Magnificent spent one day plotting and two days preparing, and she decided she had been very clever. She didn’t even have to go hungry, she just switched out the apple and sandwich for bread and olives. After two days that left precisely enough extra lunch money for a grape soda. It came out of the ice chest and it was nice and cold.
She approached Hyacinth in the kitchen. She was neat and polite, and she had a cold soda which provided a time constraint. She had Erik’s favorite soda.
“Excuse me, Miss Hyacinth, I bought Erik a grape Min-Min. May I give it to him?”
Hyacinth sighed and smiled. “Oh, Maggie, thank you so much. Of course you may. You’ve been very patient. After it happened, I thought you wouldn’t leave me alone for a minute. I want to thank you for just letting me take care of him.”
Ah. Apparently she had not been very clever, she had just been very patient. Or, possibly, she had out-clevered even herself. Well, it didn’t really matter. She smiled.
“But we need to talk first.” Hyacinth crouched down next to her and put both hands on her shoulders.
Magnificent recognized her position for delivering unpleasant information and stopped smiling. She nodded, though.
“He can talk a little, and he’s making more sense, which is the other reason I’m letting you see him, but it’s still hurting him and he is very, very tired. If he’s sleeping, or he doesn’t want to talk, you need to let him.”
“I will, Miss Hyacinth.”
This child is too damn polite, though Hyacinth. It was unnerving. She could hardly remember what she needed to say. She had been trying to lay it out in her head, but she had expected to be saying it days ago. “Okay. Well… He’s weird right now. He might not remember you, but that doesn’t mean it’s forever. And he doesn’t always know what he’s saying. Sometimes it’s wrong, or mean. But he’s not really mad at you or trying to hurt you, he’s just tired.”
“Oh, Maggie, and he might not want that soda. He doesn’t even want water. Everything tastes like metal right now.”
“Oh,” said Maggie. She considered the bottle. “But may I ask him in case he does want it?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll bring a cup, just in case. I think that might be easier for him.”
Mordecai was curled up next to him and reading a story out of his lap. It was the one with the boy and the wolf and the music, with no music. The notes were on the pages, all quiet. He wasn’t even attempting the voices. He looked desperately unhappy. Erik was in the cot, under a blanket, with his head turned away and his eyes — eye — closed. His fine, white hair was plastered to his head with sweat. He was breathing audibly. He would tense and twist and then fall limp again.
“Is he awake?” Hyacinth asked softly.
Mordecai shook his head at them and mouthed, I don’t know.
Hyacinth took Magnificent by the arm and pulled her nearer. “Come on, Maggie. It’s all right.”
“Will I hurt him?” she asked.
“No, not just by being near. Don’t touch him, though.”
Maggie nodded. She approached and sat down on the other side of him, carefully, so as not to jostle the cot. Her shoes were hard and they dug into her legs when she sat on the floor. He made a soft sound and turned his head away from her, towards his uncle. That touched his metal socket to the pillow and he flinched and turned back the other way.
“Erik?” said Maggie.
He didn’t say anything. Maybe he closed his eye a little tighter.
“I got you a soda. It’s grape. It’s cold right now, but you don’t have to have it. We can save it, okay?”
He didn’t say anything.
Hyacinth touched her shoulder to help her up. “I’m sorry…” she said.
“It’s cold?” Erik said. He opened his eye and focused on her.
“Yeah,” she said. She held up the bottle.
“I have some?” This came very slow, as if he had to consider every word. When he got through them, he sighed.
“Yes,” said Hyacinth. She twisted open the bottle and poured some into the glass. It fizzled and sang. “You’re going to have to sit up a little, though.”
“Can’t,” he said.
“I’ll help you. I’ll hold you.”
“Oh.” He tensed, and he gasped when she slipped her arm beneath his head. She just held him like that for a moment so he could settle. When he turned his head to the side again, she offered him the glass.
He held the liquid only a moment before spitting it out, a little purple waterfall, back into the glass. He shuddered. “Awful.”
“Sorry,” Hyacinth said, both to him and to Maggie.
He sat up and stared at the girl. His eye was wide and gray and bright. “Why did you bring me that? It’s horrible. I hate you!”
“Ah,” said Maggie. She sat back and put both her hands on the floor behind her.
“He doesn’t mean it,” Hyacinth said.
He turned on her. “How do you know what I mean? You’re stupid! Look what you did to me!” He showed his empty eye, then he clapped both hands to his face and cried out, “Oh, ow, it hurts!”
“Maggie, I think we’ve had enough talking,” Hyacinth said, gathering her quickly. “He needs to rest.”
Maggie nodded, already clambering to her feet. He didn’t mean it, she believed that, because it hardly even sounded like him, but if her being there was making him do that then she needed to leave right now so it would stop.
He was sobbing. Left alone with him, Mordecai used his own judgment and held him — gently. Erik first pushed him away, then curled nearer. He continued to cry, but softer. “…hurts.”
“I know, dear one.”
He calmed. Mordecai let him back on the cot. He wanted to brush back the child’s hair, but he thought better of it.
“I like something cold,” the green child said slowly.
The red man flinched. “You had some soda, Erik. You didn’t like it. There isn’t anything else.”
“No, dear one. You don’t have to be sorry. It’s all right.”
He opened his eye. “Girl?”
“She had to go so you could rest.”
“No…” He remembered. It wasn’t that. There was purple. And taste. And shouting. And all of those things went together some way and he didn’t like it. “I… mouth…” Not that word, but he didn’t know what word. “Loud.”
It was hard to understand him sometimes. Like he was trying to tell stories with the cut up pieces of a single magazine. It was somehow better when he was upset, but it was worse, too. Mordecai touched his hand, and when he didn’t cringe, held it. “She just had to go.”
“Say I’m sorry.”
“Okay. I’ll tell her you’re sorry.”
“Say she comes back.”
“Yes. She will.”
He closed his eye. Mordecai hoped he had gone back to sleep. He hardly slept, and he needed it badly. There had just been too much pain.
Maybe he did sleep. Maybe he only skimmed the surface of it.
He startled. “Huh?” The child hadn’t called him that, or anything at all, in days.
“I remember sometimes, okay?”
“Why? What do you remember?”
He smiled, or tried to. It felt a little like smiling. “That’s good. I’m glad it’s sometimes. I’m glad it’s not never.”
But will it ever be always?
“No, I don’t,” the boy said softly. He was looking away, talking to nothing. “Quiet.” He turned his face against the pillow.
But it is quiet, thought Mordecai. He glanced around the room. Isn’t it?
Everything… was… pieces.
Sometimes he could fit them together, but it was hard. Sometimes things happened that he didn’t know the words for. Sometimes they were talking to him and he was supposed to say something but he couldn’t remember what they just said. Sometimes everything was too fast, or too loud, or too slow, or backwards and he wanted to hide.
His head hurt always and he couldn’t see things the right way, but he couldn’t remember how the right way used to be.
There was a man (His uncle, but he couldn’t know that always) who read a story and said it was going to be okay and said ‘shh.’ The story was all in pieces. Something about a bird, and turtles, and he forgot to close the garden gate. And there were hunters and a lion.
It’s two stories because that’s all the stories he has. The other one is poems. He can’t play them, though. You’ll have to wait for Angie.
Oh. Okay. But he didn’t really understand and he knew he wouldn’t remember it.
Sometimes the girl who was all white would tell him things. She came and she went away. She liked talking a lot. She made him tired, but she didn’t care.
You’re gonna have cereal. You won’t like it. I could have it for you, if you let me.
No, you can’t have it now and you won’t remember when it happens. It’s too bad. You get a secret decoder when you have three box tops. It’s for the Silver Streak, but you won’t like radio for a long time.
“I don’t want any radio!” he cried out.
They told him there wasn’t any and they held him down and they tried to get him to be quiet because it hurt him worse when he was loud. He didn’t want to be loud, but sometimes he couldn’t help it. Sometimes he was mean. He didn’t want to be, but everything was so hard and he was so tired and he was angry about it sometimes.
There was a woman and she said that was all right and she always told everyone he didn’t mean it. And she’d say ‘Be careful,’ or ‘Don’t touch him there.’ And sometimes she’d say ‘Eat,’ and he really didn’t like that. She fed him hot metal. He wanted water, or anything cold, but there wasn’t any.
There was a girl, another girl who wasn’t white and she didn’t talk all the time and she brought him something cold, but when he asked for it they wouldn’t let him have it. That made him mad sometimes, and sometimes it made him cry. He wanted her to come back. She did come back, but he didn’t always know it was her, and he forgot to ask for something cold.
There was a woman, a big woman with vast white arms and dimpled elbows and she would ask him if there was anything he wanted and she seemed sad for him. He’d cry and he’d say ‘water’ or ‘anything cold,’ but when he was a little better and a little more together he’d say ‘nothing,’ because he knew they did try to give him water and cold things, he just couldn’t taste it.
He was adjusting. They said that. They said the pain would go away and he’d be better, but he didn’t really believe them, when he remembered. All he had to do was move a little and it came back.
Sometimes he remembered why he was hurt. Sometimes he forgot he was hurt at all and he thought this was just always. Sometimes he remembered other things.
He remembered the brown girl was Maggie and she brought him a grape soda but he shouted at her because it didn’t taste right.
He remembered Hyacinth fixed it, and she covered his eye, and it was hot.
He remembered the bathtub, with a crust of ice forming over the water. It was so cold, and she would cry because it was so cold, but she was so hot, and it was the only thing he could do that helped.
He remembered Ann hitting the radio with the heel of her shoe and crying because she thought Milo did something to it so that only he could hear it. It wasn’t that, and it wasn’t really the radio, but he didn’t know that then and he couldn’t say.
He remembered there were dead kids in the other room, frozen. (Except they weren’t kids. They had uniforms. But they were kids, too. My kids.) And you could talk to them but they wouldn’t talk back. (Except when they did.)
He remembered the man in the upstairs bedroom was dying, but there wasn’t anything you could do to fix it. (He said he didn’t mind that he was dying. He said he only minded that it hurt. He said, play ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and fill the coffin with glitter.)
He remembered the fat woman with white arms sent the radio-man away — and he was so glad! — but he could still come back if she wasn’t looking.
He remembered he was adjusting.
He remembered his uncle was sad, and he was sorry.
And there were so many people! He couldn’t remember all the people, but he remembered some of them. One of them, he couldn’t ever forget.
There was a man who had a dark, narrow face and a top hat. He had long hair, but it was in pieces. The hat had a flower and something long and scraggly like grass but it wasn’t.
“It’s a feather,” he said. He was so glad to have found the word, it just came out. Then he wasn’t sure what he just said.
The man stopped and turned and looked at him. The long green feather bobbled above his head. Do you see me?
“Erik? It’s okay, honey. Go back to sleep…” (But that was someone else and he didn’t know them right then.)
The man was coming nearer. He had a gold tooth. He looked like he thought something was funny. It must be the brain damage.
He was tall. Not tall. There weren’t words. Big. Bigger than anything and strong. Maybe like a horse.
He put two fingers on Erik’s forehead and he was cold. There was no more pain. There was nothing.
Go to sleep, child.
Nothing, for a little while. Not even darkness. Nothing at all.
She woke him and they were arguing about it. She said he needed a schedule. His uncle said he needed to sleep.
No, it was something else. Maybe it was later. He couldn’t remember.
The man… the man… (I know who he is. Why don’t I know who he is?) was saying he didn’t want that thing in here. That… that shrine in here. He said he was going to break it. And she said, “That won’t make them go away, that will only piss them off!”
It’s your uncle.
It was a little black man, pitch black. He hid in corners. Sometimes you could see him moving.
Yes. Thanks. Uncle. My uncle. He’d have to remember it.
He used to be nice to us, the little man said. He had a piece of something dark. Metal. He took a bite of it. Erik could hear him crunching and he didn’t like it.
“Please don’t. We need that.” They needed metal, for people.
He was metal now, too.
I’ll send more, the little man said.
You’d better replace that nail, the fat woman with dimpled elbows said. This house is hardly holding together as it is.
It’s okay, said the white girl. It won’t fall down. It will blow up.
Not if I have anything to say about it! the fat woman declared.
Sometimes they were so loud. Sometimes there were so many of them and they were so loud. The fat woman and the white girl and the black man and the limping man were only the ones who kept coming back. Sometimes the others were only walking through. Sometimes they stopped and looked at him. Sometimes they talked to him. Sometimes they just talked to each other.
Sometimes he could hardly breathe for all the people in here.
And sometimes he couldn’t see them at all. It was only his uncle, and sometimes the woman, and sometimes the brown girl. He liked that better. As the pain lessened and the bad taste went away, he could fit the pieces a little better, and he understood the others weren’t really real. They were there, but they weren’t really real like the man and the woman and the girl. They didn’t work the same way.
They didn’t care about him the same.
He didn’t talk to them so much anymore. It was hard to talk, and he wanted the words for his uncle and his friends. There were things to do. There was breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was trying to sit up, and trying to stand up, and trying to walk (and trying not to throw up). There was a story about a boy and a wolf he needed very badly to remember and understand, so they wouldn’t be so worried about him. There was ice-water (so good). There was medicine (not good at all) but it helped the pain and it helped him sleep, and when he slept things were a little easier.
They didn’t talk to him so much anymore. He still saw them sometimes, but he could pretend they weren’t there.
He remembered… He remembered he was adjusting. He remembered it was going to be okay.