Loose Ends (32)

Mordecai woke in darkness with a small body huddled against him and trembling. He put both arms around it.

“It’s okay. Bad dream?”

Nodding.

“About not being able to move?”

Shake of head, then nodding again.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know… Not yet… Please.”

“That’s all right.” He held Erik. When he heard tears, he found tissues and wiped Erik’s face for him. Now was not a good time for lessons in movement.

Eventually, Erik sat up and blew his own nose. “Can we have… lights? I don’t want to go back to… sleep.”

“It’s okay. We can go in the kitchen if you like. I can do hot chocolate…”

“I’d really like a… cigarette,” Erik said. “I’m sorry.” He drew out another tissue and scrubbed it over his eye, then his empty socket. His hands were shaking.

“What about coffee?” Mordecai said.

“Can I… really?” Erik said.

Mordecai did him one cup, with milk. Erik sampled it doubtfully, sitting at the kitchen table bundled in a blanket. Mordecai was wearing his coat over his nightshirt again and idly considering the idea of a bathrobe.

And maybe some slippers. This damn floor was cold.

“I think I like it better this way,” Erik said.

Mordecai smiled at him, relieved. Even if the boy picked up a coffee habit, at least it wasn’t going to be Auntie Enora’s coffee habit.

“Can I have sugar?”

“All you like.”

He seemed to like about four spoons of it, stirring carefully and sampling after each one.

Mordecai made himself a cup of tea and put a plate of cookies on the table. Peanut butter cookies, which required rolling into a ball and dipping in sugar and smashing with a fork. Good for fine motor skills. Also, he had doubled the recipe. Erik had dropped about a dozen of them on the floor, in various stages of doneness.

Erik had a cookie. Mordecai had a cookie.

Erik sighed. “I don’t know if I should talk about it. I know you said anything, but this isn’t about me. I just saw it.”

Mordecai numbly set a second cookie down on the table in front of him. “Is it the hotel?”

Erik closed his eye and shook his head. “It wasn’t a hotel. The beds were metal. And lots of them.”

At first, Mordecai could only feel relief. He shut his eyes and put his head in his hands. Not the hotel. Nothing about the hotel. He hadn’t hurt Erik that way.

So what was it? He’d never been in a place with metal beds… Maybe one metal bed, a brass bed in the room with Cathy, but not lots of them. “Was it like a hospital?”

Erik nodded. He opened his eye. “Like a hospital, I don’t know if it was one. It’s hard because he… he was…” He clasped his hands in his lap and stared down at them. “I saw a lot of really bad things happen to Milo. Auntie Enora wanted good things like she found for you but there weren’t any. It was just more and more… bad.” He looked up again, expression pained, “But he doesn’t want anyone to… know about it. It’s worse than help with the bathroom. It hurts him. It was bad because he had to see it again but it was worse because she saw it, too. And I saw it.”

Mordecai tipped his head back and examined the ceiling. Oh, you stupid, stupid, prying, over-managing creature. He was used to messes. He had expected cigarettes and coffee and not being able to move, and maybe something about the hotel, but Milo? That wasn’t even necessary. She’d just been curious.

She’d burned herself playing with matches and she’d used Erik’s hand to do it.

“You’re mad again,” Erik said weakly.

“Not at you,” Mordecai replied. “I’m mad you had to see that and I’m mad it happened to Milo. And I’m trying to think about what to do about it. Give me a second.” He got up to pace. He stuffed both hands in his pockets so Erik wouldn’t notice him balling them into fists. There was a quarter in his right hand pocket.

Yeah. Well. That, obviously.

“Erik, if you want to talk about it, I promise you it won’t go any farther than me. If you just want to forget about it, I can help you do that, too.”

Erik sat forward, “Like she made Milo forget?”

“No, not with medicine. With the quarter.” He sighed. “And maybe not as good. I might have to do it a couple times over. You might have some more bad dreams.”

“Lots more?” Erik asked, frowning.

“I don’t think lots. I’d have you remember to come tell me about it if you had more dreams so I could help you. Even if you forgot they were about Milo.”

“Would I dream it happened to me?” Erik said. “I dreamed it happened to me…”

Mordecai shook his head. “I don’t know, dear one. I think it’ll be less dreams if I try to help you forget, but I don’t know what about.”

Erik put his head in one hand and considered that, bare legs swinging under the table. “I think I want to forget even if there’s still dreams because Milo wouldn’t want me to know it.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Mordecai said. “And very brave.”

“I dunno,” Erik said and sighed. “I think it’s just less bad. Can I ask something before I forget? I guess it doesn’t matter if I won’t remember, but it bothers me now.”

“Yes. You can ask absolutely anything you need. And I won’t ever talk about it, not even with you.”

“Is there really a jacket like this?” He crossed his arms over his chest, hugged his shoulders and rocked back and forth. “I know some things weren’t real. He knows some things weren’t real, but he’s not always sure.”

“A straitjacket?” Mordecai said, blinking.

“I think…?”

“Did it lace up the back?”

“Yeah.”

“Yes. There’s really a jacket like that.” They’d had one during the war. He’d hated using it, and he’d never needed to do that to Alba, but depending on what kind of damage a god had done, sometimes it was necessary to stop a body from inflicting more. On more than one occasion he had been grateful for the damned thing.

Why?” Erik said, both anguished and offended.

“Well… It’s to keep people from hurting themselves. So they can’t move to do it.”

“That’s what they said it was,” Erik replied hotly. “But he wouldn’t have… done that if they didn’t hurt him… first. And they would just… leave him in it!”

“You’re not supposed to use it like that,” Mordecai replied. “It’s only for when everything else hurts worse, not to make things easy for you.” Damn it, he was getting mad again, and this time not at Auntie Enora.

I think I would like to find these people and leave them in straitjackets until they realize how much that hurts.

But that was no good for Erik or Milo or anyone. The thing had already been done. He was only doing damage control.

“Would you ever use one on me?” Erik asked him.

“No. Absolutely not. Never.” Gods help him, he would if there wasn’t any other way, but that wasn’t something Erik needed to know now and hopefully he’d never find it out.

He shut his eyes. He was faltering again. Just the thought that something like that could happen. That was a thread that if pulled would unravel his composure like a cheap sweater.

They won’t leave him alone. He will call another one. Maybe a worse one.

Cocaine, marijuana, nicotine and alcohol, he thought. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Arsenic and heroin and straitjackets…

There were only two doses of medicine left and he poured one out now. Erik was sitting at the kitchen table with his chin resting on his folded hands and didn’t seem to notice him. He drank it quickly. He might make it through the rest of the day all right, if nothing unsettled him too badly. He knew things were going to get really hard really soon. He didn’t know how well he was going to be able to keep everyone else from noticing, particularly Erik.

He also knew he needed to deal with this thing in front of him right now, so it was medicine now and whatever happened later would happen later.

“You promise you won’t talk to Milo about it?” Erik said. “I wanted to say it was okay and I was sorry and hug him, but he would’ve hated all that. It was really hard to not do it, though.”

“I won’t talk to him about it,” Mordecai said. “I know that would hurt him, and that’s all I need to know. I won’t hurt him.”

Erik nodded. “I guess it’ll be easier when I don’t remember. And it won’t be as hard for you because you don’t know everything.”

Are you trying to protect me? Mordecai wondered.

That was…

…terrible?

Really mature for a seven-year-old.

That thought fit like a badly-sized shoe, but he might be able to limp around in it for a few hours more. Proud instead of devastated.

“Is there anything else you might want to forget?” Mordecai asked him. “Maybe something you saw from me?”

Erik thought about it for a moment, but he soon began shaking his head. “I didn’t understand all of it, but it wasn’t scary. And sometimes it was like she put her hand over my eyes, so I couldn’t see everything, and she wanted things nice for you. She made you quieter when you were in the dining room. I dunno why she took the bathtub out of the kitchen.”

“It’s not really important,” Mordecai said hopefully.

Erik nodded. “I guess. I think it’s called a buffet.”

“What is?”

“The thing in the dining room with the drawers that you don’t know what it’s called.”

He breathed a laugh. “Yeah. I know. I just didn’t know it then.”

“How come we don’t have it anymore?”

“We took it apart for the metal and we burned all the wood parts. The siege was still on.”

“Oh. Yeah. We still do that to things.”

“Sometimes.” He flinched. He didn’t want to ask, but he thought he’d better, “Did you see anything you’d like to forget about me and Cathy?”

“Um,” Erik said, and Mordecai flushed and covered his eyes with a hand. “You wanted to kill her about crackers,” Erik said. “That was a little scary.”

“Oh!” Mordecai said. “I-I wouldn’t have, really. We fought a lot.”

“Yeah. You were fighting and then Auntie Enora wouldn’t let me look and I thought maybe you hurt her.”

“No. No, no. I never hurt Cathy.” She had hurt him a few times. And, okay, that one time he threw a glass of soda water at her head, but he had missed on purpose.

Erik sighed. “I guess I knew you didn’t, but I was worried about it. That’s all, though, and I don’t think I want to forget it. The stuff about you isn’t like the stuff about Milo.”

“No,” he agreed, and he guessed he had been lucky that way. Even including the hotel, and the days when he couldn’t get out of bed. He wasn’t like Milo. He wasn’t so bad he needed to invent a whole other person to help him.

He wasn’t very good about letting other, actual people help him, but…

That was actually sort of embarrassing. He wasn’t terrified like Milo, but he still didn’t let other people help him because… well, because they irritated him. That was actually sort of stupid. He couldn’t hide behind the idea that the others could only help Erik because they didn’t know. They all had to watch Auntie Enora almost starve him to death. Maybe they didn’t know all of it, but they knew the important part, There are a lot of invisible people out there who would like to hurt Erik and they will offer him anything he wants so he’ll let them do it. Also, there’s not really anything we can do about that. Ann got weepy in the kitchen over Erik and Hyacinth got pissed off and Milo brought home a really ill-advised coffee cake, but they didn’t stop helping the boy. Even Maggie was trying.

He was going to have to revisit this when he hadn’t just had a dose of perfect medicine and see what he thought about it then. Probably he would feel a lot more stupid. At the moment, he felt stupid and lucky.

“Okay, Erik,” he said. He drew the quarter out of his pocket. “Let’s see if I can help you about Milo.”

Erik went easier this time. He already knew how, and he wasn’t afraid of it. Mordecai told him to forget, very carefully. He could remember that he forgot, and that it was something about Milo, and that if he had a bad dream about it he could go to his Uncle for help, but not the thing itself. And that it didn’t bother him, that he was glad about forgetting it, because people could get very annoyed about losing a memory and very determined about getting it back. The thing with the quarter wasn’t like Auntie Enora’s medicine. Sometimes it held up and sometimes it didn’t and sometimes it got weird. You had to be careful about it.

He asked one question, which he had been afraid to ask when Erik was awake. He thought he might not get an answer, and he wanted one. It was a little bit disingenuous, and he was worried he might get his comeuppance for curiosity like Auntie Enora, but he thought if that happened while Erik was sleeping, it would only hurt him and not the boy.

“Erik, what did Milo say to you?”

“Not me,” Erik replied fuzzily.

“What did Milo say to Auntie Enora?”

“‘Give back my crayons,’” Erik said. He sighed. “She can’t. It’s too bad.”

He didn’t understand it, but he was satisfied with it. It was nothing earth-shattering or profound, it was just something that made sense to Milo, and Erik, and Auntie Enora. If Auntie Enora understood it and she couldn’t help him with it, then Mordecai had no hope of doing so himself. He would leave it be, and he would also help Erik leave it be.

When he was through he woke Erik and checked him immediately, “Okay?”

Erik blinked at him, nodded and then smiled. “Yeah. It feels like I slept a lot.”

“Just a couple minutes,” he replied. “What do you remember?”

That took him a moment. “It was about Milo. I asked to forget and it’s good I did.” He closed his eye, frowned for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. “I can’t get it even if I try. It’s like you put it on a shelf and I can’t reach. I know it’s there, but I don’t want it and I don’t have to have it.”

Mordecai nodded. “That’s good. That’s probably about as good as I’m ever able to get anything. If it bothers you or you start to worry about it, you’ll come tell me, right?”

“Mm-hm.” Erik hopped out of the chair and hugged him around the waist, then he looked up and grinned. “It’s way early and you let me have coffee.”

“I am not a clever man,” Mordecai replied.

Erik danced a small circle and spun the blanket around him like a skirt. “I wish we had Julia. I wish we had music.”

“I guess I wish that, too,” the red man admitted. He hadn’t thought about it that way in a long time. Music being something he actually wanted, just something he didn’t have.

“Teach me to make basic white sauce!” the green child said.

Mordecai had a vague sense of basic white sauce at three o’clock in the morning being abnormal, and maybe stupid. There wasn’t even anything to have basic white sauce with.

“Hell, all right,” he said. “Just let me go back and put on some socks.”

“I want socks, too!” Erik said.

At which point it seemed reasonable to go ahead and get all the way dressed. Erik needed the practice, anyway.

Erik went down for a nap at ten. Mordecai didn’t feel quite right about going back to bed in the middle of the day, it felt like a jinx. He made certain Erik was out, waited about fifteen minutes and then made coffee.

Hyacinth intermittently scolded him about using up the last of the milk and making Milo eat creamed shredded wheat for breakfast (there had been half a pot left of it on the stove. It had not been very nice. Mordecai kept telling him he didn’t have to have any more, but that seemed to make him all the more determined to prove it was fine.). She was also not too impressed with the burned, brown crap adhered to the bottom of the pot. (Basic white sauce was very forgiving about your burning half of it, which was fortunate because he almost always did – you just had to be careful not to stir too vigorously, so the burned part stayed at the bottom.)

Erik came barreling into the kitchen at noon, crashed hard into the table and sprayed an armful of sheet music all over it. He bounced, and he would’ve fallen backwards on to the floor if Mordecai hadn’t been quick enough to catch his arm and pin him to the table.

“Wow…! You’re… fast!” Erik admired, laughing.

“Erik…” said Mordecai. He had noticed the slowdown on a couple of occasions, usually when Erik was upset, but not like this. Erik hadn’t lost any words yet, but to hear him struggling like that again was terrifying.

Erik shook his head with a grin. “I’m… not… broken, Uncle! I’m… glad!” He snatched at the pages. “Help… me! Give… me… those… ones!”

Mordecai gathered up the few that had slipped beyond the child’s reach, made a cursory ordering of them, tapped them even and handed them over with a frown. There were pages of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and ‘And Your Bird Can Sing.’

“Revolver!” Erik said proudly, indicating the cover. “John… Paul… George… and Ringo!” He indicated each. “There’s not much we can… do about… Ringo,” he added, with a sigh. (Uncle Mordecai couldn’t get any percussion out of the ‘cello. It was why he couldn’t do the hunters.) “The… Fab Four! The Four… Apostles! The… Beatles!” He grinned. “There are… Elvis people and… Beatles people. We are… Beatles people. It’s the only… religion that… matters!”

Mordecai nodded, somewhat stunned. That was rather a lot that he wasn’t sure Erik still remembered. Especially the name of the album…

Erik flipped open the pages and sang out, “You say you’ve seen seven wonders, and your bird is green!” He tossed that one on the table and opened up ‘Peter and the Wolf.’ “‘What kind of a bird are you that can’t fly?’ said the bird. The duck replied, ‘What kind of a bird are you that can’t swim?’ and dove into the pond!” He had sped right up again. He was having no difficulty with those words at all – because they were written down.

“Erik, are you…?”

“That’s not… all!” Erik said. He showed a piece of music-ruled paper. Words were scrawled across the black lines in pencil: My Name is Erik Weitz. I live at 217 Violena St. I can read and write like nobody’s bisness! He had outlined this in a double border like one of Milo’s cards. The ‘E’ in Erik was reversed, as well as some of the other letters, and of course he’d got ‘business’ wrong (he was seven, for gods’ sakes), but everything else was right.

“Okay, yeah,” Mordecai managed weakly. He was reasonably sure he was smiling. He wasn’t sure quite what else he ought to do, though.

“You’re reading?” Hyacinth said.

“I’m… everything!” Erik replied. He threw both hands in the air, turned a joyful circle and crashed into the table again. “Ow! Aha!”

Mordecai caught his arm again and stilled him. “Erik, it’s wonderful. Please be careful.”

“Yeah!” Erik replied deliriously. He swept up ‘And Your Bird Can Sing.’ “I’m gonna go… show… Maggie!”

“Yeah, okay,” Mordecai said. And he allowed this, even though he heard Erik have a minor disaster on the stairs. He heard it, but he didn’t really process it. He was still going over, ‘And your bird is green!’ and, ‘What sort of bird are you that can’t fly?’ He hadn’t quite made it to, ‘I can read and write!’ yet.

“Mordecai?” said Hyacinth.

Mordecai put his head on the table. Then he picked it up and hit it there a couple of times. “Oh, gods, that bitch,” he said. “Oh, gods, that bitch.” He was crying.

“Mordecai…” She put her hands on his head so he couldn’t hit it again. He shook it, instead.

“She let his mother die. She wrote me a goddamn novella about how she was sorry about it, but it doesn’t change she let it happen. She damn near killed him, too.” He looked up at Hyacinth with tears streaming from his eyes, “And I’m going to be lighting yellow candles in shrines and leaving aspirin in collection plates for the rest of my life to thank her.”

“Maybe it wasn’t her,” Hyacinth offered him.

“In three months? Yeah, maybe it wasn’t her. In three days?” He pushed unevenly to his feet. “Damn it, Hyacinth. I have to go into the basement and pray.”

“Do you even know how to do that?” she said.

“What? Pray?”

“I was going to say ‘pray,’ yes, but after watching you try to walk a straight line, I’m gonna add ‘go into the basement’ as well.” She took his arm and walked with him.

“Thank you,” he said.

Mordecai prayed for about a half hour, silently, with occasional tears, while Hyacinth hung out near the stairs and felt awkward about it. She didn’t want to leave him alone. She didn’t trust him to get back up the stairs by himself, or to ask for help with that if he needed it. He did accept help up when she offered it, or rather thrust it upon him without asking. He drank the last of his medicine, he ate a bowl of soup and he went back to bed.

“I think I’ll be okay the rest of today,” he told her. “If I’m not…” He shook his head. “No. I will be.”

And he left her standing outside his bedroom door feeling both confused and stupid.

Erik was in the kitchen reading over all of Sanaam’s monster drawings and occasionally laughing about them. Maggie was back upstairs for more lessons, despite protests about wanting to read books with Erik and promises to read educational books. Milo wasn’t home yet.

Hyacinth sighed. She hated to do it now, but she might not get another chance.

“Hey, Erik? Come outside with me a second.” She opened the kitchen door and motioned him into the alley. It would be a little harder to hear things in the alley.

He nodded and followed her trustingly, possibly for the last time. At least that trustingly.

She crouched down and addressed him at eye-level. “Erik, there’s a rule about survival. About what your body can take. It’s called the Rule of Three. It’s not exact, and you’re little, so ‘three’ might be a bit much for you, but it’s easiest to remember it that way. Three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food. Can you say that back to me?”

“Three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food?”

“Excellent,” she replied, and she slapped him hard across the mouth.

“Ah!” he said, clutching a hand to his cheek. He shed a single tear but he didn’t sob, and his eye went off-kilter and started studying the brickwork in the wall. He tipped his head forward and removed it.

“Say it again,” she said.

“I… I…”

“Say it again or I will hit you again so you remember it better.”

“Three… minutes without… air, three… days without… water, three… weeks without… food!”

Oh, hell, she had knocked the fast right out of him, but she refused to show him any sympathy for it. Maybe he’d remember it better if he had to slow down for it, too.

“That’s right,” she said. She lifted a finger, “Now you damn well better remember that next time you make a deal with a god. That was a stupid thing you did, Erik, and the only reason you’re alive now is Auntie Enora doesn’t kill things. Another god, even another healer could’ve killed you. And she would’ve put you in the hospital if I let her. I am yelling at you because your Uncle is so damn glad you’re alive that he won’t. I hit you because you need to remember what your body needs and remember to get it, and pain makes you remember. It’s more important you remember that than you ever trust me again. Do you have that?”

“Yes,” Erik said softly.

“What’s the Rule of Three?”

“Three… minutes without air, three… days without water, three… weeks without food.”

“You don’t make any more deals with gods until you know exactly what you’re doing, exactly who you’re dealing with, and exactly what you’re going to get. Got it?”

“Yes. Please don’t… hit me again.” Now he sobbed.

“Don’t give me a reason to,” she said. “I’m not going to apologize, and I won’t promise not to do it again. I can’t. I love you and I don’t want you to get yourself killed. You saved your Uncle and you got your words back and you can read and write again, too, but if you ever start to feel too good about Auntie Enora, you remember your Auntie Hyacinth had to belt you in the mouth, and you think about that every time you maybe want to call a god to help you out.”

He nodded, one hand against his cheek.

“I’m not going to tell you not to tell your Uncle about this. I will tell you that he won’t understand why I did it and he will probably scream at me and maybe you won’t live here anymore. I’m willing to have that happen if you just remember what I told you.”

“I don’t want that to happen,” Erik said.

“Then that’s up to you,” she replied with a nod. “Let’s get you some ice for your mouth.”

When she put her hand on his shoulder to guide him back into the house, he flinched from her, but he didn’t push her away.

Later that night, in bed, studying the darkness with his one eye open, he took stock of the situation.

His mouth still felt a little weird. More numb than painful. His Uncle had noticed him eating funny at dinner and he said he fell and knocked into the edge of the kitchen counter. His Uncle was unhappy about that, but not as unhappy as he would’ve been if he knew it was Hyacinth.

Hyacinth said his Uncle wouldn’t understand. She didn’t say anything about him needing to understand. She only cared about the Rule of Three and not calling any more gods. Well, not calling them without being really careful about it.

He didn’t know if he ever wanted to do that. He had been uncertain about it before, and ready to do it again right away after he found out he could read, and that smack in the mouth had reset his thinking back to square one.

His Uncle was better. That was enough to make him glad he had done it this time, but not enough to make him want to do it again. After what Auntie Enora had done, hopefully his Uncle wouldn’t ever get that sick again ever and he wouldn’t need to do that again. Not exactly that. Not Auntie Enora and no food and no sleep and coffee and cigarettes for two weeks.

They had offered him a lot more things while he was there. All things he liked. Ride horses. Turn into a bird. Nothing he liked enough to get hit in the mouth like that again, though. Or scare everyone, especially his Uncle.

Except maybe talk to his mother.

But he didn’t even want that now. Not now, when he kept getting stuck and dropping things and walking into walls, and his stupid eye didn’t work and his pants didn’t fit and he missed cigarettes like air.

Three minutes without air, he thought.

Two weeks without cigarettes, he added with a bitter smile.

He was tired now. Worn out. And he had done what he needed to do.

He was proud about it. He had been scared and hurt and angry and sad and he would probably still be those things, but about the whole thing – he was proud.

I held Auntie Enora two whole weeks. Nobody else could’ve done that! And I’m only seven!

She almost put me in the hospital, though.

Yeah, but she didn’t! And she fixed me!

She broke the toaster and she scared Milo. And something else I can’t remember. Really bad. And I hate how she touched my Uncle and made him so he couldn’t think.

It didn’t hurt him, though. And Milo is okay, too. Who cares about the toaster?

She could’ve broken way more things. I got lucky.

Yeah. He sighed and folded his hands behind his head. That was the part that worried him. The part where he didn’t know what he was doing. He got away with it, but it wasn’t because he was clever or strong or good. It was because he got lucky. He didn’t want to take a chance that way again. He didn’t trust it.

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

I like it. I love it. It scares the hell out of me and I won’t do it that way ever again.

For right now, that was enough.

He sighed and rolled over and tried to sleep. It was really hard doing that with no cigarettes.

Mordecai woke up early that morning. He put his coat on over his nightshirt, again, and went into the kitchen. The pages Auntie Enora left him about Alba were in the breast pocket. He sat at the table and read them once more with no medicine on board. It was a stupid thing to do, but he wanted to know how he really felt about it, even it that was going to be ‘terrible,’ or ‘completely unable to cope.’

She had worked out Erik was Alba’s child. It was the way he felt, and how strong he was. She might’ve known it from just that, even if she hadn’t seen the hotel.

She had been there. She hadn’t heard him calling, he was so damn weak, but she had heard Alba begging for help and for the life of her child. If she had gone into Alba she would’ve killed her, she was too sick. If she’d gone into him (if she’d even noticed him, which she hadn’t) she would’ve killed him, he was too weak. She had come as she could, with no body to wear and no way to help. She had confirmed there was no way to help, and she had gone. But she was sorry.

She had seen what he did in the hotel, seen it through eyes of fever and madness but understood it nonetheless. She said it was good that he’d been there and he’d done all he could and all of that nonsense that made no difference at all.

She said Alba would’ve been glad about the boy, and very proud. Proud of both of them.

She said she had tried to help Erik (though she didn’t say what she was trying to do) and she said she wished she could help him. She said people like him who understood about taking care of others were often sad about it, not always, but often enough that she felt the sadness must serve some purpose. She said he wasn’t really weak, just strong in a different way. She said he’d probably manage it a lot better if he could see his way clear to letting other people help him the way he helped other people.

She said Erik was going to need a lot of help and he’d best keep himself in good enough shape to provide it. (And she said he’d damn well better remember to help Milo and get him some ginger ale. She underlined that part. Ginger. Ale.)

He sighed. He wasn’t mad. He wasn’t devastated. He was tired. It just made him tired, having to hash over it all again, and it changed nothing. Alba was no less gone, he was no less broken. Erik had miraculously improved, but that was nothing to do with the letter. Auntie Enora was just trying to arrange things again. Here, have closure. Then you can take care of Erik like I want you to!

He stoked the coals in the oven, fed it a little more wood, then he fed it the letter.

She wasn’t wrong, not about any of it (except maybe about him not being weak. She hadn’t even been able to hear him.) and it was good advice but obvious advice and nothing he hadn’t already known (or at least heard and not really believed). It wasn’t any easier to follow coming out of a god.

It was a little bit easier knowing letting people help him might help Erik.

But, weirdly, the thing that helped the most was realizing Milo couldn’t let people help him, and he wasn’t like Milo. He thought he might manage a great deal better if he could just remember that.

He tore off a piece of the kitchen notepad and wrote it down. After some consideration, he wrote a few other things down, too, then he folded them and put them in his pocket with the quarter.

He made some ersatz crepes (thin pancakes with no baking powder) layered them with orange marmalade and powdered sugar and tipped a pot over them to keep them warm. He left a note for Milo saying he was sorry about the creamed shredded wheat, and he went back to bed so Milo could have his breakfast without anyone watching. That wasn’t very much helping, but he thought Milo would probably like it a lot better than a hug.

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