18 August 2006
Behind the Winner, overlooking the Shenango River, are a few seldom-used park benches under some trees. Henry liked to have his lunch there on days when he was out in town, just him and the water and the birds, looking toward the relatively busy area over by the bank and the old Army/Navy store and the Reyer’s Outlet. Even the relative bustle of downtown had been waning, it seemed, as Hermitage continued to build up its own commerce center a few miles up the road and Jim Winner’s fabulous failure, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, sat occupying nearly an entire block without drawing any traffic. He didn’t tend to look up when he heard footsteps coming. Generally, it was just someone taking a shortcut from one bridge to the other, or the rare resident genuinely interested in using the little balconies to look down on the green water below. But this time, he sensed magic, and he looked up just in time to see Jeremiah sit next to him on the bench, unwrapping the paper around his own burger on his lap.
“I’m not wrong often in my life,” Jeremiah said, “but when I first tried a McDonald’s burger, back when they were fifteen cents, I fully believed they would never catch on.” He looked too young to remember such a thing. For the last decade or two, he’s looked younger than his own son. But there was gray in that hair now, and even the slowly aging nephilim show the years in their eyes.
“Of all the things you’ve been mistaken about, you pick that one to confess.”
“Still teaching history, Henry?”
“Well. ‘Teaching’ implies someone is learning from it.” Jeremiah chuckled and bit into his burger, and the two watched the cars across the river for a long, tense moment. “What are you doing here?”
“Look at us. Sons of devils, bickering about intentions. Can’t an old man have a nice lunch with his son once a century?”
“Depends on the old man.”
“And the son.” They both ate some more of their food in silence. “You’ve done well, you know,” Jeremiah finally said.
“Hiding my grandson from me.” Henry stopped and set his food on his lap, but showed no other reaction to the words. “And his power.”
“What do you know?”
“I know he has a gift, a great and mighty gift. One that may even make him worth the name you’ve carried so fruitlessly all these years.”
“You won’t touch him.”
“And I know you won’t be here to stop me much longer.” Henry turned to face Jeremiah for the first time since the man had sat down. “When I heard, of course, I thought about just killing you and getting it over with, making sure I had the last move in our little game. But I fear that would be too satisfying of an end for you. But cancer.” He popped the last bite of burger into his mouth, shoved the balled up paper into his pocket, and then stood and dusted himself off. “Cancer must feel like futility. Like a fight you can never really win, even as every ounce of your being demands you keep fighting. And that, I thought, sounded too fitting to interfere with.”
“You came just to gloat? About something you didn’t even do?”
“No, Henry. I came to say goodbye, and assure you that little Jonathan will be in good hands after you’re gone.”
“He’ll be more ready for you than I ever was, Jeremiah.”
“Good. I miss having a challenge.” With that, Jeremiah turned and walked away, leaving Henry to seethe over the remains of his lunch.
5 august 1979
Elizabeth believed Henry when he said he was going camping, and there was even a certain degree to which he was telling the truth. He did sleep in a tent most nights, but he was not spending time in campgrounds. This summer, he was hunting.
He hadn’t been sure exactly what he was looking for at first, until this past spring when he came upon a tracking spell in one of his books. It was imperfect; he would have to be a mage to use it accurately, and he would need something of the target’s to narrow the focus. His aim was to find Jeremiah, and the only things he had with any remaining connection to Jeremiah were the books, the necklace, and himself. He tried the books first, but they were apparently much more connected to him than to his father. The necklace just took him to a quiet spot on the Ohio River, and he didn’t really know why. When he tried to use himself as the focus, however, he learned that there was something still binding them together. He wasn’t sure if it was just blood relation or if there was more to it, but he didn’t much care. At that point, the only objective was to prepare for a fight and follow the trail.
Since he was not, in fact, a mage, and was using a decidedly inferior connection to his target, the best he could do was a general area. So now he was in Connecticut, driving into Hartford each day and looking for information that might help him narrow his search. At first, it was mostly about newspapers, but he quickly realized that he would need to find something strange to know for sure that it was Jeremiah, and the only people who are willing to own up to the really strange details are people comfortable with being taken as strange themselves.
That’s when he fell in with a group of homeless people. For the most part, he had found, homelessness was just a sign of economic difficulties that may or may not get sorted out, and the majority of that population was not going to help him in any way he needed. But once he found a smaller section of the homeless population, the ones just unbalanced enough to carry the weight of the crazed hobo stereotype, he latched on and listened intently. For their part, they were mostly happy someone was listening, and the lunch he brought each day helped as well.
Through their stories, he learned that the mob had taken to working with some mysterious stranger, but the relationship had turned south, and now they were being targeted. Most of the deaths were pretty mundane, knives mostly, and that much was being covered in the news. But there were a few that didn’t line up with the prevailing theory of a rival gang. An enforcer reduced to a dessicated husk when he had only just stepped away to use the restroom. A gangster’s wife, drowned in her perfectly dry bed. Her husband found a week later with his spine ripped out. Someone, some thing, was angry, and powerful, and vindictive. It was over a week of the stories and rumors and ravings before he was able to piece together enough to verify that it sounded like Jeremiah’s work and who he might strike next. Of course, tailing a member of the mafia was not going to be safe, either, especially if that guy was presently terrified of someone tracking him down, but Henry was young enough to believe it would be fine.
He was only partly wrong. The mark did catch on that he was being tailed, almost immediately. And he did catch Henry, and he was fully prepared to kill Henry on the assumption that the boy was spying for whoever had killed his associates. The mystic books he was carrying did not help his case. And he certainly would have died that night, if it hadn’t been the exact night Jeremiah arrived to strike his next target.
Henry wasn’t able to get loose from the rope in time to save the mobster, and in moments when he was honest with himself he would admit that he might have been if he’d been a bit more concerned about actually saving him. One of his eyes was already practically closed from the swelling, the places left by two newly missing teeth stung like hell, and the blood running down his arms was somewhat distracting, but Henry managed to get to his books and his captor’s knives before Jeremiah turned on him. But the boy wasn’t trained for this, and the man he faced off against had been killing people and fighting with spirits for decades. It wasn’t long until Jeremiah got his first hit in, a swipe of the knife that Henry barely dodged enough to ensure it wouldn’t be fatal. To everyone’s surprise, however, when the knife sliced across Henry’s face, a matching wound suddenly appeared on Jeremiah’s. The man stumbled back, grabbing at his face and staring angrily at Henry.
“What did you do?” he hissed, his grip on the knife tightening. Henry was breathing hard, and holding his own knife all wrong. And as the years of rage and pain flashed across Henry’s eyes, Jeremiah finally recognized his son. It hadn’t been that long, of course; but children grow fast, and Jeremiah had made it a point not to think about the life he’d left behind. “Henry?” Henry lunged forward and swung at Jeremiah again, the surprise of the moment giving him just enough of an opening to connect and draw blood from Jeremiah’s stomach. The older man growled and grabbed Henry’s hand, snapping two fingers before recoiling at the sensation of his own breaking as well. That was when Jeremiah understood, when he remembered. He shoved Henry backward and stepped to add more distance between them.
“I’m going to stop you. I know what you are, and I am going to make you pay.” Henry spat the words out, along with some blood. Jeremiah grabbed the place where his gut was bleeding and smiled.
“If so, child, you better be more prepared next time.” Henry went to reply, but before he could, Jeremiah stepped sideways out of reality and was gone. Henry stayed on guard for a few more minutes, but there was no sign of his father returning. And then he realized he was bleeding, holding a knife, and standing in a room with a man recently stabbed to death. He stole the knife, grabbed his books, and ran.
25 December 1975
Elizabeth couldn’t place an origin on Henry’s love of books and knack at study. He had loved the books she read to him as soon as he was old enough to show a reaction, and took a special interest in the various fairy tales Jeremiah would tell him, some of which were apparently drawn from his own experiences in the Metaphysical Realm. It wasn’t until Henry could read for himself that he noticed the difference between stories everyone else knew and stories that, near as he could tell, only he and Jeremiah could recall. Pursuit of more information on this matter ultimately led him to studying history, a subject he quickly excelled in.
When they first moved away from Erie, all of their belongings had been stored with friends and family, the important things brought down quickly when they secured their new home. Elizabeth had reverted to her maiden name to distance herself from what she dubbed ‘the Jeremiah problem,’ and as she began unpacking and answering questions about the rest of their things, she was just as eager to lose anything belonging to Jeremiah as she was to drop his name. There were very few things that could really even be considered his, one of which was the necklace of sand that Henry had already stolen away. But there was a much larger thing Elizabeth had to decide about.
When Henry awoke on their first Christmas in the new house, he was presented with a tree that had only two presents under it; one Elizabeth had managed to buy for her son, and one he had managed to buy for her using money from his new paper route. Elizabeth made the most of the morning, and then asked Henry to cover his eyes and take her hand. She led him down to the basement, where he hadn’t been allowed in a few months. When he opened his eyes, it was to the sight of Jeremiah’s books, originally belonging to Joanna. Elizabeth explained that they had been in storage basically all his life, things Jeremiah insisted on keeping but did not seem invested in using. With the help of her brother, she had set up a small library in the basement over the last six months for her bookworm son, and now the space was all his. She didn’t entirely know what the books were even about—some of them weren’t even in English—but she figured they were his by right and he was old enough now to decide their usefulness to him.
She can’t have realistically known how dark his mind had been since watching Jeremiah kill that salesman. Part of the problem, of course, is that she didn’t actually know he had seen it happen. The common understanding was that Henry had walked into the hallway just as Jeremiah fled, and then found the already dead body. She suspected there was more to it than that, based on the way he had acted about it, but basically assumed Jeremiah had said something before he left that rattled the boy. It seemed, to her, that if it had been worse than that, he would have reacted worse; or, at the very least, would have been honest with her when she asked what happened. But Henry had decided, then and there, that he was going to be the sort of man who kept secrets. There was nothing else for it. There was a lot he didn’t know about the world, but he certainly knew a fairy tale monster when he saw one in action, and he knew how the world looked at those who told fairy tales when they asked for history.
And now, out of the blue, he was being handed all the secrets of the universe. He could feel it. There was something big in this room. Something bigger than reality itself. Here, there was story. It practically crackled in the air as he ran his hands over the spines of the books. If knowledge is power, and it certainly must be in a world where something like Jeremiah Matteson exists, then he knew, that Christmas, that he was going to make himself powerful.
And he knew exactly who he would turn that power against.
1 February, 1975
There was no way to avoid the fact that Elizabeth had a dead white man laying on her lawn. By the time police arrived, word had spread around the neighborhood about the incident, and damage control among the community was being hotly debated. As a community organizer, the police were eager to charge Elizabeth and make a spectacle of her case, but there was simply too much evidence provided that pointed instead to her fleeing husband. The DA recognized that maybe the case against her would fly in other states, but Pennsylvania was trying to maintain a more progressive image, so the worst they could slap her with was conspiracy to murder and, possibly, aiding in Jeremiah’s escape. It was a flimsy case, and they knew it; there was no reason to believe Jeremiah had planned the murder or even knew the victim ahead of time, and Elizabeth was very willing to cooperate.
The trial attempted to cast all of her work in the community in the light of her alleged goals of white murder. The prosecution tried to bring Henry’s school records into the matter as evidence that he was being raised in a household that encouraged violence, but there was little there they could use. The ACLU provided a defense, which focused on the the glaring holes in the prosecution’s logic, Jeremiah’s mysterious origins and sudden disappearance after signs of agitation at his job, and the positive work Elizabeth had dedicated herself to carrying out in Erie.
It was a happy surprise when Elizabeth was found not guilty, but everyone knew remaining in Erie was going to be impossible for her and Henry from that point on. Instead of a celebration welcoming her home from the ordeal, the neighborhood helped them prepare to move and said their goodbyes. They stayed with cousins outside of the city for a time until their old house was sold, and then moved on to a little house in Sharon.
It was here that Elizabeth finally sat Henry down and explained what she knew of Jeremiah’s true nature.
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28 May 1974
Working at the docks was alright as work went. For people living in Jeremiah's neighborhood, there wasn't much available that was better, at least. As a nephil, he was stronger than the rest of the crew, which helped; and his connection to the water meant that working on the lake was a source of comfort in his life. But everything else about the job, from the actual work involved to the way the foreman treated the crew, was terrible. And outside of work, Jeremiah felt like his life was slipping further out of his control and settling into a much more mundane, hollow ritual than he had signed up for.
Elizabeth was still active in the community, of course. But with the death of so many people she had invested hope in and the dwindling influence of the Black Panthers, she was growing visibly jaded and sometimes seemed to just be going through the motions. The spark that had drawn him to stay in Erie with her was fading, and he didn't know how to reignite it. Henry was powerless; Jeremiah wasn't sure what he had expected his son to be able to do, but his perfectly human approach to life and blindness to spirits felt like an insult to Jeremiah. Life was growing repetitive, dry, normal. Jeremiah was growing resentful.
He was eating dinner and half listening as Henry told them about his day, mostly thinking about the foreman running his mouth earlier and how he was going to have to brace himself for more of the same tomorrow, when there was a knock on the door. Jeremiah snapped out of his reverie and looked across the table to Elizabeth, who looked worried. She'd been concerned lately about someone coming to the house because of her activities, and they weren't expecting guests. Bracing himself for the possibility that she was right, he stood and made his way to the door.
The salesman was lean, white, and wearing a suit that looked like it had been top of the line three owners ago. His deals were at least as fake as his smile, and he was clearly used to throwing people off and getting a good bit of his pitch in before his victims knew how to respond. He certainly caught Jeremiah off guard, since he was expecting something very different, and nearly managed to weasel his way in to perform a demonstration before Jeremiah's hand had him up off the ground by his collar. The man squeaked as Jeremiah's eyes narrowed on him.
"We're having dinner," Jeremiah hissed. "Have you no respect?"
"Oh, no, certainly, sir," the man replied, fumbling over his words as he adjusted to the situation. "I certainly have respect. I have nothing but respect! That's why I'm here, you see."
"I doubt that."
"I-I mean it! Really! You know, around the office, they talk about this neighborhood as a zoo. They do, can you believe that! They told me, they said, 'Jim, there's nothing there but dumb animals, you won't make no money there,' but I said, look here, now, these are hardworking people who've been trying to get a better life, right? Surely they'll want to know about-"
"Is this supposed to make you sound like the good guy?"
"Now, now, see, I'm trying to offer you something better, see, and you're just being threatening! Is this how you treat people offering you a chance to prove you're better than they say?" Jeremiah growled. "Fine! Fine, maybe I should just take these amazing offers back to-"
"Then you should hurry!" Jeremiah yelled, then threw the man back at the sidewalk. He didn't think about the way he threw him, or how much strength he used, until he heard the crack against the concrete and watched as blood started to pool around the salesman's motionless head. He was breathing deeply, clenching and unclenching his fists, when he heard the floor creak slightly behind him.
"...Dad? What did you do to him?" Jeremiah stood up stock straight and turned around to find Henry. The boy was shaking, his eyes wide with tears starting to gather in the corners. Jeremiah didn't know what to say. In that moment, he realized the life he had been dragging himself through was over. He turned back to glance at the man he'd just killed, then to his powerless, weak, mumbling son. Henry was waiting for an answer, or comfort, or something; Jeremiah wasn't sure what, exactly, he could offer at this point. So he took a deep breath, adjusted his shirt, and then nodded to Henry. The boy looked at him confused for a moment, before Jeremiah vanished into the metaphysical realm.
11 September 1972
Jeremiah's birthday passed with a small party in which Elizabeth jokingly referred to him as his correct age. No one else present knew that he was actually turning 66 that day, but they knew he had been growing a bit irritable lately and she give him a little light-hearted ribbing for becoming a grumpy old man.
As he stood out in the backyard later, staring at the sky, he thought about why that joke had landed so well. He had been incredibly frustrated lately, but he hadn't wanted to think about why. He had tried hard not to dwell on how he seemed stuck in the same kind of poverty he'd turned his back on so long ago. He was constantly pushing thoughts out of his mind about how limited he felt living as human, how powerless he felt with dark skin in the wake of King's death, how little of the world he got to see now that he was tied down to a house and a wife and a child who showed no sign of inheriting anything extraordinary from him. He didn't want to dwell on how time just dragged and crawled while he did the same endless work over and over again to provide food for his family.
Jeremiah told himself he loved his wife, and his son, more than anything; and he really believed it. But he was growing to hate what it meant to be with them, to play along to the rules of a government that viewed him as lower than human when he was so eager to show himself superior. He hated the community he and Elizabeth were trying to save. He hated his little house and his little city and his little life.
An old fire was burning in his chest, and he didn't know how long he could contain it.
5 February 1963
Henry James Matteson was born in the bathtub of his parents' home, delivered by his maternal grandmother. When Elizabeth went into labor, Mama Kline was immediately called, and she shot off a phone call of her own before making her way over. By the time Jeremiah emerged to get a pitcher of water and some glasses, nearly every Kline (and some accepted additions) he had ever met was gathered in the living room and kitchen.
The years of fighting about racial equality were beginning to get under his skin, and Jeremiah had begun to focus more and more internally ever since Elizabeth informed him she was pregnant. As such, he was loathe to be out of that bathroom for any length of time. His concerns about the absence of Aaboukingon in his own youth stung most fiercely as he spent more and more time aware of his pending fatherhood, and while he knew he couldn't be there for everything his son would face, he felt he needed to at least be present for Henry's first glimpse of light.
But there were others in the house now who knew far more about delivering a child than Jeremiah did, and there was no room beside that tub for spectators. With promises that he would be brought in as soon as possible, Jeremiah found himself slowly relegated to the living room for congratulations, excited discussion, and well-meaning but largely repetitive advice. He greeted people who popped by just to check on progress and deliver a plate of something or another, and tried to drift between rooms, and by the time he was called back into the bathroom he felt like he'd aged a decade.
But as he stood beside the tub, holding his newborn son, he whispered a short blessing and oath he had learned in his travels, then looked to Elizabeth with a smile, and everything seemed like it had finally come together.
9 April 1961
For decades, Jeremiah drifted in and out of the metaphysical realm. He spent most of his time among spirits, wandering deeper and deeper into their realm, learning their ways and customs, making connections, but never finding quite what he was looking for. The more time he spent away from the world of man, the more he wondered what it even was that he wanted. When he set out, it had been about money and a comfortable life, or at least that's what he told himself. When the economy collapsed and he stepped into the world of spirits, he realized that money would never be secure enough to meet his desire. So he sought power, but his rejection from the River Network and his human nature closed too many doors. In the later half of the 1950s, he finally returned to the physical realm for an extended period, to remind himself what he was missing and refocus on whatever it was he had always been searching after.
Not all waters are part of the River Network, and they have varying views on how to deal with the edicts of one another. So he found himself settling among the Great Lakes, their freshwater welcoming his blood and their independence from the River Network preventing his utter rejection. He still found hatred from mankind, however, for his dark skin and long, straight hair; but there was a civil rights movement underway, and he was able to find acceptance among black people to match the hatred he received from the whites. It was in these days that he met Elizabeth Kline, a black woman living in Erie and seeking opportunities for community action. She was stern and fierce with those who stood against her, and patient with those who, like Jeremiah, had never fully considered the larger impacts of race in his country but was willing to learn.
They spent a great deal of time together, with Jeremiah slowly getting involved in Elizabeth's community. He avoided using his powers, or revealing much about his true nature, but he began to find himself otherwise surprisingly open with her. It was a couple years before they began dating, and more information on his nature and history began to arise in their conversations, and a little over a year into that relationship he finally began to piece together what he wanted out of life. From his father that never rose from the river, and his mother that wanted him to be someone he wasn't, and his communities that feared him and the spirits that turned their backs to him; in Elizabeth, for the first time as he reckoned it, he found an acceptance that did not demand him to give up half of himself or play by rules that seemed designed to keep him out. In her community, he found people more interested in his commitment to them than in his origins. He gathered his mother's books from the place he had hidden them, and at Elizabeth's urging began adding his own notes on the things he found in his years away from the physical realm. He managed to secure a house, and on April 9, 1961, they were married and she moved in. She kept her name, as she had expressed desire to do and he wished to respect her identity as much as she respected his, but it was agreed their children would get his name if only because no one else could pass it along.
For the first time, Jeremiah was happy.