So Long and Thanks for All the Cigarettes (29)

Auntie Enora woke Hyacinth late. She had already given Mordecai his breakfast and he had handled it well.

“Miz Hyacinth, this is my last day. Will you help me get everything ready for Erik?”

“Is he about to give out on you?” Hyacinth said, rising urgently.

Erik shook his head. “He could even go a couple days more, but you would have to take him to the hospital if I pushed him that far. I don’t think they would like to have him at the hospital, am I wrong?”

“No,” said Hyacinth, immediately. “They will not take him at the hospital. You are absolutely right.” They might have, because he was small and not powerful-looking, and not feverish, but she didn’t want Auntie Enora to push him that far. She wanted Auntie Enora gone now.

Auntie Enora was not the sort of person who left things unmanaged, however. She was going to have everything how she wanted it before she left. She was going to take care of Erik in advance, even if it meant wearing him out for a few hours more. First, she commandeered the kitchen notepad and wrote two missives in a delicate, antiquated hand. Notes for Mordecai and shopping for Ann. The former, she folded and weighted down with a coffee mug. “Now, don’t get nosy, Miz Hyacinth. Nosy people tend to get lessons in humility. I know that from experience.”

Do you? thought Hyacinth. She still wasn’t entirely sure Auntie Enora hadn’t dropped that plate on purpose, and she was certain the pot was intentional. Well, in any case, she was done screwing with Milo now. Hyacinth did not intend to give her any opportunity in the time that remained.

Milo returned before lunch. He had taken an early shift and a short one. They knew Erik was starting to fail, in one way if not another. Milo had limited his schedule the past three days as much as he was able. It was hard to negotiate time off when all you had were pre-printed cards and no ability to improvise. Hyacinth requested Ann and shopping, Auntie Enora did not object.

While they were waiting for Ann, Hyacinth got the washtub out of the pantry and made a bath for Erik. She asked if Auntie Enora minded about cold water, Auntie Enora replied that she preferred warm, but as it was not coffee and cigarettes, it was negotiable. Hyacinth put a pot on the stove and made hot water, enough to warm up the greater amount of cold in the tub. Even after two weeks, she wasn’t certain of the mechanics of this. It was possible Erik might be in a position to prefer warm.

Auntie Enora was grateful for some assistance, particularly with washing Erik’s hair. It seemed like he couldn’t hold his arms up for very long without getting tired. His ribs were evident, his shoulder blades and spine prominent, and he was shaking. It was worse when he tried to hold something, such as the soap. His color seemed to have faded somewhat, a combination of pallor and shadow. He gave every impression of a frail, dried leaf.

Mordecai either did not notice or was not allowed to put together what Erik’s appearance signified. Hyacinth was not able to work up much irritation for him. He was going to be noticing things again soon enough. It had been difficult watching it happen gradually. It was going to be terrifying to see him go from sort-of-okay a week ago to this with no stops in between. She hoped Mordecai would hold up. She sort of hoped Auntie Enora would do something to him so that he would hold up. Maybe that was part of why Auntie Enora had pushed Erik this far, she wanted Mordecai well enough to take care of him.

Damn it, Auntie Enora. Couldn’t you have left two days ago and just let me take care of him? I might not have been amazing at it, but he would’ve been in better shape!

That sort of reasoning was not in Auntie Enora’s nature. She believed in managing both situations and people within an inch of their lives. If she could push things to get them a little better, then she was damn well going to do that.

When Erik was washed and dried and wearing a clean nightshirt, Auntie Enora told Hyacinth to launder any dirty towels or bed linen she might have in the house and get it drying so it would be available later.

Ann returned with eggs and milk and sugar and cornstarch, and two bottles of grape soda.

“I believe what he would like best is a crème caramelle,” she told them, “and I have left that in my notes. However, I am relying on you ladies to remind Mister Mordecai that right now is more important than perfect in these matters, and vanilla custard will suit him fine for his first meal if that is all there is time for. I don’t think he really will need reminding,” she added. Erik tilted his head to one side and smiled at his uncle. “But it is just possible he may be a little upset. Now, you make sure he takes the rest of his medicine, too. Don’t let him pitch it out, no matter how cross he is with me. Remind him he needs to stay well for Erik, that ought to quiet him right down.”

“Not chocolate custard?” Mordecai asked softly. He looked like he might’ve been trying to be a little less than peaceful. He was entirely unequal to the task.

“No,” said Auntie Enora. And, after a brief pause, “He’s not entirely like his mother, is he?”

He shook his head.

“Now, Miz Ann, it really does pain me to delegate, but I think this is best left in steadier hands. Do you think you could see your way around making one of those cans of chicken soup? I’d like to get one more meal into Mister Mordecai before he goes completely off the rails. Just half a can of water, but I’m sure you know that.”

“Certainly, Auntie Enora,” Ann said.

“Miz Hyacinth,” Erik approached her at the washtub, “I’m putting you in charge of Erik’s medicine. I’m going to leave it in the bottles so he can have the fizz. I don’t entirely trust it, but I must admit sanitation has improved a lot in the past hundred years or so. So.” He rolled each bottle between his palms. They brightened green before fading back to purple again. “I’m going to take one for him, before I leave him. You save that second one until you know for certain he can drink and he won’t lose it. Try him on water first. There is a lot of my good intention for this child in these bottles. It is right at the edge of my abilities and I am not certain how much good I can do, but I do not want it wasted. Understand?”

Hyacinth immediately abandoned the washing and put both bottles on the counter, way at the back of the counter so no one unwary would knock into them.

Erik smiled. “I believe he would prefer that second one chilled, dear, but I appreciate your care.”

“I’ll put it in the basement when I’ve finished the washing. Auntie Enora.”

“Thank you, child.”

Mordecai had soup, and then medicine, then Auntie Enora sent him to sleep. “He’ll be home safe and sleeping when you wake up, dear. I keep my promises.”

He sobbed. Just faintly, just once, but that was definitely what it was. “Thank you.”

“That’s all right, now.” Erik sat with him for a few minutes, and when he did not stir, Auntie Enora stood the green child up again and made him smile. “Well!” He wobbled and Ann caught him by the arm.

“Oh, thank you Miz Ann, you’re very quick.” He leaned against her with evident comfort. “I was just about to say, I believe that’s almost everything. There is one thing I would like to ask, if you ladies don’t mind indulging me?”

“Oh, of course not!” Ann cried.

“What thing?” said Hyacinth, with narrow suspicion.

Erik beamed. “Why, I… I think I would like to hear Miz Ann sing!”

———

They decided to do it in the basement. Hyacinth had to stow the medicine down there anyway, and it would not do to wake Mordecai, or request that Ann be quiet.

Ann climbed the sweeping staircase in the front room and tapped on the General’s door to ask if Maggie wanted to hear a song and also say goodbye to Auntie Enora.

She was answered immediately by a beaming child with clasped hands. “She’s finally going? Mom! Can I?”

She could, and the General blessed her departure with evident relief.

Erik sat in a chair, in his nightshirt, with his hands politely folded and his bare feet trailing a couple inches off the floor. Maggie and Hyacinth stood. Ann had promised them a short one.

“I’m going to do ‘My Melancholy Blues,'” she said, smiling. “It’s how I close my show at the club. I really should have a piano to lie on, and sequins, but maybe you can imagine it.”

“Very well, Miz Ann,” Auntie Enora said.

Ann laughed and covered her mouth with a hand. “I think I feel a little shy. There are just so few of you, and I’ve never done it without sequins before.”

Hyacinth rolled her eyes heavenward and bit her tongue. I am not going to make a remark. I am not going to make a remark. That would only upset everyone and make this go on for longer.

“I am sure you’ll manage beautifully, Miz Ann,” Auntie Enora said.

“And now the party’s over…” Ann sang, extending her arms. She turned and addressed them shyly over one shoulder, “And I’m not exactly sober. Baby’s left me for somebody new! I don’t wanna talk about it…” She shook her head and pressed two fingers over her lips. “Want to forget about it! I wanna be intoxicated with that special brew…”

She did the whole act — sans piano and allowing for the tiny audience. She flirted with them, which got Hyacinth to give in and grin and made Maggie giggle. She didn’t stretch it out and start talking to people like she usually did, though. There weren’t any people, and even Ann thought Auntie Enora had just about outstayed her welcome. It was a short song, melancholy like the title but also a little bit silly and Ann considered it suitable for goodbyes of any nature — even divine ones.

“Meet my… melancholy blues!” She laughed and folded her arms across her chest. “That’s it!”

Erik applauded her. Maggie did, too, jumping slightly on the toes of her shoes. Hyacinth clapped a few times, still grinning. “All right. All right. Are we done indulging the gods now?”

“Entirely!” Auntie Enora declared. “However, I am not quite done with you. Miz Ann, I owe you a few names for those boys at your club. Do you mind if I use some of Mister Milo’s paper?” There was some on the worktable as well as pencils. Erik stood and leaned on the table and wrote on the pad. “Oh, my penmanship is suffering,” Auntie Enora muttered. “Dear, can you read this?” Erik tore off the sheet and held it up.

Ann took the paper and attempted it. She nodded. The letters were carefully-formed and a little bit wobbly.

“Now, Doctor Beetle deals in missing pieces and setting things right,” Auntie Enora told her. “That’s for the outside. If you want to have a go at the inside, you call that other one. She calls herself Incision. She doesn’t alter people, she’s all about meat and chemicals and such. Doctor Beetle likes to drink strychnine, but that is survivable, dear, as long as you don’t keep him too long, and he is a fast worker. He is a genial companion, our Beetle, a capital fellow. You ever get a good dose of shrapnel, you call him, too.” Erik smiled. “Now, the other one, Incision, she likes to cut herself, but not fatally. Just so’s it hurts. I’ve also written down Beauty, there, for this child himself. Beauty could set him right with no trouble at all, if he needs a little care after those others. Might still be able to do a bit of work on this head injury, too, but I don’t think you should call Beauty for him yet. He is a bit young and he might get someone arrested. There now! Miz Hyacinth, will you help me walk this child to his bed? I am not certain I can manage the stairs.”

Hyacinth took Erik by the arm and assisted him. “If you don’t tear up that paper, I’ll do it for you,” she hissed at Ann in passing.

Ann stood holding the paper between two fingers with an expression of open shock. “My gods, haven’t I already torn it up?” she said numbly. She tore it up. “I thought I was already tearing it up.”

Auntie Enora proceeded happily to Erik’s bedroom, either oblivious or not feeling comment necessary.

———

Auntie Enora gave Maggie a hug before crawling into bed. “You are a dear child. I hope you don’t think too unkindly of me later.”

“I think you’re all right, Auntie Enora,” Maggie said.

Erik nodded at her. “Yes, dear, but I didn’t say now. I said later.” She pulled the blanket over Erik’s lap but remained seated. “All right, Miz Hyacinth, let’s have that bottle.” She grimaced, considering it. “I don’t do this for just anybody, do you ladies know that?”

Well, Ann and Maggie didn’t, but Hyacinth nodded. She had never seen Auntie Enora down anything but coffee. She might leave some medicine, but it was up to the body left behind to pull themselves together and get it down.

Erik held his nose, tipped his head back and drank in small, rapid swallows.

“Ah, gods,” said Auntie Enora, reeling. “I’d almost rather that coffeecake.” Erik covered his mouth and quietly burped. He handed the empty bottle back to Hyacinth. He attempted another smile. “Well, it has all been very interesting. I thank you for having me. Please tell this child he can call me again any time.”

Erik closed his eye, still smiling. The smile faded.

Erik opened his eye and screamed.

“Oh, my gods!” said Maggie.

Cin?” cried Ann.

Hyacinth wrapped both arms around him and urgently held him, thought whether up or down or just for comfort, she had no idea. He was trembling, but he made no attempt to move. He just screamed.

“Erik, are you hurt?” said Hyacinth. “Erik! Does it hurt?”

Nina never screamed!

He screamed until he ran out of air, then he drew a tearing breath and did it again.

“Cin!” said Ann.

“I don’t know!” said Hyacinth. “Erik… Erik…” She shook him. “Please!”

When he ran out of air this time, his eye rolled closed and he slumped against her in a dead faint. Hyacinth pressed her ear to his chest to discern breathing and heartbeat. He had both. “Erik?” she asked him.

He was limp like a ragdoll. He was gone.

I can’t wake him, Hyacinth thought. He hasn’t slept in two weeks. He just scared the hell out of me, but I can’t wake him to check on him. What’s he going to say, anyway? ‘I’m all right?’ He’s not all right!

“Miss Hyacinth, is he all right?” said Maggie.

Hyacinth let him down in the bed and drew the blanket up to his chin. “No, Maggie,” she said softly.

“Cin?” said Ann. She pressed a hand to her mouth and spoke through it. “I think I am starting to feel very, very bad that I sang for her, Cin.”

Irrelevant as always, Ann, Hyacinth thought. She managed, just barely, not to say it. “Ann, will you go sit with Mordecai?” she said instead. “I can’t be in two places at once and I’m less worried about him.”

“Oh, yes, of course I will!” said Ann.

“Maggie, where would you like to be?” Hyacinth asked her.

“In bed waking up,” Maggie replied.

“Second choice?” said Hyacinth.

“With Erik.”

“All right, then stay.”

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