It was pale dawn, cold and foggy. Seth Zusman, in a frayed pair of jeans and a threadbare sportcoat, navigated his way through the yard as if crossing the room at a crowded party. When he bumped into a clinking pile of bottles, he said, ‘excuse me.’ A satchel full of newspapers was slung over his shoulder. Tucked beneath the papers was a pair of shoes he had found in the alley. He had picked up the one, just in case, and after some hunting around he had found the other one. People hardly ever pitched shoes in pairs, and these still had a lot of wear left in them. A cursory check against the soles of his current shoes seemed to indicate they might fit. That was a little too much luck. He was going to be suspicious for the rest of the day.
He deposited a paper on the porch, in front of the door. A folded paper towel containing sandwiched pieces of bread and butter greeted him when he straightened. It had been soft-stuck to the door-frame. He pulled it off and examined it with a sigh.
Bread and butter was all right, or peanut butter, or jam, as long as the ants hadn’t gotten to it. Well, not all right, but he was willing to compromise and accept it. The occasional muffin or roll, or very rare piece of fresh fruit was all right, too. He consoled himself by thinking that such things would go stale or bad if he didn’t eat them, and no one else would want them.
Canned goods and preserved things were right out, though. He left them where they were. If he started accepting canned goods, Hyacinth was going to drown him in tinned soup. He didn’t even take canned goods from Hyacinth if he was hungry.
Unless Erik brought food for school — and actually sat down and attended the school for a little while. Not just a run-by feeding. He sometimes accepted those from other people, but not anyone from Hyacinth’s house. Hyacinth didn’t understand that there were boundaries. She thought he was just proud, or stupid.
It wasn’t that. He might’ve been a little proud, and more than a little stupid, but it wasn’t that. He wasn’t going to explain it to her, not if he could help it. She still wouldn’t understand.
He folded down the paper towel and ate one-handed while he made his way back to the street. When he stepped on a tin can, he said, ‘Sorry!’
Hyacinth collected the paper from the porch at… morning-ish. Sanaam was home, which meant bustle and multiple people availing themselves of breakfast and company at the same time. She threw something together for Room 101 — toast, cereal, coffee — and the same for Barnaby, but Barnaby required the paper. On her way back to the kitchen with it, she detoured to the dining room and removed a few more scraps of further newspaper that she had just noticed. There had been a concerted effort to unwrap the house, and the furniture required sorting at all speed, but random additions were still popping up in odd places. On books and pillows. Around windows and doorframes. One of the toilet bowls had been papered, but Hyacinth decided she didn’t care about it. It wasn’t as if the toilets worked. She had also been all right with the Teddy Bear Sanctuary, until she noticed the blue woman and then everything had to go.
The General had not bothered to unwrap Room 202. On the night of the chaos, she had entered the room alone, shut the door behind her, and called forth some intricate magic that left an ominous orange glow showing through every crack and the window. When she opened the door, there had been a faint haze in the air, an incongruous odor of sage and no more newspaper, at all. The books on the shelves and everything else had been okay, but Hyacinth had been left with the uncomfortable impression that the General was capable of mass-banning any material from reality, up to and including a roomful of people — or, if desired, just their bones.
Hyacinth flipped carefully through the front section and removed the weather report with the aid of scissors, leaving the rest immaculate and intact. She also removed the horoscopes from the Entertainment section. Sanaam espied the crossword and snatched it from her before she could fold the paper back up and put it aside. “Oh, I quite fancy a crossword!” he cried, holding it up. “I like to make random guesses and fill in all the answers in ink!”
Maggie cackled and clapped both hands over her mouth. Erik darted a glance at the General and, as a placeholder for a more-informed reaction at a later date, just looked horrified.
The General sipped her coffee, stone-faced. She did not even look up. “If my crossword puzzle is not in pristine condition and waiting for me after dinner,” she informed her plate, “there will be consequences.”
“Will you be turning that poor innocent omelet into a frog?” Sanaam asked, leaning in with a grin.
“I may turn something into a frog,” she said. “I promise you, it will be an item you will miss.” She detached a forkful of omelet and ate it.
Sanaam adopted a wounded expression. “Will it at least be a proportionate frog?”
Mordecai cleared his throat and broke in, “Will you be wanting the front section now,” and, after a moment’s grudging consideration he specified, “sir?”
“No, thank you.” The General also preferred not to offer Mordecai any titles, or even a name. “I find current events go down a little easier after dinner.”
This, of course, meant that everybody, particularly Mordecai, needed to tread lightly through the front section to keep it in good shape. Deference to which she believed she was entitled, despite the fact that she had been persuaded to eat breakfast in the kitchen this morning.
Mordecai did not dare bring the front section back to the table, where there was milk and coffee and ketchup going on. He stood at the counter and leafed through it gingerly. This pleased the General.
Erik and Maggie wanted the comics, which required no such care. There was also a kiddie crossword, which Sanaam was permitted to deface at no threat to his anatomy. “Five boxes. A bird. Hmm. Do you two think we can fit ‘glorious golden eagle’ in there if we write ve-e-ery small?”
Hyacinth departed with Barnaby’s breakfast, the relevant information from today’s paper, and, Barnaby’s main source of raw materials and symbolism, the well-leafed and snipped and mangled corpse of yesterday’s paper. That would give him at least a few hours peaceful occupation. She suspected he was already building up new boxes for another go at the wallpaper. Next time, she would ask Ted and Maria and Bethany over, even if it meant Room 101 had to starve for an evening.
Given that Sanaam and the General tended to make the most of their limited time together, Mordecai asked Erik and Maggie along to the park on a violin-related excursion. He had to promise Maggie a percentage of the total violin revenue, but then she was willing to go along. It was less expensive to spot Maggie a few sols than to allow her to burn down the house when she and Erik got bored of the funny pages — or to team up with Soup and burn down the neighborhood. However, now that she had a financial stake in the matter, she would not stop making suggestions on how to get people to give them more money.
“If we tie a hanky over your eyes, we can tell people you’re blind.”
“I will actually not be able to see if you do that, Magnificent.”
“I could probably figure some magic…”
“We could make one of those little cardboard signs that says you’re homeless.”
“I don’t need to lie to people to make money.”
She frowned at him. “You’re wearing that coat like you’re a soldier. People might give you money because of that. That’s lying.”
“I was on the wall during the siege! I just didn’t get paid for it!”
“We could make a sign that says that.”
“Signs are annoying. Will you just let me play?”
“…I bet if we sit Erik on that bench, I can make it look like he doesn’t have any legs.”
He went instantly flat. “Oh, my gods, no!”
“What? It’s just optical magic. I’m not gonna whack ’em off with an axe.”
“Can’t you play?” he asked her, rather desperately. “I mean, like a normal child? Do you know what playing is? Erik is over there playing!”
Erik was sitting in a damp patch of grass, absently making a chain of yellow dandelions — and grinning, while he watched Maggie annoy his uncle.
“Maybe you would like to learn how to do that before you grow up and start murdering people for a living!” Mordecai said, pointing. “Huh? You think?”
Maggie thought. But, evidently not about playing. “I bet I can figure out how to do something like fireworks.”
“Fire… works?” said Erik
“Wait a minute!” said Mordecai. “Do you mean optical magic or actual explosions?”
“Yes,” said Maggie with a smile.
Mordecai defensively shouldered his violin. “What if I play ‘Turkey in the Straw’ and you and Erik dance?”
He later wondered if Maggie had been engaged in an extended gambit to get him to embarrass himself out of desperation. He decided he hoped that was it.
They returned home for lunch. Mordecai badly needed sustenance and a shift change. Sanaam did likewise (although there wasn’t liable to be anyone willing to switch out with him), and soon put in an appearance in the kitchen.
“Your daughter,” said Mordecai, looking ragged.
Sanaam lifted a hand. “No. There is no need to finish that sentence. I can picture it. Magnificent?”
Maggie grinned up at him. “Sir?”
“What do we say about tormenting people?”
She giggled. “It’s hilarious.”
She frowned and dropped her head. “Not for no reason.”
“Apologize or there won’t be any ice cream.”
“Were we going to have ice cream right now, or do you mean no more ice cream ever?”
“Apologize and find out.”
“I’m sorry I made your life miserable, Uncle Mordecai,” Maggie said.
“Can I get a side order of ‘I won’t do it again,’ with that?” said Mordecai.
“Realistically?” said Maggie, with evident sincerity.
Sanaam couldn’t keep a straight face. He snickered. Maggie interpreted this as forgiveness, and license.
Mordecai counted some coins into Erik’s hand and closed his fingers around them. “You pay your own way. Don’t let Sanaam bully you.” He stood and addressed the larger man without much hope, “Please don’t just feed him sugar the whole time. I’d like to get dinner into him later. And sleep.”
“Of course,” Sanaam said, grinning.
“Are we eating sugar right now, children?” Sanaam asked them, outside of the ice cream parlor. They had walked three blocks to the real one, rather than just hit up the soda counter at the drugstore or get bars out of the freezer case at a bodega. A striped awning arced above the window, legibly indicating ice cream despite occasional holes, and a list of ten flavors was chalked on a blackboard facing the glass for them to examine.
Erik shook his head with a smile. Maggie said, “No, sir!”
“That is because I am a responsible adult,” Sanaam declared, laying a dark hand against his chest. “We have had exercise, too. Do you know how fast a cheetah can run?”
“Up to seventy-five miles per hour,” Maggie said.
“Magnificent, you are a problem,” Sanaam said. He considered. “All right. Cows kill more people than sharks do. And wombats poop cubes. We have now had education as well.”
“Wombats…?” Erik said.
“First ice cream, then wombats,” Sanaam said. He pushed open the door, engaging the happy little bell above it.
Inside, the floor was pink and white checked linoleum. The tables and chairs, there were three sets inside and two outside, were white-painted metal, with a lot of spirals and fussy detailing. The business end of the place had a scratched and dented white freezer case with a glass front and a soda fountain. There was a young man with freckles, a striped shirt, and a white paper hat standing behind it. Posters in faded pastels advertising sodas and dessert creations bedecked the walls, which were part tile and part pink-and-white striped wallpaper. The whole place had an air of raspberries and annealed porcelain, as precious as possible while still being easy to mop down with a rag. The floor in front of the door and the counter was dingy with shoeprints.
“Help ya?” said the man behind the counter. Followed by a brief clatter of footsteps on linoleum and an open mouthed, “Uhh…” in Sanaam’s direction.
Erik rather enjoyed seeing other people get stuck at a loss for words. He exchanged a glance with Maggie and snickered.
“The circus is in town,” Sanaam said, placing large hands on the glass case to peer at the wonders within. His bald head and the gold tattoos on his arms gleamed. “We are exotic dancers.” He knew better than to say he was with the sideshow. Sometimes people believed him.
The man behind the counter laughed. “Hey, all right. What can I get you?”
Erik was fondling the coins in his pocket and regarding the menu board with urgency. Do I spend it all? He thought probably his uncle meant him to spend it all, but he might see something else he really wanted besides ice cream. Or something could happen and Hyacinth would start asking everyone to pitch in money for an emergency. There tended to be a lot of emergencies. Or he might want something else way later that he didn’t even know about now…
He had narrowed it down to one scoop or two when Sanaam pointed to one of the posters and said, “How many scoops in that ridiculous concoction?” It was labeled in curly italics, Brownie Sundae for Four.
“Eight,” said the man behind the counter. “Plus toppings.”
“Make it ten,” Sanaam said. “Kids, you pick.”
“Two chocolate, two strawberry and a pistachio,” Maggie replied, nose pressed to the glass. “Erik, what about yours?”
Erik opened his mouth and then closed it. He flushed embarrassment. He ought to be brave and talk, but he knew he wasn’t going to. People who didn’t know him thought he was dumb when he slowed down. They smiled really big and then they slowed down, too. Sometimes they patted him on the head — like Barnaby, except he knew Barnaby was being sarcastic. Or sometimes, if they had been smiling, the smile faded out and they looked sad. He really hated that. He was pretty excited and he couldn’t trust his voice. It was better to point at stuff and let people think he was just shy. He picked five different kinds, more concerned with coverage than flavor combinations. He was kind of annoyed that Maggie didn’t pick five different kinds, so they could have one of everything. It wasn’t fair to the ice cream. Mentally, he apologized to the orange sherbet and the peaches and cream.
They couldn’t have every topping, either, but by the time those went on, Erik was starting to feel intimidated by the sheer size of the thing and he didn’t care. His eyes were about ready to fall out of his head — even the metal one that Milo and Hyacinth had fit to the socket!
The whole thing got heaped with whipped cream and cherries. Sanaam had to help carry it to a table. “Wait,” he told the children, who were standing by with spoons in hand. Out of his pocket, he drew a handful of tiny candles. Discarding the broken ones, he managed to find ten, which he stuck securely in the ice cream scoops beneath the mounded toppings. He lit them with paper matches, which he had taken from Ann’s club a few days previous. “Ha-a-appy bi-i-irthday…” he began. Erik and the ice cream man quickly joined in, and Maggie squealed like a five-year-old and clapped her hands.
When Sanaam sang, “Dear Ma-a-ag-Pi-i-irate,” the ice cream man broke off and stared, and Erik and Sanaam were left to finish alone.
Maggie blew out her candles and happily declared, “Mom’s gonna be pissed!”
“Divorced?” the ice cream man asked Sanaam.
“You know, people are forever asking me that,” Sanaam said contemplatively, “but no.” He shook a finger at his daughter. “Now, you still shouldn’t have stolen your mother’s Imperial Medal of Honor. That was a very, very naughty and very clever thing to do.”
Maggie grinned. “Sorry, Dad. Thanks, Dad.”
Erik snickered. “You’re my hero,” he put in. He adjusted his eye.
“You are now ten years old,” Sanaam said. “We are only waiting for the calendar to catch up with you. I expect Erik and the rest of the household will have something present-like for you later on, and Mordecai has expressed his intention to sneak you something cake-flavored on the day of, as long as there isn’t a storm. You should also know Ann and Milo wanted to share their birthday with you, but we were going to do that surprise party so we had to tell them ‘no.'”
“I’ll do everyone thank you cards,” Maggie said fondly. “Daddy, may we have our enormous vat of ice cream now?”
“I suppose we had better make a start of it!” Sanaam said, bravely lifting a spoon.
The consumption of ten scoops of ice cream and four brownies (plus toppings) was an hours long ordeal, which eventually devolved to the consumption of a chunky, souplike substance of indiscernible flavor. They were grateful for the occasional assistance of the ice cream man, when he didn’t have other customers to look after, and Sanaam was also capable of putting away any variety of food in large quantities. Wombats and other marsupial wildlife were discussed, as were potential birthday presents, relative maturity (“Girls grow up faster than boys do, anyway, so I should totally be the boss of you forever.” “Well, I’m… gonna be… taller!”), and the ice cream man’s hopes, dreams and ambitions. Not many, as it turned out. (“A sailor, huh? Nah, that seems dangerous. I’ve got a room of my own and a nice landlady, and I’ve got enough time and money to take girls out and screw… I mean, mess around with my friends. What more do I need?”) He also expressed an interest in Erik’s metal eye. (“Yeah, my dad’s got a metal hand. It was the war. What happened to you?” “Uh… I, uh… fell.”)
The walk home was likewise lengthy, punctuated by moaning and staggering and a stop at a pay toilet for all parties concerned. They wedged the door open, so they only had to pay once, and Erik was the one who deposited the penny in the slot. He had been unable to convince Sanaam to accept any fraction of the cost of the brownie sundae. (“Save it. Show my daughter a good time when I can’t be here.”)
When they arrived home, a couple hours before sunset, Milo was there, and being detained at the bottom of the sweeping staircase by an irritated Barnaby. “…There were black patent leather heels in that shoe store with rhinestone detailing — in your size! What the devil are you doing with those things?”
Milo shifted uncomfortably on his sensible shoes. His expression was pained. Inwardly, he was annoyed. I can’t wear those to work, you stupid idiot! I have to have shoes for work!
Also, Barnaby had ripped up his closet and wrinkled Ann’s dresses and left the entire room void of newspaper, except a single classified ad for ‘free horse manure’ in the exact center of the wall, which Milo regarded as an insult. (Barnaby had intended it as encouragement, but Milo had no context for it.) Milo’s tenuous relationship with the crazy man in the attic was already in dire straits without Barnaby coming at him out of nowhere and yelling at him about shoes.
The pretty shoes with the rhinestones that matched the tiara were on layaway. Not that he thought he would wear them, even when he could afford them. Even around the bedroom. Certainly not with the tiara. He would just like to sort of have them, and put them in a nice box with some tissue paper and a sachet, and maybe occasionally take them out and think about wearing them. Just academically.
Academically with a low-cut, black cocktail dress and some fishnets.
Barnaby turned on Sanaam, who had been approaching to intervene. “You haven’t brought home one single ounce of ice cream have you? Damn Sagittarius!” He wheeled and stormed up the stairs.
Sanaam looked vaguely guilty. They had been collectively sick of ice cream and it hadn’t occurred to him that people at the house might want some. Besides, if he came home with ice cream, his wife might suspect…
As soon as Barnaby’s stairs disappeared into the ceiling, Milo unfroze and ran up to his room to change into something more sociable.
Erik walked into the kitchen to get away from the yelling and check for his uncle. Mordecai was standing in front of the pantry with a hand to his mouth and doing a pre-dinner inventory of things that looked like food and what he could make out of them.
Hyacinth was leaning over the kitchen table with her doctor bag and putting stitches in a doll’s arm. Erik recognized the little dark-haired girl, Kelly, and waved shyly. She nodded to him, but she didn’t smile. She was more concerned over the health of her doll, “Will it scar?”
Hyacinth only had black thread and the doll had been made from a printed flour sack, so not only was it going to ‘scar,’ it was going to be pretty darn obvious. She could’ve done better with metal, but that would’ve set the poor thing on fire. “Scars make people interesting,” she said. “You can tell everyone stories about how brave she was.”
“She fought a tiger,” Kelly said, nodding gravely.
“I guess she’ll be more careful next time,” Hyacinth said. She knotted the thread and snipped it. “What do you think? Is she okay to go home?” The neighborhood toys were also subject to phantom fevers. There was a cardboard box in one of the kitchen cabinets labeled ‘QUARANTINE.’ Erik had a soldier in there at the moment. Flu, or maybe something really horrible like anathema, he hadn’t decided yet.
“I think a bandage,” Kelly said.
Hyacinth applied one.
“Wanna stay and play?” Erik asked her.
“Can she ride the elephant?”
Erik sighed. Sometimes he thought people were only interested in him for his elephant. It was pretty awesome though, with the spangles and everything. “Yeah, I guess,” he said.
They set up in Room 102, downstairs, with the door and the drapes open for light. Maggie joined them and contributed her spite doll to the scenario. (“We’re hunting a tiger? Let’s curse it!”)
Sanaam went upstairs in search of his wife and Ann came down to see if anyone needed shopping. Eventually, both of them ended up on the floor of Room 102 with the toys as well. The cavalry had been called in by this point, and the tiger was commanding its own armed forces, in a tactical deployment that matched the pattern of the oriental rug. Sanaam’s explanation of how tigers were hunted from elephant-back with a howdah also got crayons involved.
Kelly left reluctantly in time to get home for dinner, with her mended doll and a couple fantastical drawings of rakshasa.
Dinner, on Erik and Maggie’s part, consisted of a lot of pushing things around to make it look like they were eating. The General appeared suspicious but did not remark. Mordecai looked irritated, “Sanaam…”
“We did not eat sugar the whole time, did we, children?” the man prompted them.
“Nope!” Maggie said.
“Marsupials have babies the size of a jelly bean,” Erik said. “They keep them in pockets.” He liked to picture a wombat in overalls, which had lots of pockets for the babies.
“Birthday-related sugar?” the General said.
Sanaam smiled. “Of course not, sir. Spur-of-the-moment sugar. I am notoriously free-spirited.”
Erik and Maggie didn’t even want dessert. Erik was too full and Maggie thought it would be tactically unwise.
After the dishes had been cleared, the General commandeered the kitchen table for the completion of her crossword puzzle. She did it in pencil, but only because it was impossible to keep pens in Hyacinth’s house.
Before departing for the cot in the basement, Maggie selected a book from the shelf downstairs and requested a bedtime story from her father. Both Erik and Sanaam blinked at this. Maggie had been doing her own bedtime stories for ages.
“I guess that would be fun,” Erik said.
Maggie frowned at him. “No, just me,” she said.
Erik’s expression cratered as if she’d just crushed a kitten to death with a hammer.
“Your uncle can read you a story, can’t he?” Maggie said. “We don’t have to do everything together.”
Erik turned and wandered into the kitchen, dejected.
“Maggie…” Sanaam said.
“Well, I don’t like him hanging on me all the time,” Maggie said. “I like to pick what I do. He’s too little. He gets upset all the time. He isn’t any fun.”
Sanaam paused and considered that for a moment. “What story is it?”
“I don’t know,” Maggie admitted, showing the book. It was a paperback with instructions for bicycle repair.
He picked her up and carried her into the basement. He put her on the cot, which she favored for privacy when he was home. He sat on the floor. The cots were wooden and held together with magic and he did not trust them with his weight.
“Mag-Pirate,” he said, “you know I’d be home more if I could…”
She sighed. He was always talking about that. Gods, she barely even cared about that anymore. She was used to it. Sometimes she got annoyed and wished he was there, but it didn’t bother her, not any more than it bothered her the sky was blue. There was other stuff to be upset about! “It’s not that,” she said.
He stopped and waited for her to give him more. She stared up at the mage lights stuck to the ceiling and kicked her bare legs in the space under the cot — she could still do that if she sat back far enough.
“Mordecai said I was going to grow up and murder people,” she said.
Sanaam laughed, though an instant later he thought he probably shouldn’t have. “He’s teasing you, Mag-Pirate. It’s not murder if it’s in a war. Your mom didn’t murder people…”
“No,” said Maggie. “Dad, what if… What if I don’t want to kill people at all?”
He blinked at her. “Are you scared of it?”
She sighed again. “No. At least, I don’t think so. What if I just don’t want to? What if I want to grow up and make people ice cream sundaes all day?”
Sanaam shut his mouth. But you’re so talented, had wanted to slip out. A life spent dishing out ice cream sundaes was so little. It was demeaning. She wasn’t even ten years old and she already knew how to turn into a bird. She was amazing. She was smart.
Maggie, you’re better than ice cream sundaes.
But… she wasn’t saying that. She knew she was smart. She was saying what she wanted to do with it. And that was maybe not be better or amazing or Magnificent at all.
His expression fell, and he shook his head without knowing it. Maggie… I don’t think that’s possible.
Not with her mother. Maybe later, when she could go out on her own and choose her own path, but the next ten years of her life were going to be lived under the assumption that she was going to grow up and kick ass, and learn everything she needed to do it. If she expressed a preference for a nice quiet job in the service sector, the General wouldn’t even hear it.
Or she might try to train it out of her.
If he were home… No, not even if he were home. He would have to divorce his wife and run off… and hide, because she had wanted that child. Any child. To train up and replace her. It was her responsibility to the nation. Spiriting Maggie away to an ordinary life would be treason.
“I think…” he said. “I think you’ll have to wait. And decide that when you’re older. Now is the time for you to learn, and you should learn all you can. When you grow up, you’ll have options.”
And if you want one of those options to be not fighting for this country in a war, you’d better learn all you can so you can fight your mother. And if that happens, I think I’m going back home to Saint Matt’s. That might be far enough away for me to survive.
Maggie nodded. She kicked back on the cot, over the blanket, and folded her hands behind her head. “Erik plays a lot more than I do, Dad,” she said. “He still learns stuff.”
“But not as much,” Sanaam said. “And when he’s older, he won’t have as many options. It’s going to be harder for him.” This was true, especially since Erik was a colored person, and that thing where he slowed down when he talked was probably going to get in his way, but it was disingenuous to ascribe it to Erik’s laid-back upbringing. Sanaam had played a lot more than Maggie growing up, too. He didn’t know how to turn into a bird, but he had done all right for himself. So did most others.
It would be cruel to acquaint Maggie with the idea of playing, though. That way was closed to her. It wasn’t fair, but that was how it was.
“Options,” Maggie said. “I guess options are good.”
“Do you want a story, Maggie?” he asked her. “It doesn’t have to be out of a book. I’ll make it a fun one.”
Please, please let me make this world fun for you, while I’m here. It’s the only thing I can do.
“No, I guess not,” she said. “I’m kinda tired.”
She caught him when he was halfway up the stairs, “Thanks for my birthday, Daddy.”
Mordecai and Hyacinth were at the kitchen table. Hyacinth was reading the comics. Mordecai was leafing back through the editorials. He seemed to space out a lot trying to read the paper in the mornings, a combination of distraction and terror about mussing the pages. The General was done with the front section now, Barnaby would get the paper next and he didn’t care about it being crumpled and out of order. Mordecai was still feeling distracted, though.
“I think it’s good he gets ticked off sometimes,” Hyacinth said. “You know, it’s almost like he’s a real boy.”
Mordecai refused to be drawn. “I know he’s a real boy, Hyacinth. I’m not bothered about him being mad, but it’s different now. He can’t talk to me about it. It’s either ‘have strong emotion’ or ‘be able to speak.’ I’ve spent practically his whole childhood teaching him to tell me what he needs and now he can’t. He hasn’t thrown things since he was a toddler.”
Hyacinth did not correct him. Erik had thrown things when he was hurt and he couldn’t explain why he was upset, too. But they both knew that.
“Well, it’s not like he broke it,” she said finally.
Mordecai sighed and shook his head.
Sanaam sat down at the table. “Maggie was cruel to him,” he said. “She wanted to talk to me alone, but she wasn’t very tactful about it.”
Mordecai nodded. “I did sort of get that out of him eventually, but it’s nice to have the confirmation. You look a bit like she took all the starch out of your shirt, too,” he said.
“I’m having to consider that she might be happier scooping ice cream than taking over the world,” Sanaam replied miserably.
“You live a strange life, Sanaam,” Hyacinth said.
“There’s not really much you can do about that, is there?” said Mordecai. “With her mother the way she is?”
“Yeah,” Sanaam said.
“She’s pretty happy, from what I see,” said Mordecai. “And she’s pretty resilient. Maybe that doesn’t help with you being worried, but there’s no way not to be worried. There’s always something. All we can do is check in once in a while and hope they yell for help when they need it.”
“At least you’re here when Erik needs helping,” Sanaam said.
“Not always,” said Mordecai. He shook his head. “And sometimes there’s nothing I can do.”
“What do you do when that happens?”
“Collapse,” Hyacinth put in.
“Sometimes,” Mordecai admitted. “But eventually I get up again and keep trying. I think it’d be easier to stay collapsed, but I can’t.” He laughed weakly. “He worries about me.”
Sanaam rested his head in his hands, “I wonder if she worries about me.”
“You better get down to the shrine and pray she doesn’t,” Hyacinth said. She gestured at Mordecai. “Those two are a mess.”
Mordecai laughed again and thumped his forehead on the table. “You are so comforting, Hyacinth,” he said, muffled. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Adjust,” she said.
“May I ask you two a favor?” Sanaam said.
Mordecai sat up and nodded. Hyacinth said, “Sure.”
“Do you think you could sort of look after Maggie while I’m gone and make sure she has some fun?”
“On her birthday?” said Mordecai.
“Ever,” said Sanaam.
Sanaam departed two days later. After a hug from his daughter and a nod from his wife, he left them in the stuffy old bedroom to get on with their lessons. It was raining, and that would’ve meant more bus fare to accompany him to the docks. They were quite used to saying goodbye to him, it wasn’t like a big deal or anything.
Mordecai and Erik were practicing violin in the front room… audibly, even with the bedroom door closed. ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm,’ which Erik was attempting to populate with appropriate animal noises. “Louder and more annoying!” Mordecai demanded with hands over his ears. Grinning, Erik did his best to comply.
In the basement, Milo and Hyacinth were working on a toaster. “See ya, Sanaam,” said Hyacinth. “Now, Milo, do you think if we shape the heating element just so, we can get it to print rude words on the bread?”
In the kitchen, otherwise unobserved, Barnaby was precisely removing what would have been tonight’s crossword puzzle from the newspaper with a scissors. “Shh,” he informed Sanaam.
“Se-e-e-e you i-i-in the fa-a-a-all!” Erik played in a wavering voice.
The General banged open the bedroom door and shouted down at them, “Do you have to do that here?”
“Yes,” Mordecai replied.
Sanaam waved a final goodbye to his wife and dragged his wheeled trunk out onto the porch.
Maggie was in good hands.