Opening Night (53)

Ann on stage in a spotlight. Lyrics of Rush's Limelight behind her.

Mobilizing the household for any reason was a difficult task. They all had their own patterns and priorities… and difficulties. Fortunately Hyacinth didn’t have to deal with Ann or Milo. Ann was already at the theater, getting made-up and prepared to be convincingly murdered. Milo was wherever the hell he went when Ann had business. Barnaby required some attention, but thankfully he was not going. He either did not know theater tickets had been on offer, knew and did not care, or knew in some oblique way that he assigned a bizarre significance. Likewise, he had not commented on Milo’s voice tramping around on the roof in heels at one AM and singing. Hyacinth left him a cold dinner and told him she and the others would be gone for the evening.

“Bring me back a lobster,” Barnaby said. He was busy altering an ad for Min-Min soda so that the mascot (an ant) appeared to be getting impaled by multiple arrows.

“What do you mean, to eat?” said Hyacinth.

He sighed and looked up at her. “Hyacinth, you have just left me dinner. What do I want with a lobster to eat?”

Hyacinth considered that with a pained expression. It wasn’t that Barnaby didn’t make sense. If he was conventionally crazy she could’ve just humored him. But, no, he had legitimate access to real information, more than normal people, and it allowed him to make these weird connections. He was making his own kind of sense. And he got irritated with her when she couldn’t follow. “Do you mean, like, a pet?” she offered at last.

“Yes, Alice. A pet lobster. I intend to dress it and take it for walks.” And, because she seemed to think he might be demented enough to really mean that, he added, “No. I do not want a pet lobster. I need something representative of a lobster. I don’t seem to have any photos of one. Something in polyresin would be ideal.”

“Barnaby, I have no idea where to get a polyresin lobster.”

“A crayfish or something similar would suffice.”

“Barnaby…” She sighed. It didn’t do any good to argue, because she had no idea what she was arguing about. There was no logical contrary position to, ‘I need a polyresin lobster.’ Except maybe for ‘No, you don’t,’ which would require entirely too much effort. She had to go. “What if I have Milo draw you a lobster?”

“Milo draw the lobster?” Barnaby said, blinking. He chuckled. “How intriguing. Do you think Milo would like a girlfriend, Hyacinth?”

“I…” Hyacinth staggered. “Hang on. What?”

“A girlfriend. Female companionship.”

“I… Really, I’m not sure if he likes girls or not. Or anyone.” Milo appeared to be so fundamentally terrified of human beings in general that she wasn’t certain he could even manage a friend-friend. Ann had just told her the other night that he didn’t really understand that people could love each other. Milo with a girlfriend?

Also, what in the hell did that have to do with a polyresin lobster?

“I think it would be very interesting to have Milo draw the lobster,” Barnaby said. He returned to the ad, obliterating the ant’s eyes with tiny X’s. “Do see if you can get it to me by tomorrow.”

“Okay. Yeah. I’ll, uh, get right on that.”

“I’m reasonably certain you should avoid the salmon puffs,” he added, behind her. “It’s canned salmon. And I really don’t like leaving the house…”

The stairway to crazy pulled down from the ceiling, like the one to the cupola. It was in the upstairs hallway rather than a bedroom. Hyacinth felt visible relief in pushing it back up. It was nice to have a physical barrier between reality and whatever that was that went on in Barnaby’s attic. She could sort of push it away in her brain when she did the stairs. I’ll ask Milo to do Barnaby a drawing of a lobster. That’s all I have to worry about.

Also, I guess I won’t have any salmon puffs. If someone offers me a salmon puff.

What the hell is a salmon puff?

She could hear talking behind the General’s door. It was Maggie’s voice in lesson-mode, which was loud and clear and precise. “Optical magic is exceedingly difficult, because of all the angles involved. It is rarely useful on a large scale, such as on a field of battle, but can be helpful for small instances of subterfuge. When the angles are controlled, such as when a small object in flight will be viewed from below, or in a stage play when the object will be viewed from the audience — and then murdered with an ice pick for her pretty red hair…” There was a pause, which Maggie undoubtedly utilized for grinning and the General for glaring.

Hyacinth took advantage of it to knock. She did not then immediately open the door. She spoke politely from the other side of it, “Are you two just about ready in there?”

The General opened the door. She was wearing a dark blue ankle length dress, to which she had added a lace cravat and a cameo pin as a concession to formality. The pin had an eagle on it (this was one of Sanaam’s rare gifts that was not purposefully horrible). Her dark hair was so short it was not possible to do anything special to it for the theater. Maggie was also in her standard uniform — dark blue knee-length dress, white gloves and socks, black shoes with bows, and twisted braids projecting from either side of her head like fountain spray — with the addition of a string of pearls. She lifted this to make certain Hyacinth noted it and grinned. Look, Cin! Accessories!

“We are entirely ready,” the General said. “We are merely reviewing in preparation for tonight’s… entertainment.” As if the real meaning might be, tonight’s… human-sized ball of matted hair.

“Mind reviewing in the front room?” Hyacinth asked, pointing down to it. “I’ll get Erik and Mordecai out in a second.” She was afraid they might get into something a lot more involved if she left them in the bedroom with all the books. Like, she would come back upstairs and Maggie would be in the middle of a twelve page report on the Battle of Achille. I’m dreadfully sorry, Hyacinth. It seems as if we will not be able to view the human-sized ball of matted hair after all! My daughter’s education is paramount, you must understand.

“I suppose that is appropriate,” the General allowed. She motioned Maggie out of the room and past Hyacinth. “Magnificent, please continue.”

“The field of optical magic was significantly advanced by starcatchers during the Siege of San Rosille, 1367 to 1369,” Maggie said, plunking down the stairs. “This also marks the advent of anti-magic flares, which were employed specifically to prevent starcatching. However, supply lines did not fail until the Gray Wall was erected in the winter of 1368 to 1369. This is the largest use of area anti-magic ever recorded…”

By this point Hyacinth had made it across the dining room and it was a little bit harder to hear and she was distracted by Erik and Mordecai’s door. She also knocked on it, because she was aware they were dressing in there, “Anyone naked?” she asked.

What?” said Mordecai.

She opened the door. She figured if anyone was naked, that would’ve gotten a ‘yes,’ or at least a ‘dammit, don’t come in!’

Mordecai was kneeling on the floor in front of Erik with an irritated expression and attempting to wrangle a small black tie under Erik’s collar. He had a similar tie draped loosely around his own collar, which he had not yet got around to dealing with. Erik was slowly but steadily angling his entire body away, like a green sprout seeking sunlight. This had the effect of drawing both ends of the tie entirely out of his uncle’s increasingly-frantic hands.

“Damn it, Erik! Hold still! This is hard enough as it is!”

“I don’t want my top button buttoned,” Erik said.

“You have to have it buttoned! You are wearing a tie!”

“I kinda think I’m not,” Erik said cautiously. They had been doing this for something like ten minutes and he was just about ready to run off. He could probably get to the theater by himself. With his top button undone and no tie. And maybe he’d find time to stick his head under a water pump and undo whatever weird thing his uncle had done to his hair. He got that they were supposed to look nice for Ann, but he thought he looked pretty nice after a bath with clean clothes and polished shoes. All this other stuff was fiddly and annoying.

And strangling.

“You are going to wear this tie if I have to have Hyacinth staple it,” Mordecai said. “This tie is specifically for the theater! I know damn well I’m never going to get you to wear it otherwise…”

“You’re doing it backwards, you big dummy,” Hyacinth broke in. She removed Erik’s tie with a hand and wrapped it around her own neck. There was a mirror on the wall next to the closet (charmed there, no nails) and she regarded herself in it. “You have to do it on you, in the mirror. That’s how you always do them, isn’t it?” She tied a loose four-in-hand, slipped it over her head, put it back on Erik and tightened it up. Erik made a soft gagging noise but showed remarkable restraint otherwise.

“Why,” said Mordecai. “How…”

How is it that you’re that much smarter than me and I’m that stupid? That was what he wanted to know, but he wasn’t going to ask it.

“Why do you know how to tie a tie?” he said finally.

“I used to wear David’s things. I was looking for my own identity.” She considered this with a frown. “You know, it made a lot more sense at the time. You want me to do yours?” she offered him sweetly.

“Get out,” he said.

“Nope,” she replied. She sat down on his bed. She might as well have sat on the floor, as that was where both mattresses were, but she thought the bed might annoy him more. “I told the General I was coming out with you. That is a lady you do not disappoint. I’ll wait.”

He grumbled and did his own tie in the mirror. That was how he did them.

“I don’t suppose you have a teeny-tiny little vest for Erik?” Hyacinth said, with a snicker.

Erik broadly shook his head and rolled his eyes up to the ceiling.

“I mean, to go with the tie. And since you already did his hair like that.” He had combed it back, and presumably put something in it to keep at that way, since Erik’s hair tended to do its own thing ordinarily. “We could spray-paint him red while we’re at it. Take a photo and submit it to a tabloid for an article about tiny dopplegangers.”

“I’m not tiny,” Erik protested.

“Enough to be interesting in a photo,” Hyacinth said with a shrug. “Although I guess if you were palm-sized, it would be a lot more impressive.”

“I don’t think I look a lot like my uncle,” Erik said. He touched his metal eye, and then the silver socket visible beside it. But even without that, they didn’t look a lot alike. They both had white hair, that was about it.

“Well, you’re lucky that way,” Hyacinth said. She reached over and affectionately sculpted his hair into two points, to see if it would stay like that. It did.

Mordecai discovered him that way, with Hyacinth standing next to him and both of them smiling proudly. He shrugged on his suit coat and then smoothed down Erik’s hair with both hands. “Honestly, Hyacinth. Does everyone’s hair have to be as bad as yours?”

Hyacinth fingered her hair. It was blonde with a certain amount of gray and fraying. She had made a cursory effort for Ann. She did not have it in a ponytail and she had brushed it. That was as nice as she was going to get it without magic, and she did not want to resort to magic for her stupid hair. She was also wearing one of her nicer dresses. Well, what she thought was one of her nicer dresses. (Ann and Milo were always looking at her dresses and shaking their heads, though Ann did it with a pitying smile.) It was bright blue, though still heavy cotton fabric. Bright blue was nice, right?

“Hey, Ann should be the prettiest girl in the room tonight, anyway,” Hyacinth said.

“I don’t think she’s going to have any trouble with that,” Mordecai said, regarding her.

Hyacinth gave Erik’s hair one point in the exact center on their way into the front room.

“He totally wanted to get me a vest,” Erik told her, aside. “But there weren’t any my size.” He dropped his voice to a whisper, “There was one but I hid it!”

“Because of the complexity of maintaining the illusion, optical magic is best augmented by practical effects,” Maggie was saying. “In the case of the Slaughterhouse, this means prosthetics, stage makeup, and a liberal application of blood. In a more practical application, such as starcatching, this meant conventional camouflage and tactics such as flying only at night — hence, starcatching.”

“Starcatching?” Mordecai said, blinking.

“A history of optical magic,” the General replied.

“June, Brutus and Howe,” Maggie said. “Copyright 1373.” This had been her bedtime reading ever since Ann had pretty much told them they were going to the Slaughterhouse. There would be some visual effects, Maggie could learn about optical magic and see some of it used, and the experience could be partially redeemed.

“I knew some starcatchers,” Mordecai said. “I mean, you had to know some starcatchers, or know someone who knew some, or you didn’t eat. But they were very good about getting themselves known. And they were completely mental,” he added with a roll of his eyes. “Every last one of them. I think some of them must’ve been your age.”

Nine?” said Maggie. Wow! Her Mom didn’t start getting shot at until she was sixteen!

“Maybe ten or eleven,” he allowed. “There was this one kid, he couldn’t have been more than fifteen, he had himself a piano bench. He figured he could ride it and put things in it…”

“This is a lesson on optical magic,” the General said tightly. “Please hold your lesson on completely mental people until it is required.”

“This is a night out at the theater!” Hyacinth cried. She clapped her hands. “Priorities, people! Can we hold all the lessons until we get on the bus?”

Maggie dragged Erik aside and told him she loved his hair on the way out the door, He snickered and nodded. He had spiked it while they were talking. Mordecai smooshed it back down when he noticed it, and he had to do this about five different times on the way to the theater. They also had dueling lessons on optical magic and completely mental people. Everyone except the General preferred the ones on mental people. (Erik and Maggie fell instantly in love with the idea of flying around on a piano bench, or even just a broomstick, and Maggie resolved to figure out a way to do this herself. When both her mom and Uncle Mordecai informed her this was no longer legal, she became doubly determined.)

Hyacinth got in line at the box office to pick up the tickets. Ann had comped their tickets, as promised, which resulted in slightly better tickets than they would’ve been able to afford otherwise. They were not in the balcony. Ann had smilingly informed them that the Slaughterhouse was a progressive establishment and did not employ segregated seating. Or, indeed, any sort of moral compunction whatsoever. They had requested opening night, for maximum support potential. (Ann had done a week’s rehearsals and she had every confidence in her ability to do the line, but Mordecai was worried about it.) Opening night meant a few more people, but it was a weekday show, so it wasn’t out of hand. They had shown up an hour early, but this was primarily so they’d have time for dinner. Hyacinth assigned the rest of the household the task of finding food within walking distance, which she assumed they could handle. They split up along familial lines, dragging reluctant Erik and Maggie in exact opposite directions.

When they reconvened about a half hour later, both groups had brought her back something to eat, and Erik had altered his tie with a mustard stain that Mordecai was improving with napkins and swearing. The General excused herself, put a hand on the tie, scared the hell out of both Erik and Mordecai (and Hyacinth also, slightly) and removed the stain. It appeared to evaporate. Mordecai demanded to know if she was out of her mind and if she had just performed a deconstruction three inches from Erik’s face. Hyacinth, meanwhile, examined her dinner. Erik and Mordecai had brought her a hot dog with mustard and onions and a pineapple Min-Min. Hyacinth upended the hot dog and gave it a good shake, which decorated the pavement with most of the mustard and onions, after which she consented to take a bite. Maggie and the General had brought her a paper bag holding a sparking water and a cardboard container of salad. Hyacinth regarded the salad and then the General with a puzzled expression.

Where did you find a fast food salad?

Did you make salad? Did you go to a grocery store and buy lettuce and a cardboard box and stand there out in front of it with levitating vegetables and make a salad?

Did you turn into a eagle and threaten to take someone’s eyes out if they didn’t make you a salad?

“I assume oil and vinegar will do?” the General said, smiling.

Hyacinth sniffed the salad and shook it slightly, exposing the dressing. “Yeah. Thanks.”

She belatedly realized that she probably could’ve wound Mordecai up pretty good if she’d asked him to change it to bleu cheese.

They had five seats together in the middle of the first floor mezzanine. These were traded back and forth and rearranged slightly. Erik and Maggie wanted to sit together. No one wanted to sit next to the General except Maggie. Erik had sort of been hoping Hyacinth would sit next to Maggie and push the General a little farther away from him, but she was unwilling to be convinced. Mordecai had also considered employing Hyacinth as a spacer, but he ultimately decided he needed to be right next to Erik to provide comfort if all the murdering got to be a little too intense. The usher had done a double take when she saw the two kids and inquired of their guardians if they were aware this was a play at the Slaughterhouse.

“Unfortunately,” the General said with a sigh.

“I think there are about fifteen different murders in this one,” she warned them, as they did not seem sufficiently concerned.

“We know Victim Number Two!” Erik piped up, smiling. “She gets to sing a song and then get killed with an ice pick!”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” the usher said. “Here’s Row J. Enjoy the show. Paper bags are in the seat pocket in front of you.”

“Paper bags?” said the General.

The usher shrugged. “It’s the Slaughterhouse. You’re lucky you’re out of the splash zone.”

“Aw, there’s a splash zone?” Maggie complained. As soon as she usher was gone, she pocketed the program from the seat pocket in front of her. She complained again when told this was legal and expected.

“Ann didn’t get a picture,” Erik noted, regarding his program. She had also been credited, in small bold letters, as Milo Rose. There was a short blurb about him being a singer at the Black Orchid.

“Ann isn’t too terribly famous, dear one,” Mordecai said. None of these people were, at least he’d never heard of them, but some of them were a little bit more than the others. The young man playing the murderer had a picture and a paragraph.

“Not yet,” Erik said firmly.

“…And I suppose it has to say ‘Milo’ on her paychecks.”

Erik also pocketed his program, after neatly folding it. He wanted to keep it, because it did have Ann in it, sort of, but he wasn’t really impressed with it. He was much more impressed with the theater. There was a lot of gold paint and fat baby angels and the ceiling had been painted with stars. It was kind of like a giant arcade game, only inside-out with people and chairs in it. The chairs had red fuzzy fabric and seats that folded down like the movies, but they were harder and creakier and more worn-down. His had a black stain on it. The floor was gray-painted concrete and somewhat sticky. The aisles were carpeted in striped burgundy… except down near the stage, where everything was concrete and painted red. He guessed that was Maggie’s splash zone. The chairs looked like they had different fabric, too, it was shiny. He was glad they weren’t in the splash zone. It looked like it got messy down there.

The walls were painted and done up to look like it was outside at night. There were streetlamps and fake plants and some painted people in evening wear, and a colored lady selling flowers. Interspaced with the fake scenery were private boxes with gold fronts and high-backed red chairs inside. The people in these were dressed way nicer than everyone else. There were top hats and fur wraps that looked like foxes biting their own tails. Erik glanced around him with a vaguely uncomfortable expression. The people around them were kinda dressed nicer than them, too. Maggie and the General looked about right, but Hyacinth’s dress looked dull and casual and his uncle’s suit was nice, but kind of old. Erik felt he probably could’ve used that vest, and maybe a jacket and some dark pants. And some nicer stockings, the stockings looked worn. Fuzzy. He drew his legs up under him and sat cross-legged in his seat, though that pressed his ankles uncomfortably against the hard material.

He leaned forward and looked up at the balcony. It was hard to tell what the people up there were wearing, but there were a lot more grays and browns, and no foxes. Whole sections were standing. The people at the back and sides didn’t even get chairs.

It’s not the candy dish, but I think we’re still supposed to be up there, Erik thought.

Or at the movies altogether, where you could get two for ten scints on the weekends.

It was maybe better to look at the stage, but that made him kind of nervous, too. It was tall with gold curtains, that was kind of like the movies, but there were way more lights. Colored ones hanging up on metal bars (and some of them just floating up there like mage lights) and ones in little gold shells on the stage. There were a couple of braziers on the sides with pretend fires in them (an orange light and some rags that were charmed to wiggle) that Erik thought were just there to be fancy. There was way more stage than at the movies, too. There was no orchestra pit. It was not possible to play music in front of the stage at the Slaughterhouse, because of the blood. The orchestra was in the back.

Erik was a little bit concerned about the blood.

Everyone was super worried about him getting scared of the murders. Ann had gone over the script with him and let him read all the stage directions, so he’d know what was going to happen. His uncle had told him repeatedly that it was all pretend. Hyacinth had added that murders at the Slaughterhouse were way over the top and so fake and not at all like real murders. They were hilarious. Maggie had tried to teach him about optical magic, but it was really complicated. She drew diagrams. This all had the effect of making Erik even more worried about it. It was like they were prepping him for surgery.

Sitting cross-legged in his theater seat and looking at the stage left him feeling like he was hanging on to the bar in a roller-coaster and the chain had just engaged. He had no idea how steep the drop was going to be, how long it was going to go on, and whether he’d be giggling or screaming or sobbing by the end of it.

He wanted to like it. Everyone was so happy about Ann being murdered, even Ann. Especially Ann. And she had worked so hard and Milo had to be really brave and Uncle Mordecai had to be really brave, and now it was his turn to be really brave.

It was just a silly fakey murder and it wasn’t really going to hurt or anything anyway, right?

He dipped his hand in his pocket and frowned at the lack of watch. Hyacinth had taken it last month. They were running low on metal and he’d happened to be in the kitchen. She’d already used up the toaster and she didn’t want to use the stove. She said, “Erik? Watch,” and held out her hand, like she did with Milo. (Milo also occasionally got, “Milo? Screwdrivers.”) That made him feel grown up and cool, and he didn’t even consider holding it back. It was also nice not having to worry about people seeing the pictures anymore, but he missed being able to play with it. Especially when things were stressful.

The house lights went down and the murmuring audience hushed. There was a smattering of applause and a voice from the balcony shrieked, “Ow!” in delirious anticipation, which resulted in some laughter and more applause.

Okay, I don’t have to play anything, Mordecai reminded himself, which he tended to do when the lights went down at the movies as well. He still had nightmares where the house lights went down and he had somehow forgotten his ‘cello. He had not forgotten his ‘cello. He did not need one.

Erik shifted in his seat and put his hand on Mordecai’s hand, which Mordecai obligingly held. Maggie sat forward and gripped both arms of her seat. Hyacinth did likewise. The General regarded the ceiling and sighed.

“Good evening everyone and welcome to the Slaughterhouse!” a jovial male voice projected from the amplifiers on either side of the stage. “We would like to remind our honored guests that our actors startle easily and there is no flash photography! Food and beverages are disallowed in the auditorium unless they are traveling at at least a hundred miles per hour and directed towards the stage! Please remember that crinkling cellophane is extremely annoying, so if you must eat a candy bar, keep it in the wrapper!” Several voices from the audience joined in on this last part, which appeared to be standard and expected.

“In the event of a vomit-related emergency, be aware that paper bags are located in the seat pockets in front of you, and emergency exits are to the left and right of the stage — in the direction of the blood!” Multiple voices on this part, too.

“Tonight’s twisted nightmare is entitled Hideous Obsession!” There was a rustle and squeak of distortion as their narrator leaned in closer to the microphone and raised his voice to a shriek, “We hope it kills every last one of you!” There was a female scream from behind the curtain and the stage lights flashed like lightning.

“I love this place,” Maggie intimated with soft admiration.

“Shh,” said the General.

Erik had jumped a little at the scream, but he managed a snicker. This might be fun.

The curtain opened on a darkened street-corner with three prostitutes and a gaslamp. Due to their housing situation, Erik and Maggie were both aware of prostitutes. There was a small brothel at the opposite end of Green Dragon Alley, right up against Strawberry Square. Most of the ladies were in their forties, and not pretty like these ones. But they were under a streetlamp in bright clothing and asking passersby if they wanted some companionship, so they were clearly supposed to be prostitutes. These ones were clearly supposed to be men dressed as ladies, as well, because they were talking in men’s voices except when someone walked by. They were talking about murders.

Maggie maybe had a little bit better idea of what prostitutes were for than Erik did. Erik thought they might sort of be your friend for a little while for money — kind of like what his uncle did in the war, except not volunteers. When the man took one of them away from the street-corner, this seemed to be borne out. He sat next to her on a bed and he talked to her about how he was sad and he missed his mother. Erik felt bad for him.

Well, maybe they’ll talk for a little while and he’ll feel better.

They started taking their clothes off.

Uh, thought Erik, pressing against the back of his seat. Maybe they’re gonna take a bath?

I wonder if they’re really gonna have sex, Maggie thought, beside him. She was certain that sex involved naked and a bed and rolling around. She had seen some mini-films at arcades.

Yeah, okay, thought Mordecai, on the other side of him. He was leaning sideways and already preparing to clamp his hand over Erik’s eyes and it hadn’t even been five minutes. He wished Ann had been a little more clear about this part. He wondered if it might hurt Erik having a hand over his metal eye. Maybe he just ought to have that one out

One space over, Hyacinth was also thinking, I wonder if they’re really gonna have sex.

At the opposite end of the line, the General emitted a low, displeased grumble. She was reserving the right to grab Magnificent by the hand and walk out, but that might look like weakness. She wasn’t certain how much lewd behavior it was necessary for her and her daughter to tolerate for the sake of pride. If it had been just her, she would have sat coldly until intermission and then demanded a refund.

Well, if it was just her, she never would’ve come to the damn theater in the first place.

The two naked men on stage did not have sex, real or pretend. For a second there it looked like maybe they were going to — and Mordecai’s hand came up — but then one of them started murdering the other one. This delayed Mordecai’s hand for a few moments of shock, and then it came up anyway.

Erik gently grasped it and pulled it down, frowning. “Lemme get used to it,” he whispered.

Get used to it? thought Mordecai, wide-eyed. I don’t want you to get used to it! It’s naked people killing each other! He wanted to tuck Erik under his arm like a suitcase and leave the theater right now.

But Ann… and the line… and a song… and she was so damn happy about it.

And she was going to get murdered maybe even worse than this and she would certainly notice if he and Erik had to leave right in the middle of it. That would make her sad.

“It’s just pretend,” Mordecai muttered to himself.

“I… know,” Erik answered him impatiently. He wasn’t really mad at his uncle, he was mad that this was bothering him. It was pretend. There was a lot of screaming and it looked like it really, really hurt and there was a lot of blood and the blood smelled like salt and metal and it was arcing off the ice pick in great big fans and spattering the audience, but there was an audience.

Some of the audience were screaming and some of them were laughing, but… Audience. Yeah.

The man with the ice pick who missed his mommy kept saying he was sorry. He was crying. That bothered Erik. He clutched one hand on the arm of his seat. He needed the other one to keep his uncle from covering his eyes.

Maggie leaned in a whispered in his ear, “Look, you can see the screen.”

Erik nodded palely. Yeah. You couldn’t see it in the middle, where the action was, but kind of around the edges. It was there in case people threw things, but it was also a place to anchor the magic. There wasn’t a lot of magic used at the Slaughterhouse, Ann and Maggie both said. They liked practical effects and real things. Ann got the part because she had a real pretty voice and real pretty hair.

Erik sort of hoped those weren’t really real guts falling out, but he doubted it. They rolled. One of them nudged into the screen. Might’ve been a kidney.

The man with the ice pick cut off the prostitute’s hands. With a cleaver. (Guy brought a clever, he’s prepared, thought Maggie.) He held them up and spoke fondly, as if relieved to have all of that over with, “You have hands just like hers!”

The curtain fell. The audience thundered applause.

Erik wobbled in his seat and put both hands over his face.

“Erik, are you all right?” Mordecai whispered urgently.

Erik nodded and then managed a weak, “Yes.” The rest of his vocabulary seemed to have deserted him for a moment, but that didn’t bother him like losing his words usually did. He was being bothered about other stuff.

Can somebody really be so sad they just start killing people?

Also, it still smelled like blood. He felt sick.

I might be maybe gonna need the paper bag, he thought, but he didn’t think he could lean forward and get it.

The footlights came up, and the stage lights brightened and focused on the curtain. It looked more like a stage. It was supposed to be a stage.

“Ann?” Erik asked.

“Ann,” Mordecai said, nodding.

Erik smiled and sighed relief.

Ann entered stage left. She had an empty birdcage and a huge pink hat with ruffles and a bow. The dress was also pink with ruffles and a bow, some kind of crimply fabric like crepe. She had pink shoes with buttons and heels. A spotlight hit her. She waved to them with a lavender-gloved hand. “Hello, all you beautiful people!” she cried, giving the fourth wall a nice hard kick in the shins. “Are you enjoying the show?”

The script she had showed Erik just said ‘ad-lib’ for this part. It was all she needed. She did this for a living. (And made watches in a factory. Sort of.)

Cheers and some applause in reply.

“Oh, I am glad!” she said, striding to center stage. She put up a hand, not the one with the birdcage, as if to shield her eyes from the lights. “Are my friends in the audience tonight?”

Erik and Maggie and Mordecai applauded without restraint. Hyacinth cupped hands around her mouth and shrieked, “We love you!

Ann beamed at them and spread her arms wide. “You’re all my friends!” she said. “Even the poor people in the balcony!” This engaged laughter and some cheering from above. She waved to them. “Hello, all you adorable poor people! Would you all really rather watch little old me than have hot dinners? You would?”

More laughter, and a certain amount of agreement.

“I love poor people!” she confided to the rest of the audience. “I am poor people! Oh, I may not look it now,” she allowed, indicating her outfit, “but I am afraid that at about three o’clock in the morning I had to readjust my living arrangements rather suddenly.” She put a hand over her mouth. “Oh, but you don’t really want to hear about that, do you? You do?”

There were a couple of comedians in the audience who said, “No!” but far more who laughed and clapped and gave affirmative replies.

“Oh, my dearest friends!” Ann said. She spun as if bathing in sunlight. “I feel I can tell you anything!”

She revealed to them that she had to move away, ‘cos the rent she couldn’t pay and the band kicked in behind her as she strolled along the stage. When she hit the chorus she implored them all to sing along, because they all knew the words.

They did all know the words. A lot of them were also intimately familiar with the situation, particularly in the balcony. Mordecai had done that rather a few times as a child. He recalled bugging out of a furnished apartment at one in the AM with a piano in tow, which they had carried down two flights of stairs… And it might not have technically been their piano. Having done it made the song better and funnier, and he didn’t really mind singing as long as no one was noticing him.

Erik and Maggie also knew the words. They had been hearing it almost constantly for the past few weeks. Maggie had been thinking up until now that she was sick of it.

Nope. With Ann doing it up on the stage and the whole audience singing it and the balcony being particularly enthused, Maggie sang along and enjoyed it.

“My old man said follow the van! Don’t dilly-dally on the way! Off went the van with my home packed in it! I followed on with my old cock linnet!”

Erik had completely forgotten about the sobbing naked murdering. Even though it did still kind of smell like blood. The people in the front rows were covered in blood and singing along.

The General abstained. She might’ve been the only one.

Ann completed the chorus and accepted her applause with a deep bow. She whipped off her hat and gave everyone a real good look at her pretty red hair, too.

Erik and Maggie and Hyacinth and Mordecai stood up. Erik stood on his seat. A few others in the audience stood up, too. Half the balcony was already standing, of course.

Ann gave the audience a conspiratorial wink, shushed them gently with a finger and slipped under the curtain. A few moments later, the curtain rose on her dressing room. There was a paneled screen with a feather boa draped over it, and a table with a lighted mirror. She hung her hat on the edge of the screen, set the birdcage on the table and began undoing the top of her dress while humming ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van.’ There was a soft thud offstage, like maybe someone dropping a wrapped parcel, which she looked up at and then dismissed.

She was wearing long opera gloves when she pulled down the top of the dress. It was quite some contrast. Makeup, long red hair, satiny gloves, a skirt and a man’s chest. It might’ve been the staging as much as the reveal that got some gasps out of the crowd. There was also some laughter and murmuring from people anticipating the next murder.

There was a clinking sound like someone knocking over a bottle.

Ann looked up at it.

Mordecai was on the edge of his seat with both hands fisted. Erik was wringing his hands in his lap. Maggie was leaning forward with her lips pressed together in a line. Hyacinth had squirmed slightly sideways like maybe she needed to pee. All of them were gazing raptly at the stage.

The General was still. Possibly more so than usual. Possibly.

All five of them did the line with Ann, silently in the darkness.

“Who’s there?”

More reaction from the audience, this time concentrated in the balcony.

The murderer slunk into the dressing room with ice pick in hand. “You have such pretty red hair,” he told her. “You have red hair just like hers!”

Ann was silent in horror and backing away, her eyes flicking from the man’s face to the ice pick and back again — until he fell upon her and started stabbing her with it.

They were used to ‘Who’s there?’ and ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van.’ There had been precisely one scream out of Ann at the house, after which Hyacinth corralled her and told her to please confine that to the rehearsal hall, or else somebody was going to call the police.

These were louder.

The blood flew.

The General rolled her eyes and canted her head to one side. Oh, for gods’ sakes. People do not scream like that when you stab them in the back.

Maggie was watching with wide eyes and a grin that was a little too tight to be entirely delighted. Oh, wow. It looks like it’s really going in. Wow. How do they… Wow. She was trying and repeatedly failing to bring up her lesson on optical magic to figure out how they did that. Watching Ann get murdered was like being punched in the brain.

Erik was pale and curled up like a brine shrimp. His mouth gaped, his gray eye was huge and his metal one was racked open to its widest setting — with almost the entire lens exposed, so as to provide maximum visual information in this evidently life-threatening situation. Oh, no, not Ann. Oh, no. Don’t do that to Ann. Oh, no… He couldn’t look away.

Mordecai had failed to engage his hand. Both of them were tightly gripping his seat cushion. I… I don’t understand this. I have seen actual people die. It doesn’t even look like that. How is this worse?

Hyacinth was grinning and giggling like a maniac. It was funny. It was funny-weird and funny-ha-ha, watching Ann get stabbed to death on the stage, and it was something of a relief, after all the trouble they’d been through getting her there. Hey! Here we are! Success! But hysteria may have been a component as well. The blood smell… she’d had that on other occasions, and not happy ones. It was messing with her brain.

“It’s not a real ice pick,” Mordecai said weakly. He had a vague idea that maybe there was a child here and that child might be upset. “It’s not real stabbing. It’s not real blood.”

“It sure is real blood,” Maggie said on Erik’s other side. “They have a deal with the slaughterhouses. That’s why it’s the Slaughterhouse.”

“He’s not really hurting Ann,” Mordecai said, which was much more important.

“Yeah,” Erik managed, faintly. I’m supposed to look. She wanted everyone to look. She’s happy.

She no longer had a face.

How is she still screaming?

The General agreed with him, She absolutely should not be screaming anymore. Gurgling, maybe. And that is far too much blood.

The man with the ice pick drew her ruined head into his lap and comforted her. He took out a knife.

Mordecai finally brought his hand up. Erik pulled it down. “No,” he said.

Ann gets to be murdered at the Slaughterhouse and be happy. I wanna see.

They all watched what the man did next.

The curtain descended to howls and applause.

“Is… Ann… all… dead… now..?” Erik asked. It took him nearly a minute to string this together. The curtain had begun to rise again. There were police and a crime scene

“Yes, dear one,” said Mordecai.

Erik gasped at the sight of the stage. He put both hands over his eyes. “I… wanna… be… done… now.”

“You are absolutely done now,” Mordecai agreed. He swept Erik up and put him against his shoulder as if he were much younger. Erik hid his eyes there and wrapped both arms around his uncle’s neck.

Naturally, they were in the middle of the row. Mordecai stepped on a lot of toes and had a lot of people hiss at him to get out of the way and he ignored all of them. He carried Erik up the aisle and out of the theater.

There were some benches outside for intermission. Mordecai put Erik in one of them, sat next to him and bundled an arm around him. Erik put both arms around him and clung.

“It’s okay,” said Mordecai. “It’s not real. We’re going to see Ann in a little while when the show’s over and she’s going to be fine.”

“Mm-hm,” Erik said. He nodded but did not look up.

“You were really brave and I was really stupid and we should not have come.”

“But… Ann was… proud,” Erik said slowly.

“I think I could’ve told you about it,” Mordecai said. “Or Maggie, or someone.”

“She… sang. I never saw her… sing with so many… people.”

“We could’ve left after that.”

“She did the… line.”

“Yeah,” Mordecai admitted, a hand to his brow. And the murdering had commenced directly following the line. “I still wish you didn’t have to see it.”

“He… cut off her… hair,” Erik said.

Mordecai nodded. He did not correct Erik’s language. That was not called ‘cutting off’ someone’s hair. The was called ‘scalping’ someone.

Erik pulled back and glanced up at him with a miserable expression. He looked away. “I really want a… cigarette.”

Mordecai sighed. It had been months. “Dear one, I really don’t think that’s a good idea…”

“Her… eye fell out.”

“Yeah,” said Mordecai.

Mordecai proceeded to wander around the area outside the theater accosting people at eight o’clock at night like some kind of deviant and attempting to buy a single cigarette. Some of the people clutched their wallets or pocketbooks and crossed to the other side of the street. He did eventually get one, and there were matchbooks in the theater lobby. They had drawings of bloody knives on them.

Erik had calmed considerably by then but he was still intermittently shivering and Mordecai had promised him a cigarette so he got a cigarette. He took a drag and coughed it out and took another, longer drag and coughed that out, too. Mordecai stood upwind, facing away.

Hyacinth came barreling out of the building at intermission and caught them doing that. “Erik!” she cried, shocked. And then, pissed off, “Mordecai!

“It’s just one, Auntie Hyacinth,” Erik said, shamefaced. He had smoked it down to the filter — with lots of coughing and he thought maybe he had peed a little, but he felt much better. There was a bucket of sand next to the bench and he deposited it there.

“He was upset,” Mordecai said.

“There’s a bar across the street,” said Hyacinth. “I think you could’ve bought him a shot of liquor.”

“He didn’t ask for one.”

Maggie and the General had now also arrived at the bench, at a more decorous pace. Maggie plunked down next to Erik and hugged him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He added, because he thought maybe it might make him sound cool, “I had a cigarette.”

The General regarded Mordecai as if her opinion of him had not been lowered in the slightest.

“What happened to the man with the ice pick?” Erik asked Maggie.

“He killed a bunch more people, but the police are looking for him,” Maggie said. “He thought about maybe jumping off a bridge, but obviously he wasn’t gonna because there’s still more play. He’s collecting all the pieces. He’s sewing them together.”

“He’s… sewing them?” Erik said, flinching.

“On a machine with a pedal,” Maggie said. She made the motion of it. “There was blood dripping off the table. There’s a lot of blood, but it’s not as scary now that it’s not Ann. It’s kinda funny. Are you gonna come back and watch the rest?”

Erik broadly shook his head. He didn’t really even like hearing about it. He could picture it. “But I wanna stay and see Ann after. Do you think we could get Ann some flowers?” he asked his uncle.

Flowers?” said Mordecai. He glanced around with a pained expression. Erik was going to have him cadging violets out of the planters up and down the street, he just knew it.

Hyacinth snapped her fingers and pointed at them. “There’s this guy selling single roses in the theater lobby. You want some of them?”

Mordecai checked his pockets for change. His spending money was generally change and he didn’t walk around with a lot of it because he didn’t like jingling. “I think we can probably have one.” He had already bought a cigarette and three hot dogs with soda.

“Can’t we have two?” Erik said sadly.

Hyacinth checked her purse. “I think we can probably have five. I’ll spot you a couple sinqs.”

Five?” said the General, one brow raised.

“Oh. One from Erik and one from his eye,” Hyacinth said, throwing a gesture.

Mordecai frowned. Erik giggled.

Erik spent the remainder of the play sitting on the bench outside and sorting the flowers. There were five flowers and only three different colors, which bothered him slightly. Pink, red and yellow. There were two pink ones and two red ones and one yellow. He guessed the yellow one should be in the middle but he wasn’t sure how he wanted the pink and red ones around it. Uncle Mordecai had pulled off some of the crumpled petals so the flowers looked nicer and Erik sorted those, also.

He made an occasional attempt to play with his hair but there wasn’t enough stuff left in it to get it to do anything really interesting. By the time Hyacinth and Maggie and the General came back out, he had resorted to playing with his uncle’s hair, and the flowers.

“My kingdom for a camera!” Hyacinth cried, braying laughter. “Oh, my gods! Don’t you dare move!” She made as if to go find one.

Mordecai calmly removed the flowers and smoothed back his hair. It didn’t take much. Erik wasn’t sadistic enough to start putting knots in it, though he had braided a small section.

“Killjoy,” Hyacinth accused.

“What happened to the ice pick man?” Erik asked Maggie. He was kind of hoping for an ending where the man wasn’t sad anymore and had friends, and also stopped killing people.

Maggie gleefully assassinated that idea, “Oh, he made a big dolly out of all the pieces of dead people to be his mommy for him. It came to life. But it was really mad at him because he made it out of all people he murdered. It killed him. He was crying and screaming for it to please love him and stop. It had Ann’s hair,” she added with a nod.

“Oh,” said Erik, sickly.

“There was this girl he really liked, but he wanted her eyes for the dolly and they were trying to pretend like maybe he wasn’t gonna murder her, but he did. She was the last one.”

“Oh.” That made him feel even worse. The man almost did have a friend, but then he killed her trying to get what he wanted and he didn’t even get that.

Erik was used to stories where people got married at the end, or the wolf didn’t have to be killed and it got to be in the zoo, or at least there were some friends and ice cream. This story with all the murders wasn’t just sad, it was unfair. That was kind of worse than the murders. He could get his head around the idea of people dying — a lot of people died, his mom had died — but just dying for no reason and then everything is worse? That was…

It was mean.

Hyacinth was saying a man had come over during the bows and given them all backstage passes and they were going to go see Ann and she just bet they had champagne back there and they were all going to have to go home in taxis anyway, so why not get smashed?

She handed Erik a big card that said V.I.P. on it and told him he was a Very Important Person.

He tried to smile. He guessed that was good.

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