What I Did During the Siege of San Rosille, by Mordecai Eidel, Age 56 (30)

Mordecai opened his eyes and knew he needed to get up right now.

Can I do that?

He attempted it. He didn’t go absolutely as fast as he could, he felt unsteady and he didn’t want to faint, but he struggled upright with reasonable speed and looked around.

“Oh!” Ann wrapped an arm around him and held him that way.

“Where’s…”

Alba? No…

“Erik! Where’s Erik?” It was starting to slide back into place, like a layer cake that had been mildly-disturbed in transport. He was aware that not only did he need to be up, but also standing and moving as well. He just wasn’t certain in what direction yet.

“Still sleeping, Em,” Ann said. “Don’t worry. Hyacinth is with him. There hasn’t been a sound out of him.”

“A sound?” cried Mordecai. He shoved her away and tried to draw his legs under him. “He’s not going to make a sound! He’s been stuck riding around inside his own head for…” He touched a hand to his forehead, then he gazed at Ann and demanded of her, “Oh, my gods, two weeks?”

Ann nodded. “Here, Em, let me help you…” She was able to lift him entirely. He was thinner than usual, after being in bed so long and not wanting much more than soup.

Mordecai made no protest and put forth his best effort to stand. “He doesn’t know how to dissociate!” he said. “He’s had to live through every minute of that! He hasn’t been able to move, or talk, or do anything he wanted… He’s not going to make a sound! He might not even open his eyes! He has given up!” He stumbled forward, which was also his best effort to walk. Ann went with him. “Help me,” he said. “I need to be there now. If he’s awake, he might just be in darkness. He’ll be so afraid. Please, Ann.”

“Em, do you want me to carry you?” she asked him.

“Yes!” he cried.

She didn’t quite have to do that. She wrapped an arm around his waist and swept him along. He found his feet along the way. When the made the bedroom door, he was able to push her away and scramble the remaining distance the the bedside. He hit the floor with a thud that must have been painful and laid his hand on Erik’s chest.

Slow heart, calm breathing. He was still asleep.

Mordecai?” said Hyacinth, startling. Truthfully, she had been dozing a little. Maggie had been collected by a very cautious General just after supper. Left to her own devices, Hyacinth had found herself exhausted by recent events.

He took a few slow, deep breaths and tried to calm his own heart. “Hyacinth, give me your hand,” he said. “Put it here. You’re going to have to stay very close and try to feel if he wakes up. Can you feel his heart?”

She nodded.

“If that speeds up or he starts breathing faster, he’s awake. He could be having a nightmare, but we’re going to treat him like he’s awake. He won’t be able to talk to you and he might not be able to open his eyes… his eye. You tell him it’s going to be all right and don’t be scared and you keep telling him that and you yell for me, all right?”

“Where are you going to be?” she said.

“Cooking,” he replied. “And I think I’d like Ann with me in case I fall over. How long has he been sleeping?”

“About eight hours,” Hyacinth said.

“I probably have time for a crème caramelle, but I’m not going to bother with one. I’m going to make vanilla custard and then get everything else ready and come back and wait for him. You stay close like that until I come back, you understand? Pay attention to him. He’s not going to cry out and he’s not going to move, so you have to be responsible.”

Hyacinth nodded. “Mordecai… Nina never…”

“Forgot how to move?” he said.

“Yeah. Or screamed. He screamed.”

Mordecai shut his eyes and sighed. “How long could Nina hold someone? Not just someone big like Auntie Enora. Anyone.”

“Four days was the most she ever did.”

“Then Nina was lucky,” Mordecai replied.

———

Mordecai made vanilla custard precisely. He did the basic recipe with one egg extra, for a little help with nourishment that wouldn’t be too rich. He thickened first with cornstarch, then with beaten egg whites (he had Ann do those but he folded them in). Then he hit it up with a little magic just to be sure. Erik might not be able to swallow, probably wouldn’t be able to swallow. Chewing could be completely discounted. If it was too thin, it would dribble back out. Too thick, and he wouldn’t be able to get it down at all. Mordecai was aiming for a light substance that would stay where he put it and wait for muscle memory to kick back in. When he almost had it, he gave it to Ann to chill in the basement. The cold would firm it up the rest of the way.

He filled a pitcher with water for Erik to drink and selected a glass. Room-temperature was ideal, he could have ice water later if he wanted it. Right now, things needed to be easy. Some handlers would’ve gone with milk or broth, just to maximize calories, but Mordecai thought custard would be quite enough for Erik to deal with after two weeks of black coffee and cigarettes. If he threw up, he would have no calories at all.

Then he needed towels and a chamber pot. Erik was not going to be able to make it to the bathroom. Fortunately, in this house, there was no point in making it to the bathroom, and chamber pots were readily available.

While he was still making the custard, he asked Ann to bring him his coat. He was shivering, and part of it might have been cold. He didn’t want to spare the time to really get dressed. But, handing another racked young body after the departure of a god while wearing his old soldier’s coat was chilling in and of itself.

I am just going to do it, he told himself. I am not going to think about who it is, or why it happened. I am just going to do it. And if I start to lose it afterwards, then Hyacinth or Ann or somebody here can put me back together, but I am not going to think about that now, either, because I am just going to do it.

He could do that. All the patterns were well-worn, and he didn’t need to think at all.

He checked all his pockets for quarters. He used to carry a quarter, but those had gone the way of brass buttons and arsenic wafers. He asked Ann to find him one, and then he was wearing his old coat with a quarter in the pocket, too.

They spent roughly ten hours waiting, and watching Erik closely with a hand against him. First Hyacinth, then Mordecai, then Ann. Whenever Mordecai felt attention was wavering, he demanded a change of shift. Ann and Hyacinth napped. Mordecai retrieved Auntie Enora’s notes from the kitchen and perused them in his off hours, as he was neither willing nor able to sleep. There were some bullet points at the top, for quick reference, mostly things he already knew. Do this, don’t do that, take your medicine, make sure he takes his medicine.

-I can’t make you any promises, but I surely do hope it will help him. I’ve left his memory alone. I know you know I could’ve removed it, after what I did to Mr. Milo, but I hope you’ll understand. He should know how he hurt himself. Mayhap he’ll be a little less likely to do it again.

-I advise you to let him remember it, too, though obviously I have to leave that to your own discretion. There may be parts of it he ought to forget.

It was good advice. Obvious, a lot of it, but good. Below the bulleted points was a longer missive that he did not feel safe delving into. He saw Alba’s name. He did not recall ever mentioning Alba’s name, but he had been sick and often hazy, and certainly Auntie Enora had seen the hotel.

He only hoped Erik hadn’t seen it. If he had, that was definitely something he needed to forget.

Hyacinth called him, “Mordecai.” (Ann was out catching a couple hours sleep in a chair in the front room.)

“Erik?” he said. “It’s going to be all right. You’re back and Auntie Enora is gone. You don’t have to be afraid. It’s okay.” He gently picked up the child’s hand by the wrist. His whole arm came stiffly, as if made of a single piece. “You’re awake. It’s only dark because your eyes… your eye is closed. Do you think you can open your eye? Will you try for me?”

Erik gasped a soft breath. His expression tensed. His eye came open, blinked and focused.

Mordecai smiled at him. It was relieved and genuine, quite unlike the metered emotions he usually displayed under these circumstances. “Hello, dear one. I’m so glad you’re home. This is going to be hard for a little, but it’s going to be all right. You are not broken. You are not damaged. You are not sick. You’ve just got to remember how to do things for yourself again. It’s going to come back very fast. I’m going to do something to help you. But the first thing you need to do is eat. Hyacinth,” he glanced up at her, “I need the custard out of the basement and a spoon. Please. Quickly.” He returned his attention to Erik. He tried to find the smile again but it only came with difficulty. “I’m going to have to feed you, Erik. I’m really sorry about it. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with you, it’s just too hard for you to do it yourself right now and you need food right away. I’ve done this for people a lot older that you, and I promise I don’t mind it at all. First I’m going to sit you up. If you can help me, please try. If you can’t, that’s okay, too.”

Oh, gods, he was so light and small! He was lighter than even he should be, and he was much too little to be in this position. Mordecai was used to having his arm around the broad shoulders of an adult.

I’m not going to think about it, damn it. I’m just going to do it.

“I think I can feel you trying, Erik,” he said brightly. You always said that, because they always were trying, even if you couldn’t feel it, and they needed to keep trying. “Thank you. I’ll have something for you to eat soon. You might not be hungry, or you might be very hungry. Or maybe a little bit of both. I have to go slow, because that’s what you need right now. Please try to be patient with me. You can yell at me later, I promise.”

Erik shivered against him. A single tear rolled from his eye, and then another.

“No, dear one.” Mordecai reached up and wiped them away with a hand. “It’s all right to cry, but please try not to feel sad about me. You’ve been really brave. I’m really proud of you. I’m glad you’re home. We just have to get through this, then it’s going to be okay.” He wrapped both arms around and drew Erik against him. Hugging that way was sort of unwise. One arm was okay, or holding hands, or with a little distance, but you needed to see who you were taking care of to know what they needed. Especially when they couldn’t talk to you, and the eyes were the only thing with any expression. If you held them closely, you couldn’t tell if they wanted you to stop hugging them, and an exhausted mind’s desires could turn on a dime.

Still, he felt reasonably certain that Erik wanted hugging and also he wanted to do it and he couldn’t stop.

Then he did stop, because that was stupid and he needed to just do this and not be stupid about it. He checked Erik and Erik seemed to have been all right with it, but he had cried a little more. Mordecai rubbed the tears away. “That’s all right. It’s okay.”

Hyacinth brought custard and a spoon. Mordecai could operate custard and a spoon in his sleep. He set the bowl in his lap, he filled the spoon, and he watched Erik the whole time.

“All right, Erik. Please remember what I said about being patient and try not to bite me, okay?” It was kind to imply that they might be able to do something if they were unhappy, even if they couldn’t. “Please keep trying to help me, Erik, all right? Even if you can only do a little, that helps a lot. First couple bites are always hardest, then it gets a lot easier. Can you open? Okay, that’s pretty good.” It wasn’t, but that was another thing you always said. “Just try to relax. I’ll help.” He put a gentle pressure on the sides of Erik’s jaw and helped him open. “Okay. Spoon.” He wielded it like an artist with a brush. In, a practiced flick, and back out again. The custard stayed right where he wanted it, just at the back of the tongue. “Okay, now swallow.” Sometimes that got a result, the reaction was just so hardwired. Not this time though. “That’s okay. Keep trying. Don’t think about it too much. Your mouth knows how to do this. Hold your breath for a second.”

Erik managed this.

Aha. You do know how to move. You can hold your breath. I’ve tricked you!

Now swallow.”

That did it.

“Hey. All right. Good job. Excellent. Can we do it again?”

Erik managed to get his mouth open this time, and then closed around the spoon. He swallowed after only a moment’s pause.

“Perfect! See? This isn’t hard at all!” He kept talking, but now that Erik had grasped the mechanics of being fed, he completely dropped the subject of being fed. No pleas for patience, no mention of how easy or how hard it was, certainly no cracks about the airship pulling into the hangar. This was not an infant who needed to be coaxed, this was a capable, adult (ish, but I’m not going to think about that) mind in a mortifying situation. So, time to distract. “You know, Erik, after this I ought to start teaching you how to cook. Maggie’s already had her lessons in substitutions. I think you’ll be a much quicker study because you don’t have so much to unlearn. Also, I like you best. I think I’ve mentioned that. I’ll teach you pancakes first. Pancakes are easy, and you can have a lot of fun subbing different things out…”

By the time they were through the bowl, Mordecai had extolled the virtues of knowing how to make pancakes, and spaghetti, and basic white sauce. He kept well away from any mention of custard.

“Hey. Look. You made it!” ‘All done’ was entirely too patronizing. ‘You made it’ let one know the experience was over without twisting the knife in the wound. He tipped the bowl so that Erik could have visual confirmation on this as well. He did not add anything about it not being that bad. When you were on the other end of that spoon, it could be pretty bad.

“We’re going to try a little water now. I’ll hold the glass.”

It took Erik a few moments to negotiate a sip of water, because sipping was involved. He was already doing very well swallowing. He was coming back fast, even all by himself. Mordecai had seen grown adults in worse shape after half as long. Erik’s young age might have been an asset. However, Mordecai was not about to make any experiments with youthful resiliency. Seven-year-olds should not be summoning gods, no one should be bothered about how good they were at coming back from it, and Erik was going to get all the help he could give.

Erik seemed to want only a little more than half the glass. He had been drinking regularly, nothing but, although coffee had a tendency to dehydrate over time.

“Erik? I’m not sure if you’re done or just tired. I’m going to take it away for a little, and then we’ll try again. If you’re not thirsty, you don’t have to drink. If you are, there’s more water soon.”

He set the glass aside and went after the quarter. Naturally, he was sitting on the pocket with the quarter. “I’m sorry, dear one. This is just me being stupid. I have put something I need in an awkward place. I’m not going to drop you or leave.”

“What is it?” said Hyacinth.

“It’s just a quarter,” he muttered. “I’ve got it.” He could have asked her to bring him another one, but that would’ve made him feel like an idiot.

There. He did have it. He set it beside the glass and tried Erik on the water again.

Hyacinth did not ask him what the hell he wanted with a quarter. This situation was far too serious to be asking questions and demanding explanations. However, she did speculate upon it in a somewhat derisive manner. He can’t work metal. Certainly Erik isn’t going to eat it.

Erik wanted a little more water, and after another rest, no more water.

“That’s fine,” said Mordecai. He picked up the quarter. He examined the shine. He sighed.

Well, here I go again.

That was all he would allow himself. It was again and he was a little bit annoyed with it. No more thought about it.

“All right, Erik. This is something I know how to do that will help you. You haven’t done it before, but it’s not hard to learn. It’s like a trick. I’m going to show you a quarter, and you’re going to go to sleep. It’s a special kind of sleeping where you can still hear me and talk to me, and I’m going to say some things to help you. When you wake up, you’re going to feel a lot better. It’s not scary and it won’t hurt.” He hugged Erik with the arm around his shoulders. “I won’t ever do anything to hurt you, dear one. This is just something it would help you to learn. Please try.”

He held up the quarter, slightly higher than Erik’s eye so he had to look up at it. It occurred to him that he had never done this on someone with one eye. He didn’t know if he ought to center it or cheat it a little to one side. He decided to keep it centered. If it didn’t work that way, he could move it, or he could just have Erik close his eye and try to talk him down. He had done that with people who couldn’t open their eyes, but he was better with a quarter.

“See how the light dances?” He turned the quarter subtly, so that it did. “Follow it. Back and forth.” He watched Erik’s eye. The motion was smooth and regular. He wasn’t scared or fighting it, he was trying.

Thank you for trusting me, dear one. Let’s see if I deserve it.

“It’s peaceful. Listen to my voice and follow the light. See it dance? Back and forth. Follow it. Listen to my voice and follow the light.”

Erik’s eye lost focus and glazed, but it continued the regular motion, back and forth.

“Your eyes…” No, damn it. “Your eye is closing. Let it. You can still hear my voice and follow the light. It’s drowsy. It’s peaceful. Let your eye drift closed and sleep.”

Erik’s eyelid drooped, bobbed open once briefly, and then closed. The eye behind it continued to move, then quieted and stopped. He sighed.

“You’re sleeping now, Erik,” Mordecai told him softly. “You can still hear me and sleep. You can talk to me if you want to. It won’t wake you. Do you want to talk?”

Erik gasped and twisted. His eye winced more tightly shut. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Mordecai felt his heart shatter. He swept it aside and ignored it. “No, dear one. You don’t need to be sorry.” He squeezed the child and kissed his hair. “It’s all right.”

“You didn’t want her to come,” Erik said.

“No,” said Mordecai. “I didn’t want her to hurt you. I didn’t like that. But now you’re home and I’m glad.”

“She touched you and made you be different,” Erik said.

“Yes. Was that scary for you to see?”

He cried out, “Yes!”

Mordecai nodded. “I’m sorry. I know. But it’s okay. She only does that so people will be quiet and rest and take medicine. It doesn’t change them forever. She didn’t hurt me. I’m still just me.”

“I wanted her to stop but she wouldn’t,” Erik said. “I wanted her to stop but she wouldn’t!”

“I know, dear one. That must have been hard.”

“It was so hard,” Erik said tearfully. “I couldn’t say sorry. I couldn’t cry.”

“You can now,” said Mordecai.

Erik’s chest hitched in three sharp gasps. He began to weep. He still lay limply, but Mordecai drew him near and held him and rocked with him. “It’s all right. It’s all right.”

“I’m sorry!”

“I know. I know. It’s all right. Shh. Shh.”

Erik calmed. He sighed. He sobbed a few more times and then he settled.

“That’s better now,” said Mordecai. “That feels a lot better.”

“Yes,” said Erik.

Mordecai drew up one corner of the blanket and dried Erik’s face with it. “That’s so much better.”

“Are you all better?” Erik asked him.

“Yes,” he replied. “Better than I’ve been in a long time.”

“Will you stay that way?”

“Yes.”

Hyacinth clicked her tongue and scolded him with a finger. You still have metal in your lungs and you have five strips I didn’t even fix. You still have bad lungs. And you have more things wrong with you than your stupid lungs! Again, she did not say it. Now was not the time to be saying it. She would have to grab him aside and say it later, perhaps while shaking him.

He ignored her, if he had even seen her at all.

Erik smiled. “Then it’s okay.”

“It is,” said Mordecai. “I want to help you a little more, Erik. Will you sleep and listen?”

“Mm-hm,” Erik replied.

“Can you follow the light?”

“It dances,” Erik said dreamily.

“Good.” Mordecai squeezed him again. “Listen to my voice and follow the light. Everything that happened while Auntie Enora was in you is starting to feel very distant, like something you might’ve dreamed. You can still remember, but it’s faded. It’s hard to feel again how you were scared or unhappy, you just remember you were. The time before it happened is much clearer. You can move when you want to, and you can talk, just like before.”

Erik frowned and twisted. “Hard… talking…”

Mordecai blinked at him. It had been hard for him to talk before. He had gotten a lot of it back, but he hadn’t been talking like this. This was like he hadn’t been hurt at all.

Except those two slow words after Mordecai had told him he could talk like he had been before.

“Ah!” said the man. “Never mind about before. You can talk now. You can talk like you were talking to me just now. Lots of words, and it’s easy for you.”

“Mm-hm,” Erik replied.

Mordecai sighed and put a hand to his head. Oh, gods, please help me not to damage him more. “Erik, you can move and talk and the time when Auntie Enora was here is faded like a dream.”

“Yes.”

“You can forget what we talked about while you were sleeping. Just remember it was peaceful and it helped you feel better.”

Erik smiled. “Mm-hm.”

“That’s good. You’re going to sleep very deeply now, real sleeping without any voices or dancing lights. When you wake up, you’ll feel so much better, and you’ll be able to talk and move however you like.”

“Thank you, Uncle,” Erik said.

“You’re very welcome, Erik. I’m going to lie you down so you can sleep.”

“Mm-hm.”

He let Erik down on the bed, put his head on the pillow, and pulled the blanket up over his chest. Erik sighed. He rolled on to his side and snuggled down.

Mordecai pocketed the quarter automatically.

That’s done, then. It’s done.

He was no longer entirely certain where he was or who he was talking to. He hoped it was someone. He needed it to be someone. If it wasn’t anyone, they couldn’t help him.

“So what the hell was that?” she said.

“I did that during the war,” he answered faintly.

“Talked a blue streak, smiled like a loon, fed people custard and then hypnotized them?”

“Yes. So many times. For Erik’s mother. Now for Erik.” He wobbled and put a numb hand on the floor to steady himself. “I need to not be in here right now,” he said. “I… I… Please…”

“Mordecai?” She put both arms around him, under his arms like maybe she was going to pick him up and drag him. “Do you need to lie down?”

“No. Leave,” he replied. “He’ll sleep and I leave. Please. Now.”

“Can you stand?” She tried to help him.

“Don’t know,” he said. “Trying.” He managed to get up on his hands and knees and he wasn’t sure what to do from there.

Alba. Erik. Oh, gods…

“Please, very fast.”

“No,” said Hyacinth. “Carefully. Come on. Let’s get you standing before you start trying to walk.”

“Okay.” He let her do that to him. Help him stand. He needed to be leaving but, okay. Stand first. He leaned heavily against her and stared wide-eyed at absolutely nothing.

“Mordecai, are you with me?” she said.

“No, only a little,” he replied.

“Look,” she said. He needed to lie down. Obviously. “Oh, damn it. Your bed is in the kitchen anyway. All right. Walk with me.” He sort of tumbled, like he was negotiating a very steep hill without being entirely aware of it. It was weird and precarious, but it was sufficient for her to help him into the kitchen. “All right, let’s…”

He sat down on the floor. She let him. She couldn’t get him up on her own. “All right. Fine. Do that.”

“I need a pillow,” he said.

“You are not going to sleep there!” she replied.

“No,” he said vaguely. “I am going to scream. If I don’t have a pillow, everyone will hear.”

Hyacinth glanced out the window. It was early, faint dawn, about when Milo would be having breakfast under normal circumstances. But, hell, it didn’t matter what time it was. There were plenty of people around for him to scare with screaming, Erik among them. She snatched a pillow from the bed and handed it to him.

He curled up in a ball, he put the pillow against his knees, and he screamed into it.

It was still audible, and reasonably disturbing, even without being loud enough to wake the whole house. He came up for air looking pale and haggard, like a drowning man, then he put his head down and did it again. It sounded like a distant car accident.

I’ve had enough screaming, Hyacinth thought skittishly. I really have had enough screaming, thanks.

“Done now,” he said. He fell backwards and cracked his head on the floor.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” said Hyacinth. She skidded to her knees beside him, lifted his head and put the pillow under it.

He stared up at the ceiling with a dazed expression. “He’s seven. She died when she was nineteen and he’s only seven.”

“Mordecai, would you like a tranquilizer?” Hyacinth asked him.

“I would like all of them,” he said softly. “One right after the other.”

She leaned over him with a sour expression. Her fraying ponytail framed her face in tangled wisps. “Tell me you are just being stupid and I don’t have to hide things from you.”

“I’m just being stupid and you don’t have to hide things from me.”

“Great!” She crawled to her feet and retrieved her bag. She gave him two.

“I have to be all right when he wakes up,” he said belatedly.

“Look, Mordecai,” she told him, “I don’t know how you’re going to be. You’re lying on the kitchen floor. I would just like to see some improvement.”

“Can I try being in a chair?” he said. He made no movement or attempt to bring this about, either unable to do so or content to wait for Hyacinth’s verdict on the matter.

“I’d rather you tried being in your bed,” she said.

“I have to be all right when he wakes up,” he said.

“‘All right’ is a process and your bed can be a part of it!” she snapped.

“I have been in my bed a lot, Hyacinth,” he replied meekly.

She groaned and rolled her head towards the ceiling. “If I let you sit at the table, will you eat breakfast?”

“Yes.”

“Do you understand what ‘breakfast’ is right now or the fact that you have agreed to it?”

“No.”

“Great! How about some oatmeal?”

———

Ann was eating cereal at the kitchen table. It was the weirdest thing he had ever seen. Ann couldn’t eat cereal. With a dress. And no glasses.

Her makeup was smudged and her dress crumpled into an uneven tube. It was rosy orange lace over a cotton sheath with a skirt that flared at the bottom like a flower vase. It was yesterday’s dress.

“How are you holding up, Em?” she said.

“Have I finished eating?” he said.

“Yes, dear.”

“Am I not on the floor?”

“No, dear.”

“I seem to be managing.” He had a cup of tea. He did not think it was for drinking. He thought maybe it was for staring at. However, Ann and cereal and a dress were much more arresting. Tea was… practically ordinary.

It had a spoon in it. You could stir it. Like that.

I can’t protect him. I couldn’t protect him. He did that because of me.

He couldn’t get a really good cry going, or any more screaming. He knew these things without really feeling them. He stirred the tea.

Hyacinth had gone to sit with Erik. He was pretty sure he asked her to do that. In any case, he wanted her to do that. Erik should sleep for a while, but if he woke up, she could yell for him. She wouldn’t know how to take care of him right. Being able to move again and knowing when to do it were two different things. One he could help and one Erik would have to relearn by being up and walking around.

He could vividly recall Alba staring at a water-glass or similar on the table in front of her with an irritated expression. It had happened many times. Sometimes she would swear at it under her breath. You have to pick it up, he’d tell her. I’m thinking about it! she’d reply. Yes. She was thinking she wanted it, but she expected someone else to move her hand and get it for her.

She would walk into walls because she expected to stop and stop walking in the middle of the room because she expected to keep going.

Where do you want to be, Alba?

Damn it. The laundry room.

Okay. Let’s go.

It happened to the others, too. It was normal. It was just worse with her because she could hold them for longer. She was better about it after she learned to dissociate, but it still happened sometimes.

Erik was going to have to learn to dissociate. It would help him. Erik wasn’t even recovered from this experience and Mordecai was already treating it like it was going to happen again. It would, of course. Now that he could do it, he wouldn’t stop. Why would he stop? He was like his mother.

Ann didn’t know any of that, of course. Ann didn’t even know the little that Hyacinth knew. Ann only knew he was on drugs and he was supposed to finish his oatmeal. Did he do that? He tipped the bowl towards him and checked. It was empty.

Oh. Good.

Why did he have tea?

He put his head on the table and wrapped his arms around it so he could have darkness.

Ann laid a gentle hand on his shoulder and rubbed. “Are you just a little bit tired, Em?”

“No. Hiding.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose that’s all right.” She pulled up a chair beside him and left her hand on his back.

“It bothers me when you eat cereal in a dress with no glasses,” he said.

“I suppose I don’t do that very often,” she agreed.

“It’s because I’m hurt and on drugs. I don’t have to make sense. You should say you’re sorry and don’t do it again until I feel better. That’s how you take care of people.”

Ann considered that, frowning. “Em, I’m sorry I ate cereal in a dress with no glasses. I won’t do it again.”

“I don’t like you in yesterday’s dress, either.”

“Do you want me to change?”

“No. I won’t be okay alone. Say you will later.”

“I promise I will later.”

“Okay.” He sighed. He sat up, but he hung his head and gazed fixedly into his lap. “It helps. That’s why I do it. Because it helps.”

“What is it that you do, Em?”

“Keep saying it’s okay and do what they need. Let the gods do whatever they want and then clean up their messes and take care of the people. Let Alba eat an entire chocolate cake because Solange wanted her to and then help her later when it hurts.”

“Have you been helping Erik now that Auntie Enora’s gone?”

“Yes.” He looked up at her. “Auntie Enora…”

…hurt Milo.

He shook his head. It wouldn’t help Ann to know that, and it wouldn’t help Milo. She made him forget it, that had helped. That might have been the only thing that could help. He didn’t really understand what had happened or how, but he didn’t want to mess with it now that it was better.

He didn’t want Milo crying and hitting his head again.

“I’m glad she’s gone,” he finished.

“I am, too,” said Ann. “She was nice to me, but I’m unhappy with her for what she did to Erik.”

“Yes.”

“And she made Milo remember the workhouse. But that wasn’t on purpose.”

He blinked and looked up at her. “You know about that?”

She nodded gravely. “He can’t remember it, so I do. I need to know about it so I can keep him safe.” She shook her head. “I don’t think Auntie Enora will ever try to do that again, even if he ever sees her again, but if she does, I won’t let her.”

“I guess we shouldn’t mention it to him otherwise,” Mordecai said.

“No. Please don’t. I’m glad she made him forget. I wish he could have forgotten all of it.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked her.

She smiled at him. “Are you trying to take care of me, Em?”

He hid his eyes in his hands. “Yes. I think I’m stuck that way. It’s like a switch. If I have it off entirely I’m worried I’ll shut down. I need to be okay for Erik.”

“Do you mind helping me take care of you? I think that was a good idea you had.”

It wasn’t so much an idea as random stuff that just came out of him, but he appreciated her for saying so. “I have to have medicine,” he said. “I don’t want it, but I haven’t had any since yesterday. The note said breakfast, lunch and dinner. Half a glass. Until it runs out. I had breakfast.” Did he have breakfast? He checked. Yes. There was also some tea. He had a sip of that.

He winced. It was cold. And sweet. He pushed the cup away.

“And when you have a second, please take that away from me so I don’t have any more of it. I seem to have put sugar in it. I don’t take sugar.”

“Six spoons of it,” Ann told him, setting the glass of medicine down on the table. “One at a time. You seemed to like having it, though.”

“I guess it was something to do,” he said. “Let’s see if I can do this instead.” He drank down the glass. He still liked the taste of it, even now. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see how that screws with me.”

“I’ll be here,” Ann said.

It helped, actually. Ann being kind to him and being good at taking direction also helped, but he perked right up after the medicine. I have a bottle of coping, he thought, considering it. And there was enough of it to go two or three days. He supposed it didn’t matter as much if he fell apart after that.

He sent Ann upstairs to get changed and maybe wash her face or fix it otherwise. In the kitchen, he started making a crème caramelle, and he had another look at Auntie Enora’s notes. He wanted to read the part about Alba while he still had two or three days of coping left.

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