Erik and Maggie both got crayons for Yule — on the very last day, like an afterthought — and not much else. Maggie and the General did Yule when Sanaam came home (not all twelve days of it, just presents and a big dinner), and Erik was still tired from his birthday five days before. (Santa was not expected. Maggie had never had any truck with Santa Claus, and she had given tiny Erik an immediate reality check during her first winter at the house. There had been crying, but it was better corrected by an assurance that Santa was real people who loved him and there would still be presents.)
It was okay. It was actually pretty great. It was the big box of crayons, one for each of them, seventy-two colors and a sharpener in the side. Erik was floored by the variety and the arrangement. Gradients of red fading into pink fading into violet, then blues and greens and yellows and oranges. Even the browns made a scale from warm into cool that ended in coal black. And everything had names. You couldn’t just have blue, because there were, like, fifteen of them. Cobalt and periwinkle and azure and lapis lazuli and cerulean. There had been times in the recent past when he couldn’t remember that blue was called blue. To have so many names for one thing seemed like decadence. To have that for every color was like being encouraged to eat an entire ice cream parlor.
Maggie was getting kind of sick of reading them all to him, though.
His uncle made it out for the last three days of Yule, and so far every day since, which was another great present. Erik thought just-Yule was maybe easier than his birthday, less scary or less sad or something. Uncle Mordecai felt bad about the birthday and that probably made him want to be extra brave for the rest of Yule, too. They didn’t have Julia anymore, so he didn’t have money for presents, but he could make lists and dinners and he did that. They had… not a turkey on the last night. Something cheaper that Erik couldn’t quite remember, some animal he’d never heard of, that was done up to look like turkey. He didn’t care about what that was called as much he did about all the new words for colors. It was good, and Uncle Mordecai had distributed it sparingly to make a week of leftovers. They had it with rice or pasta or potatoes or toast. They could make toast on the stove — it came out a little stripy, but not terrible. (Milo was going to have to make them a new toaster before they had good toast. Milo had been doing Erik’s eye exclusively — barring a brief pause for Erik’s watch — for weeks now, and loving every minute of it. He hadn’t even realized it was Yule until he came up from the basement and saw the not-a-turkey.) Erik had a vague recollection of toast and he was making its acquaintance again. He thought he liked it best with peanut butter.
He was sitting with Maggie behind the little stub of railing to the left side of Ann and Milo’s door. They were employing the crayons and using hard-covered books as drawing surfaces. Maggie had a history of tactics, Erik had the board book Milo got him. (It was kind of too easy for him to be interested in anymore, but it was stiff and light and great for drawing against. He was considering altering the animals with the crayons. He might like a purple duck. Well, no, perhaps a ‘plum wine’ duck.) The floor was hard, but the planks were warped and grooved and unsuitable for drawing. Everything came out all wiggly. Maggie thought that was funny, but Erik found it irritating. It was a good place for sitting and doing something quiet, because you could see the upstairs and the downstairs and there was just a little piece of floor and railing here that ended in a blank wall, so nobody needed to get past. Ann and Milo didn’t ever get annoyed with them for playing outside their door, either. Hyacinth and the General, on the other side of the stairs, sometimes did. It was cold right now, because of the snow and the patched roof, but there was a big bucket with fire downstairs and that helped a lot. Maggie had her coat on and Erik had a blanket.
The subject matter, which Erik had subtly pushed for, was people in the house. He did remember everyone in the house, he really did, but he had trouble naming them sometimes. It didn’t help him to just draw them. Ah, but drawing them next to someone who could name all of them and coaxing that person to say the names about a million times might be of considerable assistance. Maggie was also labeling everyone, which was less helpful with names (he still couldn’t read) but gave him some nice letters he could try to copy. There were a lot of ‘M’ people in the house. He thought he was getting pretty good at ‘M.’
“I think Milo is like our little brother,” Maggie opined, adding glasses to him. “He needs help a lot and we have to be extra careful and nice to him.”
“Maybe draw Milo small?” Erik said. (He was trying to say the names as much as he could, too.)
“No, I don’t think that’s fair. Ann and Milo should be the same. They share things. They just have different clothes.”
“Ann has a smile,” Erik said. He added one to his Ann, a red one. He had put her in the lavender dress. Maggie had put her in the green one.
“Milo has a smile sometimes,” Maggie said. She considered her Milo and did not add a smile to him. He didn’t usually have one and she thought it might look weird. “You have to catch him doing it. You can’t just stare at him and wait, though, because he gets scared of that.”
“Did you stare at Milo and wait for a smile?” Erik said.
“Maybe a couple times,” Maggie said. “But he really hates it. Even if he doesn’t know you’re looking. It’s like he knows there’s something scary.”
“It feels crawly when someone stares at you, Maggie,” Erik said.
“Yeah, I guess,” Maggie allowed. “But Ann likes people to look at her. She sings in a show. I think she’s like our big sister because she’s nice and she tries to take care of us, but she’s not like a mom. She does a lot of silly stuff.”
“Your mom doesn’t do silly stuff,” Erik said firmly, shaking his head.
“Sometimes with my daddy,” Maggie said. “I think they wouldn’t like each other if she couldn’t ever be silly, but she hides it. Silly people don’t get any respect.”
“Does Ann get any respect?” said Erik.
“I dunno. But I don’t think people would let her order them around. Or die if she said so.”
“Your mom tells people to die?” He was having a hard time maneuvering Maggie into calling her mom anything but ‘Mom.’ He was sure he wasn’t supposed to call Maggie’s mom that.
“She used to. Then we lost the war and they said she couldn’t do that anymore. She had to go home. That really pissed her off.”
“Your mom isn’t like my mom,” Erik said. “I mean, not like she’s my mom. And not my auntie. She’s just there, and mean.”
Maggie did not dispute this. “Maybe my mom is like your teacher. She’s strict and she wants you to be good, but she doesn’t care if you like her.”
“Is that a teacher?” Erik said. He hadn’t quite dared to draw Maggie’s mom. He drew a dark green dress and didn’t put anyone in it. “She doesn’t teach me stuff.”
“She would if you gave her two minutes,” Maggie said, nodding to herself. She couldn’t decide whether to have her mom smiling or frowning. Frowning was more usual, but smiling would annoy her if she saw the picture.
“She teaches me stuff,” Erik said. He pointed to his Hyacinth. “Buttons. And reading and writing.”
“Yeah, but Hyacinth totally loves you,” Maggie said.
“Hyacinth totally loves me,” Erik said. He drew some goggles up over her hair, which was a ragged yellow scribble. “Can’t teachers love you?”
“I don’t think my mom loves me very much when she’s teaching me.” But her mom didn’t do love stuff a lot. Hugging and kissing. She brushed Maggie’s hair and braided it, and held her in her lap to read books, and helped her up when she fell. Practical stuff. Hey, I’m going to touch you just because I like you, didn’t seem to be a thought that ever occurred to her mother. Except maybe around her father. Sometimes. “Your uncle gives you a lot of hugs and kisses,” Maggie said. Maybe not as much as her daddy, but her daddy was crazy — and also not home a whole lot.
“Is that a lot?” Erik said. Sometimes he wanted hugging but he knew his uncle was hiding and felt bad and wouldn’t like to do it. It was good when there was hugging and kissing, but the times when there wasn’t any kinda stuck out and made him sad.
“Oh, yeah,” said Maggie, nodding. “I think your uncle loves you all the time.” Which was something neither of her parents quite managed. Her daddy might be loving her wherever he was, but he couldn’t do anything about it. And her mom had to switch it off so she could learn to be, well, Magnificent.
“Yeah,” said Erik. Sometimes when he felt bad, he’d tell himself his uncle didn’t love him, but he didn’t really believe that even when he thought it. “It makes him sad.”
“That’s weird,” Maggie said. “Loving people is supposed to make you happy.”
“It’s because I’m hurt,” Erik said, with certainty.
“I guess I was sad about that, too,” Maggie allowed. “And sometimes I get sad again when stuff’s hard for you.”
“Do you love me, Maggie?” Erik said.
“I love you, too.”
“Yeah, I know.”
He smiled and handed her the crayon he was using, “What color is this?”
She groaned and knuckled a fist to her brow. “It’s ‘idiot red.’ It’s ‘total idiot red!'”
“I did not… color my uncle ‘total… idiot… red!'” Erik sputtered. Words were a lot harder when she pissed him off and that pissed him off more.
“You totally did,” Maggie said, grinning. She knew he was mad when he slowed down like that and she thought it was funny. “It’s exactly right, too. Can I use it?”
“No! You’re… mean! You’re mean to uncles and… crayons. Gimme my crayon!” He snatched it. She was mean to crayons. She had them all out of order already and she had peeled the wrappers off half of them. That was where the names were!
“It’s ‘brick red,’ really,” she said gently.
“I’m gonna find… ‘mean brown,'” Erik muttered.
“Not without me reading the names off,” Maggie said.
“Maybe I don’t… care,” Erik said. He scribbled quietly for a time.
“I’m sorry,” Maggie said.
Maggie couldn’t find her own ‘brick red.’ She had to use ‘cerise,’ which was a little too pink. “It kinda sucks you can’t read.”
Erik sighed. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry I teased you. Do you want me to read that one?”
“Yes.” He held it back from her with a frown. “Don’t hurt it.”
“I won’t. I promise I’ll only ruin mine.”
He handed it to her.
“‘Tan,'” she said. “That’s a short one. I’ll write it.”
She gave him a piece of paper with T-A-N in tan to copy. He attempted it. He thought he got the first letter all right, maybe a little crooked. When he tried to do the second he wobbled off the page. “No,” he told his hand. It wasn’t even going the right way.
“It’s okay, try the next one,” Maggie said.
“There!” He sat back with a smile, pleased with it.
“Um,” Maggie said.
Erik glanced up at her and winced. He knew that look. That was the ‘It’s right but it’s backwards’ look. They didn’t like to tell him that, because backwards was a lot better than all he used to do. But backwards was worse because he couldn’t tell. “No,” he said weakly. He examined the paper and turned it. It was… No. Wasn’t it?
It’s really not the same?
“Maggie, don’t… tease me.”
“I’m not. I’m sorry, Erik. It’s really close. It’s good.”
He pushed the paper away. “I don’t want to… write stuff.”
“It’s okay. What color should I draw you?” She offered her box.
Erik examined his own, where all the green was nicely-arranged. He tested a few of them, making small scribbles. “This one.”
“‘Sagebrush,'” Maggie said. She looked in her box. She had no hope of finding it. “Can I borrow yours?”
“Yeah.” He put the finishing touches on his Maggie. He had thought about drawing her really mean and ugly, but he felt bad about it. He had tried to draw her nice. He put bows on her shoes. “What color is your dad?” He was going to have to crib most of Maggie’s dad from Maggie’s drawing. Erik knew he was big, and dark, and he knew everything about monsters, but everything else was kind of difficult.
I think I said something mean about how he looked. I was tired. I’ll have to remember to say sorry.
“I dunno. Just really dark brown.”
Erik selected the cool brown that came just before black and used that.
Why are his ears funny? he wondered, but he thought that might not be nice to ask. He just copied them as best he could.
Maggie had moved on from her daddy. She was drawing something crazy with a pink face and spiky gray hair. It had a brown dress and blue pants. At the same time. “What’s that?” Erik asked her.
“Oh. That’s Barnaby.” She put a broken plate on the ground beside him.
“What’s Barnaby?” He shook his head. “Who’s Barnaby?”
“I think ‘what’ is better,” Maggie said. “And I’m not sure. He lives in the attic. He’s super weird.”
“He lives here?” Erik said. He leaned in closer and stared at the picture.
“Yeah. Don’t you remember?”
Erik sighed and laid down his crayon. He put both hands over his face. He forgot someone again. He thought he was done forgetting people. He couldn’t remember this one at all.
“He doesn’t come down a lot,” Maggie said. “Seriously. He hates everything and he doesn’t like to do the stairs. Hyacinth goes up and feeds him, that’s all. I think he throws his poop out the window, or maybe he does magic to it.”
Erik blinked at her with pained confusion. “For real?”
“Yeah. He’s really, really weird, but we don’t see him. So if you don’t remember, it’s okay.”
Erik didn’t think it was okay, especially somebody that weird. He wanted to remember. He tried to copy Maggie’s drawing. “What… room is he?”
“The attic,” Maggie said. She pointed straight up. “There’s a door right there, in the ceiling.” Now she pointed across, above Hyacinth’s room. There was a rectangular outline and a wooden ring hanging down. “Hyacinth has to pull it down with a pole when she wants to go up. The stairs come down. They’re super wobbly because they’re supposed to have metal, but now it’s all wood and magic. It’s kludged. There’re stairs like that in Room 204, too. They go to the roof.”
“Who’s in 204?”
“Nobody,” Maggie said. “Boxes. Mice.”
“Mice.” Erik snickered. He liked to picture a tiny mouse family with little beds paying Hyacinth rent, but he couldn’t figure exactly the words for ‘paying rent,’ so he couldn’t tell Maggie about it. Maybe he’d have to draw it, when he was done with Barnaby. “Why is it pants and a dress?” Ann and Milo had pants and a dress, but not at the same time.
“It’s not a dress, it’s a robe,” Maggie said. She picked up a crayon and emphasized the tie in the front. “He just wears pajamas the whole time. The robe is over them so he doesn’t get cold.”
“Doesn’t Hyacinth help Barnaby with buttons?” Hyacinth wouldn’t let him just wear pajamas all the time. She said he had to practice clothes and there were times to be in clothes. Even his Uncle put clothes on before he came out of the bedroom, but sometimes not lots of them.
“Barnaby hates everything,” Maggie said. She made a broad gesture with both hands. “I think if he had clothes, they would have to be exactly the right clothes, or he’d yell. Barnaby gets mad when the clouds are wrong. I can hear him sometimes because my room’s upstairs. When he comes down he moves stuff and he breaks stuff. He says everything has to be auspicious. That means lucky. He wants to fix everything. I mean everything. He tried to make Hyacinth put new wallpaper on the whole house because the stripes weren’t good enough.” She remembered that fight. She had been pretty little, but it had gone on for days, and it had kind of scared her. They had screamed at each other. Her parents never screamed when they fought. Her mom got really quiet and sharp when she was mad, and her daddy got kind of snappish, but not loud. Barnaby and Hyacinth sounded like they were going to strangle each other, or maybe they already were. About the stripes in the wallpaper.
“Did she?” Erik said.
“Nah. We don’t have enough money for that stuff. It’d be a really stupid reason to do it, too.”
“Why is Barnaby here if he hates it?”
“Because he hates everything.” She made the expansive gesture again. “So he doesn’t hate it more than other places. And Hyacinth told him he has to stay.”
“Oh,” Erik said, nodding. Yeah, you pretty much had to do it if Hyacinth told you to. Sometimes his uncle didn’t, but it seemed really hard.
“She found him,” Maggie said. “She brought him here.” She couldn’t quite fathom it. What did they need with a Barnaby? Was it not weird or loud enough?
“Hyacinth found me and my uncle,” Erik said. He selected another piece of paper and began to draw mice.
“Yeah, but your uncle needed fixing. She likes doing that.”
“Barnaby needed fixing. Hyacinth found him on a street-corner screaming at people. She felt bad.”
“Yeah?” Maggie said.
Erik shrugged. “I think she knew him when he didn’t used to do that.”
“He had a top hat.”
“Maybe I’ll give him one,” Maggie said. It certainly couldn’t make him more weird.
They drew for a while. Erik picked up his paper when he was done with it and showed it to Maggie with a grin. “I think these mice live there.” He pointed to Room 204. He had given them tiny hats and furniture. He gave one of them a top hat like Barnaby.
Maggie snickered. “Probably them and all their friends and family.”
“I should draw more,” Erik said. He should at least make one with striped pants to be friends with the Barnaby-mouse.
How would a mouse wear pants?
“Hey, Erik, check your watch. Is it almost lunch?” It was Sun’s Day, so Maggie had been available for playing since breakfast, and she didn’t have her Mom in charge of when it was okay to break for food.
Erik drew the watch out of his right pocket by the chain and had a look. “Almost.” He showed her the hands, which were beginning to edge into the sandwich. “We should go eat.”
Maggie pushed back to her feet with purpose, but eating was not it. “C’mon. I bet if we hang out on the stairs for a little, we can watch Hyacinth feed Room 101.”
“There’s… people in 101?” Erik said. He stuffed the watch back in his pocket without looking and scrambled to his feet as well. “You didn’t… draw them!” 101 was right next door! How did he not know who was in 101?
“Shh!” Maggie waved an impatient hand at him. She had gone down a couple of stairs and was peering through the railing. “No one knows who’s in 101, Erik. It’s not just you. Hyacinth doesn’t know and she goes in there. There’s something magic on the door so you can’t know, and we’re not supposed to try to figure it out. If we’re quiet we can watch her go in.”
Erik crept down a few stairs and peeked past Maggie and the railing. You could just make out 101 beyond the dining room. It was next to the downstairs bath, which had no plumbing so they mainly just used it for the mirror. They took baths in the big wooden laundry bucket in the kitchen. The dining room didn’t have any dining room stuff in it, either, just carpet. They ate in the kitchen, too.
“No one knows?” Erik said, regarded the closed door. It had faint numbers on it like their door, where there used to be metal ones but they got taken off, but you couldn’t tell from here. 101, 102 (which was his and his uncle’s) and 103 (which was a little bit bigger, and more mice and boxes. He tried playing in there a couple times but it smelled funny.).
“No one,” Maggie replied, shaking her head. “Hey, can you figure it out?” she asked him. “Like Mom’s tiara and Barnaby in a top hat?”
Erik frowned. That made it sound like he only knew stuff about hats. “I dunno. I can try.” He wasn’t sure if trying was really how he knew stuff. It was like he thought about stuff, and then someone who was watching him think about stuff decided there was other stuff he needed to know, so they put that in his head so he could think about it, too. He guessed he could try thinking about Room 101 and see if anyone thought he needed to know more about it.
Okay. So it’s really quiet in there, because I never thought about there being anyone in there. They don’t talk or run around. I bet it’s not a lot of people. Or maybe they just don’t talk, like Milo. Or I guess it could be really tiny people, like the mice in hats?
He snickered. That would be silly.
There was something (A picture? But not mice in hats?) that he was thinking about for a minute, but then he lost it and he couldn’t remember what it was. He knew he was thinking about something, because time had gone by, but he didn’t remember any thoughts past the mice in hats.
He winced. That used to happen to him a lot. He could even be saying something and he’d forget what it was, or why. He didn’t like it. And it hadn’t happened in a long time and he didn’t like it happening again.
What was it? Mice in hats… what?
It happened again. He had been staring at 101 and thinking, and he didn’t know what. It was gone.
He shook his head. “I don’t like it, Maggie. I feel… broken.”
“Does trying to know stuff about it make you feel broken?” Maggie asked, looking back at him.
“I don’t know,” Erik said. He sighed. “Maybe it’s me.”
“I bet it’s the room,” Maggie said. “You wait. Hyacinth doesn’t like what it does, either. She always looks mad about it.”
“Why do we have it if she doesn’t like it?”
“I dunno. I guess it could be some really powerful, evil magic-user and he’s making her bring him lunches, but then you’d think he’d do something. Not just eat and be quiet. It’s been like that ever since I’ve lived here. She brings them food and takes out dirty dishes. I guess maybe they throw their poop out the window or magic it like Barnaby.”
“What magic would you do to poop?” Erik said.
Maggie snickered. “I dunno. Turn it into something else you don’t mind having around, I guess. Tiny cat figurines.” She had to stifle a laugh with both hands. The idea that Barnaby and Room 101 might just have boxes and boxes of tiny cat figurines… or that all tiny cat figurines used to be poop.
Erik swatted her on the shoulder. “Shh! Hyacinth.”
She had just left the kitchen via the dining room. She was carrying a tray. She crossed directly to Room 101. She knocked on the door. After a brief pause, it clicked open a crack. She pushed it open the rest of the way and went in. Both Erik and Maggie leaned forward, trying to see in, but there was nothing to see. It was dark inside. The door clicked closed.
“That’s it?” Erik said.
“Sometimes there’s talking, but I only ever hear Hyacinth. Whoever’s in there talks really quiet.”
They hushed and strained to hear.
No voices. A moment later, the door opened and Hyacinth emerged with a tray and empty dishes. Different dishes, Erik was pretty sure. Maybe breakfast dishes. She blinked and wobbled and then she turned around and frowned thunderously at the open door.
“See? Look,” Maggie whispered. “I think she just forgot who’s in there. It pisses her off.”
Nevertheless, she shut the door and returned to the kitchen with the tray.
“She’s not scared of it,” Erik noted. He didn’t think Hyacinth scared easily, or ever, but if it was someone evil making her bring him lunches, he thought she’d at least look a little bit worried. Especially if she didn’t forget until she looked mad.
“Maybe when she goes in there she remembers and it makes sense,” Maggie said.
They both considered what sort of thing could be in Room 101 that Hyacinth might see and immediately understand why it needed to stay in there.
A famous gangster, Maggie thought.
A talking dog? thought Erik.
“She’ll feed Barnaby next, you wanna see that?” Maggie said.
“Will we see Barnaby?”
“Maybe,” Maggie replied with a shrug.
“Yeah,” Erik said.
Hyacinth found them both standing under the folding staircase with smiles and hands folded behind their backs. She had a plate with a sandwich and an apple cut into seven pieces. Barnaby preferred seven to eight. It was a real pain in the ass. “What’re you two doing up here?” she said. “It’s lunch time. Hit up the kitchen.”
“We want to watch you feed Barnaby, Miss Hyacinth,” Maggie said, politely.
“Watch me feed him?” said Hyacinth. “Maggie, Barnaby is not a lion. He doesn’t kill… Well, he doesn’t kill his lunch. He’s not entertaining.”
“The stairs kind of are. And Erik doesn’t really remember about Barnaby. I was trying to explain him, but he’s just so weird. I don’t get him.”
“Barnaby sees things,” Hyacinth told them. “The past and the future. More the future, I think, but I’m not sure. Maybe he just cares more about the future. It used to be he could only see about what he wanted and when he wanted, but now it’s everything all the time.” He had told her once that it was like being surrounded by signs, actual signs, with printing. That was how easy it was. Some of them little pencil scribbles and some in ink and some in bright paint and some in great big blinking fey lights. Not just important things, all the things, and the obviousness had nothing to do with the importance. HEY, THAT WOMAN IN THE GRAY STOCKINGS IS GOING TO BURN THE POT ROAST TONIGHT! Okay! I really don’t care! Shut up! It got so he wanted to change things just so he could quit reading whatever it was over and over again, or at least make it less obnoxious.
“It bothers him. That’s why he’s weird and he doesn’t like to come down.”
“Can we visit him with lunch?” said Maggie.
Hyacinth shook her head. “Barnaby doesn’t want visiting.” People were covered in signs, too.”You can help me do the stairs. I’ll ask him if he wants to come down and say ‘hi.'” Or, he’ll take one look at me and he’ll know I was going to ask him that and he’ll be ticked off about it.
“Yay!” said Maggie, upstarting. “I want to pull them down!”
“You and Erik can share,” Hyacinth said. “Just stay where I put you so the damn things don’t conk you in the head.”
It was a really long pole, so you could stand off to the side while you hooked the ring. The hook on the pole and the ring on the stairs used to be metal, but they had gone a long time ago, probably during the siege. It wasn’t like doorknobs and hinges that had to be metal, and that Maggie’s daddy remembered to buy replacements for, so they stayed wood and Milo stuck a couple of charms on them and sometimes they broke anyway and Hyacinth had to bang on the ceiling to get Barnaby to do his own stairs. Erik and Maggie were careful, although a little inaccurate due to having four hands working the pole. They hooked the ring on the third pass and dragged down the door. The stairs ratcheted and shuddered, sliding down rapidly until they hit some function that didn’t work right and it slammed them to a halt. They must’ve done that fifteen or twenty times on the way down, and they failed to deploy entirely. Hyacinth had to put a foot on the bottom stair and stomp on it until clacked to the floor and locked into place. They creaked and rocked while she climbed them, and at one point gave an ominous snap which made her wince, but they didn’t lose any pieces or fall apart. She turned at the top and said, “You guys wait down there.”
Maggie dared Erik to go up the stairs. He went up one. Maggie went up three. Erik had gone up seven when a pale, blue-veined hand descended from the attic space and snatched him by the shoulder.
“Seven is quite sufficient, thank you,” a deep voice issued from above.
Erik cried out and staggered, but the hand was strong enough to keep him from from falling off the stairs. It was a bit painful. When he had stabilized, it released him.
“Barnaby! Are you trying to kill him?” cried Hyacinth.
“No,” said Barnaby. “Although I’m not certain it would make much difference if I did. You would be upset with me, I suppose.”
“A lot of people would be upset with you!”
“Perhaps a few. But in this instance, I have only prevented him from falling. And Magnificent from completing the mathematical sequence and entering the attic. I do not want Magnificent in the attic. Children are chaos.” He descended the stairs, not all the way. About half. Erik had gone down all the way as soon as Barnaby let him go. He was standing at the bottom with a petrified expression. The only reason he hadn’t run off was he had sort of forgotten he could.
Barnaby was a lot like Maggie’s picture. The brown robe and blue pants and a blue shirt with buttons under the robe — but that part was hard to see. He had broken-down gray slippers and bare feet inside them. His white hair stood out in corkscrews at the sides of his head and he had none on top (Maggie had drawn it gray because white crayons didn’t work very well). He wasn’t pink, but that was maybe the closest color they had to what he was. Pinkish, but sort of translucent like the belly of a frog. All that, Erik had expected and could’ve managed, but Barnaby was big. And not, like, a friendly sort of big — like Maggie’s daddy — like punching-people-in-the-face-while-snarling big. Like a shaved bear. A shaved bear that is not real happy you have been daring each other to climb up its stairs.
The stairs quivered and Barnaby did likewise. He sat down on them. “Erik, I have no emotional investment in whether you remember me or not, but I wish to speak to you about the mouse in striped trousers.”
“Okay,” Erik said faintly.
“What?” said Hyacinth, above.
“That is an ill-omened mouse. Remove it immediately. Draw something over it. More tiny furniture. A featureless black void. The Baron himself. Anything but a mouse in striped trousers. I do not require one.”
“Okay,” Erik repeated, numbly.
“That will be all,” said Barnaby. He rose shakily. The stairs made it audible and magnified the motion. Hyacinth’s hand came down from the ceiling to help steady him. He paused and leaned back down from the attic space to address Erik with a pointed finger, “Under no circumstances should you provide that mouse with a phonograph. Or a record player. Or whatever damn thing it is now.” Muttering peevishly to himself, he disappeared up the stairs.
“Okay,” Erik said, one last time, to nobody.
“Wow,” said Maggie. She was grinning, open mouthed, almost laughing. That had been the most Barnaby-esque performance out of Barnaby that she could’ve hoped for. Well, maybe he could’ve rearranged something and broken something, too, but he hadn’t come down all the way or stayed very long. She thought that was a perfect little summary of the crazy man in the attic. That was all Erik needed to know about him, right there.
“Erik, I’m sorry, did he scare you?” Hyacinth asked, descending.
“I’m not sure,” Erik replied, honestly. It had been scary for a minute there, but the whole experience had been too weird to be scared. He could accept somebody knowing about the mouse, he knew things about stuff a lot of the time, but all that stuff that Barnaby said to do about it? Where did that come from? If Barnaby had come down and yelled at him, he would’ve been scared. This just made him dizzy.
“You guys want lunch?” Hyacinth asked them.
“I gotta draw something first,” Erik said.
He put a piano over the mouse, a big, black one that covered the stripes. Like maybe it came down from the ceiling and smushed the mouse. You could see a little bit of brown where he tried to draw the keys that used to be a mouse elbow, but he thought that was probably okay.
The mouse with the top hat seemed to approve.