Maggie was allowed independent study for no greater than one week (and usually no less than one) while her father was home. This was best for all parties concerned because her mother and father spent a lot of time in the bedroom doing things she’d rather not be involved with during the first week (or, in this case, only week) her father was home. When things had calmed down some, she would give a report on what she’d learned. Written or oral, or a demonstration, depending on the nature of the lessons.
Her mother had wanted her to go into the basement with Milo and learn about programming and mechanical things while he was still doing Erik’s eye. Her father had made an alternate suggestion, and had argued for it, and so she was doing that instead.
She was standing outside of a door holding a plate with a blueberry muffin on it and being annoying.
Pester him, Maggie. Forget all about manners. I know you can manage that if you really put your mind to it. Make it easier for him to just do what you ask.
“I’m supposed to learn about substitutions,” she said. Again. “My daddy says you did substitutions during the war. You have to tell me a story. I have to write a paper. Uncle Mordecai? I have to learn about substitutions. I’m going to write a paper. I need at least three pages, so you’d better talk for a long time. Uncle Mordecai? I have a whole week to do this. I’m gonna get really bored. I might have to start doing things. I have a spite dolly and I’ll curse you.” Still no reply. “Uncle Mordecai? I have a kazoo. I sent in some cereal box tops. Do you want me to stand out here playing kazoo for a week? Because I’m totally okay with that. I can write my paper on psychological warfare instead. My daddy might be upset, but I think my mom would like it all right. Are you gonna teach me about substitutions or should I get my kazoo?”
Faintly, from inside the room, “You don’t really have a kazoo.”
“Oh, I sure do. Mom won’t let me play it in the house, but I’ve got one.”
The door came open, just a crack. Mordecai appeared to be wearing a nightshirt because she could see bare red legs underneath. She wasn’t entirely aware that Mordecai had legs, he was just sort of a head on top of a suit.
“Substitutions are very weak magic,” he told her. “They are only good for cooking. They are not interesting.” He closed the door.
She knocked again. “That’s not three pages!”
“I know ‘Way Down Upon a Swanee River!'” she replied. “Okay, I don’t really know it, but I can play the first part over and over and pretend like I do!”
From behind the closed door with ragged unhappiness, “Why are you tormenting me?”
“My daddy says I have to. He also says it’s okay if you poison him as long as you teach me a substitution to do it with.”
After a brief pause — brief because he did not want her to threaten the kazoo again — “I have to get dressed!”
“It’s okay, I’ll wait.”
He appeared again at the crack in the door a few minutes later, this time with pants. “Why do you have a muffin?”
She offered it. “It’s for you. My daddy sent Ann to the bakery.”
“I don’t want a muffin!”
“We also have danish. You’re allowed to trade. You’re gonna need shoes,” she noted, looking down.
“Teaching you substitutions does not require shoes!”
“No, but after you have a muffin, we have to go to the park.”
The park required that he get all the way dressed. It was cold outside and he did not want to get sick. Shoes. Vest. Jacket. Coat. A scarf. He omitted his tie as an act of pure rebellion. When he left the room, he strode past her without even looking.
“Wait!” she cried. “Muffin!” She held it up.
“I’ll have it in the kitchen.”
She planted herself in front of him, still holding the plate in front of her. “No kitchen. Muffin, then park.”
Now he was beginning to feel a bit of concern. “What about Erik?”
“No Erik. Muffin, then park.”
“What if I want to trade for a danish?” he offered desperately.
“They’re in a big, pink box in the front room.”
“Your… Your father,” he told her, “is insufferable! And prying! And… And a coward!”
Maggie nodded gravely. “You’re not gonna come up with anything worse than my mom’s already said, not even if you try all day.”
“Do you mind if I try anyway?”
“Sure. Knock yourself out.” She lifted the plate. “Muffin?”
They were sitting on a park bench under a tree with twisted, bare branches.
He had gone with the muffin. It seemed easiest. It was not sitting well. He had an uneasy feeling that at any moment this child sitting next to him might whip out a kazoo.
He had also gone out of the house without seeing Erik for even a moment or speaking two words to the boy. What if he wasn’t okay? What if something else had been done to him?
What if he needed to feel terrible and he didn’t know it yet?
“So do you have a good story to tell me or what?” she asked him. Her expression was impatient and not overly-impressed. Her black shoes were planted firmly and sensibly on the grassy ground. She had white socks with a lace edging that were neatly cuffed. It was not yet cold enough for Maggie to put up with itchy wool stockings. There would be several more arguments with her mother before she started putting up with the itchy wool stockings.
“I don’t have any stories,” he said. “Just ask me questions, I’ll answer. You can get a paper that way.”
“Substitutions are weak magic that isn’t any good for anything but cooking?”
“Miss Hyacinth was yelling at my mom the other day that you helped hold the wall during the siege.”
He sighed and put his head in his hands. “Right. So?”
“How did you do that with substitutions?”
“You know, I was thinking something more like ‘How do you do buttercream frosting without any butter or sugar?'”
“You thought I’d ask something like that?” she said.
“I haven’t been very well lately,” he replied. He sighed again. “I used to get what they wanted. The Invisibles. The gods. They’ll help you if you give them what they want, and a lot of that is food or liquor and I’d take some people and go find it or we’d find something so I could make it. That’s what I did. I kept the gods happy so they’d help us hold the wall.”
“That doesn’t sound very hard,” she said, frowning.
“Well, there were a lot of people trying to kill us at the time,” he said. “And there wasn’t very much food. We ate the zoo, if you recall.”
“I wasn’t here.”
“Certainly you’ve heard about it.”
“Yeah. It’s how come we don’t have any more elephants, but the hippo made it.”
“One of the hippos,” Mordecai said.
“Yeah. One. Lucky the Hippo.” She leaned back on the bench and folded her hands in her lap. It still wasn’t enough for three pages, even with the part about eating the zoo. “So were you a soldier, or what? You have a coat.”
“I just needed a coat,” he said, fingering it. “There were a lot of uniforms to go around because people kept getting shot. I’ve kept it. It seems silly to get rid of it when it still works.” He would admit to being a little attached to it. He had wrapped Erik in it, two times, first because it was cold, then because he was hurt. There was no stain remaining. Soldier’s coats were made for getting the blood out.
One day, when Erik was barely a year old, he had put his hand in one of the pockets and found an arsenic wafer. That was an age where anything new and interesting went right into the mouth, and Mordecai had caught him on the verge of doing this and damn near had a heart attack. He had turned out all the pockets immediately afterwards to make certain there were no more surprising mementos from his past, and there weren’t any, just the coat itself.
All the brass buttons had gone, too.
“My mom still has hers,” Maggie agreed. “But she needs it for pension days. You know.” She sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Your mother is a strange person,” he said. She would have to be to put up with your father, he thought but decided not to say. Changing the subject would only prolong matters.
“Hey, no argument here,” Maggie said, both hands raised. “What were you doing on the wall if you weren’t a soldier, though?”
He groaned and put a hand to his head. “I volunteered. I didn’t know I was volunteering. This kid in a blue uniform came running into the movie theater — there was shelling, but we went right on showing the movie because… I don’t know. There was a lot of shelling and we all figured we were going to die soon anyway, so why not have a movie? I used to play for the silent movies. We did voice from music to make them talk. Well, sing.”
“This sounds like a story,” Maggie said.
“Yes,” he replied, relieved. “Can this be the story?”
“I guess if you finish it.”
“There’s not much to it. They wanted someone who could make chocolate cake. I could, so I did.”
They went into the lobby and there were a whole lot more kids in uniforms — soldiers, but really just kids in uniforms. The boy had saluted him and said, ‘Sir! We are all your minions. Command us! Tell us what you need and we’ll get it for you.’ That had been Jim. He later found out it was Jim. By then he had already met Alba for real, and it had been decided that they were all going to be his kids.
He didn’t need much. The recipe he remembered was a simple one, one bowl and no mixer required. For the oven, he needed a hotplate and a large pot with a tight lid. He and Cathy had a hotplate, and not much money, which had been impetus to use the hotplate creatively. For the cake itself, anything that would take the heat and fit in the pot. They found him a pie tin. They were at once suspicious and excited that he didn’t seem to think he needed any butter or eggs. They were elated when the cake appeared reasonably normal and smelled all right.
“Why did they want a chocolate cake?” Maggie asked him.
“Oh.” He had wondered that himself at the time. Since then, he had gotten rather used to fulfilling weird demands and not asking any questions about it. The answer was always the same. “It was for a god. Solange. She called herself Solange. She liked warm chocolate cake with frosting. She knew where there were going to be shells and gas — bullets, disease, anything that would kill you — and she’d mark up a map so you’d know where you could go that was safe. Cousin Violet would do the same thing for cereal, but she doesn’t focus very well. She’d tell you about bombs that weren’t going to fall for a week, or until the next war. Solange always got it exactly, so it was very important to have chocolate cake.
“She liked what I made, so they asked me to come with them and make chocolate cake forever, and I said, ‘okay.'”
Maggie considered that, rocking slightly with her hands folded. “Weird,” she decided.
“Yes, it was very weird. It started weird and it stayed weird for a long time. I made a lot of chocolate cake and I learned a lot about gods and what they like and what they do to people and I hate talking about it. Now is that enough story?”
“Maybe if I write big,” she allowed.
“Then I’m going home,” he said, rising.
“Nope,” Maggie said. She reached into her coat and pulled out a five sinq note. “We’re going to the store. I need a practical demonstration. That chocolate cake sounds pretty good. What do we need to get?”
“That chocolate cake doesn’t even need magic!” he cried.
“Well, can you think of something to do to it so it does?” she said.
Yes, he could. He had already said it. Buttercream frosting without butter or sugar. Frosting for Solange was often more difficult than the cake itself. Oil for butter, a liquid for a solid needed magic, and sweetened salt. Not salt into sugar, although he could never get people to stop calling it that. It was still salt, it still acted like salt, it just tasted different.
Erik was in the kitchen, drawing…
Oh, gods. Erik was drawing chocolate cake in a pie tin. A brown circle in a gray one. And he might not even have known what it was supposed to be, or why.
He did seem to know he was doing something upsetting, though, because he turned the page over when he saw his uncle and started in on a flower.
“How’s everything?” Mordecai asked him.
Erik looked up and regarded him for a few moments before managing a shrug.
They were like two wary old dogs circling each other. I don’t want to hurt you. Are you going to hurt me?
“I’m making a chocolate cake,” Mordecai said lamely.
Erik considered the problem of speaking with one hand pressed firmly over his mouth. Last night’s memory had faded, he had been pretty tired and there had been medicine and bed, but he knew he said things that upset. He had done it often enough that he remembered it in general.
“Okay,” he hazarded at last.
“Really?” said Hyacinth. She had an idea that Sanaam was planning something desperate, but she didn’t expect him to go that far. “I thought you didn’t like doing that.”
He had mentioned it a great deal after she had fixed him the first time. Specifically chocolate cake, and that they didn’t deserve any and they let her die and he was never making it again. Her other patients had been so thrilled that she brought home a loud man without enough sense to stop talking and a days-old infant who did nothing but scream. Never mind that the man kept intermittently claiming that he was dying of a deadly-contagious disease and she had to keep telling everyone that, no, he wasn’t. Really. She’d checked.
“It’s being done to me,” Mordecai said, looking down.
“People will tell you that you can sub carob for chocolate, but they are lying,” Mordecai said. “The gods won’t put up with it. People shouldn’t put up with it.”
Maggie was taking notes on the kitchen pad. “Right.”
He held up the can, “But as long as you have unsweetened cocoa powder, you can reconstitute it with just about anything. You need a fat and something sweet.”
Maggie read off the pad, “Fats are lard, shortening, butter, margarine and oils. You can sub a solid for a solid or a liquid for a liquid, or a melted solid for a liquid, but if you sub a liquid for a solid, you need to magic it.”
Mordecai poked at the white substance in the bowl with a finger. “No, that is sugar. You have actually made sugar. You have done a transmutation.” And now there wasn’t enough left for the cake, let alone frosting.
“Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?” Maggie said.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to do. That isn’t what I’m trying to do because I can’t do that!”
“What is sweetened salt, then?”
“It’s salt that tastes sweet. It’s completely different. It’s hardly any magic and it doesn’t eat up any of what you’re changing. Look, I’ll… Well, I can’t change it back.” And if Maggie changed it back, there wouldn’t be enough left for a cup of coffee. He looked up from the counter. “Hyacinth! Do we have any more salt?”
“All right,” said Mordecai. “For the sake of your education, we are now going to make salty sugar.”
It was hell to make frosting without a powered mixer. Fortunately, a nine-year-old girl was capable of powering a mixer quite nicely. Mordecai gave her the eggbeater and sat down at the table. The cake was out of the oven and cooling on a cork trivet. You really shouldn’t frost a warm cake, it tore up the top of the cake and melted the frosting, but Solange liked them that way.
She also didn’t mind much about forks or plates. She had been willing to forgive them the frosting on that first cake (he could’ve done some, but the kids had forgotten to ask) because they offered her the whole thing. She would work for a slice, but if she saw the whole thing, she’d have the whole thing. She held the pie tin in one hand and ate with the other. Alba had been up all that night moaning and demanding of them, “Damn it, why did you let her have the whole thing?” And laughing, because she had a good sense of humor about that kind of stuff. Maybe she had to.
He had been there because the entire population of the movie theater had been there. A safe place for an entire night with no shells and no gas? They had all been thrilled. They took the projector, and his ‘cello. They had movies on a white-painted brick wall.
He felt bad about Alba, because he made the cake. And she was so damn young, too. Somebody needed to look after her. He tried to be amusing, and he made her some soda water. Not that she couldn’t have done that herself, if she thought of it, but she didn’t.
She had been the one to ask in the morning if he wanted to come with them. He probably would’ve done it for any of them, but he ended up doing it for her.
Now he was supposed to be taking care of her son. He had hoped to get the boy at least past the age of nineteen and maybe introduce him to a semi-normal existence, without arsenic wafers and heroin withdrawal. Erik had almost died at the age of six and he was right on track for being the plaything of the gods for the rest of his life.
Could I possibly have screwed this up any worse? he wondered, sitting with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.
Yes. Every minute of every day. If he couldn’t possibly screw it up any worse, he would be able to sort of relax and stop trying. At the moment, he had to act normal and frost a chocolate cake.
He was used to that. He didn’t like being used to it, but he was. People died, he sent them out into the city to find ingredients and die, and he made chocolate cake. It was a matter of keeping more people from dying. It was damage control.
“This doesn’t seem right,” Maggie opined, leaning over the bowl.
“Let’s see what you’ve done to it,” he said, rising. Ah, nothing magical this time. She was following his lead.
Which was fortunate, because if she didn’t do that she would run circles around him.
“It’s just gritty because we did sweetened salt instead of powdered sugar. You can mess with the texture if you coax it a little.”
“Couldn’t you just make powdered sugar?” she said.
“Out of regular sugar, yes,” he said. “You can even do that with no magic, if you’ve got a grinder and a pair of hands with some time. But this is salt. It acts like salt. It’s going to have a weird texture anyway, so you kind of push it around and try to hide that.”
“Or you could just make it be frosting.”
“And then there wouldn’t be as much of it. Look, substitutions are about doing what you can with what you have right now. Not getting it perfect or even right, just enough.”
“No wonder my mom doesn’t like you,” Maggie said, not unkindly.
“Your mom doesn’t like me because I betrayed the empire,” Mordecai said. He retreated to the table with the bowl.
“Can I have that story?” Maggie said.
“No.” He dumped the frosting on to the cake, scraping the bowl with a wooden knife. Not too bad this time. No obvious crystals. Solange didn’t seem to mind having crunchy frosting, but she did occasionally wonder why.
“Can I have it tomorrow?” Maggie asked.
He shut his eyes and failed to suppress a groan. “Are we doing this again tomorrow?”
“Tell your father I hate him.”
“Tell him yourself,” Sanaam said in the kitchen doorway.
“I absolutely hate you,” Mordecai replied, gesturing with the knife. “Erik, do you want the bowl or the mixer?”
“Um.” He had to think for a moment about which word meant which thing, and also which he liked. “Bowl.” It seemed easier. Also he was looking right at it so he knew what it was. Mordecai gave him the bowl. There was chocolate all over it. Erik sampled with a finger.
“Why don’t I get to pick first?” Maggie said. “I helped!”
“Because I like Erik best,” Mordecai said. “Have the mixer.”
Erik giggled appreciatively.
Mordecai blinked at him. That was a sound he hadn’t heard in a while. He twitched a small smile, then he suppressed it and turned to Sanaam, “You will get no frosting and no cake. And if you insist on continuing this fiasco…”
“I do,” Sanaam said, grinning.
“Then you will get no whatever-else-is-inflicted-upon-me tomorrow.”
“I’m satisfied with the state of things,” Sanaam said.
“Smug bastard,” Mordecai said. He turned back to Maggie. “You are allowed cake but you are not to enjoy it.”
“Okay, good luck with that,” said Maggie, making intimate acquaintance with the mixer.
Hyacinth paled and pushed her plate away at dinner. “Mordecai, you have put sugar in the salt shaker.”
“No,” he said. “Or, possibly. Oh, just let me see your plate, whichever it is I’ll fix it. I think I can get most of it.”
“You are touching my tuna salad,” Hyacinth said.
“Aren’t you intending on eating my chocolate cake?” he replied.
“You know, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about it.”
“This is the strangest innuendo I have ever heard,” Sanaam said.
“What’s innuendo?” Erik asked.
“A three-headed monster,” Sanaam replied. “Remind me to draw it for you.”
Breakfast was a cinnamon roll. He refused to sit down at the park.
“All right. We did not start it. We joined it. I was in a band. It was a cover band and not very good and we played a lot of awful places. We were all very young and stupid and we didn’t want there to be poor people anymore. It got out of hand. We accomplished nothing, but a lot of people died. It was incredibly stupid. There was a lot of liquor involved. That’s all.”
“What? No tactics or anything?” Maggie said. “Street warfare? Barricades?”
“Street warfare and barricades, absolutely no tactics. And I have no idea what was going on for any of it, so don’t ask me.”
“Did you kill anyone?”
He sighed. “Yes. Unfortunately.”
“Lots?” She doubted it. She couldn’t even picture it.
“No, not lots.” He shook his head. “Not until later.”
“Can I have that…”
“No.” He overrode her, “And not even tomorrow. Never. Now, what’s our shopping budget?”
“Great! Let’s plan dinner and starve your father.”