She could never recall if he knocked on the door. If, by then, he had reached the point where he would knock on an object to draw attention to himself. Certainly he wouldn’t have waved his hands around or jumped up and down. It was possible he just stood out there waiting for her to open the door, and when she did so she promptly forgot her original reason for doing it.
There was a thin young man standing on the porch in a white button-down shirt, black suspenders and dark trousers. A scuffed suitcase sat on either side of him, one large, one small. He had shoulder-length dark red hair tied back in a tail, and glasses. For a second, she thought they had to be those magnifying-type glasses you get in drugstores that made your eyes comically huge, but they really were that wide. He looked terrified, and the instant he had processed that a person had opened the door, he ducked his head away. He had a spiral notebook (Is that steel? Hyacinth wondered. Can I take that?) with cheap grayish lined paper, and multiple shreds of torn sheets poking out of the binding. The cover, if it was still intact, had been folded to the back. He held it up in front of him with both hands, fingers curled around the pages and pressed white, hiding behind it like a shield.
There was a sketch of the sign on the front of the house done in photographic grayscale, with the carved painted letters replicated exactly and the unsanded texture of the wood evident beneath the brush-marks. The thin blue lines of the notepaper showed through. The part about ‘Rooms to Let’ had been circled precisely and connected via a sharp line to a question mark. Hyacinth leaned in a little closer and puzzled at it.
This tableau — silent man, pad of paper, confused woman, suitcases, open door and porch — continued for some time.
“Can I help you?” Hyacinth attempted at last.
He handed her the pad of paper, which she accepted. At the very least she might get a little piece of steel out of this. It would be enough for some staples. She toyed with the spiral binding as she considered the drawing. The young man stood on the porch, looking fixedly down and aside as if his head had been screwed on wrong.
“Do you want a room?” she asked him.
He stuffed his hand in his shirt pocket and presented another piece of paper. This one had been folded and worn, and the penciled writing was smudged. It had been torn from the same pad and the left-hand edge of it was ragged like a mouthful of bad teeth. My Name is Milo Rose, headed the page and was underlined. The following phrases were written beneath, at one to a line: I can hear you but I cannot speak. I am 19 years old. I have a respectable job. I am looking for a place to stay. I can pay rent.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ve got rooms. They’re not in absolutely mint condition, but they could certainly be used in an emergency.” She laughed. He did not lift his head, look at her or acknowledge her in any way.
She glanced down at the paper. I mean, it does say he can hear me. Is this a prank?
Now she glanced at the boy. Is it possible he can’t read what it says and someone is pranking him?
He wasn’t looking at her like he was trying to read her lips or anything. Or like he was a human being with a working brain. He had null expression, except for the scared eyes.
“Uh, you want to come in and have a look around?” She stepped aside and gestured through the door, just in case. He glanced sideways at her and took a hesitant step forward. She put up a hand, “Wait. Don’t leave the suitcases. I don’t know if you know, but this is not a real great neighborhood, here.”
He picked up the suitcases and stepped inside, still looking fixedly away.
All right, thought Hyacinth. He heard the thing about the suitcases.
“Are you new in town?” she asked him.
He had already walked past her and was standing in the middle of the front room. He was staring up at the hole in the roof, which was normal human behavior. Everyone did that. (The General had taken one look at it, said, “No,” turned on her heel and walked out. Sanaam had to go after her. There was a hell of an argument.) However, he did not turn and look at her when she spoke. He dropped both suitcases with a clatter, then he hunched his shoulders and hung his head.
Then he shook his head.
Okay, and he heard that, thought Hyacinth. And he answered me. What kind of rules is this person operating under?
She was used to decoding screaming to figure out what treatment people needed, usually because they were terrified and in pain. Barnaby worked that way, too, but he was just nuts. Gary, who was also nuts, had been able to quite rationally explain that this is my friend, Jim, and we will be sharing the room. Jim was a goat. A girl goat. Hyacinth had made a single effort to assert this, Gary had corrected her, and that established the nature of Gary’s reality. Okay. This is your fellow retired soldier named Jim. And that is his medal on the collar, yes, very nice. Will Jim be requiring anything special to eat? No, Gary would provide Jim’s diet, and Jim preferred not to eat at the table, just out of politeness. War wound. Oh, I see. And how will Jim be coping with the toilet situation? Jim had an aversion to modern plumbing and preferred to go outside. And that had been all Hyacinth needed to know about Jim.
She missed Jim. Gary had eventually become so unstable that she had to issue an ultimatum, but Jim had been very nice, and fastidious about his/her toilet habits — in stark contrast to Gary. She didn’t know where they were living now. She liked to picture them in a nice barn somewhere in the countryside, with a regiment of decorated chickens.
Room 103 was still not what you would call livable. If Milo Rose managed to get past the hole in the roof, she’d have to offer him someplace upstairs.
…If whatever this was that was wrong with him wasn’t too dangerous. There were kids in the house.
She gestured to the roof, which was currently patched with a couple of tarps. “Happened during the siege. It used to be a skylight. I haven’t been able to really fix it, but we’ve usually got something up there to keep the rain out.” She tried another laugh, but this got no response and she could only trail off with a, “Yeah. Uh…” Now was as good a time to tell him as ever, before he sat down and she poured him a coffee and he felt obligated to stay. “We don’t have any electric. Or gas. Or plumbing. The place kinda runs on magic, or not at all.” Pause for laughter. Nope. No reaction. “Are you bothered about that?”
He shook his head. He did not look up or over.
She approached him, and ducked down to enter his field of view. He turned his head until she no longer occupied his field of view. She moved again and he turned his back altogether, and stood hunched over with his arms curled sickly around his middle.
She was starting to feel like she was hurting him. The guilt begat frustration. Come on! She was only trying to figure him out!
You know, like a little kid is trying to figure out an earthworm when he cuts it in half with a scissors.
She folded her arms across her chest, frowning. “The lady who lives upstairs is ex-military. She turns into a giant eagle. Like, on a daily basis. If you hang around until lunchtime you might get to see it.”
No response, not even a shudder.
“The guy in 102 is colored. He doesn’t do magic, but, you know, he is magic. During storms and so forth. This place is a shelter, so we’ve got like a million colored people here during storms. Doing magic and acting all crazy.”
Nothing. Kid with wavy red hair and glasses staring at the floor and holding himself.
“And I don’t know what’s in Room 101. Seriously. It’s quiet and it never hurts anyone, but there’s got to be some magic going on in there, too. There’s this guy in the attic, he’s crazy and he’s not quiet. And I work metal. I use it to fix people. I used to be a medic. I am not the picture of sanity myself, if you can’t tell.”
No nodding, no reaction, no apparent comprehension.
“We don’t have a lot of money and we do what we need to get by, even if that means breaking the law and stealing shit. And the whole place is held together with magic and prayers.” Somehow, somewhere in there, this had gone from expressing frustration and trying to get a reaction to feeling defensive pride. (Come on, weird kid, aren’t you even impressed?) “Are you sure you want to live here, Milo Rose?” She offered him back his papers.
He put up his hand, he touched his palm to the edge of the pad, not to her hand, and he pushed it gently back towards her. He nodded.
Hyacinth blinked, then shrugged. “Hell, all right. Come and have a look at the rooms, see if you still feel that way.” When she motioned him up the sweeping staircase, he followed silently, three paces behind, still looking down and away.
She showed him 201 first, it was just at the top of the stairs. She explained about the metal, which meant no bedframe and no lock and sometimes no doorknob and no hinges. He could get a bedframe, if he wanted, but it would have to be a wooden one that they could stick together with magic. She apologized about the boxes and the dust.
When she got out of his way and invited him in, he walked numbly into the center of the room, not minding the dust and stepping around the boxes. He lifted his head, then he spread his arms to the sides, first with his hands up, then stretched out all the way to the fingertips.
I can’t touch the walls, thought Milo.
He was used to doss houses, where you had to sleep all night in a stacked bed, curled up on your side and touching a person, and sometimes that person wanted to hurt you. Or alleyways and cardboard boxes where the problem was not so much lack of space, but still being as small as possible so as to hide from the rain and the cold… and also more people who wanted to hurt you.
This much room to his own, this much space… and four walls around it to keep everyone else out. It was a little hard for him to parse. He felt giddy, a little like when he bought his dress, and a little like he might be walking into traffic.
Ann broke into his thoughts — with difficulty, because he was feeling about fifteen different things at once, primarily terror, and it was hard to listen to her — Milo! There’s a closet!
Milo walked into the closet and repeated the stretched arms treatment in there. He could touch the walls, but only just. He reached up and touched the wooden rod stretched across it. Oh, Ann… So many dresses! So many shoes! Six whole feet of dresses, and the whole floor for shoes! The possibilities were so exciting he was about to be sick.
I don’t have enough money for so many dresses and shoes…
He faltered, and he wrapped his arms around his middle again. Ann, I don’t have enough money for a room like this with a closet and so many dresses and shoes. I should just go.
Milo, there is a hole in the roof and no toilets or electric and the whole place smells like mouse droppings. I am positive we can afford this room!
Ann was determined enough for the both of them. Milo didn’t leave, but he hung his head and stared at the floor that he couldn’t afford to fill with shoes.
The lady with the ugly dress was talking again, and smiling.
What is she saying? I wasn’t listening. I was thinking about shoes! Did she say how much it cost? Did she say I can’t have the room and I have to leave?
Milo… I think she’s saying this room is smaller.
Smaller? Than what? An airship hangar? Is she teasing me like about that bird-lady?
I… I suppose she must be…
“… and it doesn’t have much of a window, but there’s not much to look at, anyway. I guess it’s kind of safer, with a small window. Sometimes people break with windows. And it’s got the dresser, and the mattress, but we can move the mattress. 204 is bigger, but it’s got the stairs to the roof and that takes up space, plus you’ll have people going in and out to get on the roof. And it has more boxes. I can probably clear out 201 today, if you want to help me with it. 204 might take a bit longer. I kinda get the feeling you’re ready to move in right away, with the suitcases and all.” She laughed.
None of this was a question, so Milo did not nod. He did not smile or laugh, he couldn’t do those things. He also did not look up, because he was ashamed about smiling and laughing and he knew sometimes people got mad about it, like when the ugly dress lady tried to make him look at her and started making fun of him.
She led him down the narrow passage with the railing that looked down on the enormous room with the broken tile and the hole in the roof, and she showed him another door and another room. This one had more dust and boxes, so he couldn’t get into the middle of it and check, but he thought it was bigger.
Could she possibly not be teasing me about the bird-lady? thought Milo. Oh, my gods. I’ve never met someone that good at magic! I wonder if she’d show me…
Wait. Then does that mean there really is a crazy person in the attic?
“So what do you think?” Hyacinth asked him.
(This was a question, but since nodding or shaking his head was not good enough for it, he made no attempt to answer.)
She sighed. He had seemed pretty enthusiastic about 201, like he’d never seen a room with four whole walls before, but she needed more than silence and staring at the floor to negotiate a housing situation. “Do you still want a room here, kid?” She offered him back his notepad again. That got a reaction before.
He nodded frantically. His head even came up for a couple seconds. He wanted a room more.
Hyacinth smirked. Whatever’s wrong with him, he’s got no judgment at all.
She considered the notepad. “Okay, come down into the kitchen with me. Let’s see what we can do to work this out.”
She offered him coffee. He nodded and put a hand in his pants pocket. She was expecting another note, though she didn’t have time to guess what it might say. He came out with a scant few coins and began counting them on the kitchen table.
“What?” said Hyacinth. “No!” She was half-laughing, half screaming. How was somebody attempting to pay her for coffee in her own kitchen more weird than a goat with a medal?
He dropped all his coins and turned away, holding himself again.
“Are you an alien?” she said. “Have you come to collect Room 101?”
He did not turn, but he shook his head.
“Oh, okay, that gets me an answer?”
And, that did not.
“Look, the coffee is free. Free coffee. Do you want free coffee?”
(Milo did not want anything. Milo wanted to crawl into a small space and die. By himself, far away from the loud woman in the ugly dress. It was a gray dress. It was almost a workhouse dress, no lace or ruffles or ribbons or petticoats. Completely without joy. He hated it.) He nodded.
She had him sit at the table. She poured him coffee and he did not drink it. She folded open the notepad to a blank page and put that in front of him. She put a pencil next to the notepad. “Can you write?” she asked him.
(He could, but not in front of people. That was too complicated, so he didn’t answer.)
She sighed. She unfolded the loose sheet he had given her and put that on the table, too. “Did you write this? Is this your handwriting?”
She pointed to the words. “It says here you have a respectable job. Can you please tell me what that respectable job is?”
Nothing. He did not acknowledge the words or the existence of the pencil.
“I need you to tell me about the job so I can rent you the room!” she said.
He sighed. He got up, collecting his pad of paper but abandoning the untouched coffee, and left the kitchen. He collected his suitcases from the front room and made for the door with them.
“Wait!” said Hyacinth. She walked quickly, as he did not appear inclined to wait. “No, please don’t go. I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter what the job is, it doesn’t need to be respectable. I just need to know how much money you’re making, so I know how much to charge for the rent. You can stay, I’ll give you the room. This is just the details.”
Milo stopped at the door, not just because of the ugly dress lady. Ann had said, ‘please don’t go,’ too. He set down the suitcases. He went back to the kitchen and picked up the pencil. He did not write words. He drew a pocket watch. It was a bit sketchier than the sign from the house, since he did it faster, but it was still perfectly-formed.
“You’re a watchmaker?” Hyacinth asked him, from a distance he found uncomfortably near.
He sighed again, that was complicated like ‘Can you write?’ But he shook his head. ‘Watchmaker’ and ‘guy who makes watches’ sounded the same, but they weren’t.
“Well, you’re not a watch,” Hyacinth said with a snicker. “Oh!” she exclaimed, which made him drop the pencil. “Or do you do that thing where you go around in the morning and wake people up, because they can’t afford an alarm clock?”
He shook his head. He drew what was apparently a box (“Gift-wrapper?”) and then he gave it bricks, a door, a sign (no words on the sign) and a smokestack.
“Aha! You make watches in a factory!”
He dropped the pencil again and cringed. She didn’t notice.
Ann, do I have to live here? Milo thought.
Milo, it has a closet, Ann replied.
After they moved the boxes and made some effort at mitigating the dust (she noted it sounded like he had working vocal cords when he sneezed) Hyacinth had a new boarder… whom she rarely saw. She tried to explain to the alien that it was welcome to eat the food in the kitchen and this was included with the rent, but she never caught him doing so. He also refused all offers of takeout, such that she stopped offering. After conferring notes with her other boarders, they rarely saw him, either. Barnaby’s best answer for ‘you have any idea what his deal is?’ was at once cryptic and too much information: “He hates your dresses. He was systematically abused and broken by an entire building full of women dressed very much like that.” He offered to nail it down a little better for her, but that would require cutting up animals and after the other thing she was pretty sure she didn’t want to go poking around in Milo Rose’s past. What she really wanted to know was how to handle him in the present, and there wasn’t a lot of information forthcoming. The only thing he seemed to want was leaving alone.
This sociological stalemate continued for about a month, until she went out to pick up some boxed meals for dinner and ran into Ann sitting on a park bench and sipping a cup of coffee.
She didn’t know it was Ann, of course. At first glance, she didn’t even know it was Milo. She thought it was a woman. But this woman had a slightly lopsided chest and that made her look a second time, just for amusement’s sake.
There were two scuffed suitcases on the ground at the woman’s feet.
“Milo?” Hyacinth shrieked.
Milo was wearing his hair down, but it was tied back on one side with a pink satin bow, and he was in high-heeled shoes and a dress. The dress was dark rose velvet with a subtle pattern of flowers, somewhat wrinkled and threadbare in places. The shoes were dingy pink suede and laced up with ribbons. He startled, spilling some coffee down his hand, then he regarded her with a frown, “I have no idea who you’re talking about.” He drew a handkerchief out of the front of the dress and wiped his hand.
“The hell you don’t!” said Hyacinth. She plunked down on the bench next to him. “You’re Milo Rose! You live in Room 201. You tried to pay me for coffee! What the hell are you doing? Is this your job?”
“My job is not sitting on park benches and drinking coffee. You are obviously insane. Please do me the favor of lowering your voice and going away.”
“So if I follow you home, you’re not gonna go down Sabot Street and turn left on Violena?”
“If you attempt to follow me home, I will go to the police.”
“I think the police are liable to be a little funny about a boy in a dress, Milo. They always gave David a pretty hard time, but he had money and physical presence.”
“Will you please stop calling me Milo?” Milo said, through clenched teeth. “I am not Milo and you are upsetting him!”
And here we have Jim the goat, thought Hyacinth. She might’ve been smiling. I knew we’d get to him sometime. “So, Milo Rose is somewhere in the general vicinity of this park bench, then, is he?”
“He is here, but I am not him, we are two different people,” said the crazy person on the park bench. “And we will not… We will not be living in your awful house with your useless closet with no door and… and your cruelty any more!” He sobbed and dabbed the handkerchief under his eyes, which were running with mascara. “Just as soon as we figure out how to leave! Do we have a lease?”
This person, whoever he (or she?) was, was at once heartbreakingly sad and completely ridiculous. Hyacinth wasn’t sure if she was still smiling, but she tried to stop. “Do you know what a lease is?” she asked.
“It means… It means you have to pay more money to leave! Milo doesn’t think he can afford it!”
“Okay,” said Hyacinth, gently. “You do not have a lease. You have to sign a piece of paper with a lease on it to have one. You… Or Milo, did not do that. You can leave whenever you want to. But I really don’t want you to go. I haven’t been trying to be cruel to you, or Milo. I’m just a weird person and my filter doesn’t work very well.”
“That doesn’t make any sense!” said… whoever it was on the park bench. “How does a person have a filter? You never make any sense!”
Hyacinth laughed. “Well, that’s because my filter doesn’t work very well.”
“Stop it!” He pressed the handkerchief over his eyes. “You’re always making fun of him! He is not an alien! He just has a hard time understanding some things. What kind of person talks to someone for ten minutes and then calls them an alien? What is wrong with you?”
“Brain damage,” said Hyacinth with a shrug.
The person sitting opposite her on the park bench took down the handkerchief and stared.
“Seriously,” said Hyacinth. “I got this steel plate in the side of my head.” She knocked a hand on it, the noise was noticeably different from flesh and bone. “It happened a long time ago, but my mouth kinda has a mind of its own. I had some weird people raising me who encouraged me, so that probably didn’t help. What’s wrong with Milo?”
The person on the park bench paused with his mouth open, either undergoing some internal negotiation or more garden-variety confusion. “There is nothing wrong with Milo,” he said finally. He sighed. “But he doesn’t speak. He’s frightened of a lot and it’s hard for him to smile. He knows it doesn’t look right. He can’t laugh, even if he thinks it’s funny. He doesn’t like people touching him and he doesn’t like people looking at him. Not in the eyes.”
“So I’ve basically been tormenting him nonstop ever since he showed up on the porch, that about right?”
“And neither one of you thought it was a good idea to enlighten me about this?”
“It’s hard for him to tell people things,” said the person on the park bench. “He can’t write unless he’s alone and safe and he hasn’t been.” He pressed the handkerchief to his mouth, adding a lipstick stain to the black smudges of mascara, shut his eyes and shook his head. “…And he’s so afraid of getting things wrong!”
“And there are some things he has a hard time understanding,” said Hyacinth.
“Yes… Quite a few, actually.” He laughed weakly.
“But you don’t have a hard time understanding?”
“I’m better at it.”
“And who are you, exactly?”
He sighed. He extended his hand, but with the palm down like he expected her to kiss it. “I’m Ann. My name is Ann Rose.”
Hyacinth awkwardly shook the hand. “Ann Rose. So is that like a wife or like a sister?”
Ann laughed again. Ann did not appear to have any difficulty smiling or laughing. “Oh! Oh, dear, no, we are not married. We’re friends. I… I suppose it’s more like a sister. You know, I never really thought about being related to him, but I suppose it makes sense.”
“You weren’t born like this?”
“No, I… I came later.”
“Are you like a god or something?”
“No. Just a regular person. Well, no, I guess that isn’t quite fair to say.” She sighed. “Milo made me to help him. That’s what I am.”
“Are you, like, a recent thing?” asked Hyacinth. She suspected the war. The war had knocked a lot of people pretty loopy, and Milo would’ve just been a kid.
“Milo left the workhouse at fifteen,” Ann said. “He bought a dress.”
Hyacinth counted backwards on her fingers. She nodded. “He go through the siege?”
“Yes,” Ann said.
Bingo, thought Hyacinth. “So has he been hiding you since then?”
“Not always.” She shook her head, looking down. She looked a little more like Milo that way. “Often. We change in pay toilets.”
“That seems like a really good way to get hurt, Ann,” said Hyacinth. “Don’t people notice you go in one way and come out another?”
“Sometimes,” Ann said. She fingered her hair. It should have been longer by now. It would’ve been, if they didn’t get caught changing in a toilet. “You’re right about it being dangerous, but there’s just no other place to do it. We’ve been living in doss houses… and cardboard boxes, sometimes.”
“You have a very nice,” said Hyacinth, but she stopped herself. “You have a room now.”
“Yes,” Ann said painfully, “but it’s in a house full of people, dear.”
Hyacinth considered that. “So, is the closet useless with no door because you need to hide the dresses, Ann?”
“Well… Yes, dear. That’s about the size of it.”
“That’s pretty dumb,” said Hyacinth. She stood and then offered a hand up. “Come on. Dinner can wait. We’re going to go home and fix the closet.”
The household was annoyed to be gathered in the kitchen for no dinner (and Barnaby was annoyed to be gathered at all) but Milo standing quietly near the back door in a dress provided an explanation and an occupation, even before Hyacinth said anything.
Maggie said something first, “Mommy, is that Mr. Rose?” But she didn’t lower her volume enough to exclude the rest of the room.
“Alice, I don’t know why you’d think I’d be interested in this,” Barnaby put in, shaking his head. He returned to rearranging the canned goods in the pantry.
“This is not Mr. Rose,” Hyacinth said. She turned and addressed Ann, more quietly, “Ann, are you a Miss?”
“Right. This is Miss Rose. This is Ann. Ann lives in Room 201 with Milo. You can tell the difference because Ann always wears a dress.” She turned back to Ann, “Right?”
Ann nodded again and added, “Yes, dear, you have it exactly.”
“Now are there going to be any problems with that?” Hyacinth asked the room.
“There are problems with everything,” said Barnaby. “You are a problematic person. Why isn’t there any dog food?”
“Because we don’t have a dog.”
“How am I supposed to finish the Xinese zodiac without dog food?”
“Are there any sensible problems?” said Hyacinth.
The General sputtered and cut a hand at Milo Rose in a dress. “See here, Miss No-Last-Name, objective reality exists and you ignore it at your own peril! I put up with an awful lot of nonsense in this house, but this is beyond the pale! There is no woman living in Room 201!”
“No,” said Hyacinth, “there is a young man living there who has asked very nicely to be respected and treated as a different person called Ann when he is wearing a dress, and to do otherwise would be extremely fuh…” She glanced at the children. “…damn rude. Is that real enough for you?”
There was a brief pause while the General attempted to eel her way around this with logic and rising indignation, both of which failed. “…I suppose that is more reasonable,” she allowed at last.
Maggie stepped forward, frowning, and demanded of Ann, “Are you like Santa Claus?” Maggie had zero respect for imaginary people.
“I… I don’t give people presents,” Ann said, blinking. “I mean, not that I wouldn’t, but not from a sleigh…”
“She means are you for pretend,” Erik said.
Ann crouched down with a smile and put a hand on his shoulder, “Oh, dear, Santa Claus isn’t pretend…”
“Please don’t,” Mordecai broke in. “I know you mean well, but we’ve been through all that and it was very upsetting for him.”
“I am so dreadfully sorry…”
“Are you selling stuff?” Maggie said suspiciously. “Santa Claus is to sell sodas.”
“Um, no, dear. I’m not selling anything and I’m not pretend.”
“Are you playing?” Erik asked. It looked a little like playing dress up, with way better clothes.
“No. I’m not playing. This is just me.”
Erik considered her. “You’re really tall.”
“It’s just the shoes, sweetheart.” Ann showed him the heels.
“Can I wear the shoes?” Erik asked.
Ann glanced up at Mordecai with a pained expression. Some people… Most people… All the people, in Ann and Milo’s experience, could be cruel to a little boy in pretty shoes.
“Only if she says it’s all right,” said Mordecai. “They’re her shoes.”
And glanced at him again and smiled. It grew about ten percent warmer when she spoke to Erik, “You can wear them all you like.”
“Now?” said Erik.
“Oh… Well, I don’t see why not.”
“You don’t have to, Miss Rose,” said Mordecai.
“Ann is fine, dear,” Ann said, smiling.
Hyacinth had positioned herself firmly between Barnaby and the cutlery drawer.
“Damn it, Hyacinth, I just want to kill one dog! I won’t even cut it up!”
“How can you possibly just be missing the dog?” said Hyacinth. “What did you use for the dragon?”
“Tuna fish! A fish can aspire to dragonhood if it swims up the correct waterfall with sufficient determination! Presumably, it would do just as well in the can if you threw it hard enough! Get out of the way of the knives!”
A slight pause, while she held him back with a hand. “…Barnaby, what did you use for the rat?”
“What rat?” said Barnaby.
“Not as tall,” Erik complained of the shoes. He also looked irritated in Barnaby and Hyacinth’s direction. It had gotten way louder since Barnaby moved in. The man who never talked to anyone was a little scary, too, but a tall lady with shoes wasn’t really a big deal.
“I wanna try them!” Maggie said. She had already kicked hers off.
“We say ‘please,'” the General said tightly. “And we pick up our shoes and put them away when we take them off!”
“Yes, sir,” Maggie said, retrieving her shoes.
A shriek emanated from the pantry, “Goddammit , Barnaby!”
Milo, do we have to live here? Ann thought, but she was laughing.
I don’t understand how this fixes the closet, Ann, Milo replied.
Ann was leading the way through the yard, linked arm-and-arm with Sanaam, having latched on to him as soon as they reunited outside of their respective taxis. She was laughing and expounding about her show, and all her friends at the club, and all her new friends from the Slaughterhouse. Sanaam nodded and laughed along, while the General accompanied him from the other side with her arms folded and an irritated expression.
Hyacinth and Mordecai brought up the rear. Sarcastically, Mordecai offered her his arm and was surprised when she took it. Maybe it was the champagne.
“You know,” she said, “I wouldn’t want a kid like Milo. I mean, if I had a kid. I’d like to do better than that. I’d want him to be happy, and adjusted, and able to talk to me without turning into a whole different person. But, I guess someone weird and brilliant is okay, too.”
“Just because we get things second hand, doesn’t mean we love them any less,” said Mordecai.
“They come a little bit dinged up,” said Hyacinth, regarding Ann — who was rather a lot more than Milo in a dress.
“Always,” said Mordecai.
Hyacinth considered. “Nah. I don’t think I’d straighten him out if I could. Not all the way.”
Hyacinth and Mordecai were climbing the porch steps. Ann and Sanaam had made the front door and all laughter had abruptly ceased. Ann was willing to attempt speech first, “Cin, dear? I think there may have been… Well, no, it doesn’t really look like an accident…”
It was definitely not an accident. If you wanted to glue an upholstered chair to the ceiling and wrap the whole front room in newspaper, you had to be putting forth some kind of effort.
“Magnificent!” said the General.
“Barnaby!” said Hyacinth.
“What’d you want me to do, Mom?” Maggie said. “Break his legs? He’s super old and Cin likes him!”
“Damn it, Alice,” Barnaby said. “Did you drink them out of gin and tonics? I’m not even done with the kitchen window yet!”
“The kitchen-fucking-window?” said Hyacinth. She tore past him.
“Uncle, can I go to bed now?” Erik said. “Please?”