Birnam Wood Comes to 217 Violena (41)

Sanaam got dressed in the upstairs bathroom and crept down the stairs. It was still dark out. He didn’t know what time it was exactly — it was hard to keep clocks in the house and he wouldn’t have been able to set an alarm for himself, anyway, because it would have woken his wife. He had employed the poor man’s alarm clock…

Well, no, he guessed the poor man’ alarm clock was those people you could hire to walk past your house and throw pebbles at the window at a given time. There were still a few of those in San Rosille, mostly in the crummier neighborhoods, and it was popular employment for people who could afford watches and watch maintenance on Saint Matt’s. He had employed the destitute man’s alarm clock, which was to drink a lot of water before bed and wake up needing to pee.

Maggie was sleeping on the cot in the basement. Technically, there were a lot of cots in the basement, but most of them were folded up under the stairs. They always left one out. It did double duty as a seat and a spare work surface and was occasionally employed as sleeping space for guests and patients and little girls who don’t like to hear their parents going on in the bedroom.

The mage lights flickered on when they detected movement, and that woke her. Poor Maggie was doomed to be an alert sleeper, she got it from both sides. Her mother was a soldier who needed to wake up at all hours and plot intricate tactics and scream at people and her father was a sailor who needed to wake up at all hours and haul things around and scream at people. Presumably, her talent at screaming at people would also be assured.

“We’re go for tree, Mag-Pirate,” Sanaam informed her, holding up her dress and shoes. It was one of her plain, blue dresses. He had yet to inform her that he was bearing a sackful of presents from her grandparents, and the outfit they had sent would not have been appropriate for the predawn hours in San Rosille in springtime. (He was going to have to pick a warm day and drag her out to a photobooth to get some pictures of her in it, though.)

“Yes!” said Maggie, requiring no extra time to drink coffee or reorient herself with reality or be surly with people. “Didja wake Mom?”

“Probably,” he admitted. “But she has no reason to suspect I’m going to run you down to MacArthur Park and steal a tree.” He snickered. “She probably thinks I went down to the kitchen to eat leftover cake.”

“Brilliant, Dad,” Maggie said, with an approving smile. Even if her mom didn’t think cake, she would have no reason to suspect stealing a tree. It was too weird. As long as they didn’t wake her up getting out of the house, they were golden. If they happened to wake her up coming back in, they would already have the tree. It never occurred to her that they might get tossed in a jail cell and be in a serious predicament with no way to call home for help, they were too clever for that!

“Come on,” Sanaam said. “Let’s blow this pop stand!”

———

“So what do you think?” he asked her. She was frowning with her arms folded and a hand to her chin. She did a quick circuit of the tree, spraying her cuffed socks with dew from the damp grass.

“It’s kinda small,” she allowed at last.

Sanaam felt wounded. “Well, they always look smaller outside, Mag-Pirate. There’s no ceiling.”

“Yeah, I guess, but it’s only a little taller than you. Our ceiling is way taller than you.”

“It doesn’t need to be that tall,” Sanaam said.

“We don’t need to have two Yules,” Maggie replied. She was already shopping around the park for an alternative. There were a few gaslamps to aid her, but they were dim and flickering. There were also a few people trying to sleep curled up in the benches, or under them. This did not impress her as anything dangerous or distasteful, just as another thing to be aware of.

“That one!” she declared with a grin, as soon as she discerned the triangular shape against the starry sky.

“Maggie, I can’t carry that one!” Sanaam cried. That one had to be fifteen feet tall!

“You’re not gonna carry it, Daddy,” Maggie said impatiently. She was already putting the spell together in her head. She didn’t need to use words, she’d quit doing verbal magic ages ago. (Her mom made her use “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” as a magic word, that might have had something to do with it.) It didn’t look at all in her head like Milo’s notes, but there was a lot of math involved. Her daddy had told her tree roots go down to the ground about as deep as the branches go up in the air, so she had to allow for a wide area. She’d get the roots up first, then she could check and see if any of them were dragging and needed more crawl applied. She had to specify the material components as wood and not dirt, too, or else she’d have half the park following them home.

“Maggie, what…?” Sanaam said, as the ground began to shudder beneath his feet.

“Might wanna stand back a little, Daddy,” Maggie said.

“Aren’t you just going to do a couple of deconstructions and hit it up with a levitation spell?” he cried. And maybe an invisibility one? For the cops?

“Nah,” said Maggie.

Like ancient, gnarled hands, the evergreen’s roots began to emerge from the ground. There was a rusting in the grass as small rodents, and possibly also bugs and snakes, fled the area. A panicked mole ran over Sanaam’s shoe. The nearest gaslamp was knocked by an errant finger and keeled over at a forty-five degree angle.

“Maggie, does your mother bother to teach you anything about subtlety when I’m not home?”

Maggie considered it. “That there’s a time and a place for it, but don’t let it hold you back.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s reasonable,” Sanaam said, wide-eyed, as a fifteen-foot-tall tree crawled out of the ground and began to skitter drunkenly from side to side like a crab with a million little legs. Maggie expanded the crawl spell as needed and it stabilized somewhat.

“Maggie, there might be birds’ nests in there,” Sanaam realized belatedly. “There might be squirrels!”

Maggie shrugged. “Mom always turns into an eagle for breakfast, anyway.”

“I think Mordecai was going to make something special…” Sanaam frowned. Mordecai might feel slighted if the General refused his breakfast in favor of squirrels.

“I think he said eggy bread,” Maggie said, “but you know Mom hates sweet stuff. And it’s not like they like each other.” She waved a hand, and the tree tottered forward in the vague direction of the street. She followed it quite closely and Sanaam followed her.

“I suppose that’s true,” Sanaam said weakly.

As they left, two of the figures on the park benches urgently clasped bottles and drank from them, and a third poured his out on the ground. Later than morning, he joined a druidic church.

———

Spread flat on the ground for traction and balance, the tree’s roots took up three-quarters of the narrow street. It swayed and trembled, shedding dirt and twigs and a fine mist of dew. It creaked when it moved, but subtly, like the timbers of a ship. It wasn’t screaming “Murder!” and begging for help, and even if it had been, many of the people in Strawberryfield wouldn’t have been bothered about it. “Murder!”was just one of those things you said, whether there was murdering going on or not. “Fire!” now, that might get a few people to peek out the windows. Or an air raid siren. A walking tree was practically stealthy, and the few people who were around to notice it walked away from it quickly and quietly.

Maggie ran it into a few buildings while she was still getting the hang of controlling it and adjusting the spell, but she failed to break any windows. Maybe she knocked over a mailbox on Sabot Street, but it might have been like that in the first place. The tree wobbled and recovered nicely when it encountered an obstacle, thanks to the wide base of roots.

As the rounded the corner onto Violena, Sanaam was walking in front and trying to act as a lookout and Maggie was steering the tree from behind, like a sober man guiding his drunk friend home from the pub. Sanaam caught the telltale beam of a flashlight coming up the right side of the street (they were utilizing the middle-left). That was a cop, or even if it wasn’t he knew they had damn well better treat it like one. Police carried flashlights, standard issue. Most others in Strawberryfield got by with moonlight and gas lamps. Due to the gas lamps and flashlight, they had a little leeway. They could see the cop. The cop couldn’t see them. It wasn’t going to last long.

Maggie!” he hissed, extending a hand as if he could stop a fifteen-foot tree by physical force. “It’s the police!

And, he realized, they had established no plan of action for dealing with police presence or hiding the tree.

Does Maggie even know how to do invisibility spells?

Beyond that, did they even have time?

I guess I could punch the police officer…

Maggie rapidly waved the tree off to one side, removed crawl and hard-stuck it to the ground before it could fall over.

They were now standing slightly to the left of center on a dim street at four-thirty in the morning, surrounded by curling tree roots and with a fifteen-foot-tall pine behind them — not even in a yard, just resting on the cobbles.

“Can you do something to hide it?” Sanaam whispered tightly.

“No!” snapped Maggie. “Just leave it where it is and stop looking back at it! Maybe he won’t…”

The flashlight beam swung around and hit them both right in their night-adjusted eyes. Behind the cruel yellow light, a man’s voice spoke, “Little late to have that girl out, isn’t it?”

“She delivers newspapers,” Sanaam said. “I’m walking her to the…” He had no idea where kids who delivered newspapers went to get the the newspapers, only that they had to get up early to go do it. “I’m going with her because it makes me nervous to have her go by herself.”

“I’ve only been doing it a few days,” Maggie said. “He doesn’t want me to have a job, but we needed the money, so I signed up with the Daily News. I’m Maggie,” she stepped forward and offered her hand. “Do you have a subscription?”

“I get the Times,” the voice behind the light muttered. The beam of light swung slightly aside, revealing a dark figure with black boots and black gloves, and a square hat with a short bill.

“The Times has soundphotos, but the Daily News has better comics,” Maggie said, thinking, Don’t look at the tree, stop looking at the tree! But she couldn’t come up with a spell to compel him to do that, or any plausible reason to give him. (I saw Lucky the Hippo on Thicke Street! He’s escaped! Phone for backup!) “Do you like the comics, Mister Police Officer?” She had adopted a slight lisp.

“Ye-e-ah…” This was absent, and the beam of the flashlight was see-sawing upwards. He was looking at the tree, but he was having some difficulty processing the tree. Is there a…? Wait. Where am I? He looked back over his shoulder, but there was not a street sign near enough to consult.

He had failed to notice the roots. The uneven cobbles and the dim light made them less obvious, and he had no reason to expect fifteen feet of roots winding all over the street. He also had no reason to expect a huge tree in the middle of what he thought was Violena Street, but trees on streets were not unreasonable or beyond his experience.

The idea that the people he was speaking to might have stolen the huge tree from MacArthur Park, a block away, and walked it to where it was with a crawl spell, was entirely beyond his grasp. It was not rational. Why would somebody do that? How would somebody do that? It would be like assuming an elephant had uprooted it to use as a back-scratcher.

He was unaware that an entire population of elephants with itchy backs lived in the house at 217 Violena. He was new to this route, and the magicians in Hyacinth’s house had been relatively quiet since painting over the helpful label the neighborhood had provided.

“Uh…” He was midway to asking if these people remembered a tree being here, but he thought that might make him seem stupid. What were they going to say? ‘No?’ ‘Holy Joshua Christopher, where’d that come from?’

“I don’t have a subscription card, Mister Police Officer,” the adorable moppet with the braided pigtails spoke up, “but if you give me your name and address, I can send you one!”

“I think you’ll find the Daily News is far superior to the Times in its coverage of local and national events, sir,” the large man with the strange-shaped ears said. “And less expensive, too! Why, seven out of ten households in San Rosille subscribe to the Daily News! I wouldn’t have my daughter work for any other paper!”

“We haven’t even mentioned the sports! Do you like football, Mister Police Officer?”

The sales pitch was getting annoying, there was no forthcoming explanation for the tree, and he was supposed to check into the station by five. The nearest call box was two blocks away.

“Yeah…” The flashlight beam dropped back to waist-level, preparatory to sweeping the streets for gang members or the homeless or other undesirables. For gods’ sakes, it was a tree. It wasn’t loitering or committing vandalism. It was just a tree! “Be careful, you two.”

He tripped over one of the roots on his way past, but he attributed this to the cobbles. Street-maintenance in Strawberryfield was nonexistent.

“We are idiots, Maggie,” Sanaam said, watching the flashlight beam depart.

“Yeah, but we’re the smartest idiots I know,” Maggie replied, grinning. It was half-pleasure, half relief. Not getting caught by the police was fun!

Sanaam fondled the wooden ring on his finger. I think she’s still wearing hers, I guess I could’ve called her if they threw us in jail…

But, it might have been safer to just let the police deal with them. Maybe they could’ve gotten him into protective custody… Or deported him!

Gods, he didn’t even like to imagine what she’d say…

“Daddy,” Maggie said, still grinning. “We should ride the tree the rest of the way home.”

She had a good reason they should do that all lined up in her head. If they rode the tree, they’d have a better view of the street up ahead and more time to react if they ran into more police. Also, if the police should happen to notice a suspicious tree, there would be no suspicious people standing around under it to be questioned.

Rational reasons and explanations were not required.

“Yes,” Sanaam said, instantly.

———

“Yay!” Maggie cried deliriously, viewing the dark street and the quiet houses from a story above, perched on a sturdy branch with her father’s protective arm around her middle. It was like being up in the rigging during a storm! And way less likely to kill her! And not on a boat in the middle of the ocean like a sane person, wobbling up Violena Street in a huge pine tree like some kind of fever dream! And she got to drive!

I wanna climb up a building! I wanna get on a bus! I wanna take this thing downtown!

Sanaam was grinning like a madman, occasionally cackling, and wondering if there was some way to get the tree to pick up a lamp post and eat it, like some kind of movie monster.

But, both of them remained aware that they needed to stop when they got to the house. The point of the walking tree was to get it home and decorate it for Erik, not world domination and delusions of grandeur.

Maggie walked it over the wall and right up to the front porch, though.

Sanaam’s grin faded as he regarded the roof over the porch at eye-level.

“Uh, Mag-Pirate… I think we’re back to being idiots.”

———

With her arms folded over the embroidered breast of her white nightdress, the General followed her sheepish husband down the stairs and opened the front door on her equally sheepish daughter — and a large pine tree, which was standing at the bottom of the porch steps with its naked roots splayed in all directions and was tall enough that she could not see the top of it. Maggie had pine needles in her hair and sap on her dress. Sanaam was similarly redolent of tree and now there was context for it.

“Uh,” Maggie said. “We, uh…”

The General lifted a hand. “No, no. Please. I am not simple, Magnificent.” She turned to her husband, “May I assume you have not made any attempt to pay for this or procure it in a legal way?”

“Yeah,” Sanaam said.

“And, because this is for Erik’s Yule, if I tell you to put it back immediately, we are going to have an argument about it?”

“Yes,” Sanaam said, rather more sternly.

“And the longer this argument goes on, the longer this tree stands in the yard, drawing attention to the lawbreaking magic-users in this house like an enormous, green flag?”

“Yeah,” Sanaam said. It was why they had filed through their options and resorted to calling in the big guns so quickly. They needed to do something about this fast, before sunrise.

“And if I allow the police to cart you away, as I should, this Yule nonsense will be postponed and it will therefore go on for longer, and you will come up with some other asinine thing to do in the time allotted?”

“Probably,” Sanaam said with a grin.

The General sighed. She addressed her daughter, “Magnificent, you will put this tree back where it belongs when we are done with it, exactly as you found it…”

Maggie smiled, relieved. “Yeah, Mom…”

The General frowned, “…and I will come up with some appropriate punishment when we are no longer under a strict time constraint. Please go inside and help your father move the furniture around to accommodate the tree roots, you can be of no further assistance out here.”

Maggie and Sanaam shuffled furniture around in the front room while staring, riveted, out the front window to see what the General was going to do to the tree.

“I bet you she shrinks it,” Sanaam said. “She’s good at shrinking things, Mag-Pirate.”

“Stuff loses resolution when you shrink it,” Maggie said. “It’d look weird when she grew it back to normal, and she wants us to put it back. I bet she just makes the doorway bigger.”

She did neither of those things. First, she picked up the tree with a gesture, flipped it upside-down and shook it. From where they were observing, Maggie and Sanaam could not make out any falling nests or departing squirrels, but they did note the family of raccoons that scampered out — they ran over the porch.

“Daddy!” said Maggie. “I didn’t know we had raccoons in Marsellia!”

“They’re feral,” Sanaam explained numbly, thinking, Could she do that to a person if she wanted to? Could she do that to me? “There was this serial at the movies… Back before you were born. A little boy with a pet raccoon. People wanted pet raccoons, because of the serial, but they don’t make good pets, so when people got sick of them, they just let them go. Raccoons are lousy pets, but they’re good survivors. There’s this flock of feral parakeets in Ansalem, too. Escaped pets. They’re from Suidas, originally. You can feed them like pigeons.”

“What do they eat?”

“Fruit and seeds.”

“Do they know how to talk?”

“I don’t think so…”

The front window exploded. Sanaam and Maggie shrieked. They sounded about the same. Sanaam was a bit louder.

The glass failed to fly in their faces and eviscerate them. It failed to even hit the ground. It hung in mid air around the gaping hole in the wall — multi-colored fragments that twinkled like Yule ornaments. Festive.

Ann came tearing out of Room 201 at the top of the stairs. Ann and Milo were light sleepers, and the all-hours chaos of the household had done little to break the habit. Ann and Milo looked remarkably similar in nightclothes with no makeup and no glasses, but you could tell right away it was Ann, because she said, “What is it?”

“It’s…” Maggie had time to say, before the tree answered the question by forcing its way in through the broken window and past the cloud of floating glass.

Joshua X. Christopher!” Ann cried, with both hands clapped over her mouth.

Sanaam managed a single, “Gah!” while Maggie remained remarkably stoic about it.

Well, yeah. Of course it’s the tree. Why else would she break the window?

The tree unfurled its branches like an umbrella as it entered. When the trunk was through, it tipped upright to take advantage of the ceiling space, and the roots followed, similarly folded. Beyond the roots, on the other side of the empty window frame, a heavyset woman in a white flannel nightgown could be seen, directing the chaos with gestures.

“Shall I put it beside the stairs, Captain?” she asked. “My visibility it a bit limited. I believe I will be able to wrap some of the root system around the banister…”

“Uh,” Sanaam said. “Uh… Uh…”

“Yeah, Mom, there’s room for it!” Maggie said.

When there was room for her, the General climbed in the window as well and adjusted the tree from an improved vantage point. She twined some roots around the railings and banister but kept them clear of the stairs. She hard-stuck the base of the tree to the floor, for safety, and set about arranging the rest of the roots for optimum space as opposed to stability. She hugged the walls as much as was possible, but there was still a tangled mass remaining in the middle of the room.

“If this was a military exercise, I would have you both court-martialed for negligence,” she said. “It is painfully obvious that your tactical skill needs further training, Magnificent.” The General glared at her husband, “You, of course, are hopeless.” She turned her attention to the window and began piecing it back together. This took her a few minutes, as the fragments needed to be fit together like a puzzle. She ended up with a few extra ones that she set aside on the table.

“Mom, could you make windows if you wanted to?” Maggie asked. Hyacinth was always making windows, because they were always getting broken. It took her a lot longer than that.

“Why would I want to?” the General replied. She tapped the glass with a finger, not to test it, just because she was pleased with herself. She was smiling, but she suppressed it when she turned back around.

“It’s for Yule,” Ann managed faintly, pale and wide-eyed and shaking.

“Another tactical genius,” the General said. She dismissed Ann with a toss of her head and addressed her husband and child, “Did it occur to either of you that we do not have anywhere near enough decorations for this monstrosity?”

Sanaam made a gesture at the tree. “Couldn’t you just…?” …bend reality to your will with a thought? Make Yule ornaments out of thin air? Take over a small country and be worshipped as a god?

“Could you put snow on it, Mom?” Maggie asked, smiling.

“Snow in the house, Magnificent?” the General said wearily.

“Well, we already have that in the house,” Maggie said. She indicated the tree. “Besides, I don’t think you have to make the snow so it melts.”

“I do not,” the General allowed, “But it is debatable whether such a creation should be called ‘snow…'”

Ann tapped like a telegraph operator on the door to Room 203. “Cin? I think, um… I really think you had better come out and… I don’t know what, exactly, but I think you’d better come out and look at it, at least…”

Hyacinth opened the door after a few minutes of audible complaining and staggering around. Her eyes were narrow, swollen and bloodshot. She had the wrinkled pattern of her pillowcase engraved on her cheek and a smear of drool at the corner of her mouth. Her hair was more disarrayed that usual. “Izzit?” she said.

“Oh,” she said.

It was a two-story-high pine tree that was being gently dusted with snow from a swirling purple cloud of magic that had gathered at the peak of the ceiling. You could practically hear sleigh bells.

“Snow in the house, you guys?” she said. She was still trying to work out if and how to be mad about it.

“Don’t worry, Miss Hyacinth,” Magnificent said sweetly. “It’s not snow. It’s ‘snew.'”

Hyacinth peered over the second floor railing and blinked at her. “Fuck you, Maggie,” she said. She stumbled back into her room to put on a dress.

“Apologize to my daughter,” the General demanded, when she emerged.

“No,” said Hyacinth. She paused at the top of the stairs, noting tree roots around the banister.

“Apologize to my daughter or I will remove your tongue.”

“Mom…” said Maggie.

“I will put it back when she proves herself willing to behave civilly, Magnificent.”

“Uh, Mom, I don’t think…” She didn’t think that was ever going to happen and she didn’t think the house needed two people who couldn’t talk.

“I’m sorry I said ‘fuck’ to you, Maggie,” Hyacinth said. “But I’m not sorry for the sentiment.” She cast a glance at the General. The woman was frowning, but raised no objection.

“I’m sorry I tried to involve you in a horrible pun at five o’clock in the morning, Miss Hyacinth,” Maggie replied.

“Nm,” said Hyacinth. She waved a hand. “I need coffee to deal with this,” she said, making her way to the kitchen. She had to step over the tree roots.

“I love you two,” Sanaam said. His daughter for her cleverness and the bad pun and the ride on the tree, his wife for her protective instinct and remarkable understanding and restraint. But he didn’t think it needed explaining. His two ladies knew they were awesome. Maggie snickered and hugged him. The General only shook her head with a sigh.

Ann was leaning over the second floor railing and considering all of this with a puzzled expression, like a theater critic trying to absorb an all-lizard production of Cinderella. At last, she smiled. “I’m going to get Milo,” she said.

———

Mordecai had gone to bed the previous evening without worrying about alarm clocks — poor man’s or otherwise. It was his responsibility to make breakfast and he assumed someone would wake him up early enough to do that for Erik and everyone else. They had a vested interest. However, when he regained vague consciousness and noted light showing around the edges of the curtains, he got up anyway. People in this house were stupid sometimes. He’d take a quick peek into the front room and the kitchen and decide if it was time to get up for real or go back to bed.

When he opened the bedroom door with slow, quiet care in nightshirt and bare feet, he found all the lights in the front room blazing, an enormous Yule tree and piles of sparkling white snow, fully three feet high. He gasped, shut the door with an incautious thud (Erik stirred and muttered) and ran to the closet to get dressed. He put on vest, jacket, coat and a scarf — everything. He then felt it safe to venture into the front room to find out what in the hell these idiots thought they were doing.

Maggie looked up from the box of Yule ornaments, which she was applying to the tree with levitation spells, saw Mordecai in full winter regalia and giggled at him. “It’s not real snow, Uncle Mordecai. It’s snew!”

Mordecai narrowed his eyes at her. “No,” he said.

The General was standing in the air at the height of the second floor, neatly attired in a dark blue dress and affixing the winged solar disk to the highest bough. It looked rather pathetic, due to the ridiculous size of the tree. She was considering making it larger. It would be difficult to see the lack of resolution from the ground floor. There was snow falling around her, but not on her. The dress remained immaculate. “I have altered the snow for an indoor application,” she informed the red man. “It does not melt and it is not cold, though it is still formed of crystallized water.” She smiled. “It is safe for the aged and infirm.”

“Oh, how thoughtful,” said Mordecai, acidly.

“Mag-Pirate, you have got to stop calling it that,” Sanaam said, though his broad grin tended to undermine the message. “No one is going to bite.” He was sitting in one of the big chairs with his feet on a pile of altered snow. Being incompetent at magic, he had been given a craft project. He was folding and cutting out paper snowflakes, to shore up the sparse supply of Yule ornaments. Some of these had already been applied to the tree. He was using colored paper, to contrast with the… with the snew. He hoped Milo might make them light up, when he was done with the bottle lights. There were six of these lined up in the front window. They did not have a general glow, like lightbulbs or mage lights, but instead lit up with tiny twinkling sparks, as if Milo had filled them with lightning bugs. He was outside sticking more to the house at the moment. It seemed like he needed the break.

“I have been known to bite on occasion,” Mordecai said, folding his coat and scarf over the back of the chair. “Is there enough water left in the kitchen for dishes and cooking? Or at least coffee?”

“My coffee,” Hyacinth muttered, emerging with a mug. “Get your own.” She negotiated the piled snow with crunching, unsteady steps and plunked down in the other good chair. Technically, she was supposed to be making more ornaments, she had some tin cans, but she still did not feel sufficiently acclimated to this new reality and she was a little irritated with it.

“There’s water,” Maggie said. “My mom had Milo fill up the big flowerpot again.” Milo had seemed pretty relieved to be sent out of the house to haul water from Strawberry Square, too.

“Snow,” said the General, adjusting the size of the sun disk with spread hands like an artist plotting a landscape, “even real snow, is low in water content. That is why it is inadvisable to eat it in an emergency situation. And my magic is exceedingly efficient,” she added, smiling to herself.

Mordecai poked some of the improved snow (it was not ‘snew,’ he was not going to call it that) with a curious finger. It felt like fine gravel, not at all cold, but it still stuck together and to his hands. “Can you do the regular stuff?”

“Yes. I was intending to do some in the yard later today, after the sun begins to go down and the cooler temperature will facilitate its longevity.”

“…I’ll bring you some bowls from the kitchen. If you can do me some snow that acts like snow, I can flavor it.”

“Snow cones!” Maggie said. “Awesome!”

Milo came back in the front door with an empty paper sack. He was all out of bottles, so he guessed he was done. Maybe he could make some excuse later to go out looking for more, but at least he still had all the tin snowflakes to do…

He noted Mordecai with a glance and a resigned sigh. Oh, more people. He hoped Mordecai might be the last… except for Erik, Erik didn’t bother him too much. He really hoped Barnaby wouldn’t come down. Barnaby yelled and he didn’t like different things and it was way different in here right now and that would mean a lot of yelling, and maybe breaking stuff.

Maybe I should do something so he can’t break my lights, Milo thought, regarding the bottles on the sill. Hard-stick them down? Stability charm? I’d have to re-write it so it stacks properly… Some kind of reassembly spell? He stared blankly at the bottles and lost himself in comforting code.

Sanaam noted Milo and Mordecai’s helpful presence, and his significant pile of paper snowflakes, and stood. “Mag-Pirate,” he said. “Do you remember when I told you I didn’t have time to see Grammie and Grandpa because the ship broke down and we had a lot of delays?”

“Yeah…?” said Maggie, already smiling.

“I lied. You want your presents right now so you won’t feel weird about having so many more than everyone else?”

“Heck yes!” Maggie cried. She dropped the near-empty box of ornaments in a snewbank.

“‘Heck’ is improper and and unrefined,” the General said. She stepped down from the air and retrieved the box to finish applying the ornaments herself.

“Daddy is, too,” Maggie said.

“Well, she’s not wrong, sir,” Sanaam said in passing.

Oh, no, presents, Milo thought with a wince. He turned from the window and crunched through the snow to the basement, so he could get the box of snowflakes and play with them instead of think.

Mordecai returned from the kitchen with a stack of wooden salad bowls. After some consideration, he arranged these in a pile of snow near the stairs. “When you have a minute,” he told the General. He proceeded to the basement to get the milk for the eggy bread and caused Milo to drop his box of snowflakes.

———

Erik woke up at about ten (Sanaam had kept him up late with stories the night before — on purpose, but he didn’t know that yet) to an empty bedroom with dim light showing around the curtains and the sound of voices and laughter in the front room.

Aw, is everyone up already? Did I miss breakfast?

There was no mysterious knowledge forthcoming on the subject of breakfast. He thought the Invisibles had been kind of quiet lately. Maybe they didn’t like Sanaam coming home. They got upset about weird stuff sometimes, like Barnaby.

He guessed Maggie and his uncle would keep him company at the table, but Maggie’s daddy was probably back upstairs with the General by now. No more stories until lunch.

He got dressed with slow melancholy, laced up his shoes and popped in his eye.

He opened the door on piles of snow (with more falling down from the ceiling!) an enormous tree dusted in more snow and covered in glittering (some glowing!) decorations, the air full of whizzing silver snowflakes the size of saucers, and sparkling colored lights in the window and lined up on the stairs. Sanaam and Maggie were sitting on the snow under the tree, and Sanaam was shaking a newspaper-wrapped present like a little kid and listening to it. Maggie had on a really pretty dress with a lot of colors and no sleeves, and her hair wrapped up in a matching scarf. Milo was sitting on the stairs and folding a paper chain with the aid of a hardcover book and Hyacinth was adding more ornaments to the tree (silver stars). Maggie’s mom was off to one side, with her arms folded, looking mad about everything, and Uncle Mordecai was off to the other, sampling colored snow with a spoon.

Erik tipped his head forward and took out his eye, fast. He dropped it automatically into his shirt pocket and reexamined his surroundings. Nothing changed. These were real things and not some kind of new tree god that had invisibly altered the surroundings to its liking. He put his eye back in and blinked as it adjusted.

Hester Carthage, with rolled sleeves, white apron and dimpled arms, Lame Anthony, with bent back and a crooked stance, and Cousin Violet, all in white, were standing by the basement stairs.

All right, Violet, Hester said.

Cousin Violet burst out, Erik, you’re gonna have Yule! It’s because you were sick for real Yule and they’re so happy you’re better! It’s a surprise! It’s eggy bread for breakfast and Sanaam got you a…

That’s enough, Hester said, and she muzzled Violet with a hand. She smiled at Erik, then all three of them vanished.

Iron’s John’s voice came from the kitchen: There’s porridge! They remembered! (Iron John got porridge left out for him on holidays, with a pat of butter on top. Mordecai had done this while making breakfast and left it by the oven, sort of as a joke. Iron John was not expected to actually eat the porridge, but it was understood that for whatever reason he liked having it.)

“Ah,” said Erik. He had an idea he ought to be saying something, but he couldn’t bring up any words.

“Oh, there you are, dear one,” said Uncle Mordecai, with a gift for understatement. “I was beginning to think I’d have to warm up the bread again.”

“Erik! Happy Yule!” cried Maggie.

“Happy Yule!” Sanaam said.

“So what do you think?” said Hyacinth, smiling.

“I…” said Erik. “I…” He regarded the boxes under the tree with dismay. “I… didn’t… get… anyone… anything…” He felt cold and he thought he might cry.

“Come on, Erik, don’t be dumb,” Hyacinth said. She knelt next to him on the dining room carpet and put her hands on his shoulders. Uncle Mordecai was coming over to hug him, too, but Hyacinth was closer and she got there first. “You already got us a great present. You gave us you.”

“You worked very hard on it for a long time,” Mordecai added.

Erik nodded. He put both arms around his Uncle’s neck and hid against him. Mordecai picked him up.

“Do you think you want breakfast, dear one?” Mordecai asked him, after a time. “We have some of that raspberry syrup you like…”

Erik pulled back and wiped under his gray eye with his sleeve. He smiled. “Yes!”

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