Erik was awake and Milo was asleep. It had been the other way for a long time, then they both had been asleep, now it was this way. Erik didn’t wake up on his own. There was someone talking. It had been a little bit on the first night and lots more on the second and now it wouldn’t stop. He had his hands over his ears, but it didn’t help. He knew not to talk out loud or else he’d wake Milo, and Milo wouldn’t understand – he’d just be worried.
He’s never been this bad before, kid. He’s dying.
Erik shut his eye and shook his head. You’re lying. You’re awful. You be quiet or I’ll tell Hester on you. He would’ve done that already, but he was afraid to call for her. They had stopped noticing him when he stopped noticing them, mostly. Except sometimes when they wanted to talk to him, like now. If he started trying to get their attention, they might all come back and start poking at him again, and some of them didn’t like him. This voice scared him and he hated it, but it wasn’t mad or trying to hurt him.
I never lied to you! You saw that little yellow girl, didn’t ya? She was in the paper.
Erik pressed his lips together to hold in a sound. Yes. Barnaby collected the weather reports, and she had been mixed in with those. The enchantment had worn off the photo and she was frozen with a pained expression, her hands fisted and pressed to her mouth. They didn’t get the color paper and he couldn’t read the story next to her, but he knew she was yellow. She had the braids, and why else would they just leave her sitting there in broken glass?
That doesn’t mean he’s dying. That doesn’t mean you’re not lying now. You just want me to say you can come in.
Me? Nah, kid. I hate this touchy-feely crap. You wanna save your Uncle, you call your Auntie Enora. I’m just tellin’ ya so you know.
What’s in it for you, then?
Your everlasting devotion, kid! Ain’t it?
He laughed like seething oil.
You go on and see him. You talk to him. You tell me if he’s ever been this bad. Go on. That daffy bitch is asleep. She’s lyin’ to ya. She thinks he’s dying. She doesn’t think you can handle it.
Auntie Hyacinth never lies. She says the truth even if it hurts. She says he’ll be fine.
Yeah, kid? When’s the last time she flat out guaranteed someone was gonna be fine? She didn’t even say that about you, kid.
Erik curled up more tightly and put his blanket over his head. You’re evil. You want something. I don’t trust you.
Don’t hafta trust me. Not tellin’ ya to trust me. You look with your own eyes. Eye! Ha!
Of course he did. He sneaked past Milo and through the dining room and into the kitchen.
Hyacinth was sleeping at the table with her head buried in her arms. At just about midnight, he had finally sprung a bond in one of his lungs, the left one. She had to remake it, and it had begun hurting him. He did not understand her when she tried to explain what the pain was. He did not understand about holding still and healing or medicine or being sick. He thought he was in hell, and the only way out was a supply run. He could not get up, but on several occasions he had attempted to crawl. She had sat beside him and then on him and at last provided an injection which quieted him. Now she was napping in preparation for round two. He was sick, in pain, exhausted, and on drugs. He was in no condition to make sense. But Hyacinth was fairly exhausted herself, and in no condition to tell Erik. If some higher power had interfered in these circumstances, it had seen fit to stack the deck.
Erik padded in barefoot and sat down next to the bed. The chalkboard was here, propped up with a few books. It had been wiped clean of suggested payment. It now read, in small, block letters, “YOU ARE SICK. WE ARE SAFE. YOU DO NOT NEED TO LOOK AT THE MAPS. THERE IS PLENTY OF CHOCOLATE CAKE. LIE DOWN.”
Erik read with difficulty, y-o-u…
Hyacinth did that yesterday afternoon. She said she was tired of all the same questions. She told him what she was writing but he couldn’t remember all of it. Stuff about how he was sick and he needed to lie down. Maybe Uncle Mordecai could read it, but it didn’t seem to help him too much.
He’s sleeping. I won’t wake him up. I’ll just stay a little.
There was a damp white handkerchief across his Uncle’s brow. They wanted him warm, so he could breathe, but they wanted the fever less so he wouldn’t talk so much. So there were warm things and cold things. The handkerchief wasn’t cold anymore. There was a dish of water with some white rocks in it. Milo had done something that made the rocks cold, and that kept the water cold.
Erik dampened the handkerchief and carefully replaced it.
Mordecai twisted and opened his eyes. He had brown eyes, which Erik liked.. They were a little glassy just now, though.
“Oh, sorry,” said Erik. “It’s okay.”
“Shh, they’ll hear you,” Mordecai said softly. He shut his eyes and drew a faint, slow hiss of air. He coughed some of it out. “They walk at night,” he said. “I can hear them. The plants are moving under the rug.”
“Oh,” said Erik. That was just fever. It wasn’t about trying to find a safe place to sleep, or get back to the wall, but it didn’t have to be, did it? It was just talking.
“Everything loosens around the edges at night. The shadows are longer. I have to light the fire.”
He didn’t look like he was going to try to get up, but Erik put a hand on him anyway. “It’s okay. We have a… fire. It’s… safe.”
“Who are you?” he said.
Erik knew it was just talking, but it made him feel cold. “It’s me,” he said. “It’s… Erik.” Maybe he just didn’t remember the name.
Mordecai didn’t seem to understand, or if he did, he didn’t care. “You should leave here. We’re all dead here.” He laughed.
“Please… don’t… talk… now,” Erik said. “Okay? It’s… okay…”
“The ivy in the wallpaper is growing.”
He coughed and clutched his hands against his chest. “It hurts here.”
“Do you want… Auntie… Hyacinth?” Erik said.
He drew a long, thin gasp and coughed again. He sounded like he was breathing through a straw.
“Can you… sit up…? Please… try. It… helps…”
“Leave me alone!”
“Huh?” said Hyacinth. She sat bolt upright, overbalanced and fell out of her chair. “What’s happening? Who’s there?”
Mordecai was doubled over coughing with Erik trying futilely to drag him upright so he could breathe. Hyacinth helped him.
“Let me go!” said the man. His voice was like pea soup.
“No,” said Hyacinth.
“Let me die,” said the man.
“Mordecai…” He didn’t know what he was saying, but he shouldn’t say that! Erik was right here!
The boy was crying, but his eye was bright and furious. “Is it… gonna be… okay?” he demanded of her.
“You… said it was… gonna be… okay!” He… was… so… slow! He couldn’t pick up the words he wanted right away when he was mad like this. He wanted to pick up things and throw them. “Is it… gonna… be… okay?”
“It might still be okay,” Hyacinth managed weakly.
“I’m not… going to my… room,” Erik said. “I’m not… going… anywhere if you’re… just… going to… sleep.”
She sighed. “Nothing. You need a blanket if you’re going to be in here in your pajamas.” She got up to look for one.
“I’ll get… dressed,” he told her.
He got dressed and he stayed awake. He was fading by the time Maggie came down for breakfast (Milo always ate very early, trying to avoid company, and Erik had been wide awake for that) but he steadfastly refused to let his head hit the table. He rested his cheek in his hand and ate cereal with his eye closed.
“Miss Hyacinth?” Maggie said.
“He’s helping me,” Hyacinth said. “He’s been helping me all night.”
“Does he have to keep helping you or can he sleep?” said Maggie.
That roused him. “I’m not tired!” he declared.
Hyacinth shrugged and gestured to him. Well, you see how it is.
Maggie nodded. She made her own cereal; Hyacinth was busy with Mordecai, she was painting him with some of that mint stuff that made your eyes water. Erik was only about halfway through his bowl. He was chewing too much. She sat next to him with her bowl and ate quietly. It didn’t seem like he wanted to talk.
When he stopped eating, she gave him a little nudge.
“You still have cereal.”
“Oh.” He continued with grim determination. The remaining portion was quite soggy and not at all nice. “Maggie,” he said softly, “will you help me do something I shouldn’t do?”
“Yes,” said Maggie. “Right now?”
“I don’t think there’s time. You hafta go back.” He looked up. “Or is it a bank holiday?”
She shook her head.
“Then come get me at lunch.”
He made two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He didn’t think he was going to get to his, but he needed it to look like he was going to have a sandwich. He handed Maggie hers and said, “Let’s eat outside.”
They went out the back and came back in the front. He told her he needed the basement. When they got down there she asked him why.
“Because of that,” he said, indicating the shrine. “I think they’re everywhere, but I know they’re here. I saw them here. Sometimes I still see them with my eye.” He touched it with hesitant fingers.
“The Invisibles?” cried Maggie. She knew he had spoken to them, but she didn’t know he could see them. You weren’t supposed to be able to see them, were you? They were invisible! The pictures were only what they said they looked like.
“Yes.” He peered into the shrine and touched some of the icons, straightening them. “I don’t know how to use it. Do we need a candle?”
“Are you gonna pray?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know how. My Uncle doesn’t like it.” He considered. “Maybe I should.”
Magnificent pulled open the drawer with the candles. “What kind of prayer? There’s different colors.”
“Is there one for sick people?”
“I think that’s yellow.” She handed him a yellow one, and then a book of paper matches. The matches said The Black Orchid on the back, with a little drawing. They were from Ann’s work.
“I shouldn’t play with matches,” Erik said.
“I didn’t think we were playing,” she told him.
He nodded. She had to show him how to flip the cover around. They lit the yellow candle and put it in the shrine. The light danced and reflected from all the glass.
“Erik, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna ask for help?”
He sighed. “I’m gonna ask if they want to come in.”
“Into you?” said Maggie. “Can you do that?”
“I’m colored, aren’t I?” He held up his hands, so both of them could see.
“Yeah, but so’s your Uncle and he can’t.”
“I guess if I can’t, they won’t,” he replied, frowning. “But I think I can.” He didn’t think they would’ve talked to him so much, if he couldn’t.
“If it happens, will everyone be able to tell? You might get in trouble…”
“If it happens, it doesn’t matter if I get in trouble.”
Maggie nodded. She had been taught that it wasn’t very important to avoid getting in trouble, just to be ready for it when it happened. “Okay. If we get in trouble, I’ll say it’s my fault, too.”
He smiled at her. It was sad and tiny. “Thanks, Maggie.”
She had to show him how to pray. She hadn’t done it herself, but she’d seen Hyacinth a couple times. She drew her fingers down her forehead and she bowed her head and closed her eyes. He did that, to the best of his ability. His metal eye didn’t do ‘closed.’
“Now what?” he asked her through taut lips.
“Ask for stuff. Pray.”
“Are there words?”
“Probably, but I don’t know any. The Joshua-people say ‘Open your heart!’” She clasped her hands to her chest and said it properly, looking exalted.
If they do come, they’re gonna be mad about that, he thought. He did the gesture again and closed his eye.
Okay, I know you’re there. I don’t know if you can hear me, but maybe you can if you want to. I really need help. Can you help me do this right?
He didn’t feel particularly… religious? He felt worried and upset.
He thought probably the radio-voice would answer if he asked it, that one always seemed so near, but that one scared him too much. If that one came, he was going to run away. He wouldn’t be able to help it.
Hester, will you help me do it right?
He brought his hands together in front of him, pressed his index fingers together and entwined the rest.
Just like a little antenna to God, Erik.
Pray. Ask for stuff. What did he want?
My Uncle is really sick. I want someone to help him. I want someone to show me how. Are you there?
Faintly, and with amusement, We’re here. Where are you?
I’m here, he thought.
Am I here? he thought. He felt the floor beneath him and his hands touching. He heard himself breathing. His left eye showed him darkness. His right eye saw the interior of the shrine. The solemn faces of the icons stared out at him. The candlelight flickered and caught in the glass. His eye followed the light. He let it. It was better just to let it when it wanted to do something, usually it would calm down. He saw the shrine in pieces. Paper flower. Glass bead. Piece of mirror. Broken bottle. Pictures. Colors. Light. They moved.
It was sort of nice. It was sort of peaceful.
He let his eye look.
Cousin Violet smiled in her picture and she beckoned him forward.
Oh. Okay. He could go. He didn’t have to be sitting here, breathing. There was…
A great darkness blossomed and accepted him.
He sighed and his eye rolled back in his head.
It was vast. It was dark and not-dark. He couldn’t see himself but he saw the lights. There were so many lights. Twinkling and distant. Above, below. All the lights. It was cool here, like when you walked into a movie theater on a hot day. Cool and cavernous and pretty.
I’m not broken here, he thought. I can read and write and I have all the words I want.
Milo wouldn’t be broken here, he realized with mild amusement.
Why am I here?
To feel nice.
That seemed uncomfortable. It bothered him.
Because it was wrong.
No. My Uncle…
He gasped and looked around. Am I here with you? Is this you?
Some laughter. Some talking. Some movement. Like a ballroom in a party with a lot of people in it.
It was the lights.
But there’s so many of you! he cried, half-horrified. How was he supposed to find who he needed when there were so many?
One of the lights drew nearer. What do you want, little boy? a voice asked him.
You’re green, he said, shocked.
You’re green, the voice answered.
Will you help me fix my Uncle? he asked it.
Would you like to kill him? another voice said.
No! I want to help him! He’s sick.
There were more coming nearer. They were all green, or maybe he was just green.
Do you want to play beautiful music? one asked him. Songs to make the angels weep?
No, I… He did, sometimes, but… No, not right now.
Do you want to turn into a bird? Do you want to fly?
No… He thought that might be nice sometimes, because Maggie could, or she’d be able to later, but… No, that’s not what I want.
Do you want to ride horses?
No! He did still want that, a little, but he knew he couldn’t have it.
More laughter. Little boy, you can have anything you want! All you have to do is choose!
Choose me, a few voices said. Choose me, I’ll make you powerful. Choose me, I’ll make you happy. Choose me, I’ll make you loved.
He cried out, Please stop! I can’t think!
Do you want to talk to your mother? a voice asked.
Wha-a-at? he said. He didn’t know he could have that!
The light drew nearer. She wanted so badly to see you. She’d be so proud of you.
I… He wanted it and he was reaching out for it, but it was wrong. No! That isn’t what I came here for! I want to help my Uncle! He’s sick! If you don’t want to help me with that, go away!
Some lights receded. Some of them flickered and went out. A scant few drew nearer.
Are you certain you don’t want to kill him? one asked.
Get lost! he told that one. It did.
What is the man sick with, child? This was a very big light, very bright. The others shrank from it, like minnows making way for a shark.
Auntie Hyacinth said pneumonia. He gets very sick because his lungs are bad. There was gas in the war and it hurt him. The fever… He wanted to cry. He wasn’t sure how that would work here and thought it might even be dangerous, so he stifled it. The fever made him forget who I am!
I am powerful sorry, child, the voice said. But do you know what you’re asking? Do you know what I am?
You’re an invisible person, he said. You can do things I can’t. I want you to be with me so you can help me.
Do you know what it means to be hagridden, child?
He did know that, here. It means messed up.
It does, and that’s what I do. I mess people up. I am the boss hag of all creation and I will ride you until you drop. I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, and I don’t delegate. Everything that needs doing, you will do it. I won’t leave until the job’s done, or until you can’t hold me anymore. You understand that, child?
I do. He was glad. It meant she would help him a long time.
You have people to pick you up when you fall?
Yes. Maggie. Hyacinth. Milo and Ann. Hyacinth might be mad, but they would all pick him up if he fell.
And his Uncle would, too, if he got better.
You have black coffee and mentholated cigarettes in your little world?
They have cigarettes at the store and Hyacinth can make coffee, he replied.
Promise me, child. You must promise me black coffee and mentholated cigarettes.
I promise you black coffee and mentholated cigarettes.
I promise you my skill. I’m Auntie Enora.
I’m pleased to meet you, Erik. It’s a deal.
He gasped and straightened. Magnificent fell backwards and put both hands on the floor. “Erik?” she said. He had been too quiet. She had wanted him to talk or move but she was afraid to make him.
“Oh,” he said fussily. “Oh. Oh, that is bizarre. What is that?” He brushed his hand against the right side of his face, then he touched his eye.
“No, don’t just take it out!” cried Maggie. She tried to stop him, but he already had a hold of it and he pulled until it came. He set it on the floor and he stood up. Maggie snatched it and rubbed it against the front of her dress. “Erik! You’ll scratch it!”
“I’m not Erik,” he replied. “And I’m not having that. You take care of it for him, baby-girl. Put it somewhere.”
“Huh?” she said.
“Are you old enough to buy cigarettes?” he asked her. “You don’t seem old enough to buy cigarettes.”
“I can buy cigarettes,” she said. “They don’t care.”
“Unfiltered menthols. And coffee. Pre-ground is all right, but don’t get instant. I’ll alter you into a stranger if you try to give me instant coffee, baby-girl. I don’t work for instant coffee.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“Call me Auntie Enora.”
“Yes, Auntie Enora.”
Erik mounted the stairs and headed directly for the kitchen.