Milo’s watch did not have an alarm function. Not that he couldn’t have added one, or several, but such a thing would’ve scared the hell out of him and made getting to sleep in the first place a sadistic challenge. He didn’t need an alarm, anyway. He woke up easily, most mornings, and with little provocation. You could program you, if you really wanted, it just took a long time. He’d had, what, twenty-two years to work on waking up early and being as unobtrusive as possible?
He sketched a vague smile. (He did best at smiling when he didn’t notice it… and no one else did, either.) It was twenty-three, today. He was going to have to remember to fill out forms different.
He noted it was dark outside his small window, which was above eye level and not good for noting much else — like, trees or whatever — and he tapped the flat, glass mage light that was stuck to the wall above the bed. It used to be an ashtray. He made it work manually because a light coming on at full blast when some mouse-rustling woke you up at three in the AM was as sadistic as an alarm clock. You had to hit it three times to get it to the brightest setting, which was enough to pick out shoes from the dark closet across the way, then it cycled back to ‘off.’ His current pair of trousers, reasonably clean from yesterday, were hung on the bedpost. He dipped his hand in the right front pocket and found the watch. Sometimes there was not a watch and he had to make his best guess at how early it was and sometimes he ended up at the bus stop two hours too soon and exhausted by the time he got home. There had indeed been a run on metal in the household late last month, due to some unpleasantness in Ha’Penny Square, but he had replaced the watch since then. Four-fifty, that was late enough. He turned up the light.
There was a zigzag of clothesline at about shoulder height with a few things drip-drying — silk stockings in black and lavender, a corset and a gray shirt — a closet with wooden hangers and no door, a dresser with three drawers and a mirror with a painted frame.
He greeted Ann in the mirror before dressing: Happy Birthday, Ann. (Ann had really been born over a few months during the Siege of San Rosille, but they shared the birthday. She needed one, and they were the same age, anyway.)
She smiled at him. Happy Birthday, Milo.
When the kitchen lights came on (those were automatic) they revealed a small chocolate cupcake with pink frosting and sprinkles left on the kitchen table for him. There was a tiny candle stuck in the frosting, a book of paper matches and a note torn from the kitchen pad. In the faintest whisper of lowercase pencil, it informed him: happy birthday, milo.
The faint smile recurred. Hyacinth was being funny. She knew it bothered him that she always did everything in block letters, like she was screaming at people. WE NEED BREAD AND EGGS!! SOMEBODY GET US SOME CANNED HEAT!! HINGES!! She thought that was dumb of him, and it probably was, so this was her teasing.
change when you get home, i need ann for shopping, she added, beneath. He nodded to this and gently replaced the note, like she had left it. Then he lit his own candle in the empty kitchen, swayed back and forth to some music he couldn’t hum, and blew it out.
He had his cupcake and some coffee and he did dishes before he went to work.
When he came home at three, the place was empty, not even Erik playing around on the stairs. He was glad he didn’t have to deal with people, but a bit melancholy. He did… he did like his friends. And they did seem to like him, most of the time. It was just that all that people stuff, the smiling and the communicating and the eyes, was exhausting. He liked be be alone for a little and recharge when he got home, or change, but he sort of wanted there to be people eventually. For Ann if not for him. It was their birthday, and she liked all that birthday stuff. (The cupcake and the candle and no one at work knowing he even had a birthday or talking to him was about all the birthday Milo felt he needed himself.)
Ann would have to hunt Hyacinth up somewhere, for shopping, unless there was a list in the kitchen. She only had a couple hours before her show tonight.
From the closet upstairs, Milo selected the orange lace dress, and pink boots with heels and buttons that also had lace. The orange was a blush coral shade, it did well with pink. The lavender stockings were dry and they would go nicely, too.
Ann laughed at him in the mirror. Milo! I’ll look like a birthday cake!
Good, thought Milo. Given the birthday, he thought Ann ought to have the tiara, as well. It was only cut glass and tin, but it had all the colors when the light hit it the right way and it was bright enough for wishing on.
I wish I could have a tiara, Milo thought. But he shook his head. People would look at him. A lot of them would yell. He didn’t like any of that. He wouldn’t really be happy in a tiara. Ann could, though.
He got changed.
Ann swept into the kitchen, attired in bright pastels, with her hair twisted and pinned back to go with the tiara and a basket over her arm, in search of Hyacinth or a list. She just had time to get her mouth open before the entire household preempted her: “SURPRISE!” There were twisted streamers, tinsel, a banner with cut paper letters, and a white-frosted cake in the casserole, with twenty-three candles. (Milo already had one, that was to grow on, Erik and Maggie had decided.)
She screamed and then laughed. “Oh! All my friends! Sam!” she added, with almost as much surprise as the initial screaming. She took both his hands (he probably could have enveloped her entire head in one, even if she did about match his height as she was) then embraced him. “What in the world are you doing here? Wherever did they hide you, dear?”
“A hatbox,” he replied, grinning.
Ann frowned and touched a hand over her mouth. She glanced aside at the General, who was present but did not seem to have gone in on the ‘surprise’ part. “You know, I wouldn’t put it past her…”
“I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Rose to attempt shrinking a human being to hat size,” the General replied. “I expect he would be very unhappy with the results.”
I don’t think he’d mind much if it were you, Ann thought, but did not say. Sam was fond of his wife… the gods alone knew why.
Sanaam picked her up by the shoulders and set her back from him. “How are you, Ann? I was worried about you. Maggie told me you got stabbed with an ice pick.”
Ann shook her head, “It was a play, Sam.”
“I know, but she gave me a couple of minutes to work that out for myself.”
Maggie giggled. “Daddy makes funny faces when he thinks everything went straight to hell while he was gone.”
“…Daddy makes funny faces when he thinks everything went sideways in the politest of terms while he was gone,” Magnificent amended, demurely folding her gloved hands before her.
“The sarcasm is not unexpected,” the General said, “but sincerity would be equally appreciated on occasion.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to try that sometime,” Maggie replied, as if contemplating artichoke ice cream. She smiled at her father. “I learned a lot about optical magic and Erik got good and traumatized, too.”
Erik cut a hand in the air to interrupt. His hand worked better then whatever part of him put words together, at least when he was ticked off. “…Hey!” he managed, an instant later. That did not make him feel terribly clever or incisive and he sighed.
“I think you handled it very well, dear one,” Mordecai said. “Almost as well as the radio.” He leaned in and informed Sanaam, “I’ve seen real people really die, and I about wanted to throw up. They made it look like her eyeball fell out.”
“The man with the daisy bathrobe pulled off all her hair for the scary doll,” Erik said. “I got a cigarette and my uncle made turtles later. They have chocolate and pecans. The pecans look like feet.”
“You really must let Milo show you the radio later, Sam,” Ann said. “He’s ever so proud of it. Practically no metal, and it replays things!”
Hyacinth broke in, “Hey, can we hold off on the exposition? Ann’s cake is melting!” She lifted the casserole. “You keep it up and we’re not gonna have time for an abbreviated chorus of ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van!'”
The words were poorly chosen. There was no way Ann was not going to do ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’ for her dear friend Sanaam after that. She stood on a chair and improvised both birdcage (the shopping basket) and enormous hat (a colander — the tiara had to stay where it was, it had combs). After the first chorus, with the candles down to little smoking craters in the cake and becoming fire hazard, Mordecai saw fit to embarrass himself by adding the codicil, in full voice, “Aaand… I’m glad it’s your birthday! Happy birthday to you!” He urgently offered the cake.
Ann leaned down with a smile and blew out her candles. The height of the chair gave an assist to the ‘smoking craters’ problem and Milo offered another with magic. Ann needed her wish, whatever it was.
It was the same every year, and continually, I want Milo to be happy. She made no effort to conceal that that was what she wanted for him, but he didn’t know she was wasting birthday wishes on it, too. Those were supposed to be for you. (He’d wished for pretty shoes… and no one to talk to him at work.) If he had caught her in it and protested, she would have replied, It is for me.
There was cake with melted wax garnish, and coffee (Maggie preferred just milk) and presents. Erik and Maggie had gone in together on a balsa wood dinosaur model for Milo. (Milo was experiencing his dinosaur phase late in life, and he was more concerned with putting them together properly than making toy ones eat each other. He did still have an appreciation for learning all the names, even if he couldn’t say them.) Sanaam had done a little bit better with money this trip and had come up with a jeweled hatpin (and a similar one for his wife).
Ann admired it. “Oh, Sam. It’s lovely. And sharp!”
“Why a hatpin for Ann?” Erik asked. Ann didn’t wear hats. (The General also didn’t wear hats but that was the joke.)
“Self-defense, Erik, dear,” Ann said. She measured its length between her hands — about eight inches long, which was quite a good size for her purse. “I don’t bother much about hats anymore but I did get rather used to the pins… and sometimes it can be just a bit difficult for a girl to get home late at night.”
Erik flashed a sudden image of Ann employing a hatpin against a man stinking of sweat and liquor who had grabbed her by the arm. She was a lot younger. She had short hair and a big hat to hide it. The pin was only six inches long, but it went into his shoulder all the way up to the hilt. Erik winced and rubbed his upper arm. You know, you guys don’t have to answer me every time I wonder something. I could just ask questions and have regular people who don’t like to scare me tell me stuff.
There was no apparent reply.
Ann, oblivious as usual, was expounding over how thoughtful everyone was. “How did you manage it all? How did you know?”
“Barnaby,” said Hyacinth. “He’s usually pretty good about figuring when Sanaam’s going to get home, sometimes it takes him more than one plate, is all.”
“Barnaby?” Ann said. “But, Cin, dear, he said the third.” She gestured to the calendar, twelve months on a piece of pasteboard in tiny printing beneath a picture of kittens in a basket. The picture still moved, the kittens tussled and jumped in and out of the basket, but it would probably freeze around July or so, given the cheapness of the print. June 3rd was circled in red, as was March 13th.
“Ann, dear,” Hyacinth replied, grinning, “we just circled the third. It’s not like there’s a law. Barnaby said the twenty-fourth, and he thought a surprise would be fun. He likes parties… Well, I guess he remembers liking parties. He even figured out Milo wouldn’t have a shift the day after, so we made big plans with Sanaam before he took off.”
“Oh, the dear man! I never knew he cared!” Ann said. She glanced around. “Where is he?” She wasn’t in a habit of looking for Barnaby… or missing him. She felt a bit bad about that. It wasn’t his fault he was crazy, and she didn’t get scared of him like Milo did.
Hyacinth’s grin widened. She rubbed her palms together. She looked like a happy shark in a cheap wig. “He’s upstairs, regretting he ever opened his mouth. Mordecai and me hit up the Slaughterhouse and the Black Orchid to invite all your friends for the party, but they wouldn’t fit in the kitchen. They wouldn’t fit in the house, and they all wanted to celebrate. They’re at the club, and we’re all going to go with you and fool around with them and drink champagne all night! But Barnaby can’t go, and someone’s got to look after the kids and Room 101.”
“It wouldn’t have been my first choice,” Mordecai said, frowning. He had made an urgent days-long argument for inviting Ted and Maria and Bethany over. Or even staying home himself and breaking Ann’s heart.
“Nor mine,” said the General. Not that she minded abandoning her child at home with a madman (Magnificent could look after herself) but the part where she had been press-ganged into an evening spent at a club was irritating. Her husband had been insufferably smug about it.
“I had to promise Barnaby we’d leave him all the rest of the cake to get him to quit screaming at me,” Hyacinth said. She snickered. “Let’s finish it, you guys.”
Ann would not allow anyone to have any more cake. When Barnaby came down at the last possible moment and insulted her, she laughed and hugged him and thanked him for the party, and for looking after the kids so Em could come.
“I predict nothing but misery for you and him,” Barnaby said. “Interspersed with short periods of happiness just to sharpen the misery up. You will pray for the sweet release of death!”
“Ye-es… I wouldn’t worry about waiting up for us, dear. We may be a bit late.”
“Erik, if anything happens…” Mordecai winced. Quite a few things were liable to happen. “I mean, if it gets out of hand and you can’t handle it…” He couldn’t send Erik to a pay phone, or Ted and Maria’s place, or even Seth under the bridge. All of those things were at least two blocks away in Strawberryfield in the dark. He was also not going to advise Erik to have anything to do with the police. “Just… just hole up with Maggie somewhere and wait for us to get home. Maggie won’t let anything hurt you. I’ll try not to be long.”
Erik frowned and scolded him, “Stay and watch Ann sing and have fun.”
I might manage the first two, Mordecai thought. Fun while Erik was trapped at home with Barnaby would require more than champagne, or hard liquor, or even needle drugs. He would need some kind of targeted retrograde amnesia. He put on his best smile for Erik, though. “I’ll try, dear one.”
Hyacinth admonished Barnaby with her index finger raised, “No leaving the house. No movies or shows. No dessert cart at the Swan. I have spent most of my natural life getting between you and the police and I am sick of it. If you stay in the house, at least you won’t get arrested.”
Barnaby reached out and companionably shook her hand. “I intend to devote the rest of my natural life to arranging matters such that you are coated in crushed peanuts and nibbled to death by squirrels. Hopefully while I am still here to witness it in person.”
“Chase your dreams, Barnaby,” Hyacinth said.
As soon as all the responsible adults had departed for the bus, Barnaby dropped his sour expression and adopted a grin. He clapped his blue-veined hands and rubbed them together. “All right, children. Accompany me to the attic. I have boxes for this!”
“Oh, boy,” Erik said, weakly. He wasn’t worried about Barnaby hurting him, or anything, not really. Barnaby got loud, but he never did things like that, and Maggie was there and she could do magic, so it wasn’t about the danger. It was that Barnaby might be capable of doing something harmless but so weird and upsetting that Uncle Mordecai would collapse in a guilt-ridden puddle when he got home and never go outside ever again. Uncle Mordecai really needed to do stuff. Fun stuff. And quit worrying all the time. Going to Ann’s club to watch her sing and be with people and laugh a lot was good…
It was just that circumstances at home were not optimally arranged for not-worrying.
“Oh, boy!” Maggie said, happily. She wasn’t worried about Barnaby hurting things, either, and she had no care for the weird or upsetting. Hyacinth might yell, but Hyacinth yelled a lot, especially at Barnaby. Maggie was way past being scared or bothered about that. If she hadn’t got past that in the first couple weeks after Barnaby moved in, she wouldn’t have been able to sleep.
Mom can’t blame me for whatever happens. We’re supposed to humor him. He’s nuts!
This was great, like a dark ride at the carnival. She wasn’t even annoyed about not getting to see Ann sing at the club.
Barnaby’s attic was cavernous, lit by only a single, amber mage light stuck to the highest part of the roof. There was a supplementary light above the desk for close work involving pencils and blades. The room spanned the width of the house, but the peaked roof left a space of about fourteen feet square with space to stand up. Barnaby’s cardboard boxes, stacked papers and magazine holders had reduced this to maybe ten by ten. Collapsing passages wound through the piles and theoretically made everything accessible, but some of them hadn’t been used in years. The bed was a mattress on a rickety wooden frame with a green and orange plaid blanket pushed up against one of the triangular walls. It was covered in pillows of various sizes, some with embroidery or homey little sayings on them. The walls themselves, both of them, were covered in overlapping layers of paper, mainly newspaper clippings and pages torn from notebooks. There was a desk with three drawers and a creaking, wooden chair pushed up against a third makeshift wall of cardboard boxes. These had also been decorated with papers. A small round window occupied the topmost corner of each wall, which served little purpose but to show whether it was dark or light outside. (Dark, at the moment.)
There was a constant nervous rustling of things settling and nesting mice.
Barnaby traversed one of the narrow passageways, this required that he get down on his hands and knees for the last bit, and pulled out five file boxes, stuffed to the point where their lids would not fit on. He gave one of these to Magnificent. It was labeled, as were the others For the Earliest Possible Opportunity!
“Put magic on the rest of them, dear girl,” he replied to her puzzled expression. “Erik, take your hand off that and leave it exactly as it is.”
Erik removed his hand from an hourglass that had somehow been stopped at one quarter of the way empty. He stuffed both hands in his pockets with a sheepish expression.
“I believe that is about where we are in the timeline, but I may be mistaken,” Barnaby muttered. “Some words have yet to be written. Is it the magic storm yet?”
“Um… No?” Erik managed.
“That’s a long one,” Barnaby said. “At least two months. Many revelations will be had. All right, children!” He nodded to the levitating boxes. “Let us begin from the top down. My room is immaculate, and the cupola is without wallpaper, so we will start with Room 204. Widdershins, of course. This is that sort of house.”
“Widdershins is advisable for destructive applications,” Maggie piped up.
“Just so,” said Barnaby.
Room 204 was long and narrow. A large clear space remained where the staircase to the cupola pulled down, all else was stacked to waist height and above with boxes, most of them sagging and open, some of them spilling their contents.
“This is impassible,” Barnaby said in the doorway. He turned and glared at Erik. “How do you live this way?”
“I, um… I… no,” Erik said. It was particularly difficult to put words together and cope with Barnaby at the same time. Barnaby scared him and didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and he had a tendency to run over Erik and ignore him, too. And some invisible person had also just told him something about how this room was like a game he’d never heard of before. (At least, he didn’t think…?) Helplessly, he pointed through the railing towards Room 102.
“Erik and his uncle live in 102,” Maggie said for him.
“Still?” said Barnaby, to which Erik managed a nod. “Aren’t you up on the roof playing novelty music at all hours yet?”
Erik shook his head.
“…I could’ve sworn I heard you up there doing ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ at one o’clock in the AM,” Barnaby muttered. “Maybe I just saw it. All right, then. Time is short and we must prioritize. We’ll come back to it.” He shut the door on the dusty, box-filled disaster area and opened the one on Hyacinth’s simple accommodations.
“Maggie, is there a game called ‘Tetris?'” Erik asked her in a low voice.
Maggie shook her head, “Uh-uh.”
“Yeah.” He guessed it had to be like an arcade game, but it was too complicated even for that. There were a lot of moving parts, and it played music. An ‘I-block’ probably would go a long way towards clearing out Room 204, though.
Hyacinth had a bed and a dresser. The closet came attached. This was all she felt she required, given that the bathrooms still had mirrors. The bed had a wooden frame which elevated it enough to make it a comfortable seat, if she should require such. A rug seemed silly for the floorboards, they didn’t get that cold, and she could always put on some socks. The top of the dresser had some stockings and underwear piled on it that had not migrated to any of the drawers yet. There was also a pile of dirty clothing in the corner. There were no shoes on the floor of the closet, given that a single pair was adequate to her purposes. The bed had two pillows and a patchwork quilt, no stuffed animals or cuteness or concession to humanity. Hyacinth did not collect or decorate. The walls were also free of embellishment. Barnaby intended to remedy this.
“All right, Magnificent, land the boxes. I believe I have a folder or two in here of design choices that should annoy her.” He removed one of the lids and leafed through the contents, some of which were indeed in folders. There were a lot more random pieces just loosely stacked in there, though. His sanity and the associated ability to organize faded in and out like a distant radio station. “Do you know how to soft-stick things?” he asked the girl.
“Yes, sir,” Maggie said.
“Do you know how to do anything?” Barnaby asked Erik, eyes narrowed.
Erik frowned and ducked his head aside. “Sweetened salt,” he said.
“I think I have a glue stick,” Maggie said.
“No, no,” said Barnaby. “The ability to alter the additions must be preserved at all costs. You children have no idea what you’re saying. Hard-sticking and conventional adhesives are zapreshcheno. You may sort things, little boy,” Barnaby offered Erik with a condescending smile. He picked up a box and thumped it down in front of Erik. “Look for anything marked ‘Hyacinth.’ Or ‘Alice.'” He frowned. “Or any phrases vaguely associated. ‘Looking Glass,’ ‘Jasmine,’ ‘Thermometer,’ ‘Durant….’ Perhaps you had just better read off every label. You are reading now, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Erik said, a bit defensively.
“Excellent. What’s that one on the top, there?”
“‘Eagle,'” Erik said.
“No, that’s 203,” Barnaby said. He pasted an article concerning home remedies to the wall, covering a good number of stripes. (Seven. That was a good number.)
“This is 203,” Maggie said. Given that the course of action was now clear, she stuck an ad with an arrangement of flowers on it that she found pleasing to the wall.
“What?” Barnaby wandered out and examined the faint imprint of numbers in the paint on the doors. “203 has zero significance for Hyacinth. Your family is sometimes two, and sometimes three,” he told Magnificent. “You should be in 203.”
“It’s smaller,” Maggie said, frowning.
“202 is much more sensible,” he went on. “I am willing to be counted as family for the purpose of room numbers. Though, I believe 101 would be more appropriate altogether. Erik, if you should happen to find a numeral two or one in there, I desire to be informed immediately.”
“This one says ‘Recipes,'” Erik replied, holding up a file.
“No, that’s either 102 or the kitchen. I haven’t decided yet. It is pointless putting recipes anywhere near Hyacinth.” He considered Magnificent’s rudimentary effort and rearranged a couple pieces of it. “I seriously doubt our Alice is going to engage in a long term relationship with any man. Let alone two. Do I have anything blue…?”
“‘Teddy bears,'” Erik announced.
Barnaby grinned. “Yes,” he said.
With three people and occasional obsessive rearrangement, Hyacinth’s room took about an hour to repaper. According to Barnaby’s whim, some places in the wallpaper were left bare and some pieces of the bedding and furniture had been covered, also the clothes and the closet. Erik had brought crayons into the matter, and while coloring the walls themselves was ‘zapreshcheno,’ coloring the paper additions was allowed. Barnaby had specifically requested a dark blue woman. He had also relabeled Hyacinth’s door, in letters he had Erik snip out, T-E-D-D-Y B-E-A-R S-A-N-C-T-U-A-R-Y. Although it was a bit difficult to pick out the bear theme among the general chaos.
This project had proved to be both a warm-up and an icebreaker, and the three of them were smiling and satisfied with it. Erik and Maggie were pleased that it had been accomplished with a minimum of shouting, and they both thought the room looked great, or at least interesting. Hyacinth tended to have a pretty good sense of humor about this kind of thing, too. Good clean wholesome destructive fun.
Working counter-clockwise, Room 202 was next on the agenda, and Barnaby did not allow the General’s reputation to delay him in the slightest from opening the door.
Inside, there were two rigid chairs made of hard wood with straight backs, two thin and not terribly decadent mattresses, the larger one on a low wooden frame, a desk pushed up against the wall opposite the closet and a lot of bookshelves. Likewise, a lot of books. Dust, dimness and claustrophobia abounded. The single release valve was the square kludged window that opened, to allow exit into the skies in bird form. There were no rugs. In a tightly-sealed garment bag in the doorless closet, the General’s military uniform was breathing softly. Green and blue dresses in stiff dark fabrics surrounded it like non-commissioned officers. The hat, with its fantastic feathers, was sleeping in a hatbox on a shelf. The dresser was small, and inadequate. Maggie’s things had been relegated to the hall wardrobe. Her father’s things, the clothing at least, stayed in the trunk that traveled with him. It had been left near the door, like an afterthought. There were a few indications of occasional male occupation. A straight razor. An amber bottle of aftershave. A couple of contraceptive charms in a drawer. Maggie’s spite doll was lying on top of the dresser, looking miserable. It was bristling with pins.
Maggie and Erik had wildly disparate reactions to Room 202. Maggie saw her home, where she was comfortable, but also a stuffy old prison that she continually desired to escape. Erik saw one of those foreboding evil castles from the black and white monster movies. All that was missing was some lightning and scared horses. Here were the tomes of forbidden knowledge. There was the operating table where Maggie’s mom did impromptu surgeries on murdered mice. Outside of the window was pigeon-killing territory. Entrails. Blood. Death. Horror. The two chairs with brutally straight backs which sat facing each other in front of the desk? The torture chamber.
That’s where it sleeps, Erik thought, regarding the larger bed.
Barnaby merely saw a roomful of flat surfaces crying out for embellishment. And a few future predictions and past stories scattered about, not all of them having anything to do with the occupants of the room — chicken soup for dinner tomorrow, for instance — but he saw that sort of thing everywhere. He grinned. Ah, like a fresh newspaper, waiting for me to cut it up.
Maggie grinned also. Hell, yeah. Let’s liven this place up a bit.
Erik winced. Oh, man, she’s gonna kill us…
Barnaby approached the contents of the dresser, folder in hand. “What would you two adorable moppets like for dinner tomorrow?”
Erik could not even manage an, ‘um,’ before Maggie came out with, “Chocolate eclairs!”
“That is an ill-omened pastry,” Barnaby disdained. “I will not have them in the house.” He leafed through the folder. A large picture of a soaring tower suggested itself. “What do you think of a croquembouche?”
“I have no idea what that is,” Maggie said. Erik shrugged and nodded.
Barnaby decisively pasted the tower to the top of the dresser and removed the freakish little doll with the pins. (Not that it interfered at all with the croquembouche, it was just disturbing. It reminded him of David.) “You poor little waifs have never seen a dessert cart in your lives, have you? Oh. I suppose you have, just now, Erik.”
“A… whole… cart?” Erik managed. It wasn’t the cart like where Maggie got lunches, with the umbrella and the sandwiches and an ice chest with sodas. It was shiny, with two tiers, and indoors, with a fancy guy in a tailcoat pushing it around. It was full up of nothing but sweet things, resting on delicate plates and lacy doilies. Not cookies or brownies or pie. Complicated sweet things with mounds and layers. “What… what’s the… wiggly… square with… coffee?”
Barnaby frowned at him. He considered Erik’s hair and clothing, and then had a look ’round the room for an assist. He found it in a tilted paperback about magical notation with a brown cover. “Ah! A tiramisu! Yes. Ladyfingers soaked in coffee and layered with marscapone and heavy cream. Lovely.”
“Think we can get one of those?” Maggie asked. Erik nodded frantically. He sort of knew what it tasted like, but he’d like one for real.
“We shall see if we can put one together,” Barnaby told them with an indulgent smile.
Over the next hour and a half, while the rest of the household indulged in champagne and white cake and met a very flexible young man who knew how to twirl flaming batons, Room 202 became an esoteric metaphorical plea to the heavens for more fancy desserts. Giddy with the possibilities (even if it probably wouldn’t happen) and frighteningly susceptible to peer pressure, Erik even went so far as to assist Maggie and Barnaby with stacking the mattresses and frosting them with Sanaam’s shaving cream.
“Awesome,” Maggie opined of the final result. Without context, the place looked like it had been hit by a tornado, and a lot of newspaper and glue. According to Barnaby, it was a pink fluffy fantasy land full of strawberries and cream.
“Come along,” Barnaby said, smoothing back his hair. Even that had newsprint in it. “We are not even halfway done!”
Maggie’s smile of accomplishment faded. “…Less awesome,” she said. She was starting to get tired. Not that she wanted to go to bed (if that were even possible at this point) but a break to sit down and drink a cup of hot chocolate and listen to the radio would be nice. Total destruction was draining in and of itself, and Barnaby required that every instance of chaos be pleasingly arranged.
Erik tugged on the threadbare sleeve of Barnaby’s robe. “Aren’t you tired?”
“Exhaustion is irrelevant!” Barnaby cried. He was, of course. Exhausted. Two and a half hours of engagement with the intricate implications of newspaper clippings and object placement had left his third eye feeling like a peeled egg. Thus, when he pushed open the door of Room 201 and met with the unexpected, he displayed as much decorum as a weeping toddler who has just been informed that he may not have ‘just one more pretzel.’ “WHAT? Where the hell are the flowers?”
Maggie glanced at Erik. Erik shook his head. Nope, no forthcoming mysterious information on the subject of flowers in Milo and Ann’s room.
“I was fond of those flowers!” Barnaby said, with evident anguish. He turned to the children. “Has Alice removed them? Is she that joyless?” And before they could make any attempt at an answer, “Erik! Find me an ad for fertilizer immediately, if not sooner!”And, without a pause for breath, “These dresses are wrong!” He vanished into the closet. An instant later, a yellow dress was flung out.
Maggie ran over and collected it with a concerned expression. “Erik, this isn’t good, Ann’s dresses are expensive…”
Ann’s dresses were from thrift stores but, compared to the rest of the clothing in the house, yes, they were expensive. Hyacinth and the General both ordered their dresses in bulk from catalogs, information they had never bothered to share with each other.
“These shoes aren’t even in pairs!” Barnaby howled. The green silk dress was balled up and pitched out of the closet shortly thereafter.
Maggie picked that one up, too. “Erik, hide the scissors,” she said in a low voice.
That got Erik a couple flashes of memory. A pad of unlined paper with curly script unspooled from a fountain pen: One Scissors — David Valentine 14-3-45, 3pm. And Milo curled up under the worktable in the basement with his hair hanging down. He shut his eye and shook them away. Not helpful, you guys. He took the scissors out of the open file box and stuffed them carefully into his pants pocket, point down. “Maggie, can you… stop him?” he asked. “Magic?”
“What magic?” Maggie replied. A mauve boot with a two inch heel exited the closet at all speed and impacted the opposite wall with a thud. It landed on the bed and Maggie collected it. “I mean, yeah, I could kill him… I could incapacitate him, but I’m not real in love with the idea of the magical equivalent of hitting an old guy over the head with a sock full of dismes. I don’t have a spell that makes people reexamine their lives and quit acting all crazy.” The second mauve boot was thrown at the wall and Maggie had to duck to avoid it. “You got any ideas?”
“Glue… him down?” Erik offered. He flinched. No, not in Milo’s room. That’s…
“Bad idea,” Maggie said. “He’ll yell the whole time. And, I mean, I’m guessing he’ll probably have to go to the bathroom at some point, what would we do about that?”
“…Doctor… bag?” Erik said.
“You know how to use any of that stuff?” Maggie said. She looked at him. “Seriously, do you?” Erik was always picking up random information, and sometimes when he wondered about things, he got answers.
“I can try,” Erik said.
“Ask them what Hyacinth does to get him to quit,” Maggie said. “He always calms down for her. I mean, sometimes it takes awhile, but…”
“Okay,” Erik said. He shut his eye. The metal one that he couldn’t close was left to its own devices and decided to have a look at the wallpaper, overlaying Erik’s darkened vision with a repeating pattern of lines.
I am kinda unhappy with that wallpaper, too, Barnaby, Erik thought. There was a thud, presumably another shoe, which he hoped Maggie had likewise been able to dodge.
But the banging noise Hyacinth had heard had been metal against metal…
She assumed roadwork, which was common since the siege. The entire city needed repair and was getting it piecemeal, the nicer neighborhoods first. When she looked out and saw a man with ragged white hair and a dusty soldier’s coat employing a hammer against a stop sign, she leaned forward and yanked on the cord over the bus window as if she desired to disconnect it and run off with it. “Stop it right here!” This was in the middle of the street and there was no stop, but she managed to get the driver to improvise one. She tore down the stairs and through the traffic, with very little regard for her own personal safety… or anyone else’s.
He had already attracted quite a crowd, but no police. She elbowed some of them aside. “Barnaby, what in the hell are you doing?” As if she’d just got up in the middle of the night and found him wandering around in search of mice to kill again. Not as if she’d come home to find the house sold and seen no sign of him for nearly a decade.
“This sign is badly dented!” he cried. “It is a public hazard! Go and leave me in peace! SHUT UP!” This last was directed at the stop sign, which he gave another good whack with the hammer, causing it to become partially unfastened and hang sideways. He shrieked at it in frustration. “What is the matter with you people?” He pointed the hammer around at the crowd. “How can you stand there gawking when lives are at stake? The state of this city is abysmal! The next war will kill millions! Why doesn’t anybody do anything about that park bench? WHY IS EVERYTHING MY RESPONSIBILITY?”
“Barnaby, give me the hammer,” she said. Again, this was very similar to when she found him wandering around the house, except in those cases it was usually a knife. He was usually a bit better behaved, too. In this case, he resisted her and spat in her face. He was bruised and dirty and it looked like he hadn’t had any sleep in about a year. His eyes were vacant of recognition.
“Lady, do you want the cops?” an unwelcome voice intruded. She waved a hand at it. “No, I do not want the goddamned cops! Barnaby, give me the hammer!”
He snarled at her and raised it, “Oh, if you don’t leave me alone, I will give it to you!”
She didn’t think he’d hurt her, that never even crossed her mind. What she was worried about was that if it looked like he was going to hurt her, avoiding the police would no longer be an option. He was in no condition to be locked in a cell, and apparently devoid of bribe money. She did David for him. Not the full on treatment with the hair and the screaming, just the inflection. She did David very well.
“Gray, will you stop acting a tit!“
He blinked at her and stared as if she’d slapped him instead. “How… how dare you!”
“I have zero impulse control and you damn well know it,” she replied. “Give me the hammer or I’ll get the help to short-sheet your bed again!”
“Alice, where in the hell have you been?” he demanded at a shriek.
“Riding in fast cars with cute boys!” she cried. She might’ve been laughing, she wasn’t sure. “Give me the goddamn hammer and come back to bed!”
He looked right through her with fever mad eyes and he said: “Damn it, Erik, if you’re going to bang into my past like that can I at least get an ‘excuse me?’“
Erik cried out and sat down, with both hands clapped over his eyes. No words. Words were very fickle with Erik, especially when people in memories he shouldn’t have noticed him watching and called him by name.
The cry was enough to get Barnaby out of the closet. He was vaguely aware that he was supposed to be watching the children, and if one of them injured itself there would be hell to pay with Hyacinth. Perhaps I should have given them safety scissors… Do those exist yet?
Erik scrabbled back from him, wide-eyed. The metal one rolled up and showed him the darkness of the socket behind it before straightening itself out and refocusing, with the lens racked to its widest setting. “You…” he managed thickly. “You’re…”
“Preternatural?” Barnaby offered with an eager smile. He squared his shoulders and smoothed back his hair. “Terrifying? Mystical? Yes?”
Erik nodded. He had to touch his hand to the front of his trousers to make certain he hadn’t peed himself. He had no hope of explaining what had just happened. He didn’t know what had just happened!
“Yes, yes,” Barnaby said. He straightened his bathrobe in Ann and Milo’s mirror and ran his thumbs under the folded edging as if pulling out the lapels of his jacket. He addressed the two terrified children behind his reflection without turning. (Maggie mouthed, What was it?, thinking she was unseen. Erik shook his head.) “For your edification, I allow Hyacinth to boss me around because of our shared history and because I happen to respect her. You two have no hope of controlling me in such a manner, at all.”
“Okay,” Maggie said. Erik just nodded.
Barnaby retrieved Milo’s shoes from the closet, Milo’s only shoes, and walked off with them — without another word. Maggie ran after him, “Mr. Graham, what are you going to do with those?”
“I am going to arrange them more pleasingly,” he said. This half-truth held up long enough for him to walk out the back door and chuck Milo’s shoes into the darkened alley as hard as he could throw them.
“Shit!” said Maggie.
“…no!” Erik put in, much too late.
Maggie ran into the alley, Erik stood on the back steps wringing his hands around the banister, and Barnaby returned to the house to do the gods alone knew what.
“Maggie?” Erik said.
“I don’t know!” She wandered a vague circle, peering into the darkness. “I can’t see! I didn’t see where they went!”
“Magic?” Erik asked, but not with much hope.
She shook her head. A light wasn’t any good, those shoes had flown a mile and there was trash everywhere. Weakly, she attempted a summoning spell, but those worked best for things you could see. Otherwise, the specifications needed were ludicrously complicated and you ran the risk of smacking yourself in the head with a random object. “Here… Here Milo’s shoes… Here…”
Here Milo’s specifically black with laces and maybe leather or imitation leather shoes!
No, that wasn’t going to do it, and if she tried a stronger spell she was afraid she might get Ann’s shoes from the closet upstairs.
There was a crash and the clatter of splintering wood from inside the house. “Oh, gods,” Erik said.
Barnaby was standing in front of the door to Room 101 and holding the remains of a chair. The doorknob had resisted the assault frustratingly well. “Children, in the name of the hideous wallpaper, we are going to solve this mystery once and for all! Listen up in there!” he warned the stubborn door. “If you don’t open up, Magnificent D’Iver and I are coming in after you!”
They were in Room 102 and surrounded by file boxes. No one was in the least bit upset by the apparent suddenness with which this had occurred. Everyone was also inexplicably calm about the recent disaster of Milo’s shoes, as if it had happened hours ago.
Room 102 was a rare animal. There was no evident insanity and some attempt at comfort and decoration had been made. An oriental rug covered the floorboards in the middle of the room. A few of Erik’s drawings had been hard-stuck to the walls (with assistance from Maggie and Milo), as well as a framed lithograph of a pastoral scene and an old movie poster — The Highwayman! This last one was near the head of Erik’s bed. Beside the closet, which was doorless like every other closet in the house, there was a mirror, which was slightly too low for Mordecai and slightly too high for Erik. There was a console table beneath the large window that was covered in sheet music, and beneath that was the closed and latched violin case — Please Don’t Shoot the Violinist, He is Doing his Best, a sticker advised. Erik and Mordecai’s beds were flat on the floor, to either side, with the heads against the wall with the window. After the occasional heart-attack-inducing brick in the middle of the night, this arrangement was considered the safest. In his toddlerhood, Erik’s bed had been under the table altogether. Milo had since done something to the bedroom windows to make them a bit safer, but he had only become available as a resource a few years ago.
Mordecai’s bed was heaped with blankets. There was a box of tissues and a wastebasket beside it, for the nighttime muffling of coughs, and occasional tears, both of which Erik was quite used to (but they still worried him). Beside Erik’s bed was a scattering of small toys, and one large red and gold elephant.
There were no lamps. Mordecai experienced difficulty getting mage lights to work without switches, and the kind with switches quickly got cannibalized for the metal. The automatic sort were too irritating for use in bedrooms. The window provided ample light in the day, and enough overspill to allow for navigation at night, even with the curtains closed.
“Magnificent,” said Barnaby, “please provide us with some more illumination.” He appeared considerably refreshed, and willing to tackle the problem of more wallpaper with new vigor.
Magnificent frowned and attempted a foxfire. These were unstable and never lasted long, but she supposed she could always do another one if necessary. It faded into existence between her hands in the same bluish-purple hue as raw magic, and then stabilized to cool white. After a moment’s consideration, she anchored it to the ceiling. It floated away from her spread hands like a fairy.
Erik was suitably amazed and Barnaby could care less.
“All right, Erik,” he said. “Where is your cigar box? I have some additions.”
Erik shook his head. “Cigarettes,” he said. He didn’t have any of those, either, but it was hard and probably useless trying to explain stuff to Barnaby.
“No, no, no,” said Barnaby. “The one with your memories in it. ‘Just in case.’ It’s not on the dresser.”
“There’s not a dresser,” Maggie said. Socks, underwear and other small clothing items were in a basket in the closet, next to a similar basket for dirty clothes.
Barnaby surveyed the room with an irritated expression. “Oh, for gods’ sakes… What year is it?” He lifted a hand, forestalling a response. “No. That is pointless. I can never get it from the year. I have to go by plot point. Do you still have all your soldiers?”
Erik nodded. “Um… Uh-huh.”
“What about the watch?”
“Uh-uh.” Hyacinth had taken it and used it just last month, handily settling the question of whether he was going to keep toting it around and being embarrassed by it.
“You saved the face of it, didn’t you?” Barnaby asked. “I thought that was so wistfully poignant!”
“Um… Yeah,” Erik said. He looked down and away. Nobody else knew about that. He’d tucked it in the case with his soldiers, under the lining. He couldn’t carry it around, it was just cardboard and the pencil would get smudged.
“In the case with the soldiers?” Barnaby muttered, one brow raised. He examined the newspaper photo of the little girl who had been thrown through the plate glass window, which would have resulted in screaming hysteria from Erik had he seen it. No, there isn’t room. He would have to fold it.
Barnaby did not approve of folding, spindling or mutilating… subject to his own discretion.
“Oh, well. I suppose I will hang on to these a while longer.” He shrugged and sorted them to the back of the folder. “Let’s have the recipes. I believe they are more badly needed in here than in the kitchen. The kitchen wallpaper is tacky, but endurable.”
“Do you have any desserts in there?” Erik asked. Such was his affection for desserts that this was the most articulate sentence he had spoken in Barnaby’s presence since his injury, perhaps ever.
“Dozens!” Barnaby declared, fanning the clippings.
Erik nodded reluctant assent. Without further comment, he collected his uncle’s violin case and removed it to the downstairs bathroom, where the wallpaper was different and it would be left alone. He guessed there wasn’t anything else fragile in the bedroom, but if Barnaby went after his Highwayman poster, there was gonna be a fight.
He noted and in the same instant forgot that the doorknob of Room 101 had been melted and broken.
All the way from the bathroom, Erik heard an indignant shriek, “Where the hell is the funny drawing of the sandwich? Haven’t we painted the house with the puzzle pieces yet?”
He picked up his pace to an urgent sprint. Maybe Maggie could unstick his poster so he could put it in the bathroom, too.