?"
At first, Howie didn't respond. Then he drew out the crumpled drawing from his pocket. The cheap marker ink was already running, turning the dark monster into blots of little rainbows, but he smoothed out the paper anyway and held it out to Brennan. "Can you make it real?" he whispered, watching Brennan with large anxious eyes.
Brennan nodded solemnly. "Yes, and I'll show you how."