“Mom, mom. Okay, calm down, mom! Mom, I landed on my feet.”
Holland had never found two weeks to be a long time. Two weeks of school time was, what, a few tests, two PE events to hide from, two embarrassing admissions on Friday afternoon of doing ‘nothing’ and two Saturday mornings watching black-and-white cartoons on a cheap TV. Two weeks was a slide of pills and a grocery shopping trip when the Centrelink cheque cleared, before He realised he had money and spent it all at the pub. Two weeks during school holidays was basically gone in no time.
Two weeks with Barbara around was amazing.
First things first, they found a way to contact Barbara’s parents. Normally, Holland would have used the school phone, but that wasn’t an option any more. Without small change, phoning Texas on a payphone was just flat-out not an option. They’d been hiding in the back of the library, trying to manage the phone before the nice young man, with the crinkly brown hair and the big black glasses ‘caught’ them, explained to them how to access the operator, and what a trunk call was, and what it was for.
That became part of the routine.
The world was becoming smaller. The internet worked; telecommunications networks were happily buzzing along, and that brought news… but the news seemed to be nothing but terrifying stories of people barricading themselves in, hunkering down, world governments trying to communicate without leaving their homes. Growing up in Australia, Holland had always felt that America was basically just over there, because all their TV shows were on if you tuned on to Ten or Seven or Nine, and Britain was just over the other direction, a bit, thanks to the ABC showing the BBC. The world wasn’t very big, and it was very white, and it was full of people just like Holland, but, of course nothing really like Holland.
With flight shut down, with air channels churning with dreadful storms of green fire, Barbara’s parents had started making arrangements for a sea vessel. Somehow, the oceans were – relatively – safe for travel, so some trade, some movement, was transpiring. Supplies were going from countries that could handle them to countries that needed them. Australia and New Zealand, apparently, were safe enough. Without that easy reach, though, to America, to England, Holland felt the vast emptiness of Australia, felt the isolation of the whole affair, more keenly.
Every two days, like clockwork, they made their way into town to hit the library at noon. They made the trunk call – thank goodness for that kind librarian – and Barbara talked to her mother or her father, and reassured them. It was just like a little vacation, she said.
When Holland and Barbara had done the trip on Saturday, Barbara had asked some really weird questions. What Kind of Potatoes, Should I Try And Get Some Whiskey, Do You Prepare The Bacon Any Way…? And none of it had made any sense for Holland. But then they’d gone to the store, and they’d picked up potatoes at the green grocers, smiling at the Vietnamese family that ran the place. They’d dropped into the local delicatessen, buying a tiny, tiny pot of honey, they’d bought thick-cut bacon.
Holland knew that at some point, the government would get around to asking where He’d gone. They’d stop depositing the money, and Holland would have to come up with something then. But without him turning money into beer into bruises and piss, the two could afford some small, tasty treats like that.
They’d moved bookshelves over the hole in the wall. They were making something of a life, making some stable place. Two weeks was no time at all.. but in two weeks, Holland could feel stable ground growing underfoot, could feel a routine, a regularity, could feel… okay. All it took was one person, at least, one person, to tell Holland… You’re Okay. All that time trying to go unnoticed…
Thank goodness for the Magical Apocalypse, and the saw-toothed teleporting creep with the stars all over his skin, or Holland might not have found that one person. That… first person?
Then in the evening on Sunday, at midnight, Barbara sat them down to a dinner at midnight, quietly pushy, but kind. She’d cooked – the only time she did – baking potatoes in the oven, doing the bacon on the gas oven, with onions and a bit of honey. They’d come out crispy in places, soft in others, burnt in others, but it was all okay, because Holland and Barbara, two friends, sat at the table, ate together, and sipped that sweet, honeyed cordial drink Babrara had made.
And then, at midnight, Barbara drew her breath, pushed her hair back over her shoulder, and stated, clearing her throat:
“Let me tell you, then, of our family’s oaths.
Let me tell you of power, coiled within us.
Let us speak of the snake and the song.”
She paused, long enough to look at Holland’s reaction; Barbara’s eyes flicked to her friend’s, then to her food, then down to her cup, focusing on the golden liquid as she went on.
“We stand before the Prince of a Thousand Eyes,
We raise unto him the least of us
He sees us, he knows us, he remembers, remembers, remembers our debts.
We promise to own as little as we can.
We promise to share the stories of those who own ideas.
We promise to do nothing to deserve our name.
We promise to strike no man with hand or foot.
We promise to endure famine with the least.
We promise to burn our memories.
And we promise to remember, remember, remember, what we are owed.”
The awkward silence that followed filled with a plastic plate being clinked by a metal fork. Holland finally mustered it to ask, “What was… what was that?”
“It’s this… family ritual thing.” Barbara said, blushing a little, looking at her plate assiduously. “It’s, I mean,”
“It’s okay,” Holland blurted, waving hands, trying to reassure-
“But I just-“
“I mean, we don’t-“
Barbara shook her head, drew her breath, and smoothed down her blouse. The blouse she’d picked out of His bedroom, the clothes he’d kept from… before. It fit decent well enough. She finally spoke. “It matters to my dad,” she said, unconsciously echoing a conversation her father had had with her mother, the first time she’d seen it, “and I hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind,” Holland said, nodded, and meant it. A smile never more sincere had found Holland’s face; and Barbara returned it, relieved.
That had been the first Sunday night. The next Sunday night, they’d done it again, and Holland had tried to mimic the oath. Barbara’d giggled, they’d shaken their heads, and that had been that.
Holland started working on Barbara’s costume the next day. Barbara was a superhero, right? So Holland needed a costume. Holland had been altering clothes for years – putting pockets inside a hoodie was easy. Putting small weights in the hem of a skirt to keep it down, also easy. Fishing weights, from His garage. But every superheroine needed a symbol, something central, something that could be used as the centrepiece of her style… right?
Two weeks felt like no time at all, Holland considered, fingers working steadily on the embroidered patch, outlining the shape of a proud, golden lion.