The Grey Edge: Chapter Four
‘There’s no one else in the playground, can I go?’
Donald Hammond looked down at his daughter and nodded. ‘I’ll tap on the glass when I find a table.’
Maggie grinned and ran toward the playground. He stared after her, making sure that there weren’t any other kids there, just to avoid any potential problems. New town, new start. It would put a cramp in his good feeling if she got into a fight on their first day. Not the the fights were her fault. Not really.
‘What can I get you?’ the jovial blond man behind the counter asked as he stepped up.
Moving had been hard, it was something that he’d grown accustomed to, but still, he was hungry. ‘Two Happy Meals,’ he said, covering Maggie first – hoping that they came with an extra serve of Happy, just so that they had a chance here. The right unit, the right school, and there was just a chance that they could settle down and become a normal family. Just a normal family. A family where he could just worry about what her next report card was going to say, rather than-
He stared up at the menu, thoughts of feeding himself taxing their already-stretched budget. ‘And a large fries,’ he said, knowing that if he ate the slowly, he could make them last until they got home, where he could fire up the kettle and make some noodles for himself after Maggie was in bed.
‘Sure thing,’ the man said, and told him the amount.
He imagined his wallet giving him a disapproving look as he pulled it from his pocket, but he ignored the imagined judgment, if it made Maggie happy, it was worth it. Any price was worth the chance of happiness.
The first move hadn’t been any good, he’d chosen in a rush. The second hadn’t been much better, as she’d barely lasted three months in the school there. The third move had been even worse, a longer commute to the store, a terrible substitute replacing the woman he’d met with, resulting in more and more detentions on Maggie’s record. Fourth time lucky. Hopefully it was fourth time lucky.
The cashier handed him his change, and he pushed his wallet back into his faded jeans. He turned and leaned against the counter as the man went away to prepare the meals.
He could just see Maggie through the glass, running through the small playground, slipping and sliding on the various plastic parts and running up the slide the wrong way – something he’d told her not to do, but something she persisted in doing anyway.
‘Here you go,’ the man said, tapping him on the shoulder. He turned, and picked up the tray, smiling to himself as he saw his large fries stuffed over-capacity.
‘Thanks,’ he said, turning to the seats to pick one out. He was spoiled for choice – there were only three other patrons in the restaurant, all high-schoolers pouring over textbooks, sitting on the far side of the floor.
He picked a table near the playground and tapped on the glass as Maggie ran past.
Maggie pressed herself up against the glass ‘Five more minutes!’
‘It’ll get cold.’
‘I like it better cold!’
‘Oh, let her play,’ the blond man from the counter said as he sat on the other side of the table, his uniform shirt hidden beneath a loose tie-dyed shirt, ‘food won’t get cold that quickly.’
He turned away from the window. ‘Can I…help you?’
The man held up a bag of food. ‘I’m on my break, I forgot to put the toys in the boxes,’ he said, dropping the plastic-wrapped toys into the meal boxes, ‘and I like introducing myself to like-minded people.’
He turned back to Maggie. ‘Sure, another five minutes.’ She grinned and ran back into the playground.
‘You’re a…single father?’ he asked the cashier, his brow furrowing in confusion.
‘Not quite dude,’ the man said, pulling a burger from the bag. ‘I was talking more about the amount of magic running through your little girl’s veins.’
He sat heavily on the chair. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Hey, relax,’ the cashier said, ‘here, take one of these,’ he said, pulling another burger out of the bag, ‘I always buy too many for myself, and fries by themselves aren’t really a meal.’
He took the burger, and stared at it. ‘Maggie isn’t-’
‘You aren’t the magical half of her parentage,’ the cashier said, ‘that is, like, blindingly obvious. She’s…half…magpie?’
He swallowed hard. ‘What are you? Do you want to hurt us?’
‘Do I look like a Solstice?’
‘What’s a Solstice?’
‘Oh maaaan…you are in over your head, aren’t you?’
‘Everyday,’ he admitted. ‘I’ll start again, who are you?’
The cashier leaned back in his chair. ‘Hummer.’
‘Nah, like, hummingbirds.’
Hummer unwrapped his burger. ‘I guess it is a nickname, but you couldn’t pronounce my real name anyway, so it’s the only name you’re going to get.’
He stared at the strange man. ‘I studied linguistics at one point, let me try.’
Hummer opened his mouth, and suddenly, he was assaulted with the image of a swirling nebula, and the feeling of warm yellow sliding across his nose.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘well, Hummer is is then.’ His limited knowledge of the world of Magnolia’s mother flashed through his mind, terms and kinds of people trying to match with the man in front of him. ‘Are you…’ he said, venturing a guess, ‘an…angel?’
Hummer scratched his back. ‘I don’t see fluffy white wings, do you?’
He stared down at the table. ‘I was led to believe they don’t have them, not nowadays anyway.’
‘They still do, dude,’ Hummer said, ‘it just takes a lot of effort to use them. And they prefer to be called “agents” if you want to keep up with the youngsters. No, I’m not one of them, you won’t catch a lot of them…or any of them…working in a place like this. Mostly, they’re out beating up the bad guys, and wearing snappy suits, or sitting behind a desk, saving the world with a pen.’
‘But…what you just did, what you just…said, if that’s even the right word, that was-’
Hummer shrugged. ‘I’m a god.’
‘I do beg your pardon?’
‘Me, god,’ Hummer said with a shrug.
‘You work at McDonalds!’
‘I sort of…quit,’ Hummer said, ‘diminished is the word, so my powers aren’t exactly…up to scratch anymore, besides, doing this keeps me grounded. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get used to the idea of a Tuesday when so far as I’m concerned, your species wasn’t around last week? I could swear that it was 1985 yesterday. Working…it helps with the acclimatisation process.’
‘You work at McDonalds.’
‘Not for long, I’ve been offered an assistant manager position at one a Monkey Burger. Does…that makes me a little more ethereal?’
‘I can’t believe it, I mean, you’re just-’
‘You remind me of my brother, he smoke a lot of…you know, when he was younger.’
‘How did you know what my daughter was?’
‘It’s…just something you can see. Can’t really explain it.’
He opened the burger the apparent god had given him, and chomped hungrily into it.
‘I just thought I’d say hi,’ Hummer said, ‘there aren’t a lot of in-the-know people around here, most just head down to Brisbane, you know, so they can be around their own kind, or at least of a similar kind.’
‘I’m kind of relieved to hear that,’ he said. ‘I want her staying away from all this, and that’ll be easier if there aren’t people I have to keep her away from.’
‘It’s her heritage, man,’ Hummer said, tipping the now-empty bag over, ‘you can’t keep it away from her forever.’
‘At the moment all I have to deal with are a few stray feathers, that’s all. If I can get her to relax a little, she’ll be just like any other little girl her age.’
‘Do you know how people say that a little knowledge is dangerous, it’s very true when you’re dealing with this world. Want another burger?’
‘The bag’s empty.’
‘And so is your wallet.’
‘I’m a single father, we just moved, of course we aren’t flush.’
Hummer reached into the bag and pulled out another burger, then handed it across. ‘Here.’
‘The bag was empty.’
‘I might not have phenomenal cosmic powers anymore, but I’ve got enough to summon a burger.’
He gratefully accepted the burger. ‘So what’s with your name? I don’t see wings or anything.’
‘I created them.’
‘The hummingbirds, dude, they’re mine.’
‘Darwin might want to argue differently.’
‘We can shape life, but we tend not to, the party line is that we don’t like to interfere, not exactly true, it’s more like we’re too apathetic to interfere. I’m…different, haven’t quite lost the will to grow and change, or yanno, live. I used to paint with the gases in a nebula, blow a solar wind one way or the other.’ He tugged on his shirt. ‘I’m a fan of colour, or so you may have noticed. I wanted a life form to reflect that. It’s a simple as that.’
He looked at the god for a moment, then took his glasses off and rubbed them on his shirt. ‘Nothing about that is simple.’
Hummer shrugged. ‘It is to me.’ He pointed. ‘Your girl is coming in now, so I’ll let you guys eat.’ He shook the bag. ‘Couple more in there if you want.’ The god stood, then slapped his head. ‘Wait, one more thing.’ He shook his hands like a magician doing a trick, then handed across a card. ‘Number for the local suits, you can count on them a lot more than you might think, or at least point you in the right direction, support groups for parents like you, that kind of thing.’
‘Thank you,’ he said as he took the card. ‘Means a lot.’
Hummer grinned, then disappeared back behind the counter, and took up his cashier position again.
‘Sorry!’ Maggie said as she sat. ‘I lost track of time.’
He thought of replying, saying that it was no problem, that he’d spent the time losing his sanity, but decided against it. ‘It’s ok sweetie, your food should still be warm.’
She pulled the toy off the top of the box to her left. ‘Oooh, nice,’ she said, pulling the plastic off, ‘I thought they were out of these.’
‘You can play with your toys later,’ he said, ‘hurry up and start on your food.’
She pulled out the fries, spilling them onto the tray, mixing with his nearly-untouched large fries. ‘Group chips!’ she said with a smile, pulling the other small fries from the other box.
He picked up a few, surprised at how warm they still were, then stole a glance at the god behind the counter, who winked at him.
‘Ah,’ he mumbled, ‘magic.’
‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘just trying to work out what kind of contact we should get for your new books, what did you have at your old school?’
‘What do you want this time?’
She swung her legs, and looked at the ceiling. ‘How about plain, and can put stickers all over them?’
Even though his wallet was currently beneath him, buried beneath denim and his posterior, he could feel the disapproving look – contact was a lot cheaper, even buying a few rolls was much better than one roll, and a dozen little packets of stickers.
‘Don’t you like it,’ he said, diplomatically, ‘when your books match?’
She swung her legs more. ‘Yeah, I spose, they’re easier to find that way.’
He smiled, glad that he wouldn’t have to find a compromise, or disappoint her. ‘How about kittens?’ he said, ‘or horses?’
She looked down at her jacket. ‘How about this kind of stuff? Stars and moons and stuff?’
He nodded. ‘I’m sure we can find something like that.’
She took a big bite out of her cheeseburger, her tiny cheeks puffing out, before she swallowed and burped. She picked up her drink – the non-melted ice still rattling around inside, and took a big gulp. Then, with the precision of practice, tore open her burger and heaped the fries inside, stacking them so high that it was surely a combination of engineering genius and prayer keeping them all in place. She then pressed the top of the bun down on it, squeezing the altered burger down into something that she could take a bite out of, then proceeded to take a very satisfied bite.
He looked at the card in his hand, plain white, with a local phone number on it. It looked like something from a cheap businessman, not from a god. He scratched his nose, still not quite able to shake the feeling of yellow. A card from a god with a number to call angels. Stranger things had happened, but very few. He tucked the card into his front pocket, reminding himself thrice to put it somewhere safe once they got home.
Maggie peered into the other box, pulled out the other toy, and tore it open as well, discarding the plastic wrap on the table. ‘This one’s not bad either.’
‘See?’ he said, ‘told you had a good feeling about this place.’