Pilot: Pink Dress and Bad Reception (2)

Ann with shopping basket, smiling. Captioned The Singer.

She woke him from his reverie, which was more like dream than memory. The substance of his entire existence was beginning to seem more like something he had heard about rather than something that had actually happened.

Maybe he was still running. Maybe he was still dying…

“Mordecai.” She was kneeling and cradling the child against her. “Here. This is how it is.” She had washed the blood out of his hair. It was white and fine and she brushed it back from his face with a careful hand.

It wasn’t terrible. He looked like a person again. There were threads of bluish metal running through the green of his brow where it had been split. The thickest was a finger’s width, above the orbit of his right eye. She had remade this in metal, so that it approximately mirrored the left. Some bone had been incorporated, but no flesh — the socket was pure, bright silver. There was no eye. An eye was a complicated thing and would require much fine work and getting used to. This was enough for him to deal with, and enough for her to deal with. Later, when she had some better material to use, Milo could help her with an eye.

“Oh, let me,” said Mordecai, uncurling. She deposited the boy in his lap. He held the child limply, afraid to touch. “Does it hurt him?”

“Not yet,” she said. “He’ll sleep for a while.” She made a skittish gesture. “But you know how it is.”

The red man nodded. Yes. From experience. And it was not one he would have wished upon the child. The incorporation of metal into the body required quite some adjustment, especially the first time. His own experience had been three days — at least she said it had only been that long.

“It’s all right,” he said softly. “We’ll be with him.” He shifted the sleeping body and held it against him. “He’s so hot…”

“He will be. I’m going to make him a place in the basement. It’s cooler there, and he needs the quiet. Your room is up against the alley, and that big window…” It had been a wall at one point. Now it was a window. Windows were altogether easier than walls. “I’ll tell Milo to leave that radio alone awhile, or Ann will.” It was after noon. She was increasingly likely to get Ann.

“I’ll stay with him,” said Mordecai.

I’ll stay with him,” said Hyacinth. “You will go to bed and lie quietly until I can find a bit of gold and mend you.”

“No,” said Mordecai, but it was difficult to put together a cogent argument, more so to put it into words. “Won’t.”

“You will if I have to solder you in there. Lead weights, I have.” She sighed and lifted her head. It was better, if not imperative, to change the subject. “Mordecai, the downtown appears to be on fire. Would you have anything to do with that?” She nodded towards the kitchen window. It was a wide amalgamation of glass, mostly shades of clear, an occasional fragment of red or green or amber. It was slightly higher than the main part of the house, owing to the basement windows, and afforded a decent view of Brickdust Row. There was a distant spire of smoke curling into the sky.

“I don’t know.” He panted a moment, drawing strength. “Yes, but I’m not sure what. I don’t know if…” Another pause for breath. “If it’s what I did or just someone saw what I did.”

“Did they see you?”

“Yes. Must have.”

She closed her eyes. “Did they follow you?”

He shook his head. “If they did, not close. But… I think…”

She finished for him, “They’ll end up here eventually.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll deal with it,” she replied, and that was all she really needed to say. He trusted her that much. He nodded.

A thought occurred, “Mordecai, what happened to Julia?”

He could not look at her while he said it, “I left… I left her. I don’t know.”

Hyacinth tipped her head back to the ceiling and clutched her fingers into her hair. Well. So much for coins.

A voice called from the main room. It was low and brassy, with just a hint of irony concealed by obvious good humor. Mordecai thought that Ann sounded like rosin being drawn across a bow.

“Cin, dear? I’m going to the market. Is there anything you can afford? Cin?” Now, with mild concern, “Shall I fill a vase of…”

A vision in pink taffeta swept into the kitchen. Ann frequently swept places, though she much preferred the staircase. Her room was at the top. She shared a narrow bed and a closet with Milo and the two of them were never seen together. Pink taffeta was for Tiw’s Day, as was the farmer’s market on South Hollister, a short bus ride away.

“Oh, no, who is it?” she cried.

Gods, I hate your hair, thought Hyacinth reflexively. It was a long, burnished red with faint, natural waves. She wore it loose and cascading and it fell almost to her waist. (Milo pulled his into a tight braid and tucked it under his shirt collar for work.) Give me some of that hair.

Her own was faint yellow, like a bottle blonde, and always a little crispy from the heat. If she let it get below shoulder length it became utterly unmanageable. David would’ve been ashamed of her. Her hands went up and slipped the loose strands back into the tie. “It’s Erik,” she said.

“Erik!” said Ann. She knelt crunchily at Mordecai’s side. “Oh, dear child, what happened? Let me see…”

Mordecai withheld the boy with a frown, but a moment later he loosened his grip and let Ann see… a little.

“Oh, no, his dear little face,” said Ann.

“Why is everything always ‘dear’ with you?” said Mordecai.

“What happened to him?” said Ann.

Mordecai slumped, all hostility gone, and let the child loose in his lap. His hands folded into each other, long fingers nervously washing. “There were some horses.” A breath. “He got away from me.” A breath. “He likes horses.”

“Horses aren’t safe,” said Ann.

“I know. I tell him. He doesn’t listen.”

“He’s just so little,” Ann said, nodding. “Em, you sound just awful. Are you all right?”

The red man shrugged. “Ran,” he said.

“All the way from downtown, it looks like,” Hyacinth said. She rolled into a crouch and scooped the child from Mordecai’s lap.

Mordecai said, “No… No…” but he dared not make a grab for the boy. He sat sprawled and allowed it.

“I’m going to put him on the cot in the basement,” Hyacinth said. “It’s quieter there. Ann, will you tell Milo?”

“Of course,” said Ann. “But isn’t there anything else?”

Hyacinth nodded to Mordecai. “Get him to bed and keep him in there. Please. And, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to the market today. Or anywhere at all.”

“No,” said Ann. “No, you’re right. I’ll tell the others.”

“Thank you, but Barnaby hardly comes down and Maggie won’t have tea break for another couple hours. Please get him to bed first.” She left with the boy.

Ann slipped an arm around Mordecai. He was rail thin, down to a vest and shirtsleeves, and soaked with sweat. There was a faint red stain on the breast of the gray fabric. “I think the floor must not be terribly comfortable, Em,” she said. “What if you help me find your room?”

He frowned thunderously and shrank away. “I do not want you. I am not going…” He coughed and shuddered. “Stop helping me!

“No, dear, I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me a little longer. You can walk, can’t you? That’s right.” He was unsteady, and didn’t seem liable to remain upright without assistance, which meant she could pretty much drag him where she wanted him. She didn’t really need any help to find the room. Her dress did get rather badly trodden on negotiating the dining room stair. She didn’t have enough hands to pick up the hem and keep him from flinging himself in the general direction of the basement.

There was the ghost of a number in the paint on the door, and little holes where the nails had been removed. It said “102.” It neither opened nor closed properly. It was held on with cord. Inside, there were two mattresses on the floor, and a faded oriental rug. There was a single table, rather badly sagging. The top was littered with sheet music, some of which was spilling onto the floor. Most of it was cheaply-printed folios, though a few were sketched in with pencil. Mordecai did his best to keep current, though he preferred the old standards of silent cinema.

There was a wooden horse standing guard beside the smaller bed. It was dressed in a bright red ribbon.

Oh, the poor thing, thought Ann. I wonder if he’ll want that anymore? But she shouldn’t move it, not now. Mordecai might take that entirely the wrong way. She nudged back his blanket with the pointed toe of her boot and let him down on the wrinkled sheet. “There, my love. Now let’s have your precious little shoesies off.” She picked one up and plucked at the laces.

“I am old enough to be your father,” the red man said.

“Oh, but only just,” Ann said, smiling. She mated his shoes and set them neatly by the door. There was a closet, separated by a curtain. She racked this aside and stuck both hands in. “Now, where have you hidden your nightclothes?” She peeked back over her shoulder and teased, “Or have you any at all?”

“I sleep this way,” he muttered, arms folded across his chest.

“Mordecai, I shall not allow you to sleep in a suit and tie. Tight clothing strangles the brain.”

“You wear corsets,” he said.

“Fashion is a cruel mistress,” she replied. “Not that you’d know about it. Oh, here’s one!” She drew out a white flannel shirt. “Now, can you manage all those little buttons or do you need a hand?”

“I will not undress with you in here!”

“Perhaps not, but I’m afraid you will not remain in bed without me in here, so you see how it is.” She sat beside him. First she undid the tie, then the vest.

Mordecai put his face in his hands. She had to work around him to get at the shirt. “Is there any possible way,” he said, “that you could stop being you for a minute, Ann?”

She laughed. “Oh, Milo’s just useless with things like this. He goes all to pieces. He’s so sensitive. Arms up!”

He obeyed, there was really no other way past, and she pulled the nightshirt down over his head.

She put out her hands. “All right, Em. Belt and trousers. Or I’m going after them myself.”

He recoiled in horror, although his hands immediately went to his waist to show willing. “Don’t look at me. It’s enough that you’re in here. Don’t look at me.”

She shifted and turned her head. “You’re a silly old thing.”

“Yes.” He gave her the belt, and, after a brief struggle, the trousers. This required quite some effort and left him curled up in a ball and gasping.

Ann leaned over him and touched his brow. “You really have hurt yourself, haven’t you? That was rhetorical,” she informed his open mouth. “No answer required.” She folded the trousers and put them on the table, then coiled the belt and put it on the trousers. “You look a bit ridiculous. All undressed but argyle socks.”

“You have. My dignity,” he said. “Leave me. My socks.”

“As you like,” she said. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Let’s have that blanket.” He moved his feet so she could pull it out, then she pulled it over, up to his chin. He uncurled and rolled on to his back, staring up at the cracked ceiling and breathing hard.

Slow, he told himself. Slow. They’ll let me out of here if I can just go slow.

But he couldn’t go slow. He couldn’t get air enough. When he tried to draw it deeper, something pinched inside of him and refused.

He was still, very still. He needed less when he was still, and he did slow a little, but he still didn’t sound right. They would never let him go like this.

He was so damn broken.

Ann was picking through the sheet music on the table. “I don’t suppose you’ve got ‘My Melancholy Blues’ in here, do you, Em? That’s my signature piece. I’ve got it backwards and forwards, but I could always use a little rehearsing, you know? And it’s not as if we can keep a piano in the house. I wouldn’t dare try.”

He spoke without moving, “I would like a cup of tea.”

She continued to leaf through the music, “You would like me to go away so you can try to get up.”

“There’s a jar of mentholatum in the bathroom.”

“Which is a bit of a pity, because it’s going to have to stay there for now. You ought to keep one in here, I think.”

“Go away.”

“Go to sleep.”

“I can’t,” he said.

“You will,” she replied. “You’re in no shape. If you keep pushing like this, you’re just going to pass out. And when you wake up, you shall have mentholatum and tea.”

He shut his eyes and was still. His breathing softened.

“I know you’re faking, Em.”

“I hate you,” he said.

———

The radio hissed and crackled like an evil thing. The reception here was not good. The dial seemed to be permanently stuck between two stations. Sometimes there was faint music. Occasionally voices intruded. A woman was warbling ‘My Melancholy Blues’ to the faded accompaniment of a big band slamming out ‘East Street Riot.’ They did not match well and were frequently and unpleasantly flat.

A harsh male voice with a newscaster’s twang was breathlessly recounting a series of events.

“…rioting following a possible terrorist attack in Canburry Square. Police suspect a bomb or possibly another incendiary device… fire spreading from Canburry Square down Fourth Avenue… use of magic may be involved… colored community up in arms… looting… store owners boarding their windows and defending their property with baseball bats… unconfirmed reports of of a colored child being kicked and beaten by two laughing young men and their hard, black boots. He was hurting and he couldn’t get up, but they just wouldn’t stop kicking him. In related news, they almost killed you, kid.”

He moaned and twisted but he dared not move otherwise. His head was on fire. They had split his head with an axe and poured in fire, and every part of him burned.

“Our sources report that he just wanted to look at the horses. He was perfectly aware that horses are not safe, but he wanted to look at them anyway. In fact, he slipped away from his uncle at the very first opportunity, so there was no one there to help him when the bad animal with hard hooves and very large teeth reared and struck out at him. Sources say that he must have been some kind of an idiot, and that he deserves every ounce of pain he gets.

“Here is a late-breaking report on which animals are safe. Some animals just do not like magic users, Erik, not colored ones like us. They are liable to react violently if you approach them. Cats are safe. Dogs are not safe. Goats are safe. Sheep are not safe. Cows are not safe. Except oxen. Oxen are safe. Donkeys are safe. Horses, as previously stated, are not safe. We regret to inform you that we have no data about whether mules are safe or not safe because you are a bad child and you don’t listen.”

It was so loud. He couldn’t reach up to cover his ears. He wasn’t even sure he had ears, or hands, or anything. He was this pain.

But it was so loud.

He wanted to cry, but could not bear to do so. He was so hot, too hot for tears. If he could’ve cried, it would’ve been smoke.

“…don’t wanna talk about it…” The woman’s voice, thin and insectile. “…want to forget about it…”

“…a crowd of angry dock workers has just thrown a little yellow girl with braids through a plate glass window. She was trying to run home, but the riots overtook her. She is cut all to pieces and she is crying, but her colored skin marks her as a born magic user and no one is going to help her. That’s your fault, kid. You just had to look at the horses, didn’t ya? Now the streets are running red with blood, and it’s coming this way, kid. They know where you live, kid!

“Turn it off,” he said weakly, and somehow the sound of him was even louder. He wanted to be sick. He wanted to be dead. “Oh, please…”

Another voice, soft voice, near, and not distorted with static. Sweet. Careful. “Honey, do you hear me? What do you mean? The light?”

He shuddered. No, not the light. What light? There was no light. There was this fire. There was this pain.

And it was so loud.

“The radio… The radio…”

“Erik… There isn’t any radio. It doesn’t work. It’s not on.”

“It’s so loud…”

Hissing. Static. Like boiling oil.

Laughter.

Sure, kid, I’m the radio. Ya like the radio? Ya like the stories? Ya like the news? I got some news. You can kill them all if you want to. I’ll help you. Bet that’d make the pain go away. Hey, even if it doesn’t, who the hell cares? Let me tell you, they deserve it. They all deserve it. They did this to you.

“Turn it off,” he pleaded, and he did cry. It hurt. Every sob sent needles into his brain, but they wouldn’t help him and they wouldn’t make it stop.

“…so why don’t you move over,” sang the distant woman, “and let me take over…”

“I have just been handed a bulletin: Although we still have no confirmation on whether mules are safe or not, we believe it is best to treat them as if they are not safe, until further information is available. I think that’s a good idea, don’t you, kid?”

His mouth moved, though he couldn’t voice the words, The radio… turn it off…

“Hey, kid, I’m pretty sure your brain is melting. What do you think? I think you ain’t never gonna be right, don’t you?”

———

“What’s he mean, ‘the radio?'” said Mordecai.

“It means nothing,” said Hyacinth. She sighed and spoke again, more gently, “It means he’s hurt and he’s doing everything he can to get better, and he doesn’t have the strength to do all that and make sense, too. It’s going to be like that for a while. You were like that for a while.”

“Does he even know I’m here?”

She shook her head, and she tightened her grip around his waist when he staggered. “I will send for you when he is better enough that he might. I will send for you that very instant, no matter if you’re asleep or awake or mended or not. Do you believe me?”

He nodded.

She made a weary smile. “Then will you go back to bed?”

“I can’t get up the stairs,” he admitted. He had hardly been able to get down. He had slid most of the way. His nightshirt and whatever remained of his dignity had suffered for it.

“I believe I can help you that far,” she said. “And then you can have Ann.”

“I don’t want…” The stairs were too hard. He stopped speaking.

There were noises outside, audible as they approached the ground floor. Shouting. Cracking sounds that might’ve been fireworks or gunshots. No actual explosions, so far.

“Getting closer,” Mordecai said.

“Go back to your room and draw the drapes,” said Hyacinth. “Stay away from the windows. If you need something, ask someone to bring it. Stay out of sight.”

“Hide from them,” he said bitterly.

“Yes, damn it, for all our sakes. If they see you, they might try to get in.”

“Going to do that anyway.”

“They’ll do it less if they don’t see you. Now, come on!”

Magnificent was standing at the top of the basement stairs, rocking back and forth on the low heels of her shoes. These were proper shoes with nails, but fine ones. Like Ann’s collection of spiked heels, Hyacinth had not considered them worth cannibalizing. (Though she had snipped off the buckles several times, until the General altogether ceased buying shoes with buckles and made content with satin bows. “Impractical,” she scoffed. “Just not in this house.”) Her tight, brown curls were twisted into tails, one on either side of her head, as if she were wearing motley. She wore a dark blue dress at precisely knee length, a starched white petticoat, and two little white gloves with pearl buttons. She could’ve passed for military herself, minus the scabby knees and plus a little brass detailing.

She had undone one of the pearl buttons and was toying with the edge of the glove but had not yet taken it off.

She opened her mouth and coughed a spray of speckled brown feathers.

“Oh, dear,” said Hyacinth. She patted the girl lightly on the back, afraid to haul off and give her a really good whack like she would’ve done another child. The General made a habit of appearing at the worst times. “Still working on that bird, huh?”

The brown girl nodded. She was not colored, but she was a dusty shade, not as light as her mother or as dark as her father. She doubled over, still coughing, retched, and brought up a couple of good-sized, fully-formed flight feathers. They wafted slowly to the floor. “Please excuse me,” she said miserably.

“That’s quite all right,” said Hyacinth. “I understand. I think you’re getting better at the feathers.”

She wiped her mouth and threw a disgusted gesture, all in one motion, “But it’s not supposed to be like that!” She gave a gasp of realization, stuck her hand in the folds of her dress and drew out a wadded white handkerchief. She dabbed her lips. “Forgive me.”

“It’s nothing to forgive,” said Hyacinth. Such manners were a little bit mystifying, and she thought them unnatural in a child.

“Cin… Please, Miss Hyacinth, is Erik all right?”

Mordecai was already nodding. Hyacinth gave him a shove. You didn’t lie like that, not even to children. Especially not to children, because it hurt them when you had to back up and tell them the truth. And sometimes that truth was, they’re dead.

“He was hurt very badly. I had to replace most of the bone around his eye with metal, and not gold or silver or anything pure. He’s in a lot of pain right now. It’s going to be for a few days. You might hear him cry out sometimes.”

“Oh.”

Hyacinth crouched down to eye level and put her hands on the child’s shoulders. “He was hurt in the head. Did Ann tell you?”

She nodded.

“It’s hard to get better from something like that. It takes a long time. He’ll say some things he doesn’t mean, and some things that don’t make any sense. And he might not always act right or remember everything he should.”

“But he’ll get better?” Maggie said.

“Some better,” said Hyacinth, “if he makes it through this part all right. But I can’t promise you all better. I can only promise we’ll try.”

“But is he gonna remember me?” She was tearing up. The handkerchief had vanished into her clenched fist, forgotten.

“If he doesn’t, we’re gonna help him so he does. And if he still doesn’t, then we’re gonna tell him everything about how much you love him so that he knows. Okay?”

“Yes…” But it wasn’t okay. Of course it wasn’t.

Hyacinth dithered. She couldn’t stay here and comfort the girl. She had to go back to the boy. “Mordecai,” she said.

Mordecai was crying, too.

Ann!

Ann appeared. She had traded her going-out clothes for a silk kimono and some open-toed slippers with a ‘sensible’ kitten heel. All of these were edged with marabou which wafted prettily and occasionally shed. Ann had an outfit to make any occasion a bit more surreal. “Barnaby is into your spice cabinet,” she said.

“Is he hurting it?” Hyacinth asked.

“No, but he’s getting rather upset about it. He wants to know where you’ve hidden the ginger.”

“I don’t believe that I have any ginger.”

“That’s what I told him,” sighed Ann. “Oh, Maggie.” She drew nearer. “What’s this?”

“I’ll be all right,” said Magnificent. “I’m m-moment… Momentarily…” She sobbed, but she did not say that she was scared or unhappy. “Incon… Inco… Momentarily…”

“Oh, I’m certain it’s momentarily, whatever it is,” said Ann. She pulled the child into a hug. “Now, Em, I really think you’d better stop that so you can breathe.”

He nodded, then hiccuped. “Mm.”

“What about a nice cup of tea?”

“I’m supposed to be in my room,” he said.

“It is not impossible to have tea in your room,” Ann replied. “Maggie, you too. We’ll picnic. You’ve a very nice rug for it.”

Hyacinth nodded to them. Without waiting for reply, she turned and crept back down the stairs.

The boy was sobbing and shaking and still going on about the radio.

She sighed.

They had a little shrine in the basement. It was fashioned of found objects, glue and paper and glass, and a few printed icons (cheap, smudgy ones on rough paper). Hester Carthage of the Hearth was central. Auntie Enora was offset, but a bit larger, this being a concession to Hyacinth’s own preferences. There was Cousin Violet and Iron John and Lame Anthony, all of them fairly benign, good Invisibles to have around the house. There was a small portrait of Baron Yowie, also, but this was more for appeasement than invitation. There was room enough for a single candle. She lit a white one for general purposes.

She knelt and drew two fingers down her forehead and over the bridge of her nose. It was best to show the proper respect.

“I know you’re out there,” she said softly, “and I know you’re listening. Please leave him alone. You don’t need him. Let me heal him. Leave him alone.”

The radio…” said Erik.

“Oh, honey.” She crawled to the cot and sat on the floor beside him. She did not touch, because that would hurt, but she spoke gently to him, “It’s not on. I promise. It’s not on…”

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