Xmas in March (42)

Erik under Yule tree with sign reading No Real Horses

Erik was too full of eggy bread and raspberry syrup to fully avail himself of what his uncle was calling ‘the snow bar,’ but he still wanted to sample it. Lunch was going to be just snacks, to save room for a big dinner, so he could have a lot more then. He appreciated that the colors were in the right order, starting with red and ending with purple, but he didn’t like the green and the orange right next to each other, it looked like carrots. “How come there’s not yellow?” he asked. Yellow could be lemon, or pineapple like a Min-Min.

Mordecai shuddered and shook his head. “I’m not going to have anything to do with yellow snow, and neither are you.”

Maggie cackled and clapped both hands over her mouth. Erik just looked puzzled.

Hyacinth emerged from Room 101 after an extended interlude, bearing the previous night’s dishes on a tray.

“Doesn’t it like eggy bread?” Mordecai asked.

“What?” said Hyacinth. She shut the door behind her. “I don’t know what it likes.”

“You were in there, like, ten minutes,” Mordecai said. He took a half step forward, “Are you crying?”

Hyacinth blinked. She touched under her eyes with her sleeve and checked it for dampness. There was a little. “Hell, I don’t know,” she said. She didn’t feel sad or anything, just irritated like usual. She frowned at the door. “I really hate that room.” She sighed and collected Barnaby’s plate from the kitchen. It had gone cold. She had to ask the General to warm it up again.

Barnaby was sitting at his desk, in his robe and slippers, snipping things out of yesterday’s paper. He had a movie listing that noted The Wizard of Oz was playing at La Stella, but he wasn’t sure what to do with it. In with the head injuries? I could put it under the green sticker… Do I want to start another collage on race relations? He wrote, Total Zero, on the movie listing in pencil.

No, that’s not it. It’s the other thing. Mordecai’s always saying it…

He needed an ad for a sports drink or something.

“Hey, Barnaby,” Hyacinth said. “Sorry it’s late.”

“It’s all right,” he said, not bothering to look up. “Just leave it. I don’t think there was any point in warming it up. By the time I get to it…” He blinked at it. “Oh. Is that today?”

“Yule for Erik and a huge tree in the front room?” Hyacinth guessed.

“Yes…” he replied absently. He set down his pencil and picked up the fork. “Never mind, I’ll have it now.” He stood, holding the plate and availing himself of the bread. He had a folder for this somewhere… “Hyacinth, will you bring me your doctor bag?”

She considered that for a moment. “You want a tranquilizer?”

Well, she had correctly divined he wanted some assistance with coping with the front room, she wasn’t dumb. She just didn’t have any context for things half the time, and that wasn’t really her fault. He was feeling magnanimous today. It was fake Yule and there were going to be cookies. He smiled. “No. Bring me the bag and I’ll show you. Ah, here it is.” It was a manila folder with a mangled tab, in a box lid with scattered others. It was labeled, Macbeth Reference, with a sketch of a Yule tree beneath.

Hyacinth went up the stairs with her black doctor bag and a perplexed expression.

A few minutes later, Barnaby came down with bandaged eyes and Hyacinth leading him by the arm. “Well, how is it?” she asked him.

Barnaby considered the featureless, yellowish-gray landscape with a smile. “Tolerable, thank you.” He couldn’t do anything about his third eye, but the other two gave it a lot more information.

Milo stumbled over a buried tree-root. He did not have anything to drop. He wasn’t sure how he felt about this. On the one hand: Barnaby. On the other: No eyes and no yelling.

No yelling yet, he thought with a suspicious frown.

“We’ve got snow inside,” said Hyacinth, leading him to a chair. “And the tree…”

“Yes, Alice, I’ve seen it,” Barnaby replied. “Months ago.” He skidded in the snow and she leaned into him for support. “I am primarily interested in the food. But I might as well deliver my presents in person.” He lifted the folder.

Milo winced and shifted uncomfortably.

Erik had just completed his circuit of flavored snow with a teaspoon of the purple. It was grape. He looked up and smiled, “Uncle, is it presents now?”

Mordecai smiled back, “Do you want it to be?”

“Mm-hm!”

His uncle lifted him and set him down in a snowbank under the tree. Erik planted both hands in it to steady himself and then regarded the white fragments stuck to his palms with a frown. “How come this stuff isn’t cold?”

“Because it’s snew,” Maggie replied.

“What’s snew?”

Maggie was so thrilled, she forgot to deliver the punchline. She just snatched him and hugged him. “Erik, you’re the best!”

He snickered and he pushed a handful of snew in her face. It was scratchy like sand.

“Wow, that’s weird,” said Maggie. She touched a piece of it with her tongue. It failed to melt and she had to spit it out.

“Is that stuff safe?” Mordecai asked the General.

“It should melt as normal when I dispel the magic,” the General replied.

Should?” said Mordecai.

“Milo,” Erik called over, not looking quite at him. “If you got me something, I’ll open it first and I promise I’ll like it, then you don’t have to worry.” He smiled. “If you didn’t get me something, I promise I’ll like that, too.”

Milo shook his head rapidly, horrified. No. No, I… we… of course!

Of course they got Erik something! How else was Erik going to know that they liked him? (That they remained perfectly aware Erik liked them without him giving them a present did not occur to Milo.) Milo skidded to his knees under the tree and retrieved a small square package wrapped in foil.

Erik opened it carefully. Milo soft-stuck the folded corners of the foil, because he knew Erik didn’t like tearing things. It was a flat wooden box that fit in the palm of his hand. The lid said, Tangrams, in orange paint. Inside was a white-painted square broken into seven uneven pieces. “It’s a puzzle?” said Erik.

Milo nodded. He mimed tipping the pieces into the lid, and when Erik did so, he discovered a thick folded piece of paper underneath. There was a gridwork of simple black pictures on the paper, which curled as Erik unfolded it. “Oh. It’s a lot of puzzles!” Erik said.

Milo nodded.

Erik beamed at him. “It’s a good present and I love it, okay?”

Milo nodded, looking away. He thought it was good, too. He sort of wanted some of those for himself. But sometimes he was stupid about stuff. Ann promised everyone would like their presents, and she was a lot smarter about things, but he was still worried. If someone got mad, they’d be mad at him.

“I think everyone else better open up Ann and Milo’s stuff, too,” Erik said. He knew Milo was pretty upset and he wasn’t sure how much longer the man was going to manage without changing. Maybe he’d do a little better when no one was mad about the presents.

Milo handed out packages while staring fixedly into his lap. There was something for everyone — save Mordecai, who had asked to be excluded. Ann and Milo didn’t have any particular affection for Barnaby or the General, but Ann knew it would be harder for Milo to cope with not giving presents to some people than for her to cope with buying presents for a couple people she sort of didn’t like. He was even a little worried about Mordecai at the moment. He kept glancing at the man and trying to read his expression without being noticed.

What if he didn’t mean it and he was just saying it? What if he’s mad I didn’t get it right?

Milo, I’m sure he really meant it. He’d be sad right now if you got him a present.

WHAT IF EVERYONE ELSE IS SAD I GOT THEM A PRESENT, TOO?

Shh, Milo. It’s okay. I promise it’s okay.

Milo was clutching his hands in the fabric of his shirt and shivering.

Everyone except the General opened their presents right away — even Barnaby, though he couldn’t see what he was doing and he already knew what it was. Barnaby, Maggie and Hyacinth were gracious about theirs (a precision blade for cutting paper, a book about magical notation, and a hairbrush, respectively). Sanaam did not appear immediately thrilled with his and Milo was concerned.

“Milo,” Sanaam said, turning it, “it is supposed to point here?” The needle was spinning as if he’d just set foot on the North Pole. The compass face had only a single designation: HOME.

Milo nodded. He had to take it apart and redo the face, like Erik’s watch, and he had to come up with a couple enchantments. There was a lot of room for gears in there, since compasses required magnetism and precious little mechanics to work. He thought it was probably okay using metal since Sanaam wouldn’t be here a lot and Hyacinth wouldn’t be able to take it.

“Thank you,” Sanaam said. “Oh, and Ann, too.” Although, given the nature of the gift, he thought Milo had a lot more to do with it. Ann didn’t do things with magic and gears.

Milo failed to nod. He was examining Sanaam’s shirt in incoherent detail (Buttons… patch pocket… poplin cloth…) and casting repeated glances at the man’s expression. Ann, he’s not smiling. Ann, he’s not smiling…

It doesn’t mean he doesn’t like it, Milo. He likes it. He’s touched.

We made him sad because we reminded him he’s never home!

Well… Maybe a little bit, Milo, but I still think he likes it. And he’s not mad at you.

Sanaam was regarding his cheap metal compass with the glass front and the wavering arrow that indicated his heart’s true north and thinking, My wife isn’t this thoughtful. She’d never give me anything like this.

Because I believe you are intelligent enough to work your way back to the house on your own, Captain, he told himself in her voice.

That was true, but… It wasn’t about finding the house.

It was about missing it.

“Yeah, this is really great,” he said. At last he managed a smile, which eased Milo’s conscience somewhat — he couldn’t see the tears.

“And now,” said the General, “because I am capable of waiting my turn like a civilized animal…” She also unwrapped her present without tearing the paper. Milo had not bothered to soft-stick the edges for her, but this was not required. “I see,” she said.

It was a clay pigeon for target shooting, which was not at all pigeon-shaped, just a terracotta disc with a raised picture of one on it.

“I do not have a rifle at the moment, and even if I did, there would be little point in shooting one. This object will do nothing but collect dust.”

Milo looked up at her with a frown. Well, I don’t care if you like it, he thought.

Sanaam was grinning. He took the disc from his wife and spun it in his hands. “Milo, that is excellent. Well done!”

“You and Ann are really great at this,” Maggie added with a snicker.

Milo looked pained. Ann, they’re teasing me.

No, dear. They’re teasing her.

Oh. Well, he was all right with that.

“It’s much better than what I got you,” Sanaam said, shoving a newspaper-wrapped parcel into his wife’s arms. She accepted it with a resigned sigh. It was soft and a little over breadbox-sized. She suspected a stuffed animal.

It was a pair of bright yellow plush slippers… with round heads sewn to the toes. They had embroidered cartoon eyes and pointed beaks. “Are these meant to be birds?” she said.

“Canaries,” Sanaam said proudly. “They didn’t have eagles or pigeons.”

They also had little squeakers inside, so they would chirp when you walked in them. The General dismissed them as idiotic and refused to put them on.

Hyacinth offered Milo his present while the household was otherwise distracted by the slippers. “Milo, here. I don’t know what you want to do with it, but in case you just want to get it over with…” She was half-expecting him to run upstairs with it, or maybe into the basement. He really did look miserable.

Milo nodded. He accepted the parcel with shaking hands and deposited it in his lap. His right hand drifted to his shirt pocket, but he did not remove the card. It would be weird if he thanked her now. You were supposed to open the thing first. If he just gave her the card and didn’t bother about opening the present, it would look like he didn’t care.

He tore the paper and opened the box.

He stared at his present. His present stared back.

He wanted to scream and he couldn’t.

Ann, my present has eyes, he managed faintly.

No, Milo! The words were sharp like a slap. It’s a toy! It’s not real eyes! She wasn’t sure if he was hearing her. Milo, turn the box around, then it won’t look at you!

Numbly, Milo turned the box around. One-hundred-and-eighty degrees. He was now looking at a little brown body and a tail and trembling.

Milo, it’s all right. It’s just a toy. I’m sorry. I didn’t think about the eyes. It’s just a toy. It’s okay…

“Milo?” said Hyacinth. “It’s okay, isn’t it? Ann thought you’d like it…” She had been standing there wondering how Milo could possibly be surprised, but now she was sort of wishing he’d been a little less surprised. He’d looked about ready to scream. He was the same color as chalk.

Well, I guess Ann got him to open it without telling him what it was, she thought.

Milo shuddered and dropped the box back in his lap. He looked up, he looked away, then he stuck his hand in his shirt pocket and urgently presented the card.

Hyacinth read words in firm, hard pencil:

Thank you so much for my present. I love it a lot. It makes me really happy. I just have a really hard time smiling.

And on the backside, enclosed in a heart:

I'm smiling inside, I promise!

“Yeah,” said Hyacinth. She didn’t believe a word of it. Never mind that he’d preprinted it, he in no way appeared to be smiling inside.

He had finally managed to lift the toy dog out of the box. It was covered in soft fur, but it was not remotely soft underneath. It was hard like it had bones.

He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to hug it or, if so, how to do that so it looked right.

He guessed it didn’t matter if it felt right. That was sort of less bad. The dog couldn’t get mad at him, and it was as stiff as he was when he tried to hug people.

Hyacinth reached into the box, startling him, and drew out a small, metal key. “Do you want to wind it up?”

Oh. There was a square socket for the key in the dog’s belly. It had gears inside.

Milo nodded. He fumbled the key and wound up the dog.

The toy dog shuddered to life. Its stubby legs wiggled. When he put it on the floor, it walked three jerky steps, then opened its mouth and yapped three times. It walked again, then paused and executed a back-flip. It landed on all four feet, wagged its tail, and yapped and walked again.

Milo blinked at it. Wow! How does it do that? Is it magic or purely mechanical? Is there space for any more gears in there? I wonder if I can get it to sit up and beg… Is it running on a spell or a program?

No. Wait. If he wanted to get in there and play with it, he’d have to peel off all the fur…

“I thought about taking the fur off for you,” Hyacinth said, observing Milo’s reaction with a smile. He did have a hard time smiling, but you could tell when he was interested in something. “But this way you get to open your present two times. And I figure by the time I get around to using it, you’ll know all its secrets and be bored of it.”

Milo nodded. He regarded his walking, barking invitation to play with gears and magic with clasped hands.

Ann, I really do love my present.

Oh, Milo. I’m glad!

Erik looked up from his cautious investigation of the dog (he was worried he might hurt it if he picked it up while it was trying to move, and it wasn’t his) and saw Cousin Violet standing behind Milo with five fingers raised.

“Oh, wait, Milo,” Sanaam said, rising. “I’ve got something for you, too.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Maggie. “Me too…” She put down the slipper she had been squeaking and made for the tree.

Violet folded in her thumb. Four fingers now.

Ann, you said only one present!

Well, Milo, I asked Hyacinth to get you one, but I never told Maggie and Sam not to…

Three.

“Don’t bother,” Barnaby advised them. He sat placidly with his folder and made no attempt to retrieve Ann and Milo’s present.

Two.

I don’t have any more cards! I only made one card! WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?

One.

Milo snatched his toy dog, disregarded the metal key that fell out of his lap, plowed through a pile of snow and ran up the stairs to his room.

Violet, that’s mean, Erik said without saying.

I feel mean! Cousin Violet replied. Hester’s had her hand over my mouth for three whole days! She huffed and vanished.

Erik winced. Uh-oh. We better get some of that good cereal with the marshmallows or we’re gonna have some real bad luck around here…

They decided to go ahead with more presents. It could take Milo a long time to collect himself and change clothes.

Erik got a tin cannon with wheels to go with his soldiers, a coffee mug with a picture of a mermaid on it (Sanaam drew a mustache on it and Maggie came up with a charm to make it permanent), the painted sign about the horses (they had to stop and go stick it to the house right away), and a slingshot.

Sanaam had been surprised as hell when Maggie picked that one to give to Erik. “Mom can’t take it away from him,” she explained, “and his uncle won’t because he’ll be all responsible with it.”

“And he’ll let you borrow it whenever you want,” Sanaam realized.

“Yup.”

The General got him a math workbook.

“Mom, you’re like those people who give out toothbrushes on Mischief Night,” Maggie said, noting the total lack of pictures to color.

“Magnificent, I do not give out anything on Mischief Night,” the General replied.

Barnaby gave him a cut-out piece of newsprint overwritten in pencil. Barnaby gave everyone a cut-out piece newsprint overwritten in pencil. Erik’s was an ad for Fae Verte absinthe. Ask to purchase a corkscrew, it said, in neat cursive. It will take him precisely 2:48 to find one. The bottle is on the left hand side of the 3rd shelf from the bottom, behind the counter.

He told Erik and Maggie (he said it was for both of them) to stick it in a drawer somewhere so they’d have it later when it made sense.

Sanaam’s note had a clue about where he could purchase the ring of sending he had already purchased. Mordecai was advised not to bother about buying a soda. The General got a nonsensical statement appended to a picture of cheese and onion potato chips: It eats these. It will steal them if you’re not looking. She threw it into the pile with the crumpled wrapping paper.

Hyacinth got a coupon for a free box of Nadine’s ‘with purchase.’ It was expired. It said: Give me my box of chocolates.

She gave him his box of chocolates. She hadn’t bothered to wrap it. “You know, you could at least pretend you’re surprised,” she said.

“Why?” he replied, removing the lid.

When Ann came down, she received an ad for a shoe store that Barnaby had affixed to some cardstock and cut into seven uneven pieces, for Milo’s amusement. When assembled, it would tell her where and when to find a pair of red high-heeled boots in her size on clearance. She graciously accepted this and all of her and Milo’s other presents. Sanaam’s gift of a color-changing coffee mug required them to make more coffee so everyone could see what it did (Barnaby excepted). When filled, the simple picture of a frowning blue face turned into a smiling pink one.

“Oh, Sam, that’s really clever!” Ann said. “It changes just like we do!”

Hyacinth also gotten a coffee mug. It had Not A Morning Person on it in plain black printing, and did nothing special beyond hold sixteen ounces. She employed it. Erik got to try out his new mug, too.

“Did you become trapped in a mug store, Captain?” the General asked. “Did they refuse to allow your release unless you purchased a certain amount of them?”

“I panicked, okay?” Sanaam said. “You got me a damn sweater, didn’t you?”

“The sea is cold,” the General said.

“Open the trash can, Miss Hyacinth!” Maggie demanded.

“I thought my present was the trash can,” said Hyacinth, blinking. Mordecai had put a big newspaper bow on it and placed it proudly under the tree. It appeared to be galvanized steel, which she could certainly use.

“No, that was just because he couldn’t find a box. He had me and Milo clean it out, and Milo stuck the lid on, but he wouldn’t show us what was in there.” (Maggie had unstuck the lid and taken a look at it, but she still didn’t know what to make of it.)

Mordecai set the trash can in front of her with a flourish. It crunched in the snow. He bowed and backed away, smiling.

This entire trash can is full of snakes, thought Hyacinth.

No. That wasn’t possible. He couldn’t afford that many snakes. Not even with Milo’s money.

She couldn’t undo the charm, so she undid the metal, leaving a blossom like an enormous gunshot.

She shrieked and shoved over the trash can and fell backwards into the snow.

“My gods, Cin, what is it?” said Ann, helping her up. Mordecai just grinned.

Barnaby chuckled. “Is that this Yule…? Oh, yes. It’s because of the violin.”

Erik leaned sideways, trying to get a look. Maybe it was snakes. That would be mean, but he’d like to see them…

Mordecai stepped forward and kindly removed a two-foot-long, tapered, hollow shell from the trash can. He had chalked, With Love From The Czaretna on it, misspelled like that. The words were burned into his brain. (He had considered changing it to, With Love From Mordecai, but that was not a sentiment he wished to express in print.) He set it upright in the snow, reached deep into the trash can and removed the second part of his gift. “With sunglasses, Hyacinth.” He attempted to hand them to her. “You know how important proper eye protection is in these matters.”

Hyacinth did not accept the sunglasses. She kicked the trash can at him with a snarl, “You bastard!” The trash can went klung, jumped a short distance and rolled sideways. He couldn’t help laughing. He probably would have done that even if she’d hit him.

“It’s not a real one,” Ann said, mostly to assure herself. She couldn’t account for Hyacinth’s reaction.

“It used to be,” said Mordecai. He held it up and spun it around to show the inside. “But it’s had all the works removed. It is now suitable for gifting as a souvenir or turning into a goofy lamp.” He turned and smiled at Hyacinth. “Shall I put it under the skylight?”

Hyacinth was standing, fuming, with hands clenched. “You remembered it,” she said. “You got the damn thing exactly. I remember it!”

“Of course I remembered it,” he replied. “It almost killed us.” He did not attempt to position it where its twin had fallen, he thought that might be a little too much for Hyacinth. He thought that might be a little too much for him. “Do you want to enlighten the household, or shall I?”

“It’s how come we don’t have a roof,” Erik said, gazing upwards at the steel patch.

“The household except for Erik and Barnaby,” Mordecai amended.

Barnaby nodded. He’d seen what had happened the moment Hyacinth dragged him in the front door. Well, either that it had happened or it was going to happen. He attributed it to the inauspicious wallpaper.

“This fucking thing,” said Hyacinth. She sat down in the snow and picked up her present. “Not this fucking thing, but one exactly like it, fell in through the skylight during the last couple weeks of the siege. They were bombing the hell out of us, we took some gas and some shrapnel, but this thing…” She gestured with both hands. “Ka-pow! Right in the middle of the front room, and all my patients. But it didn’t go off.”

“We were there,” said Erik.

Mordecai nodded. “We were within three feet of it, I think. But there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I just held you very tightly and turned away.”

“You did mention it was a shell,” Sanaam said. He had asked about the hole in the roof before he brought his family to live here. He had never really put it together that the whole place was full of people… and Erik and Mordecai. And the shell was enormous.

Mordecai had sat down next to Erik and was holding him again. But he was still smiling. “Ah,” he said, “but she never mentions what she did about it. Our Hero.”

Hyacinth fondled the sunglasses with a smirk. “All right, jackass, you tell them. Let the humiliation continue.”

“So while all of us were collectively wetting ourselves,” said Mordecai, “because there was no way in hell we were going to run far enough away from that thing by the time the fuse kicked in, and praying to the gods that the fuse wouldn’t kick in, she,” he pointed at her, “runs towards it and starts taking it apart. She had it in pieces before it could kill us.”

“I used the metal to fix people,” she said. “We needed the metal.”

“She flash-blinded herself doing it, though,” Mordecai said. “My gods, she was furious.” She had also been terrified, that was why she was furious, but he did not feel that needed mentioning. Blind, with a houseful of wounded during a siege, and she had done it to herself. “That’s why she never talks about it. Pisses her off.”

“It might never have gone off,” she muttered, poking the shell. “It might’ve just been a dud, and I did a stupid thing for no reason.”

“Yeah, and it might’ve blown up the whole house… and you,” said Mordecai. “That’s why you were brave as hell, there was no way to know.”

“Stupid as hell,” she said, and she touched the amber-tinted goggles that were lodged in her back pocket. If she didn’t have a pocket, she wore them on her head. She always had them on her, she didn’t need the damn sunglasses.

There was another thing in the pocket and she drew it out and tossed it at Mordecai, “Here, these are yours.”

He flinched from it, perhaps expecting a grenade, but he caught it. It was two small silver hoops tied together with a red ribbon. One of them had a vague resemblance to an alligator biting its tail, but it looked melted and imprecise. “Bracelets?”

“The ones I used on your lungs. They were gold over silver. I didn’t need the silver.”

He turned them in his hands. “So, you had these around the house anyway, you didn’t have to spend anything, and because they’re metal, you’re eventually gonna take them back and use them.”

“Yep.”

He smiled. “Hyacinth, thank you so much.” He meant it. This was the least painful thing she could possibly have given him — better even than nothing at all, because it was funny.

“Yeah, don’t mention it.” She slung a companionable arm around the shell and departed for the kitchen with it. “Come on. I’ve had enough presents. My giant goddamned shell wants some lunch, and I need more coffee…”

It went without saying that Mordecai would be in charge of the lunch.

“Dear one, what do you think we should make?” he asked Erik. He had cheese and crackers, and some of those toothpick sausages, some chips and some olives and things, but they needed an entree. He had intended one complicated thing to keep himself (and maybe the whole house) busy. “Cookies? Candy? I can do fudge…”

“He wants sugar cookies,” Barnaby said. He stood and began to make his way towards the kitchen, with arms extended as if he were playing Blind Man’s Bluff.

“Now I’m kinda scared if I don’t want sugar cookies, something’s gonna happen,” Erik said. He knew Violet was probably going to be messing with them for the rest of the day, unless Hester could stop her.

Do you want them, though?” said Mordecai.

Erik smiled. “Yeah.”

“I’m going to knock into the wall!” Barnaby warned them, moments before knocking into the wall.

“Why…?” said Mordecai. If he knew he was going to why didn’t he…?

Sanaam got up to help him. After a moment’s difficulty with the concept of second sight, Mordecai also got up to help him.

———

Cookies were a whole-house activity. Cocktail sausages, flavored snow, and various other filler were consumed during the process, with the General suspiciously checking hands to be certain there was no cross-contamination. Ann went upstairs and came back with Milo’s watch — Milo himself having refused the offer of frosting and raw cookie dough and preemptively anything else to do with Yule. Barnaby, with bandaged eyes, sat in a chair and claimed to be supervising. He also demanded service, which Hyacinth allowed as practical under the circumstances. Erik put out a bowl of cereal for Cousin Violet before anyone had anything to do with the oven. Regardless, a couple batches of cookies came out blackened and Hyacinth burned a finger.

By the time they were done with cookies and dishes from cookies and triage from cookies, the sun had sunk behind the buildings visible from the kitchen window and the General considered it an appropriate hour to begin snow.

“Magnificent, come and learn how to freeze precipitation. I believe there is enough humidity outdoors to make clouds from scratch, we are a coastal climate.”

“Even Yule is a lesson,” Maggie confided to Erik with a roll of her eyes. She had to take off her pretty dress with all the colors and put on something more appropriate for snow, but she left on the headscarf.

The rest of the household had also made additions to their outfits, with Mordecai having been particularly careful. Ann was still upstairs arguing with the mirror for a change into Milo, rather than just boots and a coat.

She finally drew out the heavy artillery. She’d been hoping to save that for dinner, but he’d already eaten breakfast with people. The snow was more important. The snow might be fun.

“Milo, if you let me be you, you can open up your toy dog again and play with it right now.”

She let him just do that for a while, sitting cross-legged on the floor of their room, adjusting gears and designing enchantments… and absently sorting through the whole ‘present’ experience so that he could get past it.

When she felt he was reasonably calm — you know, for him — she broached the idea of just going outside and having a look at the snow. It was going to be pretty with all the lights.

Milo arrived on the front porch, clutching his skinless toy dog like a talisman, just in time to avoid Maggie pelting everyone with baseball-sized hail, but before anyone trusted the subsequent snowfall enough to leave the porch and do any serious playing around. So, just about perfect timing, in terms of aesthetics and safety.

The sky was gray and cloudy, thinning out with visible blue patches in the distance, and the snow was falling only over the house and the front yard. It was dusting the tops of the bricks in the wall like powdered sugar, but not the street. (The General, with characteristic precision, had put most of the labor into the snow. Maggie had absorbed the basic concept of frozen precipitation, she could improve her technique later — under more-controlled circumstances.) In the yard itself, the snow was falling rapidly enough to cut down the visibility like fog. You couldn’t tell it was Violena Street anymore. It might be some mountaintop at the end of the world. Even the piles of brick and junk were obscured.

Milo’s bottle lights were twinkling on the windowsill, and the porch railing. He’d also put some on the roof, but he could extrapolate what those looked like.

Okay, it’s pretty. I’ll come back and look at it later, after it gets dark. I bet it’ll be pretty then, too…

But, before he could make good his escape, Erik approached him with a shy smile and asked if he might like to help build a snowman. And he couldn’t say no. It wasn’t like that was hard.

He put together a quick spell and made one on the porch steps. Just the shape of one, with snow. Erik could decorate it however he wanted.

Erik appeared disappointed with it. “Gee, that was fast…”

Ann was able to cut through Milo’s growing panic enough to impart that ‘help build a snowman’ was a desired series of functions, rather than just an end result.

“Come on, Milo,” Maggie offered him. “I’ll show you how to do it the real way.”

Midway through Snowman Version 2.0, with the snowfall having slowed enough to facilitate play, Soup popped up on the other side of the plywood gate and said, “Wow! What’re you guys doing?” When it came over all cloudy, he thought Hyacinth’s house might be on fire again.

“Yule for Erik!” Maggie said. “He was sick for real Yule, and my daddy just got home, so we thought we’d do it now.”

Soup ran two blocks and alerted the school. It was decided that Seth had to come, too. No one else was going to come to school if the crazy magicians at 217 Violena were making snow in the middle of March. They dragged him.

There were about fifteen people in the yard altogether, when Mordecai did a headcount preparatory to offering some hot chocolate. He thought he had enough cocoa powder, and he could thin out the milk with water, but there weren’t enough mugs, even with Sanaam’s recent additions. Hyacinth was certain she had some paper cups in the house somewhere, but no one could find them. Erik at last removed his mittens and coat and went into the kitchen alone, to have an argument with Violet, who liked hiding things. He emerged a few minutes later, limping, with a stack of cups. “They were behind this really big can of fruit cocktail. It kinda fell on me.” He thought probably Hester had prevented Violet from hitting him in the head and knocking him out for the remainder of Yule.

There were several snow-creatures under construction, also snow forts and some small snow-skirmishes. Milo was getting a lesson in snow angels. The General was sculpting an equestrian statue in ice, larger than life-sized, with a young woman that was either herself or a very close relative sitting astride a rearing steed. Sanaam was fielding requests from multiple children who wanted to climb him. Seth had just sacrificed his sportcoat for one of the snow-creatures when a snowball hit him in the back. He staggered and looked behind him, but he was unable to discern its origin.

Mordecai!” said Hyacinth, grinning.

“What?”

“You threw that!”

“You’re delusional,” he replied. He brushed his hand on his coat. “Okay, everyone! Coffee and chocolate on the porch!”

Hyacinth had also put the remaining sugar cookies on a tray, over Barnaby’s objection. (“I distinctly recall seeing a week’s worth of sugar cookies with lunches and dinners, Hyacinth! You are interfering with the design of the universe!”) He stood beside them and predicted horrible futures for anyone who got near. This discouraged only a few people.

Seth kept breaking his cookies in half and offering pieces to the kids. He was unable to do anything to split up his hot chocolate.

When the cookies were gone and the snow had been fairly well used and muddied, people began to make their excuses. Milo ran off first, giving Ann some time to drink chocolate and converse with the neighborhood. Seth vanished soon after. He had forgotten to remove his coat from the snowman. Soup and Bethany went after him with it and failed to return. It was starting to get dark and most of the kids in the neighborhood had a sundown curfew. There were a couple teenagers who were reluctant to depart and Hyacinth abandoned them in the yard with a warning, “If you break any windows, I’m damn well going to know who it was.” Other than that, there wasn’t a lot of damage they could do. It would be very difficult to start a fire.

Mordecai had had a relatively sedate snow experience, mainly watching Erik and everyone else enjoy themselves. He did not play in snow, for obvious reasons. (Or throw snowballs! Hyacinth must be out of whatever remained of her mind.) He sat on the porch and fielded complaints and strange portents from Barnaby. So he was in good shape to get started on dinner. Everyone else lounged around in either the kitchen or the front room, played with presents, and occasionally dozed off. (Barnaby kept to the kitchen. He wanted to sample things.)

Dinner was entirely too much, after breakfast and snacks and cookies. There were two different kinds of potatoes, and a pie for after. Mordecai had arranged it all very nicely in the kitchen and was showing it off to the house when the General broke in and told Magnificent she would not be allowed to have any of it. “Go upstairs and write an apology letter for when you return the tree.”

“Who am I apologizing to?” cried Maggie.

“You may address it, ‘To Whom It May Concern,'” the General replied.

The household revolted. Negotiations were attempted. Threats were made.

Mordecai finally slammed a dish of gravy down on the counter and said, “If Maggie can’t have dinner tonight, then I will put all this food in the basement and we will have it tomorrowand I will be pissed off because my crescent rolls will get stale!

“You don’t mess around with a man’s crescent rolls, sir,” Sanaam said seriously. “It’s in the Florentine Conventions.”

Maggie was allowed dinner, but assigned her apology letter in lieu of pie. She was all right with that. She was really full, and besides, she knew her daddy would save her a piece.

After pie and penance, they repaired to the front room to admire the lights and the tree and the snew and have another go at lounging around. Maggie and Erik played with toys. Erik knew he shouldn’t actually try the slingshot in the house (they’d made an attempt in the yard with snowballs, it didn’t go very well), but they discussed its utility and the science of aiming. After altering the canary slippers to her liking, the General had consented to wear them, just for the evening. She had removed the heads and the squeakers and she was satisfied with their utility… and with the frayed cotton guts that were poking out of them.

Mordecai had commandeered one of the nicer chairs (Barnaby had the other one. “Age before beauty,” Hyacinth said.) and when he felt sufficiently recovered from cooking and dishes to spend another long period standing, he crouched down next to Erik and asked, “Dear one, do you think you’d like your present from me now?”

“It wasn’t all the food?” said Erik.

Mordecai shook his head with a smile. “But I couldn’t wrap it, so I had to hide it. What do you think? We can have it tomorrow if it’s too much tonight.”

Yes, there had been a lot of stuff today, and it was late, but Erik wasn’t about to say no to a present. No way!

Mordecai went into the bedroom and returned with his violin case. “I promised I’d play this for you when I could get it right.” He’d been practicing up on the roof, in the cupola, so no one could hear… except maybe Barnaby, but there was no keeping things from Barnaby anyway. He stowed the peeling case in a chair and picked up the violin.

Silence abounded. Everyone was looking. Most of the house had never seen him play violin, and not well.

Don’t screw up, he told himself. He sighed. He had no hope of getting the piano from the beginning, but he played, “She was a working girl, north of Elban way… Now she’s hit the big time! On the Nopal Bay… And if she could only hear me… this is what I’d say…

He had picked up the piano by the end of the first verse, that was pretty good for him! He lengthened the instrumental part a bit, feeling pleased with himself.

Come… come back to me… Honey Pie! Ah-ha-ha…

When he had finished playing around with the non-lyrics at the end of the song and making a fool of himself, he took down the violin and looked over at Erik expectantly.

“My… mom… liked… that?” Erik asked him.

“Yeah.” He shrugged and sheepishly regarded the violin. “But I think part of it was she liked teasing me about the piano.”

“I… like it… too!” Erik said. He scrambled over and hugged his uncle around the waist. Mordecai did his best to return the hugging with a violin and a bow in his hands. When he straightened, he said, “All right, we are now taking requests!”

Erik said, “‘Cin… a…'” but he was still pretty excited and he couldn’t get it out fast enough.

Maggie overrode him, “‘Turkey in the Straw!'”

Erik grinned at his uncle’s reaction and nodded. “…That!”

“Hyacinth, do we have liquor?” Mordecai asked weakly.

He had a sip of something brown and horrible, grimaced, then cleared his throat and said, “All right! For the young lady in the front row with no taste, ‘Turkey in the Straw!'”

After that, Erik wanted ‘Cinaphone Killed the Radio Star,’ which did not require drinking. Then Barnaby requested ‘Tiny Dancer,’ which had a lot of piano and therefore did. Then things sort of started to run together.

Sanaam wanted ‘Alegria, Alegria,’ which made Mordecai laugh. Sanaam had found that one on a jukebox in some terrifying, dim bar down by the docks, and dragged Mordecai in there so he could learn it. Apparently, they used to play it where he grew up. Anyway, it was three plays for a sol and Sanaam broke up a fifty-scint piece and fed the whole thing in there. He selected “Alegria, Alegria — Daisy Voisin,” thirty times. In bar full of large angry men. If Mordecai had tried that, he would’ve been picking his teeth up off the floor. All Sanaam had to do was keep buying people drinks and insisting, “I love this song! I haven’t heard this since I was a kid!” And he did have to punch that one guy, but no one else after that one guy. The whole bar had been singing it by the end, even though no one understood the words. Mordecai still didn’t understand the words, but after thirty times, he was pretty good at reproducing them phonetically.

“Only once!” he told Sanaam.

Hyacinth wanted ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly.” More liquor.

The General requested, ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,’ which Mordecai was not familiar with, but Maggie and Sanaam sang it for him, so he could fake it.

Hyacinth wanted ‘Great Balls of Fire.” And then, ‘Piano Man.’

“Hyacinth, for gods’ sakes!” cried Mordecai.

“My giant goddamned shell wants to hear ‘Piano Man,'” said Hyacinth. She had merged the sunglasses to it and given it its own chair. It was wearing Erik’s winter hat and Mordecai’s scarf.

“You know, I’ve been enjoying myself tonight, and I was sort of hoping to remember it!” said Mordecai. But he drank and attempted ‘Piano Man’ for Hyacinth’s giant goddamned shell.

Ann said, “Em, do you happen know ‘Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes?'”

Mordecai was past all sense of decorum by then. “Ann! Do you actually like that drivel or are you just winding me up?”

“I like it,” Ann said. “Milo likes it. It’s happy.”

“Oh, gods…” He played it, and when he was through playing it, Ann wanted him to play it again.

“Please, Em, if I can get Milo to come down for it? Please?”

He groaned and flopped backwards into a snewbank.

He was pretty sure Milo came down for another rendition of ‘Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,’ but it was all starting to go fuzzy. He thought he might have even played it a third time, without being asked, but maybe that was just a bad dream.

———

Erik and Mordecai were curled up in a pile of snow (not real snow this time) and sleeping. The violin was beside them. Hyacinth had to rein in a brief urge to pull them out and rescue them again. Instead, she threw Mordecai’s coat over them. The mage lights would go out once people stopped moving around in the room, and Milo’s bottle lights in the window would be enough to get them back to their room when they woke up.

“Aw,” said Maggie. “I was gonna ask Erik if he wanted to come help put the tree back.”

Hyacinth knew Erik would answer that with an unequivocal ‘yes,’ and Mordecai with an unequivocal ‘no.’ She was a little curious as to which one would win, but she shook her head. “Think you can get it out of here without waking them?”

“Probably, if Mom helps.”

The General appreciated the challenge, if not being asked to clean up her husband and daughter’s mess. “Hmm… Perhaps a few silence spells…”

She refused to ride the tree, not even when Maggie gave her a good reason for it. “No. If we are accosted by the police, an invisibility spell is much more efficient.”

They put it back in the park, where the hole had been decorated by a couple of orange cones in its absence. They stuck Maggie’s apology letter to a branch.

———

Erik awoke in the faint, twinkling glow of Milo’s bottle lights and made out the figure of his uncle in the dining room. He was hanging one of the Yule ornaments, a tin star, on the doorknob of Room 101.

“Uncle?” said Erik.

He gasped and turned. “Oh. Erik.” He knelt down and smiled, “I’m so glad you’re better, dear one,” but he sounded sad. Erik hugged him.

“Huh?” said Mordecai. “Oh, hi.” He smiled again. “What’s going on?”

“I think we better go to bed,” said Erik.

“Yeah. Hey. Good idea.”

He hummed ‘Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,’ while Erik helped him out of his shoes and tie.

 

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