Bookworm was waiting in the reception area of the hospital, seated on one of the couches there. A messenger had brought a note to her from Mr. Canergak, asking her to meet him there later that morning. She hoped it was about Tepic – she hadn’t seen much of the boy lately, but what she had seen concerned her greatly.
The ‘tap-tap’ of Canergak’s cane warned her of his approach. She stood up and turned around. “Ah, Lieutenant,” the asylum administrator said.
“Mr. Canergak.” She nodded in greeting, then looked past him as movement caught her eye. As the figure stepped into the light, she exclaimed, “Tepic!” in consternation. The boy looked even worse than she’d realized. Sunken cheeks, slumped figure, pale skin, and very dull eyes – nothing like the lively Tepic she’d known for so long.
Canergak turned. “Boy.”
“Yes, sir?” Tepic asked dully.
“My doctors tell me that you are a subject of high debate at the moment. Are you trying to get out of this endeavor? Preying on others’ pity?”
Bookworm bit back an indignant exclamation, waiting for Tepic to deny such a spurious accusation. But the boy only looked at Canergak blankly, so she finally said, “Mr. Canergak, I would definitely say the answer to that is no. If you can’t tell he’s sick just by looking at him–”
“Lieutenant, I have told you before I don’t see physical forms,” he replied impatiently. “And yes, I see something that is sick before me.”
“Work is good,” Tepic finally said, without inflection. “Work is its own reward.”
Bookworm looked at Tepic with alarm. “Surely this has gone on long enough?” she asked Canergak. “Mr Popplefot looks after his workers and treats them well,” intoned Tepic.
“There is more to see,” Canergak replied. “Follow me.” He led them to the elevator, Bookworm slowing her steps to walk beside Tepic, who stumbled along as if he could barely keep on his feet.
Upstairs, they made their way into the room they’d visited before, which contained the two iron lungs. Canergak gestured to one. “I will open this for a few moments so you can see inside.” He swung the mechanism open, revealing Beatrixe Rouse lying inside, unconscious, her missing arm and leg vastly apparent.
At the sight of this, Tepic stirred, his face taking on more of the life it had usually had. “Is… is…?”
“She has not awoken,” Canergak replied baldly. “Her breathing is steady but shallow, and her wounds have closed. I’m told fur even hides most of her scars.”
Tepic looked at Canergak. “Is… is she gonna die?” he whispered.
“She has hope now,” said Canergak. “However–”
Whatever else he was going to say was interrupted by a grunt as Tepic threw his arms about the small man, hugging him tight. “Thank you! Thank you!” the boy shouted.
“I–what is this?!” Bookworm had to muffle a laugh at Canergak’s disconcerted exclamation; the look on the man’s face was priceless. Her amusement died, though, as Tepic fell to his knees before the administrator. “Thank you! Don’t let ‘em turn it off – I’ll work harder, I will! I promise!”
Canergak looked from Tepic to Bookworm, and back again. “Very well, they will not turn it off before she recovers.” As Tepic slumped in relief, he continued, “But I will be checking with Popplefot still. Her wounds may have closed, but we have to still get her reused to breathing Babbage air before it will be safe to let her out.”
Bookworm frowned at that, as she’d hoped Tepic would be released from his work obligations. Tepic, though, merely slumped further, curling up on the floor as he mumbled, “Mr. Poppefot is a good boss…” He was instantly asleep. Canergak nodded and gestured for Bookworm to follow him.
In the next room, Bookworm stood before Canergak, hands on her hips, as the man patted his pockets. “What more do you need from him?” she asked angrily. “He’s worked hard and conscientiously – and far longer than you expected.”
“I need little from him now beyond what you yourself would want as well.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Which is?”
“Do you really think he would appreciate learning why you and I agreed to do this together?” He looked up at her shrewdly. “The true reason? I would expect he would resent that.”
“It depends. Have you changed your view of him?”
He stood in silence for a moment. “He is not a creature such as I despise. That is obvious now,” he finally admitted.
“I would hope so.”
“But tell me this,” he continued. “Has he gotten into trouble, broken into any buildings while he has been working at the factory?”
“Not that I have heard. Certainly, he’s not broken into yours. You would have let me know,” she finished dryly.
“He has been too tired to come into my facility. I would like to keep it that way, at least until Beatrixe has been taken out of the lung.”
“How long will that be?”
“I was not exaggerating her situation. She should be in there at least two more weeks. But how long she’ll be in the coma, I could not tell you. Months, years… decades.”
Bookworm sighed and shook her head. “The lad’s wasting away, Mr. Canergak. Even two more weeks could be very bad for him.” She was determined to end this today.
“I have heard he does not eat the meals.” Canergak shook his head disapprovingly. “He works almost a full day, but is wasting his time on a rodentia known as voles. That was what I was going to say before he… interrupted.”
“It’s what he’s used to.” Bookworm shrugged.
“I wished to see which was more important, his voles or Beatrixe’s life. His life or hers. Do you disagree?”
“I do not agree to him giving up everything he is, just to prove himself to you,” she replied with some heat. “His voles are another source of income – that he’s still working with them shows just how much he cares for Beatrixe. He is, essentially, working two full-time jobs at your behest, not just one.”
“Hardly,” he replied dryly. “One part time and another part time.” At her frown, he continued, “I know the other children at the factory work a full 12 hours and he does not.”
“Yet he works hard when he is there. How else could he have made head boy?” she argued.
“Ah, yes, another thing.” Canergak latched onto that swiftly. “I would hate to rob Popplefot of his Head Boy without warning. That is another reason I want to give two weeks.”
Bookworm sighed, rubbing her face, realizing the man had a legitimate point there. Mr. Popplefot would need that time to train a replacement. “All right,” she finally said reluctantly. “Two weeks. But I want his health to be monitored closely.”
“I shall make the arrangements this afternoon–after we have the latest experiment with Lisa.”
Bookworm looked surprised, then nodded. She was here, after all, and available. And she knew how much Lisa feared being down there alone with Canergak.
The administrator stepped back into the iron lung room, and prodded at Tepic until the boy stirred and finally staggered to his feet. Bookworm put a hand under his elbow, supporting him as they took the elevator down, and went out one of the side entrances. “I must go back to the factor,” he said dully. “There is cleaning to do.”
She watched as Tepic slowly walked away north, back toward the factory. ‘Two weeks, Tepic,’ she thought, hoping he’d somehow hear. ‘You can make it – I’m sure you can.’