There was a red high-heeled shoe with a buckle propping open the back door of the theater, and there were people laughing inside.
Hyacinth pushed it all the way open and ushered them all right in, of course. A man in a black jacket wanted to know if they had passes, which they each individually showed. Mordecai and the General both felt like idiots, which they did not share with the group or with each other. Hyacinth and the kids grinned, with Hyacinth looking particularly smug about it.
“Wow. Did you kids see the show?” the man in the black jacket asked.
“Sorta,” said Erik.
“Sure did!” Maggie said.
“What’d you think?”
“My mom says too much blood and screaming,” Maggie replied, slipping slightly into her lesson voice. “And she kills lots of people, so she should know.”
“Aha,” said the man in the black jacket, stumbling a bit.
“Getting stabbed in the back is really quiet, because of the lungs. That’s why you do it,” Maggie scolded him.
“Okay, I’ll, uh… Tell the manager.”
Maggie smiled indulgently at him. “But I thought all the screaming was pretty funny, except when you were killing my friend.”
“Cin!” Ann shrieked, not as if she were getting stabbed in the back. “There you are! Oh! There all of you are! My goodness!” She passed hugs around. She was wearing a pink silk robe, which was hers from the house. The one with the marabou edges. Murder victims were advised to bring something comfortable to slip into after showering. The Slaughterhouse was on a bit of a shoestring and only provided costumes, sometimes not even those.
There were a lot of people in robes, some in slippers, some in shoes, and some had changed back into their street clothes. Very few were in costumes, most of the costumes were slopped into laundry bags and dripping. The backstage people and staff were wearing black. A lot of people had squares of sheet cake and paper cups with champagne. The sheet cake had drippy red icing.
“Are those for me?” Erik was holding the flowers. It was not required that he offer them. Ann snatched them and spun around with them. “Roses! I adore roses!” She sorted them, which entirely spoiled Erik’s arrangement. “One from each of you! I… I think I may cry…”
Erik’s expression cratered. His emotions had already been too badly dented by the contents of the play. “Please don’t… cry, Ann. We’re… sorry.”
“Oh! Oh, no, dear Erik, it’s all right!” She whapped Hyacinth in the chest with the roses and abandoned them. She knelt down and held Erik. “I love roses. I’m happy. I’m just over-dramatic, that’s all.” She smoothed back his hair and fussed over him. “Poor Erik. It was all a bit much, wasn’t it? You know, I was getting stabbed in the face and my eyeball fell out and I thought, ‘You know, this really is too much.’ Were you all right? You had to go, didn’t you?” She hugged his head against her without waiting for a response. She had already consumed a certain amount of champagne. “I didn’t see you there for the bows, but it’s all a bit difficult with the lights… Did you see me sing?”
“I saw you sing and I saw all the murder,” Erik said firmly. “You were really pretty, except when you didn’t have a face anymore.” He paled and wobbled slightly. “Did it… hurt?”
“No! Not even a tiny little bit. It’s all smoke and mirrors. See?” She put his hand on her face. He felt around a little bit and he especially checked her eye, then he nodded and managed a smile.
“Is the man who was sad about his mommy okay?” Erik asked her.
“The man…?” Ann said. “Dear, you mean the murderer?”
“The man with the ice pick,” Erik said, nodding.
Ann laughed. She swept Erik into her arms and held him up like a fruit basket.
Look! This one has a pineapple!
“Sean! Guess what? Erik feels sorry for you!”
“Someone feels sorry for me?” the man with the ice pick cried. He no longer had an ice pick. He had a paper cup. He was wearing a blue terrycloth robe with fuzzy daisies on it and a pair of brown loafers. He got murdered pretty good at the end there, too. His hair was still wet.
He approached looking excited then paused a few paces away. “Is it a midget?”
“It’s a seven-year-old,” Ann said gently.
Sean closed the remaining distance and spoke conspiratorially to Erik, “I wouldn’t mind if you really were a midget. Did you really feel bad about me?”
Erik managed a nod, wide-eyed. This wasn’t… He didn’t think he was scared, really. It was super weird, though. It was the same face and everything as the really sad man who cried and murdered people, but happy and excited. And that robe with the daisies… Wow.
He guessed maybe he felt shy.
“Did you cry?” the man asked him eagerly.
…and now offended. “I did not… cry. I was really… brave!”
“Oh,” Sean said, frowning.
Ann squeezed Erik again and set him down. He hugged her around the waist and she stroked a hand down his back. “Sean, dear, you don’t really want to make a little boy cry,” she said.
“I want to make everyone cry!” Sean said. He smiled and patted Erik on the head. “But I would’ve felt bad about it. I’m not one of those crazy method people. I just understand where the poor mad creature is coming from. We all need to be loved. I think his mother must not have been very nice to him growing up, either. Serial killers always have such dreadful parents.”
“Erik, darling, would you like cake?” Ann said.
“Yes!” said Erik, desperately. Cake made sense. The ice pick man in a robe with daisies talking about the ice pick man like he was an unfortunate friend did not, and Erik didn’t know what he was supposed to do about it.
Also, he did like cake.
“I’ll get you some right away! Maggie, you as well? Cin? Em? What about champagne? Oh, I think maybe you’d better come with me. I don’t have enough hands!”
Erik staggered. Ah! No! Don’t leave me with this strange man alone!
Mordecai stepped up behind Erik and put both hands on his shoulders. “Hyacinth has enough hands to bring me a piece of cake. That’s all I want. I’d like to meet the murderer.”
“Sean Addison,” said the murderer, offering a hand. “Your friend Milo is a real kick in the pants!” he added, grinning.
“Uh,” said Mordecai. What an incredibly weird thing to hear. “Yes. I suppose… he is.”
“You know, he was supposed to be bad at it — the song. The original script said he was supposed to get people to throw things. I mean, we have a screen in front of the stage. People like to throw things. Milo did it that way, though. They loved it!” He smiled. “He made everyone like him. I think it’s much sadder that way when he gets killed. He came up with that thing where he sneaks under the curtain, too.”
Erik was frowning. “It’s Ann,” he said.
“Huh? Oh. That’s his stage name, right? Like Tiffany and Amanda.”
“No,” said Erik. “That’s Ann. Ann’s name is Ann.”
“Is Milo one of those crazy method people?” Sean asked weakly.
“Milo is not… crazy,” Erik said. “He just doesn’t like to talk. But you don’t know Milo. You know Ann.”
“It’s, um,” said Mordecai. Erik wasn’t wrong. Erik was exactly right. But you couldn’t just explain it that way and leave it and expect people to understand. And the more detail you added, the crazier it sounded. Mordecai completely understood if Ann found it easier to just let everyone treat ‘Ann’ like a stage name. “It’s easier just to call him Ann. When he’s in dresses. It’s kind of a lifestyle.”
“Oh, right,” said Sean, although he looked more confused than enlightened. He had been around these people for a couple weeks and killed them a whole bunch of times, which was fairly intimate. Some of them really, really wanted to be women and some of them were regular gay guys, but they were performers. At some point you had to quit that and be a real person, even the crazy method people did that.
Was that guy in the silk robe over there getting the cake somehow not Milo Rose?
Also, it was weird how the kid came right out with Milo not being crazy. Like he had to say that a lot.
Oh, it’s probably just the dresses. Some people get so hung up on clothes. I am an actor. We’re better about that sort of thing.
He edged a little closer to the red man in the suit and spoke softly so the kid couldn’t hear. “Listen, could you tell me, does Milo like boys? I’ve been hitting on him all week and he doesn’t seem to notice.”
“I…” said Mordecai. “I-I have absolutely no idea.”
“Oh,” Sean said. He grinned. “I don’t suppose you…?” He was teasing. This appeared to be an uptight establishment-type person. Three-piece suit, conservative tie.
“My mother wouldn’t like me to date somebody who’s not colored,” Mordecai said. He laughed and touched a hand to his brow. Okay, apparently he still had that reply on file.
You know, I really don’t think they’re going to rescind that annulment by now. You are in no danger of having to go back and be married to Cathy again.
…Let’s just be safe.
“My mother,” Sean said. He touched his own brow. “My gods, I should call her.”
“Your mom is okay?” Erik asked, relieved.
“She’s coming on Thor’s Day. Tonight’s canasta.” He snickered weakly. “She sent me a box of turtles.”
“Turtles?” said Erik. That was way better than murders! They didn’t even have turtles at the zoo! “Can I… see the… turtles?”
“It’s candy, Erik,” Mordecai said.
“Oh.” He smiled. “Can I see them anyway?”
Sean laughed at him.
Mordecai frowned and gave him a nudge. You’re not gonna be able to get away with ‘cute,’ forever, kid. Learn manners now. “I’ll make some, sometime.”
Ann and Hyacinth returned with cake. Maggie delivered Erik’s slice. The General had nothing and looked irritated with the entire situation. The murderer excused himself to a pay phone to call his mother — who was not a doll made of stitched victims but rather a nice lady who played canasta and knew he liked turtles.
Ann implored them all to stay, even Erik. They were probably going to hit up the bar across the street in a little while, but they’d get him in somehow — he’d fit under a coat! She was going to do some more songs! Erik did want some more songs, but not anything else, especially not a bar or being stuffed under a coat. He wasn’t even really enjoying his cake. It smelled funny back here, like blood and sweat and more weird things that he didn’t know. And some people were having cigarettes and that made him want another one and he knew he shouldn’t. He was relieved when his uncle told Ann that it was already way past their bedtime and they ought to go, but he did a little bit of whining for appearances’ sake.
The General took this opportunity to inform Ann that this entire excursion had been a serious error of judgment and that prolonging it would be something bordering on pathological and that she and her daughter were going home right now, too.
Hyacinth grinned and told a downcast Ann that she would be thrilled to stay and that she just loved champagne and parties and cute young people. And even cute older people as long as they had reasonably flexible morals and spines. She noted, also, that this meant everyone else could share one taxi home.
Mordecai and the General blinked and stared at each other as if Hyacinth had suggested they might like to share a double bed.
“Why, it’s economical, you two,” Hyacinth added. She nodded gravely and toasted them with her paper cup. “We shall have two taxis for the household tonight instead of three. Efficiency! Logistics! Movies for Erik!” She grinned again. “I dare you to come up with a reason not to share a taxi.”
They could not. The General sat in the front with the driver. Mordecai sat in the back with the kids. All parties found this agreeable.
I am with the adults, thought the General.
I am with the decent people, thought Mordecai.
I’m with the fun people, thought Maggie.
I don’t have to sit by the scary lady, thought Erik.
Why don’t any of these people talk? thought the driver.
Ann and Hyacinth returned home in a taxi in the small hours. Hyacinth was pleased to have consumed champagne and met cute people who were interested in giving their flexible morals a bit of a workout. Ann was pleased Milo didn’t have a shift in the morning. Milo didn’t like abandoning his obligations and Ann didn’t like abandoning her obligations and in a lot of cases this meant no sleep for one or the other of them. But this play had been scheduled weeks in advance and Milo wasn’t a masochist. They didn’t mind giving him time off because he never asked for much of it and it wasn’t like they had to pay him during it.
They were both reasonably wasted, giggling and leaning on each other.
“I love theater people,” Hyacinth confessed as they negotiated the front stairs. “Theater people will try anything. They have no sense of self. Cross-dressing theater people might be even better.”
“They’re all just darling, aren’t they?” Ann agreed, smiling.
“I think pretty people must murder better. It’s always like that. Aw.” Hyacinth pointed across the front room to the kitchen. The lights were on. “Look. They waited up for us.”
“They made us hot chocolate!” Ann said, detecting it.
They were up — Maggie, Erik and Mordecai — and there was hot chocolate, but it was nothing to do with Ann and Hyacinth. Well, it was peripherally associated with Ann.
“I dreamed it was really hurting her but nobody knew it except me,” Maggie said, staring into her cup.
“Yeah,” said Erik.
“I dreamed that man with the ice pick was trying to break in the bedroom window,” Mordecai said. “That big damn window.” There was also a big damn window in the kitchen and he looked back at it suspiciously. This entire house was full of holes. “I could see the ice pick.”
“Yeah,” said Erik. He had not dreamed either of these things, but he wanted to commiserate and he didn’t want to say what he did dream. He dreamed he was hurting Ann. It was really important and he had to because he was trying to fix something, but he knew hurting Ann wasn’t going to fix it, either.
He wasn’t drinking his chocolate. He felt like someone had poisoned his brain.
He sort of wished he could have his uncle help him forget the dream — and maybe the bad story about everyone being hurt that made him dream it — but then he’d have to tell about it.
Ann and Hyacinth clambered in, drained the hot chocolate on the stove, laughed about it, complained that there wasn’t more of it, and attempted to make more of it, in between more laughter and greetings.
Mordecai got up and snatched the glass pot away. “I’ll make it. I’m sober. Sit down, you two hens.”
“Hens!” said Ann, delighted. “I’ll add it to my resumé!” She spread her hands as if adjusting a marquee. “Singer! Actress! Hen!”
“Alcoholic!” Hyacinth said, giggling.
“Not professionally,” Ann said. “More of a hobby. Oh, hello, Erik, darling.” Erik had just taken her hand. She squeezed it. “You’re not still worried about me, are you? This is just some champagne. I’ll be all right in the morning. Well,” she laughed, “maybe in the afternoon.”
“Not worried,” Erik said. He was, but not about Ann getting pretend murdered or being drunk. He was grateful he wasn’t bothered enough about the dream to slow down, then they would’ve known something was wrong. He wanted to promise Ann he wasn’t ever going to hurt her, for real hurt her, but that was the kind of thing the man who was trying to build a mommy might say. And he hurt people anyway.
You don’t promise that, Erik thought. You just be careful and you don’t. I just won’t.
“It was all pretend and they didn’t hurt you at all?” Erik said. He couldn’t quite make it certain. He wanted her to say again that they didn’t. It helped.
“They didn’t at all and they won’t,” Ann replied with a nod. She laughed again and touched the back of her hair. “Well, Sean pulled my hair a little bit in rehearsal when it wouldn’t come off, but he was very sorry about it and they fixed the wig to make sure that wouldn’t happen anymore.”
Erik nodded. Maggie nodded too and breathed a sigh. She liked hearing about how it didn’t really hurt Ann, too, but she thought she was too old and smart to keep asking about it over and over again.
“Did it hurt you when they kept calling you Milo?” Erik asked.
Ann blinked. “Oh.” Truthfully, well… Truthfully…
Yes. Because she wanted them to like her and be friends, and they did like her and they could’ve been friends, but… But they didn’t understand her and they wouldn’t try.
Well, maybe they did try and they still couldn’t. It didn’t have to be on purpose. But…
“I… I didn’t like it a lot, no, but they didn’t do that to hurt me. I’m a very different sort of person and it’s hard to explain.”
“It’s not hard, ” Erik said. “Nobody here calls you the wrong name. Not even Maggie’s mom and Barnaby.”
“David trained Barnaby,” Hyacinth muttered. “If you didn’t call him the right alias, he’d scream.” Still, they had done that a lot, just kept calling him David, no matter what the hell he was dressed as, because he always was David. She wasn’t sure what Ann was, especially after that hypnotism demo, but she was real sure Ann wasn’t Milo.
Even if she was.
It wasn’t hard not to call her the wrong name.
“People in this house are very special,” Ann said, holding Erik’s hand. “I couldn’t have done that without all of you helping me, even your mother, Maggie.” Although, with the General, it was more what she didn’t do that helped. She was cold, and she would call Ann ridiculous or not really a woman, but never not really a person or not Ann. Besides, Ann knew perfectly well she was ridiculous and not really a woman. “I wouldn’t be as happy as I am if I didn’t have all of you to come home to.” She sniffled. “Oh. Damn champagne.”
Mordecai delivered her hot chocolate and a paper towel.
“Oh, thank you, my love. You’re very kind. You’re all very kind.” Ann dabbed her eyes, which were mercifully free of makeup. She was well-scrubbed after getting off all that blood, but she had put back some lipstick so it would look like her.
Hot chocolate proved an effective antidote to champagne, at least the sad parts, and she sensed what her tiny audience wanted from her was an assurance that she was okay and no tears. Ann was, in a very literal sense, made for smiling. She gave the people what they wanted, and all she wanted from them in return was all the love and all the attention for ever and ever and ever.
The hot chocolate is extra, she thought, contentedly sipping.
She gave them all hugs (even Mordecai, who pretended to get embarrassed about that kind of thing sometimes, but you could tell he liked hugs when you felt him), and petting and kisses where appropriate (mainly Erik, he seemed extra upset) and when the chocolate was gone and the worry-lines had been ironed out and and a certain amount of prophylactic aspirin had been consumed, she sent them to bed.
In her own room, she did not look for Milo in the mirror. He didn’t like champagne.
It’s all right, honey. I’ll be happy for both of us.
She changed into a nightie and she fell asleep with her pretty red hair spread all over the pillow, and a smile.
Milo crawled downstairs with both hands on the banister at ten o’clock with Ann’s stupid hangover to draw a stupid lobster for stupid Barnaby. Ahh, why did they have a front window? Why did they always make windows the whole time? Even the goddamned basement had a window! Why did the basement have a window? Why did they lift the whole house three feet just so the basement could have sunlight?
Why did people drink champagne? Coffee didn’t do this. Coffee was friendly to people.
The damn coffee was in the damn kitchen with another damn window.
He winced. His voice sounded weird in his own head. He knew he really did sound like that, he’d heard it enough that he couldn’t go back the other way, but it was weird and he didn’t like it and it just made everything worse.
Why did Ann volunteer him to draw a lobster? Of all the stupid random possible…
They had been giggling over fluted glasses at a small, dim table in a bar and Hyacinth lifted a finger and said, Oh, by the way… and Ann said, Oh, sure!
Milo stared at the blindingly white paper and dug all of his nails into it.
This! This was a champagne-related lobster!
No champagne tonight, Ann! Only murdering! Are you hearing me in there?
Ann had got him dressed for the lobster and gone back to sleep.
The murdering was okay. And the singing. Ann was really pretty when she sang. And she liked all the people, and all the people liked her.
But he couldn’t just let Ann have sleep and her hangover and wait for the singing again, he had to have a lobster. Barnaby said the lobster today. If Barnaby didn’t have a lobster today he might yell. There must not be yelling. No. Worse than windows. Therefore: lobster.
He barely even knew what one of those looked like. They didn’t eat that sort of thing. They didn’t have them at the zoo, they didn’t have anything at the zoo. He wasn’t going to go out and look for a magazine or a postcard or a reference of any kind, there was naked sunlight out there.
He saw a giant squid at the natural history museum the other day. Was that close?
There was a dinosaur in progress on the pad. The dinosaur at the natural history museum was wrong, it had dislocated bones in the tail. But if you straightened the tail, it went through the floor, so that wasn’t right, either. The whole damned thing needed adjusting. (Not that he intended to share this with the natural history museum, even if he could straighten out the dinosaur. Even if he had Ann explain it for him. They’d probably just be mad about the dinosaur being wrong. It looked expensive.) He tore the drawing from the pad, cringing at every inch of noise, folded it for later contemplation and started in on a lobster.
What, they have, like, fan-shaped tails, right? And they’re kinda long? Are the eyes on stalks or am I thinking of crabs? What are those snippy things in the front? Claws? Those aren’t claws. Cats have claws. Dinosaurs have claws. Snippy things… I guess they have about a million little legs, and feelers…
He made his best guess at how a lobster functioned. He put in a range of motion for the snippy things and the million little legs. After a moment’s debate he put a cloud of ink coming out of the tail end of it, but he put a question mark next to that, just in case.
He held it up in the unwanted light and considered it.
Yeah, all right. That looks… Lobster-y.
He braved the kitchen and left it on the table with the sugar bowl weighing it down. He found the coffee and he put his face in the coffee and inhaled the coffee, but he didn’t stay long enough to make any. He took more aspirin and he staggered upstairs to bed. He did not have the energy to change into a dress and then into a nightie, so he had to go to sleep with Ann’s stupid hangover, too.
When delivered his drawing of a lobster with lunch, Barnaby collapsed onto his bed with tear-streaked cackling that Hyacinth thought was all out of proportion with the silliness of the drawing. Okay, it was not a good lobster. It wasn’t, like, satirical.
“Oh, my gods, this is gonna be great,” he informed her, shaking his head. “You have no idea. He has no idea. I won’t ruin it for you. I can’t see the look on your face, Alice, but I think I can extrapolate it…”
“Do you really need to wait for it to happen, or are you just going to enjoy it now?” she asked him.
He sniffed and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “You know, I’m not sure.”
That afternoon, Maggie spent a few hours trying, off and on, to convince her mother that she needed to be allowed back to the Slaughterhouse in order to review her lesson on optical magic. Preferably in the front row — or backstage! Ann could probably get her backstage! It was very hard to focus on the magic part of it when she didn’t know what was going to happen next, and all the murdering was kind of distracting. She absolutely needed to be in the splash zone, she’d be able to see the screen from there. Her mother did not have to come with her. She knew how to take buses! And taxis! Or possibly they could do something with a broomstick!
This was not successful and there was no repeat performance on behalf of Ann’s Woden’s Day and Thor’s Day shows.
Erik spent a few days trying to fix the bad unfair story with crayons. He did a little bit better with that. He made a couple attempts with toys, but those didn’t go as well. He didn’t have, like, a lot of toys. There was certainly money for toys, at least some money for them. When he asked for toys, he got toys, but Maggie didn’t have a whole lot of toys, and he felt weird asking for them. Like, maybe sophisticated cool people who were awesome should not require toys. Soup didn’t seem to have toys, either, so that was another point in favor of the theory. Mostly he picked out cheap small things that he could fidget with (and which he didn’t feel too bad if he lost or broke). He had a jointed wooden snake, a couple of horses and some cars, and a yo-yo. He had that elephant Maggie’s daddy brought him which was awesome but which he was embarrassed to be seen cuddling. (Maggie didn’t cuddle things. She had a spite dolly and she poked pins in it.) None of this was really suited for enacting human dramas. He did have the soldiers, but they looked a lot alike and he couldn’t decide which ones ought to be the murdered ladies.
So it had to be crayons, because you could have anything with crayons. He only did it when he was by himself, though, and he hid the drawings. He didn’t want people to think he was upset about it. They would start talking to him and tell him it was okay and Ann was okay, and he knew that, he just wanted to fix the story. And he didn’t think they would get that.
He redid a couple of the scenes so there wasn’t any murdering, especially with Ann, but he wasn’t as bothered by the murders as the ending. He did a lot of permutations of a happy ending, basically the same one, but he liked drawing it over. The ice pick man should definitely be friends with or married to the lady with pretty eyes (he had to make up what she looked like because he didn’t see that part). And there should be no creepy dolly and he should be okay with not having a mommy anymore, because he had someone else. Maybe he could have a regular doll, if he absolutely had to have one. And a box of turtles. Actual turtles, because Erik didn’t know what the candy looked like and a box of actual turtles would be pretty cool. And maybe two or three kids with the lady with the pretty eyes. The kids could play with the turtles. That was much better.
Hyacinth heard Ann on the roof giving Milo’s farewell concert at one o’clock on Thor’s Day morning. It was possible this was intentional, Ann seemed to be right over her head again, but she didn’t go up on the roof or make any other sign that she noticed it. Milo wouldn’t like that. Or, even if he might like it, he wasn’t ready for it.
He did (well, Ann with his voice did) ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van,’ of course, but the whole thing, ‘Love Me Do,’ ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,’ ‘Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,’ and ‘Mr. Blue Sky.’ (Mordecai would probably not have approved of this set list, Hyacinth thought. Maybe ‘Love Me Do,’ but she didn’t seem to hear a lot of early Beatles coming from Room 102. Even with the novelty of hearing Milo’s voice, she was not too in love with ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.’ Wasn’t that an ad campaign?) Ann brought the whole thing to a close with ‘My Melancholy Blues,’ that was how she closed every show. Milo’s voice accepted applause from the starry sky and the empty streets. Thank you! Thank you! My dearest friends! No, I’m afraid I really can’t do any more. I am so sorry. Goodnight! Goodnight, all of you! I love you!
The footsteps on the roof retreated.
Goodnight, Milo, Hyacinth thought. I hope it’s just goodnight. I’d like to see you do that with glasses on sometime, and a whole lot of people to stand up and cheer. But even if it’s just doing dishes in the kitchen, that’d be great.
She closed her eyes and snuggled down to sleep.