Mr. Egbert is different. For one thing he is, as his name may suggest, a man. Her experience with older men is almost non-existent, and from her point of view they might as well be a different species from her entirely: silent, rugged beasts stalking jungles of business suits and automobiles. He does indeed own both, but he doesn't seem dominated by them. He doesn't seem dominated by any particular thing, except perhaps his extensive collection of harlequins.
That's what he's showing her right now, as she offers polite nods and John pulls faces by her side. Another person might have not believed that so many figurines, paintings, and statues could be composed based around one subject-but all she can think of is her mother and her silly wizards. Well, alright, that's one similarity.
But he's something different entirely from her mother.
She picks it up when he compliments her dressa modified version of her old black velvet ensemble, with a white bib collar. She casually mentions she's fixed it up herself, opening herself to about a dozen snarky comments her mother could have come upand all he says is "you knit?" Before she knows it, she's talk animatedly about John's gift and her assorted modified outfits.
By the time dinner rolls around John sarcastically mentions how he should bring his dad for their next date so he can ask her how she's doing, and she blushes. Stupid. How long had she been rambling? Stupid, foolish
and yet, Mr. Egbert had been nothing but polite about her trusting openness. Polite, bringing up her hobbies in order to let her talk as much as she wanted, and not a snarky comment to be found.
In short, he had been kind.
They sit at the table, the meal laid out in front of them sumptuous- but suspiciously sweet-free. She has an amusing mental image of John standing behind him in the kitchen like a stern teacher trying to catch an unruly pupil cheating. And that's when the questions roll out, all the tried and true inquiries she's run into dozens of times: what does she want to do when she's older (preferably something in psychology), how she's doing in school (almost depressingly well), and so on, and so on. On the surface she gives polite answers, in her mind she dissects his words from every angle.
No ulterior motive, no silent adult in-jokes, no sarcasm. His questions sound hand-picked from a parenting magazine, but apart from their blandness they're well intentioned. He doesn't prod her one-syllable answers for more information, doesn't pushalthough, since John is more than eager to fill in her blanks, ("psh, older nothing. She's already giving the teachers advice!") perhaps it's unnecessary.
In short, he had been understanding.
And when dinner is over and the three sit on the couch lazily listening to the news, John asks him if they can go to his room so he can show her the video game Dave sent him. Rose's ears perk at this, for she has a feeling that this isn't the only game he wants to playafter all, the younger Egbert had been paying more attention to her dress than his father had. And without raising an eyebrow he nods, letting two teenagers just barely finding their hormones stay in a room. Alone. Far from his eyes or ears.
In short, he had been trustworthy.
Rose Lalonde is not stupid. She knows what to do with unfamiliar data: analyze. And before the pair reaches the top of the stairwell, she reaches her conclusion:
it's a trap.
"Wait, what?" John turns away from the searing graphics on the computer screen to look at her. "He's doing what now?"
Rose sighs, smoothing her skirt primly. "It's very simple John. Although I would hate to imply that your guardian would have sinister motives, the facts are that it's impossible for someone of that age to be so shamelessly kind to a teenager. Your father is very obviously trying to get me to lower my defenses, in order to perform a symbolic dissection of sorts he wants to see if this frog is suitable for the son he is so proud of."
John's mouth twitcheshe seems conflicted between smiling and frowning. "Rose." And his voice comes out so solemn she almost laughs. "You are not a frog."
That is so far from the point it's helping Dave render JPEG artifacts in Houston. Speaking of which," Rose squints at the wild mishmash of colors on his screen. "What on Earth is this game, anyways? The music could be used to kill a small dog."
"Oh, I dunno, some conksuck indie thing. Whatever it is, I'm probably losing." He frowns. "Aw crap, I think I caught on fire! Or maybe I'm being eaten by a bunch of red pygmies. " Resetting the game, he leaves his hand tapping thoughtfully on the desk. "But seriously Rose, I think you're overthinking things. Dad seems to really like you! And even if he does have sucky taste in decoration and is a mindless slave to the Crocker crone, he's not that bad a guy."
"While that may be true
She blows her pale bangs. "It just seems unnatural
I mean, I suppose I understand being polite, but
why nice? Why nice to me?"
John rolls his eyes. "Oh, I dunno Rose, maybe it's cause for all your doom and gloom you're a nice person? A GOOD person? Maybe it's cause you're smart and polite and interesting and those are usually GOOD things?"
He pauses, she blinks. For a moment the two hover in a somewhat shy silence, until he turns to her with a kind (if sheepish) grin. "Maybe you just deserve better than you think you do."
Rose's face may be impassive, but she can feel heat rising in her cheeks. "
flattery aside, John, I'm waiting for when the other shoe drops. I am missing something." John simply sighs and shakes his head, turning back to the computer.
Rose shifts in her rolling chair, bare feet swishing gently at the floor. Could he be right? Could it be possible that a parent could be so supportive and sincere? And if that was the case
well, where could she get one?
She sighs, laying her cheek in her palm. Maybe she did misread him. She hated to think she was losing her touch, but tonight both Egberts had surprised her. The elder had proven himself to being an upfront, non-passive aggressive (!), caring parent. And John
well, it turned out John really had wanted to show her a laughably awful game. Strangely enough, she was finding herself more disappointed in that than her failed psychoanalysis.
"Hey." The voice pulls her from her thoughts. "Besides him being
like, nice and everything, what is it that makes you so suspicious?"
"Too trusting," she says immediately.
"Huh?" He talks without taking his eyes from the screen. Somehow he's gotten the hang of the game. "How?"
She gives her eyes a slight roll. "Well, the fact that we're here right now is a good starting point. Mother wouldn't have
actually, no, she would have let us be in my room alone, but she also would be popping by every five minutes. Dropping off sarcastic little cookies, smiling that condescending little smile..." Oh dear, and now she has a case of the littles as well. "But then there's your father. I'm willing to wager that if you were to march downstairs and request I spend the night, he would give you nothing but a single, masculine tear and the old family heirloom."
"The Colonel Sassacre book?"
John's shoulders jolt, and his character dies nosily in an explosion of Technicolor gore. The game forgotten, he inclines his face very, very slightly towards her. "I
don't follow." He's blushing.
Rose leans back in her chair, eyes on the ceiling. "Well, John. Usually, one has his reasons for inviting a lady to his room, and typically those reasons, even those not involving contraception, are not to try and make each other's eyes bleed via 'conksuck' gamery."
Seconds pass in silence, and Rose begins to worry that's she's insulted him. But when she brings her gaze back to meet his, she is surprised to find a very shrewd expression on the boy's face.
The screen is black.
"Well, Rose." He slides his chair close to hers, the definition of suave. "Usually, one doesn't go being all passive-aggressive towards their awesome boyfriends. But," he leans close, voice going faux-baritone. "For you, I'm willing to overlook sUUDAUGH-."
Apparently his swag has been too much, for John's face meets the floor, the movement simultaneously sending Rose's chair wheeling backwards. "John?!" She leaps up. "Are you alright?"
"Y-yeah." He picks up his head with a sheepish grin, and Rose leans down to help him to his feet. "I'm fine, I was just
kinda maybe trying to do something I saw in a movie once."
Ah. Color me shocked."
John pouts, but before he can respond she gives him a gentle kiss on the mouth. "I appreciate the gesture, if not the originality." Rose pulls back a bit, pressing her forehead to his and looking into his eyes. "Let's forgo the rising action for the moment, shall we?"
Too dazed to reply out loud, he simply nods with a goofy grin.
They drift to the bed. For a moment they can only look at each other with somewhat nervous smiles, only to break the silence with a simultaneous chuckle. Surprisingly it's John who takes the initiative, leaning in with a quick kiss, as if he might lose the nerve at any moment. Rose's hands go up in surprise, only to find their place on his cheeks.
She loses herself in the haze of the kiss for a moment, closing her eyes as her mind goes blissfully blank. The contours of his mouths are slowly becoming familiar to her, lips, teeth
tongue, that's certainly new. Her fingers move to tousle messy black hair, making a pleased noise rumble from his throat. John leans in further, so far that they tumble backwards onto the bed.
He pulls back a moment to look down at her, almost as if in shock, almost as if just realizing 'oh yeah, you are my girlfriend and not some amazing dream.' Slowly he grins, almost sultry, and tilts his head to gaze at her over his glasses. "Wow," he says in his best Bruce Willis drawl. "I'd ask you for a light, but looks like you've already lit my fire."
stares at him, eyelids lowered.
"No no, wait," he flusters, "
okay, well you're definitely the Seer of Light because you've seared my..." Stare. "Wait, no, because you've lit..." Stare. "No, 'cause...cause...h-hey, quit laughing!" He sputters indignantly, seeing her shaking shoulders. A blush blooms in his cheeks as the chuckles bubble out of her lips. "This is my best material here!"
"My word." Rose manages to put a staunch on her laughter with a near-perfect smirk. "To what do I owe such an honor?" She claps a hand to her mouth in faux-awe. "How many hearts have your words broken? How many starving children run to the streets to offer their starving backs as your soapbox? Why, John, I am
.truly, truly touched."
"Oh, HA, Rose. All of my HAs." He rolls his eyes with comic exaggeration. She smiles, suddenly sitting up so that their eyes are level. With a pointer finger she closes his jaw mid-retort.
"I'm already your girlfriend, John. I would say that pickup lines are fairly redundant at this point."
"They're not pickup lines, they're just
!" John's eyes dip. "Just
lines. I dunno, it just feels like I should say something. I just want
oh jeez, this is so corny and you will make fun of me for the rest of our lives." The blush in his cheeks darkens, even touching his ears. "I want to make you as happy as you make me."
Her mouth opens but no words come. For a moment she can do nothing but blink. "I
" Oh lord, and now she's blushing. "Well
I would assure you that you're doing a fairly spectacular job, but I have severe doubts that I could make you as happy as you do for me. As you just did."
"A-ha!" He beams with triumph. "So it did work!"
Rose sighs, giving her head a little shake. "So it did. You win this round, Egbert." Despite herself she smiles. "Claim your reward."
And he does, leaning in so they sit against the headboard. As they kiss one of her hands meets his to lace their fingers togetherbecause the sappiness levels of this night weren't high enough, oh no. She sighs in her head, half in exasperation, half in happiness. He really was corrupting her.
Minutes pass in content silence. After a time John takes his hand from hers, moving it to place it on her upper arm. The fingers twitch a little there, feeling the soft black material of her sleeve, and slowly his hand scoots to her shoulder, just barely touching. Then lower
Her eyes snap open in surprise, and he suddenly pulls back, shamefaced. "S-sorry! Is that not-? Oh geez, I'm sorry, that was total-!"
His voice trails away when she guides his hand back to the curve of her chest. A moment of startled blinking later he gets it, and his face lights up. He moves back in eagerly.
Things become slow and warm. His kisses turn slow, almost dreamy, his hand giving gentle rubs. Rose shivers, bringing her own hand back to tangle his black hair. She opens her eyes slowly, wanting to take a moment to gaze intOH MY GOD MR. EGBERT.
For what feels like an eternity he simply stands there, his head just emerging from behind the door. Rose freezes like a rabbit in the eyes of a wolf, her mouth going stiff against John's. And the boy goes on obliviously, kissing and feeling her right under the gaze of his dad. At another time, another place, Rose would have been practically bouncing in her seat at the opportunity to analyze the situation: the unwilling heir, disdainful of the loving father, taking his lady right under the enemy's eyes, a beautifully, nearly Oedipal puzzle
And yet, somehow, she cannot summon the excitement.
Seconds stretch into hours. Rose's eyes feel as wide as dinner plates, her mouth attempting to form thoughts without a lick of success. Mr. Egbert simply stares. And stares. His face is totally impassivehe might as well not have eyes or a mouth for how much emotion Rose can pick up from him. And finally
time seems to fall back into place, and he steps back. The door clicks shut without a sound.
Rose?" John pulls back from her with a frown of concern. "A-are you alright?"
" She blinks, as if coming out of a trance. "I
"You stopped all of a sudden
and you look really pale!" He bites his lip anxiously. "Are you feeling okay?"
I mean, no, I feel fine." If "fine" meant "seized up in mortification, eyes still stuck in a saucer-sized stare." She shakes her head. "I'm just
like, come on too strong or something?" he stutters, bowing his head in a flustered way. "I'm sorry! I just thought you were liking it, a-and, if you didn't I'm really-!"
Oh god, why did he have to be so sincere? "No, no, please don't apologize, it's not your fault, I
may I lie down for a moment?"
The moment apparently lasted longer than she had intended, for by the time Rose awakens the sun has disappeared. Thoughts untangling themselves from the snarls of sleep, she blinks groggily at the darkness. Gradually she comes to an understanding of the situation: this is not her room. She is still at John's house, specifically, in his room, specifically, in his bedspecifically, in his arms. He holds her close under the sheets, his cheek against hers, chest falling down and up in gentle breathes. Realization washes over Rose slowly, synching up well with the deepening color of her face, and she quickly sits up-
-or makes an attempt to, for as she tries to pull away from John he shifts in his sleep, tightening his hold on her. For a moment she just lies there as he clings to her, nuzzling her temple.
She sighs. "John."
Rose turns her head to him and taps his forehead with her own. "John
With a slight snort he stirs, blinking dully behind his glasses. "Uh
" It takes him a moment to register the girl in front of him. "
oh." After a moment of surprised (if pleased) silence, he gives a slightly drowsy grin. "Eheh
good morning, I guess."
She ducks her head a bit, concealing most of her face under the sheets. "...evening, you mean. I
I'm assuming I fell asleep?"
Yeah, you kinda did." He chuckles as he straightens his glasses. "I actually wanted to watch you and I sorta...joined you "
And she's suddenly thankful for the cover of darkness. "Ugh." She buries her face under the blanket. "You are sotell me, why are you so insistent in converting me into such a saccharine dope? You're sweet enough for the both of us."
He laughs. "Aw! Well, believe it or not, you're sweeter than you thi
Rose frowns, peeking out to find John frozen with a look of vague horror.
John? Is everything alright?"
"The smell." His eyes bulge with horror. "Oh no. OH NO. Oh god, I told him, I TOLD him not to-!" In the space of a second he's untangled himself from the sheets and is on the floor, running out the door. "Daaaah, dammit Dad-!"
She's left utterly perplexed on the bed. Rose straightens up, and after a moment she can hear the sounds of an argument downstairs. Curiously, she picks herself off the bed and walks to the door
to be immediately hit by a powerful, sweet scent.
The scent of baked goods.
In the kitchen she finds John gesticulating furiously at his father, his words mangled by utter disbelief. But even with his sputtered angrish, its clear what the source of his annoyance isthe enormous, decadently-frosted cake that stands tall and magnificent on the kitchen table. Mr. Egbert's face is oddly complacent, as if he's used to John's impudence about baked goods. He simply goes about the kitchen, cleaning up various utensils and ingredients all while John goes on with his rant of oh my god you said you weren't and I can't believe you did this when she was still in the house she is going to see this and she will think we're a family of weirdass baking friars or something and AGAIN with the cake what IS it with you and CAKE MAN it's like-
The two look up at her. Rose shifts her weight from one foot to the other. "Is
is that red velvet?"
Mr. Egbert smiles.
"You know, aside from the color, this is quite good."
"Did you know red velvet isn't actually a flavor? It's actually just chocolate cake with copious amounts of food dye."
Rose smiles, nibbling the bite of cake as she looks over at the table. She's impressedall this time she had been fearing that John's father was
well, not foolish, but someone too simple or sincere to conspire against their child. Thankfully, her initial theories had been proven correct--for all his kindness, Mr. Egbert was still an adult.
And she has to admit, she's impressed. Even her mother, with all her little antics and displays, had never been able to come up with something like this. And as Rose's eyes skim the frosted message across the cake's top-
(SONCONGRATULATIONS ON THE COPPING OF YOUR FIRST FEEL
I AM SO PROUD OF YOU)
-she can't help but give a shiver of awe. She truly is dealing with a pro.
Deadlines. Oh, how Langston Parker hated deadlines. They always seemed to crawl toward him at first, picking their way leisurely through weeks of plotting and typing and revising and retyping; but then they suddenly screamed, “BOO!” and leaped out from behind his computer monitor to torment him through the final weeks leading up to publication. His editors loved setting them. He was all too adept at breaking them.
He leaned forward in his computer chair, squinting at the screen through eyes clouded from lack of sleep. Four empty mugs stood at easy reach around him, resting on stacks of discarded manuscript. Stacks that were growing taller with every passing hour when they should have been shrinking – the Day of Reckoning was a mere seventy-two hours away, and he still had fourteen chapters to write.
The bags under his eyes twitched, as though encouraging the lids above them to close. Parker blinked them into submission and rested his fingers on the keyboard once more. They spit out a sentence: “And, taking her warm hand in his, he brought it to his lips and kiss it…”
“Excuse me, Mr. Parker.”
He gasped and spun around. He hadn’t thought Margaret was home yet—
There was no one there.
“Please correct your error, Mr. Parker. It is irritating me, which is not something that you should desire to happen.”
He scanned the sentence and caught the mistake. Kissed, he typed instead. Then it occurred to him that a disembodied voice had just ordered him to fix a grammatical mistake, and that he had obeyed. This was not like him; hearing disembodied voices, that is.
“Thank you,” he said hesitantly, just in case.
As he had expected, there was no answer.
Parker turned back to the screen. His fingers flashed across the keyboard once more. “’Oh come away with me.’ she breathed. ’Come away and let me be the one you spend the rest of your life with.’”
“Now I am irritated. There are no less than three errors in those two sentences. If you do not find them, then I shall become angry. My anger is even less desirable than my irritation, Mr. Parker.”
Panicking slightly now, he stared at the sentences. “There’s nothing wrong,” he ventured. “They’re fine.”
There was a silence.
“Mr. Parker. Fix them now, or you are a dead man.”
Cold terror, spurred by caffeine, gripped Parker’s heart. He read and reread what he had written, searching frantically for the mistakes, but they eluded him. “Where are they?”
“You have five minutes, Mr. Parker, or in the name of English grammar I will personally purge you from the annals of literary history.”
He leaped up and darted about the room, throwing open doors, flinging cushions aside, but could find no one. “Who are you?” he shouted. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Those who cannot use proper English have no business writing in it. I would suggest that you correct those sentences now, by the way; you have only three
Parker raced back to the computer and sat down, his hands trembling on the keys. But he still could see nothing wrong with what he had written. “Please,” he moaned. “Tell me what I did wrong.”
“If you cannot see it, then I do not see why I should correct you, only to allow you to poison the English language even further than you already have.”
“But – but I have editors for this!” he cried. “They’ll find it! They’re there so I don’t have to focus on this!”
There was a silence that carried in it more hostility than any words Langston Parker had ever heard.
“So.” The voice was cold. “That is how you see it. You don’t have to use proper grammar, because there is someone else to do it for you.” The air swelled, and the voice suddenly seemed to come from all around him, pressing against him like a tangible force. “It is imbeciles like you who are responsible for the sickening decline of one of the great tongues of the world! It is you who made English the laughingstock of the Indo-European language family! It is you who has destroyed the credibility of the written word as a preservative force! In a thousand years, one could read your book and believe through your idiocy that there is nothing wrong with a dangling participle! With a comma splice! With a split infinitive!”
Parker cowered against this grammatical onslaught. “What’s an infinitive?”
“Mr. Parker.” Now, every word was a blatant threat, filled with a righteous fury that seemed to emanate from the air itself. “I have been lenient until now, but that statement completely shredded any integrity as a writer you might have had in my eyes. You have a single minute to redeem yourself. If you do not manage to correct your errors in that time, then you will meet your final deadline. And no editor will be able to save you.”
Parker broke down and wept. “You’re an illusion!” he screamed. “You’re an exhaustion-induced hallucination! A waking dream! I don’t believe in you! I don’t believe in you!
“Thirty seconds, Mr. Parker.”
“No! No!” He snatched at an empty mug and flung it at the monitor. It plunged through the screen in a shower of sparks. With a whirr, the computer died. “You can’t kill me because you don’t exist! There’s no way for you to really kill me!”
“Your time is up. Let it be known that the last sentence you ever spoke contained a split infinitive – a fitting epitaph for your miserable, word-butchering existence.”
The atmosphere seemed to gather at a single point beside the couch, thickening to give the voice a body: a blurred conglomeration of text, fonts weaving back and forth across a humanoid form that stepped forward menacingly. A very real sword appeared in Times New Roman, its point brushing across a vengeful Century Gothic smile.
“Come and meet your final deadline,” it said. The sword flashed, blood splashed like spilled ink, and Langston Parker died on top of his own misspelled work.
The sword faded, and the being bent over Parker, its mouth questing for the ink that smeared the pages on which he had fallen – but before the errors could meet its tongue, its head jerked up as though it had heard its name called from far away.
Its eyes narrowed into Courier slits. “Rice,” it hissed, and faded back into the air, leaving Parker’s body for the coroners. All it took was the page containing his last ill-fated sentences – food for the journey.