I used to worry about presents so much that I had to get them out of the way early. In the July sales, you would see little Sarah with her bowl haircut, solemnly shopping for Christmas presents. Had I waited for winter, I would have gone into a spiral of agony and self-doubt.
Much taller Sarah with much longer hair, i.e. me of the present day, does not have the organisational skills or the storage space to shop for Christmas presents in July. But I do generally spend November and December making anxious calls.
SARAH: Why can't you just tell me what you want! Anything! I'll buy you anything!
MY LITTLE BROTHER SAUL: Oh. Hmm. I'll have a... Well now. Okay. Give me a moment. Maybe-
SARAH: Yes? YES?
SAUL: Maybe I'll have to call you back.
MY LITTLE SISTER GENEVIEVE: But I've told you what I want. I keep telling you what I want.
SARAH: No, you haven't.
GENEVIEVE: I want a Team Jacob hoodie.
SARAH: I don't know why I keep forgetting that.
GENEVIEVE: If it's because you're Team Edward, you are NOT WELCOME HOME this Christmas.
My sister the ingrate aside, I had a much more important present to give out this year.
Obviously, all those who have read my book are my most favourite people in the world. This only makes sense. My most favourite people in the world deserve presents. Also very logical!
However I cannot find them all and ask for their addresses. So clearly a story present, then.
But! I worried to myself. When would be a good time to give them the story present? Obviously not on Christmas Day, as people would have better things to do than reading internet presents, like unwrapping their real presents and going 'A titanium suit of armour with inbuilt time-travel device! Awesome!' So I asked twitter, and they seemed to feel the thirteenth was a good day.
Today is the thirteenth.
So, this is a present for those who have already read The Demon's Lexicon: it is set eleven years before the book, but there are hints of things to come. So if someone hasn't read the book and hates spoilers, probably best to avoid. If one doesn't mind them and is minded to try the story (with a view to later reading The Demon's Lexicon and thus achieving the status of one of my most favourite people in the world) then they may go right ahead!
Should you guys like it, spread it 'round: I would like everyone who might enjoy it to read it, so my present reaches all those who want it.
And in Christmas and Demon's Lexicon news, people in the UK might be interested to know there is a Demon's Lexicon fan meet-up in London going on. I won't be there, but I will be sending presents!
For now, though, this present is for everyone.
And it comes with an illustration: the illustration is done by Entropy_Incarnate and not specifically for this story, but it does show the main characters as kids and thus I feel is appropriate!
This one's for my most favourite people in the world. I very much hope you enjoy it.
Nick’s First Word
Light was caught and held for a gleaming moment, reflecting the whole room in a small bright oval. Then the drop of water slid down to the end of the mirror, and Nick started watching another drop.
The door opened and Alan rushed in, dropping to his knees and testing the bath water with his elbow. It was cold. It had been cold for quite a while, since Mum had started screaming and Dad had left Nick to go to her. Nick had been watching drops slide down the mirror since then.
Alan started talking very quickly as he bundled Nick out and wrapped him in a towel. He threw another towel over Nick's head, enveloping him in blackness that shifted into dim colour as Alan began vigorously drying his hair.
"That bath was icy, you must have been there for hours, you must be frozen," he said. "Were you unhappy? Were you bored?"
Nick was obviously not frozen.
He did not understand half of what Alan said to him. He did not know what Alan meant by bored, or unhappy. The words did not mean cold, because Alan used them sometimes when Nick was quite warm.
Nick vaguely remembered a time when he had not understood anything Alan said. Things had been simpler, then. He had looked at water sliding down a mirror, or at the wind in the trees, and never had to confine himself to small precise thoughts of 'water' or 'wind.' They had no names. They were what they were.
Alan had always been there, a particular figure in the ever-changing mass of people who made up the world. He was a constant presence, and with him came a constant flow of words. Nick did not remember the first time that he had put all the pieces together: one of Alan's words, the way Alan pointed at an object, and the object itself.
Nick missed the simpler world of seeing and sensing things without thinking about them, but there was no way to go back once he understood one word. Other words followed, until they made up a whole different world.
"Would you mind waiting for bath time until I come back from school?" Alan asked.
He would wait for bath time. He did not quite see what Alan meant by 'mind,' but he thought that it might mean, would Nick be angry if he had to wait. Nick understood about being angry. It meant feeling hot inside, and knowing that other people deserved to be punished.
He didn't think Alan deserved to be punished. He wasn't angry, so he didn't mind.
"All right then," Alan said, and took his hand. Nick let him do it. That didn't make him angry either. "You're a good boy," Alan went on. "Let's go get your favourite pyjamas and then we can make beans on toast."
Nick walked with him down their darkened corridor to the room where Nick slept, Alan still holding his hand. Nick left damp footprints on the close, cream-coloured carpet as they went. He looked over his shoulder to see the little path he had made, showing the way back to the bathroom.
There was a chest of drawers next to Nick's bed, and in the top drawer were socks and underwear. In the next drawer were Nick's pyjamas, and when it was dark outside Alan led him to the chest of drawers and waited for Nick to take out his pyjamas. Nick had taken out one set of pyjamas more than twice in a row, without really thinking about it, and Alan said that they were his favourite pyjamas. From then on Nick understood that it was better to choose those pyjamas. That was what favourite meant.
After Nick chose his favourite pyjamas, he followed Alan to the kitchen. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table in the dark, with his head in his hands. Nick looked at him and thought that perhaps he was looking at his palms close up.
Alan dropped Nick's hand and went over to Dad, and took one of his hands.
"What's wrong, Dad?" he asked in his voice that was quieter than his usual voice.
"Oh," Dad said. "It's nothing, Alan. Olivia's just having one of her bad days, that's all. How was school?"
"I won the spelling contest," Alan told him, letting go of Dad's hand but patting his shoulder a couple of times. Then he left Dad and went over to the cupboard, where he produced some bread and the can of beans. "See, Nick? This is a can."
Alan often told Nick things he knew these days. It did not make Nick angry. Alan did not know which words Nick understood, and Nick looked at everything that Alan pointed to just the same. He sometimes wished that Alan would show him something that was good, or unhappy, so he could understand those things.
Dad put both his hands down flat on the table, giving a massive sigh. He looked over at Alan and the can, and then he looked at Nick. He didn't often look directly at Nick, so Nick looked back at him and tried to see why he was doing it. Dad stared, and Nick stared back at him, not moving, watching Dad's face change. Nick had looked at himself in the mirror and Nick's face did not change like other people's faces did.
At last Dad's face twisted. He got up, almost knocking his chair over.
"It might be time to stop with that stuff, kiddo," he said to Alan. "Nick's almost five. If he was going to talk, he would have done it by now."
People were the hardest things to put words to. Alan was not just Alan: he was kiddo, and son, and brother, and Alan Ryves, and a person, and a human, and a boy. Nick had a lot of words attached to him as well. Everyone did.
There were a lot of people at playschool, and nobody repeated their words a lot of times so Nick could remember them. So Nick didn't remember them.
They were all young people, though, as young as Nick. Most were smaller than Nick was, because another word that Nick was, was big.
"My, isn't he big for his age," the teacher had said when Alan walked with him to class. She was bigger than he was, and bigger than Alan was, but not as big as Dad was.
"He doesn't talk," Alan said in his quieter voice. "But he's not slow or anything. He just - he doesn't talk."
The teacher said, "Oh."
At playschool Nick was meant to sit at his desk while the teacher talked, except at lunchtime when he ate and at playtime when he was supposed to do things with tiny useless objects. They were called toys to show they were small and useless: a 'toy car' did not drive anywhere and was too small for people to get into. There was nothing you could do with toys and so Nick did nothing with them. In another playschool he had felt angry with the toys and broken them for being so useless, but Alan said he was not to do that again.
So Nick sat with his back against the wall and stared at the window. Sometimes another person came in to talk to the teacher at playtime, and the teacher looked at Nick and then looked away.
"He just sits there every day," she said. "To be perfectly honest, he gives me the creeps."
One day after playschool there was a woman who knelt on the ground and scooped up a boy in Nick's class in her arms. She put her hand up to the back of the boy's head and stroked his hair. It made Nick think about Alan, who did that sometimes, but he could not see Alan.
So he went over to the woman who made him think about Alan, and stood at her elbow, and looked at her face. When she saw him her eyes went very big and then she almost tipped backwards getting up and carrying the other boy away as quickly as she could. The woman who made him think about Alan went over to the teacher and they spoke in very low voices.
"Who is that? He came right up to me. He looks like nothing on earth. Those eyes!"
"His name's Nicholas Ryves," the teacher said. "I don't think he's quite right in the head."
Then Alan came to collect him, and the teacher smiled at Alan. People often smiled at Alan, which meant making their mouths go up at both ends. Alan smiled at Nick, but a lot of other people stopped smiling when they saw Nick. Sometimes Nick put his mouth up at both ends to make a smile, but that did not make anyone smile back.
Alan held Nick's hand more tightly than he usually did that day. He did not make a smile at the teacher.
He said: "Are you happy at playschool? Is that woman unkind to you?"
They walked out of the playschool and the trees made sounds to each other, but they never repeated the same sound twice and Nick did not understood what the sounds meant. They walked under the trees for a long time and Nick listened to Alan and the trees all making a lot of sound.
"That other woman," Alan said. "She didn't mean it. It's just that the other little boy was her son, and so she picked him up. She was only going to pick him up. It wasn't that she didn't like you: she wouldn't have picked up any of the other children at playschool. Only that one, because he was hers." Alan pushed back Nick's hair and kissed him on his head. "You're mine," he said. "I wouldn't pick up anyone but you."
Nick was quite big. Alan could hardly pick him up now, so that did not make any sense. If Nick got any bigger then Alan would have to find some smaller child to pick up.
That was the day Nick learned that the words meant different things to different people. That woman had her son, and he wasn't anybody else's son, and it meant that she picked him up. Nick was Dad and Mum's son, and Alan was their son as well, but that was different too. Dad and Mum did not pick Nick up. Sometimes Dad picked Alan up. Mum never picked anyone up.
Nick gave it some thought, and decided that mostly people got picked up on the strength of being the only one someone had. Alan picked Nick up even though Nick was really too big for him to carry: Alan was Nick's brother, and no-one else's.
The days when Nick did not go to playschool and Alan did not go to school were called the weekends, or the holidays. The weekends were only two days and the holidays could be a lot of days, seventeen or ten or four. Nick liked it when Alan said numbers to him and did counting. Alan always showed Nick a number, and they always made sense. There was no number like 'unhappy.'
Alan had been able to work out that Nick knew what he meant when he said numbers, too. He gave Nick things sometimes, like grains of rice, and he said: "Count out four of these," and then Nick would. The first time Nick had done this Alan had smiled and gone to get Dad and then he'd asked Nick to do it again, and Nick had. Dad had smiled too. "You see?" Alan had said. "He knows what I'm saying. He knows four."
Nick knew four. Alan was eight, which was four and four. Nick was almost five, which was four and one.
On holidays and weekends they stayed in the house or went outside to walk in the streets or the garden or a park, if they lived nearby a park on that holiday. Sometimes when they were in the house all day they could hear Mum screaming all day, too. Screaming was when someone's voice went louder and louder, like the sound of car horns. Nick thought Mum was trying to make someone hear her: the person Mum was trying to talk to must be very far away.
Other times everything was very quiet, but Dad still had to be upstairs with Mum. It was like that one Saturday, which was the word for the first day of the weekend. Alan and Nick were eating lunch, which was tomato soup. Nick looked at the red smears on the white inside of his bowl, and was reminded of the red splashes on Dad's shirt one time when Mum and Alan had both been screaming. Alan stirred his soup with his spoon a lot.
"Maybe Dad will come downstairs soon," Alan said. "We can play Scrabble. You can be on my team."
Scrabble was putting little cardboard squares on a cardboard square. Being on Alan's team meant watching Alan and Dad do that, and leaning his head on Alan's shoulder and sometimes falling asleep.
Alan stirred with his spoon, even though he had hardly any soup left. "Or we could watch TV with Dad. Or Dad could read us a book. Would you like to read the Wind in the Willows?"
Books were big paper squares that opened into a lot of different thin paper squares. Sometimes people opened them and talked a lot, and sometimes people opened them and went very quiet. Nick had worked out that this was the difference between reading a book with someone and reading a book by yourself. Nick could open books and be quiet, and that made Alan smile, but once Dad had taken a book roughly out of Nick's hands and said: "The book's upside down! He's just copying you, Alan, it's just a mockery of what you're doing, for God's sake, Alan, leave it-"
"Everybody copies things!" Alan had said, making his voice loud. "Everybody does it, it's how you learn things, it's normal-"
He had taken the book away from Dad and given it back to Nick. Nick opened it up again and everybody stopped making their voices loud. Nick did not mind reading.
"Maybe we could have a go on the swings," Alan said, his spoon making a clanking sound against the empty inside of the bowl.
Alan wanted to do a lot of things, but they sat at the kitchen table for a long time and there was no sound of Dad coming down the stairs to do anything with them. Usually Alan talked and talked, but that day he sat at the table and the silence stretched on and on. Alan's face looked whiter than it usually did, which made his freckles stand out. Dad and Alan both had freckles on their faces, but Nick did not.
Alan's eyes behind their glasses were very big and his face was twisted in a way it was usually not twisted.
"I wish-" he said, and his voice sounded small in the long silence. "I wish-"
Alan's face really did look strange. Nick looked at it, and thought that the nearest word for what Alan's expression looked like was hungry, and that was all wrong, because Alan had just eaten his lunch.
Perhaps he wanted more.
He did not say anything more. He just sat there with his hands clenched in fists and his face very white, and the silence of Alan not talking was somehow more quiet than any silence Nick had heard before.
Nick wanted to eat the rest of his soup, but he put down his spoon and pushed his bowl across the table towards Alan.
Alan's face changed entirely, and then he smiled, and he started talking. He did not eat the soup until Nick pushed it towards him again and it hit him in the chest.
That was the time he decided that a smile meant happy, so when Alan asked him if he was happy next day Nick smiled at him. Alan looked at him as he'd looked at the soup the day before, as if Nick's face was something Alan had never seen before and never really expected to see at all.
Nick knew that what would make Alan smile a lot was if Nick made sounds. Alan kept telling him the words for things because he hoped that one day Nick would say words like everyone else.
The thought made Nick uncomfortable. He did not like the thought of making sounds. He wasn't sure if there were sounds in him, and anyway he had never wanted to learn words. Alan had made him do that, he still did not feel entirely comfortable with this world where everything was a word, and saying words too would make Nick a part of that world. It all felt wrong, and it was so difficult, and if he started saying things he would have to do it all the time. He didn't think he could do it as easily as other people did. He thought it would be better and easier to be silent, to hold apart from the chattering mass of people, to try and remember a world not made from words.
At the end of the day Nick smiled at Alan to show he was happy, Alan tucked him into bed and gave him a hot water bottle. Hot water bottles were hot and squashy and did not happen all the time. Nick thought that Alan meant the hot water bottle as a reminder that Alan was smiling at Nick when Alan had to go out of the room. He reached out his hands for it.
"Oh, is that your favourite hot water bottle?" Alan said, smiling. "I didn't know. You can have it every time from now on."
He put the hot water bottle close to Nick, the way he used to put a teddy bear in bed with him. Nick had not minded if Alan thought he should sleep with a teddy bear: Alan had said anxiously that it was nice and soft and comforting. Nick wasn’t sure what comforting meant, but the teddy bear was soft. It had struck him that the teddy bear's eyes were hard, though, so Nick tore out the eyes and put them on the floor.
After that Alan took the teddy bear away.
Alan said the last thing he said every night, in the same sing-song way that Alan said his times tables, as if someone had taught him what to say.
"Sleep well, don't stir, don't let bad dreams trouble you," Alan said, and stooped over the bed to kiss Nick's forehead. "I'll see you again in the morning, til then don't forget that I love you."
It was the thing Alan said every night, and Nick had never understood it. He understood sleep and morning, but he had never been able to guess what love meant.
When Alan was gone, Nick looked at his hot water bottle. He would have to get used to it because Alan thought it was his favourite and that meant having it a lot, like his favourite pyjamas.
It occurred to Nick that if people were put in drawers like pyjamas and you could pick them out, that would be an excellent arrangement. He would never pick out Mum, with all her screaming and her very quiet silences. He would always pick Alan. Alan would be his favourite.
The day after the cold bath day they did not go to school, which meant this was Saturday. Dad took them to the park, and he held Alan's hand, and Alan held Nick's hand. It was cold so Alan put Nick's big coat and his bobble hat on.
They went to the park with the swings, and Alan met a boy with glasses like his. They said things about school and books and ran off so that the boy with glasses could introduce Alan to his parents. Dad and Nick stood side by side, not touching and waiting for Alan to come back. Nick had noticed that Dad did not talk to him when Alan was not there. Dad thought that Nick could not understand.
Alan came back quickly because he always did, and he knelt on the ground and adjusted Nick's bobble hat, looking pink and smiling because he had seen the boy from school.
"Here I am," Alan said. "Miss me?"
"He stood there like a little stone," Dad said. "I don't think he even noticed you were gone."
"Dad, don't," Alan said. Dad shut up and Alan took both their hands again.
Nick saw the clouds of warm air coming from Alan's mouth like mist, and puffed experimentally. The same mist came from his mouth, curving white weird patterns that disappeared almost instantly. That indicated he had the same sort of system inside him as Alan did, just as capable of producing sound. Nick turned it over in his mind.
They went back to the sitting room and Dad said he would make sandwiches and lemonade. Alan put his arm around Nick and used the spare time to do his usual round of pointing and talking.
"That's the wall," he told Nick, pointing with one hand and squeezing him a little with the other, as if to tell Nick that Alan did not mind if Nick did not say it, and Nick felt confused, because he knew Alan did mind: Alan minded a lot. "That's a chair. That's the carpet. That's a picture of Dad and Olivia on their wedding day."
Nick did not want to try with a word he did not understand, like love, or try a word for something that had a lot of words, like Alan who was his brother who was a person. He wanted a word to be comfortable, a word that meant a thing, and only one thing. He tried to bring air to his lungs like he had when he had puffed out shapes on the air, and he shaped the word with his lips.
The first sound he made was a thin cracking sound, like ice breaking.
Then he said: "Chair."
Alan did not smile. Alan went white, and said in a trembling voice: "Nick - what - did you, did you really say something?"
Since Nick was only doing this to make Alan smile, Nick thought that Alan really could have listened the first time. He tried again, and this time the word came out more easily, even though it felt rough and clumsy, heavy on his tongue. "Chair," he said distinctly.
Alan threw back his head and screamed for Dad. There was a clatter from the kitchen like plates dropping and Dad came running.
"Alan, what is it, did you see something-"
Nick had not received the reaction he was expecting and thought he might as well not do it again, but then he saw that even though Alan was white he was smiling now, and his eyes were shining. He looked happier than he had looked at the park: happier than Nick could remember seeing him.
"Do it again, Nick," he said, his voice still shaky.
"Chair," Nick repeated, and Alan smiled and smiled.
Dad said: "My God."
Then he was down on his knees beside Nick, staring at his face. Alan did that sometimes but Dad never had before and Dad was so big that even when he was kneeling down Nick was only eye level with his chest.
"Does he know what he's saying?"
Alan, still holding onto Nick, squeezed him and asked: "Can you say Dad?"
"Dad," said Nick, and just to show he knew what he was saying, he reached out and tapped Dad's chest with his fist.
For some reason this caused everybody to make noise. Dad and Alan gave a sort of inarticulate roar and then suddenly Dad had picked Nick up, higher than Nick had ever been before, his arms strong and his chest still vibrating with the roar. He smiled at Nick, and when Nick looked uncertainly for Alan he found his brother smiling up at both of them.
"Nicky, my boy!" said Dad.
Nick did not think it was right that in return for doing what Alan wanted and saying words, all he got was another word attached to him. That was all you could expect from a world made of words piled on words, going on forever, and now Nick had joined it and he would have to keep trying to belong.
He stared into Dad's face, and it occurred to him that Dad looked a lot like Alan. Alan was holding onto Dad's elbow, frantically patting Nick's back, and both of them were smiling.
Nick turned up both corners of his mouth to make a smile in return.
Note to Americans: playschool is kindergarten.