Preparatory Matters (40)

Milo's reflection and Ann's reflection

Ann changed into her nightie. Ann and Milo’s nightclothes were something of a compromise, since they were shared. There were some very nice nighties out there, in silk and satin, with lace and v-necks, but Ann and Milo required something with long sleeves, and those tended to be of conservative fabric and cuts, white cotton or flannel. White was all right for Milo, but Ann liked a little color. Milo could hand-sew a straight line, and that was about it, but that was enough to add some embellishments and hem things. So, they had knee-length white nighties with satin bows and lace edging in soft pastels. Which neither of them were thrilled with, but which were suitable for running out of the bedroom in the middle of the night if something horrible happened.

It was customary for her to brush her hair a hundred strokes before bed, but she left the brush on the dresser and leaned in to look in the mirror. “Milo, can I talk to you a minute?” she asked softly.

Milo was in the mirror, looking out. Same clothes and same hair but different expression — and eyes winced sightly, trying to see with no glasses. Milo wasn’t really comfortable without his glasses. But he didn’t mind the nightie or talking in the mirror.

He was a little bit worried, because Ann seemed serious about this. Is something wrong?

She shook her head, “No, honey, but I guess you might not like what I want to ask.”

He shifted uneasily.

She didn’t make him wait, or guess, “Milo, I think you should do Yule with Erik on Sun’s Day.”

He shook his head, Ann, I don’t like Yule…

“Milo, you’ve never had it,” Ann replied. There wasn’t any Yule in the workhouse, not fun Yule, just church and prayers. They didn’t have Yule during the siege, they didn’t have much of anything in the siege, just a suitcase and a hand mirror and a dress with some flowers on it — and sometimes sandwiches and maybe a chocolate bar, not for Yule, just whenever the boy with the broom had a chocolate bar to share. And, when they moved into Hyacinth’s house and there was fun Yule, Ann did Yule. Milo went to work at the factory, as needed, and Ann went shopping and gave people presents and brought home dinners and ate them with the household — because all of that stuff was scary. And all the lights and the music and the people coming up to you on the street and telling you to be happy for practically the whole month, that was scary, too. Milo went into panic mode during Yule, walking rapidly with his head down and staring at his shoes and changing as soon as he got home. The last year, when he had been working on Erik’s eye and wandering around with a headful of schematics and nothing else, and he had not noticed Yule until he came up from the basement one night and there was a big dinner, that had been the best Yule he ever had.

“You liked the dinner all right, didn’t you, Milo?” Ann said.

Nobody tried to give me presents and I could go back in the basement when I wanted.

Milo didn’t like presents. Not picking them out and giving them or getting them. There was so much he could get wrong, and he couldn’t smile and look like he liked what people gave him, even if he did like it.

“You liked when the General gave you the tiara,” Ann said.

That was for you, and I didn’t have to look like I liked it. She doesn’t like me and she doesn’t care if I like things. He looked pained. I can’t hurt her feelings.

He was picturing hurting everybody else’s feelings, and how much they’d hate him, and maybe he’d have to go live somewhere else. Probably he would, because even if they didn’t say he had to, he’d be scared and sad about them hating him and he’d have to go.

Ann shook her head and touched the surface of the mirror. “Milo, that won’t happen. I promise.”

He wanted to cry. It might if you make me have Yule…

“No, Milo. Please, don’t make it more than it is. It’s just one day, and it’s not even a lot of presents because no one has any money. Sanaam didn’t make much and Hyacinth spent all hers on a violin and Mordecai hasn’t been working since summer. You don’t have to go shopping, I’ll do that. I’ll pick out some things everyone would like. You don’t have to do everything, just eat something with everyone and have snow… and maybe one present? You might like it.”

Milo shook his head.

“Milo…” She put both hands on the dresser and spoke firmly, “You have to try it, or you’re never going to be used to it enough to like it. This is only one day, and not with music and blinking lights and everyone poking at you outside. It’s small. It’s the least scary Yule you could ever have, and I want you to have some of it. Please.”

He looked miserable. Are you going to keep talking to me about it until I say yes?

She sighed. “I want to. I feel like you don’t understand how it’s not scary, and what you’re missing. I want to talk to you until you do understand, but I guess you won’t. I want you to be brave, but I guess I can’t make you. I’ve told you what I want. I won’t talk about it anymore.”

He looked away. I have to think about it the whole time until it happens and I don’t like that, Ann.

“I’m sorry, Milo,” she said. “I wanted you to have time to maybe not be afraid.”

He couldn’t cry. He just felt sick. I’m going to stay in the closet all Sun’s Day! I won’t come out if you try to make me!

“Oh, Milo,” she said softly. “I won’t make you. I won’t hurt you. It’s okay. It’s okay…”

She had to sit with him a long time before he calmed. She didn’t brush her hair that night. Milo had only coffee for breakfast and he left for the bus stop while it was still dark and just stood there, staring at his shoes.

———

Milo came home at noon with a desperate plan for giving himself something to do until Yule — and something to do on Yule that wasn’t presents or talking, if such a thing should be necessary. He proceeded to the basement without mentioning to anyone that he was home and he drew out the whole thing on a large sheet of drafting paper. Pencil-smudged and smiling without knowing it, he found Hyacinth and showed her the schematic. He had also done all of the magical notation and coding for it. It would really, really work!

In the top, left-hand corner, he had drawn a big eagle with scary talons extended, and contained it parentheses and drawn over it with an ‘X.’

Look, Hyacinth! I have removed the eagle from the Yule equation!

Hyacinth took the drawing from him and puzzled over it, trying to work out the moving parts and the function. She wasn’t as good at magical notation as Milo, he just looked at stuff and he knew what it did.

Okay, that’s, um, water… and freezing… Ice? Snow!

Oh, my gods, this is a snow machine.

“Uh, Milo, I don’t know if this is a really good idea…”

He pointed firmly at the X-ed out eagle.

“Okay, yeah, that part. I mean, I see what you’re trying to do, and thank you, but this is a little… I mean…” She indicated the magical notation, “It’s great that it doesn’t need electricity, but I don’t know where we’d get fifteen tons of cubed white sugar…”

Milo frowned at the drawing. He took it over to the kitchen table for a moment and altered it.

“Oh. Bagged sugar. I guess that’s a little easier.” She looked pained. “Is that what the toasters run on, Milo? Sugar?”

He bobbed a noncommittal nod and waggled a hand. Some of the toasters ran on sugar. This toaster was running on a little jar of this glowy stuff he borrowed from the factory.

Well, he guessed he stole it, since it was in the toaster now and he couldn’t give it back. They painted watch dials with it. He thought it was pretty neat and he wanted to play with it. He tried making a mage light with it, but it didn’t light up bright enough. It worked all right in the toaster. Seemed to, anyway.

“That’s really clever,” Hyacinth said. “But, I mean, okay, even if we got the sugar, it looks like we’d need to divert a water main to feed the thing…”

Milo stabbed his pencil triumphantly in the air. We can do that! I have a utility map! I’ll get it!

“Whoa! Milo!” Hyacinth did not grab him. She walked around behind him very fast and put up both hands to stop him. “Come on. I know you’re excited, but I think you’d better come up with something else to do for Yule. You’ve only got three days. If you try to build this thing, you’ll kill yourself.” …And possibly everyone else.

Milo sighed and slumped miserably.

“It was a good idea, Milo,” Hyacinth said gently. She had just said it wasn’t, but Milo looked about ready to cry. She knew hurt him to hear something was wrong, or not good, especially something he’d done. “It’s not that it’s bad. I’m sure it would work like you say, it’s just not practical. You really want to do something nice for Yule?”

No, thought Milo. He wanted to do something really complicated and fun so he wouldn’t have to think about Yule. But he nodded. If he said no, Hyacinth would want to know why.

“You’re excited about it?” Hyacinth said. She smiled at him.

No, thought Milo, but he nodded to that, too.

“Do you think you could draw me some snowflakes?” she asked him. “I wanted to make some snowflakes, metal ones. Just stick them to the walls and stuff. We’ve got that pile of tin cans in the yard, I thought I’d use those.” She had not had this idea or thought anything about it until just now.

Milo turned over his drawing of an eagle-free snow machine and did a quick sketch of a snowflake and some magical notation around it, a variant on a levitation spell, just off the top of his head. He showed it to Hyacinth with a frown, but she didn’t think much of the frown — Milo didn’t smile a lot.

Flying snowflakes?” she said.

Milo nodded.

“I think that’s a really good idea,” she said.

———

Mordecai found Milo in the basement, drawing snowflakes. He was glad he caught Milo as Milo. Ann was all right, not a bad person or anything, but he preferred Milo. Especially since this was a hard thing he didn’t like asking.

He knocked on the banister and waved when Milo looked up. “Do you mind if I come down for a second?”

Milo shrugged and then motioned him down. He was trying to design a flight pattern for all the different snowflakes so they wouldn’t crash into each other, and also make an allowance in the spells so they wouldn’t crash into people, but that wouldn’t take him all three days. He’d probably be done by dinner. Maybe Mordecai had something else for him to do. He’d even take lifting heavy objects at this point.

Mordecai folded his hands and looked at the floor. “I was just… I… I don’t have any money right now, Milo, you know?”

Milo nodded.

“I haven’t been working. I’m going to start playing again, I have the violin, I’m just not ready to do that yet, and… And we’re going to do Yule right now whether I want to or not. I was… Is it all right if I borrow some money for presents? I will pay you back. I promise.”

Milo glanced up at him. You don’t like having Yule, either?

He thought it was probably just because of the money for presents, but it still made him feel a little better.

Milo took out his wallet and gave Mordecai everything in it, four sinqs.

Mordecai put up his hands and took a step back. “Milo, not all of it…”

Milo shook his head. He tore off the top sheet with the snowflakes and started a new drawing, a quick sketch of his dresser. He drew a sinq sign and wrote, 20, beside it and made an arrow pointing to the bottom drawer.

“You have twenty sinqs in your dresser upstairs?”

Milo nodded.

Mordecai sighed. He accepted the four notes. “Okay.”

Milo did some math. He wrote, 24/2 = 12. He added a sinq sign and a wing-tipped shoe and a question mark.

“Twelve?” said Mordecai. He looked horrified. “No, Milo, I don’t need twelve…” He sighed. “I don’t know what I need, I don’t know what I’m going to get, but I don’t want twelve, okay?”

Milo shrugged and bobbed his head. Well, if you say so, but I don’t mind.

Mordecai looked down at the notes and shuffled them. “If four isn’t enough, I’ll ask again… but I want it to be enough.”

Milo put 12 in a box and put an exclamation point next to it.

“Okay,” Mordecai said. “I know. Thank you.” He pocketed the notes and turned away, but he paused without looking back. “Milo, you don’t have to get me anything. I’m going to pay you back, but… Please don’t get me anything.” Now he looked over his shoulder with a pained expression, “Please tell Ann not to get me anything, too. Do you understand I really don’t want it?”

Milo nodded. He held up a finger for a moment’s pause and he drew quickly. Round, rimless spectacles, and a box with a bow — X-ed out.

“You don’t want anything, either?”

Milo gravely shook his head.

“What about Ann?”

Milo shrugged. Ann liked presents, but he didn’t think she minded if she got any or not. This Yule was for Erik. (And she wanted it to be for him, too.)

“Okay. I understand. Thank you, Milo.” Mordecai left.

Milo sighed and regarded his snowflakes. Maybe they’d be more fun if he made them light up or something…

Damn, the glowy stuff was in the toaster.

———

Mordecai begged off of dinner with hay fever — which worked nicely on Ann and Sanaam, as well. Hyacinth visited him in the bedroom after a couple hours with a leftover pot roast sandwich and some canned soup and poked the alligator with a stick, “So, what’s up?”

Mordecai sighed. “I had to borrow some money from Milo for presents. It’s just hard and I’m tired.” He shook his head. “And I’m trying not to tell myself I’m worthless,” he admitted. He didn’t know what to do about that part, and he didn’t think Hyacinth would have any valuable input. Maybe, Well, cut it out! which was about what he was managing on his own.

“You know you’ve been through the wringer these past few months,” Hyacinth said. “Anyone would be screwed up about it.”

“I know, but I’m so screwed up about it I would’ve been destitute if it wasn’t for you.” I’d be destitute and Erik would be dead… and maybe I’d be dead. Well, that would’ve solved things.

“It’s not like I’m secretly pissed off about it and wishing I’d never met you,” said Hyacinth. That only rarely and momentarily happened. “I’m not gonna lie and say I don’t care if you get out and start making money again, but I think that’s more important than just the money.”

“Yeah,” said Mordecai. “…I just can’t yet.”

“I think you play all right,” said Hyacinth.

“I don’t think I do, but it wouldn’t matter if I went out and started playing tomorrow. I wouldn’t have time to do that and make enough money for presents and shop for presents and shop for food and get ready to make food. You kind of sprung this on me, Hyacinth.”

“It’s not for you,” she replied. “But I’m sorry,” she amended.

He sighed and shrugged.

“I don’t think Erik minds if he gets a present from you. I think he’ll be pretty happy with the food, and decorations and stuff.”

“I know.” He already knew what he was going to do for Erik. He thought Erik would like it a lot and he thought it would do for the rest of the household, too.

He was worried about what he was going to do for Hyacinth. She got him a goddamned violin, and that was on top of everything else. Seven years worth of everything else, and the past few months alone…

If he asked her, she’d just say not to get her anything. That was no help and that was not an option. He felt bad now, he’d be ready to crawl into a hole and die if he didn’t get something for Hyacinth. It had to be something really great, too. Not just nice, because the goddamned violin was not nice. No. Really smart and perceptive and perfect and vicious — but not too vicious. Something that said, Hey, I’m your friend and I understand you and I am capable of winding you up, and it’s okay that you wound me up. I’m still annoying and you still annoy me.

Thank you and fuck you all at once, basically, and this was not something he was capable of saying with flowers.

He had thought about going through the phonebook to see if he could find some of the people who’d been in the house during the siege and invite them over, but he thought that was over the line. That would be like if Hyacinth had gone out and found some people who had been with him at the wall, that was just mean. She got him a violin, which he hated and was fond of at the same time. He’d known her over seven years and he didn’t know if there was anything she felt that way about.

Maybe Barnaby, but she already had one of him.

“You think you’re gonna make it out for dessert?” she asked him, trying to gauge just how unhappy he was at the moment. Have I cheered you up enough, or do I need to buy you a balloon or something?

“Will you let me get through dinner first, please?” he said. His soup was sitting here getting cold while they were going on about this. Was this tomato? Again? “Why don’t we ever have anything except tomato soup in this house?”

“Ann and Milo like it and Ann does the shopping,” Hyacinth replied with a smile. Okay, the alligator lives, and it’s irritable. “Would you rather have canned pasta?”

“Oh, gods, no,” said Mordecai. “What am I, five?” Milo didn’t even bother to warm that stuff up half the time. Mordecai was always finding half-eaten cans that Milo had abandoned in weird places due to some distracting idea, sometimes with little hairs growing out of the ravioli.

“No. While I do occasionally wonder just how damn old you are, it is definitely not five,” said Hyacinth. “I’ll try to save you a piece of pie, but I make you no promises.”

“Just don’t let Erik’s elephant have any!” he called after her.

———

Mordecai ran into Sanaam in the second hand store on Sabot Street. He still didn’t know what he was looking for — ideas, he guessed. Or maybe he was just trying to get used to shopping again. He bought most of his things here, and Erik’s things. Clothes and shoes. An occasional toy, but Erik never seemed very interested in toys. Not in toys in particular. He liked to go through all the shelves and look at everything. Old lamps, still photos, postcards that didn’t move anymore. China figures, tacky jewelry, hats that didn’t fit. Books and sheet music that felt dusty like ladies’ face powder. Mordecai kind of liked that, too. The place was comfortable and familiar, with green-painted metal shelves and round racks with wire hangers and a dim, dirty front window that just said “Second Hand Clothes” and “Books 2/10sc.”

He would’ve liked it a lot better if he didn’t have a stupidly complicated goal and a time limit in mind.

Sanaam was halfheartedly pawing through a box of dead mage lights. Some of them might make okay Yule ornaments, they were various shades of clear glass and fairly sturdy, but he didn’t know why they were so expensive. He was expecting three for a penny or something, they didn’t work anymore. They were a sol each.

“Hey, Mordecai,” he said. “Find anything interesting?”

Mordecai shrugged. Interesting, yes. Suitable for Hyacinth, no.

“Do people actually want these for something?” Sanaam asked, holding up a ridged ball of amber glass. It was hard to get real, working mage lights since the war, but you could get a kerosene lantern or a flashlight with a battery for maybe twice this much. Milo could probably get these working again, or make some out of goldfish bowls or burned out light-bulbs or whatever, but most people weren’t Milo.

Mordecai approached and picked a couple of lights out of the box — a green one with star-like spikes and a large, smooth red one. “People collect them. It’s for the different designs. And they don’t really make them anymore, so they’re like antiques.”

“Ah,” Sanaam said. “People collect them. I suppose it makes sense. They’re all very different, I don’t think they were ever mass-produced.” Why, I wonder if my wife would hate some of these? He already had something she’d hate for this trip, but he’d have to keep dead mage lights in mind. He could keep buying new ones and putting them on a shelf. It would get more and more irritating.

No, but she’d be able to get them going again, too. She would think they were fiddly and annoying, but she could use them. She’d probably hate something like a shelf full of ceramic figurines more.

Kittens, maybe? Sad clowns? Big-eyed children? Here was a pitch black jazz musician with round white eyes, red lips and a saxophone. That was pretty hideous, but could he find a lot more like it or was it more of an individual aberration?

But he wasn’t looking for his wife, and he had plenty of things for his daughter, as well. Milo and Ann and Hyacinth and Mordecai and Barnaby needed to be ticked off the list, for a minimum amount of currency, but he wanted to find something for Erik, first. This was Erik’s Yule, really. Everyone else was just along for the ride.

“Mordecai, what sort of toys does Erik like?”

“I’m really not sure,” Mordecai admitted. “He always asks for cheap things, but I think it’s because he’s worried about losing them.” And maybe he doesn’t like me spending too much money. He’s a really sweet kid and he worries too damn much. “He likes crayons a lot more since he was hurt, but he got a big box of them for real Yule and they’re still in good shape.” He snickered. “He likes those monsters you drew for him, he’s still got most of them. You could just do him some more of those.”

Sanaam considered. “I’m not sure I wouldn’t accidentally do some of the same ones over again…”

“I don’t think he’d mind.”

Sanaam shrugged. “I don’t know… I was kind of hoping to find something he could unwrap. Or, something new and impressive.”

“You’re really not going to top that elephant, you know. I’m not sure you should try.”

“I don’t know about topping it… Do you think he’d like a kitten or something? A real one? He was pretty interested in a pet elephant…” He was only sort of joking. Kids liked kittens. Maggie liked kittens. Maggie and her mother had a knock-down, drag-out fight over whether Hrothgar the Sweet Kitty was going to come and live with them in San Rosille, and Hrothgar was ten years old with one ear. He ate seagulls. Maggie blew a hole in the side of the boat, but the General fixed it, so that was okay. Well, no, not okay. It scared the living crap out of him. But he didn’t have to tell the shipping company or pay for it so that part was okay.

Hrothgar had gone over the side of the boat in the summer of 1373, chasing an albatross.

Godspeed, Hrothgar. Your reach exceeded your grasp.

But, anyway, Erik might like a kitten, and kittens were free.

Mordecai winced. “Please don’t. Cats and I don’t really get on.” He was always afraid that on some level, they knew. A gang of cats in an alley left him with the same general feeling as a gang of men with hobnail boots and jackets that said, ‘We Stomp Magicians.’ There he is, lads. There’s the bastard who used to eat us during the siege. He couldn’t eat dogs because they wouldn’t let him get near enough. He betrayed our tiny trust. Let’s get him.

“I thought cats weren’t bothered about colored people,” Sanaam said.

“No, they’re not. I’m just bothered about cats.”

“How come?”

“Uh… It’s a long story. You know, if Hyacinth wouldn’t use it up right away, I’d say you should get him a funny looking lamp.” There was one on the shelf nearby and he picked it up. It appeared to have been made from a repurposed baseball bat. “He’s always pointing them out when we’re in here. I don’t know what possesses people. Why does everything need to be a lamp? I’ve seen one made out of a prosthetic leg… with a stocking on it! There was one in here the other day made out of a… a…”

He put down the lamp.

“I have to get on the bus. Do you have change for a sinq, Sanaam?”

“Um, not sure,” Sanaam said, laying a hand on his back pocket.

“Never mind,” said Mordecai. He picked up a dead mage light. “We’ll put it on the tree.” He walked up to the front counter with no further explanation or delay.

The tree, thought Sanaam. What in the hell are we going to do for a tree?

I know there’s an army surplus store downtown, thought Mordecai. If they don’t have one there, I can just buy a shovel and start digging around by the wall. There’s got to be a few of them still around!

———

Sanaam was standing in MacArthur Park and regarding a tree. MacArthur Park was not a real great park, no playground equipment or baseball fields or anything. The grass was making a valiant effort, but there were large bald patches of mud on the ground. There were some cement flower boxes that no one had ever planted flowers in, to Sanaam’s recollection, and a fountain with the scabrous figure of a fish that was meant to puke up water but only had water in it when it rained. There were some benches with metal arms in the middle to discourage the homeless sleeping on them. That was about it for parks and recreation in Strawberryfield.

But there were some trees here and this one was an evergreen. It was maybe a head taller than him, so somewhere in the seven-foot range. It would fit easily in the front room, where the ceiling was two stories above.

Now, how am I going to get it home?

He was going to steal it, of course. But if he came down here with an ax, someone was going to notice. There were always people walking around in Strawberryfield, whatever the hour. Overnight and into the early morning there would be hookers and fruit sellers and porters and people lining up for soup kitchens and looking for day labor and people who just didn’t have anywhere to sleep. Most people in Strawberryfield knew to mind their own business, but there would be cops out there whose responsibility was to keep all those people in line, and they would have a few words for a large man hauling home a Yule tree at four o’clock in the morning in March.

Also, he would have to buy an axe. Hyacinth wouldn’t have an axe; if she ever had one, she would’ve used it up a long time ago.

So, the obvious solution was to ask his wife. His wife could do anything. Problem was, she wouldn’t. Stealing a Yule tree to delight an adorable little boy who was having a very hard time of things was still stealing. Which was in the same box as tearing people’s eyes out during peacetime and putting your feet on the coffee table. It just wasn’t done.

Could Maggie do it, then? he wondered. Maggie couldn’t do everything, but she could do a lot. She blew that hole in the boat when she was only five. And she understood the value of flexible morality, despite her mother’s efforts to train it out of her.

Well, he guessed it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

As long as his wife didn’t find out about it.

He found Maggie fortuitously isolated in the basement attempting to do independent study with Milo. Milo was hanging saucer-sized metal snowflakes in mid air and making some of them fly in simple patterns. Maggie was leaning over the worktable and examining a schematic. She showed visible relief when her father appeared at the top of the stairs. Milo dropped a snowflake and looked miserable.

Why do people keep coming down here to talk to me, Ann? This is as bad as real Yule.

“Sorry, Milo,” Sanaam said. “I’m just here for my girl.”

Milo nodded. He began collecting his snowflakes, preparatory to getting out of the basement entirely, giving up and being Ann for the rest of the day.

“What have you got there, Mag-Pirate?”

Maggie shrugged and held up the paper. There was a drawing of a toaster in pieces surrounded by a lot of concentric circles, angled lines and magical notation, with the other half of the paper filled up entirely with code, equations and rebus-like drawings. “I think I’m supposed to be learning how the toaster works, but it’s not going very well.” She indicated the code with a finger. “Every time I ask him what it means, he just puts more of it.”

Milo sighed. He had broken one of the equations all the way down, somewhat sarcastically, to 1+1=2 and she still didn’t get it.

“This is the same stuff that you and your Mom do in your heads,” Sanaam said. “Telling things what to do and how to do it.”

“It doesn’t look like that in my head,” Maggie replied.

“I think it’s like when a secretary takes shorthand,” Sanaam said.

“I think I need a secret decoder ring,” Maggie said. She smiled at him. “You got something else fun for me to do?”

Sanaam grinned. “You know me too well. What were you going to do for Erik for Yule, Mag-Pirate?”

Maggie picked a thin piece of wood off the worktable and showed it. It was liberally blackened from deconstruction spells, with a few pale words and a frame showing in light relief. No Real Horses, it said. “It’s for the sign on the house,” Maggie said. “It says ‘No Dogs’ already. Erik thought it should say something about horses, but he still likes his toy ones. I said probably no one was gonna move in with a real horse, but Hyacinth said a man with a goat used to live here, so I guess maybe we do need a sign. We’ve still got some paint left, so I can try to get it so it matches.” She nodded to the stacked cans in the corner.

“What do you think about stealing him a Yule tree from MacArthur Park?”

Maggie grinned. “I think it’s a great idea, Daddy.”

“Think you can pull it off?” he asked her.

“…I think I already know how,” she said, after the briefest of pauses. “When are we gonna do it?”

“It has to be early Sun’s Day morning, while it’s still dark, so we don’t have to hide it and we’ve got time to decorate it before he wakes up.”

“Awesome. I’ve got time to practice.” She abandoned the incomprehensible schematic for the stairs.

“What are you going to practice?” Sanaam said.

“You’ll see,” Maggie said sweetly.

My whole family is terrifying, Sanaam thought, smiling.

———

Erik noticed her out in the yard, picking through the trash. “Maggie, are you still studying or can you play?” People kept telling him to go play, today. Somewhere else, not here. His uncle even asked if maybe he wanted to go out in Green Dragon Alley and look for Soup.

He was starting to feel kind of lonesome.

“I’m doing practical applications,” Maggie said with a grin. “But you can help.” She had just finished rolling a newsprint flier for a nightclub into a slender tube. She flattened it and set it on the ground. “Stand like this, okay?” She spread her legs slightly apart and planted her hands on her hips. “I gotta work on my aim.”

Erik did so willingly, though he had no idea what she was going to be aiming at him or where she might aim it.

She waved an encouraging little gesture at the flat paper tube. It began to inch its way along the muddy ground with a caterpillar-like motion, bowing and straightening. With further gestures, she tried to guide it towards Erik, rather like someone directing a bowling ball that they had just released towards the gutter. “C’mon…”

“You’re doing crawl?” Erik asked.

“Yeah.” The paper tube edged off in the direction of the gate and she motioned it back.

“Aren’t crawl spells, like, a prank?” said Erik.

“I like pranks,” said Maggie. “Besides, Mom’s not looking.”

“Aren’t you gonna hafta do a demo or something later?”

“I’ll make something up if I have to. I’ve still got most of the week.” She thought her mom would be pretty impressed when she saw the tree. No further demonstration necessary! She just needed to be sure she was going to get it through the door and not the window.

She had managed to coax the paper tube within three feet of Erik’s improvised croquet hoop when a fickle breeze picked it up and blew it away. “Aw, damn it,” Maggie said.

“You should’ve soft-stuck it,” Erik said.

“Soft-stick is a charm, Erik,” Maggie said. “Charms don’t stack. Crawl is a whole spell. I’d have to make an enchantment that soft-sticks things and rewrite ‘crawl’ around it. You can’t just bolt things on to a spell wherever like you’re Hyacinth merging stuff.”

“Bet Milo could do it.”

“Yeah” She began to search the yard for another likely object. “Milo got sick of me bugging him about the toaster and went to be Ann.”

“Did you learn how the toaster works?”

“No.” She picked up a brick. It seemed like it might be long enough to get some traction. She placed it on the ground at her feet. “Okay, let’s try this again…”

———

Mordecai came up Violena from the bus stop and noted Erik and Maggie involved in some convoluted game in the front yard with crawling bricks and stones and a trash can knocked over on its side like a street-hockey goal… Either that or he was having some kind of an absinthe-related flashback, but he really doubted it. He never got those. Reality was weird enough.

He had completed his Hyacinth-related transaction and put some groceries on top of it (and some in it) as camouflage, but he thought Erik might be suspicious of the groceries and he ducked into Green Dragon Alley so he could go in through the back door instead.

Ann and Hyacinth (goddamn it!) were in the kitchen, washing glass bottles in the laundry tub. Hyacinth had caught Milo trying to light up the snowflakes earlier and prevented him, Wait, Milo! We need to light up the house! But Milo required some conveyance for the lighted magic, so Ann had gathered up the pile of glass bottles from the yard and brought it into the kitchen in a paper bag. Oh, I think Hyacinth wants to make some more windows, she told the kids, and that was enough. They were pretty absorbed with whatever that was they were doing out there.

“…I’d just really like him to have one, Cin,” Ann was saying. “I know it seems a bit odd, but this is all sort of hard for him. He’s never really had Yule.”

“It’s weird, Ann,” said Hyacinth. “You want me to tell you what it is, but not him? I mean, how does that even work?”

“Well, he’s not always paying attention. Not a lot of attention. Not all of the time.” She closed her eyes for a moment and checked in with Milo. “He’s thinking about shoes right now, actually. He’s been sort of upset.”

“But why do you need to know about it?”

“So if I can’t get him to do it any other way, I can tell him what’s in it so he won’t be surprised.” Ann sighed. “I’d like him to be surprised, but if he can’t manage that, at least he can open the box and be with people. At least that’s something.”

“I’m pretty sure Milo doesn’t want any presents for Yule, Ann,” Mordecai said, setting his bag of groceries-plus-other-thing on the counter. He had to get rid of the groceries to keep up any semblance of normalcy when walking off to his room with the bag. Ann and Hyacinth were not going to buy that he intended to eat an entire baguette and a bunch of carrots with the tops still on, let alone the dozen eggs.

“I am certain he doesn’t,” Ann replied, frowning. “But this is more to do with what’s good for him than what he wants, Em.”

“I promised him I wouldn’t get him anything and I’m not going to,” Mordecai scolded them. Ann and Hyacinth could do what they wanted, but tormenting Milo was not a pastime he approved of — even if half of Milo was in on it.

“I know, Em,” Ann said. “He appreciates it, and I do understand. Please try to understand, too. I’m just trying to help him.” She stood to assist him with the groceries. Mordecai protectively enfolded the bag. “Did you go shopping all by yourself, Em?” she asked with a small smile. “You didn’t have to do that. I would’ve come along.”

“It’s just a few things,” he said quickly. “I was out, anyway. Mostly dinner tonight, and I wanted to give the bread some time to get stale. Stale bread works best for eggy bread. I got day-old… I mean, we always get day-old, but I thought maybe I’d slice it up and let it dry out. I suppose I’ll have to hide it somewhere or Erik will ask about it. Do you have any idea what they’re doing in the yard out there? Maggie looks like she’s commanding troop movements! Let me take my damn coat off.” He walked out through the dining room holding the bag.

“I think you might have a present or two, Cin,” Ann said, when she heard the door to his room close.

“I hope it’s a bottle brush,” Hyacinth muttered. She held up the blue glass medicine bottle to the light. “Do you suppose this dirt is merged on, Ann?”

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