Milo did not go back to the kitchen. He changed his pants (he thought the shirt might make it all right), cleaned his glasses as best he was able and sat down on the bed. He didn’t hide in the closet. He did take off his glasses and sit with his face in his hands for a long time. Then he got up and sneaked out of his own house with his shoes off, terrified that somebody was going to catch him and speak to him.
They didn’t. Not in the house, anyway. Hyacinth might’ve said something to everyone. He felt embarrassed about that and relieved about it at the same time.
He did not attempt food on the way to work. He did not like food anymore, and he was forswearing cornflakes for the rest of his life.
He took the bus downtown to the big brick building with no windows (one of many). He sat on the top deck, though it was cold and threatening rain. The top deck was louder. Less talking.
He did cheap enchantments on cheaper watches for three hours (the place was only open a half day on Sigurd’s Day for some reason, probably taxes), punched his time card and attempted no eye-contact. The people at work didn’t seem to notice when he did that. He didn’t know what he’d do if they did notice. Quit, probably.
Well, not go back. Which was like quitting.
He bought a box of Marshmallow Smiles on the way home. They were obnoxious, but they were on sale, and they weren’t cornflakes. He spent the bus ride home staring at the box and contemplating the stupidity of his decision.
His own breakfast. Smiling at him.
Maybe they were right when they put down ‘mentally deficient’ in his chart.
Maybe the kids would eat it.
So preoccupied was he with getting the cereal into the kitchen so that somebody else would eat it that he forgot about everything else in the kitchen. Right up until the moment he picked up his head and saw it.
He’d scared himself this time. He dropped his cereal box. It landed with a light thump, intact and anticlimactic.
Magnificent and Hyacinth were having sandwiches at the table. Mordecai was sitting up in bed and having soup out of his lap and Erik… Not Erik. That woman that wasn’t Erik was knelt beside him to help him.
“Milo?” said Hyacinth, blinking.
Because I’m stupid, he wished he could tell her. I’m in here because I’m stupid.
Weakly, he picked up the cereal box and set it on the table next to Maggie. I’m here to give you cereal!
“Oh, hey, marshmallows,” Maggie said. She picked up the box and flipped it around to the back, seeking information on toy surprises or trades for box tops. “Thank you, Mr. Rose.”
Yeah. Great. He was already backing out of the room.
“Please don’t go yet,” Auntie Enora said. She didn’t get up or turn around.
I could just run, he thought. But then he thought of all the lights going out and the furniture moving around. No. Bad idea.
She still didn’t get up or look at him. He looked her — briefly — then he looked at the toaster. She broke his toaster. Hyacinth frequently used his toasters, he didn’t mind that, but it seemed sad to just break one. No more tomato soup and toast for Ann. He was going to need a new case, obviously, and the wires…
“I believe I may have upset you this morning. I am sorry about that. Trouble is, my business is in this kitchen, and I expect to be here for a time. Do you think there is any way we could get along for a little while?”
Uhh… He managed a shrug. Chromium. Nickel and chromium for the wires…
“I’m sorry, do you mind if I just come over? This is impractical. I mean, I don’t know if you’re nodding or if you’ve run off. How can you talk to someone without looking at them?”
“I can show you how to do it, Auntie Enora,” Magnificent said.
Erik patted her on the shoulder. “That’s all right, dear. I believe I’ll just try to get by. Now let me see, is this all right?” He approached slowly. When it seemed he might breach the barrier of the table, Milo took a step back. Erik took a step back and Milo stayed where he was. Erik took two steps forward and Milo took three steps back.
“My gods, it’s like taming a wild deer,” said Auntie Enora. “Well I’ll just stand here, then.”
“Now, listen, little boy, I won’t have you starving yourself. Are you going to be able to eat in the kitchen, or do we have to leave out a bowl of porridge like for Iron John?”
Milo brightened and stumbled a step forward. That was an option?!
“Oh, I see. You like that. Well, maybe we’ll do that.” Erik shook his head. “Do you understand that I find this all a bit strange? You and I were thick as thieves yesterday, and I believe you sat at the table and ate cheese and crackers like a person.”
Milo shook his head, looking away. He shrugged.
“Well, maybe you didn’t,” said Auntie Enora. “Child, do you just want me to ignore you when you’re in trousers? That doesn’t seem very kind, and you are managing this all right, aren’t you?”
He nodded and waved a noncommittal gesture.
“Then why couldn’t I help you clean up?”
Because you’re a stranger, thought Milo. Because you started talking to me right when you came in. Because you were looking at me. Because I knew you wouldn’t understand about me not wanting to talk.
Because I didn’t want you to hate me.
He could only stand there looking uncomfortable.
“Milo has kind of a hard time with ‘why,’ Auntie Enora,” Hyacinth said.
“Well I suppose he would,” huffed Auntie Enora. “Listen, little boy, if you put on a dress, can we talk about you? I mean, other you. This you.”
Milo considered, then nodded. Ann didn’t like talking about… about other him a lot, but if it meant he might have porridge for breakfast with nobody looking until Auntie Enora left, then he was willing to try it.
“Oh, now, I do like that one,” Auntie Enora said. “Why don’t you wear red every day? It goes so nicely with your hair.”
“Red is Sigurd’s Day,” Ann replied. She patted her hair, more affection than arrangement. “I like all the colors. It doesn’t seem fair just to pick one, and I don’t have to.”
Erik smiled approvingly and nodded. “No, Miz Ann, I suppose you don’t.”
“Do you mind if we talk in the alley?” Ann said. “You can smoke, and Milo would rather not be a roundtable discussion.” Ann smiled at Maggie and Hyacinth and leaned over the table to speak to them, “Milo is just fine with the way you treat him, too. You’re both very kind. That doesn’t need discussing.”
“I think I’m too loud sometimes,” Magnificent said.
“You are normal, Maggie,” Ann replied. “Milo must make allowances for normal.”
“I think Mom said I’m not allowed to be normal,” Maggie muttered to herself, considering. “Or… Ordinary. Yes. ‘We must strive to be so much more than ordinary.'”
Hyacinth could just hear the General saying that, like Maggie was getting a radio station.
“Mission accomplished,” said Auntie Enora, from the doorway. “Full marks.” Erik tapped a cigarette out of the pack. “I believe I am going to need a few more of these soon, baby-girl.”
Magnificent eagerly pushed back from the table. “Oh, I’ll get them now, Auntie Enora. I can have as long a lunch as I want now that you’re here!”
“She’s a dear child,” Auntie Enora said. Erik lit her cigarette with green fire and took a long leisurely drag.
Ann looked mildly unsettled, which was kind of a big thing for her. “That can’t be good for him,” she said.
“None of this is good for him,” Auntie Enora replied. Erik blew a smoke ring. “Now do let’s talk about you. Other you. Milo.”
Ann enumerated on her fingers, “Milo would like it if you didn’t try to talk to him while he’s eating, or try to look him in the eye at all. Or, at least not a lot. He would also like it if you didn’t just start talking. Let him notice you or wave or something. Or, ask if you can come over, that was a lot easier.”
“I can do all that,” said Auntie Enora. “Do you only need it when you’re wearing pants?”
“So what is it with you?” said Auntie Enora. Erik planted a hand on his hip and gestured with the cigarette. “Do you really need to be a woman? Are you just miserable otherwise? I mean, I can’t really help you with that, but once I’m gone I’m sure the boy can call someone else…”
“I,” Ann said, and paused (another big thing for her). “No, actually. I believe we’re quite happy as we are. Although I do know a few boys down at the Black Orchid who would be just overjoyed to hear that. Can you give me a name? Wait, I have to write it down…” She didn’t carry a pencil. Milo carried a pencil.
“Miz Ann, I’ll leave you a name before I go — although I’m not certain the boy’s uncle would feel right about your using him that way…”
Ann put a hand to her mouth and spoke through it, “Oh, no, I don’t want to use him. Is this hard for him, Auntie Enora? Is this hurting him?”
“Perhaps a mite,” Auntie Enora allowed. For starters, the boy was going to have to exist on black coffee and cigarettes for the duration, and that might not be easy. “But there’s no help for that. I don’t wish to be unnecessarily cruel, Miz Ann. I got quite a talking to from Miz Hyacinth about your Milo.”
“Cin gave you a talking to after what you did to the toaster?” Ann cried. “Why, I don’t know if that’s brave or suicidal!”
“Oh, that was just about the coffee,” said Auntie Enora. “You mustn’t mess around with my cigarettes and coffee. Everything else is negotiable.” Erik smiled. “As you see.”
“Milo is a little bit upset about the toaster,” Ann said.
“But you’re not?”
“I’m upset about the toast. I like toast. I like toast and tomato soup. I’m going to have to have croutons until Milo can do another toaster. He’ll have to stop working on the radio again.”
“Mister Milo is upset about the toaster and Miz Ann is upset about the toast,” said Auntie Enora. “Are you certain you’re not two people? Do you always remember being two, or did one of you walk in one day and say ‘Hello!’?”
“No, we remember being one.” Ann turned away and examined the gang-scrawl on the crumbling half-a-building behind them. “We also remember learning to be two, but I find that unpleasant to think about and I do not wish to discuss it.”
“This been going on a long time with you two?”
“Milo left the workhouse at fifteen,” said Ann. “He bought a dress.” This was as much as she had told Hyacinth about Milo’s past and in exactly the same way. “We are turning twenty-three this May and we are much happier, thank you.”
“Could Milo talk when he was fifteen?”
“Milo could not talk when he was fifteen,” Ann replied shortly. “And I believe we are getting rather past what is necessary to make him comfortable at breakfast, Auntie Enora.”
“And I’ve finished my cigarette,” Auntie Enora admitted. “I’m sorry, child. I do like fixing people, and Milo doesn’t seem very happy.”
“Milo has difficulty smiling.”
“A real shame,” said Auntie Enora. “You have a very pretty smile, Miz Ann.”
“Why, thank you, Auntie Enora.” She made one. “I have practiced it!”
“I hope I haven’t got an awful lot of smoke in your pretty hair, Miz Ann,” Auntie Enora was saying, as they returned.
Ann combed her fingers through one side and tossed her head. “That is quite all right, Auntie Enora. I have to work again tonight, and my hair always smells of smoke after that.”
“What do you do for work, dear?”
Ann clapped her hands and leaned down to Erik’s eye-height excitedly, “Why, I sing at the Black Orchid! One show on Frig’s Day and two on Sigurd’s Day! Oh, you must come and see! Say you will! I can get you ticket…” She trailed off and put a hand over her mouth. “Oh, no. I don’t think I can get you tickets at all.”
If Erik wanted into the Black Orchid he was going to have to come as a potted plant.
An eighteen-year-old potted plant.
Erik smiled at her and shook his head. “My place is here, Miz Ann, and a sickroom is no place for a nightclub act. Although,” she cast a glance back at Mordecai, “I suppose if you know something quiet…”
“Quiet?” cried Ann. She clapped both hands over her mouth. “Oh, dear, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Cin. I’m sorry, Em.”
“My fault,” said Auntie Enora, with barely-suppressed amusement. “I believe Miz Ann finds the idea of quiet a bit distasteful. I completely understand, dear.”
She did not completely understand. She wanted to, but that was not her business here. Still, if she had a spare moment here and there and Milo happened to be in the kitchen on occasion…
Mordecai seemed to be having some more trouble breathing. She poured medicine. Mordecai said he wanted her to leave. She said no. (That was a little ritual they had.) He took his medicine without needing to be subdued. He really did hate when she did that. She’d have him trained in no time flat!