Mordecai had been having increasing difficulty all day. At eight o’clock he coughed, just the once, then a lot more. The mended bond in his left lung had let go again. Hyacinth swore profusely, which Mordecai appreciated. He would’ve liked to be doing his own swearing. He managed a single, “Oh, shit…” just as he realized what had happened, then he couldn’t get the air for it.
Erik ran in bearing a lit cigarette and immediately stubbed it out on the countertop. “Miz Hyacinth, is that structural?”
You probably did it to me, Mordecai thought. So you could stay and have your goddamned cigarettes.
“Yes!” said Hyacinth. “It’s the same as before, damn it. The tissue is just so full of water, I can’t make a good mend. If he keeps coughing like this, he’s going to break another one.”
“Can you fix it right smart?”
“I can try,” said Hyacinth. “There’s a pair of gold earrings on the counter. Grab them for me.”
“The problem is,” she informed Auntie Enora, removing one from the cardboard, “I don’t know if fixing it will stop the coughing.”
“You fix it and I’ll stop the coughing, child,” said Auntie Enora.
Hyacinth used up about half an earring, which was more that she really should have. More gold meant less expansion, but that was to deal with later. If the bond let go again, and if the coughing sprang more of them, that was bad now.
He felt the familiar heat of the repair, huge but not painful, and lingering. It would spread. That was when the pain started. A human body didn’t like being gold. (Although his certainly should have been used to it by now!)
He gasped and coughed and gasped again. Erik’s hand was already holding a glass of medicine in front of his face.
“Breathe,” said Auntie Enora. “Breathe once and hold it. Then you’re going to drink.”
He nodded. He managed half a breath and he held it, then he drank down the glass.
“Is it still going to hurt?” he asked. He coughed once more, but only the once.
Hyacinth differed to Auntie Enora. Auntie Enora shook her head. “I’m sorry, child. My medicine only works on sick. This is… This is a wound. And the fever, well, it isn’t a fever.”
“I have medicine for pain,” said Hyacinth. It didn’t do very well for this kind of pain, but it did a little. She didn’t have anything that would work for the heat, either.
“Don’t give me what you gave me,” he said sternly. “That…” He panted. The heat was spreading. Things were starting to get a little loose around the edges. “That shot, whatever that was. I don’t want to go back to that hotel.”
“I don’t know if that was the shot,” said Hyacinth.
“Don’t let me go back to that hotel, Hyacinth.” He wasn’t stern this time. He was terrified. “Please.”
“What hotel is he talking about, dear?”
“He…” said Hyacinth, but she didn’t want to tell the story. It wasn’t her story to tell. (And it shouldn’t be told in front of Erik.) “He was hallucinating.”
“Well, I don’t know if I can stop him from doing that, but I can try to keep him calm about it.”
“Please keep me out of the hotel, Auntie Enora,” he said. He was shivering. That was the heat. That was mostly the heat. He was trying to hold on. “I don’t care how many times you have to touch me. I don’t care if you damage me!” He whimpered. The shadows were getting longer. “I’d like if you damaged me. I’d like if I didn’t remember.”
“I don’t damage people, child,” Auntie Enora said gently. She touched his forehead and stroked his hair.
“Oh,” he said softly. “I guess that’s okay.”
“Certainly it’s okay.”
“Please don’t tell Mother I got into the cherry cordial.”
“Honey, I won’t tell a soul.”
He smiled, just faintly. He let go.
It was… It hurt. It hurt to breathe. His chest hurt and it hurt to breathe. He was… A locket… and a piece of gold chain, and two links from a charm bracelet, and a winged shoe set with a rhinestone, and an angel holding a star, and a cat with a tail that wiggled (I think I was pretty sick when we had that charm bracelet)… and a different gold chain, and a sea turtle, and half an earring.
Oh, gods, all the tacky jewelry I’ve been!
He felt distinctly high, but he was all right with that at the moment.
If I don’t feel better, I’ll feel worse…
That was funny, but not in a good way. Like a very old woman falling down stairs. You didn’t want to laugh because probably someone was gonna get hurt.
He missed the locket. He couldn’t really see it, he wasn’t seeing things, but he felt it sometimes. Usually when he was pretty sick.
Oh, I think I’m pretty sick.
That was funny. Maybe he laughed or maybe he couldn’t but he thought it was funny. This was like he’d had way too much cough syrup, like he was so sick he couldn’t remember if he took his medicine. That was funny. The sicker you were, the harder it was to remember if you’d taken your medicine. Like someone had arranged it that way so it was just perfect.
I don’t even think I remember anything about a sea turtle. When in the hell did Hyacinth fix me with a sea turtle?
He bet it was a really tacky one. They didn’t make nice jewelry in cheap gold.
The locket wasn’t so bad, but he’d worn that under his shirt.
“And it’s magicked so you can’t ever take it off, so you’re stuck with it!”
And it had been cold.
No, please help, he said, tried to say. He was scared he couldn’t say it and they wouldn’t know. The shadows were long there, and the plants in the rug…
It was all right. It was all right. It hurt but it was all right. He was… home.
He was in a narrow bed in a two room apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen (No. There’s nothing in the kitchen. Shhh.) and fire escape where they vied to sleep in the summer. His mother was in the rocking chair mending a sock, and his blue little sister with the pin curls and the white dress kept coming up to the side of the bed and asking him if he was dine.
“Are you dine, Mordecai? Can I have your bank with the lion if you die? Can I have the money, too? I promise I’ll bury you, but then I want a pony.”
(They took a picture when she died. It was a still, there would’ve been no point to sound or motion even if they could do those back then, but the eyes weren’t right. She was holding lilies. They kept it on the piano. You got used to it.)
His brothers could go because they were old enough, but his sister had to stay. If she was being a particular pest his mother would tell her to play in the hall. He could hear her bouncing a ball or running up and down the stairs.
(Is that her on the stairs? Yes, that’s her on the stairs. There’s no one on the stairs. Shhh.)
He was in a double bed (because that was all the space they could spare) in a single room with a folding card table, a radio, a music stand and a hotplate. They had a fan, but the enchantment was balky. The hotplate didn’t work very well, either, but it probably just needed a sacrifice. They had mousetraps out, but no luck so far. The bathroom was two doors down. They kept their toothbrushes in a coffee mug. They could not afford such luxury, but by the time the money ran out, it didn’t really matter anymore.
She was sitting beside him with her slip hiked up and her fine, violet legs exposed. She had a magazine and a warm can of beer. She kept turning pages and making irritated noises.
“Oh, I don’t know. Are you sure you don’t want an ice cream or something?”
“No. I really don’t. Do we have any soup?”
“You want soup? It’s got to be forty degrees out!”
“Do we have any though?”
“It’s okay. I’ll make it.”
“Sick people do not make their own soup, Mordecai.”
The hotplate warmed up the whole room, which was sort of nice in the winter, less so in the summer. They didn’t last long enough to find out how it was in the fall. He could hear her shaking the fan and cursing at it. She finally hit it with an enchantment and that got it going, for a little while at least.
“Don’t we have any crackers?”
“Do you want crackers?”
“Soup goes with crackers.” That was self-explanatory.
“These are Royals.”
They were the wrong shape. They were the wrong texture, too. Royals were soggy right when you pulled them out of the packet and they crumbled like fairy dust.
That was when I resolved to murder her, officer. She gave me the wrong crackers. It was a justifiable homicide.
“Never mind. It’s fine.”
“Why wouldn’t it be fine?”
“I said it was fine!”
“Is this your artistic temperament or what?”
“No. It’s fine. I’m just sick.”
“Can you have more aspirin yet?”
“I don’t know. Can I?”
“I suppose you can.”
They had a box of juice. The juice was warm, too. She poured some into a glass for the aspirin.
“Why don’t you give me all of the aspirin, Cathy? Put me out of your misery.” That was because he was sick. He would’ve been unhappy about the crackers anyway, but the thing about the aspirin was because he was sick.
“Why don’t I turn that bitched-up hotplate all the way up to ‘burn down the house’ and stick it under your pillow?” she replied.
“Well, why don’t you?”
My gods, why did I marry this woman? Just because she was pretty? She’s not that pretty.
“Why don’t I kiss you, you stupid bastard?”
She put one knee on the bed and put her hand on the back of his head so he couldn’t get away and he could feel her teeth when she did it.
Oh, yeah. That’s right. There it is.
“How sick are you, anyway?”
“I’m not that sick!”
They had a downstairs neighbor who banged on the ceiling when they got loud, whether it was fighting or… not fighting. It was a hollow sound.
(Is it getting closer? Please, I can’t get out if it isn’t safe. I can’t move her. It’s so cold. They’re not shelling anything. It’s going away now. Shhh.)
He was in a folding cot in the infirmary, damp and cold and sunken with walls of earth and plaster and stone. The lights dimmed and the metal rattled every time something hit, and the dirt fell from the ceiling and got into the wounds.
There is shelling going on. Auntie Enora, this is terrible!
(I’m sorry, child. I’m running out of places where they took care of you.)
Running out of…? How long have we been doing this?
(A good while, dear. Please try to keep still. Mayhap this one will hold.)
There had been gas last night. Alba was quick with the rain, but some of it got past. He didn’t need much of it to lay him out, not since that one time. He couldn’t speak above a whisper and every breath was drawn through eight tons of gravel in a burlap sack.
“Hey, Mordecai! You with us?” Someone next to the cot, practically under the cot — it offered a little shelter from the dirt.
“Where’s that notebook you did with the recipes?”
“In the kitchen.”
“Where in the kitchen, though?”
“Isn’t it in the drawer.”
“With the dead frogs. For the coffee.”
“Oh, there. Okay. Thanks!”
“Wait,” he croaked, catching an arm. “What do you need.”
“Cream of mushroom soup without any cream.” She laughed. “Or mushrooms. Or soup, I guess.”
“That needs magic. Who’ve you got for magic.”
“Aw, shit. Terry.”
“Can you get Diane.”
He rolled sideways and put his feet in the floor. “I’ll do it.” He made it maybe three inches off the pillow before he fell back coughing.
“Like hell you will,” she said. “We’re not killing our golden goose for cream of mushroom soup. You lie here and get on top of that gas. We don’t need anything that bad.”
“What’re you trying to get.”
“Canvas. But, like, a lot of it.”
“Do you have anyone who plays guitar.”
“Well, I like to think I can play it a little bit.”
He blinked at her. She had wavy brown hair and an upturned nose. She wore a safety pin in her uniform. No reason. Just fancy.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s Janice. Hello, Janice.”
(Her eyes fell back in her head when she died and she turned blue like his sister.)
She grinned at him. “Hey, Mordecai. Didn’t recognize one of your own kids, huh? S’all right, the light’s bad here.” It flickered and more dirt rained down. “Sheee-yit!” She pawed it out of her hair with both hands, then she brushed it from his blanket.
“Do you have a guitar,” he asked her
“…well, I’m not sure we don’t have one.”
“Andy Taylor does cloth by the yard for guitar, but you have to play the whole time he’s making it and it has to be a guitar.” That was entirely too much to say. He couldn’t stop coughing.
“Hey, Mordecai, how about some water? Here, lemme help you out, there.”
There was mud in it but it was cold and it was better. It helped. And she was gentle with him.
“Hey, Mordecai, they taking care of you down here?”
“Taking care of everyone,” he said.
“Yeah, but you?”
“You got a real funny idea of ‘enough.’ I think I might just check you again when we’re done with the canvas.”
“It’ll have finished edges.”
“And if I cared, that might mean something. How about you get some sleep?”
“Promise you’ll come get me if you need the soup.”
“You ain’t my momma.” She laughed. She had a really great laugh and she used it a lot. “Hell, you ain’t even my C.O. I ain’t promising you shit.”
“There’s the ‘ain’t.'” He managed a laugh himself, though he had to follow it up with a cough. “Buildings topple and men quail when she pulls out the ‘ain’t.'”
“You quail yourself right into bed, mister. If you’re up making soup when I get back, I’ll have you shot for desertion!”
You’re a good girl, Janice. You didn’t deserve to go out that way. I wish I could’ve helped you. I wish I was better than I am.
(Janice is in the other room. Jim and Janice are in the other room. Jim and Janice. Like twins. Not like twins alive but now dead and blue and the same. They lie together, like twins or like lovers, but they don’t care because they are dead. Maybe they whisper to each other, when they are alone. They tell each other secrets as old as dying. And when it is very bad, and the shadows are long, and the ivy in the wallpaper is growing, sometimes they walk. They walk on the deep blue rug with the black vines that twist like real jungle, and he lies on that same rug and wonders, What happens when they find us? Will they find us now?
(Are they angry?
(Will they only kill us, or will they hurt us first?
(She is dying in the bed and he is lying on the floor and the child will die with her. He has an enchanted suitcase full of little knitted things and powdered milk and they left it with him — like a sick joke — because they didn’t need it anymore. This hotel is full of dead things that nobody needed anymore, and sometimes they walk.
(He has to go. The streets are full of gas and they whisper when he’s not looking and they walk but he has to leave her. They have to eat. Sometimes it’s a cat and sometimes it’s not even a cat, and sometimes even he doesn’t know what it is and he can’t remember killing it. There is ketchup left in the kitchen and canned gravy and he uses all of it, sometimes both at once, cackling like a madman, laughing, crying, “Thank the gods for sauces!” And when he can’t go out anymore, they have powdered milk. He doesn’t know why he saved it as long as he did. Why did he feed her dead mice and gods-alone-knew-what when she could’ve had powdered milk?
(He never had any powdered milk. One night he broke down and ate some paper napkins, but that had been almost the end.
(There was no end. No end to the black vines in the rug, no end to the runners of ivy on the walls. No end to the shells in the distance. No end to the night. The hotel was for him and the hotel was forever. It would come, and if it could not come it would wait, and it would hold him, and it would take care of him.)
He cried out, “Oh, gods, don’t leave me here alone!”
They were whispering over him and he thought they found him and he closed his eyes and wanted to be dead. Their hands were cold and they hurt, it hurt to be touched anywhere, even the weight of the blanket was like a bruise.
“Mordecai, please,” she said. She pushed him lightly, just with the tips of her fingers. “Try to be here. Come back.”
“Is it Janice?” he asked faintly. He opened his eyes and could hardly see.
“No, I don’t know who that is. It’s Hyacinth. You’re with Hyacinth. And Hyacinth was never anywhere near that fucking hotel, you understand me?”
He didn’t, but he liked what she was saying. He calmed a little.
“You’re not there and you’re not alone. We’re not going to leave you alone. You might go away again, but we’re not going to leave you alone.”
“Oh, gods, please talk to me,” he whispered. He sobbed a breath.
“Miz Hyacinth, we daren’t let him cry…”
That voice bothered him. He didn’t want to be alone but he didn’t want it near.
“Tell her go,” he said softly. He sobbed again. “Please-please.”
“I can’t, honey. She’s keeping you alive.”
“I know. I know. Help him.”
A gentle touch brushed his hair. It was cool and nice and it made him so he couldn’t think. He could only think soup, and soda crackers, and bed, but that was so weak and the pain was so strong.
“Please don’t let me fall,” he begged them. “Please, please don’t let me fall.”
“You won’t fall,” Hyacinth said. “We’ll catch you.”
“Mm-hm,” he managed. He let them. They made him, but he let them.
He was in a narrow cot in a dim room with soft carpeting. There were some chairs, and a low cabinet with drawers that he couldn’t name. You put the centerpiece there when you put food on the table. He puzzled over it when he noticed it. The cot was too small to allow movement, but he didn’t want any of that. Everything hurt. Everything.
He wasn’t understanding things very well. Sometimes he was upset about it and sometimes he was just exhausted. How could he be hot when he was cold? How could he be here when he was there? How could he be alive when he was dead?
People kept checking on him. A lot of them had bandages, or something else wrong with them. Sometimes they would just look at him and sometimes they would try to get him to talk. They didn’t seem to care what he said. If he was crying sometimes they’d say, “Oh, hey,” and come nearer, but they didn’t touch him.
They complained about Erik. They wanted to know if there was any special way to get him to stop crying. That confused him because he didn’t think Erik was real, or he thought someone had taken him away, or he thought he was dead. He would say, “You’re teasing me! You’re cruel!” and he wanted to die.
The woman would come. She was blonde and harried-looking and he hated her. She moved him and she made him drink. It was hot and it tasted like metal and he didn’t want it but he was too weak to fight her away. He said some very mean things to her, some of which didn’t even make any sense. More often he just cried.
One day she knelt beside the cot and she touched her hand against his cheek and she said, “You’re cooler today. Think you can talk to me a little?”
He said, “She’s dead. She died in the bed. She wanted so badly to see him. Cousin Violet said it was a boy. She wanted to name him Erik Rudolph like that man in the poster. We were going to keep him, all of us. We had this suitcase full of powdered milk and I was going to magic it. But she got sick. Anathema. It should have killed her fast. It killed Janice and Jim. But she wanted to see her boy.”
She sat quietly through that, then she nodded. “Well, that sounds pretty damn awful. Do you think you can take some pills?”
He was sobbing and shaking and he said, “I don’t know.”
She said, “Well, let’s try it. I think you could use a little better than a hug.”
The water was cold. It had snow in it. It was heaven. He wanted all of it. She let him have all of it, but she made him stop a couple of times and she gave him pills.
“Do I really have to be alive?” he asked her.
“Looks like it,” she replied.
He cried again. She held him while he did it and she stroked her hand down his back. He didn’t cry long. He thought maybe she’d given him something so he couldn’t. He was grateful.
“Do you want to see him for a little?”
He blinked at her. “Who?”
“Erik Rudolph like in the poster.”
“There isn’t any,” he said weakly.
“Yes there is,” she said. “Give me two seconds. He’s probably not sleeping anyway.”
He sat in the cot and he stared at that thing with the drawers that he didn’t know what it was called.
He heard a small, moist sob, and he heard her say, “That’s all right. Shh.” She was bouncing a white bundle which continued to protest, but not too vehemently. “He’s being an angel,” she said. “I can’t believe it. I think he knows he’s making me look bad.”
He thought it had to be a trick. He thought it had to be the cruelest joke in the world. He thought the blanket would be empty and maybe none of it would be real. It would go away, and he’d be back there. (Shh, child. You’re never going back there. I just had to get you past it.) She crouched down beside him and she put the bundle in his lap.
A little green face with pinched, delicate features was peeping out of the blanket. The nose was snubbed and a little bit runny. The mouth was bowed and wet. The eyes were closed and each white lash was fine and perfect. There were notable creases in his brow and running from his eyes. A little larger and he could’ve been an old politician who favored bourbon and cigars.
“Oh-my-gods-don’t-I’ll-hurt-him,” he said, but she took her arms away and he had to replace them.
Erik opened his eyes and regarded him with the jaded look of a very young infant who doesn’t know anything about smiling yet. So you’re it, huh? Or maybe, Where the hell were you? I’ve been calling and calling.
“He’s got gray eyes like his mother.”
“I think they’re very nice,” she said.
Auntie Enora, please give him back to me. My heart is breaking.
(I will, child, I promise you. But I have to give you back to him, too.)
I want to sleep. Please, can I sleep? Do I have to dream?
(I believe you might manage a little now. I’ll have Miz Hyacinth give you a little something to help you along.)
Thank you. Thank her.
(Shh, child. It’s just what we do.)