“Oh my gods, look at these counters,” said Auntie Enora. Erik put a hand to his head. “I’ve never been so short! How old is this child? Five?”
“He’s seven,” Maggie said.
“Seven is nearly five,” said Auntie Enora.
Hyacinth took a step backwards. Her mouth fell open.
“Miss Hyacinth, I need money for coffee and cigarettes,” Maggie said. She turned her head aside, like Milo. It was so obvious, what they’d done. It was embarrassing. “Please,” she added.
“Unfiltered menthols,” Auntie Enora said.
“Hello, Auntie Enora,” Hyacinth said.
Erik made a small, puzzled smile. “Do you know me, child? I’m sorry if I don’t remember. There are just so many.”
“We worked together when you were Nina.”
“Nina! Such a dear little girl. How is she?”
“I-I’m not certain, really.”
“A shame. So, you’re a medic!”
“Ex,” said Hyacinth. “Ex-medic. War’s over.”
“There’s always another war,” said Auntie Enora. “Do you have coffee?”
Erik shooed his hands at her. “Make coffee. Now, I’ll see to this.” He knelt beside the bed and put a hand over Mordecai’s chest. “Oh, that’s a real shame,” said Auntie Enora. “I won’t be able to smoke in here at all.”
Mordecai gave a gasp and sat up. His eyes were wide and clear but furious. “You!” he cried.
“Yes, me,” said Auntie Enora.
“Get out of him!” he said. He doubled over and dissolved in coughing.
“You shouldn’t shout so,” said Auntie Enora. “You’re not very well put together as it is. Who tried to fix your lungs with metal?”
“Get out of him!”
Erik shook his head at him. “Now if you know me, you know I don’t do that. I’ll leave when he can’t hold me anymore. Not before. Why, I haven’t even had any coffee yet!” He glanced over at Hyacinth.
“Presently, Auntie Enora!” Hyacinth replied. She wished Milo were home. He could make the water boil faster. Erik certainly wouldn’t be able to hold Auntie Enora for long.
“Who let him do this?” Mordecai demanded of the room. “Who told him how to do this?”
“I have asked you not to shout, dear,” Auntie Enora scolded him. “You are damaging yourself.”
“Don’t touch me,” he said. He scrabbled backwards and fell out of the bed. “Don’t do anything to me. Leave me alone!”
“Now, don’t be silly.” Erik was reaching for him. “It won’t hurt even a little bit.” He laid his hand gently across Mordecai’s brow, as if checking for fever.
Mordecai felt… better. He sketched a small smile.
He rallied briefly and thought, I hate you. I hate everything you stand for. You let her die.
Then he thought, This is nice. He thought of chicken soup with rice made with only half a can of water, and soda crackers (the good kind that came in the red box), and hot tea with lemon and honey. And warm blankets and books to read and the radio on very soft, just music.
“Let’s have you in bed again,” said Auntie Enora. “Poor thing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said softly. He crawled back in and pulled up the blankets.
He closed his eyes. He sighed and smiled.
“O-o-okay, that’s actually kinda scary,” Maggie said shakily.
“Maggie, go buy coffee and cigarettes,” said Hyacinth. She didn’t dare stop making coffee. “My purse is in the drawer. Just take the whole thing.”
“Unfiltered menthols,” Auntie Enora said, through Erik’s smile.
Auntie Enora arranged things to her liking. She requested a step-stool for access to the counters and a smoking area set up in the alley at the bottom of the back stairs (with a chair and a table and a plate for the ashes). She sat at the kitchen table and began going through Hyacinth’s doctor bag, altering what she found inadequate. This left some of the bottles with a faint, greenish glow that was quite the opposite of unwholesome. Hyacinth hoped she would make medicine of her own, before time ran out, but you couldn’t push Auntie Enora to do anything. She did what was needed, you just had to trust that.
The General came down looking for Magnificent just shortly after the girl had returned with supplies. (Auntie Enora was patiently delaying her first cigarette until Mordecai had been a little better sorted.)
The General said, “Magnificent, I know it is rather distracting down here at the moment, but that is no reason to neglect your lessons. Quite the opposite, in fact. Now…”
And Auntie Enora said, “Your soul is black with killing.”
“Excuse me?” said the General.
Erik got up from the table and strode towards her. “Get out of here. You’re not wanted here.”
“Go if you value your life,” Hyacinth said.
The General did not achieve her current span of years by digging into the hazardous and inexplicable with no backup and no clue and no plan. She retreated to her room to await further information.
Erik looked up at Hyacinth with a bemused expression. “I don’t kill people, child. You know that.”
“I know, Auntie Enora. But you have been known to do some life-altering things.”
Erik nodded. “I suppose I have.”
“Um, Auntie Enora,” said Hyacinth. “How is my soul?” She had taken a vow, quite some time ago, but she had done her best to keep it. She hadn’t really expected to be working with Auntie Enora again, nor had she expected another war, but…
“Gray,” said Auntie Enora. Erik patted Hyacinth gently on the hand. “But that’s the best one of your kind can ever manage, dear. You live by killing. It’s enough that you try not to do it on purpose. I respect that.”
“Thank you, Auntie Enora.”
The next person to be enlightened as to the current state of things was Ann. Milo changed first thing when he got home. Ann had work tonight. She went down to the kitchen to see if she was needed for anything urgent or brief.
“Cin? I’ve got a little time for shopping, if you want it. Or is there anything you’d like done here? I…” She drew up short in the kitchen doorway. Everyone had frozen and was staring at her. She put her hand to her mouth. “What? What is it? What happened?”
“Little boy,” said Erik, in a voice entirely unlike his own, “are you aware that you are wearing a dress?”
“I am,” Ann replied. “But it’s a little rude of you to say. It’s never bothered you before, Erik.”
“I’m not Erik.”
“Right,” said Ann. “And am I to assume, because we are all so nonchalant about this, that he asked this one in or for whatever reason there is no shifting it?”
“My gods, Ann,” said Hyacinth. “Are you never at a loss for words?” Most people would need a moment to catch up to the fact that there was a god in the kitchen, let alone one in the body of a seven-year-old boy.
“One time!” Ann said mournfully. She dabbed at her eyes with the edge of her sleeve. “It was dreadful. Do you remember when we had that old pram, Cin? I’d take the pram and I’d go shopping?”
They were all listening, Hyacinth and Maggie and Erik, utterly silent, some with mouths open.
Ann continued, “Well, so I’m standing on the corner with this pram, only it’s all full of sugar and eggs and things, and this other woman comes up, and she’s pushing a pram. And she stops next to me and asks, ‘How old is yours?’ And of course I have to show her it’s just shopping. And I was embarrassed, but we laughed. And then I look over in her pram and I say, ‘But you have a lovely buh…’ Just like that. ‘Buh.’ Because it’s not a baby. It’s an upside-down bucket with a face painted on. And she’s just standing there, smiling at me like nothing is wrong. Oh, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run. I couldn’t run, though, because of all the shopping, so I just walked home very fast and I left the pram in the front room and I just threw myself down on my bed. Oh, I was so unhappy. I thought I’d never talk again!”
Ann considered them all. They were still quiet.
“I still see her sometimes, with the pram. I think she lives on Sabot Street.”
“Ann…” said Hyacinth, for lack of anything else to say.
Erik tore a sheet off the kitchen notepad. “Here’s your shopping list, Miz Ann. Do you think you can manage it all?”
“Oh, let me see, here.” Ann took the list in one hand and covered her mouth delicately with the fingers of the other. “Soda crackers in a red box? I’m not sure if there are any…”
“It’s just possible they don’t make them anymore,” Auntie Enora said. “Never you mind, child, just do your best.”
“And three bottles of cherry cordial? I might have to go to the liquor store. Are we making a fancy dessert?”
“We are making medicine,” Auntie Enora said.
Hyacinth jumped up slightly and did a small dance in place. “Thank you so much, Auntie Enora!”
“Don’t thank me yet, child,” Auntie Enora said. “We still have to get it into him, don’t we?”
Auntie Enora did all three bottles at once. She emptied them into one large pot and set them on the stove. (She wasn’t going to add anything but the magic, but she liked to boil things, it was safest.) “Insurance, dear,” she told Hyacinth. “We’ll just get it all done now. Although, I must say, it doesn’t feel like this child is going to give out any time soon.” Erik wriggled comfortably on the stool.
“I’m amazed he managed it,” Hyacinth said. “He’s so little.”
“Oh, every once in a while you get someone like that,” Auntie Enora said, stirring. A faint green vapor rose from the pot. “I’ll be pleased to see him again when he’s older.”
“I don’t know if he… I mean, his Uncle…”
Erik planted a hand on his hip. “Now, why is that man so powerful upset with me?”
“He lost someone. She was sick. He called you but you didn’t come.”
“Into him?” said Auntie Enora. Erik tapped the wooden spoon dry on the rim of the pot. “Naturally, I didn’t come into him. That man couldn’t hold Cousin Violet.”
“No,” said Hyacinth, “he couldn’t.”
“Still, it’s a shame. I wish I could save all of them, really I do. You understand that, Miz Hyacinth?”
She nodded. “I do.”
“Let’s have those bottles, and give me one of those darling little glasses. Let’s have the one with the cherries! Aren’t they the dearest things?”
They woke him when it was cool enough to drink. Hyacinth helped him to sit up. Auntie Enora offered the glass, “Now, let’s see if we can get some of this down…”
“I don’t want it!” Mordecai swatted his hand at the glass, spilling some.
Hyacinth sat forward with a involuntary gasp. Oh, don’t. That’s so precious… That was the most valuable medicine on earth, and it only worked for one person, and it hardly lasted. It had to be made every time. If you couldn’t call Auntie Enora, and you couldn’t hold her, you couldn’t have it.
Erik held up the glass in a slightly-stained hand. “Are you still cross with me?”
“Yes!” He coughed.
“Are you cross with your boy?”
Mordecai straightened against Hyacinth. He shook his head.
Auntie Enora addressed him sternly, “Then you’d best apologize to him. He brought me here to help you. He can’t move or talk to you, he just has to sit here and watch you act like a damn fool. And I’m sure he’d like to know the reason why.”
“Erik…” He bowed his head, defeated. “No. I’m sorry. It’s not your fault.”
“You are going to take medicine when I give it to you, young man,” Auntie Enora declared. “You are going to do your level best to let me take care of you. And you are going to get better so you can take care of this poor child when I wear him out.”
“Please don’t wear him out,” said Mordecai. “Please. Just leave the medicine and go.”
“That isn’t how this works, child. But I am sorry about it…”
“If you were sorry about it, you would go when you’re not needed!” Mordecai spat.
“I don’t know that I’m not needed,” said Auntie Enora. “You have a misery inside you, child. Now, Miz Hyacinth, I know you did your very best with that, but I can’t rightly say I trust it.”
“No,” said Hyacinth. “You’re right about that.”
Mordecai looked up at her, stricken. She just shook her head.
“Poor thing,” said Auntie Enora. Erik patted his Uncle’s hand. “I know you’re unhappy, but there’s just nothing to be done. Will you drink your medicine?”
“Yes.” He sobbed, and he put his hands over his eyes.
“Oh, now, we can’t have that. It isn’t really so bad, but you carry on, so. Come on, now. Let me see you…” Erik reached out a hand.
Mordecai shrank back. “Please don’t do that to me. Please. I said I’d drink it.” He coughed. “I want to remember I don’t like you.”
Erik dried his eyes with a tissue and brushed back his hair. “Whyever for?”
He sighed. “I don’t know.”
“There, honey. Drink this. It’s not so bad.”
It was cherry cordial. That was his secret drink. He never bought it or ordered it, he’d only have it if there was some and nobody was looking. He’d got into a bottle of it when he was quite young, almost too young to remember. He’d liked the taste and the warmth and he’d managed to get himself pretty well hammered, sitting on the kitchen floor. He didn’t like that part, but he couldn’t remember the hangover and he did still like the taste.
“Thank you. How did you know I like it?”
“I know everything you like, dear. I’ll be sure to do your soups with only half a can of water, too. You know, you’d be surprised how many people like that.”
He smiled. It was faint but it was there. That would kind of be okay. That would kind of be nice.
“You’re tired, now, aren’t you? You’ve been so upset.”
He nodded. He wasn’t sure what about, but… yes.
“That’s all right. Let him down, Miz Hyacinth. We’ll see if that keeps him from coughing for awhile.”
I don’t know. Maybe I should just get better. Maybe that’s okay.
Auntie Enora woke Hyacinth in the early morning. “I am sorry, dear. I need more coffee. I am just about out.”
“You’re still here?”
“I wouldn’t leave this poor creature alone in the middle of the night with no one to look after him. I’ll let you know when I’m about to quit, never you worry.”
Erik beamed. “Oh, I don’t think today!”
Milo was in the darkened kitchen attempting to have the fastest cornflakes of his life. He knew there would be a stranger here today, he knew she would talk to him, and he was so happy when he got up and that wasn’t so. Now if only he could eat something and get out the door…
“No dress this morning, little boy? Somehow I got the idea you didn’t feel quite decent without a dress. Am I wrong about that?”
Milo reeled back from the counter and dropped his bowl on the floor. He emitted a thin breath like a broken kettle and pressed both hands to his face.
“Seems like you don’t feel quite decent after all,” Auntie Enora said. “No, child, you make coffee. I’ll help him with that.”
“He would really prefer it if you didn’t, Auntie Enora.”
“Oh, now, why is that?”
“Uhhh,” said Hyacinth. She had put herself between the two of them, but all she could do was stand there. Maybe Ann would’ve had the words. “He’s, uh, he’s shy.”
Erik smiled at her and shook his head. “No he isn’t. Miz Hyacinth, I told you to go make my coffee. Go on, now. Shoo.”
“I-I-I really can’t.”
Erik planted both hands on his hips. “Miz Hyacinth, I thought we had an understanding, you and I. You know I’m unpleasant if I can’t have my coffee.”
The dim lamps in the kitchen went out. The coals in the oven flared brighter and burst a gust of flame. The chairs fell over. Milo fell over. The table scooted up against the wall. The radio in the basement, which did not work, began quoting stock prices at full volume. The toaster, which Milo had fixed so that it did work, broke in two. Erik was tense in every fiber of his being and surrounded by vibrant green light. “Miz Hyacinth, I said make me my coffee!”
“I’m so sorry, Milo,” Hyacinth said. She abandoned him for the coffeepot.
The radio quieted. The oven dimmed. The lamps were still out and the furniture upset. Erik smoothed back his hair with one hand. “This is exhausting. I need a cigarette.” He exited the kitchen door. Auntie Enora did not require matches to light up.
Milo was sitting in cornflakes and crying.
Hyacinth got everything in place for coffee. When she was only awaiting the water to boil, she went over to Milo. Auntie Enora couldn’t fault her for that. “Oh, no, Milo. Are you all right?”
He shook his head.
“Are you hurt, though?”
He shook his head.
“I think you’re going to need new pants. Do you have a shift today?”
“Can you have a sick day? They have to let you have a sick day…”
He shook his head.
“Couldn’t you just quit?”
He shook his head.
“Please let me medicate you.”
He shook his head.
“Oh… Let me help you up. Can you stand up? Shit! There’s the coffee!” She dropped him and he fell against the counter. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He nodded to her and managed a wave of one hand. Make coffee. Make coffee. He wanted there to be coffee, too. It was scary if there wasn’t coffee.
“Can you get changed?” Hyacinth asked him.
Oh, I wish I could, he thought. He nodded, though, and he went back upstairs.
“That was cruel, Auntie Enora,” Hyacinth informed her when she returned.
“Child, you know I have to have my coffee…”
“Not that. You were cruel to Milo.”
Erik lifted one brow (Hyacinth didn’t know he could do that). “Is he Milo when he’s in trousers?”
“Well, I don’t see why I shouldn’t offer to help him clean up. I was trying to be civil!” Erik glanced around. “Where’s he gone?”
“Never mind,” said Hyacinth. She sighed. “Auntie Enora, Milo does not work like normal people.”
“Obviously.” Erik smirked.
“No, not that way. He’s delicate.”
“No he isn’t.”
“Yes he is! He is when he’s Milo.” Hyacinth presented Auntie Enora with fresh coffee.
“Is he two people?” said Auntie Enora.
Hyacinth shook her head. Erik and Auntie Enora were two people. And she had heard that some others were born that way or made arrangements, but it wasn’t that way with Milo. “Milo has to pretend he’s two people or else he can’t be anyone at all.” She had known him when he was less Ann, and he had been less him, too. He didn’t have projects or friends or try to get you to understand him. He just disappeared.
“He’s crazy,” said Auntie Enora.
“Yes,” Hyacinth admitted. “But not because he acts like two people. That’s how he keeps himself sane.”
“This is a strange house,” said Auntie Enora, as Erik sipped. “I won’t say I haven’t seen stranger, but it’s right up there. I suppose I’ll just have to get used to it!”
“Will you?” said Hyacinth.
Erik smiled at her. “Why, yes, I believe I shall.”