Hyacinth woke in the small hours to the sound of someone singing. They were on the roof above her, that was why she could hear it. 204, which was unoccupied and used for storage, had a staircase that pulled down from the ceiling and accessed a cupola. That accessed the widow’s walk and the roof. So, it was a little odd to have someone singing on the roof, but not impossible. It wasn’t weirder than a lot of the other things that went on in this house. She might’ve gone back to sleep and written it off as a dream.
Then she realized it was Milo up on the roof singing and she fell out of the bed.
Mordecai had asked them all to keep a very careful eye on Ann and Milo. Milo had seemed all right after that first little bit, and Ann had never seemed anything less than all right, but Milo had already picked up one suggestion he didn’t mean to drop and he was worried he might’ve left some others that were harmful. Hyacinth thought this was being paranoid, but he had also made her paranoid. And Milo had been a little bit peculiar. (Milo was always a little bit peculiar, she suspected she was only worried about it because Mordecai had told her to be.)
One day she had caught him in the kitchen staring fixedly at Erik’s box of crayons with his hands folded under his arms. She had cleared her throat so he wouldn’t get scared when he noticed her and he got scared anyway. Really scared. He opened his mouth like he was screaming, then he clapped both hands over it and ran out. That was a lot more scared out of Milo than she was used to seeing when it was just her. She hadn’t seen him for days afterward and she suspected he might have gone back to carrying his suitcases and changing in pay toilets, but he was being Ann a lot, anyway, because of the rehearsals. She had recently seen him drinking coffee on the porch steps. He had startled and dropped the coffee when he saw her, but he was normal enough to apologize right away and start cleaning it up, so whatever that was it seemed to have resolved itself.
Ann had Milo’s voice and that was probably her singing on the roof with it, but Hyacinth was afraid it might really be Milo and he might be preparing to jump off.
The windows let in enough light from the street for her to find 204 and navigate the maze of boxes inside of it. The stairs were down and she climbed them.
The figure on the roof was wearing a dress, with both arms extended to the starry sky. It bowed, accepting non-existent applause. It was speaking in Milo’s voice, which Hyacinth had got rather used to saying ‘Who’s there?’ but not anything else. “Oh, thank you. You’re all too kind. I really love attention, you know, I’ve just been too afraid to ask for it myself. I love you all! Oh, dear. Another? Do you really mean it? I really shouldn’t, but since you’re all my dearest friends…”
“Ann?” said Hyacinth, cautiously.
The figure gasped and turned. It was not wearing glasses. Ann put both hands over her mouth and resumed her own voice, “Oh, Cin! I’m sorry. Was I too loud? I was too loud. I’ll stop. I didn’t mean to wake you. Oh.” She looked down at her feet. “I’m right over your head, aren’t I? I got carried away. Please forgive me.”
Hyacinth stepped over the cupola railing and on to the roof itself. The tarpaper was cold and gritty under her bare feet. She offered a hand. Ann was on the peaked roof in heels. She didn’t seem to be having any trouble with it, but she took small steps and she accepted Hyacinth’s hand when she was near enough.
“Thank you, Cin. I’m so dreadfully sorry. I didn’t want anyone to hear.” She sighed and shook her head. “No. Well, I must admit, I kind of wanted everyone to hear, but I know Milo wouldn’t like that. I’m sorry about it.”
“Have you been doing this a lot?” Hyacinth asked her.
“No, not a lot. I don’t think a lot.” She bowed her head, ashamed. “Not every night. I just wanted to hear him. I was curious. Then I liked it. He sings well, don’t you think so, Cin?” she asked weakly.
Hyacinth nodded. “I mean, I guess he’d have to, wouldn’t he?”
“I don’t know. I think if it was really him doing it, I’d have to teach him. How to stand, and project… You know, how to use it. Because he doesn’t.” She sighed again. “He would, you know. If he wasn’t afraid. He can do everything I can do. Even wear dresses and colors, if he really wanted. He could be really spectacular!” She dropped her head and shook it. “He could be happy.”
“Isn’t he happy?” Hyacinth said, blinking. He didn’t smile a lot, but she didn’t think that meant he was never happy. Just that he had a hard time smiling, like with ‘why.’
“This is the happiest he’s ever been,” Ann said, but dully, as if extolling the virtues of an inadequate brand of paper towel. Yeah, I guess it works? “He doesn’t want anything else. This is more than he wanted. I have to want everything else for him.”
“Like what sorts of things?” said Hyacinth.
“Applause,” Ann said. She spread her arms and bowed again, but without smiling. It was an exhausted motion, and she bobbled slightly at the bottom of the arc like a puppet on a string. “Love.”
“Doesn’t he know we love him, Ann?” She didn’t say it very often, or maybe ever, because she didn’t think it was the sort of thing that needed to be said. She tried to show it to people, though, particularly Milo, who did not hold up very well to being teased or prodded in the ways she was most comfortable with.
Ann shook her head. “He knows you don’t hate him. He’s grateful every day for how patient you all are with him. I think that’s about the best he can manage.” She smiled. “But it’s not your fault, Cin. It wouldn’t make any difference if you said it. He wouldn’t understand.” ‘I love you,’ to Milo was something like, ‘Hey, those are some really pretty shoes.’ Words nice people say to make each other feel good. Oh, thank you. I try to pick out good shoes. Oh, thank you. I try to be nice and not screw up too much. It was a momentary fancy, not a rock-solid statement you could take to the bank and write cheques on.
Hyacinth didn’t know what to say. She was aware that Milo was a damaged individual, he had to be, but she was used to it. There was a lot he couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, but he functioned on a basic level and he was quiet about it. Well, obviously he was quiet about it. But he didn’t break things or scream or quit eating. He dropped things, and sometimes he’d run off… And sometimes he turned into a completely different person, but a nice, well-adjusted one. You could sort of forget about him being broken enough that he needed to do that to get by.
“He’s better than he was, isn’t he, Ann?” she asked finally. The boy who had showed up on her porch four years ago with two suitcases and a pad of paper had been a lot less, well, social. He had handed her a sketch of the sign on the front of the house with ‘Rooms to Let’ circled and a question mark added. Then he just stood there, looking away, and let her puzzle out how she was supposed to respond. When she asked if he wanted a room, that got her another piece of paper with basic information. Milo Rose. Nineteen. I can hear you but I cannot speak. I have a respectable job. When she asked him anything other than ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ he ignored her. When she tried to get him to talk to her by writing, he ignored her. She had begun to think someone must have written the words and done the sketch for him. When she had inquired as to the nature of his respectable job, he had sighed and picked up his suitcases. It was easier to find another place to live than to try to communicate with her.
She told him he could stay, and it didn’t really matter what he did, whether it was respectable or not, she was just trying to figure out a reasonable sum to charge him for the rent. Then he sat down and picked up the pencil. He didn’t write words, he drew a watch. After a bit more confusion, he drew a factory. Aha! You make watches in a factory! That got nodding, and that was all she knew about the quiet boy in room 201 until she discovered him drinking coffee on a park bench in a dress — and smiling.
“He’s much better,” Ann said, nodding. “It’s helped him so much to be here with you, and the others.” She sighed. “It’s just he comes along so slowly, sometimes I get frustrated by it. I know he’s trying, but it takes so much effort to push him.” Except just after the quarter, but Milo refused to let her ask about that. He was scared of it. He did not blame Mordecai, he blamed himself. But, given that there was something fundamentally wrong with him and Mordecai said the quarter was dangerous, he did not want it again. He hadn’t liked not being afraid.
Ann had to like it for him.
“I suppose it’s nice to know he can be better about it,” Ann said. She smiled. “And it’s nice to know he can sing.”
“Would you like to do another?” Hyacinth offered her. It was interesting to hear Milo’s voice, you know, ever. And he wasn’t a bad singer.
Ann shook her head. “He wouldn’t like… Well, no. He would like that very much, because I would, but he’s not ready for it yet.”
“Will he like being in the show?”
Ann beamed at her. “Oh, Cin, he’s going to love it!”
A question occurred, as they trundled down the rickety staircase, “Ann, what would happen to you if Milo wore dresses and colors and sang?”
“I would be incredibly happy,” Ann said firmly. She laughed and shook her head. “Then I’m not sure what, but I guess I wouldn’t mind about it.”
“I think I would miss you,” Hyacinth said.
“I think maybe you wouldn’t have to,” Ann replied. She snickered and gave Hyacinth a light touch on the nose. “Well, maybe you might miss calling me ‘Ann.'”