Erik rang the buzzer to Rena’s house an hour later. When the door opened, Erik caught a whiff of dried drool and baby-powder, followed by the sight of a broad T-shirt covered chest. Erik looked way up and found David, Rena’s husband, looming overhead.
“Evening,” said Erik.
David nodded. His mahogany eyes and bronze countenance, framed with silver eyebrows and hair, were solemn and serious. “Her majesty’s sleeping,” he intoned.
“No, she’s not!” hollered Rena’s muffled voice from upstairs.
“I lied,” said David, shrugging. Then he turned around and bellowed: “Rachel, Uncle Erik is here!”
There was a crash and what sounded like a hundred pebbles showering down on hardwood floors. Then there was a loud, high-pitched shriek and the noise of little feet racing down a carpeted stairway.
“Make her clean up,” David murmured as the footsteps approached.
Erik was mock-saluting when Rachel, David and Rena’s eldest, appeared at the foyer with a huge grin on her face.
“Uncle Erik!” she cried.
Erik scooped her up and made growling noises into her round tummy. That incited a gale of giggles. Erik then proceeded to engage Rachel in all manner of circus acrobatics—from swinging her around by her ankles to tossing her into the air—since it was the fastest way of making her tired, thus the quickest way to reduce his babysitting duties.
“Tea party?” Rachel asked breathlessly, as Erik draped her over a shoulder like a sack of onions.
“Yep,” said Erik. “We can even serve actual tea.”
“Sure, why not,” said Erik as he knocked on the door to the nursery. Then he braced himself and opened the door.
Garish posters featuring video game characters, a mountain of stuffed animals and the color pink assailed Erik’s retinas. Once he adjusted them to withstand the onslaught, Erik turned his gaze to the white armchair in the right-hand corner. Rena was sitting there looking like a queen, despite wearing faded pink sweatpants and an ugly green shirt that had a riot of flower patterns. Danielle, her youngest, was in her arms and was snuffling against her chest.
“You’re late,” Rena accused.
“I had to battle serial killers,” Erik shot back as he put Rachel down. His niece immediately dashed towards the colorful blocks scattered all over the floor.
Rena raised a well-trimmed eyebrow. “Serial killers? Plural?”
“He brought his whole family. Then there were his unexpected friends,” Erik replied.
Rena rolled her eyes. “So what did he tell you?”
“CHESTNUT!” Rachel shrieked, pressing a stuffed pillow shaped like a chestnut into Erik’s hands before racing to a small circle table.
“He told me to read a book,” said Erik, holding the pillow.
“Frost, by Lieutenant Weaver.”
“Is it for storytime?” Rachel interrupted, eyes sparkling.
“Yes, it’s for story time,” said Rena smoothly. To Erik, she said, “Was that all?”
“More or less. Speaking of which, you knew about qi,” Erik said, dropping the pillow and doing his best to make his glare pointed.
Rena overpowered Erik’s glare with a look. “Yes, so?”
“Why didn’t you tell me when I asked you about superpowers?”
“Why do you think?”
Erik forced himself to think objectively. “You didn’t know how serious I was.”
“Just so,” Rena confirmed.
Erik sighed. “Fine. So what can you tell me about qi?”
Rena tipped her chin down and stared at Erik over her black plastic frame glasses. Erik knew this meant Rena considered his life trajectory and found it wanting.
“Are you sure you want to know?” she asked. “You’re going deep real fast. Qi isn’t something you can pick up just because you’re bored.”
“Are you saying I’ll be in danger if I know too much? What kind of danger?” Erik asked.
“The sort of danger no one appreciates unless they’re in it, which makes it a Catch-22,” Rena replied.
“You mean there’s more than just cults and kidnapping?” Erik asked.
“Your limited imagination is very charming until it’s not,” drawled Rena.
“But they are real risks,” Erik argued.
“Sure,” Rena said with a condescending sniff. “There are vigilante groups that believe they and they alone can have qi. There are also disappearances linked to someone going deep into qi. But these are secondary issues. Why not risk death and injury if you can learn secret knowledge or save the planet? If you’re into that sort of thing.”
Erik didn’t even blink at Rena’s cavalier attitude towards mass delusion and serious loss. Instead, he focused on ‘vigilante groups’ and ‘disappearances’.
“If you’re not worried about me joining a cult or disappearing —and you shouldn’t be—then what is your problem?” he asked.
“I think you’re going into this blind, and that worries me,” Rena replied.
“Why do you think I’m going into this blind? You know I’m not going to make a public spectacle.”
“If you were going into this with your eyes open, you wouldn’t even mention public spectacles,” Rena snapped. “Fine. I’ll make this as simple and blunt as I can.”
“Oh, please, do,” said Erik sarcastically.
Rena nailed Erik with an intense look that narrowed the world down to just them two.
“I’ve literally known you all your life, Erik, so I know how you operate. You set a goal and achieve it. You’re addicted to the high that comes with accomplishment, which is fine except you never set your own goals. You may think you’re making up your own mind, but you’re not. You got into computers because Mother said it’s one of the most efficient ways for you to make money, after factoring your talents and temperament. You got into public sector work because Father said you need more stable jobs as you get older. You got into running because I said Susan is the sort of girl I’d like to see you date and voiced concerns about your health. Ergo, you got into endurance sports to kill two birds with one stone. In short, you’re an aimless people-pleaser, and boys like you are very easy to manipulate. I don’t want strangers to dictate what you should do.”
For a while, Erik couldn’t speak. He felt like a child who got backhanded by someone tenderhearted and kind. A strange sentiment considering he’d stopped being a child decades ago, and tenderness and Rena got along as well as cats and water. Then, just as swiftly, something primal screamed in his head: No. No, not true, not true, she doesn’t know me, she’s wrong, she’s totally wrong…!
“Maybe I just want to sate my curiosity,” he snarled.
“Possible, but not for you,” said Rena dismissively. “You hate pointless things, and mere curiosity without a goal is one of them. Now back to being simple and blunt: There are powerful people out there who use qi for their own greed and agenda, and I don’t want them to use you. So until you know what your life is about and understand what it means to live in a world that has real superpowers, I’d like you to put this on hold. Can you at least trust me that I’m not lying and have your best interests in mind?”
“No. You lie to me all the time, whenever it suits you,” Erik growled.
Rena curled her lips into a one-sided smirk. It was something she did for those rare occasions she was admitting a wrongdoing, at least in her head.
“I see you want to prove me wrong,” she said. “It’s your funeral, baby bro, though I’d hate to attend it. Funerals are so maudlin and expensive.”
Then Rena got up and glided over to the nursery’s bookshelf, hips swaying. There she pulled out a book from the middle shelf without disturbing Danielle, who was snoozing with her face resting against her mother’s shoulder. Rena came back and handed the book over to Erik.
“Read it. If you’re going to go down this path, you might as well learn all the important stuff.”
Erik studied the offered book for a second. Then he held it between his hands. The book was actually a plain black leather binder, about the size and shape of a medium-sized agenda book. On the top were the following engraved words:
A Memoir on the Yeti of Alba
By Lieutenant Weaver
Formerly of Her Majesty’s Royal Army Medical Corps
Rena looked at the expression on Erik’s face and laughed.
“Your Internet friend told you it’s not a treatise on qi, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but he neglected to mention it’s an account of the legendary Sasquatch,” Erik growled.
Rena just smirked. “Did you know until sixty years ago, the word ‘cute’ meant: short, fat and bowlegged?”
Erik stared at her.
“Find out what the author really means by ‘Yeti’ before you heat up the tar and gather the feathers,” Rena yawned. “I’m going to bed. You take care of the kids.”
And with that, Rena plunked Danielle in Erik’s arms, patted Rachel on the head, and swaggered out of the nursery, chuckling.
Erik stared at the baby dozing against his right clavicle, the little girl waiting eagerly at the circle table with all of her stuffed dolls seated around it, and back again.
One of these days, I’m going to kill her, Erik seethed.