Milo ran out of the bus. And down the street. And past what appeared to be Ted and Maria and Bethany. Ted and Maria were clinging to each other and leaning against a brick wall outside of Hassan’s at the corner of Violena and Eddows. Maria was wrapped in a fire blanket, Ted was sobbing into a handkerchief and Bethany was jumping up and down and singing a song about apples. Milo did not stop to assist them with their obvious difficulty or help get them to the house because he didn’t know if he ought to help get them to the house. There might not be a house at this point. The clouds above had blotted out the blue sky with billows of purple and white. There was no rain yet, but you didn’t have to have rain or clouds to get strikes. He might be barreling towards a vaguely house-shaped object with no windows and no roof… And maybe no people, if Hyacinth had moved everyone down to the shelter on Pine.
The sign was in the street, the plywood board was lying welcomingly flat and, when Milo looked up to see, the grounding rod was on the roof.
Oh, thank gods, thought Milo.
He still did not go back to collect Ted and family. They would make it all right on their own, and Hyacinth could put them back together again as needed. He presented himself at the house to assist with whatever else needed doing.
There were already people in the house. Well, there were always people in the house, but strange people.
Well, no. Strangers, not really strange.
Well, no. Pretty strange, but that was the weather.
Milo surmised that these were doss house people, because they had suitcases and they were wearing a lot of clothes. You could rent a locker and stow some of your stuff in a doss house, at least you could in the one Ann and Milo used to live in, but that was more money and the lockers didn’t do the whole ‘lock’ thing very well. So, if you were going to go out, even just to work, you’d better take your stuff. The stuff you had any attachment to, at least.
But, because of the storm, it was also possible these people just decided they wanted a lot of clothes and suitcases. No reason required. Total-lack-of-reason mandatory, in fact. Ted and family had once arrived at the house in a car. Ted and family did not own a car. They had been walking past a car, and Ted was pretty sure he could get it going without keys, and all of them thought this was a fabulous idea. Hyacinth had spent most of that storm pacing back and forth and regarding the car through the front window and waiting for the police to show up with questions about it. Bethany and Erik kept demanding to go outside and beep the horn — which Ann and Hyacinth had been in charge of preventing, because Ted and Maria and Mordecai were not doing the whole ‘parent’ thing very well.
(Post-storm, Milo had been able to get the car going without keys, and he nervously drove it about a block down, to someplace less suspicious, and left it there, because Ted and family could not remember where they’d found the damn thing. They were very, very sorry about it, though. Well, Bethany wasn’t very sorry, she wanted to beep the horn some more. She had been, Milo thought, three at the time.)
There was a white woman (really white, like paper) wearing two dresses (a black lacy one over a purple one… maybe velvet?), black lace gloves with holes in them, a broad-brimmed black hat with green velvet edging and a scraggly purple plume. She had black suede boots with laces and heels. She also had a scuffed blue suitcase. She was sitting on a cot with her arms folded — next to a black iron birdcage with a potato in it. Definitely a potato. At the bottom. With some newspaper under it. The eyes had grown out slightly. But at least she was quiet and the potato wasn’t doing anything. Milo couldn’t really pay attention to her, although he would have liked to have looked at the dresses.
He would have preferred to look at the dresses.
There was a green kid, maybe sixteen or so, who had shed a couple of jackets, an extra shirt and an extra pair of pants on the floor around him. He had a guitar and a guitar case. He was playing the guitar. Guitar noises were not coming out of the guitar, nor music of any kind. When Mordecai did things to the ‘cello, you could always hear ‘cello going on in the background, even when he played the weird stuff, like that creepy thing where the voice kept saying, ‘Number nine… Number nine…’ Milo could not detect any underpinnings of guitar, but there was guitar-playing movement going on over there, and that was where the noises were coming from. The noises were crickets and frogs. Milo had no experience of a swamp, except sometimes in movies, but that appeared to be the general ambiance. The green kid was very amused by this. He was laughing.
That was not quiet, but also not threatening. If it had just been laughing and crickets and the potato-lady, Milo probably could’ve coped with it all right.
On the floor near the sweeping staircase, a yellow man wearing three shirts (the top one unbuttoned) was building a house of cards. Hyacinth kept a box of things for the fidgeters and people that needed to do magic. There were some puzzles in there and a big jar of buttons and some postcards and seashells and about five pounds of modeling clay — all of which Milo had seen put to some terribly creative and bizarre uses. But it didn’t look like she’d had time to put out the box. The guy by the stairs had found the other box, with the games in it. He had the playing cards and the poker chips. He was not building what you would call a regular house of cards — you know, stacking the cards and leaning them against each other and stuff. He was building a house, with doors and windows and a chimney and a roof and ivy going up the outside of the house, and he happened to be using the cards. There was smoke coming out of the chimney and lights in the windows and people moving inside. The house was blue and white on the outside with a repeating pattern of butterflies because that’s what the backs of the cards looked like, but you could tell the brickwork and ivy from shadows.
That was actually really neat and Milo would’ve liked to have gone over to have a better look at that — if he didn’t think the person doing it might start talking to him — but that was completely out of the question due to the other thing going on.
There was a blue man with a jacket tied around his waist sitting on top of the low bookshelf near the coat closet. He was wearing brown loafers with a blue suit (Oh, yeah, this guy is totally out of his mind, thought Milo) and kicking them gleefully back and forth about two feet above the ground. He was pulling books out of the bookshelf and making them fly. Flapping, like birds. He had done this to maybe a dozen already and was adding more by the moment. He was encouraging them, as if he had perhaps imbued them with minds and will as well as the power of motion. (Milo really hoped he hadn’t done that, but it wasn’t without the realm of possibility, not during a storm.)
“Yes! Yes! Be free, my little friends! Be free!”
Hyacinth was not doing anything about that, except to occasionally swat a hand at the flying books when they got too near. She was trying to explain the bathroom situation to an older gentleman with a tweed suit and a pork pie hat. He was also green. He was holding a suitcase, as if he’d like to be off with it.
“No plumbing at all? Not just no toilets, no plumbing?”
“I am very sorry about it, but no. No plumbing. Do you know how to use a chamber pot?”
“It is Thirteen-Seventy-Six! People have cars! People have airships! The airships have plumbing on them!”
“I am sorry, but there’s really nothing I can do about it. I’m afraid you’re stuck here, you’re just going to have to…”
“It didn’t say anything on the bulletin board about no plumbing!”
“Look, I am sorry about the no plumbing, but you do understand you can’t leave now, don’t you? I can’t just stand here and argue…”
“Will you stop doing that!” snarled the green man in the pork pie hat. He pointed a finger at the nearest flying book. It lit up in green flames and disintegrated into individual pages.
“Nooo!” shrieked the blue man with the poor fashion sense. He slid down from the bookcase and snatched desperately at the pages, sobbing.
“Don’t you have an anti-magic cell for people like that?” the green man demanded.
“We have no cells here of any kind, no,” Hyacinth said sourly. “And I will thank you not to…”
“Hey, buddy.” The green kid with the guitar had sidled up uncomfortably close to Milo while he had been distracted by the louder insanity going on. He grinned at Milo. “You wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?”
Milo’s eyes widened. He shook his head.
The guitar shrieked like a rusted steel trap that had gained sentience and was existentially horrified by the fact.
Milo staggered backwards towards the door. Maybe I could, um, go live somewhere else forever…
“Wait, that’s not it,” said the green kid. He adjusted one of the tuning pegs on the guitar, frowning.
A flying book alight with dueling green and blue fires zoomed past.
“Milo, please go up and get changed!” Hyacinth cried. “I need another human being whose brain is working right! I have things I need to do!”
Oh, gods, yes, thought Milo. He nodded, though Hyacinth was still dealing with the green man in the pork pie hat and she probably didn’t see. Milo was used to helping out with the house at five o’clock in the morning, before the people showed up and the crazy started to happen. Ann dealt with the crazy, but Ann could deal with the crazy. Milo just needed to navigate through the crazy and get to the dresses in the closet and be Ann.
Okay, right. Just gotta get past the people and go up the stairs. Right. Just… Don’t talk to anybody and don’t look at anybody and go.
If he could’ve done magic right now, he would’ve gone back outside and crawled up the side of the house instead. He was still sort of thinking of doing that.
(Maybe I could sort of get my toes in between the bricks? I’d have to break a window, we could fix it later…)
No, that really wasn’t an option. It was either get up the stairs or move away forever, because Hyacinth would be really mad at him that he didn’t help her when she needed it and she’d hate him and he’d have to leave.
Okay. Stairs. Ann. Right.
He put both hands over his ears (the kid with the guitar was running through a compendium of horrible noises, trying to discern the worst), he held his breath and he ran. He managed to dodge one flying book, but not another. It struck him in the shoulder and it was painful, but it did not impede him. He trod upon and scattered an oak tree that the house-of-cards man had constructed out of poker chips, causing the man to go, “Hey!” That scared Milo worse than the books and the horrible noises, but he didn’t stop to apologize or pick things up. (He won’t be mad at Ann. I’ll just be careful so he never sees me again, then he won’t yell.) There were a couple more books to cope with on the way up the stairs, but no more people and he didn’t really notice if he got hit again or not after he upset the house-of-cards man.
Then he had his hand on his door and then he was in his room and then he was pretty sure he was safe.
Sometimes there were people in his closet, or in his bed. He really hated that. Ann thought it was funny.
There was an umbrella leaning up against the wall near the door. He hadn’t taken it with him because it wasn’t cloudy and Mordecai hadn’t been playing any damn music… He wouldn’t even have gone if Mordecai had been playing some music! He poked the umbrella cautiously into the closet and stirred it around, then he moved the dresses aside with a hand and looked in. After a moment’s frowning thought, he poked the umbrella under the bed as well and had a look under there.
He put on a dress.
Ann collapsed on the bed, doubled over and giggling. “Oh, gods! The most annoying sound in the world! Oh, Milo, that boy is brilliant!”
“Miss Hyacinth, I found it!” Maggie called. She carried the box out of Room 204 without pausing to shut the door behind her.
“What the hell was it doing upstairs?” said Hyacinth.
“I dunno. I didn’t put it there.”
“Hell,” said Hyacinth. “Just leave it at the bottom of the stairs. I don’t want to have anything in the kitchen. Mordecai might cook with it.” She didn’t think he’d get after the postcards or the puzzles, but that modeling clay was just begging to be repurposed and flavored. She proceeded to the kitchen to check on matters there.
Ann was sitting on a cot beside the blue man with no fashion sense, comforting with tissues. She had been able to get the green kid with the guitar back to doing crickets and frogs with some compliments and a well-placed suggestion, now she was trying to do something about the flying books. In any case, she had managed to stop him from making more.
“There, dear. It’s all right now.”
“That man is horrible!” said the blue man with no fashion sense.
“I’m sure he’s just doing his best,” Ann said.
The green man with the pork pie hat was sitting on another cot at the opposite end of the room and glaring at them. He was still wearing the hat and he had refused to put down his suitcase, which he was holding in his lap. He was more irritated about the lack of toilets than the man in the dress, but that didn’t mean he approved of the man in the dress, or the damned flying books.
“What’s your name, dear?” Ann said.
“Liam,” said the blue man, damply. He blew his nose.
“Do you like books an awful lot, Liam?”
“Yes! They’re my friends!”
“Well, that’s very nice. I’m just a bit worried about them, though. I don’t think they’re used to so much activity. I wonder if you think they might like a bit of a rest?”
“In the cots?” said Liam.
“Well… Maybe in one cot. I was sort of thinking they might like it back in the shelf where they live…”
“You’re congesting them!” Liam cried. “They can’t breathe!”
“Oh, I’m very sorry. I didn’t know that. Do you think they might like it better if we spread them out all over the room? You can pick out some different places to put them.”
“Yes! I think they’d be a lot happier that way!”
“Oh, good. Well, then let’s do that. I’ll help you with it. Let’s start with the flying ones, I’m sure they’re very tired…”
In the kitchen, Barnaby was sitting at the table and surrounded by piles of food. He was sampling some of them.
“How’s that range of motion?” Hyacinth asked him.
Barnaby laid down his fork and twisted slightly in his seat. Hyacinth could hear his spine crackle. He winced. “Improving, thank you,” he said with a smile.
“Think you’re about ready to come help me in the other room?”
“I was rather enjoying the kitchen, actually,” Barnaby said. He was in the middle of a piece of cheesecake and he resumed it. It appeared to have been made with yellow cheese somehow, but it was still quite nice. It was fluffy.
“Hyacinth!” cried Mordecai. “Eat this!” He presented her with a striped plate holding an entire pie. The crust was pale and crumbling and it was mounded with glistening white stuff. Mordecai’s vest and tie and the front of his trousers were dusted liberally with white flour. He had rolled up his sleeves.
“What kind it is?” she said doubtfully.
Uh-oh. “Do we have coconut?” she said.
“No!” he replied happily.
“A shredded carrot meringue pie.”
“It tastes like coconut!”
“I’m sure it does,” she replied. “I’ll take it out front and share it around.” At least it was made of food. They hadn’t run out of food yet. It looked like there were still four cartons of eggs remaining. She had no idea what might be left in the basement and the pantry. Ann was going to have to try to find a store that was open, but they needed more water first. The General was out there with the big vase going back and forth right now, and she’d managed to improve the level in the flowerpot somewhat, but Ann was capable of hauling two buckets at once and much faster. Hyacinth was going to send her out as soon as Barnaby was available to lend a hand, whether the flying books had been dealt with or not.
“Barnaby, do try and pull yourself together,” she said. “We’re going to have plenty of food in the front room, as soon as I work out what to put it on.” She thought the pie could go on the low table between the upholstered chairs, there was room next to the bowl of contraceptive charms, but she was going to have to grab a table or a desk from someplace for the rest of it.
“Yes, but he’s taking requests,” Barnaby said.
“A croquembouche!” said Mordecai, indicating a towering plate on the counter. He had already assembled it. He was somehow producing spun sugar to go around it from a glass pot with a wooden spoon.
“It has strawberries in it,” said Hyacinth, staring.
“Do we have strawberries?”
“You’re taking your life in your hands, Barnaby,” she warned him.
“Every minute of every day, Alice,” he replied. Stiffly, he got up to investigate his croquembouche and sample a non-strawberry.
In the front room, Ann and her new friend Liam were putting the flying books to bed in various random spaces around the room. There were only about ten left in the air. Ann had managed to keep most of them out of the cots, but one cot had two books sharing a pillow and blanket in it. If they needed the space for a person later, Ann thought she might say those two would like to look out the window.
Magnificent was proactively dealing with the house of cards. “I think maybe people are gonna want to play with the cards,” she said. She knew Ted and Steven usually got a poker game going, unless they were doing something else more weird. “We’ve got stuff in this box for building things. I think you could probably do something really neat with the clay…”
Hyacinth set the pie on the table. She wasn’t yet sure how they were going to dish it out. Mordecai had commandeered all of the dishes. “Hey, Ann, you didn’t ask Erik if he wanted anything to eat, did you?” Erik hadn’t had breakfast and it was getting towards lunch. And there was rather a lot of food.
“No, my love. Do you think I should?” She rested a book gently to one side on the edge of a stair. “The poor thing didn’t seem like he wanted much.” She’d asked what he wanted to drink when she took the bed down, and he only wanted ice water. There wasn’t ice, but Mordecai had managed to do very, very cold and slushy water in a glass and Erik had been all right with that. Not happy. He didn’t seem capable of happy at the moment, but he was grateful for the water and the bed.
“Maybe we’ll try him in a little bit. I’d like him to eat something, but it’s more important he drinks. Do you think you’ve got a minute to go down to the pump in Strawberry Square? I’d like to be done with the water before it starts to rain…”
“You’re not going to make this nice lady haul water in a storm,” Liam said, snatching a book from mid-air. “That’s like a gothic novel!”
“That is not a lady,” said the green man in the pork pie hat.
“You are not a gentleman,” Liam disdained. “Please, miss, let me help you…”
“Liam, my dear, I really think you had better stay put in the house.”
“I know, but show me what you’re going to carry it in. I’ll make it lighter for you.”
“Darling, it really isn’t necessary, I’m not exactly…” She wasn’t sure if Liam was parsing her as a boy in a dress or if it would upset him to find that out. “…delicate,” she hedged.
“Please, I insist!”
“Well… All right, dear. Show me what you want to do.” Ann and Liam departed for the kitchen.
There were three heavy thuds on the front door. Hyacinth did not commence her usual irritated hollering about the door being open. It was possible the people on the other side were in no shape to open a door or be hollered at.
A yellow man in gray overalls, an orange woman with a brown and pink flowered dress, and a rose-pink little girl with white curls were standing on the porch and they were definitely not in door-opening condition. The woman was bundled in a fire blanket with her face in hooded shadow and no other part of her visible. The man was holding her and the blanket around her, and both of them were sobbing. The little girl was grinning and doing an eager little dance, rapping the heels of her shoes on the wooden planks. Bethany was another sugar and cocaine kid. “Hi, Miss Hyacinth!” she said. “Where’s Erik?”
Uh-oh, thought Hyacinth. We are short one fountain of boundless energy, not good. Bethany and Erik usually kept each other busy. Not out of trouble, but entertained. She was younger than him, but Erik never minded hanging out with her because they were both on approximately the same intellectual level during magic storms. (“Let’s find stuff and do it!” “Yeah!”)
Erik was in the basement and the only stuff he was liable to do was hide and cry. Hyacinth didn’t think there were any other colored kids in the neighborhood, not young ones. The adults and teenagers tended to lose patience with little kids, and they wanted to do adult and teenage things. Even Ted and Maria were probably going to spend most of the storm finding places to hide and amuse themselves — if they managed to quit crying.
“The cat!” Ted said, shuddering. “The cat! The cat!”
“Hey, Er-ik!” Bethany sang, pushing past Hyacinth. “I wanna play!”
“Maggie, play with Bethany!” Hyacinth cried. She was trying to get Ted and Maria into the house. She’d sort out the crying and whatever it was about a cat in a minute…
“Bethany?” Maggie said. Her eyes widened. She had also made the connection. Oh, no. Erik can’t play with Bethany…
“Maggie!” said Bethany, easily swayed. “Come play with me and be a bird!”
“Um, I can play with you, but I can’t be a bird today, kiddo.”
“You’re dumb,” said Bethany. “Where’s Erik?” She walked past Maggie and up the stairs.
Maggie attempted to impede her, “Erik can’t play right now, Bethany! It’s gotta be me!”
“I had a cat,” Maria said, weeping. “His name was Francisco. He got hit by a milk cart when I was ten!”
“Well… I’m sorry to hear that,” Hyacinth said.
“He was such a good kitty!”
Ted tipped his head back and began to laugh. Not happily. He had just gone past crying and come out the other side. “What kind of a world is this!”
“I’m not really sure, but it’s got hot tea and tissues in it, if you’d just like to come in and sit down…”
“I wanna play jump rope!” Bethany demanded.
“I don’t really have a jump rope, but I guess Ann and Milo have some clothesline…”
“Is that a pie?” said Bethany.
The green kid with the guitar had just availed himself of a slice. He had not bothered with a plate or a knife. He had excised it with magic and it was levitating at head height and following him like a mage light. He motioned it nearer with a hand and had a bite of it, grinning. A dab of meringue fell on to the tile floor but the crumbs remained floating with the slice. “Fab,” he said. He adjusted his guitar and played the sound of a train blowing through a signal.
“I bet I can do that!” Bethany cried.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Maggie said. She wasn’t sure if Bethany meant the train noise or the flying pie…
“He had such a sweet little face!” Ted shrieked.
“Francisco did?” Hyacinth said. She applied more tissues. She had got them to sit down on a cot and accept tissues, but she would like to see a little abatement in the hysteria before she attempted any tea.
“The sweet little kitty in the gutter! But he wasn’t sleeping!”
Maria snarled and swatted her husband on the chest. “Francisco had a sweet little face, too!” The blanket fell down from around her shoulders and revealed a little white bundle cradled in the crook of her arm. There was a small red face peeping out with wide eyes and a smile.
“Oh, shit,” said Hyacinth, aloud. Bethany wasn’t going to be the only little kid here after all.
Ted and Maria did not notice her cursing the latest addition to their family.
“Was Francisco a little calico?” Ted was saying, somewhat more coherently but with sniffles interspersed.
“Francisco was black, with una corbatita blanca!”
Oh, and we’re back in Iliodario, thought Hyacinth. Soon, we will be running through the wheat fields in our bare feet and crying about that. But at least Ted didn’t usually cry about that stuff. Usually.
Five feet away, Bethany blew up the shredded carrot meringue pie. White fluff went flying in every direction, some of it even adhered to the second floor railing. She threw her head back and cackled like an evil doll in a horror movie. “Yay!”
“Hey, what the hell,” said the green kid with the guitar. “Some of us were eating that, squirt.”
“I am positive there is more pie,” Maggie said. “If you watch Bethany for two seconds, I will find some!”
“That’s a really cute kid,” Hyacinth offered, pulling pie crumbs out of her hair. “How old is it?” She thought it looked around throw-pillow age but she wanted to be very sure.
“Five months,” Maria said.
“Not crawling around yet, right?”
“No, but see how he smiles!” Maria held him up proudly. He dangled like a loaf of bread and grinned toothlessly at Hyacinth.
Hyacinth snickered at him. Hey, you’re having the time of your tiny life, aren’t ya? Good, because that would cut down on the screaming. Bad, because it would also cut down on the eating and sleeping and yelling for service when his diaper needed attention. This little sucker looked like he’d stay pretty happy if you abandoned him in a mud puddle with a piranha fish.
But at least he wasn’t going to be running around and pulling the furniture down on top of himself.
Not until next year, thought Hyacinth with a sigh.
She smiled and tweaked the baby’s nose. He giggled at her. “So what’s his name?” The adorable infant line of questioning seemed to be having a calming effect on the parents. Ted took the boy from Maria and cradled him like a security blanket.
“Pablo,” Maria said. “Pablocito… Like his grandfather back in Carina Lara!” She wailed and sobbed into her hands.
Well, that didn’t work, thought Hyacinth.
“Okay, squirt. Hit it,” said the green kid with the guitar. He was sitting on a cot and fingering the fretboard, but he had offered the strings to Bethany. “See what you get.”
Grinning, Bethany strummed the guitar and produced the sound of glass shattering. (It made Hyacinth wince and look over.) “Awesome!” she cried.
“Pablocito will never get to run barefoot through the wheat fields like back in Carina Lara!” Maria cried. “Everything in San Rosille is paved!”
Oh, boy, here we go, thought Hyacinth. Both she and Ted patted Maria.
“Poor Francisco never would’ve got run over by a milk cart back in Carina Lara!”
Ted dropped his head and began to choke and cry again.
Goddamnit, thought Hyacinth.
Maggie came out of the kitchen bearing what appeared to be a pie — and Hyacinth hoped like hell she had bothered to rigorously confirm that before bringing it out for people to eat it. She was followed in short order by Ann, who seemed distracted and kept looking back over her shoulder as if she were being shadowed by a large man with a baseball bat.
She was being shadowed, it turned out, by a floating white ceramic pitcher, two of the old paint cans that they had been employing as buckets, and the laundry tub — which was large enough to serve the household for baths as well. These were followed by Liam, who was smiling and appeared pleased with himself.
“Liam, my dear friend, I really don’t think all this is necessary…” She made a cautious circuit of the room, and the vessels trailed obediently after, neither falling nor banging her in the head.
“Divide and conquer, Miss Ann!” the blue man declared. “If you should attract a magic strike, it won’t get all of them. If you can make it home with that great big one intact, you won’t have to go out again like a poor orphan in the rain.”
“Well, yes, I suppose that is true…”
Barnaby emerged from the kitchen as well. He was following the pie. “Magnificent, I was eating that!”
“You were not, Mr. Graham,” Maggie replied. She put the pie on the table next to the contraceptive charms.
“I was intending to!” Barnaby said. “It’s blueberry!”
“It can’t be!” cried Hyacinth.
“Well, it’s blueberry-ish,” said Barnaby.
“It’s not blue,” Maggie said suspiciously. It was a bit red, actually. And… possibly glowing?
The green kid with the guitar and the yellow house-of-cards man (who was currently reconstructing a beach scene from one of the postcards with the clay) wandered over to have a look at it. Magnificent stumbled a step back from it. Bethany dragged at the skirt of her dress, “Ma-a-agie! Be a bi-i-ird!”
“Barnaby!” said Hyacinth. She had finally got him out of the kitchen, but now the only thing she could think to do with him was send him back. “Please get some water going for tea. I’ve got some really unhappy people out here, and I think they’d like tea, and I know Seth is going to want some. And I need some more tissues, okay? They’re in the pantry.”
“Oh, all right,” said Barnaby, abandoning the pie. There might be something more interesting under construction in the kitchen.
The green kid with the guitar was dishing out pie without dishes. Liam walked over to commiserate with his fellow aficionado of flying objects. “Is it rhubarb?”
“I really doubt it,” Maggie said.
“Are you sure it’s food?” Hyacinth called over.
Maggie flung a gesture, simultaneously attempting to disentangle Bethany from her dress. “I mean, it smells like food!”
“I don’t think that’s a guarantee right now!”
There was another knock at the door.
Hyacinth growled and swore. The baby laughed.
Ann-plus-buckets answered the door without prompting.
Hyacinth heard a high, ragged voice cry, “Annie! The poor little kitty-cat!”
“Oh, my gods, no…” Hyacinth had time to say, before Ted and Maria overrode her, “The ca-a-at!”
“A kitty-cat?” said Liam, weakly.
“Cerise!” Ann said. “Oh, my darling, what are you doing here?” Cerise lived down in SoHo, near the club. She was pink, but darker than Bethany. She had apparently decided to come as Cerise rather than Charlie — she had makeup and a filmy pink dress. She was wearing muddy brown work boots from her other job (under her birth name) as a landscaper, and she had forgotten to put on her hair. Cerise had a small selection of wigs in cotton candy pink, which she always wore with a glittery cherry barrette. You have to have a gimmick to get anywhere in this business, Annie, she’d say, adjusting it. Her real hair was wispy and short and prone to flyaways. It looked a bit odd with the makeup and the dress. And the boots.
“I like you, Annie,” Cerise said miserably. “You said you had a shelter. I don’t like the shelter on South Hollister, they only have one toilet. I got on the bus.” Her expression crumpled and she spilled black tears over her powdered cheeks. “I didn’t know about the kitty-cat!”
“Right, that’s it,” said the green man in the pork pie hat. He rose with his suitcase. One of those was bad enough. Apparently, this was some kind of mecca for them.
“Sit down, stupid man with the hat!” snapped Hyacinth. She couldn’t disentangle herself, she had to make her voice enough. “Yes, you! I’m not going to let you try to walk down to Pine Street and get struck by magic, no matter how disagreeable you are!”
“Mr. Olivier!” snarled the green man in the pork pie had.
“Sit down, Mr. Olivier!”
Mr. Olivier sat down.
“Oh, my dear!” Ann said. She threw an arm around Cerise’s shoulders and bundled her inside. Hyacinth had the tissues, and some more crying people, so Ann walked her over there. “What’s this about a cat?”
“It had such a sweet face!” Ted howled.
“It had the cutest little toes!” Cerise cried, burying her face in tissues. “Didn’t it have the cutest little pink toes?”
Liam was crying, too, but not hysterically. Yet. “What’s wrong with the kitty-cat?”
“It’s in the gutter like poor little Francisco!” said Maria.
Liam collapsed to his knees on the tile floor, weeping. “Oh, no! Who’s Francisco?”
Maria lapsed entirely into Iliodarian to eulogize Francisco, but the damage had already been done. There were four people in tears over various dead cats and the concept of dead cats. They were running out of tissues fast, and Ann and Hyacinth were having difficulty distributing enough comfort between them.
“Maggie, are you still in here?” Hyacinth cried.
“Sorta…” Maggie said. Bethany had wrapped herself around Maggie’s left leg and was attempting to drag her to the floor while giggling.
“I need you to get out of here and go find that damn cat! I think it’s over near Eddows Lane and the bus stop. I might get more people coming from that direction and I can’t cope! Hide it or something!”
“We buried Francisco in a shoe box in the park!” Maria said.
“Having a little trouble walking, Miss Hyacinth!” Maggie said.
Barnaby returned from the kitchen with tissue boxes.
“Barnaby, play with Bethany!” said Hyacinth.
“Play with her?” said Barnaby, peering at the giggling pink moppet with the curls and the sadistic grin. These words made no sense. “Don’t you want tissues?”
“Give me the tissues and then play with Bethany!” Theoretically, she could send Barnaby after the cat and keep Magnificent home to be tormented, Barnaby functioned during magic storms, but he was old and fragile and she didn’t like to send him out by himself. If Bethany broke him, at least she’d be there to pick up the pieces.
Barnaby wandered over and numbly handed Hyacinth tissues. Then he just stood there, wincing in Bethany’s general direction.
“You need to get near her to play with her,” Hyacinth intimated through clenched teeth, as Maria began to expound on the unfairness that people were walking their awful dogs over Francisco.
Barnaby edged towards Bethany and Magnificent as if traversing the narrow ledge of a ten-story building.
“Bethany, look!” said Maggie, pointing. “It’s Grandpa Barnaby!”
“What?” said Bethany.
“What?” said Barnaby.
“Grandpa Barnaby has candy!” Magnificent said.
“Candy?” said Bethany.
“I do not have…” Barnaby said. Bethany glommed on to his leg. Magnificent ran for the door.
Barnaby shoved at Bethany’s head with one hand. “Release me! I do not have candy!”
“He’s lying, search him!” Maggie called back.
Bethany began to grin.
Maggie opened the door on three older women in form-fitting bright-colored clothing with fantastic hats. They were chatting with each other and preparing to open the door themselves, being familiar with Hyacinth’s house. The eldest of them was pitch black, with sparkling blue eyes and a wide smile.
Maggie announced them, “Miss Hyacinth, the ladies from the Dove Cot are here.” She ducked rapidly past them to go deal with the cat, which she much preferred to dealing with Bethany. She might just decide to hang out with the cat for a little while, if she found it too quickly.
Hyacinth addressed the latest arrivals with a nod. They were, thankfully, not crying. The brothel was just at the other end of Green Dragon Alley, they hadn’t been anywhere near the cat. “Elizabeth. Tania. Make yourselves at home. Who’s the new girl?”
“Prostitutes?” cried Mr. Olivier.
“Sit down, Mr. Olivier!” said Hyacinth.
The red woman nudged the pale lavender one, who appeared either nervous or shy and was staring at all the chaos. “Violette,” said the lavender woman.
“Oh, well, that’ll be easy to remember,” said Hyacinth. “Right. If your friends didn’t tell you,” and Tania and Elizabeth had senses of humor, so probably not, “there’s no electric and no plumbing and no toilet. There’s a chamber pot in the closet there, and there’s one in each bathroom and one in the kitchen… But there is also an insane man in the kitchen and I would not advise going in there unless you are hungry.”
Elizabeth bee-lined for the kitchen, and so did the green kid with the guitar.
“No toilet at all?” said Violette, weakly.
“Even the harlot is more civilized than any of you people!” Mr. Olivier declared.
“No toilet?” Cerise said, stifling a sob with a silk hanky.
“I am very sorry for not mentioning it, dear,” Ann said. “It just never came up. I didn’t think you would come here. You surprised me!” She smiled. “I can show you how to use a chamber pot if you need. It’s not hard.”
“Will anyone see me?” Cerise said uncomfortably.
“No!” Ann assured her. “The bathrooms have doors at the moment!”
Tania nudged Violette and indicated Ann with a pointed finger. “It’s a trap,” she said, but not low enough to go unheard.
Violette regarded Ann and Cerise and stumbled back a pace.
Ann straightened and frowned, just briefly. She smiled again at Cerise, but with eyes slightly narrowed. “Cerise, angel, I would like you to meet my very dear friend, Liam. Liam likes books a great deal.”
“And kitty-cats,” Liam said, honking into a tissue.
“Yes, darling, I think we might just be able to take that as a given.” She gave Liam’s hand to Cerise. “Liam, this is my very dear friend, Cerise. She is a dancer!”
“Hello,” Liam managed damply.
“Hello,” Cerise said.
“Do you think the two of you might be able to look after each other for just a little while? I really must get down to the pump in Strawberry Square and get some water for the house.” She laughed. “And I must say, the flying buckets are making me just a bit nervous. I’m rather anxious to finish up so I can be uncursed!”
“I’ll take care of her for you, Miss Ann.” Liam said. He offered a tissue.
“What a dear man!” said Cerise. She dabbed her running eyes.
Ann strode past Tania and Violette with her head up and out the front door — followed by buckets. She shut the door after them.
“You poor child,” Liam said. “What on earth has happened to your hair?”
Cerise touched her hair with a hand. “Oh my gods, I’ve left it on the bus!”
Bethany had found a cough drop in one of Barnaby’s coat pockets and she was sucking it with a disappointed expression. It was a Thierry’s. Barnaby was pretty sure they had quit making those before the war. The cough drop was older than Bethany.
“This is crummy candy,” Bethany decided at last. She spat it into the palm of her hand and dropped it back into Barnaby’s coat pocket before he could protest.
“Ugh,” said Barnaby. He went after it with a hand, but bailed out when he felt slime. I’ll let Hyacinth deal with it. She does laundry…
“You got anything else?” Bethany said, grinning.
“No!” cried Barnaby. He had only just picked himself off the floor after the previous assault.
“You’re boring and dumb,” Bethany said. “Where’s Maggie?”
“I am not boring!” Barnaby said. “I am practically a madman! I drink and steal zoo animals!”
“Do you got any here?” said Bethany, suspiciously.
“Well, no, not at the moment. I really don’t like to leave the house…”
“Boring!” Bethany accused.
Barnaby was wounded. I really don’t do anything fun anymore. I can’t leave the house. I don’t even drink. I read the paper and I arrange things and I break stuff…
Now he grinned. “Stephanie…”
“I don’t care. How do you feel about wanton destruction?”
There was the sound of breaking glass again. Hyacinth looked up, but the green kid with the guitar was nowhere to be seen. Barnaby and Bethany, however, were visible by the bookshelf, standing in a puddle of buttons and glass shards. They looked pleased with it.
“Barnaby, what the hell are you doing?”
“I am playing, Alice,” he replied. “Come, Stephanie. There’s a box of old plates in Room 103…”
But Tania had been attracted by the remnants of the button jar and she was not being very mindful of the glass, and Mr. Olivier was screaming at the yellow man who had been constructing the beach scene (there was a tiny white seagull circling above them and Mr. Olivier’s hat appeared to have been decorated with bird droppings, so that was the story over there), and Ted was still alternately crying and laughing about the cat and Hyacinth really could not spare a minute to separate Barnaby from the plates.
Oh, well, I suppose we have those plates for Barnaby to break them, anyway. It isn’t any harm if he wants to do them all now…
“Mr. Olivier, sit down!” she cried. “I am almost positive that is not real shit!”