Every year for the past few years, I’ve re-written a holiday story through a queer lens, retelling it as a way to retroactively tell stories to my younger self that include people like me. The first year, I wrote “Dolph,” (a retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Then I wrote “Frost,” (a retelling of Frosty the Snow-Man), “Reflection,” (a retelling of “The Snow Queen”) and “The Five Crowns and Colonel’s Sabre,” (a retelling of “The Nutcracker and Mouse King.”)
This year, I wrote “The Doors of Penlyon,” an adjacent retelling from “The Christmas Hirelings” that also crosses over with my YA Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks, in that I made Mr. Tom Danby, the instigating character of “The Christmas Hirelings” to have the same speculative heritage my main character Cole has, albeit at the turn of the century.
I tried not to spoil too much from “The Christmas Hirelings” (since I don’t think it’s as well known as many holiday classics) but the short version of the story is this: Tom Danby, itinerant bachelor (I mean, come on!) is staying with his friend, Sir John Penlyon and John’s niece, Adela, over Christmas who aren’t feeling it. Adela mentions Christmas is always better with kids, and Danby jumps up to declare a great idea: hiring children to make their Christmas more delightful. That there’s a twist to which children show up is, of course, the whole point, but the point of the story I’m playing with is when one of those children gets truly sick, they call for a London doctor to visit, who can’t do much to help beyond what the local doctor and nurse were already doing, given what he has available.
And then I thought of Cole, and the teleportation powers he possessed, and wondered what would happen if Tom Danby was also like Cole.
I hope you enjoy.
The Doors of Penlyon
Tom Danby listened at the door, his fingertips not touching the handle nor wood, not daring the temptation—the temptations—such contact with reality might cause him to consider. Penlyon Place cool and dark around him, warmed only by fireplaces and the misery of all those under its proud roof, and he had not slept much in the last nights.
In all his life, Tom Danby had never hated a door as much as he hated his one right now. Doors had been his friends since he’d come into his own strange and certainly unmonied inheritance, and he was used to doors as companions, if not outright collaborators.
He’d once heard someone say “No door is closed to Mr. Danby, as he seems to have a way of opening them all.” They’d intended it as a mild jest at his station, he assumed, and how many people so much higher seemed to take him in. For it was true Mr. Danby, errant bachelor, needed never worry about having no real address of his own. He stayed with personages, moving from one place to another, one invitation to another, and was welcome almost everywhere.
It wasn’t why Tom Danby loved doors, of course. But his own reasons were by necessity a secret, and had nothing to do with something as banal as social status.
For doors in the hand of one such as Tom Danby (for it should matter to point out Tom Danby was not alone in his peculiarity of doorways) were not just doors.
No. Similarly, conversations were not just conversations. Not if Tom Danby put his mind to it.
At a look, Tom Danby might not garner a second glance. He was not displeasing, but nor was he handsome, though he maintained a neatness that greatly compensated him overall. He had grey eyes no one would mistake for blue, brown hair that was beginning to silver now he approached fifty, and was of middling height and slender of build.
If pressed for a reason as to why those grander people enjoyed the company of Mr. Danby, they would all agree he was of good spirit, had grand—if often odd—ideas, and that somehow, being around Mr. Danby elevated one’s mood.
Tom let out a breath, exhaling slowly, and closing his eyes. He hadn’t elevated anything at all here in Penlyon Place, and now…
Moppet. God. What had he done?
He could hear the little girl breathing. It was an unhappy, unhealthy sound, and though he tried to take comfort in the existence of her breath at all, there was a gurgle to it, and it strained as though a wolf sat upon her chest.
Dr. South had spoken with Sir John Penlyon and Tom Danby, and though Danby had hoped he’d echo the words of kind Dr. Nichols, the local doctor, of how children often did well against maladies of the lungs, instead, Dr. South—London’s best in the care of children—had made comment to the unusual nature of Moppet and…
This is all your fault, you contemptable fool.
On some level, Tom Danby had enough grace to understand his lack of control over the whims of disease and infection, but it was cold comfort in the moment. This child—this child who was more than anyone but he in this grand manor knew—was on the edge of death and she was only here on his whim.
If Adela had not mentioned children. If Tom had not seen, for just that moment, the thinnest wedge he might use. If Sir John Penlyon hadn’t been ever so slightly open to the thought.
If Tom hadn’t inspired.
He’d been working the words, sitting comfortably by the fire. Listening, as always, to Adela and Sir John as they spoke, and Adela’s attempts to berate Sir John for his lack of joy in the season had finally turned to her recollections of her childhood Christmases, and how much more wonderful Christmas had always seemed as a child, and then…
“Ah, there you’ve hit the mark, Adela. Christmas is a splendid institution in a house where there are children,” Sir John had said. “Christmas can hardly be made too much of where there are children in question.”
Tom didn’t dare rouse from his position, but the thrill of the conversation ran through him. He could feel these moments with that otherness he’d had since his twenties, and so, he pressed those words in his mind, aimed them squarely at Sir John, and nudged at the doors in Sir John Penlyon’s mind. Those doors, too, were friends to those of Tom Danby’s ilk, and frankly, the sort of doors Danby preferred. People spent a lot of time closing the doors inside them.
Tom Danby took great pleasure in opening them, when the opportunities presented.
He smiled as Sir John Penlyon waxed poetic about the spirit of the season being all about children.
It was enough. Feeling the change in the room, Tom Danby outlined the most ridiculous plan. He would, for Adela and Sir John, hire some children to make their Christmas as enjoyable as one had ever been.
Adela’s amusement had shattered into outright disbelief as Sir John readily agreed. He’d even written Tom a check, which was a good thing, as the plan in Tom Danby’s head would require at least a quartet of train tickets.
Yes, many doors had been closed through Sir John Penlyon’s life, and it was time for Tom Danby to air them out.
He’d been so damned sure of himself. It was such a simple arrangement to make, and the children in question had always adored Uncle Tom, even without knowing exactly why he’d known their mother. Taking the train with them had been more pleasant than he’d imagined—it had been a while since Tom Danby had bothered with the railways—but there were rules to these sorts of things.
There were rules.
Tom’s hand shook, barely room for a breath between his fingertips and the wooden door.
“Dr. South,” Tom pitched his voice low, not wishing to catch the attention of Sir John or Adela, both of whom had now retired to the purgatory of the sitting room. He’d not seen Laddie or Lassie this morning, and briefly wondered how Moppet’s elder siblings were handling her illness, but the thought was quick and easily nudged aside.
For they were well, and well children could be thought of later.
The ill, on the other hand, demanded attention.
The doctor turned, nodding and stepping just a little further into the front hall. There, they would be able to have a quiet conversation, and Tom Danby’s estimation of the doctor rose no small amount in the moment.
He was taller than Tom, perhaps a few years younger, and perhaps handsome in a gentle way, though the man’s long travels to Penlyon and near lack of sleep thereafter had left deep smudges under his dark eyes.
Face to face with the man, Tom shored up some courage from what little remained, and asked what he needed to ask.
“Is there anything—from near or far—that might help the situation?” Tom said.
A small line appeared between Dr. South’s eyebrows. His lips parted, and he drew in the slightest breath, but then he closed them again. The line deepened.
“Doctor,” Tom pressed, and now, spurred on by that simplest tell from the Doctor, reached out and took the doctor’s forearm in hand. “It was in the way you spoke of what you could do, rather than a grander sense of everything that might be done. I’ve no doubt of your skill, nor your compassion, if indeed there’s something you didn’t mention given the hopelessness of, say, geography, but please. If there is anything.” Tom Danby swallowed. “Even elsewhere.”
Dr. South’s countenance softened to one of compassion, and once again Tom was struck by how gentle the man seemed in so much of his manner. When he spoke, his voice was whisper soft, as though he feared it might slip beneath a door and stray to the ears of the heartbroken who waited, and be mistaken for hope.
“If I had every tool at my disposal, I would try a treatment in particular, yes,” Dr. South said. “But some things do not travel well, and even were I to send for them, were able to bring them from London, by the time they arrived…” He did not finish the sentence.
The unsaid was well clear enough. The timetable would have such a treatment arrive after it would be of no use, one way or the much worse other.
“Still,” Tom said. “If I might indulge the question? I understand you, I promise, and I would never be so cruel as to offer Sir John or Adela something that could never be.”
Dr. South hesitated a good long moment.
Please, Tom thought, leaning the thought in the doctor’s direction. The truth costs nothing.
He inspired the doctor.
Dr. South finally spoke, outlining what he might have done, where Moppet in London with him, and he had at his fingertips all that science might offer to aid in her recovery.
Tom listened carefully, asking only a question or two in the face of Dr. South’s eloquent explanations. When Tom thanked him, Dr. South’s hands both twitched, as though they intended a glad handshake or simple touch. A small flush had risen on the gentle man’s cheeks, and it helped him cross the line to handsome after all.
“You musn’t tell them,” he said. “There’s no way…” Once again, he let his sentence fade.
“Of course not,” Tom agreed readily. “But I thank you. Truly.”
His own hands felt empty in the moment. Tom Danby knew his own cheeks were alight.
Dr. South bid him a good evening, his voice softer still, going to a greatly earned sleep. He assured Tom the nurse would rouse him were anything to change, but otherwise, the doctor repeated clearly, there was nothing anyone could do but pray, and sleep, and hope.
Tom forced a smile and agreement both, but knew better.
Tom Danby listened to Moppet’s struggling breaths for a few seconds more, then pressed his fingertips against the door handle.
The world waited, as it always did.
Tom turned the handle.
After a dreadful breakfast, Tom waited for Dr. South outside Moppet’s door. The doctor closed the door quietly behind him, and they walked together towards his leave-taking.
“May I ask,” the doctor said, then hesitated, aborting the sentence.
“I brought the three children here to enliven the season,” Tom said. “Their mother is on her way.”
Dr. South nodded. “That’s good.” He swallowed. “I had heard Sir John had… lost his own daughters. His eldest to illness, and his youngest to… chance.”
“Yes.” Tom eyed the gentle doctor, and their gazes met long enough for each to confirm everything the other already knew.
At the door, they were joined by Sir John and Adela.
Dr. South eyed them all.
“The outlook is brighter today than it was last night,” he said. “But I mustn’t promise too much. We are not out of the wood yet. Please let me have an occasional telegram to say how she is going on. She is a dear little child—a most winning little child.” This he seemed to aim at Sir John, though he glanced at Tom again thereafter. “I have seen the loveliest children who did not interest me half so much as that quaint little face of hers, with the large forehead and the dark deep-set eyes. I hope her mother will be here today.”
And with that, the London doctor left.
While Tom Danby had never been to the very hospital where Dr. South worked, he’d been to London on the regular, and to Tom’s peculiarity, that was more than enough. He chose a block he’d frequented often, stepping out from the front door and eyeing the street just long enough to get his bearings before heading toward his destination.
From there, it was as simple as anything else he’d managed by door.
He recalled the doctor’s soft voice, remembering every word as he selected the things he needed, and it was only as he turned to leave the chill of the room with its bottles and containers that he paused to consider once more, hand raised but not quite touching the door.
It was possible the others wouldn’t ask. At least he’d the cover of the night to raise his chances of being undetected. It was always day somewhere, but then and there, Tom Danby didn’t care, and if this gamble paid off in one regard but cost him in another, he’d pay that price.
He touched the door. Beneath his fingers, he could feel the pulse of others like himself. Muses all, awakened to the pathways between all doors sometime in their twenties, as he had been. Beyond that, he could feel all of everywhere—every door he’d ever passed through, every room or building he’d ever entered or left. Every door went to every other door, if someone like Tom Danby turned the handle.
Big Ben began to chime the hour.
The very best of science in hand, Tom Danby stepped through the door from the hospital in London and exited the door to Moppet’s room in Penlyon Place, a swirl of night air mixing with the warmer air inside the manor in a twist of mist gone between blinks.
Sir John’s clock finished chiming.
Tom Danby turned around, opened the door to Moppet’s room as quietly as he could, and went inside to speak to the nurse of some last-minute adjustments.
It wasn’t long after Moppet was well that Tom Danby received the telegram from Dr. South. He read it twice, and told Sir John and Adela and Moppet and—of course—Moppet’s mother of the doctor’s relief at Moppet’s recovery. It was a small moment lost along the much grander one unfolding, of course, but it felt important to Tom to include the doctor, even just by his word, given the situation.
Word from the doctor, when there’d been no word from the other muses, had also struck Tom as mildly ironic. Those who could feel him come and go through their own connection to everywhere had indeed turned out not to notice anything amiss.
Dr. South, on the other hand…
The end of the telegram Tom Danby did not share with the others. For it ended with: Do stop by when next you are in London. It could have read as a request to the casual eye, but by the fourth or fifth reading, Tom was rather sure it was intended as an imperative.
And so that very morning Tom Danby took his leave of Sir John, calculated how long it would reasonably take to get from Penlyon Place to his next accepted invitation, and found himself with over a week to his own devices, whereby he took the opportunity to grasp the door at the train station local to Penlyon Place and return to Dr. South’s very hospital in his more direct—if peculiar—route.
At it so happened, the Doctor was free to see him, and Tom Danby entered the man’s office, and was soon in his presence.
They regarded each other—dark eyes meeting grey—for a few breaths.
“There is a manifest kept,” Dr. South said, instead of any polite greeting Danby might have expected.
“A manifest?” Tom said.
“Of medicines.” Dr. South gestured to the chair across from his desk, sitting behind it once Danby sat.
“Ah,” Tom said.
Dr. South regarded him again. “I’m pleased she recovered.”
Tom nodded, a genuine smile lighting his face. “So are we all.”
“And her mother?”
“Arrived,” Tom said, then added, meaningfully. “And stayed.”
Dr. South’s smile did nice things to his eyes. “You know, I’ve asked around about you,” he said, looking down at his desk top, and smoothing away some invisible bit of dust.
“Oh dear,” Tom said. “One hesitates to hear more. I’m sure someone was happy to tell you of my itinerant ways.”
“Indeed,” the doctor said, though he said it gently enough to remove any sting. “But, it seems, you are invited wherever you go.”
“As you invited me yourself,” Tom said, countering with his best smile in return and pulling out the telegram.
Dr. South paused, eyeing it with a small turn of his lips. The overall look on the doctor’s face was triumphant, and Tom realized his mistake too late to take it back.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “A telegram I sent yesterday. And here you are. The very day after.”
Tom waited. He didn’t really have any response he could make. His own eagerness to attend the doctor’s company was to blame.
“The manifest…” Dr. South swallowed. “The night we spoke. The same night. By the morning recount…”
Tom realized he found the good doctor’s habit of letting sentences fade more than a little endearing. Tom imagined it made many people feel obliged to fill in the gap.
Dr. South let the silence hang a moment longer. “If I were to ask the nurse who treated Moppet, or the local man, Dr. Nichols, about what treatments were suggested in my name, I can’t help but feel I’d have a mystery on my hands.”
Tom blew out a breath. “I believe you are correct.”
Dr. South’s laugh was as soft as his voice. “And if I were to investigate the trains from Penlyon Place to London—a trip I took myself, one significantly more than a day to achieve when I left at first light—you are, I think, not going to satisfy even my mildest curiosity over discrepancies to your arrival time, are you, Mr. Danby?”
“Please, call me Tom.” Tom said. “But let me ask you in return: if a mystery turns out for the best, it might be worth leaving it as such, would it not, Doctor?”
“Charles,” Dr. South said. “If you’re going to offer me not so much as a crumb to explain…” He waved a hand in the air, as if to encompass everything around him. “You can at least call me Charles.”
“Charles, then,” Tom said. He rose. “I appreciate it.”
The doctor laughed again, rising himself. “I’m sure you do.” He shook his head, then eyed the clock. “Have you had dinner, Tom?”
Tom shook his head. “No. Not yet.”
“Well,” Charles said, the lightest of flushes crossing his cheeks. “If you would like, you may consider yourself invited. I know a place nearby. If you won’t give me crumbs, they’ll give me a whole meal.”
“As you say.” Tom Danby smiled. “And I’m never one to turn down an invitation.”