Being a normal, well-adjusted person was like riding a bicycle. Not in that you never forgot how (although he had some idea) but in that he fell down a lot and got hurt. He managed a wobbly three days after Sanaam’s departure with occasional hiding in bathrooms before he crashed again, hard. Nothing even happened. Erik was maybe a little bit better. Less excitement meant fewer smiles and laughter, but better sleeping and no loud.
That was good, because Erik was asleep when it happened.
Mordecai wasn’t sleeping well. Enough to get by, not well. He woke early and stared at the darkened ceiling waiting for it to be a reasonable time to get up, and then he didn’t want to get up. He thought about things. Those drawings with the frustrated corrections. Erik’s mother. Erik lying bloody in the street and crying (oh, gods, don’t stop crying). The open ‘cello case with the coins in it that would’ve made a better repair. Trying to help people who couldn’t be helped. Being useless and broken. Being actually harmful, because sometimes Erik knew he was sad, and the boy blamed himself.
And sometimes Erik didn’t know him at all.
At about three o’clock in the morning of the fourth day (they didn’t have a clock but it was full dark out) when he woke up, all he could think was, I can’t. He lay there thinking that for a while, and then he couldn’t even do that anymore. He got up and walked out. He didn’t check Erik, he just left. Out of the bedroom, through the dining room, into the kitchen, out the back door, into the alley, and he stood at the top of the back stairs staring up at the sky between the buildings and watching his breath make smoky curls in the air. There were hardly any stars. The warped wood was icy under his bare feet. It had frozen a couple times and painted the windows but not yet snowed.
Erik liked the frost on the windows. Mordecai was almost certain he couldn’t remember it happening before, but it was hard for Erik to talk to him about things.
He began to cough almost immediately. First he did it into his hands and then, when he felt dampness, into his sleeve.
I could just go, you know? They would take care of him. They’d take care of him better than me.
Hyacinth knew what to do for his injury. Schedules and medicines and practice times for basic skills. Mordecai knew about teaching people buttons and shoelaces and even talking, but not like this. Not really damaged people. Screwed up people, but not really damaged. It was only a matter of weeks at most, and they were still there — they knew you, they knew words, they were only temporarily embarrassed.
He had to feed people, but he never had to teach them to read.
As for the support part of it, he had never been in that for the long haul, either. Oh, Alba had been basically his, and he had to help her again and again, but she got better, and fast. (Except that one time she didn’t, and he couldn’t help her. He had tried but they wouldn’t let him.) Sanaam was better at it, much, and when he wasn’t here, Maggie and Ann were available to love Erik and hold him and they were much more consistent about it. Even Milo, who could not hug people or look at them properly, was in there and pulling.
Milo gave Erik things, since he couldn’t manage the other stuff. He brought home toys, and once a fashion magazine, which Erik appreciated for the pictures. Yesterday he had brought home a board book. Which Mordecai had seen and been about ready to feed to him — and not gently with a spoon. Simple pictures of animals on sturdy cardboard for young readers who are not ready for words yet and inclined to chew on the pages.
What the hell are you thinking? He’s not that bad! He doesn’t need that!
Erik had loved it, though. The pictures. He did not require the sturdy cardboard, but a simple story in all pictures was right about where he was academically and he was just so thrilled he could understand it without helping. He had paged through it about twenty times and he had gone to bed with it.
He had tried to ‘read’ it to his Uncle. He had not managed it terrifically well — he kept forgetting what to call the cow — but he did seem to have a good grasp of what was going on and Mordecai had been both proud of him and sick. He managed to smile instead of cry, but it had been a very near thing.
Milo — who, again, could barely function as a domesticated human being — had a better idea about what Erik needed and could give it to him. And he was making an eye for Erik, for if Erik should ever improve enough to handle the trauma and difficulty of a new eye. Maybe he would. Probably he would and Mordecai was too screwed up to see it.
He knew about gods, he knew lots and lots about gods, but there wasn’t anything he could do to help Erik about them. There wasn’t anything anyone could do about that. If the gods wanted to hurt Erik, they would. They already had been. All he could do about that was cry — and hide it because Erik shouldn’t have to deal with that.
If he just walked off like this in his nightclothes he would have to sleep in trash cans and alleyways like a crazy person. But not for long. Not in December. Not with the coughing.
She should’ve just left me out there. It would’ve been easier. I was broken even then. He never would’ve been where he got hurt if it wasn’t for me.
I think he might forget me. Maybe he wouldn’t be sad.
If he could be sure of that, he would’ve been walking away already. But Erik remembered him sometimes, and Erik was sad about him and blamed himself.
I can’t do this. I can’t be like this. He doesn’t know he doesn’t need me.
He swung back in the kitchen door, closed it behind him and slid down it. He sat curled on the cold tile floor and coughed and cried softly.
Listen, you need to stop this, okay? He is trying as hard as he can. You need to help him. You need to act like a normal person and be strong. Just stop it. Come on!
He sort of wanted some cough syrup. Not like an ‘okay, I’ve been standing outside in freezing weather like an idiot and I can’t stop coughing’ amount of cough syrup, like an unnecessary amount of cough syrup. But that was not being normal and strong, that was being on a lot of cough syrup and that would be really obvious and even worse than being in bed all day. Hyacinth was willing to let him get away with being in bed all day. She thought he was stupid for doing it, but he wasn’t damaging himself.
Likewise, she would not have been thrilled to find him standing outside in his nightshirt for however long he had been doing that.
I have to be better about this. Please. I have to.
That set him off crying again. He tried to stop himself.
Milo is going to come down and find you like this. He will have no idea what to do with you, but he will damn sure tell Hyacinth about it. He will draw it if he has to. They will start trying to take care of you again. Do you want more muffins and park?
Oh, gods, no. He could not handle more muffins and park. More helping. More pressure.
He wanted to stop crying, he knew he had to, but none of that made it any easier.
He must’ve tried to get back on that damn bicycle fifteen or twenty different times before he managed to get up off the floor (he wasn’t sure how, maybe he was just tired of falling). He was bruised and exhausted, and he really didn’t feel like he was better or done crying, but he got a glass pot of water going on the stove and made tea for himself with shaking hands. He drank it with ludicrous amounts of lemon and honey — he needed to stop coughing before he went back to bed and he wasn’t going to dish himself any cough syrup. Hyacinth could do that if she noticed him and thought he needed it later.
Milo did find him down there, at five, drinking tea at the table and shivering. Milo immediately exited the kitchen in terror. He peeped back in a few minutes later looking concerned.
“I’m all right,” Mordecai said. He’d had a little time to figure out what he was going to say. Intelligence was almost as good as actually being okay, given some time for thought. “I was coughing and I didn’t want to wake Erik. I’m having some tea to see if I can stop.”
Milo crossed to the kitchen counters, found Hyacinth’s doctor bag and showed it to Mordecai with a quizzical expression.
The red man shook his head. He didn’t want the bag or the woman that went with it. “I think I’ll be all right.” He coughed once, but lightly, and he did not cover it. He had red on his sleeves and he was hiding it under the table. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
Milo crossed both hands in front of him and shook his head. He threw some more wood in the oven and got it going for the warmth, then he offered Mordecai the box of cornflakes.
“No, thank you. I’m not really hungry yet, it’s too early for me.” I’m not going to eat with you in here, or drink any more tea. You will see my sleeves and I’ll have to deal with Hyacinth and I can’t.
He wobbled on the bicycle again, over-corrected, and tried smiling and making eye-contact with Milo.
Milo stumbled away and stood at the counter, staring into one of the cabinets.
Conveniently, that gave Mordecai some time to roll up his sleeves, which made the blood a little less obvious. He also drank off the rest of his tea to help kill the coughing. The dregs were the consistency of snot thanks to the settled honey and he swallowed them gratefully.
“Erik really likes that book you got him, Milo,” he said. “Thanks for that.”
Milo nodded without looking over.
“Thanks for the oven, too. It helps.” He stood — a bit shakily, but Milo still wasn’t looking. “I’m pretty tired. I’m just going to get out of your hair.”
Milo nodded again.
In the dining room, Mordecai breathed a sigh, surprised himself with a sob, and spent a few moments just breathing before he went back to the bedroom. He checked Erik right away.
The boy was sleeping on his right side with his empty socket against the pillow and his fists curled under his chin. He was green like a willow leaf with soft features and fine white hair that tended to gather in points like feathers. The hair needed a trim; they hadn’t bothered about that since he’d been hurt, it didn’t really seem important. He was breathing softly. He hadn’t been awake. Or, if he had, he hadn’t been upset.
Or, if he had been upset, he had comforted himself and gone back to sleep. This last possibility didn’t seem very likely, but Mordecai was still unsettled by it.
He pulled up both of Erik’s blankets and brushed back his hair. It used to be that Erik couldn’t stand touching like that, let alone pressure against the metal repair. It didn’t hurt him like that anymore. He was healing.
I’m glad about that.
I really want to be glad about that and I should be, but I can’t stop thinking about everything else.
Drawings with big black X’s. Wrong words or no words at all. Everything that hurt him, or was hard for him, or made him unhappy.
I’m so sorry, Erik.
He crawled back into bed. He couldn’t get out again when he was supposed to, even though he knew he was supposed to. He was too tired for bicycles. He was sore. He lay there knowing Hyacinth was going to come in and yell at him, and increasingly afraid that Hyacinth was going to come in and yell at him, until Hyacinth came in to yell at him.
“So we’re doing this again, huh?” she said sourly. He hadn’t been out for breakfast and it was almost time for lunch. “You know he worries about you.”
Mordecai winced. He had no defense for that. He had no defense at all. He said nothing and did not move.
“Are you dead?” she said.
Yes. Go away. “No,” he said.
“Need some help with your buttons?” She thought he needed some reminding that Erik was hurt and he wasn’t.
“I’ll come out for lunch,” he offered faintly.
“It’s lunch now,” she said.
Please go. Please just go. “I can’t get dressed with you in here.”
“Ten minutes,” she said. He heard the door close.
He spent five of them arguing with himself about whether it was better to stay in the bed or not and if he even could get out of the bed. The remaining five he spent wanting to stab himself in the head with an ice pick to shut up his brain, but he did manage to get up and put clothes on. Shirt. Pants.
Socks. It was cold, he needed socks.
That one had a hole in it. He could see his toe wiggling.
He sat down on the bed and stared at the hole in his sock. He wondered if Hyacinth would let him get away with a hole in his sock.
It seemed easier to have Hyacinth yell at him some more than to change socks. Slightly.
What am I doing? I can’t be around people. I can’t even do socks right.
Will Erik notice I have a hole in my sock?
No. Not the hole in the sock. Everything else wrong with him, not the hole in the sock. If he didn’t get up today. If he didn’t eat. If he didn’t smile.
Can I do all those things?
No. He didn’t think he could.
Hyacinth peeked back in without even knocking and said, “Well?”
‘Can’ didn’t really enter into it.
Hyacinth couldn’t keep him from falling off, but she could keep kicking him in the ribs until he got back on. That didn’t make it any easier to stay on, and he didn’t do anything well. Not food or clothes or talking to people or trying to look okay. It was exhausting, for both of them.
When it got to the point where he wouldn’t talk to her or come out of bed, not even after she kicked the bed, she just left him in there. She was sick of managing him. If he wanted to be pathetic, then fine, but he’d gotten just about all the attention out of her that she was willing to give. He was worse than David. She hadn’t really needed David to take care of her when she got hurt, she had been old enough, and she hadn’t liked him all that much. It irritated her when he pulled this kind of crap, but it didn’t make her sad. He was an idiot and she got that. Barnaby (who was also an idiot) had been there to help her with him, too.
Nobody was helping her with this and Erik was genuinely upset by his uncle’s behavior. That pissed her off even more. She knew he was unhappy and he had every reason to be, but he was putting way too much effort into getting people to feel sorry for him. He didn’t need the help. He was perfectly capable of doing clothes and shoes and regular meals. He just wouldn’t.
Fine. He’ll eat when he gets hungry. I don’t care if he wants to wander around half-dressed. I don’t care if he wants to wander around undressed.
Erik cared, though, which made it difficult for her to ignore Mordecai entirely.
(And there was still a little bit of residual fear that if she ignored him entirely he might do something to get her to stop. Maybe something with scissors. He had never done anything like that in all the time she’d known him and he had done the thing where he wouldn’t come out of bed a couple times so she wasn’t really worried about it – at least she told herself she shouldn’t be.)
So she checked on him and she put food near him and she argued with him when he didn’t eat the food, but she let him hang out in the bedroom when he wanted and she didn’t remark upon it on those rare occasions he came out.
Minimal attention seemed to improve his behavior in ways that kindness and care did not. Ann and Maggie had attempted a reapplication of baked goods and kitchen-related activity that had been rejected with actual cruelty. Mordecai had a sharp tongue and a perceptive nature and he had applied both in a way that left Maggie fed up with him and Ann reluctant to try anything else. Hyacinth was not so easily cowed. Mordecai’s ability to inflict mental trauma was strictly bush league. It was like he wasn’t even trying.
If he had wanted to spar with her, she would’ve supported it. She would’ve unloaded both barrels on him and made no metering of her own opinions, but she wouldn’t have taken any of it personally. Hurt people liked to hurt other people. She’d seen it often enough that she understood it, and she’d even done it herself a few times. She tried to apologize when she did that, but she didn’t expect it out of anyone else. If she had gotten real viciousness out of Mordecai, she would’ve considered it a positive sign. She would’ve encouraged it. Hell, yeah! Be mad at me. Be mad about everything. Fight, damn it!
But he was stuck in ‘I’m the most miserable person on the face of the planet’ mode and he seemed perfectly contented to stay there.
It was worse than annoying. It was boring.
There is a point at which, when trying to open a box, you realize you can’t open the box, then you are mad at the box for a little while, but then you abandon it someplace and stop thinking about it, until you come up with a really excellent new idea for opening it. And sometimes you don’t come up with a really excellent new idea, ever, and the box just sits there, and you forget about it. Hyacinth maybe reached this point a little bit faster than others would have.
Erik needed attention, and he responded well to it, so she applied it there.
Mordecai was going to have to sort himself out, or at least be different, before she started noticing him again.
She was yelling at him less. She still scowled at him and he was aware of how she felt about him, but there was less yelling. He thought maybe she’d given up on him. He was sort of glad.
No. Not glad. But it hurt less than having her constantly hitting him over the head with the fact that he needed to get back on the damn bicycle. He could manage to stay on for a little while, even at the worst of times. Maybe for the length of a meal, or a conversation. He wasn’t sure if it helped not to be made to get back on right away when he fell, but it was easier. He was less bruised and more tired.
Some days he was all right. He could be with Erik and hold him and talk to him and love him.
Well, he never stopped loving him, but sometimes he couldn’t do the things that showed it without crying — which meant he couldn’t do those things at all. But he wasn’t alone and there were better people than him to pick up the slack.