Smart as Paint (33)

Erik was trying a new thing today: playing outside. He was setting up his soldiers on the front porch, which was about all the outside he thought he could handle. He was nervous about it. He had just seen an enormous red and purple bird man go walking past and he did not even bother taking his eye out to check because he was sure he wasn’t supposed to see that. It was really hard not looking at it, though. He thought he might’ve done a double take and he hoped the bird man didn’t notice.

He was also worried he might see some of the kids from the neighborhood. Some of them had seen him being Auntie Enora out in back of the house. She taught Soup how to blow smoke rings.

Erik winced. Soup brought a lot more kids to see Auntie Enora. Soup thought Auntie Enora was great. Erik was pretty sure Soup knew Auntie Enora was another person, but he wasn’t sure about the other kids. And Auntie Enora spoke and acted way different and Erik was embarrassed that the other kids might’ve thought it was him acting like that. He didn’t want to talk about it and explain it and get teased about it. (Auntie Enora had told Soup and the others not to tease him so much. Oh, gods, that was mortifying.)

But he didn’t want to be stuck in the house forever. The porch seemed like a safe place to start. He could always go in again if it got too weird or scary, and he didn’t have to do any serious running around.

He was better about things, he really was. He was careful. He was kind of banged up and nobody wanted him to hold anything glass (even he didn’t want that) and the kitchen table was the bane of his existence, but he could get around okay. His Uncle was willing to let him play alone on the porch – although Erik sometimes caught a red face peeking out of the front window to check him.

He was having a little trouble with the soldiers. His metal eye was still bothering him, and little movements like setting things upright or nudging them along were difficult. He guessed he could’ve thrown a ball all right, but then he’d have to run after the ball and he’d probably plow into something. If he did see some kids, he’d have to decline all offers of baseball or tag.

There was a brown man with dark hair standing outside the wall and looking at the broken piece of plywood they used for a gate. He wasn’t brown like Maggie, more towards the warm end of the crayon box.

Russet? thought Erik. Bittersweet?

He gave the plywood a nudge, which proved it was just loosely resting there and not merged or hinged or anything. He continued to stare at it. He seemed concerned.

Geez, just kick it over, Erik thought. That was what they did, or they pushed it aside. He wasn’t really sure why they bothered with it. Maybe it kept the dogs out.

The man bypassed the plywood entirely and climbed over a crumbled low place in the wall. It was of approximately waist height. He was wearing a long coat which promptly got stuck on the brickwork. He was carrying two paint cans with thin metal handles, one in each hand. He attempted to free his coat by turning slightly and walking more. That didn’t work. He moved one hand holding a paint can towards the coat, then the other hand holding a paint can towards the coat. He walked another half step. He attempted to take off the coat. It was unbuttoned, but there was no way it was coming off over the paint cans. He tried walking again.

Erik had entirely forgotten his soldiers. This was like a movie or something. Are you gonna put the paint cans down, weird man? Is there some reason you can’t do that?

Erik thought this person seemed capable of gluing paint cans to himself. Maybe he was coming to ask Hyacinth to help him about that.

Erik left the porch to assist the man with either the paint cans or the coat, whichever was possible. He did the stairs one at a time and hung on to the banister like an old person. That got him into the yard okay, and he was very slow and careful in the yard. There were piles of hard and sharp things in the yard. He could get into serious trouble if he wasn’t careful in the yard. He didn’t want to scare Hyacinth or his Uncle or the weird man with the paint, or have any more stupid bruises or bandages.

Not scaring the weird man with the paint didn’t seem like an option. As soon as he noticed Erik coming, he adopted a terrified expression, then he staggered and fell backwards over the wall.

“Um?” said Erik, leaning over him.

“Are… Are you Erik?” the man said.

“Yes?” Erik said cautiously. Did he know this person? Maybe from before he got hurt? Auntie Enora fixed him so he could do things again, but it didn’t make him remember everything right. This man seemed kind of young, but it was hard for Erik to tell about that. Anyone older than Maggie was old. This guy was at least old enough to drive a car (and not by boosting one like Soup did). He had straight black hair and big, dark eyes. He had gold flecks in his face like someone threw a handful of confetti at him and it stuck.

Did Hyacinth fix this guy?

“I… I have a lot of paint!” the man asserted, from the ground.

Erik nodded. Yeah. Hyacinth must have fixed this guy. Paint had been up on the chalkboard for suggested payment for ages. Nobody seemed to remember paint, though. Not even Hyacinth, when people gave her money and she could’ve bought paint. (Erik thought she probably liked the wall that said A HOLES and a flower, which was what they were supposed to have the paint for.)

Erik offered a hand to take one of the paint cans. He was pretty sure he could carry paint cans. Well, he knew he could carry them, but if he happened to drop one as well, it wouldn’t break or spill and no one would have to be upset or clean it up.

“No-no. Thank you. I have it,” the man said, scrambling. He sort of had it. He managed to get back on his feet and into the yard but he tore his coat doing it. He didn’t seem to notice. “Uh, where can I leave…? Uh… Uh… Where would you like…?” He held up the paint.

“Right there is okay,” Erik said.

The man blinked and reluctantly lowered the paint cans to the ground, as if there might be a contrary sign that said, Paint cans don’t go here, dummy!

Erik was mystified. Things in the yard went wherever. There was a pile of glass bottles over there, and a bag of cement. Why shouldn’t paint cans go there?

As the yard did not reject the paint cans, the man left them there and backed off a pace. “Okay. Thanks,” he said. He vaulted over the wall and ran off.

Okay. Cool. We have paint. I’ll tell Auntie Hyacinth later.

Erik returned to his soldiers. Carefully.

Erik was picnicking on the porch with Maggie and cheese sandwiches when the guy with the torn coat and the gold repair work came back with two more paint cans.

“Hello!” he said. He climbed over the wall in the same place and neatly set the two paint cans next to the other two paint cans. He could’ve just leaned over the wall and done that, but it did not seem to occur. He waved at them and then ran off again.

Maggie stared after him for a couple minutes. “So, that’s the guy…?”

“Yep,” said Erik.

“I kinda thought you were teasing me about him.” Maggie had yet to make John Green-Tara’s acquaintance, though she had used his earlier gift of a paint set to turn ASSHOLES on the wall, with an arrow pointing out at the street, to A HOLES on the wall with an arrow pointing at the street and a flower. The red paint with an arrow pointing at the house that said MAGICIANS was still intact. Magicians was not technically a swear, it was just rude.

“I saw a really big red and purple bird with lots of feathers, too. He was like your Mom’s hat.”

“Huh,” said Maggie.

By the time John Green-Tara made a third pass with two more paint cans, Hyacinth had been informed of the situation and she caught him. “Sea Turtle, what the hell are you doing?” she said, approaching.

He froze and stumbled and almost fell over the wall again. “Paint?” he offered her.

“Like, how much paint?”

He shrugged. “Twenty cans, but they’re not full.”

“Where are you bringing these from?”

“Home?” He was certain he was bringing them from home, but there seemed to be some reason this might not be okay.

“Which is…” Hyacinth considered. “Herald Street? Downtown?”

“Yes!” He smiled.

“Two at a time?”

“Yes?” Again, there seemed to be a problem with this.

“On the bus?”

“I have a day pass!”

“Did it not occur to you to maybe grab a couple of us from here to help you carry the paint?”

He was already shaking his head. “No. No, you don’t have to do that. They’re not heavy. You would have to buy a bus pass.”

“You would prefer to bring us two paint cans an hour, all day, from Herald Street, on the bus?”

“Do you need it faster?” he said, concerned.

She sighed raggedly, almost a growl, and rolled her eyes. “Look, let me just give you…”

Oh, boy. Wait. Here was a conundrum. She had two people in the house who were capable of moving a large amount of paint, via magical intervention. Milo and the General.

Milo would do something subtle and reasonable, like maybe a bunch of hard-stick charms, get the paint on the bus and get it to the house without fanfare. But, if somebody happened to start talking to Milo or look at him wrong, he would have a total nervous breakdown.

The General could complete the mission of getting the paint to the house with utter detachment even if people started shooting at her, but she wouldn’t be subtle. She would attempt to board the bus with fourteen flying paint cans following after her like mage lights, or maybe crawling along the ground on little magic legs. And she would be very, very angry when people didn’t approve of that or the bus blew past her without stopping.

Maybe I could send both…?

No. The General would eat Milo and then there would be flying paint cans and no more toasters, which was worse than flying paint cans alone.

You know, Milo takes the bus to work. He’s not incapable of taking the bus.

Taking the bus with a stranger accompanying him was a different sort of animal, though.

Don’t worry, Milo! This boy is not a stranger! We know him from when he tried to kick Erik to death and Mordecai blew up a ‘cello at him!

(Ann was in the basement when John Green-Tara showed up on the stretcher, right? Right. Okay. Good.)

“Um. I’m going to send Milo with you to help you. I think you can get the rest of the paint in one trip that way, and it’s only one more bus pass.”

“Oh,” John said, reluctantly.

“Listen, though. Milo is…” Oh. Great. Now she had to explain Milo. But, at least she didn’t have to explain all of Milo, and she would’ve had to explain the General, too. “Milo doesn’t talk. He’s scared of a lot of things and he doesn’t like to look at people, or have people look at him. Or touch him. Can you just roll with that or are you going to poke him about it? Because he doesn’t hold up very well to poking.”

Why… Why am I releasing Milo into the custody of a person who kicks injured children? Why am I having anything to do with this person?

Because… Well… Because he seemed to be an okay person. Not sadistic or gleeful. Sorry. And trying to come up with a way to fix things.

Now, this was not a thing that could be fixed, but it seemed like he knew that. He was just trying his best.

And he could’ve landed Mordecai in prison after that whole ‘cello thing and he didn’t. That had to count for something.

Why did you do that to Erik? she wondered, frowning. What the hell were you thinking? Were you thinking?

No, probably he wasn’t thinking. He was a kid. And he seemed to have something of a deficiency in the common sense department.

You’re thinking a lot more about things now, aren’t you? she thought. Maybe not about the best logistical way to make a delivery of twenty paint cans, but about people.

You’d better be, anyway. I think I’ll watch you and make sure.

“Be careful with Milo,” she told him, one finger raised. “I’m trusting you with him. If you are the least little bit cruel to him, I am going to find out, and I am going to merge those twenty paint cans to your head, and you will not find anyone in this city competent enough to take them off again.”

“I-I’m really okay just bringing the rest of the paint…” he began.

“Wait there,” she said.

“Hey, Milo, you mind leaving the radio alone for a little? I think we’re gonna paint the house today.”

She told him John Green-Tara was “this kid with a lot of paint,” and nothing more.

Sitting next to Milo on the bus – not looking at or touching him – John said, “So, uh, you don’t talk?”

Looking out the window, Milo shook his head.

“How come?”

Milo turned and stared at the boy for a full five bewildered seconds – not in the eyes – before looking out the window again.

“Oh, right,” John said.

Milo did not just glue all the paint cans together. He opened the lids and combined them, which was not something that either John or Hyacinth had considered as an option. It wasn’t like the house was going to be all the same color anyway. What difference did it make if they had a can of lavender instead of a can of pink and a can of blue? He tried to make nice colors, though. When left at last with a can of green and a can of brown, he left them as they were and did not create a can of bleagh. He had reduced the number to eight. Then he glued them together, two and two, and two and two. It was no trouble getting them on the bus that way, and they failed to attract undue attention or get themselves arrested.

Hyacinth had suspected, correctly, that John would not be bringing them paint brushes, or anything else that could be used to apply paint. She got permission from the General and took Erik and Maggie shopping. (“It’s an art lesson! It’s humanities! You need to have a well-rounded child! It’s good for spatial reasoning! I’ll have her do the math so we can pick out the cheapest brushes to buy! She can use magic to put the paint on!”)

The General told her not to bother with any ladders or newspapers or tape or rags, so apparently painting the house was going to be a magic lesson, as opposed to an art or math lesson. Hyacinth and Erik and Maggie were all okay with this (and Erik was excited).

Hyacinth preemptively chained Mordecai to the kitchen before they left. He had been hanging out in the front room with a book and obsessively checking on Erik, and there was a big window in the front room. If Mordecai saw the ‘kid with a lot of paint’ through that window, there was going to be trouble, maybe another explosion – literal or figurative. So, Hyacinth requested a cake. Oh, any kind. Whatever he could pull together. She’d watch Erik. It looked like maybe they were going to paint the house today and that would probably be fun for the little guy.

“He’ll make a mess,” said Mordecai, weakly. Erik was better about hurting himself, but he still dropped things, and Mordecai could easily picture him walking gently into an entire wall of wet paint. Squish.

“Oh, we’ll all make a mess,” said Hyacinth. “You can come make a mess too, if you want. Just make a cake first so we can have a snack after the mess. Come on. It’s not like you’re paying me rent.”

That got him going. He didn’t look happy about it, but he didn’t have to be happy, just away from the front window.

She saw him consulting a small, folded slip of paper on the way to the kitchen, and then pocketing it. She’d caught him doing that a few times. She was going to have to sneak into his bedroom and rifle his pants pockets and find out what was on it. (She could say she was going to do laundry.) Don’t murder Hyacinth, was her best guess at the moment.

When she and the kids returned with an assortment of brushes, the General was already putting repel charms on the windows. She was on the second story, so she could’ve been going either from the top down or the bottom up. She was in bird form, as this did not require speech or intricate gestures. She switched back into a woman with a flash and stood on the sloped roof over the front porch. “Excuse me! Will you be painting the railings?” She indicated the widow’s walk. It was her considered opinion that they ought to paint everything. The railings were badly peeling. She would need to blast the paint off them to get any kind of proper adhesion.

“If there’s enough!” Hyacinth called up. Twenty cans of paint certainly ought to be enough, even if they weren’t full, but if she didn’t get the A HOLES wall first, the General would gut her like a pigeon. That was what the paint was for.

“I shall await an estimate of the coverage potential of the supplies,” the General replied. She turned back into a bird and swung her way around the back of the house.

Milo and John returned shortly thereafter with the paint. Milo had his hands full, and was with someone who also had his hands full, so he applied a nudge with one hip and knocked the makeshift gate down. He walked over it.

“Are you supposed to just do that?” John said. Milo didn’t seem like the sort of person who did loud stuff or pushed things around.

Milo shrugged. Usually, he set the thing aside and put it back, but this was easier than setting down the paint or asking another human being for help. He inclined his head and invited the boy to also walk over the gate. The boy did so with quick, reluctant steps and set the paint down with the other paint. Milo undid the charms keeping the cans stacked.

“Is that all of it?” Hyacinth asked.

“Yeah.” John leaned in and spoke quietly to her. “He mixed some colors. He’s really smart.”

“Milo is capable of accepting compliments,” Hyacinth informed him with a smile.

“Milo, you’re really smart!” John called over.

Milo dropped two paint cans and abruptly sat down. Fortunately, the lids were still on the cans. They rolled somewhat.

“No, not like that,” said Hyacinth, dragging the boy aside. “And, for gods’ sakes, do not yell, ‘Sorry!’”

“Uh…”

“It’s fine,” said Hyacinth. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate it later when he calms down. Now, listen.” She took him by both shoulders. “Thank you for the paint, but I’m gonna need you to get out of here. Erik may not have any idea who the hell you are, but his Uncle sure does. Maybe you wanna work that out eventually, but now is not a good time. Do not be hanging around here, and if you do come back here, be really careful about it and stay away from the red person who hates you. You got all that? You need it written down?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, I… I understand. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. We’re gonna hafta get back to that.” She patted him and then shoved him. “Look, I’ll see you around. I guess.”

He stumbled over the fallen plywood and into the street. He did this backwards, so he managed to catch sight of the General as she made another pass around the house. As a giant golden eagle. Although, a flying woman probably would’ve gotten a similar reaction. “That… that bird!” he said.

“That bird lives here,” Hyacinth replied dully.

“Is it safe?”

She cast a glance back at the General. “No.”

“Uh…”

“You’re leaving now,” said Hyacinth.

“I, uh, yeah.” He staggered, but in the general direction of the bus. He couldn’t help but notice the big red sign on the wall that said MAGICIANS.

Do they… Do they need a sign?

They did not need a sign, and they proceed to rid themselves of the sign using methods that made this abundantly clear. First, the General put repel charms on everyone’s clothes. Everyone. Even her own. (“Because you drop things,” she told Erik.) This had the effect of stiffening them slightly.

“Mom, show Erik how you bullet proof people!” Maggie said, spreading her arms and offering her dress.

“Magnificent,” said the General, wearily, “that was a demonstration of why you do not bullet proof people.”

“But it’s funny!” Maggie said.

The General sighed. “Take a deep breath so that it doesn’t strangle you, please.”

Maggie did so and held it. The General recast the charm – stronger, unadvisedly so. Maggie’s knee-length blue dress acquired the consistency of cement. Maggie attempted to move her arms and swing back and forth in it and was prevented. She could not bend or wiggle and if she hadn’t expanded the material with a deep breath she wouldn’t have been able to breathe, either. She grinned. “Do Erik, Mom. Erik has pants. He won’t even be able to walk.”

“No… thank you, that’s… okay,” said Erik, backing away. That might be fun later, but he was only a few days out from not being able to walk for real, and he could still vividly recall being frozen in the dining room with no pants. He was super into being able to walk around right now, even if sometimes he did walk into things. He did a quick circuit around the group of them just to reassure himself.

Magnificent turned with difficulty and, still grinning, walked into the wall. It pushed her away, and she tripped and fell back on her dress, which also refused to make contact with the ground and remained hovering about an inch above it. She giggled. “World’s worst levitation spell!”

The General dispelled the charm with a gesture and Maggie thumped lightly to the ground. “We do not cast repel charms of that strength on anything but flat, stationary objects, and never on an entire room, because they also repel oxygen. Are you sufficiently refreshed on this knowledge, Magnificent?”

“For right now,” Maggie allowed with a smile.

“Oxygen?” said Hyacinth. “You could kill someone with that?”

“I can kill someone a lot of ways,” the General replied.

Milo suspiciously regarded his slightly-stiffened clothes. Smothering someone with a repel charm. It was like learning you could poison someone with ketchup.

That was way too much ketchup. No one should have access to that much ketchup.

Why did I let that woman put magic on me? Why does anyone let that woman put magic on them?

He took a few paces away and stood behind Hyacinth to prevent an application of any more ketchup.

The first order of business was the wall. Maggie requested that they paint around her flower, please. Milo began opening paint cans in search of white paint to go over the white word (he had a small set of screwdrivers on him). The General regarded the paint cans with increasing consternation.

“Why are they all different colors?” she asked at last.

“Because they are free,” Hyacinth said. She selected a nice, dark brown to go over the red MAGICIANS and put a brush in it.

“How are we supposed to finish painting anything?” the General said.

Hyacinth shrugged. She stirred and then applied a splat of paint. “Just in patches.”

“Stripes!” Erik suggested, examining the wealth of choices.

“Polka dots!” Maggie offered with a laugh.

“Yeah!” said Erik. He selected a lavender and swabbed a small, experimental patch. “Wait!… No! I’ve… got it!” He coaxed his lavender up to Milo’s swath of white. He painted a straight edge, a corner, then a round protrusion, then another straight edge and a corner, like a puzzle piece. “Like… that!” he said, lifting the brush triumphantly. He laughed and dropped the brush, spraying lavender flecks on himself and the wall. They failed to make contact with his clothing, stopping a hair’s width away and beginning to run towards the ground.

“Aw, man.” Now there was dirt in the brush. He tried to clean it on his sleeve, since it was impossible to get paint on his sleeve.

“That is infantile,” the General said. Mainly of Erik’s design choice, but possibly also his behavior.

“I think it’s perfect,” Hyacinth said, grinning.

“Mom, it’s efficient!” Maggie said. “Everyone can paint whatever color they want wherever they want and we just have to connect them up like that!”

“This would not be necessary if we had everything the same color!” the General protested, arguing with reality.

“You go to war with the troops you have, sir,” said Hyacinth. She connected up her brown to Milo’s white with one circle inset and one protruding.

The General hefted a long sigh. There was not an intelligent solution to this problem. They had stupid paint. “I suppose it is preferable to what we have. We might as well look like an asylum outside as long as we are running one inside.” She began to apply blue paint. She didn’t use a brush, she just held up the bucket and told it to go there. It dried instantly.

Milo frowned at the dried paint. Hey. I can do that.

I should do that.

He did that.

Maggie selected bright green paint and applied it. (She used a brush.)“I think it looks like a fun asylum. Like maybe they’ve got trampolines and slides and really fun crazy people.”

“Really fun crazy people prefer liquor and drugs,” Hyacinth said. She knew this from experience.

“I think I like trampolines and slides better,” Erik said. He dropped his brush again. “Da… Uh, darn.” His Uncle said it was okay swearing, but he guessed Maggie’s Mom probably wouldn’t think so.

“Magnificent, come here and learn how to apply paint without a brush.” The General regarded Erik with one brow raised. “Perhaps you would also find this lesson useful.”

Milo picked up his bucket of white paint and wandered off to begin work on the house, where no one was talking or throwing unnecessary magic around. He did continue to insta-dry his paint, however.

With a firm foundation in magical theory and application, Maggie became a human paintbrush with with a brief amount of wiggling and spattering. With a firm foundation in musical theory and pancakes, Erik exploded his paint bucket, and then dropped it.

The General wiped paint out of her mouth and out of her hair. She pointed at the house and sentenced Erik to go over there and use a brush. Maggie and Hyacinth both joined him. Left to her own devices, the General used up her entire bucket of blue and then, with a resigned sigh, made puzzle piece connections precisely.

With the cake cooling on the kitchen table, and not yet ready to accept a coat of frosting, Mordecai did his best to brush the flour off himself, wiped his hands on a towel and peeked out the front door, feeling curious and a bit lonesome.

He blinked and stumbled back a pace, and he stuffed the towel in his back pocket almost without thinking. (The note was in the front pocket, so he didn’t put it there.) The house had got weirder.

He was not unused to the house getting weirder, but it usually happened by accident or emergency. A big goddamn shell crashing in through the skylight, for example. Or, Milo punching several large holes in the basement stairs with a hammer while trying to put down a badly-malfunctioning toaster that had gained the power of locomotion and gotten away from him.

This new weirdness was intentional weirdness. It was artistic weirdness.

The wall and the house were being broken into puzzle pieces.

It was already sort of like that, because they fixed it out of whatever they had. Red brick or brown brick or stone. A lot of different colors and textures. And the windows were made of pieces, because broken glass was free and Hyacinth could make leaded glass mergers in her sleep. But painting it that way was like shining a spotlight on it. Look! This place is broken as hell! Ta-da!

He laughed. He liked it.

“Uncle!” cried Erik. He had been painting small red pieces on the porch railing (he was probably going to have to give in and do stripes on the thinnest parts).

“No-no, don’t run!” said Mordecai.

Erik tripped on the stairs (he’d forgotten to step up) and ironed himself out on them. He lost hold of the paint bucket and splattered himself in red like a murder victim but oddly he did not drop the brush.

Mordecai clambered halfway down the stairs, sat down on the middle step and pulled Erik up.

“Oh, no,” said Erik. “You’ll be all messy. Maggie’s Mom didn’t fix your clothes.”

Mordecai was experiencing a certain sick, cold feeling which probably meant he was sitting in paint, yes, but he guessed there wasn’t much he could do about it now. “Dear one, are you all right?” He wiped Erik’s face with a hand. He didn’t like the boy covered in red… in red… in paint like that.

“Yeah.” Erik smiled. He stood up on the bottom step and spread his arms. “Watch my clothes. It’s neat.” The red paint ran off him in trickles like rain. It puddled on the step around his shoes, but not on his shoes. It remained on his hands and face and in his hair, joining streaks of lavender and yellow and pink. There was some paint on his metal eye, but not on the lens (Milo had put a repel charm on that when he made the thing).

He was still holding the brush, which was dripping slightly. Mordecai reached up a hand to take it from him. It wouldn’t come.

Erik snickered. He flipped his hand over and waved it. The brush stayed. “Maggie’s Mom hard-stuck it to me. Since I can’t just magic the paint out of the bucket. Maggie learned how to do that. It’s really cool.”

“That is…” Mordecai said hotly. “That…” That was not helpful! Erik needed to re-learn how to hold things and move. He did not need impatient people gluing things to him, no matter how often he dropped them. That was stunting him.

Mordecai tugged on the brush and had a fight with the charm, which he inevitably lost. It didn’t matter how mad he was at it, he couldn’t undo the damn thing. He couldn’t have done it, either.

Erik laughed at him.

“It’s not funny,” Mordecai said. “It’s not nice. Where is she? We’re going to take it off.”

“It’s lots easier,” Erik said, frowning.

“That’s why. Come on.”

Erik led him around the side of the house. Hyacinth was putting some finishing touches on the lower bit, around the trim and the windows. No one else had their feet on the ground. Milo had his feet on the house. He had applied some modified soft-stick charms to his hands and knees and shoes and he was crawling around on the house like a fly, with a floating bucket of gray paint obediently following him. He was drying the paint as he went, so he didn’t put marks in it.

The General had employed a more conventional solution. She had her feet in the air. She had not, however, applied the levitation spell to an object, like a reasonable person. No broomstick, no carpet, not even a chair. She was just doing it. She walked back and forth as if she were on a scaffold and applied the paint with no brush. Maggie was also attempting to just do it, but she had yet to manage more than twelve inches off the ground, and not stable. She appeared to be walking on swampy ground, and she was making no attempt to apply paint.

“I’m sure I could do it like Milo!” she protested.

“That is a kludge,” the General said. “It is only a matter of time before he tears his pants or loses a shoe. Learn how to do it properly, Magnificent.”

I might lose a shoe throwing it at you, Milo thought, frowning. But he did not look up or make any attempt to convey this with gestures. The General would eat him if he threw a shoe at her.

Also, it was kind of hard doing this without tearing his pants.

“You know, I’ve got a broom in the kitchen I’m not using,” Hyacinth said.

“Flying objects for human conveyance have been illegal within city limits since 1371,” the General said.

“I think there might be a loophole where it’s okay if nobody notices you…” Hyacinth said.

“Excuse me!” Mordecai broke in. He held up Erik’s hand with the brush. “We do not glue things to Erik! And I would think at least one of you would have enough sense to stop that woman from doing it!”

Milo looked ashamed… and slid partway down the wall before he caught himself. His trouser leg hiked up and revealed a sheer black silk stocking, which he regarded with abject horror. No one else noticed.

Hyacinth snickered and shrugged. “I dunno. I thought it was kinda funny. The kid’s tired of dropping stuff.”

“Then he can sit down for a minute and do something else until he’s ready to try again. This is cheating. It does not help. It just makes it so you don’t have to deal with him.”

Erik sighed. He was kind of tired of everyone having to deal with him, too. He was tired of having to deal with himself. He just wanted to do things. Not keep trying and be patient and pay attention and go slow. Just do things.

His Uncle said his Mom was like that, too. But he didn’t think his Mom ever had to deal with not being able to read or remember people’s names or talk.

Well, maybe not talk, but not like he couldn’t talk.

But, he guessed he didn’t like having stuff glued to him. He was ashamed he needed it. It was funny, but… His Uncle was right about it not being nice.

He twisted his hand with the brush out of his Uncle’s grip and hid it behind him.

“I’ll take it off,” Maggie said. She stumbled and regained her footing on solid ground with difficulty. “I’m sorry, Erik.”

He let her have his hand so she could take the brush off. She offered it back to him but he wouldn’t take it. He might drop it.

His Uncle took the brush. “Hey, Erik, will you show me how you’re doing the paint? I think it looks great.”

Erik shrugged. “It’s just like a puzzle.”

“He came up with it,” Maggie said.

“Erik with the sense of humor,” Mordecai said. He poked the boy gently in the nose with the brush. He didn’t like it being red like that, but it wasn’t so bad when it was just his nose. And there were a lot of other colors on him. It was obviously paint.

Erik snickered and rubbed his nose with a hand. “Tickles.”

“Come on,” said Mordecai. “Teach me to paint. I can’t wait to see the whole house this way. We’ll go up on the roof.” He looked down his nose at the others, which was no mean feat as fifty-percent of them were over his head. “We will use the stairs like sane people.”

They took two different colors of paint (Erik still didn’t want to carry anything) and the brush and they used the stairs in Room 204. They pulled down from the ceiling. They rattled and clunked and Mordecai and Erik both had to sit on them and bounce up and down to get them to lock into place.

I guess it’s like we have trampolines, Erik thought. I wonder if Milo and Hyacinth could make us a slide.

They had red and yellow-green and one brush and nobody competent enough at magic to clean off the brush between colors. Erik showed off how he cold wipe it on his sleeve, which seemed to work well enough. Mordecai also wiped the brush on his sleeve, then the other sleeve, then just wherever because he’d already ruined his clothes. He was maybe a little less dexterous with the brush than he would’ve been if he’d been trying his absolute best.

“Ah! I can’t get it! It doesn’t look right!”

“It’s too thin,” Erik said. “You have to do it like a circle.” He made the motion with his hand.

Just a circle? That doesn’t look right either.”

“It has to come out a little. Like a peg. Oh.” His Uncle had finally annoyed him to the point where he was willing to take over the brush.

“Oh, like that!”

“Yeah.”

“Do another one.”

“Okay, okay. Now you.”

They traded back and forth. When Erik dropped the brush, Mordecai picked it up and made puzzle pieces not quite as good, until Erik felt beholden to give him another lesson. Eventually, the others made it up to the roof as well. Milo climbed over the edge of the widow’s walk and lay on it for a little while, exhausted. He was missing a shoe. The General stepped lightly onto the sloped tar-paper like some kind of fairy. Maggie and Hyacinth used the stairs and climbed out of the cupola. The four of them had more paint colors and more brushes and more talent. The General began to strip the paint from the railing with deconstruction spells.

“Mom,” said Maggie, “why didn’t you just do that to the paint on the wall downstairs? You could’ve done that right away.”

“The people of this city saw fit to provide us with an insult,” the General replied. She waved away the ancient paint chips with a conjured breeze. “It was up to them to provide us with a way to remove it.”

“What…” said Hyacinth. “Were you trying to shame them?”

“It seems to have gotten the desired result,” the General said.

“You have an admirably weak grasp of reality, sir,” said Hyacinth. She turned and examined Mordecai. “You look like a safety barrier.”

Mordecai spread his arms and displayed his ruined most-of-a-suit. Not even the tie had survived unscathed. He had no idea what he was going to do with the jacket. Wear it with unmatched pants or donate it to needy people with less fashion sense, he guessed. “I am spectacularly bad at this,” he declared, smiling.

“He really is,” Erik confided to Maggie. “I kinda think it’s on purpose, but I’m not sure.”

Maggie blinked at him. “Why would you be bad at something on purpose?” Her Mom did things a little bit less sometimes, so Maggie could learn and not die, but she wasn’t bad at them.

Erik smiled and shrugged. “I guess he loves me a lot.”

“Huh,” said Maggie. Her Mom always pushed her really hard and didn’t hold back because she loved her. She wanted her to be smart and really good at everything and able to take care of herself.

I guess maybe Erik isn’t smart and really good at everything and able to take care of himself.

That must be nice, thought Maggie.

They distributed themselves along the roof and painted the bricks and the trim and the railing – puzzle pieces when possible, stripes when there wasn’t enough space. Erik and Maggie debated whether the corrugated steel patch needed embellishment. They decided to leave it alone in case Hyacinth needed to fix more girls with it. Hyacinth sneaked her way over to Barnaby’s window and then pounded on it, trying to scare him. He ignored her and continued to sort through his papers, then he approached the window without acknowledging her and pasted a newsprint ad over it. It was an ad for conditioner. A woman was clutching her ragged hair in both hands and screaming, SPLIT ENDS?! Hyacinth nearly fell off the roof cackling. Milo excused himself to go after his shoe (and hide the nature of his hosiery) and remained downstairs. The back of the house still needed attention. He selected tan paint and later, frowning, a pale shade of blue-gray. Mordecai painted quietly with whatever shade was handy – improving his technique somewhat when Erik wasn’t looking. The General’s technique had improved enough by this point that she could apply puzzle-piece-shaped swaths of paint like pre-cut decals.

There wasn’t all that much to do on the roof, not with all of them working on it. They all departed via the stairs with empty and near-empty paint cans in tow, and scared the hell out of Milo who was enjoying his solitude at the back of the house. Milo had gotten most of the places within arm’s reach (tan, blue-gray, and off-white), so it was time for more magic. Maggie stood at the top of the back stairs and tried to brushlessly direct paint from there. (It worked all right, but a couple of birds flew through it.) The General boosted herself up to second story height and Milo reapplied himself to the wall. Milo graciously offered to apply Hyacinth and Mordecai and Erik to the wall as well.

Hyacinth and Erik enthusiastically accepted.

Mordecai paled and said, “Please don’t glue Erik to the wall,” very softly. “Couldn’t he paint the stairs?”

The stairs were unpainted, as was a low strip of wall near the basement window. (Milo had been unenthusiastic about kneeling on the cobbles.) Mordecai volunteered to do this with Erik. Erik accepted with a long-suffering sigh.

“Why don’t you let me do fun stuff?” Erik asked him. He dropped the brush again and he growled at it.

Mordecai moved to pick it up and Erik snatched it. “I’ve… got it! Damn it,” he muttered. He smashed the bristles against the wall.

“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” Mordecai said.

“Whoops!” cried Hyacinth, giggling madly. She had immediately strained Milo’s charm to its maximum by turning herself upside-down. Her skirt was insufficiently stiffened by the repel charm to keep it over her legs, but neither did it fall over her head. It was hanging off the wall at a forty-five-degree angle like a sail. This showed off her white knit stockings and a few inches of ruffled bloomers. Milo was panicking about it and trying to do something to fix it at the same time, oblivious to the fact that Hyacinth did not care. Maggie brayed laughter and clapped a hand to her mouth. The General shook her head and sighed.

Erik looked up at Hyacinth with longing. “Yeah,” he said weakly.

Mordecai edged the folded slip of paper out of his pocket and peeked at it. He should’ve had it by heart, but… sometimes it was just very difficult and looking helped. He tucked it away.

He tried smiling. “I think there’s some purple left. Would you like to do some purple? Maybe we can paint some stars.”

They did a purple puzzle piece with pink stars, then they started in on a yellow one.

“Maybe stripes,” Erik said. They were running out of different colors. Different patterns might be nice.

Mordecai helped do half a yellow puzzle piece with purple stripes.

“I, um…” He stood stiffly. Erik got up to help him. “No, I’m okay. I just remembered. I didn’t frost the cake.” He smiled. “You guys are going to want cake. I’d really better. I’m sorry.”

“What kind is it?” Erik asked.

“Peanut butter.”

“Sounds good.”

“It’s better with frosting,” Mordecai said. “Is it okay?”

Erik nodded. “I still can’t be glued to the wall, though, right?” This was to aid his own willpower. He knew he shouldn’t, but he kind of wanted to try sneaking it.

Mordecai wobbled in place for a moment. “Um. You can be glued to the wall if it’s just for fun and you don’t go up high where it needs paint. Don’t go higher than you could reach if you were on the ground, okay?”

“Really?” cried Erik.

Mordecai nodded.

“Milo!” said Erik, waving hands. “Come… fix me!”

Mordecai vanished into the kitchen to frost cake.

Erik was a little bit sad that his Uncle couldn’t watch him be glued to the wall, but he had a super fun time crawling around with Hyacinth. Maggie was really jealous, too. She threw paint at him!

They came in maybe an hour later, with clean clothes and paint-spattered everything else. The empty buckets, and the few with paint remaining, were stacked at the top of the back stairs. The metal would get used, and presumably the paint as well, even if that was only the kids playing around. Things did not get thrown away in Hyacinth’s house.

Hyacinth dumped the dirty paint brushes unceremoniously in the sink. They’d clean them with magic, so it didn’t have to be done right away. It could even wait until the next time they wanted paint brushes.

There were four pieces of cake dished out on plates on the kitchen table (the General claimed to dislike sweets) and a pot of coffee on the stove.

And no Mordecai.

Maggie and Hyacinth descended upon the cake. Milo went for the coffee. With an expression of mild concern, Erik peeked out of the kitchen and into the front room. The book his Uncle had been reading was tipped over on the table holding its own place, but he wasn’t in there, either.

“He’s probably at the store or something, Erik,” Hyacinth called over. “Come on. Eat cake.”

Erik sat down and ate cake. It was really good. The frosting had peanut butter, too.

The General sighed. She dipped water from the cement flower pot and washed her face and hands. She was going to need a mirror to remove the paint that Erik had so helpfully slopped in her hair. That could wait a moment.

Frowning, she approached the cake with knife in hand and dished herself an enormous slice.

Mom!” cried Maggie, both delighted and horrified.

“I have done four changes without eating,” the General said wearily. “It does not serve one to be picky when calories are required.” She’d had to soft-stick her underclothing to keep it from falling down, but that was not information that needed to be shared.

“It’s really good… cake and you should like… eating it,” Erik scolded her.

She regarded him coolly. She was not used to stern language out of Erik, or any kind of backbone whatsoever. Not directed at her. She did not approve of it, but it was interesting to note. He did not back down and apologize when she looked at him, either.

“I will make an attempt,” she allowed.

She ate the entire piece. She needed it. It was not terrible. When she removed the last bite from her plate, she looked over at Erik and smiled.

That scared him. He damn near fell out of his chair.

Satisfied, she excused herself to the bathroom and removed the paint from her hair.

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