January 14th, 18–
Dr. Brown looked up as his two wayward assistants entered the shop. “Ah, there you are! Where have you been?”
“Getting clothes, a hat, a sketchbook, and stopping at the candy shop on Mulberry Street,” Marty said with a laugh. “I had some trouble getting Victor out of the last one.”
Victor bounced a little on his heels, grinning. “I am sorry we took so long, but – goodness, I had no idea anything could taste that good!”
Dr. Brown snorted. “Oh, I see. Your first taste of Wonka chocolate?”
“Mother was so wrong about it,” Victor said, continuing to bounce. “Scrum-diddly-umptious is the least one can say about it.”
Dr. Brown noted his energy with a slight frown. “Er – how much did you have?”
“That’s the thing, Doc,” Marty said, trying to hide his chuckles. “For somebody so skinny, he sure can pack it away.”
“I’m sorry,” Victor said, trying to calm himself down. “Perhaps I have had too much sugar. It’s just the March Hare gave me these wonderful tea cakes first, telling me I was too skinny--”
“Oh, that would explain a lot,” Dr. Brown said with a laugh of his own. “Well, fortunately I can help you burn off some of that energy. Let me show you around E.L. Brown’s 24-Hour Scientific Services.”
Victor looked around the shop underneath Dr. Brown and Marty’s flat. It was essentially one long room, with a couple of water closets tucked into the far corner. Most of the shop was filled with shelving and tables, all groaning under the weight of gears, levers, springs, cogs, nuts, bolts, screws, wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, and a thousand other mechanical parts and tools. Inventions in various stages of completion were scattered among the debris. One table closer to the front door housed a chemistry set, with a full set of beakers and tubing and coils of glass and colored liquids dripping through it all. There were also yet more clocks on the walls, all in dead sync with each other. Next to the group was the front counter, with more parts piled on it around the cash register. “You certainly make a lot of use out of the space,” he commented.
“As much as I can,” Dr. Brown replied, just a hint of Creativity in his tones. “Come along, I’ll show you what I’m working on currently.”
“What’s in the chemistry set?” Victor asked curiously as they passed it.
“Oh, just some colored water at the moment,” Dr. Brown said with a wave. “I’m not doing anything with chemicals at this time. I just like the look of the thing.”
“We’re big on special effects here,” Marty told Victor. “You gotta know you’re walking into a Touched’s lab, after all.”
“Does Mr. Dodgson have one then?”
“Richard? Yeah, I think he does. Even if he never uses it. He’s a mechanist through and through.”
“People expect you to have one,” Dr. Brown said in response to Victor’s unspoken question. “As Marty implied, Regulars have certain expectations from our labs. Far be it from us to break with tradition. Besides, you never know when inspiration will strike.”
“I see,” Victor said slowly. “There’s still so much I don’t know about all this.”
“We’ll explain it as you go. Now!” Dr. Brown stopped by a what looked like a large metal canister with a lot of tubes sticking out of it. “I call this the Suck-o-Matic Vacuum Cleaner. It works on the principles of suction to remove dirt, dust, and grime. And, the best part is, it’s powered by the very dust it picks up!” He grinned and flicked a tiny lever on the side.
Dust promptly came pouring out of a leak in one of the tubes and into Dr. Brown’s face. He waved it away, coughing. “Yes, well, it still needs work,” he allowed, as Victor bit back a tiny grin. “But the theory’s sound!”
“I have no doubt,” Victor said. And he didn’t. Anyone who could get a steam train to fly was obviously capable of getting a vacuum cleaner to work.
Dr. Brown walked over to something else set up against the wall. “Now this works,” he said, glancing at the machine a bit challengingly. “The Static-O-Matic Electric Hair Chair. After the customer sits down, this machine here charges the chair with two hundred thousand volts of static electricity. This causes the customer’s hair to stand on end. Result? The hair becomes easier to cut! Though you have to be careful if the customer wants some sort of hair lotion,” he added. “Sometimes the machine sparks a little, and – well, I had to put out one fire on a test dummy already. Had to happen during a public demonstration, too.”
Victor looked the chair and the attached static electricity generator up and down. “It can’t damage your hair, can it?” he asked. “Besides possibly setting it on fire, I mean.”
“That only happens if your hair’s all greasy,” Dr. Brown said. “And no, it’s perfectly harmless. I use it – does my hair look damaged?”
Victor looked at the mane of white hair that dominated the top of his employer’s head. It seemed healthy enough, but Victor would be the first to admit he had no idea how to verify such a fact. “No. . . .”
“I use it too – it’s honestly safe,” Marty reassured him with a little smile. “Hey, Doc, show him the old mind reader! I bet he’d get a kick out of that.”
“You worked on mind-reading?” Victor said as Dr. Brown searched through some older-looking machines at the back of the store.
“On and off,” Dr. Brown said. “Time travel’s my first passion, but this has had my attention for some time now too.”
“He tried using it on me when we first met,” Marty told Victor. “I was riding through town when my horse took a stumble and threw a shoe. I knocked on Doc’s door to ask for some help, and he yanks it open, tells me not to say a word, then pulls me inside and sticks this thing to my forehead and tells me he’s gonna read my thoughts.”
“Did it work?” Victor asked.
“No,” Marty said honestly.
“Calibration issues I haven’t yet worked out,” Dr. Brown admitted. “I think it has something to do with lining up the various sections of the mind properly, and since everyone’s mind is different. . . .” He located what he was looking for and held up an odd-looking helmet made up of a padded cap secured with a chin strap, covered with a vaguely pyramidal, vaguely cone-shaped conglomeration of metal. A thick wire trailed out of one end, leading to a cabinet-shaped thing on wheels, with little switches and dials mounted on it. There was another wire leading out of it, leading to a little suction cup resting on top of the cabinet. “The Deep-Thinking, Mind-Reading Helmet,” Dr. Brown declared. “Once it works, it’ll revolutionize modern human communications. Or hell, modern species communication – if I can calibrate it for humans, I can calibrate it for animals, right? Might have been useful to know what all those horses were thinking. . . .”
“Horses?” Victor frowned as something registered in his mind. “And – why would you go to Dr. Brown for help with a thrown horseshoe, Marty?”
Dr. Brown looked slightly embarrassed. “Well – a man does not live by science alone, however much he’d like to,” he said, putting down the helmet. “I need to eat. And back in Hill Valley, not many people were interested in scientific services. So I – went into another line of work.”
“Doc was the town blacksmith,” Marty translated.
“Blacksmith?! But you’re--” Victor stopped, realizing that was just as rude as when he’d started to ask Mr. Dodgson “what” he was. (Well, perhaps not quite that rude, but certainly up there.)
“Yes, yes, I know, getting on in years,” Dr. Brown said, rolling his eyes as if this was something he heard a lot. “All right, I’m sixty-five. But there’s plenty of life left in these bones. And I was very good at my smithing job.”
“He was,” Marty agreed. “I mean, I’m not saying everybody didn’t say he was crazy. But they knew he was a good blacksmith too. ‘Course, he was the only blacksmith. . . .”
“I provided a valuable service to the community,” Dr. Brown said, giving Marty a playful poke in the shoulder.
“I’m sure they’re missing you back home,” Victor said encouragingly.
The smiles disappeared from Dr. Brown and Marty’s faces as they looked at each other. “Er – not so much, I don’t think,” Marty said, awkwardly rubbing the back of his head.
“There was an – incident,” Dr. Brown said in response to Victor’s puzzled look. “It was a complete accident, no one was really hurt. . . .”
“Yeah, it just – look, I didn’t really tell you the whole truth back in the clothing store,” Marty confessed. “There was this – thing, Doc blew stuff up, I was involved. . .we were planning to come here anyway, but after all the fires were out, it was decided that maybe we should leave a lot sooner and make it an extended vacation.”
“Small ones,” Dr. Brown said quickly. “Really, my home suffered the most damage. And I’m not blowing up things every moment of the day, either,” he hastened to add, seeing Victor’s newly nervous look. “These sorts of incidents are few and far between.”
“Doc’s stable,” Marty said. “Shit happens. You just gotta deal with it.”
There was the sound of the door opening near the front of the store, distracting everyone from the conversation. “Hello?”
“Hello,” Dr. Brown said, letting whatever last vestiges of madness there was drain from his voice as he switched into “professional” mode and strode up to the front counter. “How can I help you?”
“Just need someone to help me tweak this,” the young man standing there said, blinking rapidly. He was a skinny sort of fellow, with close-cut blond hair and slightly squinty blue eyes. He wore a white lab smock that buttoned over the shoulder with white pants, boots, and gloves. On his forehead were a particularly thick pair of brass goggles. He was holding what looked like a ray gun of some sort, silver with a thick barrel. “I’d do it myself, but I just can’t--” he waved a hand around in a vaguely irritated fashion.
“I’ll give it a try,” Dr. Brown said with a smile, holding out his hands for the device. “What is it, first off?”
“Freeze ray,” the young man replied with a little smile of his own. “Stops time. You’re into that too, right? Time-related stuff, I mean.”
“More into traveling through time than stopping it, but yes, it’s an interest of mine,” Dr. Brown nodded. “So what’s the problem?”
“It keeps losing power way too quickly,” the young man complained. “I’ll turn it on, and after about a minute it’ll just shut back off again. I’ve been through it twice, and I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it!” He slapped the counter. “I need this to work! If it does, maybe then I can. . . .” He seemed to drift away for a moment, then came back to himself. “Right, yes, freeze ray, not working.”
“Right,” Dr. Brown nodded, examining the gun. “Nothing obviously wrong from the outside. We’ll have to open her up. Do you want to do it yourself, or is it all right if I do it?”
“I’ll do it,” the young man said, taking the gun back and laying it on the counter. “Can I borrow a screwdriver?”
Dr. Brown found the requested tool and handed it over. The young man unscrewed a few things, then carefully pulled the top half of the gun off. Inside was lots of tubing, glass containers, and many, many gears. Victor couldn’t tell at all how it all fit together. “I thought at first it might be something to do with the analytical assembly down here, but that seemed to check out. . . .”
Dr. Brown leaned over the gun, scanning it with practiced eyes and carefully feeling every part. As his fingers brushed one of the glass containers, he frowned suddenly. “Marty, bring me the magnifying glass over there.”
Marty went over to a nearby box and fetched a large magnifying glass, with smaller lenses attached to it with little arms. Dr. Brown took it, flipped a couple of the smaller lenses into place in front of the main lens, and took a long look. “Ahh, here’s your problem,” he announced, showing the young man. “Your aetheric conduit is leaking. See, there’s a hairline crack. Easy to miss unless you know exactly where to look.”
“Oh, damn it,” the young man said, glaring at the part. “And I can’t just glue it shut without disturbing the energy transfer rate. Gonna have to replace the whole part.”
“Unfortunately,” Dr. Brown agreed. “I’d go with a metal conduit this time, it’ll probably stand up to wear better. I think I have one around here, actually – though I don’t know if it’s this size.”
“I’ll make my own,” the young man said with a wave. “I am a genius. And I can use the shape of this one for a mold or something.”
“That’s the spirit,” Dr. Brown said with a grin. “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”
“Yeah,” the young man said, smiling himself. “So, ah, how much do I owe you?”
“Well, it was a fast job, and you’re fixing it yourself – five shillings and fifty pence sound all right?”
“I can afford that,” the young man nodded, reaching into his pocket. “I guess it would be more evil to just run off without paying, but that just seems so petty,” he added conversationally as he gave the money to Doc.
“Evil?” Victor blurted, blinking.
“Yeah,” the young man said. “I mean--” he suddenly posed with his arms folded, lowering his voice a bit. “I’m Dr. Horrible. I’ve got a Ph.D. in Horribleness. MWAHAHAHAHAHA!”
Victor drew back a bit. Obviously this young man was mentally unstable. (Well, of course, a little voice in his head said sarcastically. The man invents something to freeze time, and you think he isn’t a little Touched?) “That was – rather creepy,” he said slowly.
“Really?” Whatever menace Dr. Horrible had possessed vanished as the bright, hopeful grin appeared on his face. “Great! I’ve been working with a vocal coach, you know. Strengthening the ‘aahs.’” He patted his chest to demonstrate.
“It’s working,” Marty said, with that eerie calmness that marked him as a definite Igor.
Dr. Horrible smiled even brighter at that. “Good to hear. It annoys me how so many people neglect the laugh. I mean, the laugh’s part of who you are! You can’t get anywhere as a Touched without being a good laugher!” He screwed his gun back together. “Anyway, I’d better get home and get this fixed. Peace out – but not really. . . .” He looked confused for a moment, then shook his head and went out the door.
Victor stared after him. “He has a chemistry set at home too, doesn’t he,” he said after a while. He didn’t even bother forming it as a question.
“I think every Touched does,” Dr. Brown said, smiling at Victor’s dumbfounded expression. “And in case you were wondering, I don’t really have the laugh myself. Though I think I can pull off a decent ‘mwahahaha’ if the situation truly demands it.”
“Does going a bit Creative automatically make one prone to theatrics?” Victor asked, guessing that Dr. Brown wouldn’t think it too forward.
He guessed correctly. “Perhaps. I wouldn’t rule it out. I’m no behavioral specialist, of course.”
“I’ve seen a lot of them in action – I’d say definitely yes,” Marty smirked.
“But – why would he want to be seen as evil? Why would anyone want to be seen as evil?!” Victor put his head in his hands. “I’m getting badly confused.”
“I think it has to do with the popular images of Touched,” Dr. Brown said with a sigh, leaning on the counter. “What you have to understand, Victor, is that there’s actually three stages of affliction when it comes to Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder – mild, moderate, and severe.”
“We call ‘em Slightly Touched, Somewhat Touched, and Severely Touched,” Marty added.
“Correct. The majority of Touched who go Creative are in the first two categories,” Dr. Brown continued. “They’re not usually a danger to themselves and those around them. Mild cases can even pass for normal a good majority of the time. However, because of this, these cases don’t stick out. So the cases everyone hears about are the minority cases – the Severely Touched. Now, I’m not saying every one of those is bad either. Lady Agatha Heterodyne is a Severely Touched, and no one would say she’s been anything but good for her section of Europe. But it’s the vast majority of those who end up cackling and vowing to rule the world and kidnapping people for their experiments. And since they’re the most visible of the Touched, Regulars expect all of us to act like that. It’s probably reached the stage of the vicious cycle, actually – new Touched only know the evil madman they’ve all heard about, and think that’s what they have to become. I was lucky – even though I was exposed to the stereotype, I didn’t feel obligated to follow it.” He looked very serious for a moment. “I hate to think of the kind of person I’d be if I had.”
Victor looked around at the shop for a moment, then back at Dr. Brown. “It’s hard to imagine you as the unpleasant sort of Touched,” he admitted.
Dr. Brown smiled, looking slightly reassured. “I’m glad to hear that. I’m hoping to make a name for myself as one of the more stable Touched. Maybe it’ll help more newly Creative people realize there’s nothing saying they have to be evil.”
“Where are you on the scale?” Victor asked, tilting his head.
“Well, the levels of Touched can be hard to precisely quantify,” Dr. Brown said, standing up straight again. “Even mild cases of A.S.N.D. can exhibit behaviors more common to severe sufferers. I’m usually classified as a moderate case – Somewhat Touched. That’s the most common case you’ll find in Secundus, incidentally. Mild cases are more common, of course, but they also fit into regular society better, so there’s less inclination to move to a city specially designed for them.”
“So – is everyone here a Touched, then?” Victor said, frowning. “Or the assistant of one?”
“Oh Galileo no!” Dr. Brown said, laughing. “Most of the people who live here are Regulars, just like anywhere else. Touched make up a rather small segment of the population. Helen Narbon’s been studying the Touched mind for a while now. She says that it’s likely sixty percent of those with the disorder never even go active.”
“Yeah, Doc and I both read the paper she wrote about it,” Marty said. “Something’s gotta make a Touched go Creative. If they never get stressed out enough, they never go mad.”
“Precisely,” Dr. Brown said. “And when you add in that a good half of those who go Creative end up accidentally killing themselves with their first Inventions, or by attracting the attentions of an angry mob, it’s almost a wonder we’re not extinct.”
Victor was amazed. “So – perfectly ordinary people can actually be mad scientists if – if someone makes them go mad?” he said, trying to fix that idea in his mind. Everything he’d heard in Burtonsville had led him to believe that you could tell a Touched from the moment you met them. That such people had never been normal at all. Then again, he was rapidly learning everything else he’d heard about these people was wrong, so why not this?
“Exactly,” Dr. Brown nodded. “I might have been a perfectly normal scientist if--” He paused suddenly, and bit his lip. “No, I can’t actually say that with a straight face,” he admitted, forcing back some giggles. “I was one of those who was always a bit – off-kilter, I suppose. You’d have to go back and stop me from ever getting interested in science at all to get me to have any chance at a truly normal life.”
“How did you become a Touched?” Victor asked, getting quite curious. “F-forgive me if I’m being to forward, but I really don’t know much about you and Marty.”
“It’s fine,” Dr. Brown told him. “You should be expected to know the people you’re going to work with. I first got into science at the age of eleven, when I first discovered the budding genre of science fiction. I devoured works like Kepler’s Somnium and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Still do – my favorite author these days is Jules Verne. Oh, sometimes I regret being born when I was. If I’d had Jules Verne to guide me as a child. . . .” He looked wistful for a moment. “Well, all that combined with the stories in the newspaper about the fabulous inventions being created every day started my interest in science and mechanics. I played around with it, built a few inventions that didn’t quite work, and started considering how to develop my own lab when I grew up. At that time, I was already known as a fairly intelligent young man. I was doing courses at Harvard at the age of fourteen.” Victor whistled. “Yes, I know. It wasn’t until I was 17, however, that I – well, got a bit Creative.” He sighed. “Classic case, really – my latest invention malfunctioned in the classroom, and all my classmates started laughing at me. This had happened before, but something about that particular batch of laughter. . . .” Creativity began leaking into his voice again. “I’m not exactly sure when I went active as a Touched. I remember yelling at everyone, vowing to show them all, then storming off with my mind churning full of ideas. . .then I found an unused laboratory, and suddenly everything I’d ever thought about doing, even in jest, seemed completely feasible. . . .” He trailed off for a moment, staring at the nearby wall.
“Dr. Brown?” Victor asked, getting worried. “It’s – it’s all right if you don’t care to continue--”
“I’m just trying to figure out how,” Dr. Brown admitted. “It’s nearly impossible to describe. The world just – opens up, and you think you can do anything, but you’re also feeling a bit lost at first. . . . .” He shook his head, coming back to himself. “I still don’t really recall what I did in the lab. Nobody else is sure either, mainly because whatever I was working on blew up. Fortunately this happened after almost everyone had gone home for the day, so the only one hurt was me. Two professors who had stayed on campus heard the explosion and came to find the lab wrecked and me unconscious within. Took me two days to wake up.”
“Goodness,” Victor whispered. “W-what did your parents think?”
Dr. Brown winced. “Mother was worried for me, but Elias, my father. . .I don’t think there’s a person alive today who hated the Touched more than he did. The instant he found out that my going Creative was behind my accident, he disowned me and threw me out of the house. Fortunately my friend Holly and her family provided a roof over my head and much-needed support as I struggled through the early days. It’s hard when you first go Creative. You struggle to keep your impulses in check, your mind whole. I managed it, though. Went back to college – Harvard surprisingly let me stay on to finish my last year. I had to do a mail-order course from Transylvania Polytechnic to get my doctorate, however. Most of my time after that was spent in doing odd jobs around the East coast, moving on whenever people started becoming too distrusting of me. I eventually worked my way west as the country expanded, learned the blacksmithing trade, and settled in Hill Valley. Since I was performing such a valuable service for the community, the people there tolerated my eccentricities, and I lived there until last year, when – the extended vacation started.”
“Yeah, my life story’s not nearly as interesting,” Marty said, leaning on the counter himself. “My family’s Irish – my grandmother and grandfather, Seamus and Maggie, came over after Dr. Leprechaun’s Rainbow Miner took out Ballybowhill. They worked their way west like Doc – they were actually one of the first families to settle in Hill Valley when it first started. Then they had my dad, George, he met my mom, Lorraine, and they had my brother Dave, my sister Linda, and me. I was fourteen when I met Doc, and after we got over him trying to read my mind, we ended up becoming friends.” He smirked. “I think it helps that he offered me that job shortly after he met me. Twenty bucks a week just for cleaning up the place and helping him with his work.”
“Oh, and I only get fifteen shillings?” Victor joked.
“I think that's comparable. And it started out as ten dollars,” Dr. Brown said, giving Marty a half-glare. “He’s put in the work to get the raise. If you do well, you’ll eventually get twenty shillings -- or even a guinea.”
“Yeah,” Marty nodded. “Anyway, I met my girlfriend Jennifer shortly afterward – her father owned a ranch outside of town, and we met at the market. Great girl.” Marty smiled dreamily into space. “I really wish she could have come along with us. We’ve been dating for almost four years.”
“You knew her father didn’t want her without any family in a place like this,” Dr. Brown said. “And there was absolutely no way he was letting us take her without a chaperone. Especially considering we’d all have to share living quarters.”
“Yeah, yeah, still. . .writing letters just doesn’t seem enough a lot of the time. Hopefully she and her dad can make it over here one day. But yeah, I started playing Igor to Doc, dating Jennifer, working on my music. And then we ended up over here after the incident. Though I’m not complaining all that much. Secundus is great.” He grinned and leaned toward Victor. “So, that’s us – how about you? We know your family’s the fish people, and that you’ve apparently got more money than God, and that they were gonna force you to marry somebody – well, I knew that bit,” he corrected as Dr. Brown blinked in surprise. “Got anything else you want to tell us?”
Victor felt a bit nervous about trying to sum up his entire life so far. But, fair was fair – he’d asked them to do so. “W-well, I’ve lived my entire life until now in Burtonsville,” he began. “So have my parents. Father’s family has worked with fish for generations now – he inherited the business from his father. The cannery was an idea they were working on right before Father took over for good. Once he had it built, their business just – exploded I suppose is the best word. They were never exactly poor, but Father made us rich. We moved into the mansion you saw when I was seven. Mother was absolutely thrilled when we had that built. She saw it as proof that she really was just as good as all the society and noble women she knew about. But there was nothing particularly unusual about my childhood. Well, beyond being the richest boy in town.” He grimaced as old memories made themselves known again. “Not many people liked me because of that.”
“I know how that is,” Dr. Brown said, a surprising source of sympathy. “My family was independently wealthy – I’m fairly certain at least one branch of the Von Brauns is noble back in Germany. People didn’t like to associate with us because of that. They acted like we were too good for anyone else. Which was absurd, my father worked as a veterinarian for Newton’s sake.”
“I think our money being inherited would have helped our standings,” Victor admitted. “We were looked down upon for being nouveau riche. And I don’t think anyone cared for Mother’s more – forceful personality. But, r-really, I was happy enough. I had my dog, my sketchbook, my piano, and my butterflies. That was more than enough.”
“Until your parents decided to marry you off to some lord’s daughter so they can be all hoity-toity,” Marty said, rolling his eyes. “What’s this Miss Everglot like, anyhow?”
Victor paused a moment, then lowered his eyes in embarrassment. “I – ah – don’t know.”
“Don’t know? How can you not know?”
“I – I h-haven’t met her yet.”
There was a moment of silence following this. “How long have you know about the engagement?” Dr. Brown finally asked, frowning.
“Mother said everything was settled by Christmas. . . .”
Marty did the math in his head. “That was about three weeks ago! And they never bothered to introduce you?”
Victor shook his head. “I’ve never even s-spoken to the girl in question,” he confessed. “I don’t even k-know what she l-looks like. I’ve seen her parents around, and they’re – aristocratic.”
“I get the feeling that’s code for ‘jerks,’” Marty said suspiciously.
“I don’t understand this – I was under the impression that arranged marriages usually involved the people to be wed meeting at least once before the wedding,” Dr. Brown said, looking both confused and annoyed. “Even royal couples do that.”
“I think M-Mother considers it an asset I haven’t s-spoken to her,” Victor said, trying to make it sound like a joke. “I’m t-terrible around y-young ladies, and she’s a-always saying not to e-embarrass her. . . .”
It obviously failed, as both Dr. Brown and Marty stared at him like he’d grown a second head. “I – do your parents actually like you?” Marty finally said, mouth hanging open slightly.
“Marty!” Dr. Brown said, turning to frown severely at his assistant. “What a thing to say!”
“Yeah, but – he said before he thought his parents would miss him more for what he could do for them than for himself! And after hearing that--”
“Still, kid, that’s hardly--”
“I don’t think they do.”
Both men broke off their arguing to stare at Victor. He stared at his shoes, twisting his tie in his hands and wishing he hadn’t said anything. He’d never admitted that suspicion to anyone before. He’d never wanted to. Saying it out loud made it too – too real. Too painful. But Marty saying it first, more or less, had provided an outlet for the words. “They m-must care, I know they must, b-but – I k-knew my nannies better than t-them, growing up. And M-Mother’s always going on about h-how silly I am, and she and Father both say I h-have to do better if our name is t-to improve. . . .”
The sudden touch of a hand on his shoulder made him jump. He looked up to see Dr. Brown standing next to him, looking unusually serious. “Is that part of why you decided to stay?” he asked gently.
Victor nodded slowly, both hating himself for saying such awful things about his parents and feeling relieved that he was finally getting this off his chest. “That and – I w-wanted an adventure,” he said, trying to mitigate the possible message of, “I don’t like my parents very much.” “Burtonsville is so – quiet. I’ve always l-longed for a bit more c-color.” He blushed and sought out a patch of floor to look at. “I u-used to sneak penny d-dreadfuls at night to g-get a taste of something new. M-Mother hated them, but I c-couldn’t help myself. They were just so interesting. . . .”
“Penny dreadfuls?” Marty laughed. “Victor, if that’s your biggest sin, you’re eligible for sainthood. I read ‘em all the time!”
“Yes, but I doubt your parents declared them l-lower class trash.”
“No, but that’s not something you have to worry about anymore, is it? Not so long as you stick with us.”
“Whatever your foibles, you’re welcome here,” Dr. Brown nodded, gently squeezing his shoulder.
Victor smiled, suddenly feeling a thousand times better. “Thank you, sir. It means a lot to me.”
“You’re welcome. And come on, call me Doc.”
“All right – Doc.”
“Hey, what was your favorite with those?” Marty asked. “I liked ‘The Adventures of Dr. Wright and His Amazing Hominculi.’ Though I never got why he decided to call them ‘the Sims.’”
“Oh, that was a funny series,” Victor agreed, smiling. “But I always preferred the horror stories. I first started reading with ‘Varney the Vampire.’ A truly chilling tale.”
“Yeah, especially when the writers tried to be funny. ‘The String of Pearls,’ now that was spooky.”
“I remember that one,” Victor nodded. “The last bit gave me nightmares.”
“Ugh, I know. Who the hell would do that?”
“Actually, I’ve heard of a real life account of a pie shop like Mrs. Lovett’s,” Doc said, making a bit of a face.
The two younger boys stared at him. “Thanks, Doc, I’m not going to be able to eat a meat pie for a week,” Marty said, sticking out his tongue.
“Who could do such a terrible thing?” Victor said, horrified.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I genuinely believe some people are just born without morals and never manage to pick them up. And yet, it’s always the Touched people are afraid of,” he added in a much lower voice.
Victor decided it was his turn to pat Doc on the shoulder. “Not all of us,” he reminded his new friend. “On that note, do you have any other inventions to show me?”
Doc grinned, perking up immediately. “Oh, yes! In fact, there’s one I could use your help on. If it works, we can have pancakes for breakfast, instead of just eggs and bacon and toast.”
“Lead the way, then!” Victor happily followed behind Doc and Marty as they rushed back toward the rear of the store. Oh yes – he’d made the right decision in staying.