Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 55
Stories
Collecting Jessup
by Allison Mulder
The Sea of Ghosts
by Anna Zumbro
The Five Stages of Grief
by Michelle Ann King
A Century of Princes
by H.L. Fullerton
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Inferno
by Laura Anne Gilman
Bonus Material
The Cold Eye
by Laura Anne Gilman

Collecting Jessup
    by Allison Mulder

Collecting Jessup
Artwork by Scott Altmann

It took Jessup several days to realize she'd been kidnapped, mainly because it had been a long time since anyone truly wanted her.

Ever since her grandfather died, and her grandmother found it too difficult to care for a child alone--especially a child like Jessup--the girl had been shuttled through a series of increasingly distant relatives. Some were friendly, some were not friendly, and no guardian really stuck out as family. The greatest resemblance between all of them, passed down through the ranks of cousins and second cousins and all the other branches of the family tree, was the family frown: a pinched, down-turned look appearing most frequently during times of irritation, grief, or awkwardness. All feelings brought out by Jessup's presence in a room, thanks to "that whole business with her parents," which no one ever told Jessup about.

But it was more than that. They frowned when Jessup sat by herself and didn't speak to their children, or any of the adults, either. They frowned when Jessup refused to eat the same meal as everyone else, and when she shoved her plate across the table after being pressured. They frowned at the idea of her throwing one of her tantrums once she started kindergarten--something already overdue. Even when the friendly ones smiled at her, there was usually a hint of the frown.

The idea someone would want Jessup enough to steal her seemed outside the realm of possibility.

So when Jessup sat on the park bench waiting for the next relative to collect her, and when Uncle Douglas slipped away after forty-five minutes of waiting to call his very late cousin Gerald where Jessup couldn't overhear, and when a nice, dark red car pulled up to the curb and the man inside called her by name, she just assumed Gerald had arrived. His eyes crinkled the same way Jessup's grandfather's had when he was teaching Jessup to read.

There was no trace of the family frown. But that didn't seem like a bad thing.

Jessup pushed her thick-lensed glasses further up on her nose, then slid forward on the bench until her shoes met the pavement. She wrestled her backpack--bigger than she was--onto her back like a hermit crab's shell. Gerald left the car even though it was still running, and went to open the door to the backseat for Jessup. His white shirt was stained with coffee blots and pen smears, but his pants and shoes were nice and black and neat. A matching suit coat dangled from a hanger wedged on a tiny hook above the backseat window. The coat probably wouldn't look much different hanging from Gerald's skinny frame.

Jessup hung back on the curb. No one had ever held a car door open for her.

"Is someone else sitting up front?" she asked.

The man smiled. "Sort of. Mostly, I thought you'd like to sit with your backpack next to you, where you can get at everything. It's a little cramped up front."

This made more sense than most of the things Jessup's relatives said. It made more sense than insisting she stay in the family--like an attic-dwelling heirloom--when most family members were not on good speaking terms.

So, Jessup wrestled her backpack into the car, where it took up a seat all its own. Gerald reached out to help, but dropped his hand when she curled her arm protectively around the bulging purple bag. Jessup crawled up onto the seat next to the backpack's, and pulled her favorite book from the front pocket onto her lap. She skimmed her palm across the glossy cover, the big red words--FIND ME!--and the tiny pictures of a million tiny objects all crammed onto the same page. Trebuchets and long-named dinosaurs and tiny, detailed microscopes. Grandpa had called the book "an education," and they'd spent hours on it together.

"Seatbelts," the man said as he got back in the driver's seat.

They pulled away from the curb without saying goodbye to Jessup's previous guardian, but that wasn't exactly new. She'd waited hours at bus stops, she'd ridden planes by herself, she'd been dropped off by taxis that sat chugging impatiently, waiting for her new guardians to pay the fare. Sometimes she preferred that to being picked up, as long as she could read.

Jessup traced her fingers along illustrations and words with equal reverence, finding the pictures by heart despite her best efforts to forget their locations. The world faded outside her window, and Gerald's radio spilled violin and piano notes through the dusty, but uncluttered interior of the car. Jessup read and she slept, and sometimes in the drowsy space between those activities, she made faces at the rearview mirror. Gerald never asked her to stop, and she didn't miss the usual tense expressions and awkward chit-chat and lies about how the place they were headed would be Jessup's new home.

Like Jessup, Gerald didn't seem to care for much talking, which was something else that didn't seem like a bad thing.

Jessup's kidnapping was a quiet thing.

Her large, fractured, fragmented family searched on as many fronts as there were households. Feuds were suspended for the duration of phone calls asking if so-and-so was sure she hadn't run away to their house, since she'd spent the last fall there and might have grown attached to the neighborhood even though the people in it were a bunch of cheap, traitorous, scheming liberals with suspicious ideas in their church's denomination . . .

They looked for Jessup. They even worried. They held the rest of their children closer and ordered them inside a little earlier in the evenings.

But for many it was no different than the concern they would feel for some stranger's child in a red-framed picture posted at the local Walmart. For a few, their concern was more similar to what they'd feel for a friend's runaway pet, or a weed whacker gone missing in a neighbor's garden shed.

They looked. But no one particularly expected to find her. Jessup's disappearance was another tender sore on a family body covered in scabs and bruises. But the soreness faded with time. It was the kind you could forget about until something bumped it.

They looked. For a while. But the looking did stop. And neither Jessup nor her family was particularly harmed by the separation.

The most unsettling thing was when Jessup found out Gerald wasn't the man's name.

He had another pick-up to make that first day, besides her. They parked outside a nicely painted house with columns around the porch, and a portly man appeared in the doorway holding a big doll twice Jessup's size in one arm--the old kind made of shiny porcelain with features that made Jessup decide to stay in the car.

"You must be Brendan," the man said, beaming.

Jessup started, but her new guardian just nodded, smiling, and went to shake the other man's hand, and then they were talking too fast for Jessup to break in, examining and discussing the shiny blonde threads of the doll's hair, the clear, sparkling glass of her eyes, and the nearly flawless restoration of the doll's blue silk dress.

Jessup's new guardian bartered with the tenacity of a wolverine, not really about the price, but all the old doll's good points. Eventually though, money changed hands, and the doll was buckled into the front passenger seat, so all Jessup could peek at was the tufts of silky hair poking around the headrest.

Her guardian sighed as he settled into the driver's seat, then grinned into the rearview mirror at Jessup. "Doing okay?"

She hugged her book tighter, pushing her lips against the smooth cover. She had the feeling that somewhere, there had been a mistake. But the worse feeling was that she didn't want it to be a mistake. She didn't want to find out he meant to pick up some other little girl, and Jessup was supposed to be in some other place with some other Gerald who--more likely than not--talked too much and frowned even more than too much.

"Jessup?" the man asked, smiling.

He had called her by name.

The man's cellphone rang, and he held up a finger, smiling as he answered the call. "Hello, Mr. Washburn? Yes, this is Vaughn. Yes, the book dealer. Yes, I'm very interested in your offer. I can be there in a few days. Yes, alright."

Jessup's grip loosened on the book a little. Vaughn? Or Brendan, or Gerald.

When he hung up the phone, she had resolved to speak. She really had. She hated talking. She hated asking questions. She hated the look people gave her when she asked questions they didn't want to answer. But before she could do more than say the "Bre--" in Brendan, the man sat bolt upright and said, "Ooooh. The names. I forgot, I'm so used to . . . It's a . . . marketing thing."

She stared at him blankly.

He started the car. "There are reasons why my work is easier if I use a lot of different names. A book name, a toy name, a vehicle name. It would attract too much attention if just one name sold everything I sell."

Jessup sank in her seat a little. She whispered, "Are you a thief?"

He laughed, but not in a way that made her feel bad for asking. It untwisted some of the knots in Jessup's stomach. "No. Not a thief. I'm just really good at finding things most people overlook. It can be inconvenient when people notice. Too much of a good thing, you know?"

Jessup slipped her arm over the side of her backpack, which was full of very good things. "No."

He smiled into the mirror again. "I'll give you a for-instance. Is there anything in the back window?"

"No," Jessup said.

"You didn't even check."

"There's nothing there." Jessup kicked her feet against the back of the seat in front of her, shaking the doll. "There was nothing there before, and nobody's come near the car, so there's nothing there."

The man put out a hand to steady the doll. He didn't yell at her for kicking the seat, like a lot of Jessup's relatives would have. He just said, "Check then."

A dented old metal monkey toy rested in the car's back window. Jessup pulled it down by one of its front paws, scowling at it. "Whose is this?"

The man glanced into the rear-view mirror and shrugged. "Yours, now."

"But who put it there?"

"No one."

"They'll want it back."

"Trust me, Jessup, no one is looking for that." He grinned. "Keep it."

She stuck out her lower lip and shoved the monkey toy onto the floor of the car. "I can't keep it. It's not mine. Besides, it's ugly."

"I kind of like it. The tail's all bendy."

"It's ugly."

"Alright." The man drove on, shaking his head, but there was still no sign of the family frown.

They lived out of the car those first few days. They brought the doll to a big house full of toys even scarier than the monkey. They drove to a museum, with big columns out front and blobby paintings on the walls, and they carried in a framed, Jessup-sized canvas from the trunk. They picked up a rusty bike from a man's garage, and bartered with the man who owned the bike as he grilled burgers on his back deck. Half the time people didn't seem to know Jessup's new guardian was coming, and their side of the bargaining turned into increasingly agitated pleas to "just take it."

"It" could be anything from antique Christmas ornaments, to scraped-up, empty picture frames, to faded old cradles with cracks in the runners. Usually, Jessup could not see what anyone would want with "it."

But every time they picked something up, they'd leave, and they'd drive somewhere else, and the man would put his suit coat on over his stained shirt so he looked clean and proper and not at all tainted by the ketchup from the McDonald's they'd stopped at half an hour before. They'd go inside somewhere, he'd barter, and collectors would take "it" off her guardian's hands, usually with a lot of excitement. The collectors who knew he was coming almost always called him by a different name, and praised him for appreciating the best and rarest things.

The monkey was not the only thing to appear in the car, unexplained.

Roaring down the highway, Jessup glanced up from her book. And a granola bar wrapper crunched under her pink sneakers, even though it hadn't been there a moment ago, even though she hadn't even lifted her foot, even though all they'd eaten in the car was McDonald's. Miles down the road, an empty soda can rolled out from under the seat, which had been clear two hours earlier when Jessup felt around for a colored pencil she'd dropped. At every rest stop, Jessup diligently brought handfuls of trash she had not produced to the appropriate waste and recycling bins.

Once, out of the blue, the man held up an old CD with a cracked cover depicting an eagle and lots of tie-dye circles.

"Ever heard of this band?" he asked.

She hadn't.

"Me either."

They listened. And the man tapped his hands on the steering wheel to the rhythm of the music for the next three hours as Jessup discreetly plugged her ears. She didn't think he'd bought the CD, because she couldn't see why anyone in the world would pay money for it.

Jessup decided her new guardian had a magic car.

This made his actual house quite a surprise. They pulled up to the ranch-style home on the third day since he'd picked up Jessup. Walking up the front steps, the man tossed his suit coat over his shoulder instead of putting his arms through the sleeves. On the way in, he grabbed the mail from the long-suffering mailbox that hung from one nail by the door, and handed the big stack of envelopes to Jessup.

"Sort out anything not addressed to Rodney Copens."

"What's that name for?" she asked, starting to flip through envelopes.

"It's my real name," he said, opening the door for her.

Him having a real name was nearly as surprising as him having a house.

Half the letters were addressed to other people, and as they ate a frozen pizza at the kitchen table, Rodney read the stack of letters that were addressed to him, then started on the letters that were not.

"That's against the law," Jessup said as she rolled chunked-up olives to the side of her plate. She turned her slice of pizza sideways and shook it to dislodge the remaining olive chunkies. "Those aren't yours. You're going to get arrested."

"No one will mind," Rodney said. "If anyone were looking for these, they wouldn't have shown up here. You can read them, too. Just these, though. If you read just anybody's mail, you will get in trouble."

He kept reading, and after some hesitation, Jessup picked up a letter in a thick purple envelope. The writing inside had lots of big swoops and dangly bits, and the date in the corner was from years and years before Jessup had been born. In the stack were old birthday cards, old pen-pal letters answering questions Jessup couldn't figure out, a junk flyer from last week advertising a litter of wrinkly puppies upstate with a note scrawled in Sharpie at the bottom: "Thought of you, bro!"

"Are you going to keep all these?" Jessup asked, running her finger across the wrinkly puppies' picture.

"No," Rodney said, reaching over with his fork to stab up some of Jessup's olives. "I know a collector who'll take them. An artist."

"If you're gonna read them, why not just keep them?" Jessup asked.

"I don't collect. I just supply collectors. It's easiest that way. Besides, I'd never do anything with them. The guy I know puts together some really great work, throwing random letters together. Maybe we'll go see the finished product."

Jessup nodded, but slipped the junk flyer into her lap and folded it in half twice. At the earliest opportunity, she slipped it into the front pocket of her backpack.

Rodney's house was as neat as his car, and it had a similar habit of acquiring things that didn't belong to it. Socks under the couch that fit no one. Cans of food in the pantry that no one had bought. Messages on the notepad by the landline, not in Rodney's handwriting. Jessup quickly realized that Rodney's car was not magic. But he might be.

One afternoon, while they read in the living room, Jessup lifted her grandpa's big round magnifying glass from the cluttered pages of the Find Me! book, and put it to her eye like a giant monocle, even though it clinked against her glasses. The round magnifying glass was as big as a little plate, and it didn't have a handle, so Jessup cupped her hands around the edges and looked around Rodney's living room with the bubbled vision of a scuba diver or an astronaut.

That's when she noticed the line of photos crossing Rodney's living room wall. She put down the magnifying glass and studied the faces, tipping her head sideways.

"Did these come from no one too?"

"No," Rodney said, looking up from his book. "That's my grandma, and grandpa, and parents and siblings--that last one is my sister Joan, who you'll probably meet at Christmas when she visits to make sure I get her a decent present."

"What about that one?"

Lines formed under Rodney's eyes as he looked at the picture of him and a smiling woman standing in front of a museum, their arms around each other's shoulders. He rubbed his ring finger idly. "I've been meaning to get rid of that one, actually. Not important anymore." He hunched his shoulders and went back to his book.

Jessup looked at him, then at the pictures of his grandparents. "Those aren't my great-grandparents. How are we related?"

Rodney blinked, then cleared his throat, and fiddled with his book. "Well. We're not. I thought you'd realized."

Uneasiness smacked Jessup, and took a few moments to dissipate. Again, it wasn't that he'd lied to her. He hadn't, although he hadn't explained everything, either (no one explained everything to Jessup). Again, Jessup pictured some other little girl sitting on a park bench--some girl who Rodney actually meant to take.

"Jessup?" Rodney asked, frowning. "If you don't want to stay . . ." His eyes darted back to the picture of him and the woman. "I won't make you, if you don't want to be here. We could call your family."

Jessup hugged her favorite book to her chest.

"No," she said slowly. "If we call, they'd make me go back."

Rodney watched her, fingers drumming along the sides of his book. "You're sure?"

Jessup thought a long time, then nodded. "But . . . why'd you take me? How'd you find me?"

His face relaxed into a smile, and he turned a page. "I wanted an assistant. You'll make a good one."

"But why me?" she insisted.

"You're used to keeping a lot of things around, for starters," he said, nodding at her backpack. It bulged as much as ever; Jessup never unpacked because the repacking always started too quickly.

"Other people are good at that too, though," she mumbled. "Older people. Why me?"

"You're the assistant I found," Rodney said, putting his book down on the arm of the chair. "I like the things I find."

"But were you looking for me?" Jessup asked. "Were you looking, when you found me?"

He frowned. "I don't understand--"

Jessup threw her book at him, wincing as the pages flapped and crinkled, and she ran down the hall to the bedroom he'd given her. She slammed the door and sat against it, holding the knob because there wasn't a lock. Snot ran from her nose even though she refused to let herself cry. Her thick-lensed glasses slipped down her face, but pushing them up would have meant letting go of the knob.

Rodney could have forced the door if he had come after her. But he didn't. Jessup sat against the door for hours. She couldn't even read because she'd thrown her book and she'd left her backpack, and she hadn't brought anything else into the room yet. She'd liked sitting in the living room with Rodney too much. She'd liked timing her page flips to his, and racing without talking about it once he realized what she was doing. She'd liked reading the letters as he got done with them. She'd liked that he ate all the olives off the side of her plate, and that he'd laughed at some of the faces she'd made in the backseat while he drove, which meant he'd actually bothered looking at her in the rear-view mirror sometimes. She'd liked that he didn't cover up stains with the suit coat when it was just her around, and she liked the idea of being his assistant, almost as much as she liked the idea of being his family.

He was nice. He was nice to her.

Too nice to say, but she was smart enough to figure it out: If she was just another thing he found, then she was just something else nobody really wanted. And Jessup could be okay with that. She'd never really wanted anyone else, either.

But everything Rodney found, he sold or gave away or threw away. He kept no clutter. Nothing that didn't have a use. Even the woman in the picture was gone. He did not collect.

So if Jessup was just something he found, she would eventually have to leave, too.

Jessup was not particularly bothered by the fact she'd been kidnapped. But she was extremely bothered by the idea of running away. It put a twist in her stomach. It made her palms sweat. She didn't mind riding buses and flying alone, but she wasn't sure how to find a house by herself, and living on a bus didn't sound as fun as the few days Jessup and Rodney had lived in the magic car.

But the longer she stayed--the more time passed where Rodney didn't mention the fight, or correct Jessup about whether he'd looked for her, or promise she could be his assistant forever--the more certain Jessup was that she would have to leave, alone. And she'd rather do that on her own than have Rodney tell her to leave.

Maybe she'd messed up, and he didn't even want her to be his assistant anymore.

They kept living in Rodney's house. They went on more driving trips, but just in the afternoons. They ate a lot of pizza, but one night Rodney cooked soup from scratch after some odd spices showed up in a cupboard. The best soup ever, and Jessup could hardly eat because her stomach kept twisting, and her backpack and the kitchen screen door kept barging into the corners of Jessup's vision, reminding her she had to go.

She decided to leave the next morning, but overslept. She woke to noon sun coming through the windows and Rodney wearing stringy cut-off jeans and a homemade T-shirt--the kind Jessup's high school cousins sometimes ordered for sports teams or science clubs--emblazoned with big orange letters: PACK RAT SOCIETY - MVP. Jessup had never seen him without his nice black pants and shoes.

"Are you not going to a collector's today?" Jessup asked. If they were staying home, it would be harder for her to sneak away.

Rodney shrugged. "Yes and no. You'll see."

As he loaded up the car with thick gloves and wet wipes, stretchy cords and big rolls of duct tape, and layer after layer of flattened cardboard boxes, Jessup decided it wouldn't hurt to wait until nighttime, until after she figured out Rodney's shrug.

But after hitching a trailer onto the back of the car and driving for a long time without bathroom breaks, it was nearly sunset before they pulled into the gravel driveway of a big, paint-scabby farmhouse where an old woman waited on the porch.

"It's been too long, Rodney," the woman crowed, and Jessup relaxed a little. Part of her had wondered if Rodney was just another fake name. A name for toys, a name for books, a name for assistants who would soon be sent away.

"Leave your backpack in the car," Rodney said as he got out. Jessup hesitated, then obeyed, and followed him up the grey concrete steps.

The woman greeted Rodney with a hug, and bent down in a painful way to give Jessup the same treatment.

"I've heard so much about you," the woman said, beaming. Then she looked at Rodney. "You did do things right? Filled out all the paperwork?"

Rodney agreed enthusiastically, pulling on his earlobe.

"Did you ask permission at least?"

"Well . . ."

The old woman clucked her tongue and turned to shuffle into the house. "You'd have gotten on a lot better in the old days of the PRS. Hope you don't get caught breaking rules now."

Jessup hadn't thought about the possibility Rodney would be taken away before she could run away. If he'd broken the law for her, that might mean he really wanted her as his assistant after all . . . except he kept what didn't belong to him and read other people's mail. He broke the law all the time without it meaning anything.

Those thoughts stopped at the doorway of the woman's house. There was no room for them among the stacks and piles and heaps of towering things. The labyrinthine aisles were packed closer than the ones at the tiny craft store Jessup's aunt owned. Mismatched furniture creaked under the weight of full boxes of books and hairdryers and crockpots and busted-up paintings that hadn't made it onto any wall. Stacks bulged in their middles, threatening to grab Jessup or at least fall on her; they were taller than her, taller than Rodney, practically taller than the ceiling.

"It got away from me," the old woman said. "But it's been worse."

Rodney nodded to himself, then untangled a tattered 4-H flag from the middle of the nearest stack. "We'll get through it, one thing at a time. But try to keep up with it this time, you know?"

"Yes," the old woman said. Her bony hand clawed the air for a few seconds before Jessup realized her hand was being sought. The skin of the woman's hand was soft as velvet, soft as moth wings, loose as the left-overs of a popped balloon. "I'll try. It's just easier to start than to stop."

They worked through the night. At first Jessup thought they'd be there for weeks, and maybe never see the floor. But more and more patches of hardwood panels came into view as the night crept on. Rodney was brutally efficient--as harsh an organizer as he was a barterer. They made three piles in the dusty gravel yard: Keep, Sell, Toss. The two latter piles reached Jessup's height before any single thing went in the Keep pile.

Rodney's methodical work made up for the old woman's hesitation as she dithered over different items, stroking them like cats until Rodney gently pulled them from her hands. Sometimes she just grabbed Jessup's hand and stroked the back of it as they watched Rodney work, until Jessup gently pulled free; she couldn't work one-handed, and she wanted to help Rodney as much as she could up until she figured out how to leave.

Rodney worked up a sweat. His dark hair clung to his forehead. He sang under his breath, a gaspy, lyric-less song Jessup eventually recognized from the CD that showed up in the car before. He danced antique chairs from the hallway to the front door, and swung them into the piles with enthusiasm and flair.

"Be careful," the old woman murmured a few times under her breath. "Careful, Rodney. You'll break something. All this is really important, you know."

"Sure, sure," Rodney said agreeably as he lobbed an old prom dress onto the Sell pile. Then he pulled an old book with no title on it from the depths of a moldy, tattered box. The book was dark red, its spine reinforced with brown tape starting to lose its stick. It was nothing like Jessup's glossy-covered Find Me! book.

"Oh, keep," rushed the woman, grabbing Jessup's hand and clinging to it like a teddy bear. "Keep, Rodney, really."

"Keep this?" Rodney laughed, waggling it at her in disapproval. "This is nothing. You promised, I could take out everything unimportant, no complaints. You gave me final say. That was my condition."

"But that is important," the old woman whispered. She hunched over so her head was almost touching Jessup's braids. "So important."

"Did someone give it to you?" Rodney asked.

The old woman hedged. "Well, no. It was something I found. But--"

"Do you read it often?"

The woman flushed. "Not for a while. I wasn't sure where it was. But I'll read it again, now. Right now."

Rodney smiled, but it looked more like the frown of Jessup's relatives. "Didn't you say on the phone your eyes have been getting worse? Can you even read this?"

The old woman's thin nails bit into Jessup's knuckles. "Oh, but Rodney, please." Her voice was loud, and rough, and it scared Jessup. It scared her more that Rodney just laughed. The woman dragged Jessup along behind Rodney, pleading, right up until he laid the book down on the Sell pile. The old woman made a short, quiet moan like somebody who'd been shot in a movie.

"I know a good collector," Rodney said gently. "She'll take good care of it."

He walked past them into the house, and the old woman nodded in fidgety, birdlike motions. Tears ran down her cheeks, following the channels of her wrinkles and dripping down onto her paisley shirt.

Jessup stared at the woman, then gently separated their hands. She trotted to the Sell pile, picked up the book, and brought it back to the woman, who made another low groan and hugged the book to her chest, sniffling.

Rodney reappeared in the front doorway with an inflatable zebra beach toy over his shoulder, and he frowned at the book in the woman's arms. Jessup stood between the two, crossed her arms, and frowned.

"That's hers," Jessup said.

Rodney let the zebra slide off his shoulder and leaned against it, the rubber squeaking softly. He scuffed one shoe against the edge of the concrete step. "Okay."

After that, he checked with the woman before adding anything to the piles. He bartered when she said "Keep," but he did listen. He heard her. When they adamantly disagreed, they looked to Jessup.

Neither of them tried to barter with Jessup.

By sunrise, the house was still full of things. But it was full of the best kind of things--the kind Jessup would have filled a house-sized backpack with--and space to appreciate them. The woman trailed through each room, running her palms across bookshelf knick-knacks, and quilts with frayed corners but beautiful patterns, and one dented old telescope on a tripod--just black if you looked through the eyepiece, but beautiful when its brassy, coppery outsides gleamed in the light from the nearest corner's stained glass lamp.

"Thank you," the woman said, beaming.

"You're welcome," Rodney said.

"I was talking to Jessup. See if I ask you to help again."

Rodney's voice softened. "Hopefully, you won't have to."

Uncertainty flickered across the woman's face. "Yes. You're right."

Rodney put his hand on the woman's shoulder. "Breakfast?"

She shook her head, smiling, and picked the book Jessup had saved off a shelf. "I'm going to try to get through this. It's so important."

"Just a second," Jessup said. She ran to the car, jerking at the handle until Rodney unlocked the doors from the porch. Jessup stood on her tiptoes to dig in the front pocket of her bag, and brought out her great big magnifying glass with no long, Sherlock Holmes handle, just two metal bars on the sides. It was more like a sailor's porthole, or a spaceship's window, and she'd loved it for that. But she didn't need it.

Jessup brought it to the woman, who grinned and patted Jessup's hand.

Then Rodney and Jessup went to McDonald's.

He bought a breakfast meal and helped Jessup cut the pancakes into strips after her knife started digging through the Styrofoam dish underneath. Then he fiddled with a straw wrapper, watching her. "I knew you would make a good assistant,"

Jessup glanced at him out the corner of her eyes as she chewed.

He tore the wrapper into tiny strips. "Sometimes I throw things away too quickly. I have to, or it will wind up like her house. But sometimes . . . I overdo it. I figured you'd know what was important."

Tears welling up, Jessup rubbed at her thick-lensed glasses with her wrist because her hands were too sticky. Rodney quietly pulled the frames off her ears and dabbed at her eyes with a napkin.

"What's wrong?"

Jessup buried her wet face in the collar of her T-shirt. "You don't . . . collect. You're gonna make me leave."

The stools they sat on behind the long counter were fixed to the ground, but Rodney scooched to the very edge of his and put his arm around Jessup's shoulders.

"Jessup," he said. "I have a confession to make."

She sobbed once, sure he'd tell her to go, he'd say he planned to get rid of her from the time he picked her up, he'd say one of her relatives was waiting in the parking lot, and this was the last time they'd eat together.

"When I took you--" He lowered his voice suddenly, glancing at an elderly couple in a corner booth and a man in the baseball cap at one of the other stools. "--it was premeditated."

Jessup blinked hard.

Rodney sighed. "You're not just something I found, in that you didn't just show up. At least I don't think so. One of my contacts mentioned your situation. I started looking into it. I got curious, and then I got concerned, and . . . it didn't seem right." He rubbed the back of his neck. "What I mean is . . . I looked for you."

Jessup lashed out at him, leaving a sticky mark on his T-shirt. Then she yanked her hands into her lap. "You never said that. You didn't tell me that."

"Because my contact said no one wanted you," Rodney whispered. "And I don't think that was true. At least, it's not true now."

Jessup swallowed. "But you said you don't collect."

Rodney pushed the paper cup of orange juice around. "Well. One Jessup isn't really a collection." He grinned. "I'm pretty sure you're one-of-a-kind anyway."

They finished their pancakes. They threw away all the trash, including the receipts that showed up in Rodney's pocket. They washed their hands in the restroom, and went back to the car. Rodney opened the door to the backseat, but Jessup stood there just looking at him for a second. Then she unzipped the front pocket of her backpack and pulled out her favorite book, a pad of crossword puzzles, and an old Rubik's cube she'd taken from a cousin's toy box. Arms full, she stepped back and walked around the front of the car to stand by the passenger-side door.

"I want to sit up front today," she said.

Rodney closed the back door, grinning, and went to open the door for her.


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