After Larimar left for work, Everard heard Cora ask Crystallin, “Are you coming to the Tate house with us?”
Crystallin was a long time thinking about her answer.
“If it helps your decision-making process,” Everard offered, “neither Rusza nor his girlfriend will be there.”
“How can you be sure?”
“For the past two days, Rusza has left the house early and not returned home until very late. He has not brought either his girlfriend or her mother back to the house since the day of the wedding.”
“Apple asked me to tell you she misses seeing you,” Coralie added.
“Then I’ll go. I miss being with everyone too.”
The weather had turned warmer, almost autumnal, on the previous day, but when they stepped outside today, an icy wind struck them. Coralie said, “I wonder how Sanna is doing. I haven’t heard anything.”
“That is the best possible sign that she’s doing well,” Everard assured her.
They walked at a brisk pace and soon came to the Tate house. Apple exclaimed as soon as she saw Crystallin, “Oh, Linnie, you’ve come! Gar will be sorry he didn’t stay for another cup of tea. He and Kent are already off to the farm.”
“I’ll stay until he comes back,” Crystallin said. “I missed being here. Good morning, Uncle Archet.”
No response came from Archet, who was still seated at the kitchen table with his hand curved around an empty tea cup.
“Are you all right, Uncle Archet?” she asked.
“Oh, hello, Linnie. Lyndon should be around here somewhere…”
“Archet,” Apple said, “didn’t you hear yourself give Lyndon permission to go to the recruitment office to pick up his enlistment paperwork?”
“Recruitment office? Isn’t it still two weeks early?”
“It’s next week already, Archet. He’s eager to start filling out the application,” Everard said. “He has quite the plan in mind.”
“He does,” Apple agreed. “He has his next five years mapped out already. He even knows the names of the department staff at the two hospital labs he wants to train at.”
“And he has provisional approval, whatever that means, from both labs,” Hapzah said.
“Provisional approval just means his acceptance is contingent on enlistment,” Everard explained. “If he doesn’t follow through with enlistment, he doesn’t get the internship.”
“Then there’s no problem,” said Linnie, “because he’s determined to go through with his plan. Daddy, why don’t I have a plan yet? I’m falling behind.”
“You have a plan,” Everard replied. “It isn’t as detailed yet as Lyndon’s, but you have a plan. Don’t get discouraged at this point.” He declined a cup of chicory. “Archet, go get your coat.”
Startled out of his depressed thoughts, Archet asked, “Why?”
“Why? Because it’s cold out, and you are coming with me on a walk. You need some exercise, all the more since you’re on vacation.” He escorted Archet outside.
“Cold!” Archet groaned. “Why are we outside on a day like this, Everard?”
“Lack of distractions,” he replied. After they had covered half a block in silence, he said, “Now share your thoughts with me. I will guess that you’re thinking about Rusza. What has happened to put you in such a depression?”
Archet spoke reluctantly. “You know how we’ve barely seen him the past few days. Last night, he didn’t come back until 0200. I was sitting up in the family room with the lights off because I didn’t want to disturb anybody else. The way he came in… it wasn’t so much like he was worried about waking anyone. It was more like he was worried about getting caught.”
“Furtive,” Everard supplied.
Archet nodded. “I didn’t go to bed. I stayed in the family room, dozed a little, and was awakened by Rusza, sneaking out again at 0415. I spoke to him, asked him if he meant to be out all day again, and he said… he said, if he can’t bring his guests to the house without people being unkind to them, then he has to go where his guests are. He said I didn’t have to worry about his comings and goings anymore, because they were going home tomorrow. And I… I couldn’t stop myself, I said, Home? And he wouldn’t look me in the eyes. He just left.”
“I see,” Everard said.
“It’s as if he isn’t my son anymore.” Archet spoke softly now, in a choked voice that showed how near he was to tears. “What could I have done, Everard? What should I have done differently, so it wouldn’t have ended up like this? I was lax, I know, I was lax as a father, but… but how did it come to this? My other boys are all… but Rusza…”
Everard knew he could ask no more questions until Archet regained control of his emotions. When he sensed the necessary shift in Archet’s thoughts, he said, “I will make one recommendation. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be pleasant, but I think it is necessary. Will you hear it? It won’t lessen your pain.”
“That,” said Archet with shaky humor, “is just what I expect from your advice. But I’ll hear it. I’m already at a loss, so I have nothing to lose by hearing you out.”
“I recommend that, for the near future, you make your plans without including Rusza in them.”
“Give him up as lost, you mean.”
Everard weighed the flat note in Archet’s voice and estimated how much more he could say to this brokenhearted father. “You and Gar and Apple taught Rusza what is good and right. He doesn’t lack knowledge, nor does he lack intelligence. He lacks sense. I have told this to Cora too, and it took weeks for her to accept it. You need to give him over to the consequences of his choices.”
“Even if it ruins his life?”
“A life is not so easily ruined. Reputation, yes; prospects, yes. Not life. Life keeps struggling back to the surface. Trust in the good lessons he has been taught, and push him out into the world of consequences. He may surprise you.”
“He has so much of me in him,” Archet sighed, “that it’s hard for me to imagine being surprised. I remember how willful I was at his age. I was blessed to love a woman who made me a better man through my chasing after her.”
“I began training him under the same impression, Archet, that he was another you, but I learned differently. But he does have your stubbornness, that’s true. So I ask you to give me a free hand in dealing with him when he shows up at the house next time.”
Archet slouched down in his coat. “I always end up relying on you.”
“As I understand it, that’s the whole purpose of older brothers.”
Archet nudged him with his elbow and said no more.
They rounded the last corner and started on the home stretch back to the house. They overtook Lyndon, who had cherry-red cheeks and eager black eyes that shone behind his glasses. An army-issue white packet was tucked securely under his arm. “Uncle Everard,” the boy said, “do you have time to help me fill out my paperwork sometime soon?”
“We can do it today,” Everard said, “and put it in Cora’s special assignments inbox, marked pending.”
“Good,” replied Lyndon, “I don’t want to risk any delay.”
“Are you so eager to leave home, Lyndon?” Archet said.
“Not to leave home, Dad. You know the conditions on marrying Linnie. And after we’re married, we want you to come live with us.”
Lyndon said patiently, “We want you to come live with us. Linnie and I were talking about it, and we agreed. After we’ve been married a couple years and saved up some money, we’re going to have our own house with a room just for you.”
Archet sniffled. “Let’s get inside. My nose is getting runny.”
They returned to a warm house scented with gingerbread cookies. Lyndon hung up his coat and then knelt at the low table in the family room to lay out his paperwork. Everard sat in the nearest chair and watched the boy start filling out the top form. Whenever the boy had a question, Everard answered it. There was a fair amount of detail to the form Lyndon had to fill out, due to his minor status, and several instances where he had to seek signatures from Archet and from Nigel Yeardley.
Mica arrived in the midst of this, carrying the basic packet for enlistment under his arm. He smiled when he found out that Lyndon was doing essentially the same thing he was. “You’re almost my little brother by now,” Mica said. “If I don’t get my paperwork processed before yours, I might end up outranked by you, and then what becomes of my dignity as the older brother?”
“Are you really enlisting, Mica?” Lyndon asked. “You won’t go back to your old job?”
“I want to go forward, not back,” Mica said. He found a vacant corner of floor and a hardcover recipe book to use for a writing desk.
By lunch, both sets of enlistment paperwork were completed and in Cora’s possession. The conversation around the table bounced back and forth between Lyndon’s future plans and Mica’s. “For the present,” Mica said at once, “I’d like to go on working for you, Dad. I know there’s no open position, and if one did open up, the competition would be intense, but if it’s possible, as a student, I’d like to continue on with you. This new group you’re forming interests me. The only way I might be able to get into a specialist disposal company would be in an intelligence role.”
“Are you going into disposal?” Apple asked.
Cora smiled as Everard coughed. “I’m forming up Sky-wind school as a disposal company under my direct command. I think that’s where Mica is going with this.”
“Your own disposal company,” Archet said in an intrigued tone. “What put you on that track?”
So Cora described to the family her line of thought, from the Glazmere infection incident to the Sky-wind village visit. “For now, it’s really just an idea,” she finished. “But Sanna is studying leadership with some of our best officers, and she’s training her students not just in her fighting style but in basic disposal techniques. She will gain more students, and I’m looking out for support personnel who might be a good addition to her group.”
“Such as,” Hapzah said, “a young intelligence officer, for example?”
This stirred a laugh around the table.
After they finished eating and had cleared the table, Everard said, “I’m going out to the farm for a little while. Is there anything you want taken to them, Apple?”
She packed up some of the gingerbread cookies and an insulated bottle of milk. “For their afternoon break,” she said.
The Tate farm was one of many long strips of land radiating out like wheel spokes from the Old City region of the capital. A row of large barns fronted the street at the near end of this spoke-like configuration. Everard let himself into the barn painted green with white trim. “Gar!” he called.
“Well, Everard, what brings you out here?” Gar wiped his hands. The barn was fairly warm in comparison to the outside weather, but it was still chilly enough for Gar to keep his coat on while he worked.
“Apple and the girls made cookies.” Everard handed over the parcel in his custody. “And I needed to ask your approval for something.”
“Yes. You are the head of the family. Before I take measures that affect the whole family, I want your approval. More than that,” he said, “you’ve been as close to being a father to me as any man. I want to know that you approve my decision, because I myself am still somewhat uncertain.” He explained in a few words his conversation with Archet and his intentions based on it. Then he looked to Gar for his response.
Gar rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead. “It has come to this, has it?”
“I believe so. My only uncertainty pertains to my own motives. I don’t wish to act in wrath, but I must acknowledge that wrath is part of my reaction, at a personal level.”
This made Gar chuckle. “We’re never free from the personal level, Everard. You have a right to feel anger toward anyone who hurts those you love. I would worry if you didn’t feel anger in these circumstances.” Then he sighed heavily. “I wish I had known. I wouldn’t have left without talking to Archet. Thank you, Everard, for looking after him. He’s so sensitive, and this is killing him.”
“That is what pushed me over the edge,” Everard admitted. “I was perfectly willing to let Rusza ruin his own prospects, but when it starts to destroy others, I will not tolerate it any longer.”
“I have to agree with you there. I’ve missed having Linnie around the house like usual, but I appreciate what she’s trying to do by keeping her distance. Rusza has these stubborn spurts, and we’ve never found a way to break through until he himself is ready to give in. When he was a child, there were things we could do, but he isn’t a child. I think, with one caveat, I will approve your plan.”
“The caveat?” Everard asked.
“Do nothing that will endanger your own soul. ‘In disciplining another, do not put yourself in need of discipline.'”
Everard nodded. “Yes. I will remember that.” He thanked Gar and headed back to the Tate house. Along the way, he saw many changes since the days when he had first come to work for the Tate family as a boy in his early teens. New barns stood where there had been open yards; the street was fully paved, not partially gravel as it had been. Everard remembered walking this street with Gar daily and, later, with a little Archet and an even younger Hapzah. By the time Kent had been old enough to join the farm work, Everard and Archet had been ready for their four years’ obligatory service, so there were fewer memories with Kent on this road.
Everard arrived at the Tate house in a more than usually meditative mood. He drew Apple aside from the rest of the family and laid out his thoughts to her. She made a reply even more concise than Gar’s: “Do what needs to be done, Everard. I will pray for the best outcome.”
So Everard stayed at the Tate house for the entire day, sometimes reading one of Apple’s devotional books, sometimes listening to the different conversations that took place around him, sometimes just contemplating the near future. It was a little too noisy to pray, especially when everyone gathered in preparation for dinner. Everyone was there: Nigel and Penelope, Michael and Helena, Fineas, all Everard’s sons, Slate’s new girlfriend Ginger Amery, Lyndon and Linnie. Only Rusza was absent. Everard could sense thoughts of him in every mind present, with the exception of Ginger Amery, but no one mentioned him, not even indirectly.
After a boisterous and filling dinner, the conversation moved without pause from the table to the family area. Slate and Ginger excused themselves; they had plans to attend a concert together. This hardly made a gap in the crowded family room, but it did give the conversation a different spin.
But all conversation ceased when, at just after 2100, the side door opened to admit Rusza. He stood just inside the door, taken aback at the sudden hush that had fallen. “Good evening?” he said.
Everard looked at Archet, who gave a slight nod with his features set as if he were bracing himself for a punch to the stomach. Everard mouthed the words, Get his bag. As Archet rose and headed to the stairs, Everard rose and headed for Rusza. “I have a story to tell you, Rusza, and then a question to ask you. First, the story: when you were nine, you were picked up by the district police for using your sympathy against someone. The alleged victim was a young man of nineteen. The police released you with a warning when they heard your reason for attacking that young man. He had been bullying Lyndon, who was hardly six years old, and when you found out that Lyndon was in trouble, you went to confront the young man. You tried to tell him peaceably that his bullying was wrong, and he responded by telling you to mind your own business. You tried, as I recall, two or three times to reason with him. Then, when you caught him in the act of roughing Lyndon up, you used your sympathy to burn his hand so that he would release Lyndon. You said to the police investigator, as I recall, that you were no good as an older brother if you didn’t do whatever you could to protect your little brother. And you had tried to resolve it without recourse to violence, but every effort had been ignored or denied.” Everard stepped close enough that he could reach out and flip the yard light switch behind Rusza, all without losing eye contact. “Now, the question: do you remember what I said in Sawtooth Ridge about your lucky escape?”
Rusza’s eyes widened. “Yes, sir.”
Everard grabbed Rusza under the jaw with one hand and pushed open the side door with the other hand. He shoved Rusza sprawling on his back on the frost-dried grass. “I would be no good as an older brother if I continued to ignore someone hurting my little brother. Your own words, remember? Prepare yourself, Rusza.”
Rusza scrambled backwards, crab-like, his eyes still wide with alarm. Everard allowed him enough space to stand before delivering a hammer fist strike to Rusza’s left radial nerve as Rusza lifted his hands defensively. When Rusza turned, grabbing the affected forearm in pain, Everard drove two knuckles into the crease where Rusza’s right shoulder connected to his chest. This spun Rusza the other way.
“I don’t want to fight you, Uncle,” he said between clenched teeth.
“Fight? Did you suppose you would get the chance to do any fighting?” Everard grabbed a fistful of Rusza’s jacket and kneed his fibular nerve center, sending Rusza down on one knee. “You’re an infant at CQC, and you’ve slacked off completely on what little you’ve been taught.”
Rusza looked up at him in pain. “Why?”
“Why?” Everard hauled Rusza up by the front of the jacket. “Listen closely. You are practically killing your father with your stubborn rebellion. Every rebuke, every gentle attempt to get through to you has failed. I will not stand by and watch you cause him or your grandparents more pain.” He slapped Rusza. “You have shown nothing but contempt for their worry over you. You gave control of yourself to a girl who has nothing to recommend her but a seductive appearance and a superficial good humor that breaks down the moment she fails to get her way. She has been leading you around by the penis, and you have let her.” He slapped Rusza again. “I told you once that I wished you well with the new family you have chosen for yourself. Now, I no longer even wish you well; I just wish you gone. You are no longer welcome in this house, or in my house, until you enter as a member of the family and not a guest in a cheap hotel. Consider yourself no longer a member of this family.”
Rusza was gazing at him in slack-jawed disbelief. Blood oozed from a split in his lower lip, but Rusza seemed unaware of that. But then Archet came out of the house, dropped Rusza’s duffle bag at Rusza’s feet, and paused only to stared into his son’s face with a look of abject misery for several seconds. When Archet turned back and trudged to the side door, Rusza looked from his back to the line of family members gazing at the scene through the kitchen window, and back to Everard again.
“Leave,” Everard said. His voice had suddenly gone tight, as if he were suffering an allergic reaction. “I have no doubt you can find someone willing to share a warm bed with you.” He almost dragged Rusza to the edge of the property and shoved him into the street. Then, without waiting to see what Rusza did, Everard returned to the house and bolted the door.
Cora was there even before he turned around, her arms around his chest. “Dear,” she murmured. “Are you going to be all right?”
“Me? You’re worried for me?”
“I’ve never seen you make that face before,” she said against his shirt.
Everard felt cold suddenly, and her warmth prompted him to put his arms around her and press his face to her hair.