There had been a really big argument about drawing. About… these. He sighed. He had them. He had the box but he couldn’t read it. There was a ‘C.’ The box was yellow. He could draw them if he wanted but that would make him feel dumb. Drawing didn’t give him the words. (Though sometimes he could tell them what he wanted that way and they could give him the words.)
The people. The two ladies. The one with red and the one with yellow. The one with red tried to help him with the story. The one with yellow tried to help him with everything else.
He was tired of helping.
They fought in the other room but they got loud and he heard them. One said he had to have… have these and the other said they made him mad and tired. He could have them sometimes but not always. And the other one said No! Always! You don’t take things away! They were really, really loud.
He wanted them always, but they did make him mad and tired.
They put up a… glass. With white. It was the time. When all the time was at the bottom they would talk to him. If he was too mad and tired he had to stop. He had also to stop for food and sleep and bathroom, and other stuff he couldn’t remember right now. The one with yellow wanted him to be outside sometimes but it was cold and bright and he didn’t like it. He liked the warm here. And there was a good place for drawing. They pulled it so it was near the place with warm.
The one with red didn’t like about the time and sometimes she would just turn it over.
Sometimes there was a man with red, but he wasn’t sure about what that meant. The man… It was hard to remember when people weren’t around. He remembered the women because of the yelling, but he might lose that, too.
His uncle wouldn’t come out of the room. Sometimes he didn’t like that and sometimes he forgot about it. The man with red and his uncle were different, he was pretty sure. One of them had… glass… around eyes. He wasn’t sure which right now.
He was drawing the locket because he wanted to remember about it. He wanted to remember about the pictures but he couldn’t. It was gold but he didn’t have gold. He had yellow. He thought there was a stone in it, but he didn’t know what color. He tried different colors to see what looked right.
“Erik,” she said.
He looked right away at the time. There was still time! He looked up at the woman. Yellow. She would say when it was time for other things. Maybe it was time for sleep. He was maybe-tired. He wouldn’t mind sleeping but he didn’t want to go away from the warm.
“This is Sanaam. This is Maggie’s father. Do you remember?”
He sighed. They were always asking him if he remembered. Sometimes he just wanted to say, No! And I don’t care, either!
He looked to see what he was supposed to remember this time. He hoped it wouldn’t be too hard to draw.
He jerked back in his chair and blinked his eye.
Erik saw a large black man with no hair anywhere on his head and earlobes stretched with carved wooden disks fully three inches wide. He wasn’t black like the man that hid in the corners, not really black, but he was really, really dark. He was big, wide through the chest and shoulders and round in the belly. He had large hands with pink palms and rough fingers that looked more strong than clever. He had a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, black boots and blue pants. He had twin hearts drawn in gold on his right forearm with one arrow going through. One said Glorious. One said Magnificent. On his left arm he had an anchor.
Erik had a very difficult time absorbing all of this and couldn’t come up with the words for most of it. He also couldn’t read the gold tattoos. It was kind of like Hyacinth had brought a hippopotamus into the house for him to meet and he had forgotten what hippopotamuses were called.
Don’t I remember that? How could I forget that?
Sanaam saw a small green child with a pinched, unhappy expression and a bare silver socket where his right eye used to be. He had fine, white hair that was brushed gently to one side and one gray eye remaining. He was wearing a white shirt with black buttons, short brown trousers, gray stockings and brown shoes that couldn’t touch the floor. He was sitting in a ladderbacked kitchen chair, bundled in a red plaid blanket, but still within three feet of the lit oven. He had crayons and the table in front of him was littered with obsessive drawings of yellow ovals with different-colored circles inside. His expression betrayed only shock, no recognition at all.
Sanaam was shaking his head and he wasn’t certain if his own expression was sadness or pain. He knew he had not managed a smile. He didn’t know everything that had happened, and he couldn’t know how much Erik had come back. It was all too evident that a lot of Erik had gone.
He doesn’t know me. Oh, my gods. We have to take care of him. This is terrible.
“Hi, Erik,” he said.
“Why don’t you have eyebrows?” Erik said. He gasped and clapped both hands over his mouth. Oh, no. Help. I’m tired. He wanted to say it, but he was afraid to. He was probably going to say a lot of things more. Tired meant more words but he didn’t get to choose them, and sometimes he didn’t know what they meant.
Sanaam touched his eyebrows. Well, where they would be. He honestly didn’t know. Both of his parents had done that, and as long as he was up there shaving his head anyway, it seemed reasonable. He never ran into any trouble with people telling if he was angry or surprised. So, he never really had a reason to let them grow back. “Well, I… I mean, I take them off.”
“Obviously you take them off! Just because I’m damaged, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid. Why does everybody always treat me like I’m stupid?” He turned on Hyacinth and addressed her, “Why do you keep bringing in new things for me to remember? This is hard!”
“Oh, okay, here we go,” Hyacinth said. “I’m sorry, Sanaam, can you help me with him?”
“Help you do what with him?” Sanaam said. Frankly, at the moment, he didn’t feel qualified to do anything. He sort of wanted to hide. Lord, give me a bad storm and some sails to trim. I don’t know what this is.
Erik was still talking. He was scolding Hyacinth with one finger raised, “Alice, don’t you ever argue with Milo about crayons again! You don’t know what it means to him! It’s cruel!”
“Get him to the basement,” Hyacinth said. “He’s tired. I’m trying to get him down to two naps a day, but it’s hard for him. This is just when he’s tired. Can you carry him? Milo can’t manage it. He cries out.”
“No, of course Milo doesn’t!”
And, now he had irritated people coming at him from two directions at once. He obeyed the one he understood. He tried to pick up Erik.
“Oww! Stop it! That hurts me!”
“No, don’t drop him! Just move fast! There’s a cot in the basement! I promise you, he just needs to sleep!”
“Hyacinth!” he pleaded.
“I can’t carry him as well when it’s just me. That hurts him more. Please, Sanaam!”
Wide-eyed, sick, Sanaam rushed Erik into the basement. He didn’t go as fast as he could, he thought a flat-out run might hurt more, and he might slip on those broken tiles. It wasn’t far, but it felt like miles with a crying child in his arms who was begging to be put down.
Milo heard them coming and came barreling out of the basement holding a paper cup of coffee and a pencil. They passed each other going rapidly in opposite directions and exchanged no greetings.
“In the cot!” said Hyacinth.
There was a cot. Erik went in the cot. He fit very nicely there. Sanaam backed away from him until he hit the basement wall and then he sat down on the floor.
There were a lot of papers down here. Eyes. Drawings of eyes. Mechanical ones being taken apart and exploded in pieces. It was creepy as hell.
Erik was crying and clutching his head with both hands. “Go! I hate you! You’re too big and weird! I don’t like new things anymore! You hurt me!”
Sanaam glanced wildly around the creepy cold room with all the papers and eyes and the crying child that he had hurt. Hyacinth was over there. Hyacinth could handle this. Right? Sure she could!
He ran out of there. He didn’t know where he was going, but this time he did go as fast as he could.
Apparently, he was going to the kitchen. He poured himself liquor in a glass with a strawberry on it and then he didn’t drink it. He sat in a chair with his elbows on the table and his face in his hands.
You know, I don’t think I actually need to live here. I make enough money. My wife has her pension if we really need it. We could have, like, an apartment. Or a townhouse. With electricity. And a roof. Where sick people go to the hospital and not in the basement and you don’t have to deal with them.
There was no other housing in the entire city of San Rosille where they were going to be okay with his wife turning into a giant golden eagle.
No amount of crying, sick children was going to convince his wife that it was necessary to stop turning into a giant golden eagle, or to stop training his daughter to do the same.
Oh, gods, why can’t we just be normal? thought the enormous tattooed man with stretched earlobes and no eyebrows.
There was occasional screaming from the basement. He had some of the liquor, but he was too upset to attempt being drunk. Drunk was for pleasant times. When the shit hit the fan, you were supposed to be up on your feet and doing something.
Well, I suppose I could pack, he thought with a weak little laugh.
Instead, he unpacked. He mainly had things for the kitchen. A new coffeemaker. The stove. Utensils (some of them metal, it really couldn’t be helped). He had managed to find some tempered glass cookware. It was called Smilex. New technology was always welcome in Hyacinth’s house.
Ann came down after a while and offered to help him.
“Please,” he said. “Put things in drawers. The drawers in this house make me nervous. They don’t have any stops.” No stops and no slides, they just rested loosely in the holes. If he wasn’t wary, he would yank them right out and spill all the contents.
Ann noticed the glass on the table. “Are you having that, Sam, dear?”
“No. I had a sip, but I don’t want it.”
“I will also have a sip. Perhaps if everyone in the household has a sip, it won’t be wasted.” She sipped once, then again. “That’s a bit better. I do wish Milo wouldn’t have so much coffee. I feel like a bag of crickets.”
“Couldn’t you speak to him about it?” Or, however that worked, he thought.
“He doesn’t listen very well when he’s excited. It’s eye, eye, eye all the time now. I hardly get out anymore.” She sighed. “Of course, he just can’t cope when Erik’s like that. I daresay you’ve had a hard time of it as well.”
“It was… Well, yes, it was terrible, actually,” he admitted. “Does it really hurt him?”
“I think it does, but he has to get down there somehow. He needs the sleep, and we can’t have him in his own bed. Em can’t cope with it, either. He’s not coping at all. He sleeps all the time. He hides. I don’t think it’s just the police. It’s Erik. He’s been absolutely stellar about it up until now, but it’s like something’s took all the starch out of him. Erik is getting better, you know,” she said firmly. “But it’s like Em doesn’t notice it anymore.”
“What he is now is better?” Sanaam said. That was actually kind of terrible, too.
“What he is now is tired,” Ann told him. “He’s able to sleep less, but he’s got to get used to it. Cin changed his schedule and that’s always hard on him. It’ll take him a couple days, but he’ll bounce back. It used to be he couldn’t even get up, Sam. Now he can talk to us, and draw, and he remembers things most of the time. He eats at the table.”
“Ann, forgive me, but that’s all a bit depressing.”
“Your perception needs adjusting,” Ann said. “You haven’t been here. This is all very much very fast and he’s not slowing down. He wants to be better.” She sighed and picked up one of the drawings from the table. “That’s why Cin doesn’t always want him to have crayons. It’s how he uses them. He pushes too hard. I guess I know that, but it’s also the best way he has to talk to us. He needs it.”
“What’s he been drawing?”
“Oh, lockets,” Ann replied, lifting a sheet. “He doesn’t want to forget the story. Em told him about that locket — you know, the one Cin used to fix him the first time? Erik’s mother gave it to him.”
“Oh.” Sanaam had another look at the drawings. They seemed a bit less crazy, maybe even a little bit sweet.
“Now, Sam, what is this vicious-looking thing?” She held up a large clamp-like object with rubber grips and several toothed metal circles nested at the business end of it. Sanaam had taken it out of the box and left it on the table when he got distracted by the crayons. “If I don’t know what it is, I can’t help you find out where it lives.”
“It’s a jar-opener.”
“A jar-opener!” Ann marveled. “How wonderful! Hyacinth is forever banging on jars with spoons. It really bothers Milo, but of course she has to get them off somehow. And if she undoes the metal, she can’t get them back on.”
Sanaam nodded. He had noticed. He didn’t know it bothered Milo, but it bothered him.
“Sanaam, I’m really sorry about that,” Hyacinth said. She was up from the basement. Apparently matters in the basement had been dealt with. Thank goodness. “I know this is a lot to drop on you your first day home.”
He nodded to her, too. “It’s… Well, no, it’s not all right, but I guess it had to be done?”
“It did, and thank you for doing it. He’s sleeping now. He might be a little out of it for dinner, but I think this’ll help his schedule.” She made a sheepish gesture. “I-I mean, we’re not always beholden to the almighty schedule, it’s just easier when there are times for things. Sometimes it seems like it’s not, but it is.”
“I guess you’d know,” Sanaam said.
Hyacinth touched the plate in her head, then attempted to disguise this by re-tying her hair. “I guess I do.”
Sanaam felt visible relief. Hyacinth had been through something like this. She had been, what, twelve? She seemed all right. She seemed a lot more together than a lot of the other people in this house. (His wife, who took birthdays away from small children, included.)
There was the sucking crack of a jar lid with a safety-button being decisively opened.
“Look, Cin!” Ann cried. “A jar-opener! It works wonderfully! I have opened spaghetti sauce!” She frowned at the jar in her hand. “Do you think we can come up with a reason to eat spaghetti sauce?”
Sanaam mentally opened his parenthetical statement about his wife to also include Ann, who tested jar-openers without checking labels first, and who was Milo in a dress.
“Well, we have a stove now!” he said. “Maybe we can come up with spaghetti?”
Ann had to go out and buy spaghetti. They hadn’t had a stove in months, all they had were casserole noodles. The gods alone knew why they had spaghetti sauce.
Erik liked spaghetti. He also remembered what it was called, which was great. He was in his nightshirt at the table which was not usually right, but seemed to be okay at the moment. There were also some other things going on, but he mainly had to deal with the spaghetti.
Some of the people at the table were eating. The General had manners, so Sanaam and Maggie had to pretend to have manners also. Ann was eating, but she looked apologetic about it. Somebody had to keep Erik company. Hyacinth was occasionally eating. She had been past Mordecai’s room on three separate occasions (once to the attic, once to Room 101 and once because, I am starting to get really annoyed with you , Mordecai!) trying to get him to come out and this last one had succeeded. She abandoned him near the table and returned to her plate.
From the neck up, he seemed all right. But, Mordecai had never required shaving and there was not much else a man needed to do to himself if his hair was reasonably short, which Mordecai’s was. He had a scar on his cheek, but that seemed to be healing all right. Probably that was police-related.
No, the problem was the clothes. He wasn’t dressed. Well, okay, he was dressed, but just shirt, pants and socks. No belt. Not even shoes. Mordecai appeared in a vest and tie or not at all and this was getting on towards suit-jacket weather. To see him undone like that was the equivalent of a klaxon going off, Hey! Something here has gone terribly wrong!
Sanaam got up from his chair. “Here, let me…” Do what, exactly? Do what? Help you? He didn’t need help walking. He didn’t need someone to take his coat. He didn’t need a chair pulled out.
Please, allow me to assist you in being normal, because I can see that you are not.
“I’ll make you a plate!” Sanaam declared.
“I can do that,” Mordecai said softly. Maybe there was a hint of irritation there. Maybe.
He made no comment on the existence of a stove, or spaghetti, or anything else. He dished out a plate and then he sat quietly at the table and looked at it. The General considered this sufficient impetus to begin her meal and Maggie joined in. Sanaam would have appreciated a little more convincing as to the state of things.
I’m sorry, are we really not going to do anything about this?
Do what, though? Do what?
“Did you sleep well?” Hyacinth said acidly.
Oh, I see. We’re going to torment him. Great.
“I saw a mermaid!” Sanaam said.
Everyone looked at him.
“I mean, recently. Tiw’s Day.” He had a bite of his spaghetti.
“Daddy, get real,” Maggie said.
“No, I saw one. A real one, Mag-Pirate.” He nodded to himself. See? I agree with me! “Real mermaids are ugly. They’re gray and lumpy and they have faces like sad cows. They have mustaches.”
“Girl ones?” Erik said.
“Oh, girl ones, boy ones, mermaids like Ann and Milo. All mermaids have mustaches.”
“How do you tell if it’s a boy or a girl, then?” Maggie said skeptically.
“Well, girl mermaids are pink, and boy mermaids are a hundred feet tall with fangs and arcane magical powers.” And now we are officially off the map. Didn’t take long to get there, did it, boys and girls? He grinned at them.
“I should expect a girl mermaid could be a hundred feet tall with arcane magical powers if she applied herself,” the General said.
“But not fangs,” Sanaam said.
“Perhaps not fangs,” the General agreed. “Sexual dimorphism being what it is.”
Erik had stopped eating spaghetti. He was really going to have to remember this about mermaids. He wasn’t sure at the moment if he had a pink crayon. “I want paper.”
“Dinner now, Erik,” Hyacinth said.
Oh, dinner now. Right. Fine. Erik dejectedly applied his fork.
“I’ll draw you a mermaid later, Erik,” Sanaam said.
“I’d rather see a photo,” Maggie put in.
“Mermaids don’t photograph,” Sanaam said. “They’re like vampires.”
“Vampires?” Erik said. His fork stopped again.
“Vampires are actually very small. They have ugly faces. They walk on their elbows because they have little tiny legs. They like to bite cows. They’re brown and hairy. The vampires. Also some of the cows. You see these little tiny vampires, sneaking up on cows with their elbows…” He walked his fingers along the table.
“Sanaam, am I going to have to fight you to get food into Erik?” Hyacinth said.
“Possibly…” Sanaam hedged, attempting to execute judgment. Erik had eaten a little food. He probably ought to eat more, but he looked a lot happier than he had this afternoon. “Maybe we can have occasional breaks from stories to eat spaghetti.”
“You like stories,” Erik said.
“I do. But I’m not always very careful about whether they’re true.”
Erik considered Sanaam and ate one bite of spaghetti. “We made… I think… A glass…” He drew a box with two fingers then traced an irregular line inside. Wait! There was one in the room! “Like that.”
“A window!” Sanaam said.
“A window,” Erik replied, relieved. “We made a window.”
“Erik, I’m surprised you remember that.”
Erik looked stricken, then he looked down.
“No!” Sanaam said. “I mean, you were little. I think you were three. That wasn’t too long after we moved here.” Which wasn’t too long after the war was over, which wasn’t too long after the siege. His wife was newly-retired and he needed a safe place to leave an angry woman who wouldn’t quit doing magic in public despite the sentiment of the time. He had seen a colored man playing a violoncello on a street-corner and followed him home. Rooms to Let. No Dogs. Bingo.
They built a window because Mordecai had recently picked up the sheet music for ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe,’ and there was a window in that. One that you could go away from at your own chosen speed. This was sufficient reason for a three-year-old and Maggie, at five, had been willing to go along with it. There had been sufficient crap in the yard to make a small frame with an opening and Maggie did some mergers to keep it together. They sang the song and they went away from the window. This was sufficient fun for two small children and one easily-amused man. He only remembered it himself because it had been a reasonably peaceful afternoon at a really chaotic time.
I believe I feel my perception adjusting, Sanaam thought. It was a hell of a leap from Erik’s expression that said, I have no idea who you are and I’m scared of you, to We made a window, and that had only been a few hours.
“Was I there?” Maggie said.
“Certainly you were,” Sanaam said. “But I don’t think you were very impressed with it. You wanted to use real glass.”
“Now I remember,” she pointed a finger at him. “I could’ve done real glass, Daddy.”
“I believe it, Mag-Pirate. But I was too scared.”
“Always holding me back, Daddy,” Maggie said, shaking her head.
“There is a difference between braking a runaway freight train and holding it back,” Sanaam said. “You and your mother need someone to follow you around and remind you you are mortal.”
“That may have been apocryphal,” the General said.
“I still think it is a very good idea,” Sanaam replied.
“It’s too short,” Erik said softly. He was staring fixedly at the General with a puzzled expression.
“Erik…” said Hyacinth.
Erik sighed and negotiated a bite of spaghetti. “It won’t stay,” he noted. He made the motion of lifting something up and putting it on his head.
Sanaam stopped chewing. He blinked.
I didn’t, did I? She hasn’t even opened the box. Maggie doesn’t even know about that.
“Erik, do you mean a tiara?”
“Yes.” Oh, that was kind of a hard one. He wasn’t sure if he knew that one in the first place. He’d never seen something like that before. “Please again.” He made an expectant gesture.
“Tiara,” Sanaam replied numbly. It had combs in it. The woman who was not his wife would, of course, have long flowing golden locks like a courtly lady. Or maybe red like Ann.
“Tiara,” Erik said.
“Hm,” said the General. She bobbed a brief nod and continued to eat spaghetti.
“You bought Mommy a tiara?” Maggie said, grinning. She knew about their little games. “I wanna see!”
Now I am absolutely certain I didn’t say it because if I did say it, Maggie would have heard it.
Magnificent noted her father’s puzzled expression. “Oh. Sometimes Erik knows stuff. The Invisibles are always telling him things, but he doesn’t know what he knows. You just have to roll with it.”
“The Invisibles?” Sanaam said. “The gods?”
“Well, they don’t all call themselves gods, Captain,” the General said. “‘Invisibles’ is more proper for the group, when not used as a pejorative.”
Mordecai abandoned half a plate of spaghetti and walked out of the room.
“Uh,” Sanaam said. There were no actual words that he could come up with for this situation. Someone got upset and left the dinner table? That was awkward in and of itself. Someone got upset and left the dinner table because the small, damaged child is talking to gods about tiaras he has no way of knowing about? Uh, was the most appropriate thing he could manage.
Erik covered his mouth with both hands. “Was it bad?” he said. “Was it my mom?”
“No on both counts.” Hyacinth said firmly. “You uncle is just being stupid about things.”
“Hyacinth!” Sanaam said.
“I’m sorry, Sanaam, what do you want me to call it? Erik hasn’t done a thing wrong, and Mordecai just gets up and leaves, and it upsets him. I think stupid is about the kindest thing I can say.”
“He isn’t!” Erik cried. He punctuated this by striking the table. “It’s me. It’s this. It’s me!” He hid his face in his hands and began to weep.
“No, dear,” Ann said, stroking her hand down his back. “It isn’t that. It isn’t that at all. It’s all right.”
Sanaam saw Hyacinth’s mouth go, I’m going to kill him, as she sat shaking with her fists clenched.
Sanaam lifted a hand to stop her. No, you’re not. I’m going to deal with him, because I don’t think I can be any help here. He got up from the table.
He did knock. He made the attempt. When, after several periods of knocking and waiting there was no reply, he went in anyway.
It was pitch dark in the room. He had to backtrack and open the door all the way just so he could get a bearing on where anything was. (It stayed where he put it. Hyacinth had taken the hinges off again.) The drapes were drawn. A faint thread of light showed around the edges, but it wasn’t nearly enough to see anything by, just an indication that there could be some light, if you wanted some. There were no lamps, magical or otherwise, no candles and, upon first glance, no Mordecai.
Sanaam applied logic. He can’t have gone out the window. He’s either in the bed or in the closet.
Sanaam desperately hoped that this situation hadn’t deteriorated enough that Mordecai was willing to hide in the closet.
He tried words, “Mordecai? It’s only me.”
No reply. No movement in the bed or the closet.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
It was the bed. He had completely buried himself. There were a lot of blankets. Green and blue and striped and plaid and one knitted afghan. He didn’t do well in the cold.
“I will if you talk to me,” Sanaam said. He sat down on the floor next to the bed. It was still impossible to discern a human being in it, except for the voice.
“Hoping for more than three words out of you. Can we try for fifteen or twenty? And, different ones, not just ‘leave’ twelve more times.”
Mordecai sat up and peeled the blankets down. He was still in his shirt, which was slightly disarrayed. “Is Erik all right?”
“Ah,” Sanaam said. “Well…”
“He isn’t,” Mordecai said, gazing into his lap. “I never should have come. He doesn’t remember me if I’m not there.”
“I don’t think that’s true at all,” Sanaam said.
“You haven’t been here,” the red man replied bitterly. He sank back down into the bed, turned on his side and pulled the blankets back over his head. “That’s enough words,” he concluded, somewhat muffled.
“I think I might still have a few,” Sanaam said. “I can’t imagine what you must be going through, what you must have gone through, but it’s no help to do it alone. You do have people here that are willing to help you, even if sometimes they’re a bit strange about expressing it. If you could just give us some idea of what you needed…”
“Help Erik,” Mordecai said. “I can’t. I’m no good to him anymore.”
“I think it would help him so much just to see you…”
“See an old man crying over him and screaming curses at the gods? You think that would help him? You think he’d be any better now if I did that instead of just leaving?”
“Well…” Maybe we can do something so you don’t need to do that? I’m not sure what right now, but if I can’t come up with something real fast, I think maybe you’ll just…
“Help Erik,” Mordecai said. “Leave me alone.”
He needed a really good idea and he needed it now, but there wasn’t one. And, as the silence spun out, he realized the time for ideas had passed. He left the room and he closed the door, leaving Mordecai in darkness.