Welcome Back, Erik (31)

Hey kid, do you like it? Hey kid, do you love it? Do you want some more of it?

He kept hearing that. When he woke up and Maggie was talking to him and he couldn’t talk to Maggie and he couldn’t move. When Auntie Enora touched his Uncle and made him smile and sleep like he couldn’t even remember who he was. When she scared Milo and made him drop his cereal, and then when she wanted to know why he wouldn’t talk, and she did that… When he wanted to scream and he couldn’t, and when he was screaming and he couldn’t stop.

Do you like it? Do you love it? Do you want some more of it?

That voice that said his Uncle was dying, and he could save him, and said how.

The radio that wouldn’t turn off. The man with the laugh like boiling oil.

Do you like it? Do you love it…?

“No,” he said faintly. He could finally say it. “I don’t.”

His Uncle was leaning over him and looking worried and sad. “Erik? Are you back with me?”

“Mm-hm,” Erik said. He wasn’t entirely, but he was coming up pretty fast.

His Uncle smiled.

Erik smiled back. Are you okay? Are you really okay? The smiled faded. Wait, I think I’m not okay…

Erik twisted in bed and pushed at the blanket with both hands. “I need the bathroom. I can’t…” There was just so much he had to do. The blanket, and clothes, and… and he had to get up, somehow, and walk… He couldn’t just do it and it wasn’t happening and he had to do something now. He was going to lie here and wet the bed because it was too complicated not to.

“Oh. That’s all right. Here we go.” Mordecai lifted him out of the bed.

Erik regarded him miserably. No. Please. I don’t want help with that. I don’t want any help with that. He needed it, and quickly, so that something even worse didn’t happen, but he didn’t want it. Not from his Uncle. Ideally from a total stranger who would evaporate in a puff of smoke afterwards and never be heard from again.

Mordecai didn’t even ask. He just did it. Auntie Enora had left Erik in a nightshirt with no underwear, which made things appreciably easier. Towels and clean bed-linen would not be required.

“I have done this for people a lot older than you,” Mordecai told him firmly.

“How much older?” Erik asked, looking down.

“As old as Milo,” Mordecai said. And then, for the absurdity of it, he added, “As old as the General.”

Erik looked up at him wide-eyed and said, “No!”

Mordecai grinned at him and nodded. “Oh, yes. Absolutely as old as her. And ladies, too. Very angry ladies who did not want helping.”

“But not who could kill you,” Erik said.

“Oh, some of them,” Mordecai replied. “If they put their minds to it. They usually forgave me because I never talked about it and we’d pretend it never happened.”

“You’re talking about it now,” Erik said, frowning.

“Well, I like you better than them. I won’t ever meet anyone I like better than you, so you’re safe. Wash.” He had a bucket with soap and water that would have been applicable to this situation or a more embarrassing one. They both washed. Erik looked down and away.

“It’s all right, dear one, really,” Mordecai said. “You probably won’t need it again.”

Erik shook his head. “I know. I’m really sorry I had to help you with the bathroom, though.”

Mordecai winced. Oh, gods, he hadn’t even thought about that. That hadn’t been like it was Erik at all, but Erik didn’t know how to look away. He had to see everything. “I’m sorry about that, too,” he said.

“Are you mad at me?” Erik said.

Mordecai snatched him and hugged him. “No, dear one. Not for any of it. You wanted to help, and then the rest of it wasn’t you. I’m just sorry you had to see me that way.”

“It was scary,” Erik admitted. “And sometimes sad. And sometimes both.” He looked up, pained. “Did I make you feel that way, too?”

“It’s not your fault,” Mordecai said, which wasn’t ‘no.’

“I guess we just shouldn’t talk about those parts,” Erik said.

Mordecai shook his head. “That’s not how this works. It goes one way. You can talk about anything you want to with me. There are some things I won’t talk about unless you bring them up first. You get to pick. You’re not taking care of me anymore. I’m taking care of you.”

“It doesn’t sound fair,” Erik said.

“It’s not meant to be fair. You take what you need from me. You should have what you need right now, Erik. Food or water or anything.”

Erik nodded to him. “I guess I want food,” he said. “But I want to be held, first. I need that more.”

Mordecai arranged himself so that he had a lap, then he drew Erik into it and held him. “Like this?”

Erik sighed. “Yes.” He shut his eye and curled close. “Could you say a bunch more times that you’re not mad? You were really, really mad.”

“I was mad at her. I wasn’t mad at you then and I’m not mad at you now. I’m not mad.”

“Do you still love me?”

“Yes.” He held tighter. “More than anything.”

Erik wanted to eat at the table and show everyone he was okay. He therefore wanted clean clothes and combed hair and his eye in. He managed the clothes and the hair with a little assistance, those motions were practiced and automatic, but the eye unsettled him and he popped it back out and put it in the glass.

“I have to get used to it again,” he muttered, frowning. “Darn it. I wasn’t all done getting used to it before.” There was also an uncomfortable film on the inside of his socket that he did not seem to be able to polish out with oil or remove with soap and water. It was yellowish and he thought maybe smoke-related. It could be moisture or dirt as well, or maybe all three. Auntie Enora hadn’t wanted the patch or the eye. He hoped Hyacinth could do something to fix it that wouldn’t hurt.

He tied on the patch so that it wouldn’t get any worse. Well, he tied it on most of the way. His fingers wouldn’t make a bow. He knew how to do it, they just wouldn’t. His Uncle caught him trying to secure the granny knot with another granny knot, prevented him and did a bow.

“Your mother used to do that to her boots,” he said. “It’s really annoying to untie. If you’re sick of trying to tie a bow, let me do it. Keep trying, just let me help you when you’re ready to give up. Don’t cheat.” He helped Erik with the second set of strings, then they attempted shoelaces.

Erik was able to manage a bow for one of his shoes, though a loose and awkward one. It was easier when he could see what his hands were doing. He could tell them they were wrong. Noting progress, Mordecai requested Erik’s assistance with both of his shoes. He was able to get one of those as well. Midway through the second, he complained of being hungry again, so Mordecai ended the lesson in bows and began one in getting-where-we-are-going-without-stopping.

When Erik walked gently into the bedroom door, he amended this to getting-where-we-are-going-with-appropriate-stopping. He held Erik’s hand to help matters along. Dinner was more important than independence at the moment.

Ann was making canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, a meal she knew her way around fairly well. Hyacinth was putting staples in a man with a scraped cheek and a bloody arm. She was using metal from the broken toaster.

Oh, I did that, Erik thought guiltily.

Well, no. He didn’t.

Hyacinth looked up at him and smiled. “Hey, Erik.”

“Erik?” Ann said. She abandoned the sandwich and rushed towards him.

“Ann,” said Erik. He did not require assistance to make it the rest of the way to Ann. That wasn’t very far, anyway. They met somewhat closer to the door than to the middle of the room, and Erik wrapped both arms around her waist and buried his face in her skirt. “Oh, Ann.”

“Oh, dear. Oh, Erik. That’s all right, now.” Her smiled wavered but she forced it to stay. She hadn’t had arms around him since before that awful woman had come. She had known he was thin, but she hadn’t felt it like this. He had one of Mordecai’s ties drawing three belt loops of his pants together to keep them on, and the shirt hung on him like a sail. “I think you had better sit down, my little love. And we’ll get you something to eat right away.” She swept him up and put him in one of the chairs at the kitchen table. He put his arms around her neck and when she let him down he wouldn’t let go. “Oh, poor Erik,” she said softly.

“Is Milo okay?” he asked her.

“Yes, dear. Milo is fine. Right as rain.” She leaned in and spoke against his ear, “He doesn’t remember it, and it wasn’t your fault.”

“I hated her doing it,” Erik whispered. “She made him take… medicine even though she knew.”

“I think it was just the only way she knew how to help,” Ann said.

“I’m sorry,” Erik said. His expression crumpled. “I really wanted her to stop, okay? Do you… believe me?”

“Yes, dear. Yes. Of course I do. Oh, please don’t cry. Milo’s all right. He’s just fine.” Ann thought Milo was in a lot better shape than Erik. And the fact that Erik was sad about him and that thin was just a little too much to bear. She swiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her dress and then knelt beside him and held him again. “There, now. That’s all right.”

Mordecai appeared with a box of tissues, then two glasses of water, then he rescued the sandwich – which had begun to emit a dangerous smell. He retreated to the basement to find Erik’s dinner, at least a part of it. He could certainly have grilled cheese and soup as well, if he wanted it.

Ann applied tissues and commiserated softly with Erik.

“Do you… promise he’s okay?” Erik said.

“Yes. Cross my heart. You can see him later if you want.”

He nodded. “I wish I could hug him, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Ann said. She hugged Erik for Milo. “It’s just really hard for him. It’s not that he doesn’t want to, it’s just really hard.”

“I love you both.”

“We love you, too.”

“What are you two whispering about over here?” Hyacinth asked them, drying her hands. Her charge had been dealt with and had rewarded her with actual money, which was a nice change. It was also nice to have her operating room back in business. She was sick of seeing patients in the front room with no sink and no table. Never mind that Auntie Enora kept nosing in and fixing them better.

“We both like grilled cheese sandwiches!” Ann replied, a bit damply. She dabbed her eyes with a tissue, sniffed and smiled. “Erik, dear, would you like one right now?”

“Is there one still warm?” he asked.

“I’ll touch them and see!” Ann said.

In the meantime, Mordecai came in with a large plate bearing a mound of pale substance that completely arrested Erik’s attention. “What’s… that?”

Mordecai held up the plate slightly and blinked at it. “Um, it’s a crème caramelle. You must’ve had one before…”

“I dunno,” Erik replied. “I forgot a lot of stuff, but I think I would’ve remembered that.” It was like a mountain. It was somewhat cracked and slumped over to one side, but that just made it look more mountainous to Erik. Like something that might’ve formed naturally over millions of years. It was creamy brown on top fading to yellowish-white on the bottom. It wiggled.

“Well, you might’ve had a small one or just a piece of one,” Moredecai said. He set the plate in front of Erik on the table. “Or maybe out of a tin.” That seemed most likely. If Erik had eaten one out of a tin, he wouldn’t’ve bothered to plate it or have a real good look at it. “I made a big one because you need to eat. The whole thing’s yours.”

“All of it?” Erik said. It looked good and it smelled really good, but it was bigger than his head.

“Do what you can to it,” his Uncle said, smiling. “If there’s any left we can save it. If you finish it, I can make another.”

“Can I share it?” Erik said.

“It’s not for sharing,” Mordecai said.

“It’s absolutely not,” Ann agreed. She set a plate with a grilled cheese sandwich and a spoon on the table next to the crème caramelle. The grilled cheese was sort of pathetic in comparison.

“All yours, Erik,” Hyacinth added, nodding.

When Erik still looked doubtful, Mordecai added, “I can make another one for sharing, later.”

That was sufficient. Erik was hungry. He was so excited about it he managed three whole bites before he forgot how to eat.

“Wait…” I want to have more of this. I am not having more of it. What am I doing wrong?

“Move the spoon,” his Uncle said, and mimed doing so.

Erik regarded the spoon. Aren’t I doing that? It was midway through a strata of crème caramelle, not quite having detached the piece from the whole. Okay. I’m not. I want to, but I’m not.

“Erik…” Hyacinth said. She leaned forward to do something, maybe move the spoon for him.

Mordecai stopped her with a hand. “It’s because he hasn’t been able to move. Let him try.”

I can’t just… I have to actually… There’s a thing I need to be doing, here!

Mordecai reached over and gave his hand a little nudge.

Oh, wait! Like that!

With a relieved expression, Erik negotiated another bite. He took another one right after, before he even finished swallowing, just to make sure he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. He glanced aside and made a sheepish smile. “Okay, that was weird.”

“It’s normal,” Mordecai said. “You’ve just gotten used to Auntie Enora moving you. You need to move you. You’ll have to pay extra attention, and I’ll try to help you with it. You might be a little bit clumsy for a while. Try to be patient about it.” He made a wry smile. “I don’t know if you’ll manage. Your mother was never very patient about it. She really had a mouth on her, too.”

“She swore?” Erik said.

“Almost constantly,” Mordecai said.

“May I swear?”

“If you need to.”

He did so instinctively when he dropped his water-glass on the floor, “Oh, damn it!” He didn’t want to do that! His hand just… stopped holding.

“Not bad for a first try,” Mordecai said, though whether he meant swearing or holding a water-glass he left uncertain. The glass had not broken. Even if it had, there were plenty more. They went through a lot of jelly in this house, as it did not have to be refrigerated or cooked. He picked up the glass and he went after a towel.

Alba had once dropped an entire tea set. She should not have been holding an entire tea set, but she wasn’t patient and she’d picked it up when he wasn’t looking.

By the time Maggie and the General came down for dinner, Erik had managed the entire grilled cheese sandwich and about a quarter of the crème caramelle with occasional puzzled stops and mild language.

Maybe I should teach him some more swears, Mordecai thought absently. Alba had been lyrical after that tea set.

Erik was able to get out of his chair so that Maggie could hug him, but he forgot to hug her back.

“Are you mad at me?” she asked him.

“No, it’s hard moving,” he replied. “Gimme a sec.”

Mordecai mimed hugging for him.

Right. Yeah. That. Do that, me. Come on.

He lifted his arms, then the motion came back to him. He hugged Maggie. “Okay. There. Sorry. Not mad.”

“It’s hard moving?” Maggie asked him, drawing back.

“Sorta,” he said.

“Any pithy observations about the nature of my soul?” the General inquired of him, arms folded across her chest.

“No, ma’am,” Erik said. He gasped and straightened. “No, sir!”

“Hm.” She twitched a faint smile at him and turned to address Hyacinth, “Then I am once again allowed in the kitchen of the house where I live and pay rent?”

“Apparently,” Hyacinth replied.

“Is that meant to be dinner?” she asked, disdaining the crème caramelle.

“That’s Erik’s,” Mordecai said, stepping forward.

“Can he share?” Maggie said eagerly.

No,” said Ann and Hyacinth and Mordecai.

“Uncle, can you make another one for sharing?” Erik said.

Mordecai sighed. “All right, but let me have a sandwich, first.”

An hour later, a second (smaller) crème caramelle made an appearance. The General ate a small, polite amount. Ann and Maggie liked it. Hyacinth thought it was too sweet. Mordecai drank medicine and then he didn’t mind it too much. He had been faltering a little after Erik dropped his water-glass for the third time. It wasn’t fair, what had happened and that Erik had to deal with this now. But it did no good to go on about it.

He picked up the glass, he mopped the floor with the wet towel that was still down there from before, and he filled the glass again. Halfway. In case it went on the floor again.

Milo made an appearance after the table was cleared. He gave Erik a card:

I'm okay. She scared me and she broke the toaster but Ann talked to her and them she was nicer to me. I know you didn't want her to do any of that. I'm really glad you're back. (I'm sorry about hugs.)

– which Mordecai read to him.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Milo,” Erik said, looking slightly aside – like how Auntie Enora couldn’t figure out how to do. “It’s okay about hugs. I know you would if you could.”

Milo nodded.

A bottle of grape soda made an appearance after that. Mordecai told Hyacinth to pour it in a glass and that he’d hold it so Erik didn’t drop it. That was precious stuff, and there wouldn’t be any more of it.

And Erik had been talking like he had been before he was hurt. Mordecai didn’t want him to lose that, especially not because he’d been allowed to drop it on the floor.

Erik saw the glass and turned away from it. “I don’t want it.”

Mordecai breathed a weak laugh. Oh, gods, I’m a bad example. “Erik, I can’t make you take it like she would’ve – I wouldn’t do that even if I could – but I want you to have it. You did a lot of really hard stuff so that we could have medicine. I’m taking mine, you saw me. Please take yours.” He would wrestle the boy to the floor if he had to, hold his head back and pour it in, but he really didn’t want to do that.

“I’m not sick,” Erik said.

“You’re thin and hurt,” Mordecai said. “I want you to get better. I’m not sick anymore, either, but I could get sick again if I stopped taking mine. Would you want me to do that?”

Erik shook his head. It scared him, to think of that. And, surprisingly, it made him mad. I did do a lot of hard stuff so you could have that! Don’t get sick again!

He sighed, “Okay,” and reached out for the glass.

“I’m sorry, dear one. I think I’d better hold it.”

Erik sighed again and nodded. He drank down the glass.

It was really, really good grape soda. Like out of a fountain instead of a bottle. That kind of made him mad, too. How can she be so careful about everything and still so mean?

Maybe not even mean. Maybe just… stupid?

Hyacinth took him into the bathroom after with an old toothbrush and some baking soda stuff to clean out his socket. His Uncle didn’t like looking at that and wandered out into the hall. It did look weird – sort of like Hyacinth was trying to poke out his brain with a toothbrush – and it felt weird, but it felt a lot better having it clean. He expressed his intention to have his eye in all day tomorrow and get used to it again all at once.

Hyacinth thought he might be a little bit better about eating and walking around if he had it out sometimes. He guessed that might be true.

It was weird brushing his teeth after a soda, and he wasn’t really tired.

Except by the time he got all the way undone for bed, he was.

Stupid perfect medicine, he thought.

No.

Damn perfect medicine.

Yes, that was better.

He slept really well, too.

He woke up early and checked behind the curtains to see if it was too early. It was bluish outside, which he thought was enough for him. He had been sleeping a lot. He tried not to wake his Uncle, though. He put his eye in right away, then he took it out because he couldn’t find the closet. Then he walked into the closet and thumped lightly into the back wall.

Damn.

He didn’t say it. He peeped out of the closet and it didn’t look like he was loud enough to wake his Uncle.

He put his eye back in, he put both his hands down and stood quietly.

Okay. I need to pay attention. I know how to move. I know I need to move. There is a small, loud part of me that thinks I don’t have to, but I am not going to listen to it. I am going to get dressed and get out of the bedroom without waking my Uncle.

Without worrying my Uncle.

(He knew that was going to be an issue, although he wasn’t certain how much of one yet.)

He went slow. His eye kept wandering off and trying to examine the wallpaper. It was striped. Up-and-down stripes. It was very difficult wallpaper, but better than the kitchen which was checked. That made his eye want to go both ways. The bathroom had the best wallpaper, a lot of big flowers and leaves and swirly lines that were too complicated to follow.

He tried looking up and down in the closet. Hey, there are lines in the closet! Let’s look at the lines in the closet!

His eye accepted the compromise but it wouldn’t stop looking up and down, even when he did. It took him a couple passes to get his hand on his shirt, then he stalled out when he wanted to take it off the hanger.

Paying attention now, he told himself.

And his eye wandered off to look at the wall.

I can do one of these things but not both.

Truthfully, he wasn’t sure if he could do the one, but he definitely couldn’t do both. He took his eye out and put it in the shirt pocket, then he methodically got dressed.

There didn’t seem to be any rules about when he was going to lose track of what he was doing. It could be something easy or complicated or in the middle or at the beginning or at the end. And he didn’t always. He had a complete train of thought about why wallpaper had so many lines while he was buttoning his shirt and he managed to get through the whole thing. His hands attempted to button a few inches of nothing past the bottom hem, but he did the whole shirt! He dropped his pants on two separate occasions, once when he already had them on. (He really needed his Uncle to tie up some of the belt loops again, but the entire point of this exercise was not waking his Uncle. He bundled the excess material in his left hand and held them up that way.) He left off his stockings and shoes. He didn’t really need those.

He almost made it out of the room. He got so close. He got the door open! And somehow he walked into the frame.

“Erik?”

“I’m okay!” he said. “It’s really early. I’m just going to get breakfast.” He should’ve said he was just going to go to the bathroom or something, but he realized it too late.

“I’ll help. Give me a second.”

“No, it’s all right. I think I’ll just have cereal.”

“Breakable dishes,” Mordecai muttered. He attempted to sit up and regain consciousness simultaneously and did not quite manage either.

“Milo’s up! Milo will help me!” He had no idea if Milo was up or even home.

“Oh.” Milo? Yes. Milo would do that sort of thing. Probably. It was very early and Mordecai had been in the middle of a dream about cooking… something. He went back to it. Breakfast. Maybe he was making breakfast. Eggs and toast. “Broken toaster,” he sighed, irritated.

Erik hung out in the doorway for another minute or so and then left very carefully, one motion at a time. He walked out and stopped then he turned and stopped then he closed the door and stopped. Silence from within the bedroom.

Yes!

And then he got stuck in the dining room.

He knew where he wanted to be, he knew how to get there, the part of him that translated intent into motion was slacking off.

No! Keep moving! Walk more!

He knew everything he needed to know about walking. He just wasn’t doing it.

I was doing it two seconds ago!

It was getting to be more like two minutes, and he was starting to get scared he was just going to stand here until someone found him. It was early. That could be hours.

It would be so boring!

He attempted to fall over. That would be moving. If he could just move something he would get the idea of it again, he knew it!

He managed to drop his pants.

All right, now I really need to remember about moving because this is embarrassing.

Walking was no longer an option. Not a good option. He would definitely fall, and not in a nice, controlled way. Randomly. He was not willing to invest that much effort in randomly falling – not yet, anyway – even on a carpeted floor. He was much more committed to the idea of getting his pants back on, but that didn’t seem like it was going to happen, either. It was too complicated. He needed something small. A fingertip, maybe. Or his eye…

He was moving his eye. He was looking and blinking, but that didn’t seem to be entirely under his control. He supposed he could stop blinking and close his eye, but he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to open it up again.

Wait. What did his Uncle say when he couldn’t move and he couldn’t swallow?

He held his breath.

That’s it! That’s how you do things!

But he had forgotten about not walking and he tried to do that first and he tripped over his pants. He fell forward and caught himself and the carpet in the dining room was soft. He bit his lip pretty good, though.

“Shit,” he said, but he was smiling. He got back into his pants and he ran into the kitchen. He also ran into the kitchen table, but he didn’t mind about that too much. Bruised-with-a-bloody-lip-in-the-kitchen was a huge improvement over trapped-in-the-dining-room-with-no-pants.

Now, cereal? He had said cereal.

No way. I’m having a cigarette.

He had wanted one yesterday, but he thought if he asked for one, they’d say no. No one who lived here smoked and they weren’t supposed to start because his Uncle shouldn’t be around smoke like that. But Auntie Enora had proven it was quite possible to smoke near his Uncle as long as you did it away from him. Outside.

Also, he really, really, really wanted a cigarette. They were relaxing. This not-being-able-to-move and having-to-look-at-the-wallpaper business was stressful.

They were in the drawer next to the kitchen door. He managed to make it over there and not bump into the cabinet too badly. Excitement did seem to have some effect on his ability to move. He had a look in the drawer. There wouldn’t be any matches, and he didn’t think he could do that green fire thing on his own, but there were some matches near the stove. He’d go after those, next.

Once he found the cigarettes. It wasn’t a big drawer. There had been three packs in here last time he looked and nobody else smoked. Maybe it wasn’t this drawer?

He tried the one next to it, but Hyacinth had her purse in there. He looked under it, just in case, then he looked in it. Nothing. Well, a wallet, and a pencil and notepad, but no cigarettes.

He had gone five drawers past where he remembered the cigarettes being by the time his Uncle Mordecai stumbled into the kitchen wearing his nightshirt.

“Cigarettes?” Mordecai asked him. The nature of Erik’s difficulty was not such that he would be looking in drawers for cereal.

Erik looked up hopefully. “Yeah!”

“Trashcan,” Mordecai said.

Perfectly good… cigarettes?” Erik cried. He ran into the kitchen trashcan, but not badly enough that he knocked it over. He lifted the lid.

“No, no. Not the house trashcan.”

“Where? Outside?”

“Erik, you are not having cigarettes out of a trashcan. Or any at all.”

He dropped both hands to his sides and asked miserably, “Why?

“Because you don’t smoke.” Mordecai dampened a dishtowel in the cement flowerpot. Erik had bloodied his mouth somehow. He should’ve gotten up right away. “Here, let me see you. Did you fall?”

“No. I dunno. Sorta.” Erik pushed him away, then allowed him. “Not a lot. Ow.”

“Sorry.” He dabbed carefully with one corner of the towel. “Better?”

“I promise I’ll only smoke outside.”

“Nope.”

“But I really… want to!” Erik said.

“Your body wants to, because Auntie Enora’s been using it to smoke cigarettes for two weeks. You don’t. You give it a little while and you’ll remember.”

“I remember liking cigarettes right now.”

“Wait two weeks and if you still want one, you can have one.”

“Two weeks for… one?” Erik cried. That was barely five minutes! “Two… days for one.”

“Not negotiable,” Mordecai said mildly. He set the dishtowel aside. “Do you still want cereal?”

“Coffee,” Erik said.

“You can have one coffee with breakfast and one with lunch, if you want one then. There will not be constant coffee. Got it?”

“One coffee with breakfast and a cigarette with lunch.”

“Not an option.” Mordecai had a look in the pantry. “Cereal or something else?”

“A different Uncle,” Erik said, frowning.

“Also not an option. How about some eggs?” Eggs would be better for him than cereal, anyway. It was too bad about the toaster.

Erik eventually had a three-egg omelet with cheese and a cup of black coffee. Mordecai also managed to get two half-glasses of milk into him (and one on the floor). Mordecai did not care much about his own breakfast, then he had half a glass of medicine and decided yes he did. He had cereal. He still didn’t care enough to make more eggs.

“I’m sorry I said about a different Uncle,” Erik said, regarding his empty plate. There was a small crumb of cheese and he removed it with a finger.

Mordecai smiled at him. “It’s all right, dear one. People can be very unpleasant before they’ve had their coffee. It’s best not to take them too seriously.”

“Are you sure you don’t want eggs?” Erik asked him.

“Well… I don’t know. I might have one.” He abandoned his cereal for the stove. “Do you want another omelet?”

“What about pancakes?” Erik said.

The rest of the household woke up that Sun’s Day morning to find Mordecai happily teaching Erik how to make pancakes. And a certain amount of eggs and milk and flour collecting in a pile on the kitchen floor.

“We’re subbing applesauce for eggs because I dropped the rest of them!” Erik declared.

“Watch your step!” Mordecai added.

“Is there any point in cleaning it up?” Hyacinth asked.

“No, Auntie Hyacinth,” Erik replied, smiling. “I’m just going to drop lots more.”

It was a kitchen-centric day with warmth and family and lots of food. And occasional coffee and frequent dropping of things. And no cigarettes. It was pretty okay except for that last part and Erik was busy enough that he didn’t always mind about the cigarettes. He learned how to do sweetened salt!

(Maggie tried to teach him how to make real sugar, but that was a lot harder. It needed math.)

They did cookies and a cake, and some hot chocolate. All of that was enough to get Barnaby down from the attic. Probably some of that would’ve been enough.

“Two weeks exactly!” Barnaby said, shaking his hand. “Thank you, Erik. That makes everything so much easier. The lunar cycle is twenty-eight days, you know,” he added, aside.

Erik nodded. He sort of knew that. He hadn’t really been thinking about it and he wasn’t sure what it had to do with anything, but this was Barnaby. If you asked questions he would answer you, and it still wouldn’t make any sense.

“I don’t suppose you have the exact time she left? Down to the minute would be sufficient.”

“Um, no. Sorry.” He’d been a little busy screaming. And it seemed like everyone else had been distracted by the screaming. Also, why would they even bother to do that?

“Be a good boy and write it down the next time. The absinthe won’t hit you right away.”

“Uh, I can’t… I’m not very good at writing.” He could do letters, sometimes letters, sometimes backwards letters… And sometimes he just sort of scrawled and went off the page. He crumpled those up and hid them because they bothered his Uncle.

“It doesn’t need to be a sonnet. Short prose is quite enough, and I don’t mind about the letters.” He brightened. “Although if you could manage a sonnet… Or something with metered rhyme! Perhaps a haiku!”

Hyacinth felt it necessary to intervene at that point. She hooked Barnaby by the arm and dragged him a few paces away. “Stop trying to get obscure forms of poetry out of Erik. He’s supposed to be eating cookies.”

“Haiku is not obscure, Hyacinth! They teach them to elementary school children! A haiku is a three-line poetry form, consisting of five, seven, and five syllables – which are prime numbers, by the way…” He had commandeered the kitchen notepad and was attempting to demonstrate. Hyacinth left him at the kitchen table, stood near him saying “Uh-huh,” for a few minutes, then felt free to wander off and go on about her business.

Erik ate cookies. And cake, and later spaghetti. (“There are two schools of thought on cooking pasta, Erik,” his Uncle told him. “A lot of water and no stirring or a little water and a lot of stirring. We do a little water and a lot of stirring because stirring is easier than hauling water from the pump in Strawberry Square. Always boil the water first. Heating up pasta in cold water is not a school of thought, it is an error of judgment.”) He broke a jar of spaghetti sauce, but there was another one, so it was okay. He walked into the kitchen table a lot. They eventually just pushed it up against the wall, which helped. Everyone was being really nice about him needing some extra help. It was still frustrating, but hard to be mad about it when everyone was so understanding.

He guessed him walking into furniture and dropping things and forgetting how to move was less weird than Auntie Enora. Maybe even less weird than Barnaby wanting numerology in haiku or Ann being Milo in a dress or the General turning into a bird. Things got weird, the house adapted.

Or maybe, he thought, considering Barnaby’s verses on the wall, things got weird and the house got weirder.

When he dropped his plate trying to carry it to the sink, Maggie dropped hers, too. She grinned at him. Barnaby attempted to rearrange the pieces for the best possible outcome. He asked them how many children they wanted. (“Three? Three is a good number!”) Hyacinth removed him to the attic so he wouldn’t cut himself and held off sweeping the floor until Erik went to bed.

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