Milo spent a distracted six hour shift enchanting windless watches. He felt a little bit hostile towards the watches. He kept regarding them out of the corner of his eye to make sure they weren’t going to do anything suspicious to his brain. It wouldn’t be a pocket watch, but people in movies used pocket watches. Usually evil people.
Ann said she would do it and he didn’t have to so he didn’t have to be afraid. He wasn’t sure about being afraid, but he wasn’t happy about it. Even Mordecai said he didn’t know how it was going to work, and the two of them were after his voice. That seemed to indicate he would be involved somehow.
He wished Ann could just have it. Then she would be happy and none of this had to happen. He used to be able to give things to Ann. That used to be practically all she did. Take things. A small uncertain face in the mirror with still-short hair who kept asking him to please not make her squint like that with no glasses.
That had been the first thing. No glasses.
I have pretty eyes. I want everyone to see my pretty eyes.
It had been very hard trying to be Ann with no glasses and pretty eyes. He had been scared to take her outside because there were a lot of craters and bombed-out buildings and broken glass and she might fall and get hurt. It would’ve really been him falling, though. Ann never had any trouble without glasses. She was always perfect. Pretty eyes, long red hair and she could talk to anyone. He just had trouble being her for a while.
It got a lot easier when they both had their own things. When he gave something to Ann, he wouldn’t have it anymore. The dress had been very important that way. The dress and all dresses forever. He liked dresses and he wanted to share the dress and only be Ann in it sometimes, but then Ann couldn’t stay in the dress when she wanted to. So she took the dress. He could hold it and like it but not wear it. The same with shoes and all the colors.
He had a red shirt when he left the workhouse. They let him pick. There were a lot of old clothes that people had donated and he couldn’t have the uniform anymore. He didn’t want the uniform anymore. He didn’t want gray.
But Ann wanted all the colors and he said, Okay, and he got rid of the shirt.
He didn’t really mind. It wasn’t like wearing black and white and gray meant he had to go back to the workhouse. Okay, he had been a little scared of that at first, but he had been kind of screwed up and there had been a siege on and he didn’t really understand what that was or what was happening. There had been a lot of noise and broken things and dead people and screaming and not much to eat and very few safe places to sleep. He read about it later, newspapers and books, and then he started to understand it, Oh. Okay. That’s why it was like that. It wasn’t just me. Everything was crazy.
It had been really weird. Being scared all the time and trying to stay alive on the one hand, Ann and a dress and being happy for the first time in his entire life on the other. He had been happy. He was used to being scared all the time. He was still scared all the time. When they let him out of the workhouse and he started to be Ann, he found out he could be happy, too, and that had been great. So what if there was shelling? So what if he couldn’t have a red shirt?
He wanted to just give her his voice like he gave her red and dresses, but it seemed like the time for giving things was over. That had been a really uncertain time, dangerous, not just because of the siege. Ann hadn’t been very much Ann, and he hadn’t been very much Milo. There had been a very scared, very happy person, who wanted to find more things to make him happy and also to not die. A very fragile person, sketched in smudged blurry lines.
And sometimes when he looked in a mirror he saw who he was going to be.
Now that was who he was. Who they were. The lines were solid and inked in and there would be no more sketching and erasing and uncertainty. Good, because that was safe and secure — bad, because Ann needed something from him again and he couldn’t give it.
Apparently Mordecai had an eraser that worked on ink. He had promised to use it very carefully, and he was worried about it and he was only going to try to give Ann Milo’s voice (which Milo wanted to do!) and he was not a bad person, but Milo still couldn’t be happy about it.
He climbed upstairs first thing when he got home and changed. Then Ann was happy about it. She was excited.
Mordecai spent a distracted three hours on a street-corner trying to get people to throw money at him, and occasionally showing Erik how to do magic to a violin. Not letting him try it, because people would not throw money at that. Shoes, maybe. Not money.
“Sound is vibration. You have to have some kind of vibration going on so you have sound to work with. The bow, or plucking the strings. The bow is easier because it’s consistent. The body of the violin is your amplifier. The whole thing vibrates when you play the strings. The strings give you the tone, the only tone if you’re not going to magic the sound. But you’re always going to get a tone from the strings no matter what other noises you’re trying to make. You build on that.”
He played the first little bit of ‘Savoy Truffle,’ just the lyrics, no bass or brass, “Cream tangerine! Montelimar! A ginger sling with a pineapple heart!”
Erik snickered. That was a silly one. “Why is it always a lady’s voice?” he asked.
“Stringed instruments are ladies,” Mordecai said firmly. He was absolutely convinced of this, although it made no sense. It was circular reasoning. Stringed instruments are obviously ladies, because they have ladies’ voices, and they have ladies’ voices because they are ladies. He was pleased that Erik did not question his logic, because it was indefensible.
“Why is she Angie?” is what Erik wanted to know instead.
“You can just tell,” Mordecai replied. This logic was also indefensible. To forestall further questions, he played the rest of the song. That picked him up a couple of sols. It was an older song and it hadn’t been terribly popular even at the time. No ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ It had goofy lyrics and Erik liked it, though. He followed it up with ‘Sweet Dreams,’ which attracted a small appreciative audience and prevented further lessons for a time.
He broke for a coffee at ten and sat outside with it so Erik could have the violin. Mordecai opened the case on the ground beside him as sort of a joke. A couple people offered to pay him to stop. Erik grinned at them, “Not enough money in the world,” he said.
They went home for lunch — it was cheaper, and Erik was an appreciative student of cooking, even if it was only grilled cheese. They stayed home, because Milo would be home at three and Mordecai was nervous about it and he wanted time to pace around and arrange things pointlessly.
He absently deposited a handful of coins in the big, glass jar on the counter while he considered the kitchen.
Maybe I should have a more comfortable chair in here. Maybe we should do it in the front room where the comfortable chairs already are. Maybe we should do it in the basement where it’s quiet.
Maybe I should make cookies!
He did not make cookies. That would have been silly. He made coffee and tea and a pitcher of lemonade. The coffee and tea got cold (although Hyacinth had some) and he forgot to put the lemonade in the basement, so it remained room-temperature. He offered it to Ann anyway when she came in.
“It is warm because I am a stupid person, but I think we might have ice. Or I can do something like ice.”
Ann laughed at him. “It’s all right, Em. Put it in the basement and we’ll have it later. I’m just going to grab a little something to eat, if that’s okay?”
“Damn it, I should’ve made cookies,” Mordecai said.
Ann was in charge of things. Wherever she wanted to do it and whoever she wanted to have there. Within reason. Magnificent had asked for a lesson in hypnotizing people and Ann had been okay with that but Mordecai had not been.
“I am not teaching it! You can sit quietly and be supportive if Ann wants you, but this is not a lesson. This is a dangerous experiment.”
Ann wanted Maggie and Erik and Hyacinth. The General did not think there was much point in Maggie attending if she wasn’t going to get a lesson in hypnotizing people and there was a brief, heated discussion about it, with most of the heat coming from Maggie.
“There should be someone really good at magic here in case there’s an emergency!” the girl cried at last.
“Then I should stay,” the General said.
Ann was a little less okay with that, but willing to allow it. Mordecai leaned in and spoke firmly to her, “Ann, if you want her gone, she’s gone. This isn’t about making other people happy.” He regarded the General. “Or whatever positive emotion she is capable of experiencing.”
“It’s all right, Em,” Ann said, smiling. “I don’t think I really mind. Maybe we should have someone who’s really good at magic. Or a couple someones,” she winked at Maggie. “Just in case.”
Given the large audience, they did it at the kitchen table. Hyacinth put some more coffee on. Erik sat next to Ann and held her hand and assured her it wasn’t scary. Mordecai was consistently replete with change since picking up the violin again, and it did not take him long to locate a quarter. He sat on the other side of her and showed her how the light dances.
That did not work.
He had her close her eyes and tried taking her down stairs.
That did not work either.
He tried her with Milo’s pocket watch briefly, but for some reason she would not share she kept giggling about that so he went back to the quarter.
After about fifteen minutes of renewed determined quarter, Erik’s gray eye rolled closed and his metal one went back in his head and he went out. This was actually something of a relief. Mordecai had begun to feel afraid he was doing it wrong.
He pocketed the quarter and woke the boy.
“Huh?” said Erik. “Oh. Sorry.” He blinked a few times and the metal eye righted itself.
“It’s all right, dear one. I think I would’ve put myself to sleep if I went on much longer.”
Ann was shaking her head with a pained expression. “I’m sorry, Em. I’m trying. I promise you, I’m trying.”
“No, Ann,” he said. “I know you are. Some people just can’t. I’m really sorry about it. I know how badly you wanted this to work.”
“I thought it might hurt me,” Ann said. “I never thought it just wouldn’t happen.” She put her face in her hands. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell Milo.” He wouldn’t mind, that was the sad thing. He would think he was sad because she was.
“Why don’t you try Milo?” Hyacinth said. “He might be able to, especially if Ann can’t.”
Ann gasped and straightened. “Oh, Cin, you’re right! That’s brilliant! Of course he can do it if I can’t! I’ll get changed right…” She was halfway up from the table and she stopped and stiffened. “Milo… doesn’t want to do that. I’m sorry. Excuse me.” She didn’t move. She just stood there like that, bent over slightly with her hands on the table, frowning. “I… am… trying to talk to him. He… is… not… This is difficult. I’m sorry. I need to… I… damn it… He won’t…” She cried out and threw up her hands, “Oh, you are impossible!” Exit Ann, stage left. A moment later, a door slammed.
Hyacinth and Mordecai trailed out of the kitchen first. Erik and Maggie and the General soon followed. They stood at the bottom of the stairs. It was audible from the bottom of the stairs.
Ann was having an argument. Not with anybody you could hear. With Milo.
At first it was not possible to discern words, but as things grew more heated, phrases and entire sentences could be discerned. There were also occasional thuds, as if Ann might be hitting or kicking something.
“…It isn’t like that!… No one is going to hurt you!… Don’t… I’m not… The only reason I can’t do it is because you’re so afraid of it!… I know you want this!” This was a shriek. “I know you want this because I want it and if you didn’t I wouldn’t!… Why do you have to be so afraid of everything?”
“Hyacinth,” said Mordecai. “Shouldn’t we…?” He didn’t know how to finish that.
“What do you want me to do?” said Hyacinth. “Separate them?”
“Do you have any idea how exhausting it is having to protect you all the time?”
“Oh, gods, this was such a bad idea,” said Mordecai, shaking his head.
“You didn’t even do anything,” Hyacinth said.
He flung a gesture up the stairs. “Well, apparently I didn’t have to!”
“Why don’t you want to be happy? Why won’t you let me be happy?”
Erik put both hands over his ears. “No… please don’t… break it…”
There was another loud thump, but no sound of anything breaking. Then, sobs.
Erik sat down on the bottom step and began to cry as well. Mordecai sat next to him and put both arms around him. It didn’t really make any more sense than what was going on in Ann and Milo’s room, but he felt a bit more qualified to deal with it. Erik was only one person, at least at the moment. “It’s all right, dear one…”
Erik choked and nodded. He rubbed his sleeve across his face. “She didn’t… hurt him. She… almost did, but she didn’t. She was so… mad…”
“Ann almost hurt Milo?” Mordecai asked him.
He was still nodding. “Yes. But I… think it’s okay.”
“Should we go up and check on them?”
Erik shook his head. “They’re still talking. It’s okay.”
“I don’t suppose you know what they’re going to do?” Hyacinth said, joining them on the step.
“Come down after a little while?” Erik offered them.
“Oh.” Hyacinth snorted. “Well, I could’ve figured that.”
“Why didn’t you, then?” said Mordecai.
Maggie brought Erik a glass of water from the kitchen.
The General stood apart from them all with her hands folded behind her back, occasionally shaking her head. This is all utterly ridiculous.
Ann came down after a little while. She had made an attempt at fixing her face. The eyeliner had made a stubborn refusal at repair, leaving dark rings under her eyes that she had dabbed with concealer. Spit and a tissue had been enough to get rid of the damaged rouge and lipstick and powder and she had applied some more. She had also brushed her hair. It was still really obvious she had been crying, and she sniffled when she saw them all by the stairs and touched her sleeve to her eyes. “I am so sorry for all of that,” she said.
“It’s all right, Ann,” Hyacinth replied. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m all right, Cin. Really.” She sniffed again and then smiled.
“Coping.” She crouched down and addressed Mordecai, “Milo would like some assurances, Em. Do you mind if we talk?”
“Does he mind?” Mordecai said, rising. Ann gave him a hand up.
“I’m going to talk for him, Em,” she said. “He’ll listen.” She looked over at Maggie and the General. “He would really appreciate it if you left. Both of you. I’m sorry, Maggie,” she added. “It really isn’t your fault. I’ve been yelling at Milo and he’s afraid you’ll be loud, too.”
“I promise I won’t,” the girl said.
“I know you won’t, dear, believe me. I just think I’ve pushed Milo enough for right now. He’s going to let Mordecai help us and I think that’s about all he can manage.” She winced. “Maybe help us. After we talk to him.”
“Magnificent, come along,” the General said. She mounted the stairs on the extreme opposite side. “I believe we have had quite enough theater for today. It really is a pointless exercise.”
“I still want to see Ann get murdered,” Maggie muttered in passing.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” the General said. “She is relying on Mordecai to help her.”
Mordecai frowned thunderously and climbed one step but thought better of it. He departed for the kitchen with Erik and Hyacinth and Ann.
They sat at the table. They had coffee. Hyacinth took hers black. Mordecai took milk. Ann took milk and two sugars. Erik took milk and chocolate syrup. The mugs were mismatched. Erik’s had a mermaid with a mustache on it. Ann’s changed colors. (Maggie’s father had panicked buying Yule presents on his previous visit and come home with a lot of novelty mugs.)
I really should’ve made cookies, Mordecai thought. Why do I ever not make cookies? They had to make do with soda crackers.
Ann regarded the contents of her mug while she spoke. “Milo would like to be very certain you won’t make him talk. Not during or after. Or during and then make him forget that you made him talk.”
“It might be a bit difficult,” Mordecai said. “Not not-making him talk. That’s easy. I just won’t ask him to. But, I mean, understanding him while he’s asleep if he won’t talk. Everything will have to be yes and no. But I can do it that way if that’s what he wants.”
“Will you promise him, Em?”
“I promise I won’t make him talk,” Mordecai said.
Ann nodded. “He also doesn’t want to be improved. No telling him not to be afraid or have confidence or be a different person.”
Mordecai had doubts that that sort of thing would stick very well to Milo, anyway, and he hadn’t intended to try it, but he nodded.
“Just the thing about letting me use his voice. That’s all.”
“You’re not a bad person and you’ve known him a very long time and you’ve never ever tried to hurt him,” Ann said. “You don’t need to answer that, Em,” she added. “I just thought it needed to be said.”
He shrugged. That was rather a lot more nice than he liked to think about himself, but Ann didn’t say it for him. Milo would not appreciate him being self-deprecating on the matter.
“Erik? Can you tell Milo about how it feels?”
“It’s not scary,” Erik said firmly. He had a sip of his coffee and tried to think about how it actually was. “I guess it’s like going to sleep but with help. Someone talking to you and holding your hand. I think it’s a little bit dizzy when you’re looking at the light, but I have weird eyes. Then when you’re asleep…” He frowned. “It’s nice, but it’s hard to remember. I feel good and I like listening, but I can’t always remember what he says. I just like it. Then when I wake up it’s like I had a really good nap, and some stuff is just different. Like, I can move again.” He glanced aside and rubbed the back of his neck. “You know, except sometimes I forget to.”
“Do you ever feel scared when you’re sleeping?” Ann asked him.
“No,” Erik said. “I think I was sad once, but I’m not sure.”
Mordecai nodded. “You needed to cry. You hadn’t been able to for a long time, so I let you. It’s possible to get scared,” he told Ann. “If I’m not careful or I push too hard. I’d stop and wake him if that happened.”
Ann sighed and smiled. “Milo is glad about that. He wants to be scared if something happens that he doesn’t like. He’s scared of not being able to be scared. I guess that sounds a bit silly. It makes a lot more sense from the inside.”
“He wants to be able to protect himself?” Mordecai said.
Ann nodded. “Or me to protect him, I guess. Do you think I’ll be able to?”
“I’m not sure,” Mordecai admitted. “But I think you’ll probably be able to do something.” Auntie Enora’s medicine didn’t work on Ann, because she wanted to protect Milo. He didn’t think she’d have any trouble fighting off a quarter. The quarter didn’t even work on her.
Ann smiled and sat back. There, Milo. It’s just like going to sleep. And you can still be scared if something bad happens and I can probably still help you, too!
Erik said it felt good…
She frowned. Well, yes, I guess he did. But it isn’t like drugs, Milo. Mordecai wouldn’t do anything to Erik that was like drugs. He wouldn’t hurt Erik. You know that.
Ann gave a decisive nod and stood up. “All right, then.” She beamed at them. “I think we’re going to do this!”
Milo came into the kitchen with no suspenders and his braid out of his shirt and his head hanging. He was holding himself, with arms around his middle, like Ann had when she thought she was going to have to quit the show.
Hyacinth wobbled in place, stifling an urge to go over there and throw both arms around him and help him.
Mordecai stood up and pulled out a chair for him. Milo sat down in it. He still didn’t look up.
“Do you want some tea or something?” the red man asked him. “Or cheese and crackers? We don’t have to do this right away.” He was sort of wishing he could say they didn’t have to do it at all. Ann said Milo wanted this but, oh, gods, it really didn’t look like he did.
Milo shook his head. He held up a hand with thumb and forefinger spaced slightly apart, miming a quarter. Please, let’s just get it over with. I don’t want to have to think about it anymore.
He hoped he would still be able to think.
“Milo, the toaster is broken!” Hyacinth said suddenly. “Fix the toaster!” She plunked it down on the table in front of him. There was a thin curl of purple smoke emanating from one of the slots. She had just broken it.
Milo had a look in the toaster, then a glance up at Hyacinth. She had overheated one of the elements and broken the enchantment, and that had broken about five more. A cascade failure. Not a physical thing, a magic thing. Functions. Code. Easily fixed. Why, though?
Of course, he couldn’t really ask her why. He had a very hard time with ‘why.’
Mordecai asked why.
“What the hell were you going to do?” said Hyacinth. “Tell him to take a deep breath and relax?”
“I… Well, probably.”
“Fix the toaster, Milo,” Hyacinth said gently.
Milo fixed the toaster. They made a couple sets of toast to check it. He had Hyacinth make a slight alteration to the heating element.
He wasn’t sure if it was really any better, but he sort of liked fixing the toaster.
Mordecai asked him to take a deep breath and relax anyway, and he tried to.
Then, he looked at the quarter. He already knew what Mordecai was going to say. He’d said it a lot to Ann.
“Do you see how the light dances? Follow it. Back and forth. It…”
Milo’s eyes rolled closed and he sighed.
“Is he putting us on?” Mordecai muttered aside. He still had the quarter out, though there was little point to it if Milo was going to have his eyes closed like that. “He’s got to be putting us on.”
He could get Alba to go that quickly, but she already knew how to do it and they’d practiced it. Milo had never done this before. He was terrified of it.
Also he did that to Ann for something like forty-five minutes and nothing happened.
Maybe he closed his eyes like that because he didn’t want to look at the quarter?
“Milo are you really sleeping?” Mordecai asked him.
This got a subtle nod, just the slightest inclination of his head, as if he were fragile and any more motion might tip him over.
“It’s very peaceful and you can listen to the sound of my voice and you’d like to do what I say?” This was not a suggestion. This was incredulity.
Slight nod again.
Mordecai frowned and put the quarter down on the table. I absolutely do not believe you. No. You’re faking so you don’t have to really do it. That was too easy.
“Ann, is Milo really sleeping?” he asked. He did not expect an answer. He expected Milo to open his eyes and look embarrassed about trying to pretend.
Ann’s voice came out of Milo. This was much more impressive and disconcerting that it should have been, given that Ann and Milo were the same person and everyone knew that. Ann was never in pants with her hair braided and glasses. The expression was all Milo, too. No smile. She was talking through him, like someone with a string and a tin can. “Yes, Em. That’s really amazing. I’ve never seen him so calm. He can still hear you, but I don’t think he can hear me. He’s very relaxed and I think he’d like to do anything you’d like to tell him. Oh, please be careful with him, Em. I can see why he was afraid of this.”
Mordecai had gone from irritated to serious as soon as he heard Ann’s voice. When she said that Milo couldn’t hear her, he stumbled back a pace and then straightened with new urgency. That was practically catalepsy, and he wasn’t going to poke Milo with a pin to see if he’d stopped feeling things, too. If Milo really was out that far and that fast, then he needed to be very careful. “I will, Ann. Would you like to stay and listen? You can tell him what happened later if he doesn’t remember.”
“Yes, dear. I think that’s a very good idea. I’m not certain he’s going to remember this at all. He’s so different. But it’s not hurting him. That’s good.”
Mordecai breathed a sigh. “I’m glad it’s not hurting him. Please tell me if it does.”
“Yes, of course I will.”
“Milo? Are you still listening to me?” Mordecai asked him.
Slight nod. No smile and no voice.
“You don’t need to talk to me.” He was afraid Milo might start talking if he wasn’t told not to, just because he was so far gone. “You can nod and shake your head and it won’t wake you. That’s all you need to do. It feels just right.”
“You can listen and just nod if you understand. It’s all very nice.” He wasn’t going to breathe a word about relaxed or peaceful or my voice takes you deeper. Milo was deep enough.
Milo nodded. He sighed again.
“Good, Milo.” He took up the matter at hand. He didn’t want Milo this way any longer than necessary. “Ann wants to borrow your voice from you, do you remember?”
“She needs it for one line. Do you know the line?”
Milo nodded. His mouth silently made the words, Who’s there?
“Yes, that’s right,” Mordecai said quickly. “You don’t have to talk, Milo.”
“Can you let Ann borrow your voice for just the one line?”
Milo shook his head. His slack expression deepened into a frown. He had been trying and trying…
“That’s all right, Milo. I’m going to help you. We’re going to put your voice in a box.” He thought Erik’s image of a box and a wall with no door was a good one. He just needed to omit the wall. “We’re going to wrap it very carefully so it doesn’t get damaged. Do you see the box with your voice in it?”
Milo nodded. He put a red ribbon on it, a color, because it was for Ann.
“Ann is standing right there beside you. Do you see Ann?”
Milo nodded. He smiled at Ann. She smiled at him.
Hello, Milo. It’s not so bad, is it?
No. It’s all very nice.
He liked the part where he got to listen, and he wasn’t scared. It was like a dream, but with only nice things in it, which he didn’t think was a thing that could happen. Maybe a good dream about dresses.
It was funny to see Ann without a mirror. He wondered if he could touch her. Would she feel warm or cold like glass?
He couldn’t… really… do things unless someone said. It was all right. He didn’t really want to do things unless someone said. Everything was sort of heavy, but comfy, like a lot of warm blankets. He didn’t mind about touching Ann. Or anything, really.
“You would like very much to give Ann that box, wouldn’t you, Milo?”
“Pick up the box. Be careful, it’s heavy.”
Sitting at the kitchen table, Milo made small motions. He bent forward perhaps an inch and he brought his hands closer together in his lap.
Stiff, Mordecai thought, amazed. Milo wasn’t moving his body anymore. Milo was moving elsewhere. I barely showed it to him. I didn’t tell him to be this way. It was like Milo already knew where he was going and he only needed a nudge to get there. Again, like he’d practiced.
“There’s a label on the box, Milo,” Mordecai said. “It says it’s your voice, and it’s just for the rehearsals and the show. When there aren’t any more shows, Ann will give you the box back and everything will go right back the way it was.” This was caution. If he did hurt Ann and Milo somehow, there would be a time limit on it. He was not attempting permanence, they did not need it.
Milo had a look at the label on the box. Milo’s Voice. Limited engagement — four shows and rehearsals.
“Give Ann the box.”
He gave Ann the box. It was easy. She was right there.
Oh, Milo, thank you. She turned it in her hands.
“Ann? Do you have it?”
“Yes, Em! It was so easy! I can’t believe we couldn’t do it before!”
“Milo is spectacularly good at this,” Mordecai said. He had almost said ‘scarily good,’ and while this was true, it wouldn’t do any good for him to say something was scary in front of Milo. Milo was listening to him very well. “Can you open the box and make sure you have what you need?”
Ann opened the box and examined the contents. “Should I try it?” she asked.
“Yes, Ann. You should be able to use it right away.” He did not know if that was true, he did not know anything about this, but even if suggestion didn’t work on Ann, it couldn’t hurt.
Well, a small one about being able to use Milo’s voice couldn’t hurt. Shouldn’t hurt.
A pause. “I’m nervous about it,” Ann said. She sighed. Or Milo sighed. Someone sighed.
It’s okay, Ann, don’t be scared, Milo said, smiling. I know it works. I just don’t use it.
Ann blinked at him. This was the weirdest thing that had ever happened to her in her entire existence. Including that bucket woman. “Em, do you think maybe we can make this a regular thing?” she asked.
Mordecai shook his head immediately, but Ann couldn’t see that. Probably.
He was a little afraid at the possibility that Ann maybe could see it, even with Milo’s eyes closed.
“No, Ann, I don’t think that’s a good idea. He is really suggestible…” And he had just told Milo that he was really suggestible, which was not a thing he needed to hear. Milo was already suggestible, he did not need to have superlatives added to it. “It’s kind of dangerous for him. We can talk about it later if you want, but please check the box so I can wake him.”
“Yes.” Maybe she was stalling. She was still scared about it, weird assurances from Milo aside.
Okay. I get a song. One verse and a chorus of ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van.’ Birdcage. Enormous hat (unless they don’t want me to cover my hair because I’m going to get murdered for it later). I bet I can get the audience to sing along. You can’t not sing along to ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van.’ Applause. Applause. Yay, Ann, we love you! You’re the greatest! Scene change. My dressing room. Top of the dress off for the people who paid real money and can see what’s happening. Oh! Surprise! I’m the next victim! And for the poor people in the balcony…
Softly. She did not have the courage to project it, not yet, and she had an idea Milo’s voice might be a little dusty. “Who’s there?”
It wasn’t a deep voice (Milo would probably be a tenor if he could ever bring himself to sing) or a confident one (which entirely suited the nature of the line) but it was a man’s voice, not Ann’s brassy (and somewhat flighty) alto.
Milo had never spoken that way. He had stopped speaking before it changed. He didn’t even sound like that in his thoughts.
That made her feel a little bit better about it. Taking something away from Milo again after all these years. And it wasn’t like he really wanted it.
“Ann, was that you?” Mordecai asked urgently from the kitchen table, removed from the drama that was taking place in Milo’s head. He was afraid he’d just made Milo talk. (Well, he had, but… in a way Milo wouldn’t like.) He was absolutely certain he could remove the memory and Ann would back him up on it, but he had promised he wouldn’t do that.
Milo broke into a wide grin and scared the hell out of Mordecai. (And Erik, and Hyacinth.)
“Oh, Em, it was! It works just beautifully!”
Ann was so happy she had just overridden catalepsy.
Or maybe she could do that anyway, whenever she wanted. Oh, gods.
“‘Who’s there?'” (She was using the voice again, still grinning, a little more boldly.) “‘My name is Milo Rose. I live at 217 Violena Street. I can hear you but I cannot speak!'” She laughed. “Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t use it like that. I got carried away. Em, thank you!”
Mordecai breathed a sigh and managed a smile. “It all right, Ann. I’m going to wake him and check on him. I think he’s going to be okay, but I want to be sure.” Another little suggestion for Milo’s benefit. Milo was listening to him, even when he was talking to Ann.
“Yes, please do! I want to get changed and practice!”
Well, Ann, at least, had every confidence that Milo was going to be okay.
Mordecai counted him down from five. He was afraid to go from zero to wide awake in the space of a single suggestion. He did specify ‘wide awake,’ and ‘refreshed,’ and ‘just fine.’
Milo blinked open his eyes and smiled at them. He had a really sweet smile, on the rare occasions he used it, not like Ann’s eager and excited one. It faded slowly. He blinked again and touched his brow.
“Milo, are you all right?” asked Mordecai.
Milo nodded. He adjusted his glasses, then he took them off entirely and cleaned them. He put a hand to his mouth and tapped restless fingers on the table, then he stood up and began to pace.
“Milo, honey, are you sure you’re all right?” Hyacinth said.
Milo nodded, then he shook his head. He continued to pace, from one set of counters to the other.
Ann, I’m not scared. Ann, I’m not scared.
Milo, it’s okay.
I know it’s okay, but…
He wasn’t even worried he might talk. He remembered he didn’t like that, he knew why he didn’t like it, he wasn’t scared of it at the moment but he knew he wouldn’t talk anyway because Ann had his voice. So…
Ann, I’m not scared.
It was like he couldn’t find his glasses. I put them right there, I went to sleep, where are they? He could get along without them, but it wasn’t normal for him to do that. He had glasses. He needed glasses. He was used to glasses.
Everything looked weird. Softer. Not sharp and dangerous.
1 + 1 = 2. Binary code is a series of 1’s and 0’s. My name is Milo Rose. I live at 217 Violena. I don’t like people hugging me. I don’t like eyes. I can’t have crayons.
He knew all that. He wasn’t stupid. He could think. The last three landed a little bit flat because he didn’t have the right context for them, but he still knew them.
Why can’t I have crayons, again? I mean, I know they said that, but do I still have to do it?
Ann, this is weird. I don’t like this.
But he wasn’t scared of it. He was just sort of mildly frustrated by it. Like when he couldn’t get the one toaster to stop killing houseflies. No. Bad toaster. That’s not how you’re supposed to work. I have given you a power source. Use that.
He had been scared about that, because if Hyacinth noticed she was killing things to make toast she’d be mad about it, and also he had done something wrong and everyone would hate him.
I need to be scared so I don’t do things wrong and hurt people. I need to be scared so I don’t hurt myself. …Right?
Milo, I’m not scared and I don’t do those things.
I’m not you, Ann! He brought both hands up in a irritated gesture and then shook his head and put them down again. Did he say I shouldn’t be scared anymore? Did he say I couldn’t? He remembered Ann and a box with a red ribbon, but not words.
No, Milo. He just said you’d feel fine.
I’m not supposed to feel fine! He shook his head again. I don’t like this.
My name is Milo Rose. I’m scared all the time because I don’t know how else to be.
There was a little bit of fear at that, (Is that something that’s wrong with me?) and then a little sadness.
And then relief.
It’s coming back.
It was uncomfortable, like pins and needles in a limb that had gone numb, but he didn’t even mind about that because for a minute there he’d thought the limb had just gone.
Good, Milo. But Ann didn’t sound like she thought it was good.
He didn’t care about that now. He might later. He’d go over it and look for something he did wrong.
Oh, no. They’re going to be mad at me because I scared them. I was pacing and I looked mad and I wouldn’t answer them.
I do hurt people when I’m not afraid! This was both miserable and triumphant.
He took rapid stock of the situation. Erik and Hyacinth and Mordecai were standing near him, but not trying to touch him or stop him. Hyacinth was talking. She had just given Mordecai a swat on the shoulder.
“What the hell did you do?”
“I don’t know what I did!” said Mordecai. “You saw what I did!” he added, impatiently. “Milo, are you with us?”
Milo nodded. He signed Okay with both hands and touched one to his chest. I’m really okay. He stepped forward and brushed a hand between Mordecai and Hyacinth. Please don’t fight.
“Why,” said Hyacinth, then she groaned and put a hand to her head. “Okay, never mind ‘why.’ Did Mordecai do something that hurt you?”
Milo shook his head broadly and waved both hands in front of him. No. No-no-no. Absolutely not. He turned towards Mordecai and signed him two thumbs up. He nodded. Nothing but good things towards you. Okay. I am not sure how to tell you I thank you. Smiling and hugging were right out. He pressed both hands over his heart — I am experiencing a heartfelt emotion — and continued to nod — which is positive — he pointed with both hands — and directed towards you. How’s that?
“Milo, are you really sure you’re okay?” Mordecai said.
Lots and lots of nodding! Yes!
“Is Ann okay?”
Yes! Yes! Everything is completely okay! He pointed at Mordecai and adopted a quizzical expression. Are you okay?
“Me? Well, you scared me a little, but, yes.”
Milo sighed and dropped his head. Yeah. I screwed up.
“Milo, did I do something that upset you?”
Yes, but it wasn’t your fault so I’m just going to say no and hope you believe me. He shook his head and he signed Okay.
Perfectly fine now! Please stop being worried. I don’t know what else to do.
Erik danced nervously in place and hugged his own shoulders. “Milo… really wants… everything to be… okay now, you guys. He’s… sorry.”
Milo sighed and slumped. Oh, gods, Erik, thank you for hearing me. He nodded, too, but they weren’t looking at him anymore. That was sort of okay. He wondered if he could leave now without making people upset.
“Erik, did I hurt Milo?” Mordecai said.
Milo tipped his head back and covered his eyes with a hand. Damn it, they were still going on about that.
Erik broadly shook his head. Then he stopped and frowned. “But he was mad for a little, like when the toaster didn’t work.”
“Was he mad I broke the toaster?” Hyacinth said, blinking.
Ahh! No! I’m not mad you broke the toaster! Milo shook his head wildly and waved both hands, crossing them in front of him.
“Not that toaster,” Erik said. He closed his eye. “I dunno what toaster.”
Milo, do you want me to…?
Ann, I can’t just go. They will freak out.
“I guess I’ve broken lots of toasters…” Hyacinth said.
I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE TOASTER! Erik, PLEASE, are you getting this?
“He’s mad again,” Erik said with a creased expression.
Milo pulled a card out of his shirt pocket. There was a stub of pencil in the pocket, too, it tended to get stuck in the crease at the very bottom. He fished it out. He turned and leaned over the counter behind him and drew on the blank back of the card. He drew a dress, today’s dress, and showed it to everyone. I will get Ann. Ann will sort all of this out. Because I am the dumbest man of the face of the planet. Okay? He nodded hopefully at them.
“Oh, gods, Milo, why didn’t you just say so?” Hyacinth said.
Erik frowned at her. “Okay, now I’m sure why he’s mad.”
Milo shook his head, he rolled his eyes, and then he went upstairs to get Ann.
Ann sort of wanted to practice with Milo’s voice some more, but she went downstairs and sorted everything out first. It was easy for her. She explained about Milo being scared all the time — which he did not mind because he thought that was good, he only minded people knowing why, which Ann did not share.
Mordecai explained back about Milo being way too good a hypnotism subject and how a couple of errant words could do him a great deal of damage that way. “Normal people — I’m sorry. Most… Usual… Oh, gods, look, normal people don’t go that deeply unless you take them there. Milo is all gas and no brake and I’m afraid I’m going to drive him right into a wall. I mean, I guess it’s good he wasn’t scared for a couple minutes, but there has to be a safer way he can get there. I didn’t tell him not to be scared, and he didn’t like it, either. We’re lucky he didn’t pick up something worse that he hated even more. He’s too fragile that way and I could break him without meaning to. I really don’t want to do that to him again. Unless there’s some kind of emergency. And I can’t think of one.” Milo wasn’t going to be calling any gods, unless he figured out some way to do it with enchantments and gears.
Ann allowed that if it wasn’t safe she didn’t want to do it, and it had upset him a little. Privately, she was sad about it and a bit frustrated. If Milo could just let go of being so scared, she was certain he could reason his way out of the tiny box he had reasoned his way into. And it seemed like Mordecai was capable of making him do that, with a few words and a quarter. Ann had been about ready to beat him over the head with a shoe to achieve similar results and that wouldn’t even have worked. The thing with the quarter did.
All she had was Mordecai’s word on the matter that it was unsafe, and Milo’s sincere desire not to be changed or improved as a person because he was afraid it might make him a bad one. One of these she knew was unreasonable and she wasn’t too sure about the other one, either.
She had Milo’s voice, and that had been all she wanted, but she had a brief glimpse of Milo as maybe a better-adjusted person, too, and it was heartbreaking to have to walk away from it.
Milo isn’t all gas and no brake, Em. Milo is like trying to push a car uphill with no wheels.
Of course, if the car with no wheels all of a sudden had wheels, she might very well push it into a wall.
Maybe I’m all gas and no brake.
She had Milo’s voice. That was all she had wanted. For right now, that was going to have to be enough.
And I get a song.
And they’re all going to love us, I know it.
Upstairs, in the mirror, Milo wanted to know if she was happy she had his voice. She smiled right away, although that was not strictly how it was meant to work.
She had taken things from Milo — she had to, if she was going to live. He had given them to her — he had to, if she was going to live. She had to be selfish, but they had tried to be kind to each other about it. The first thing he had asked if she was happy about was the dress. The first thing she had asked for was no glasses, but that hadn’t been as hard for him as the dress. He hadn’t refused her, he just wanted to know why, and then he asked if she was happy, and then he asked her to smile.
She had been learning to smile, or she had always known how to smile and she was teaching Milo how to let her. Maybe both things. Everything had been blurry back then, and not just because of no glasses. They had a magazine and the woman on the cover of the magazine had a very pretty smile, a good smile. She wanted a smile like that. They put the magazine next to the mirror and they practiced. It was hard. It wasn’t just mouth, it was eyes, too, and feeling. But Milo always told her it was a good smile, a pretty smile, even when it was hardly a smile at all. The smile after the dress had been weak and uncertain and twitchy. It would’ve been creepy, if she had smiled that way at another human being, but Milo called it beautiful, and it made him happy.
Ann, are you happy you have my voice?
Yes, Milo. Very happy.
Will you smile?
She was, she had been, but she did it more and even better. Is it a good smile, Milo?
It’s a really pretty smile, Ann. It’s the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.
She hugged her shoulders and swung back and forth. I’m glad, Milo. Thank you.