Erik was standing in the kitchen doorway. “Auntie Hyacinth? Uncle won’t talk to me or get up.”
Hyacinth sighed. That this was happening at ten in the morning, after breakfast, with Erik neat and combed and ordinary, was particularly annoying. He wasn’t running in all disheveled at six, urgent and upset. He even had his eye in. This wasn’t enough to put a crimp in his morning routine. He was worried, but he was used to it. This was normal.
This is not normal, Hyacinth thought, standing. He shouldn’t do it often enough that it gets normal.
“It’s all right, Erik. I’ll get him up. I’ll get some breakfast into him.”
I’ll kick his bony red ass, is what I’ll do.
She pulled the door open and she left it open. That was enough illumination to get her across the room to the window, where she threw open the drapes. The bright light of late morning streamed belligerently in. “Good morning, Mordecai! It’s another goddamn beautiful day!”
No reply. Not even any motion from the blankets.
“The sun is shining!” she informed him. “The birds are singing in the trees! It’s still cold as hell, but nobody cares! Happiness abounds! People are getting on with their lives!”
Nope. Nothing. By the gods, it was hard to kickstart a man. She’d had plenty of practice with David. It wasn’t that Mordecai was worse, he was just more consistent. If you left David alone and you kept him away from the sharp objects, he’d eventually come out and demand attention again. Mordecai would… just do this.
“Why don’t you get a list started for dinner?” she said. “We’ll can send Ann out for shopping this afternoon. What about that?” That didn’t appear to be getting any traction at all. “Why don’t you get your coat on and have a walk down to the park? Erik could go with you!” Still nothing. She advanced upon the bed and became even more relentlessly chirpy, “Why don’t you go out and have a coffee or something? Hell, I’ll spot you the money for it. Why don’t you…” Nothing. Still nothing, and she was sick of it. She dropped all pretense and snarled at him, “Why don’t you cheer up for gods’ sakes?” She ripped down the blankets and exposed him to the light.
He was curled up and breathing thickly, damp from exertion with matted white hair. The bed was littered with wadded tissues, as if he’d been nesting all night. He shuddered in the rush of air and curled up tighter, but he did not look up at her or attempt to speak.
“Oh, okay, you are actually sick,” said Hyacinth. It was his bad season, he was always getting sick when it was cold, but not like this. A cough and a fever and she’d keep him inside for a few days. He’d eat soup and complain. He was in no condition for complaint at the moment. He didn’t even know she was there.
When she touched him, he was like fire.
“Right. Never mind. I’m a horrible person. Let’s have blankets. Let’s have drapes.” She covered him up and she snatched the heavy curtains shut. Despite the mergers, the leaded glass leaked something awful. When she had that done, she thudded to her knees at the bedside. “Right. Just gonna get a quick look at you and make sure you’re not sprung. Hey, Mordecai, do you think you could talk to me? Or nod or something?”
He evidently did not think he could do that, but he didn’t protest when she pulled up his nightshirt and laid her hand on his chest.
He was not sprung. He was drowning. Both lungs.
“Mordecai… I… I…”
I’m going to take you to the hospital, she wanted to say. She could grab Milo to help her and they could get him into a taxi. But, no, she wouldn’t do that. They would not take him at the hospital.
What is that? A magician with a high fever? Get him out of here before he starts deconstructing people in the lobby!
Get him out of here before he attempts to make a chocolate cake out of found objects and falls over, would be more to the point, but they wouldn’t believe her if she told them. Magic-users were dangerous, and he looked like one.
Okay, he was one, but substitutions and a singing violoncello were of no threat to life or limb! He had shown no inclination or even capacity for violence since dealing with those two men who were kicking his child.
He needed medicine and he needed warmth. Medicine she had, and could get, but warmth was at a higher premium. This house was not terrifically well-insulated, or well-anything. She could have a heater in here, or a brazier, but there was no chimney and she was worried about the fumes. She’d have to have him in the kitchen, then. All of her doctor things were in there, too, and she could make tea…
But she wasn’t going to be able to drag him in there herself and he was in no condition to help her.
She made for the basement. She called Milo. She tried to be very nice about it, but she couldn’t keep all the edge out of her voice, “Milo, I need your help, please. Now.”
He was working on the radio. Sanaam had brought him some things for the radio and, having completed Erik’s eye and a toaster, Milo was in need of a new project. They asked Erik about it first, and he had allowed that he didn’t mind there being a radio, as long as he didn’t have to sit in the basement and exist near it. They had removed the broken glass in the front but it was going to need an entire new case. Milo seemed to think the case could wait until he had a working amplifier going.
She didn’t go down and get him. She waited for him at the top of the stairs. He was in pretty good shape when he got there, able to look at her, though he did look a bit worried.
“Mordecai’s sick. I want him in the kitchen and warm. Come with me.”
“Auntie Hyacinth?” said Erik, from the kitchen.
“Um,” said Hyacinth. “Uh.” A thin, cheerful voice, entirely unlike her own, came out of her, “It’s all right, Erik. Your uncle’s just a little bit sick, that’s all.”
‘Just a little bit sick?’ Are you just a little bit stupid? Where the hell did that come from?
It came from Erik being sick and hurt and miserable and worried for half a year. It came from him being seven. It came from him being neat and calm and ordinary when Mordecai wouldn’t get up. That was where it came from.
“Okay, he’s a lot sick,” she amended. “But it’s going to be okay…” She stamped her foot on the tile floor, as if to catch that last bit and crush it, but she couldn’t hold it back.
He’s going to see him and he’s going to know that isn’t true!
No he isn’t because he’s seven and I’ve never given him any reason not to trust me.
…until just now.
Milo opened his mouth and closed it. He’d seen Mordecai sick before, but never so sick he couldn’t talk to you.
The red man did not possess anything approaching a bathrobe (he had suits and nightshirts and nothing in between) so they buttoned him into his greatcoat for the warmth. The buttons were mismatched and outsized, the original brass ones having been snipped off long ago. He doubled over coughing before they were halfway through. They held him upright for the duration, then Hyacinth wiped his mouth with a tissue. He allowed it all without comment — unless you counted the gasping which was nothing at all like speech.
“Grab some blankets,” Hyacinth said. “We’ll wrap him a little better when we get him there. I’ll make him a place to lie down later. Warm and medicine first.”
Milo nodded. They picked him up under the arms. Milo wondered if Hyacinth thought she needed a stretcher, or if she ever used to have one. Maybe it was better to have Mordecai upright, though it didn’t seem to make much difference to his breathing. He let them carry him. He didn’t even try to stand.
He started coughing again and they had to stop and let him down on the dining room floor. He was on his hands and knees and he seemed inclined to lie down and cleave to the carpeting. He looked up at Milo. “What…” he said.
“Come on, Milo,” said Hyacinth. “If he can talk, he can move. Let’s go.”
They pulled him back to his feet. He helped them a little this time.
“What…” said Mordecai. “What time is it?”
“Just after ten, I believe,” said Hyacinth.
Faintly, and with only a vague interest in the matter, “Where are we going?”
That sharpened him up. He straightened and put both feet on the floor. “Is there any chocolate left?”
“Uh,” said Hyacinth. “Ye-es,” she allowed. “You don’t have to worry about it.”
“What if we can’t get back to the wall tonight?” he demanded of her. He coughed.
“There’s some cake left, don’t worry,” she told him.
“Oh.” He stumbled and they had to hold him up.
“No,” he said weakly. “It isn’t… No…”
“No it isn’t,” said Hyacinth. “But don’t stop talking to me. I’d rather have you with me a little than not at all. I can put drugs in you if you’ll take orders.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Why? What are you sorry for?”
They were into the kitchen. She saw Erik with wide eyes and a terrified expression.
“I know, but let me see to him first.”
They put him in a chair at the table. He slumped over and put his head in his arms. Milo wrapped him in blankets. Hyacinth went for her doctor bag. Erik squirmed in the middle of the room and hugged his own shoulders.
Oh, no, he’s really sick. He’s really, really sick.
“Mordecai, talk to me,” Hyacinth said.
He was muffled. He didn’t try to lift his head. “What about?”
She considered her bottles. Get the fever down first. Then something for the cough. She dipped a glass of water for him. She’d make him something warm in a minute. “How do I make a chocolate cake without any eggs or butter?” she asked him.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do. Take these. Sit up.” She gave him pills.
He swallowed. “Oil and vinegar,” he said.
“Sounds like salad dressing.”
“The vinegar is for the egg, warm water and vinegar, and you don’t have to have any milk…” He coughed. “What… What’re you giving me?”
“Cough syrup. Drink.”
He drank. “Awful.”
“Where are we?”
Hyacinth considered that. She knew where she was. She didn’t know where he was, or when. “Home,” she said.
“I haven’t any,” he said.
“Yes you have. Go on and put your head down again. You don’t have to talk anymore. Rest. We’ll make you a bed and some tea.”
“She doesn’t need any cake?” he said.
“She doesn’t need any cake.”
He put his head down.
“Milo, can you put a little more wood in the oven? I’m going to get some water going for tea…”
“Auntie… Hyacinth!” cried Erik.
“Oh, right,” said Hyacinth. She sighed.
“Why can’t you just… fix it?” said Erik, looking down at his hands on the table.
Mordecai was in bed, on the floor. They’d dragged in his mattress, all the blankets and pillows included. It seemed easiest. They put him next to the oven, where Erik used to sit. He was sleeping, sort of. He was quiet, but sometimes he’d cough.
“I can’t fix sick,” said Hyacinth. “It happens because of how he’s broken inside, but I’ve fixed him there as best I can.” Although, if she couldn’t keep his cough down, she was probably gonna have to fix him again. “He needs medicine and time.”
“But the… medicine doesn’t… fix it.”
“Some of it helps him to fight it a little better,” or, it might, “but, no, most of it is to keep it from hurting him too badly while we wait.”
“Why isn’t there… medicine that… fixes it?”
Because someone has to make it, and I don’t know anyone who can call her. I haven’t known anyone since the war.
“Because that’s just how it is.”
“But he’ll get… better,” Erik said.
Maybe and we’ll try, thought Hyacinth. That’s what you should say. That’s all you have to say. Maybe, and we’ll try. And then if he cries, you hold him. That’s how this works.
“Yes,” said Hyacinth. She winced and put her hand over her mouth.
Erik sighed. He looked over at the bed. “He was… talking like me.”
“It’s just the fever,” Hyacinth said. Well, at least that was true. Mordecai offered substandard housing for invisible people. They left him alone.
“If we give him… medicine, he won’t do it?”
“He’ll do it less.”
Less was relative.
Less, for the first day, meant no more at all. When he woke up, he sat up. He coughed into the rolled edge of his blanket awhile, apologized for it, then wanted to know why his bed was in the kitchen. When Hyacinth enlightened him as to his condition with a restrained amount of sarcasm, he understood it and he remembered it. He even managed to be annoyed.
She allowed Erik to be in the kitchen and help out all day, but she sent him to bed early. Fevers often got worse at night, and if that happened she wanted to just deal with it, rather than explain it or (gods forbid) lie about it. Ann tucked him in and read him a story before asserting shyly that he probably wouldn’t like to see her in her nightdress and returning to her room.
Less, on the second day, meant he was good for about three hours at a time, after the medicine kicked in and before it started to wear off. In the between times, he was back making supply runs during the siege. He kept trying to get up and he needed minding. She sent Erik out as much as possible, with Ann and with Maggie. She would’ve sent him into the basement to work on the radio with Milo, if she thought he would tolerate such a thing.
Mordecai got coughing so hard after dinner that he threw up.
There was an argument about bedtime. There was an argument about where the bed was, too. Erik wanted to sleep in the kitchen. Hyacinth knew that if she allowed him in the kitchen there would not be any sleeping. She finally had to threaten him, “Erik, if something bad happens when you get tired, then I’ll have to look after you and I won’t be able to look after him!” He hadn’t had any difficulty like that since before he got his new eye, but he still remembered and he was still afraid of it. He refused all assistance and put himself to bed that night.
On the third day, Mordecai was quiet when he was unconscious, which was most of the time. When he was awake he was coughing or lodged firmly in the past. She still gave him the medicine (because if he was like this with medicine she didn’t want to have him without it) but it seemed more an act of religious faith than scientific certainty. Here, the bottle says it works.
He didn’t know them. He called them the wrong names and he asked them what time it was, and where they were, and if anyone had been over the maps. Sometimes he wanted to know what the hell that child was doing in here. Erik refused to be removed, but he would do things in the kitchen if she asked him. She tried to keep him busy. She had him brew tea and peel things. They had mashed potatoes and sliced carrots and baked apples for dinner.
She expected another fight about bed, but what she got was quiet resignation. Nothing they had done all day had helped, what difference did it make if he stayed the night?
“But will it be over? Will he be okay?” was all he wanted to know.
“He just needs time,” Hyacinth said, which was still mendacity but a little more subtle than, “Yes!”
She sent Milo with him. Milo had either never found the time to change or considered it inappropriate under the circumstances. They did have need of an occasional enchantment (Mordecai needed a cold cloth for his forehead and they were using quartz crystals instead of ice, a substitution he had been able to suggest to them on the first day.) and shopping had not been required. She hoped he would be sufficient comfort.
Milo could not offer stories or verbal encouragement, but he brushed his teeth next to Erik in the downstairs sink as a show of solidarity. He did not get into his nightclothes. He looked kind of funny in a nightie with his hair down but no makeup — and no, uh, figure — and Erik might not like that or understand which person he was. (Ann and Milo shared nightclothes, they just stayed who they were before getting undressed.)
He indicated that he was going to sleep in Erik’s room that night by bringing in a pillow and a blanket and preparing to do so.
“But what about a bed?” said Erik.
Milo gestured expansively to the rug. He looked up and smiled.
Erik smiled back. He wasn’t really glad about it or anything, he just had to. Milo so rarely looked happy for any reason, and he couldn’t be happy about the rug, but he really sold it. He’d just spent all his social currency for days. Such extravagance demanded reciprocation.
Erik politely looked away from him before speaking, “Thank you. It’s scary to be alone. I guess maybe you don’t think so.”
Milo shrugged. He made a see-sawing gesture with one hand. People scared him, but that didn’t mean he wanted to be alone. Sometimes quite the opposite.
“Do you have enough blanket?” Erik asked him.
Milo nodded. He picked up the one he had and he inclined his head towards the door. If I need another, I’ll get another.
“Yes, please do that. I don’t want you to be cold. I don’t want you to get… sick.” His expression twisted. He sobbed.
Milo began noticing the embroidered detailing on Erik’s nightshirt.
That’s not flannel. What is that? Chambray? Linsey-woolsey?
That’s a crying child, Milo.
Okay, he knew that. He just didn’t know what to do about it.
He collected the box of tissues and offered it with a hopeless expression.
Erik took a few and used them. “Thank you. I shouldn’t get my… socket wet.”
Milo touched his left eye, mirroring where Erik was missing his, and mimed drying it.
“No, it doesn’t… cry. The wet… stuff goes… over.” He blew his nose. “I’m sorry. You… hate… crying.”
Milo shook his head rapidly. He did not hate anything to do with Erik. He just… he was just really, really stupid about things. He touched his chest. No. Look. Me. I’m sorry. Do you see?
“It’s okay,” Erik said. He shook his head. “No. It’s not… okay. It was… bad… today. It was… really… bad. He’s not getting… better.”
Fortunately, Milo had a watch on him. He got them from work. He got a discount. (Which was also fortunate, because they tended to get used up rather a lot.) He pulled it out of his pocket and showed it. Time! Right?
Erik nodded. “I know. Auntie… Hyacinth… says. But he doesn’t get… better.” He flopped backwards and stared up at the ceiling.
Milo’s watch had stopped running. That was easier and he wanted to fix it. He held it and stared at it and sat down on the bed next to Erik. He put his hand on Erik’s hand. Erik turned his palm upwards and curled his fingers around.
Milo shook his watch and then listened to it. It needed the enchantment redone. It was a cheap enchantment. Windless watches stopped winding themselves and they were made so you couldn’t wind them. You had to buy another one.
Erik sighed and sat up. He took his hand back and rubbed his eye.
Milo winced. He was doing this wrong and he knew it. He couldn’t stop looking at the watch. It was so much easier. You didn’t have to talk to it, you could just make it go.
“It’s okay, Milo,” Erik said. “I guess I’m tired. I don’t think stuff happens when I’m tired now, but I’m scared of it. Is it okay if I sleep?”
Milo nodded without looking up.
Erik rolled under his blankets and tucked himself in. He couldn’t really do that, but if he lifted his legs he could get the blanket under his feet and he could pull in the corners from the inside. He snuggled down. Milo was looking at his watch. He turned on his side so he didn’t have to look at Milo.
Milo reached down and drew the blanket over his shoulder.
Erik sighed. “Thank you. I don’t know what the shirt is made of. You can look at the tag if you want.”
Milo blinked. He dropped his watch back in his pocket without thinking.
Did I… say… that?