Milo asked his toy dog to get him a screwdriver. This was not really the most efficient way to get a screwdriver, he could’ve just leaned over the table and grabbed it, but he had gotten bored of functions like ‘roll over, ‘sit up’ and ‘sing me ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song’ by Harpers Bizarre.’ That last one didn’t work very well, anyway. There was only room for one song and not at a good resolution. It sounded like Harpers Bizarre had just gone in for extensive dental surgery. Worse than cylinders.
‘Get me a screwdriver’ was at least nominally useful and Milo thought it was kind of cute. You know, like ‘fetch.’
Milo’s toy dog was only a ‘toy dog’ in the most abstract and industrial sense at this point. The fur and the eyes had to go, of course. That left him with a dog-shaped mass of gears and wires and wheels that needed space for more gears and wires and wheels. He tried to keep it dog-shaped, at least at the beginning. That was sort of a challenge. He added ears, since the original ears had gone with the fur, and he made the tail longer. He had to give in and make it fatter, and ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song’ had expanded it to a vaguely spherical shape with four stubby legs at the bottom. Lately, he had added a couple metal pegs for balance, the poor thing was top-heavy. There was a magnet in the tip of the tail so it could pick things up. He had tried the magnet in the mouth — well, what used to be the mouth — but when the dog tried to bend over it tipped forward and sat uselessly waggling its legs and making Milo feel sorry for it. The tail worked better, anyway, it had a pretty good range.
He thought if he gave it wheels and magicked the treads he might get it to climb up the walls, maybe up the stairs and into the kitchen to make him a sandwich, but he wasn’t sure it was worth the effort. A sandwich would either need way more gears and functions or for all the sandwich things to be kept exactly the same number of steps (or revolutions, he guessed, for the wheels) away from the basement and from each other at all times. There was no way that was going to happen, even if he painted outlines like he’d done for the tools on the worktable.
Hyacinth would be mad at him for painting the kitchen counters, too. It was better to make his own sandwiches.
He thought he had gotten about all the fun he was going to get out of the toy dog, but the thing where he could ask it for tools was cute, yeah.
The radio was a lot better, and he was going to get real music out of the radio, not muffled tones like he could program into a gear. The radio was going to be fun forever.
Now, if he could only get the damn thing to engage with the amplifier so he could hear it. He knew it was getting reception, and power, the problem was the interface. He couldn’t just wire it in because of the metal…
“Da-da-da-da-da-da-da,” the dog attempted to inform him, in five part harmony. It didn’t know barking anymore, he had overwritten that ages ago. It sounded more like modulated hissing, due to the poor resolution. Milo did not have any inkling that being offered a screwdriver via a whip-like tentacle that extended from a hissing, clattering ball of metal might be in any way terrifying to a normal person. He accepted the screwdriver with an absent hand and employed it.
The “dog” retracted its legs and sat down on the painted white “X” that represented its “home.” It was fifteen steps to the flat-headed screwdriver from there. Twenty for the Phillips.
There was a muffled snap from within the radio’s bakelite case and Milo did not snarl or swear because he didn’t do things like that. He was thinking about it, though.
Goddamn stupid, fucking wooden screws! Magic doesn’t like wooden screws! I don’t like wooden screws! Why do I live in a broken house with a crazy lady who eats everything metal? I’d rather sleep in a cardboard box! I could have the radio in my SUITCASE!
There was a cardboard box with more wooden screws (which were, indeed, intended for magical applications — they were made of oak) on the worktable and he grabbed another one.
He lived in the broken house with the crazy lady because it was the best place he’d ever been, of course. The only home he’d ever had, like that white “X” on the table for the dog. It was safe. He didn’t need the suitcases anymore. He could have Ann’s dresses in the closet. Okay, the closet didn’t have a door, because Hyacinth had taken the hinges and no one bothered about replacing them because it was just a closet, but it was a real closet. Ann could have lots of dresses and they didn’t get all smashed up and wrinkled. Ann could have taffeta.
And he didn’t have to make everything in the radio non-metal, he could just have all the metal parts be easily accessed and replaced — like the diode, which had to be metal — but he wanted the challenge.
It was just that the challenge was supposed to be a lot of complicated magic and kludging things and being really clever and amazing, not working through an entire box of wooden screws because the damn things kept breaking.
He adjusted the wooden gear, also incredibly frustrating and delicate, and gingerly tightened the screw. There was another gear made from the wood of the same tree in the box of the amplifier. The magic connected here.
He glanced at the box of wooden gears. At least, the box said it was the same tree. Damn it, maybe he should have gotten the name brand instead of the generic, maybe that was what…
A flash of white light sparked from the amplifier, Milo just caught it out of the corner of his eye, followed by the soft hiss of static.
His eyes widened. Did I get it?
The radio band was glowing a faint yellow behind glass. Milo adjusted the tuning knob, rotating the improvised glass tuning coil inside of the case, until the little red indicator arrow hit his favorite station. He heard voices.
And that had to be the amplifier because he was not crazy that way!
Gleefully, he spun the volume dial to its maximum. He had labeled this ‘annoy the house.’ Numbers 1-10, followed by ‘annoy the house.’ He thought that was funny. As if the house itself might be bothered. The flashes of light from the amplifier increased to a seizure-like stutter.
It was an ad for cold medicine! Miserable, stuffy people coughing and a soothing announcer assuring a good night’s sleep!
Milo Rose stood clutching a flat-headed screwdriver, with his top two buttons undone and his collar askew, but not his sleeves rolled up. A single wisp of wavy dark red hair had escaped the braid tucked down the back of his shirt and was dangling past his nose. His glasses were steamed up and his forehead damp. His smile was ecstatic. Ann! I got it!
Oh, Milo, I’m so glad. I’m proud of you.
Okay, well, he did hear Ann, but Ann was not voices, Ann was Ann. And Ann was happy for him.
He ran up the basement stairs to see if anybody else in the house might be happy for him.
Hyacinth was assembling the front window on the porch. She knew Milo was close to finishing the radio and he’d like to have the space for it, and the front window was the biggest one in the house; it was easiest to put it together where she was going to use it. (Also, Milo’s toy dog was seriously starting to creep her out.)
Last night during dinner, the front window had somehow disintegrated. Not shattered, there weren’t any shards or tiny pieces, just the broken segments of clear and green and blue and brown from which she’d assembled the thing in the first place. There was no brick or rock lying inside on the floor to blame. It was as if the mergers had just let go.
(The General had not seen fit to enlighten Hyacinth about her breaking and subsequent repair of the window a month ago to get Erik’s Yule tree into and then out of the house. After all, it might have been something else. And it was not likely she would need to do anything like that again. If she did have to, she would adjust her technique.)
Hyacinth heard the radio come on (how could she miss it?) and start hawking cold medicine. She lifted her amber goggles to the top of her head and smiled.
As she came in the front door, dusting her hands on her leather apron, Milo was coming up from the basement with a disheveled and satisfied appearance.
“Milo, you got it?” said Hyacinth.
Milo signed her two triumphant thumbs up. He even looked her in the eye for a second. He turned in front of the sweeping staircase and approached the door to Room 102.
Inside, with the door closed so as to spare the household, Erik and Mordecai were doing violin lessons, with an occasional side of calling gods.
Mordecai’s voice being patient was just audible past the shrieking. “Gra-a-and-mo-ther, Gra-a-a-nd-fa-ther…”
The answering screech had the same cadence and syllables, but nothing like speech or music.
Milo rapped urgently on the door and then waited with his hands folded in front of him.
Mordecai answered. Erik was visible behind him, standing with the violin and the bow.
Milo invited Mordecai to come and see, but put up both his hands and shook his head in Erik’s direction. Erik, you don’t have to.
Mordecai thought living with Milo was a lot like being that family in the serial with the really clever dog that was always trying to tell them the kid had fallen down the well or got pinned under the tractor again. What’s that, boy? You’ve taught the toaster to make scrambled eggs?
The subject of this pantomime was clearly the radio. Hyacinth would not invite a loud invisible traveling salesman into the front room to sell cold medicine. She would probably go after something like that with a broom, like that one time a bat got into the house. (She had been very upset when she accidentally smashed it into the wall. She tried to fix it with metal. The poor creature did not survive the recovery process. Erik had cried.)
“Okay, just a second,” said Mordecai. He wanted a minute to talk to Erik about this. Erik was several months removed from being terrified about the radio talking to him when he was hurt, but Mordecai knew he didn’t like the radio. Erik religiously avoided the basement when he was alone, asking for help or company if he needed to get something out of the cold box. When there was static or other radio-like noises resulting from Milo’s attempts to get it working again, Erik hid in the bedroom. Mordecai was willing to let him do that now, but if there was going to be radio in the house again, he needed to know how Erik was going to cope.
Erik had come up behind him. He was still clutching the violin and the bow, rather tightly, and frowning. “I… want… to… come…”
“…too!” Erik finished, with determination.
Apparently, that was how Erik was going to cope.
“Okay,” said Mordecai. “Let’s just put Angie away first…” That would give them a little time to talk. He closed the door behind him to muffle the radio’s noise.
Milo had already turned and was going upstairs to get Barnaby. When he picked up the pole, he noted a sheet of lined yellow paper poked on the hook at the end.
Mr. Rose, I do not care, it read, in neat, penciled script. (And turn the damned thing down!) it added.
Milo blinked at it. How long has that been there?
Well, okay, he didn’t really like Barnaby, anyway. He also didn’t really like the General, but he thought inviting her would be polite. (And he felt a little smug about his no-metal radio and he hoped it might annoy her. Hey, I bet you couldn’t do this!)
Maggie and the General were engaged in a lesson on the intricacies of leaded glass mergers, which Maggie was trying not to smile or snicker about or find suspicious in any way.
With the door open, the radio was audible from downstairs and no further gesturing was required. Maggie allowed herself a smile, under the circumstances. “Milo, you got it going?”
Milo nodded. Maggie was pleased to note he was also smiling. Ah! I caught one! As if she’d trapped a lizard in a jar.
“No metal at all?” she asked him.
Milo made a see-saw gesture and bobbed his head, side to side. I mean the diode has metal, but it has to…
“Ah,” said the General, deigning to close the book in her hands. (Leaded glass mergers are pointless.) “Then not only have you set yourself a needlessly complicated task, you have also cheated to accomplish it?”
Milo frowned. Why did I think I might impress you for even a second? It’s like expecting the eggbeater to tap dance. You don’t have the right parts for it. I must be dumb.
“Come on, Mom,” said Maggie. “Don’t you want to see how it works anyway?”
“I suppose I am curious to see how Mr. Rose manages to make anything work,” the General replied.
By the time they were all in the basement and listening, the radio had segued back into a block of music. ‘Carrie Anne,’ by the Hollies, the DJ said. Erik was standing between Maggie and Mordecai at the bottom of the stairs, clinging around his uncle’s waist with both arms and not appearing too terribly cheerful. Milo was, fortunately, still too distracted by his accomplishment to notice this — lest he decide he had done something wrong and Erik hated him now, possibly for saying earlier that Erik didn’t have to come down. Milo had lost his smile, but he was rocking back and forth in time to the music, vibrant with joy.
“Oh, my gods, Milo,” said Mordecai, with one hand on Erik’s rigid back. “Tell me you’re just glad it’s working. Tell me you don’t actually like this song.”
Milo’s rocking increased and he hugged his own shoulders, since nodding didn’t really work for this situation. He was glad it was working and he liked the song! Just to prove it, before the DJ came back with the next record, he hit the radio with an enchantment and ‘Carrie Anne’ began again.
Yay! He should probably make a button for that, just so other people could replay things, too. It was just that a button would require more wooden screws and gears and drilling another hole in the case, and he didn’t need buttons for things.
“Oh, my gods,” said Mordecai, with a hand over his eyes. He couldn’t help smiling, but it was pained.
“Intriguing,” said the General. “I do not detect a loss in resolution. I don’t suppose you know how you’ve done that, Mr. Rose?”
He knew exactly how he’d done that. He was calling it an Echo Box. He had to find room for it in the radio case because it messed with the vibrations in the amplifier. He had all the drawings and the notation for it, too. He wasn’t going to show them to her, though. So he just shrugged.
“Hm,” said the General.
“What’s the… thing that… lights up?” Erik asked in a small voice. This got him three pages of detailed schematics in response. “Um,” Erik said.
Milo tried pointing at a few things, then he took a step back, shut his eyes and mimed playing the violin. He pointed excitedly at Mordecai. He got the idea when Mordecai played for all of them on fake Yule.
“It’s an amplifier,” said Hyacinth, after a moment’s study. “It’s so you can hear the music. The radio needs an amplifier to make noise and a receiver to tell it what noises to make.” She looked at at Milo with a grin. “It works like the violin, huh?”
Mordecai stepped over to the worktable and examined it. There were six strings stretched across a varnished square box with a hole in the center, more like a guitar than a violin. The strings flashed white when they vibrated, ‘Carrie Anne’ causing more activity over here in the treble area. “Voice from music?” the red man asked.
Milo waved a noncommittal gesture. That was kind of a fundamental misunderstanding of how a radio worked, there. Voice from music required the magical modulation of vibration, which was what the amplifier did, but it was everything from electricity, rather than piggybacking off the vibrations from strumming or a bow. The amplifier wasn’t played, really, it was just doing what the receiver told it to do. With strings and wood instead of metal and a magnet and a membrane.
And he made it light up because he thought that looked cool.
After a cautious investigation from a near distance, Mordecai touched a finger to one of the glowing strings, wondering if it might dampen the sound like the violin — but also because human beings are wired to touch things, especially new things that look interesting.
The amplifier flickered and exploded in static.
Erik shrieked and ran up the stairs.
“I… thought it was gonna… say… something,” he confessed later, staring into a cup of coffee that had been adulterated with milk, two spoons of sugar, and a liberal dollop of chocolate syrup.
Mordecai was stroking his back with a hand. Erik’s shirt was transparent with sweat between the shoulderblades. “You were very brave, dear one.”
Erik shook his head. He still wouldn’t look up. “Scared.”
“Sure you were,” said Hyacinth. She topped up his cup, then her own. “You have to get scared to be brave. People who aren’t scared of scary things aren’t brave, they’re just stupid.”
Erik managed a weak smile. He swept his hair back with a hand. “Milo must be… super smart.”
“Come on, Erik. It’s the kind with the caramel filling. You like that kind.” Maggie had gone down three steps and was holding a chocolate bar, with one corner enticingly peeking past the foil.
Erik was still at the top of the stairs and appeared suspicious.
“Come on. It’s Sun’s Day. It’s the Silver Streak. We haven’t heard that in forever.” She would’ve gone right ahead and put one piece of chocolate on each stair and leading up to the radio, but she didn’t think he’d fall for it.
“I’m not gonna know the story,” Erik said.
“I don’t know it, either,” Maggie said. “They always do a recap at the start of the episode. We’re gonna miss it if you keep hanging around up there. Come on.” She went down another step.
Erik toyed with his watch chain but didn’t pull it out to check. The Silver Streak started at five. “Do you have any candy for you?”
Maggie shrugged. “I mean, I don’t need candy…” Erik was the one with the radio problem. “We could share.”
Five minutes later, Erik and Maggie were sitting beside each other on the cot, pulled up near the radio as if there might be pictures like the serials at the movies. They were both eating chocolate. Maggie had one third of the bar, portions having been allocated by potential anxiety.
They had made it in time for the theme song. Maggie let Erik be in charge of tuning in the station and controlling the volume.
“It’s the Silver Streak!” the announcer informed them in resonant tones. There was the stylized sound of a zoom, followed by a ballistic ricochet. The stutter of a telegraph cut in under the rest. “Fastest man in the universe! Powered by the radiation of a distant star! Chosen to protect mankind!”
Erik and Maggie mouthed the words, staring raptly at the flashing amplifier.
“Brought to you by Farrow’s Corn Flakes! A fast and healthy start to a super day!”
Erik and Maggie also knew this part by rote. Maggie broke away from the script and asked Erik, “You notice we never get cornflakes anymore? I was saving up for a secret decoder ring.”
“Violet got sick of cornflakes all the time and she scared the hell out of Milo so Ann would quit buying them,” Erik replied absently.
“Huh,” Maggie said. She cast a glance at the shrine in the corner. Gods were weird.
“When last we left our hero, the nefarious Dr. Freeze had kidnapped intrepid police officer Lara Kelly, and imprisoned her in a secret facility, a hundred miles beneath the earth’s crust!” A woman’s voice cut in, pleading over the ominous bleeps and sizzles of lab equipment, “Please, Dr. Freeze! With your amazing intellect, you could help people! Why, why are you shrinking them and freezing them in ice cube trays?” A man’s voice answered, high and ragged with insanity, “Why, Miss Kelly, merely because I can!”
“She sure gets kidnapped a lot for a police lady,” Erik said.
“Police officer,” Maggie replied automatically.
“Police officer. It’s not gendered, so it’s more respectful. Men and women should be treated the same.”
“Oh…” There was a soft burr of static and Erik cringed.
Maggie reached into her pocket and put a Cherry Zing in his hand. “Here.”
Erik regarded it for a few moments, collecting himself so he could talk straight. “Maggie, did you bring different candy for every time I get scared?”
“No, just Zings. There’s, like, twenty of those in a bag.”
“What if I don’t get scared twenty times?”
“Then I guess you can have the rest when the show’s over.”
Erik ate his Cherry Zing.
“Meanwhile, investigating the string of disappearances, the Silver Streak discovers a clue!”
Hyacinth was in the basement, straightening the silverware. Well, silverware wouldn’t have needed it. She was straightening the recycled-pieces-of-tin-can-ware. This was approximately a monthly chore. She tried to fix fork tines and knife blades and handle alignment when she washed things, but lots of people did the dishes and she always missed some pieces. When it started to look too raggedy in general, she would pull out the whole drawer and go through it piece by piece, remaking some things entirely due to the metal fatigue. She found ‘metal fatigue’ amusing as a concept. There was some kind of a pun in there with ‘mental fatigue’ and the patch David had put in her head, but she could never quite figure it out.
Milo was down there as well, designing a machine for making sandwiches that Hyacinth sincerely hoped he didn’t intend building. It looked like it would take up half the kitchen — for sandwiches! — and the slot for the loaf of bread would also easily accept — and process! — say, an infant or a small dog. She was pretty sure he was just there for the radio and amusing himself, so she didn’t try to discourage him.
The radio station had been negotiated. Okay, she had just changed it, and Milo looked disappointed and then put up both hands and nodded a lot to assure her it was fine. The selection was mostly top forty stuff. Hyacinth religiously avoided oldies stations, for her own mental health. (Metal health? No, that didn’t work.)
She looked up at the intricate guitar work that began the next piece. That was interesting. She thought she’d heard something similar to that before, but she couldn’t quite place…
There was a thump and a crash from the upstairs, likely the kitchen. Hyacinth stood, sending a lapful of spoons clattering to floor. Oh, gods, what is it now?
Mordecai skidded to a halt at the top of the stairs, with wet hands and bracelets of dish soap, and enlightened her, “That’s a goddamned spacing exercise!”
She still didn’t know what that was, but it didn’t seem like anyone was dying, so she sat back down.
Milo was cringing and shivering as if someone had given him a couple light slams with a boxing glove instead of just making loud noises out of nowhere. He had abandoned his drawings and was facing the staircase with both hands clenched against the edge of the table, waiting for the next bomb to fall.
Mordecai appeared too excited to notice he was terrifying fifty-percent of the people in the basement. “That’s on the radio?” he demanded.
Oh, gods, I’m sorry, thought Milo. If he could’ve unplugged it, he would’ve yanked out the cord. But there was a battery in there and that was harder to get to. He guessed he could just break it again…
Hyacinth answered, “Well, I’m sure as hell not playing it. You maybe want to lower your volume a little? You’re going to give Milo a cardiac…”
“Is it a guitar lesson or something?”
“It’s a song,” said Hyacinth. She would guess ‘Sweet Child of Mine,’ given the repeated refrain. She hadn’t caught the name of the group.
“Milo! Save that!” cried Mordecai.
Milo hit the radio with an enchantment (it still didn’t have a button) and saved the song. Okay. I did something. Did that fix it? Is everything better now?
Ann was repeatedly trying to inform him that no one was mad and no one had been mad, just surprised, but it was like bouncing croutons off a brick wall. It was the dropping of things. Happy people didn’t drop things. There was some kind of upset involved here.
“Milo, you okay?” Hyacinth asked. She had collected a few spoons, but collecting Milo seemed a bit more needed.
Gray cotton duck fabric, rough weave. A-line, full skirt, no petticoat. No embellishments… No buttons… Scoop neck and a raglan sleeve… That is almost belligerently casual. She desperately needs a different sort of neckline. Something fitted. Cheap black canvas boat shoes, rubber sole, flat… Hasn’t poor Hyacinth ever seen a fashion magazine? Is she mad at me?
“Milo, it’s okay.” She tried smiling, although Milo sometimes seemed to react to that like a threat.
Milo managed a nod, possibly answering the previous question in the least-offensive way.
“It’s a nice song, isn’t it?” she offered him.
I think… I think they were upset because they like the song and they might not’ve been able to play it again.
Well, Milo, I guess that’s close… They’re not upset now, though. You see that, right?
I really, really need to make a button that replays the radio, Ann.
…I suppose that would be nice of you, Milo. Yes.
Milo tore the top sheet off of his pad of drafting paper, folded it and tucked it under the pad. A sandwich machine was just silly, anyway. He began to sketch the radio, the case and the innards, plotting a path from the Echo Box to the Replay Button. He absently hit the radio with another enchantment, so the song would play again. If you didn’t do that, the magic would re-route the amplifier back to the live radio. Should he change that…?
“Okay,” said Hyacinth, fully aware that she was now talking to herself. But Milo had gone back to normal — normal for him — so she guessed that was sorted.
Moments later, Mordecai appeared at the top of the stairs with his violin case and also Erik. He paused there and asked of the green child, “Is it all right?”
Erik nodded gravely, but not too hesitantly. Maggie had been training him with various candies for about a week now and he didn’t hate the radio. He was just a bit wary of it.
Also, he knew there wasn’t going to be any candy this time… but the song with kind of nice, to the extent he was able to process it.
Mordecai smiled at him. He held up the violin case, silly stickers and all. “Now you can watch me embarrass myself trying to learn something from hearing it. I used to do it with records, but we can’t have a record-player here…” He cast a pointed glance at Hyacinth.
“I think Milo’s clever enough he might manage it,” Hyacinth said, by way of a compliment. Though she couldn’t be sure he was listening.
“Milo’s clever enough that he doesn’t need to,” Mordecai replied. He set the case on a stair, since Hyacinth was occupying the cot and Milo the worktable, and undid the latches. “I can learn things right off the radio now!” He snickered and slumped self-consciously, before putting the violin against his shoulder. “I mean, theoretically.” He turned to Erik, who had also found space on a stair, a little bit higher up. “If I can figure out how it goes, I’ll teach it to you, dear one. This part is a spacing exercise, so you ought to learn it anyway, but this way is more fun.” He touched his fingers to the strings and tried to keep up with the radio. He was reasonably familiar with the spacing exercise part. He quit when the tune changed, listening so he could attempt to replicate it on the next repeat.
Hyacinth was a little bit wary of repeated music, like Erik was wary of the radio, but Mordecai embarrassing himself trying to learn the song and muttering swearwords took the curse off it. It was sort of funny. Smiling, she returned to her spoons.
Erik was enjoying it, too. Not so much his uncle being annoyed (that was a little funny) but violin and radio and happy people and all things music.
After a little while, sketching and engaging the Echo Box as needed, Milo began to rock from one foot to the other. Not like for ‘Carrie Anne’ and the Hollies, subtly. Perhaps unconsciously.
I guess now all of us have music again, Hyacinth thought, working her way, inevitably, to the forks. She snickered, considering the General in her silent, stuffy room full of books and Barnaby in the attic with his papers. …Even though some of us don’t want it.
“Hey, Milo, do you think you can get that radio loud enough to hear up in the attic?” she asked.
“You should just put the amplifier up there,” Erik said. “If the magic reaches. You could hide it in all the boxes and papers and he’d have to find it.”
Mordecai stopped playing and his mouth fell open. “Erik! You are a sadist!” He did not sound entirely displeased.
Hyacinth laughed. “Oh, that’s brilliant! Milo, can we do that?”
Milo shrugged and bobbed a noncommittal nod, without bothering to look up from his drawing. He did some math, and a few lines of magical notation. He might be able to get it to work…
He asked his toy dog to get him a screwdriver.
[Author’s Note: I do not actually know if the spacing exercise thing holds up for the violin. From what I can see, it LOOKS like it does.]