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Chapt. 5: Jack Gets a Job
By Michael Jesse
"Well, well, what have we here?" MacWilde exclaimed, in an overlarge voice, as if he were still on stage. "Was that you I heard making that music, young man?"
"And the beast was responding in kind, was it not?"
"I was just . . . playing what he played, sir. It's really amazing how he plays music through his horns."
"Yes, well, it did not sound quite so musical during the first part of the exhibition. What's your name, son?"
"Jack. And this is my sister, Laura."
MacWilde bowed. "I am most pleased to meet you both. Tell me, Jack, have you ever been paid to play music?"
"No sir, " Jack replied. "But my Aunt Helen once paid me a quarter to stop."
"She paid you a what?"
"He means a dingle," Laura corrected. "Our aunt always makes up her own silly words for ordinary things." Laura was not convinced that MacWilde had seen as much of the world as he claimed, but she did not want to risk trying the "Prince of Indiana" story on him.
"I see," MacWilde said. "And is your aunt or some other guardian nearby?"
"No sir," Laura said in a confident voice. "We look after ourselves."
"Good for you," MacWilde declared, showing his disproportionately large smile. "I tended to my own affairs from a young age myself. As you may have heard, I was but a child when my parents drowned in a shipwreck while I, just four years old, clung to a bit of wood from the wreckage and fashioned a sail out of a blanket and navigated my way back to shore by instinct. But you have no doubt heard that story before." He paused, and Laura felt a curious urge to applaud.
"Of course," she lied. "It is a famous story."
"They teach it in school," Jack put in.
Wanting to change the subject, Laura asked, "What was that you were saying about Jack's music?"
"Oh yes," MacWilde said, making an effort to pull himself away from his own biography. "Well, young Jack, I propose to pay you the sum of one groat and five dingles if you will spend the next few hours playing music to our timid little friend and in so doing elicit from him something our paying customers might appreciate."
Jack could not remember what a groat was, but put out his hand anyway and said "it's a deal" in his deepest voice.
"Good man!" MacWilde exclaimed, slapping him on the back with such force that Jack nearly fell to his knees.
Laura was irritated at having been left out of the decision and would have negotiated for at least two groats, whatever that was in dingles.
MacWilde led them back into the passageway and the animal ran up to the cage tooting excitedly. At MacWilde's direction, the velvet rope marking the path of the spectators was rearranged to make a place in the middle for Jack to stand. Though bars separated them, the animal's face was only a few feet from Jack's own — so close he could watch its eyes as it played.
For the rest of the afternoon Jack forgot the crowd and was aware of little else except the animal's musical voice. He was startled when he felt a tug at his sleeve and looked around to see that the audience was gone and only Laura was there, and a guard waiting by the door. He blinked. "What time is it?"
"It's evening, Jack. We have to go now."
"Go . . . go home?"
"Not quite yet," Laura said with false cheer. "I found us a place to sleep for tonight."
"Sleep? I don't want to stay here all night. I want to sleep at home."
"I know. So do I, but . . . it's getting dark."
"How long have we been gone? Mom and Dad must have noticed by now. They'll think we ran away or got kidnapped or something."
"Don't worry about that," Laura said, trying to sound reassuring. "If this is time travel or a parallel universe or whatever, then it's possible for us to go back to exactly the same time we left. That's how it always happens in the books I've read anyway." Jack was too tired to think about parallel universes. He turned back to the animal and played a set of notes that he hoped the animal would understand as "goodnight" and "I will see you tomorrow."
They joined the stream of people crossing the plaza towards the main gate. Up above, ladies with tall hair and men in top hats danced and mingled on the balconies, holding slender wine glasses by their elegant, fragile stems. The line of workers passed through the city gates and dispersed amid the shacks. Laura led the way to a dimly lit building with a peeling "Vacancy" sign tacked near the door. A woman with sunken cheeks nodded at them from her station near the door and then returned to her knitting. Laura pushed open the door to a small room with a sagging bed and little else. It smelled of decay and the threadbare bedspread looked like it might tear apart if not handled delicately.
"So how was your day working with the creature?" Laura asked as she divided up the hard crusted bread and sweaty yellow cheese she had purchased from a market in the grey little town.
Jack was usually a picky eater who preferred cheese that came as individually wrapped slices, but he quickly ate several hunks before replying.
"Good," he said. "But my lips are still numb — and by the way, he's not a ‘creature.' His name is Ronnie."
Laura snorted a laugh. "'Ronnie?' How did you come up with ‘Ronnie'?"
"I didn't ‘come up with it'. That's his name."
"That's his name? How do you know — did he tell you?"
"Well yeah, sort of. Like this." Here Jack played two notes on his flute that didn't actually sound much like "Ronnie" to Laura, but she was aware that Jack made instinctive connections with music that most people didn't comprehend.
"That's how some birds get their names," Laura said. "From the call they make. I read that–"
"It's not anything like that!" Jack insisted hotly. "This is a lot more complicated and it's not just musical notes, they're words — lots of words. It's a language and he's teaching it to me. I know his words for ‘up,' ‘down,' ‘foot,' ‘head,' ‘eye' and all kinds of things. He has a ball in his cage that he knocks around and I know his word for ‘ball.' I even know his word for ‘help' because whenever the ball rolls through the bars he says the same thing, and what it means is ‘help – ball'."
"And he . . . told you his name is Ronnie?"
That night they slept on a lumpy mattress under a thin blanket that smelled musty and unwashed, but Laura dreamed she was home again on the big red sofa sleeper. She wanted to stay, but Jack was not there, though the bedcovers next to her were still warm. She heard him calling for her and closed her eyes again, falling backwards into the darkness.
"Wake up!" she heard Jack's voice say. She opened her eyes and there he was in the sad little rented room, and he was crying. "Laura, wake up. Why aren't we home? Why aren't we home?"
It was morning and Laura's dream floated away from her like dust sparkles in the window.
"Why are we still here?" Jack sobbed. "I dreamed we were home. Why aren't we home, Laura? I want to go home!"
"I don't know," she said. "But I think it must have something to do with Ronnie and Captain MacWilde."
At the mention of Ronnie's name Jack stopped crying. Tears were still wet on his cheeks, but when he spoke his voice was strong. "Yes. It has to do with Ronnie. He's telling me something, Laura. I have to figure out what he's trying to tell me."
They gathered their few belongings and scraps of food and left the boarding house, lining up again to pay the toll at the city gates. They passed the dock on their way to the Arena and saw that MacWilde's ship was crawling with activity. Men were climbing all over it tying ropes, fitting new sails and making hurried repairs.
The captain himself was directing preparations and next to him stood a short, pale man who did not look much like a sailor. He had on a tall hat like most other men, but he also wore a red silk vest with many bulging pockets which he patted constantly in a ritual of vigilant confirmation.
As Jack and Laura ran up to the ship they realized there was someone else they recognized. It was Liam Bundles (now wearing new clothing and the modest hat of a messenger) attentively near the two men.
"Liam!" Jack called, running up to him, but the other boy gave him a warning look and whispered, "You can't talk to me right now. I'm working as you'll notice?" And then he stood at attention again, saying nothing and waiting at the ready.
MacWilde noticed the exchange. "Jack my boy — and your dutiful sister Laura — I knew you would be resourceful enough to find us before we set off again. Sorry about the sudden change but I've received an urgent commission and must depart at once. This is my business associate Mr. Procktor, and apparently you've already met his assistant."
The man in the vest ignored the children and Liam followed his example. "Procksy, this is the little fellow I told you about who had such a quick rapport with the creature."
Procktor winced at the apparently undesired nickname. "Indeed?" he managed to say.
"Well, let's all go aboard The Liberty so you can inspect our modest accommodations," MacWilde declared, jumping aboard. "I imagine Jack would like to say so long to his friend before we push off, wouldn't you Jack?"
"You're taking him back with you?" Jack asked as they all walked across the temporary bridge leading to the ship.
"That's right, son, I'm taking him back home. He's had an exciting visit I'm sure and will have stories to tell."
"You're taking him back to set him free?" Laura asked.
"Well . . . we're taking him home," MacWilde laughed with a wink at Procktor, who was looking at his pocket watch. "He'll have a nice visit, at least. But I think he might want to stay with me in the end."
The stairway led down into the hold of the ship where bars had been bolted across the doorway. Ronnie looked scared but when he saw Jack he tooted a few beautiful notes and ran up to the bars. Laura gasped. Behind the cage she saw a pair of French doors and through them the back of the big red sofa sleeper. She ran to it, but it faded away with a twinkle of lights and now there was only the wooden hull of the ship.
Jack did not notice because he was focused only on Ronnie, who leaned his face close to the bars and played three notes that Jack understood.
"Help . . . Rah . . . nee."
Go to Chapt. 6