The red-haired woman in the front room pressed both hands to her face and screamed, “I’m being murdered!”
Hyacinth came up from the basement wiping her hands on an oily rag. She lifted her goggles on to her forehead and smiled. “Oh, Ann. That’s wonderful. When?”
“Three weeks!” Ann cried, waving the folded paper over her head. “Four shows! Moon’s Day through Thor’s Day. I’m not famous enough to get murdered for the weekend,” she added with a sheepish grin. “But it’s still the Slaughterhouse, so I don’t mind!”
“Do you know how they’re going to do it?” Hyacinth asked her.
Ann shook her head. “No. We don’t have the final script yet. They’ll send it when they do, and we’ll have a week’s rehearsal. It’s something sensational about transvestites, that’s all I know.” She laughed. “I mean, obviously it’s something sensational.”
“Milo doesn’t mind being exploited like that, does he?” Hyacinth said. Obvious Ann didn’t, or she never would’ve tried out for the damn thing in the first place.
“He’s happy for me!” Ann said, smiling. “I don’t think he’ll mind, whatever it is. It’s not like he has to be in it. And it’s the Slaughterhouse. Everyone gets exploited. That’s why it’s fun!”
Magnificent thumped out of the bedroom and peered over the railing at them. “You got the part?” she said.
“I got the part!” Ann grinned and waved the paper like a patriot with a flag. “Everyone is going to have tickets! I’ll get tickets for Barnaby and Room 101!”
Hyacinth snatched her by the arm and put a hand over her mouth. It was not impossible her shrieking was audible from the attic. “Please don’t get tickets for Barnaby. He might go.” It didn’t matter about Room 101. Room 101 wouldn’t leave the house for anything less than a fire, one which included Room 101. But if you offered Barnaby theater tickets, he might be excited enough to forget how much everything bothered him.
“Why shouldn’t he go?” Ann laughed. “There’s a screen in front of the stage! He can throw things if he wants to!”
“Barnaby does not throw things, Ann,” Hyacinth said. “Throwing things is chaos. Barnaby arranges everything by hand. And he will figure out a way to get on that stage and murder you better. He took over a bus route one time.”
“I don’t suppose we could sort of very gently…” She had been about to say, glue him to his seat, but Milo stopped her.
No, Ann. That’s not nice.
Oh, no. You’re right. I’m sorry. I was just excited.
“Oh, it’s too bad,” she said, a bit more soberly. “I guess he wouldn’t really like it. I wish everyone could come.”
“I’ll bring him a program and let him yell at me about how he wanted to go,” Hyacinth said. “He’ll enjoy that more.”
“Maybe he will. I don’t know…” She smiled again. “I want to take everyone to dinner and celebrate. We can bring something home for Barnaby. Would that be all right?”
“I think he would like that very much,” Hyacinth said.
“But I want to go!” Maggie cried, behind the bedroom door.
“I think the General may not approve of the Slaughterhouse…” Hyacinth said.
Ann frowned and straightened her dress. “Well, then we’re going to have a fight about it. Maggie is definitely going. And she is, too!” She headed up the stairs.
“Ann, if she shoots you…” Hyacinth said.
Ann threw her head back over her shoulder and grinned. “Then she’ll feel very guilty about it and she’ll have to come! I’ve got three weeks until my shows, Cin. I’m sure you can patch me up by then!”
“Oh, gods,” said Hyacinth, one hand over her eyes. But she couldn’t help smiling. The Slaughterhouse. There might’ve been classier theaters in town, but there wasn’t anyplace cooler. That casting call for crossdressers had been out to the whole city. Half the Black Orchid had gone. Even some of the busboys. Ann got a part, and a murder. Even if she didn’t get any lines, getting murdered at the Slaughterhouse was possibly the best thing that could happen to a girl like Ann.
Hopefully her friends at the Black Orchid wouldn’t kill her first.
“Now, you listen to me, you horrible woman! The tickets are free! It’s only four hours out of your life! It is EDUCATIONAL!”
Or the General, thought Hyacinth. She made a mental inventory of her doctor bag while she waited in the front room and tried to discern good screaming from bad.
Ann was reading the script in her room. The rest of the house was listening to Ann read the script in her room. Maggie was pretending to understand tactics in her bedroom with the General. Erik was having a lesson in gods and sheet music at the kitchen table with Mordecai. Hyacinth was having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But they were all listening to Ann.
“I get a song!” had been the most recent announcement. And she had come barreling out of the bedroom to further elaborate on that. Apparently part of the reason they had gone with Ann was that she really could sing, unlike a lot of other drag performers who creatively interpreted music while moving lips. She was to be Victim #2 (the Hair), of a deranged murderer with a serious sexual hangup who had decided to take it out on the transsexual community. Something tragic about his mother, but Ann hadn’t been very vocal about that. She got to sing ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’ (not all of it, sadly) and then get murdered in her dressing room. With an ice pick.
There had been no further updates since then. It had actually got rather quiet.
“Elvis Goes Bopping Down Fairways,” Erik muttered, changing his fingering. “G.” He attempted a note.
“A little higher,” Mordecai said.
Erik moved his hand and tried again.
“Seriously?” Hyacinth said. How could he tell? It was all screeching to her. Worse than Ann.
“Does it have to be Elvis?” Erik said with a sigh.
“Would you rather have Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge?” Mordecai asked him.
“I’d like some fudge,” Erik said, grinning.
“Tell me a god that likes chocolate,” Mordecai said. “Not Solange.”
Erik closed his mouth and considered. “The Baron likes bitter dark chocolate and also cigars. But we don’t ever call him.”
“Right,” said Mordecai. “Sometimes we call someone to keep him away.” He sighed. “Do you really want fudge? It’s a lot of stirring.”
“I’ll stir it!”
“Oh, all right. But not until after…”
Ann appeared in the kitchen doorway. She was wobbling with her hair hanging down in loose damp strings over her face. Her makeup was streaked and smudged with the eyeliner being a particular disaster, though some attempt had been made to wipe this away, apparently with her sleeve. Both arms were wrapped around her stomach. She was hunched over and holding herself.
“I can’t be in the show,” she said softly. “I’m really sorry.” She sobbed and broke down again.
They sat her down at the kitchen table. Hyacinth pulled her hair out of her face and held it back for her. Erik found a box of tissues. Mordecai got some tea going. Ann made several abortive attempts at explanation, but she couldn’t manage complete sentences until her second cup of tea. All they could get out of her was that it was so stupid and she was really sorry.
“It’s for the people in the cheap seats,” she said finally. She hiccupped and pressed a tissue to her mouth. “It’s supposed to be a surprise I’m not a girl and I’m going to get murdered next. In the dressing room. I’ll have my dress off, but that’s all right. As long as I don’t have to have pants, I’m all right. But the people in the cheap seats might not be able to tell. The balcony. The damn balcony!” She sobbed. “I have a line. I have to say, ‘Who’s there?” It’s two damn words but I have to sound like a man. I can’t do it. I’ve been trying and trying and I can’t!”
Erik and Hyacinth had come over all sympathetic but Mordecai was having a little difficulty with it. Ann was… Milo was… How could this possibly be a problem? “Ann, couldn’t you just… not…?”
“Just talk normal?” Ann said bitterly.
“This isn’t a put on!” she spat. “This is me, Mordecai! I sound like this! This is how I learned how to talk!”
“But you are actually… I mean, don’t you know that?”
“Yes! I know I’m a man. That doesn’t mean I know how to sound like one!”
“Ann, couldn’t someone do the line for you?” Hyacinth broke in. “Offstage? You could just move your lips…”
Ann slumped and put her head on the table. “I’m afraid to ask,” she said. “They wanted me because I could really sing. They won’t be very happy with me if I can’t really talk. There are fifteen different people just at the Black Orchid who’d kill for that part. It would be easy to recast.” She sniffled. “I’d rather quit than be fired. I don’t want them to say they don’t want me. I guess that’s like Milo, but that’s how I feel, too!”
“When does rehearsal start?” Hyacinth asked.
“Do you think maybe you could practice and figure it out…?”
Ann was already shaking her head.
“Milo can’t let you,” Erik said. “Because how you took things away from each other.”
Ann nodded. She sat up and scrubbed her hands over her face. “I took things away from him. I took things away from him. Colors, and dresses…”
“Milo took black and white and gray,” Erik said. “And pants.”
“No, dear,” Ann said. “Milo didn’t take things. Milo had things. He gave a lot of them up because he wanted to have me instead. He kept what I didn’t want. Black and white and gray and pants, and his voice. It’s how we learned to be two people,” she told Hyacinth and Mordecai. “There were things he had and things I had. We couldn’t share. I could’ve taken his voice, back then, but I didn’t want it. I wanted my own. I needed my own. Now I can’t even borrow it.”
“Milo won’t let you?” Hyacinth said.
Erik shook his head. “Can’t.”
“Can’t,” Ann agreed with a sigh. “We used to take things from each other. I mean, they were all his things, but I’d take something and maybe give it back and take something else. We’d talk about it and trade back and forth, but that was when we were still learning. Now I’m me and he’s him. What we have is what we have. He has his voice. And it’s not even like he wants it.”
“It’s like he has a box and she’d like the box but there’s a wall and no door,” Erik said.
“So it’s like a mental block, right?” Hyacinth said.
“I sort of am a mental block, Hyacinth,” Ann said weakly.
“Mordecai, why don’t you see if you can do something about that?” Hyacinth said.
“Wait a minute, me?” Mordecai said. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“Use the quarter,” Hyacinth said.
“Yeah!” Erik said. If his uncle could put something up so it couldn’t be reached, surely he could bring something down so it could.
“Erik couldn’t talk until you told him he could, then he opened right up. Ann doesn’t even need that. All she wants is a way of talking.”
“Mordecai can make people talk?” Ann said, sitting back.
“Oh, easy,” Hyacinth said with a nod. “I bet he could even get Milo to talk, if he wanted.”
“Milo wouldn’t like that,” Ann said.
“Well, no. But Milo doesn’t have to talk. We just need to get his voice for you. I’m certain Mordecai can do it.”
“Could he really?” Ann said. She clasped both hands against her mouth and her eyes brimmed over again. “Em, I would be so grateful…”
“Hyacinth, I’m not a service!” Mordecai cried, faintly horrified. “That thing with the quarter is not a toy. I only do that to help people!” And he hated doing it! He hated talking about it, he hated the circumstances of it, he hated everything to do with it.
“Ann wants helping,” Hyacinth said.
Ann nodded frantically. “Oh, Em, I really do!”
“It’s for helping people so they can exist normally and feed themselves. Not so they can get murdered in some stupid show!”
Ann soured and folded her arms across her chest. “You’ve never cared about my shows.” She turned to Hyacinth, “He’s never cared about my shows. He could’ve gone for free and he’s still never been.”
Erik blinked and regarded his uncle with a frown. Really? Never? But Ann was really fun and good at singing. He liked when she sang in the basement. He would’ve gone to a show, if they’d let him in. He wanted to see Ann be in this show, too. (Even if it sounded a little scary.) “Uncle…”
Mordecai got up from the table and backed into the kitchen counter. “Damn it, Erik, don’t you start. You don’t really understand about this. You can hurt people with it.”
“Yeah, but you don’t,” Erik said.
“That doesn’t mean I won’t screw it up! Especially with someone weird like Ann!”
“There is no need to be insulting,” Ann said, rising.
“I’m not being insulting, Ann! You’re not a real person! You’re a psychosis! You’re a mental defect! You’re not asking me to help you. You’re asking me to reinforce you! I appreciate that Milo is too damn broken to do things for himself, but I’m not going to risk screwing him up worse just so he can… just so you can… No, damn it, just so he can be in a show! You’ve got this all out of proportion. I know it’s expecting a bit much for you to be sensible, but can you please try to understand?”
Erik could not manage words. Hyacinth had gone beyond them — though she did have her mouth open. Ann was the only one willing to try.
“You have never liked me,” she said. “I have tried to be civil to you, I have tried to be kind, but I know you have never liked me. I thought it bothered you I was a boy in a dress. I thought it bothered you I was halfway cheerful. But it’s not that, is it? You have a fundamental problem with my existence. I’m not a real person. I don’t have real thoughts or feelings. You resent having to put up with me! You’re willing to humor me, but if I want something a little bit difficult from you, you’d rather insult me and run off than even try. I want it, so it isn’t important. You don’t even hate me. You don’t respect me enough to hate me. You are condescending! And… And cruel!” She picked up her dress in both hands and ran out of the room, sobbing.
“Oh, well done,” Hyacinth spat. She followed after Ann.
Mordecai stood blinking and pushed up against the kitchen counter. He had his hands up and he put them down. “What just happened?”
Erik shook his head with a frown. “You were really mean to Ann.”
“I just didn’t want to hurt her.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t because you don’t like doing it?” Erik said.
“That’s… not… There’s some of that.” He sat back down at the table and put his head in his hands. “But, Erik, it really could hurt Ann and Milo and this is a really stupid reason to do it.”
“She was really sad when she thought she couldn’t do the show,” Erik said. “She couldn’t even talk. Then she was really happy when she thought you could help.”
Mordecai sighed. Yes, on the surface of it, it seemed really obvious. Do the thing that makes Ann happy. But being happy was such a small short thing, particularly with Ann. Being careful and not hurting people was a lot more important in the long run than making them happy.
(Except when Erik wanted fudge or a chocolate cake.)
This is not like that. This is not a little thing.
“Erik, Ann is happy and sad a lot. It won’t be forever. Hurting her could be forever.”
“You hurt her just now,” Erik said.
“That’s not… That… No…” That was two different things! Two vastly different things!
Two vastly different things that he was having a really hard time differentiating from each other. He had meant well! He had been trying to help! And if he hurt her with the quarter, that would have been exactly the same. He had hurt her pretty badly, too. He wasn’t certain what magnitude of damage he was capable of inflicting with a quarter, but this was pretty bad.
The difference was he hated doing the thing with the quarter and he was perfectly comfortable with yelling at people who annoyed him.
And if he hurt her with the quarter he would’ve felt responsible and tried right away to fix it.
“We shouldn’t have tried to make you,” Erik said. “I know you got scared, but you shouldn’t have been mean to Ann.”
“I know,” he said softly. “Give me a minute and let me think what I can do.”
Damn it. He had got rather used to Erik breaking his heart, but this was the first time the boy had broken his brain. He was feeling decidedly uncertain about his long-practiced ability to manage hurt people and make them feel better.
Are you sure that’s going to help? Are you really sure? This is only a problem because you screwed up in the first place, so you’d better be really sure you’re not going to screw up again.
(Why did this voice in his head sound like Hyacinth?)
“All right, I can’t think of anything else,” he muttered. He picked up the violin and left the kitchen.
Hyacinth was kneeling outside of Ann and Milo’s door with her hand against the wood and her mouth near the hole where the doorknob used to be. Half the doorknob was lying on the floor beside her. The metal had cooled, but it had left a little charred place on the floor.
“Ann, honey, please. Or Milo. I don’t mind which one of you it is right now, but could you please come out?” She turned at the sound of Mordecai’s approach and hissed at him, “Well, I hope you’re happy! She’s merged it shut! Or, he has. I don’t know if they can both do magic or not. Whoever it is, they won’t talk to me or come out!”
“I am not happy, Hyacinth,” he replied. “I have not been happy about any of this. If you’d figured that out a little sooner, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
“Now you listen!” she cried.
“Now you be quiet,” he said. “You don’t deserve my attention. This is for Ann.” He settled the violin against his shoulder.
Hyacinth strode off a few paces and stood facing the staircase. Erik waved sheepishly at her from the bottom. She did not acknowledge him.
Mordecai sighed. This was a hard one to play. A lot of talking. He had to pick a note that was in key with the rest of the thing and seesaw the bow to get the voice, with pauses for breath.
“And now the party’s over… and I’m not exactly sober…” Angie was higher in tone than Ann, but they shared a certain brassy quality. “Baby’s left me for somebody new…”
She made him play the whole thing. There wasn’t a sound out of her. He was starting to feel both doubtful and stupid by the end of it, and Angie’s voice wavered a bit, “Meet my… Melancholy blues!”
He had forgot about the piano, too. He had forgotten it entirely. It was a piano piece. He took down the violin and put the hand holding the bow over his eyes, ashamed.
“You’ve seen me,” Ann said softly, behind the door.
“Once or twice,” he admitted. The song wasn’t like that on the album, or the sheet music. Ann twisted it up a little. It seemed like he’d remembered most of it right.
“I never saw you.”
“I sat behind a potted plant,” he said. “I knew you’d talk to me.” Ann was all about talking to people. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Cute couples. Easily-embarrassed older gentlemen who do not like drag clubs.
There was a slight hiss, a reddish glow, and the scent of woodsmoke. The door, minus its knob, fell open. Ann was hugging her own shoulders. Some of her eyeliner had made a valiant effort, but the rest of her makeup had entirely worn away. She looked pale and sad, and a little like Milo. “You didn’t pay for it, did you, Em? I could’ve gotten you in for free…”
“I preferred paying for it,” he said primly. “Besides, it’s not as if I go often. That two drink minimum annoys me. And all the men dressed as ladies.”
“Not the ladies dressed as men?”
“I don’t know. I think that’s kind of cute. Like Victor/Victoria.”
She hugged him.
He had to disentangle his violin and hold it aside, but then he hugged her, too.
They talked about it in Ann and Milo’s room with Erik and Hyacinth excluded (one of them more willingly than the other). Ann sat on the bed. Mordecai stood with his arms folded trying to be stern about things but eventually gave up and also sat on the bed.
“It’s not just important to me,” Ann said softly, looking down. “I’m not… I don’t know if you’re right about the rest of it, but I am weird. I’m not just me. And I am what he made me. He needs what I’m able to give him. I don’t think he really understands it that way. He wants me to be happy. He’s happy I’m happy. But he’s happy because he wants the same things, too. He’s too scared of them to know he wants them, so I want them. We both want this. We want to have a lot of people look at us and love us.”
She looked back at him. “I know why he wants it. He wouldn’t like me to tell you and I won’t, but it is important. Maybe not like being able to talk and move, but it’s close. It won’t kill us if we can’t do it, we’ll still have the club, and everyone here at home who loves us, but it will hurt. It will hurt him, even if he doesn’t understand that, and I don’t want that to happen.
“I am very brave about things when it comes to keeping Milo from being hurt, Em.”
“Ann, I can’t even promise you it’s going to work,” said Mordecai. “I’ve never done this on someone like you. There aren’t people like you.”
“I know,” she said, “but I’d like to try. If you’re too worried about it, that’s all right. I understand. I’ve told you why I want to. That’s all I can do.”
He sighed and covered his face with both hands. “Is tomorrow soon enough?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, Em. Thank you. That gives me a little time to talk to Milo about it. He gets worried about things, too.”