In the Basement (63)

Seth in military dress looking horrified. Lyrics of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb behind him

A man in frayed denim trousers and a hooded blanket was standing on the porch, rain-specked and shivering. That was all that was immediately apparent, except for two blue hands — one clutching the blanket around him and the other leaning against the doorframe.

“Oh, Seth, thank gods,” said Hyacinth, bundling him inside. “I was beginning to think we were going to have to come after you.”

Seth Zusman was the schoolteacher, for a given value of ‘school’ and ‘teacher.’ He used to be a real teacher in a real school with walls and books and such, but academia and all other respectable professions had demonstrated an even greater reluctance to hire colored people after the war. Now, he delivered newspapers, but he’d kept up with the teaching. The ‘school’ was under a railway bridge in Cinders Alley. He also lived under there. He had long since given up on doss houses, preferring to spend his money on paper and pencils. Living under the bridge also discouraged people from walking off with pieces of the school, although sometimes they did that anyway.

He always arrived late, if he arrived at all. He had a very hard time during storms. Sometimes he was unable to pull himself together enough to walk the two blocks to the house, or he would pass out in an alley somewhere attempting to make his paper deliveries in the early AM. Occasionally the kids would find him and bring him in, but if he didn’t make it by the time the rain started to fall, Ann and Hyacinth would go out looking for him.

“Hyacinth,” he said. “I-I’m…” He bent double and threw up on the skirt of her dress. Looked like it might’ve been an instant soup, there were little pieces of noodles in it.

“I’m so sorry,” he said weakly.

“It’s all right, I’m used to it,” Hyacinth said. She was. She did not cringe or drop him, but she did pause a moment to steady him before continuing to drag him towards the basement. “Thank you very much for not getting it down my cleavage. What there is of it,” she added, regarding the front of her dress.

“I’m so embarrassed. I’m so sorry…”

“It’s all right, really. Come on. We’ve got a place for you all ready downstairs. Erik’s going to be keeping you company this time.”

“Erik?” he said, blinking.

Seth!” Bethany cried. She bounded over and hugged him around both legs, which nearly caused him to keel over face-first on the tile.

“Bethany, for gods’ sakes!” said Hyacinth.

Seth managed a smile, though a pained one. “Hello, Bethany, my dear. I’m glad you’re safe here.”

“Seth! Will you come play with me? Erik won’t play with me. Erik is in the basement. So you can be out of the basement and play, okay?”

“I would like to, Bethany,” he said faintly. “But I really don’t think I’m going to manage it. I’m so sorry.” He was having a serious issue with either strength or balance and wobbling precariously over Bethany’s persistent embrace. Hyacinth wrapped both arms around him as well.

“Bethany, you are killing your teacher,” she said. She nudged the child with a shoe, like an overly-affectionate dog. “Get off of him. Go play with Maggie.”

“Maggie won’t be a bird!” Bethany complained. Nevertheless, she released Seth and took a step backwards to do so.

“You haven’t pestered her enough,” Hyacinth said. “Ask her a hundred times. You can count to a hundred, can’t you?”

Bethany grinned at her. “Yes! Seth taught me!”

“Hooray,” said Hyacinth. “Go show Maggie!”

Bethany ran off to torment Maggie, which was fine by Hyacinth. Maggie could take it.

“Okay, Seth. Here we go.” She got him walking again. He staggered.

“N-not sure I’m going to make it…”

“Well, let’s give it our best shot.” She would’ve put his arm around her, but that would mean dropping the fire blanket, and that probably would kill him. “Here’s the stairs. Careful.” She got him down there somehow, although he nearly tipped over the banister twice. When he saw the cot and the chamber pot Maggie had considerately set up for him, he scrambled forward without assistance and availed himself of the latter, losing a bit more soup.

Hyacinth wrapped him in a second blanket.

Erik was also wrapped in two blankets and sitting up cross-legged in bed. He did not want to get out of the bed. He didn’t know if there were magic places on the floor down here, and he wasn’t eager to find out. He knew there were some places on the stairs. Hyacinth had guided his bare feet around them. Milo killed a toaster on the stairs awhile back. They had to patch the holes.

He thought if he had to get up later and use the chamber pot under the stairs, he might just take his elephant with him and hang out under there for the duration — it seemed safer.

If he hadn’t been afraid of the floor and the stairs, he would’ve gotten up to help Hyacinth with Seth. You couldn’t really see him because of the blanket, but he could hardly walk and he had just puked. Erik had a vague idea that Seth was always in the basement during storms, but he didn’t think he ever knew why or cared. He didn’t know the poor guy was being sick down here. Now that he was intimately acquainted with just how sick magic storms could make you feel, he was even more worried. Seth might even be feeling worse than him.

“Auntie Hyacinth, is he okay?”

Seth looked up at him from the floor. The blanket had slipped down and you could see his face a little. His eyes and nose were running like he was crying, but he wasn’t sobbing or making the sounds. There was some damp near the corner of his mouth that might’ve been throw-up. He yawned and covered it with a hand.

“No, Erik, he’s not okay,” Hyacinth said. “He gets pretty sick, but now he’s here and we can take care of him. We’ll get him through the storm and then he’ll be okay again. You will be, too.”

“Erik is here,” Seth said. He shook his head. “Hyacinth, I shouldn’t be down here. I’ll frighten him.”

“Neither one of you is going upstairs,” Hyacinth replied. “You both need the basement and there’s room for two. Erik doesn’t frighten very easy, anyway.” She smiled at him.

“I saw Ann get murdered one time,” Erik volunteered.

“Ann…?” Seth said.

“It was a play,” Hyacinth told him.

“This isn’t,” Seth said. He wiped his eyes with a hand and sniffled. He yawned again. “Hyacinth, I say things.”

“My uncle said a lot when he was sick,” Erik said. “Some of it was scary,” he admitted, “but I know it was just because he was hurt. He wasn’t really mad at me or crazy or anything.”

Seth blinked at him. He dropped his head. “I shouldn’t,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t…”

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” said Hyacinth, “but you’re going to have to. Come on, Seth. I’ve got to get you something to drink and then look after the rest of the house. Mordecai is in the kitchen, cooking. He’s doing things with fire. And the gods alone know about everyone else.”

“He’s not playing the ‘cello?” Seth said.

“He has a violin now, actually. I wish he would play it. He’s worked his way into desserts now. Puddings and custards. I don’t know what he’s going to do when we run out of eggs. He may scream. I may scream.”

Seth paled and pressed a hand over his mouth. “Please… I’m sorry.”

“All the more reason for you to stay in the basement,” Hyacinth said. She stood and addressed him with one finger raised, “Now, you are going to stay here and not try to get up the stairs, right? I don’t think you’d make it, but I don’t want you to fall.”

“I’ll stay,” he said softly. He sat down on the floor and pulled both blankets tighter around him. “I’m sorry, Hyacinth. I know you have a lot to do without me.”

“Yeah, but you’re the one I worry about. Do you want tea or water with lemon?” It was hard for him to drink because he kept getting sick. He didn’t like plain water.

Seth breathed a long sigh. “Tea, I think. Thank you.”

Hyacinth smiled at him as she mounted the stairs. “Be brave, Seth. Set the kid a good example.”

He responded to it, but weakly. He put a hand to his head and then covered his eyes. Then he yawned and covered that.

“Are you tired?” Erik asked. That was starting to make him tired, and Auntie Hyacinth had given him a lot of medicine.

“Yes,” Seth said, “but that isn’t why. It’s just… It’s something that used to happen. I think it happens again because the way I feel reminds me.” He yawned and winced. “It kind of hurts… I guess everything hurts.”

Erik nodded. “Do you get shocks when you touch magic stuff? That’s been happening to me. It’s why I don’t have my eye.” He touched the patch. If he touched the metal, he got shocked.

Seth shook his head. “It hits everyone differently. I’m sorry it’s hurting you this time, Erik. I really wish you didn’t have to be here.”

“I like it better than being by myself,” Erik said. “When I woke up, I was really scared. I thought I got hurt again, but no one was there to help me.”

“I remember being hurt, too,” Seth said.

“Did you get hurt?” Erik asked him. He knew Seth had been through the siege, with Uncle Mordecai. He guessed a lot of people got hurt.

“No. Not… injured. I guess I was, a few times, but that isn’t what I remember.” He sighed. “Maybe that’s why it’s different for everyone. Different memories.”

Erik nodded.

They were quiet for a time, huddled under blankets and remembering different pain.

Hyacinth came down with a tray. She had tea and a teapot, three pill bottles, a packet of soda crackers and a glass of water. She dished Erik out a couple of pills with water, left him the glass on the floor next to his cot, and gave everything else to Seth. “Here. Do you remember these? You know the difference?” She showed him the pills.

He nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”

“One at a time. I know how hard it is for you to keep anything down. Even if you can only manage it for a little, that’s better than nothing. See if you can do some of those crackers. Five million pregnant women can’t be wrong.”

He smiled with difficulty. “Yes. Thank you. I’ll try.”

“Give this tea a taste.” She held up the cup for him. “It was in the kitchen. I think Mordecai might’ve done something to it. If you can’t stand it, I’ll smack him and make some more.”

Seth obligingly sipped. He blinked at it. It tasted faintly of licorice, That was always how Auntie Enora flavored his medicine. She knew he liked it.

Alba used to get Auntie Enora for him when she could. She wasn’t really supposed to — it was extravagance, he wasn’t really sick and Alba had other things she ought to be doing — but she was kind.

“Hyacinth, did he know this was for me?”

Hyacinth shook her head and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. “I’m not sure he knows what planet he’s on at the moment. Is it all right?”

Seth nodded. He took the cup and sipped again. “It’s good. Please thank him for me.”

“Well, I’ll say it in his general direction. I can’t promise you he’ll notice it.” She nodded to them both. “Seth, keep drinking. Erik, if you can sleep, do. Ann and I are going to be back down to check on you two, so no shenanigans.”

Neither Seth nor Erik were in any kind of shape to manage a single shenanigan, or even a monkeyshine, and the suggestion that they might failed to raise any kind of a laugh. Hyacinth climbed the stairs and left them to their misery. She had done all she could.

Seth sipped tea and took pills at regular intervals — until he felt he was in danger of sicking everything up, then he took a break. Erik lay back in bed and closed his eye. Above them, the storm was walking and talking. Seth had arrived with the rain and thunder. They would be getting strikes soon. Seth wasn’t looking forward to it, he knew how he reacted to strikes. Erik wasn’t looking forward to it, he didn’t know how he reacted to strikes, not anymore.

“Erik, I hope I don’t scare you,” Seth said. “I’m sorry if I do. I don’t mean to talk about it. It doesn’t hurt that much. I’m not… I’m not dying, I just… I get stuck thinking about things and I don’t really know what I’m saying anymore.”

“My uncle gets stuck in the hotel.” Erik said, eye still closed.

“Do you know about that?” Seth asked him.

“No. I could if I kept thinking about it, but I don’t want to. It feels scary and I think there’s a lot of blood. And not pretend like when it was Ann.”

“You could know about it?”

Erik sighed. “I know stuff since I got hurt. I don’t like to tell people because it sounds crazy, but everyone at home knows I do. They talk to me. The Invisibles tell me things.”

“The gods?”

“Yeah. You don’t have to believe me. It won’t make any difference.”

“Erik, you don’t want to mess around with the gods,” Seth said quickly. “And you don’t want to mess around with that hotel. Your uncle doesn’t talk about it for a reason.”

“I know. I’m sorry. Sometimes I say things I don’t mean to talk about, too.”

Seth laughed weakly. “Oh, goodness, we’re a pair. I think we might scare each other.”

“I think…”

There was a roar of thunder and a strike, not to the house, but nearby. They both felt it. The radio gave a squawk and the stringed amplifier flashed.

Seth said, “Suh-sewing needles! I’m sorry, Erik.”

Erik just moaned. It hurt his head. It ached like when he was too tired and they were going to make him talk. It hadn’t hurt like that since winter. Sometimes he dreamed about it, nightmares that scared him, but it didn’t really hurt like that. It was fast, it swelled and faded and it didn’t dig in its claws, but it was the same pain.

Oh, gods, is that going to happen every time? Until it goes away? What about when it hits the house?

He put both hands over his face and his eye spilled over tears. “I don’t… like it. It… hurts. I’m… scared.”

“I-I don’t like it, either. But…” Seth’s humane impulse to go over there and be of comfort was curtailed by a more urgent need to be sick in the chamber pot. He lost tea and a few half-dissolved pills. It did not taste like licorice anymore. Perhaps that was a mercy. “I’m sorry, my dear. I think if I try to sit with you, I’m going to throw up on you.”

“Just don’t go… away.”

“I won’t. I’ll be here. Even if I can’t talk, or if I’m not making sense.”

“I hope I don’t talk,” Erik said. He sobbed. “I don’t like being… hurt in the… basement again. I used to have to be in the… basement when I was too tired. It… hurt and they’d make me talk. They… Ah!

Sewing needles!” Seth said. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

Erik held his head in both hands, carefully. He didn’t want to touch the metal part. He thought he might scream if he did that. “They used to make me ask for stuff they wanted. They could just do that because I was hurt. I couldn’t keep them out.”

“That’s awful.” Seth shook his head. “They’re bad enough when you let them in.”

“Auntie Enora didn’t let me eat, ” Erik said. “She almost put me in the hospital.”

“How long did you hold her?”

“Two weeks.”

Seth hissed and flinched. “Two weeks? You’re seven! Aren’t you seven?”

“Yeah. Seven and a half.” Thunder rumbled and Erik winced and glanced up in anticipation.

“I suppose your mother was only eighteen,” Seth said. “She must’ve started calling them when she was quite young, but seven…” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t wish it on you.”

“You knew my mom?” Erik sat forward.

“A little. She was outside a lot and I was inside a lot. We called different sorts of people.”

Me and Alba are sympatico, George had said, twining her fingers together. Alba, that sweet little girl who worried about him, and St. George. Sympatico. But they had been. She didn’t mind slaughtering half a battlefield with her own hands. She didn’t sit up nights or cry about all the dead people or have nightmares. She had the dream where she couldn’t move, yeah, they all had that dream, and she got irritated when she came back from a long stint and she couldn’t pick things up like she wanted and take care of herself, but she didn’t mind the killing.

He had an idea that maybe she liked the killing.

She laughed about it sometimes.

He and Taggart had been sympatico, too, because he didn’t mind the needles.

Because he liked the needles.

“She was…” He was going to say that she was kind to him, but magic struck the house and drowned it. The basement lights flickered.

Sewing needles!” he cried. “Knitting needles!” Any kind of needles but the kind he wanted.

Erik moaned and clutched his head.

The radio crackled and whispered in a soft voice, Sympatico.

Seth turned and stared at it. It was a woman’s voice. It was soft and brief and he wasn’t willing to say if it was Alba’s voice, but it was bad enough as it was. “Did that just happen?” he asked.

Erik was staring, too. “Did… the… radio… talk?”

Seth nodded. “I thought I heard the radio talk.”

“Okay,” Erik said. He dropped his head and covered his face with his hands. He brushed his metal socket and he cried out and held his right hand away. “Ow. Ow. Okay. The… radio… talked but you… heard it. It’s not in my… head?”

“I don’t think it’s in your head… If it is, it’s not just in your head. It’s in mine, too.”

“It’s… scary and I… want it to… stop.”

“Yes. I think I would like that, too.” He bundled the blankets tighter around him, not that it helped. “Erik, is it harder for you to talk when you’re scared?”

“Yes.” He did not nod. The same headache from when he was hurt had come back, and so had not liking to nod. “It’s… because I got… hurt.”

“You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to…”

“No.” He didn’t shake his head, either. “It’s… scarier if it’s just the… radio.”

Do you think it’s going to keep doing that? Seth wondered, but he didn’t ask because he didn’t want to talk about it. He also wondered what Erik had heard the radio say, but he really didn’t want to talk about that. It was better to entertain the idea that maybe it was sort of in their heads and they were just getting their own thoughts back at them.

That was a seriously weird-looking radio on the table over there. It had a regular glass front and a tuner, but there were too many dials on it. The band with the stations on it was glowing a subtle yellow, and there were red and green lights that occasionally flickered as well. On the table beside it, but perhaps not attached, was small wooden box with six strings stretched across a hole in the center like a disembodied piece of guitar. This also lit up, white flashes that seemed centered on the strings. There was obviously an insane amount of magic involved in the thing. Seth was a bit wary of how it might function when there wasn’t a storm going on.

He wondered if one of those dials might turn it off, but he doubted his own ability to crawl over there and investigate it. He couldn’t send Erik, the poor child got shocked when he touched magic things and that was definitely a magic thing.

He was also afraid that if either of them got near it, it might say something else.

Maybe something about needles.

There was another strike, not the house but nearby, and Seth said something about needles. He closed his eyes and covered his mouth with both hands.

I don’t think Erik is going to want to come to school anymore after this…

Erik had pulled both blankets over him altogether, like a bedsheet ghost. Beneath them, he was hugging his elephant and rocking back and forth. It was too quiet and he didn’t like it and he was scared of the radio.

“Does… does it…” he said shakily. “Does it… hurt you a lot when it… hits?”

Seth nodded, but then he realized Erik couldn’t see that. “It’s not really pain,” he said. “Everything aches, but it’s not that. That doesn’t get worse. It’s just… It’s like my heart.” He brushed his chest with a hand and curled up more tightly. “I want something I shouldn’t have. That hurts, but it’s not really pain.”

“I guess it’s like that a little for me,” Erik said. There was pain and that did get worse, but there was emotion, too. He felt scared and hopeless and empty. He wasn’t sure if it was just the memory of being hurt like that — he had felt that way before the strikes, when he was out of the basement.

“Does it make you want cigarettes?” Seth said.

Erik gasped. He dropped his elephant and put a hand to his mouth. Yes. Now that he had a hook to hang the feeling on, that was it exactly. Cigarettes. He was empty of cigarettes. The motions of them, and the sensation. Not like when he smoked, because he did it badly and coughed a lot, but when Auntie Enora did it for him. When it was easy, and pleasant. Relaxing. Drawing the smoke into his lungs and letting it out slowly, like a sigh. How good that would feel right now!

He issued a low miserable sound. There weren’t any cigarettes. There weren’t any anywhere. Because nobody smoked. Because of his stupid uncle!

Seth winced and covered his mouth as well. “Oh, gods, Erik, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s so much worse when you think you could do something to fix it.”

Erik pulled up the blankets and peeped out from under them. “Would that fix it?” Not just the empty feeling, but everything? His aching head? Being so sick and so scared? If he could just have some cigarettes?

Seth shook his head. “No. No it wouldn’t. Not even a little.”

He was lying and Erik knew it, but it was a kind lie, because he shouldn’t have said about the cigarettes. He didn’t want to make it any worse. Sometimes when there was magic weather he went somewhere and he did what he wanted. Not a lot, because it was stupid and dangerous and he knew he shouldn’t. Sometimes when Ann and Hyacinth couldn’t find him, it wasn’t because he was passed out in an alley or in another shelter. Not always, not always, just sometimes. When it was very bad. He had to do things to get what he wanted, because he never had any money. Things he didn’t like. Then he would crawl under a thorn bush in Candlewood Park (Thorn bushes were supposed to be safer, ash and oak trees more dangerous. There was a rhyme about it.) and just sleep the whole time. It was like heaven.

Magic struck the house again.

Erik moaned and clutched the blankets around him with nails digging in and fingers pressed white. Oh, gods. Why can’t I just have some cigarettes? It’s not bad like needles! I won’t get hurt like that! (He could see how the needles hurt sometimes. Scary red lines and dark, bloody marks like blisters that oozed.)

Seth said, “Sewing needles! Knitting needles!” then shivered and stroked his arms with both hands.

The radio crackled and said, …creep under a thorn, it will keep you from harm.

“Oh, gods. What in the hell?” Seth said sickly. He did that when he went down to Candlewood Park. Beware the ash, it courts the flash. Beware the oak, it draws the stroke. Creep under a thorn… He really hoped it was just in his head. He would rather be crazy than… than broadcasting things. It was bad enough that he talked.

“My… uncle wouldn’t let me have… cigarettes anymore,” Erik said. “I forgot how to… smoke like… Auntie Enora could do it. It wouldn’t be… nice like that even if I… could.” He was telling himself. He knew it, but he needed to hear it. Like when Seth told himself it was different needles.

“Your uncle is very good about keeping people from doing things that hurt them,” Seth said. He wobbled dizzily and put a hand to his head. He was cold and damp with sweat. “I really hate that about him.”

Erik blinked and looked at him. “You hate stuff?” He knew it wasn’t lying, but it surprised him. Seth was so nice about everything. All the time. He didn’t even hate people who took stuff from the school, it just made him sad.

Seth nodded, eyes closed. “Oh, I really do… Sewing needles!” He dragged the chamber pot near and threw up in it, coughing and shuddering. “Oh, gods. He would ration things, you know? ‘Wait two hours.’ And he wouldn’t give in. You couldn’t talk him around. Not even screaming. Did he do that to you?”

“He said two weeks until I could have a cigarette,” Erik said weakly. “Then I couldn’t remember how to do it and I didn’t like it as much.”

“I know how to do it,” Seth said. “I saw it. I felt it.” He sighed. “But I could only watch. Your uncle had to do it for me. He learned how to do needles because the gods don’t care about clean needles or alcohol swabs. Nicole — Nicole was in charge of me — but she couldn’t do needles. She’d throw up.” He eyed the chamber pot with a grimace. “So he was in charge of needles. If he said quit, I had to. It was awful. Not just the way it felt, knowing there was something to make it stop and he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t…”

Magic struck the house — and immediately thereafter it struck again. The mage lights flickered, one of them went out for a good twenty seconds before fading back on.

Seth cried out and curled into a ball on the floor, burying his head in his arms. “Oh, gods, I miss it so much!

Double strikes were the worst. A single strike was awful, but it was less. A single strike was sadness, and pain. A double strike was despair. There was only one thing in the world he wanted and he didn’t do it because he wasn’t supposed to. It was so stupid and so wrong and such a waste. He had lost so much. He spent all his money on pencils and paper and all his time with people. Why? It made no difference. He lived under a bridge. He was worthless. He was miserable.

He had come to a place where he couldn’t have what he wanted and he was too weak and sick to leave. He was so stupid.

Erik just sobbed and held his head. For a moment, the instinctive need for a cigarette — just one! — had blotted out all else. It was like everything was white. The pain faded like a cooling wire, replaced by an intellectual certainty that if he could have a cigarette, that wouldn’t happen again. It was worse knowing you could do something to fix it, and knowing you didn’t have that thing. It was easier when he was lying in bed upstairs and he thought he was dying. It was terrifying, yeah, but he couldn’t really think about it. It just was, like a dream where you’re running and that’s all you can do. This was more like that dream where you forgot to wear pants and you were hellishly aware that it was all your fault and you were an idiot.

Why don’t I have cigarettes? Soup could’ve taught me to steal cigarettes. Soup would’ve given me cigarettes. I could be so good at smoking by now!

The radio said, Worthless, softly.

Seth began to cry as well.

Ann came thudding down the basement stairs at all speed with one hand hooked around the banister. She had on a yellow raincoat and red rubber boots. She was talking and she kept talking the whole time as she pulled a new rod out of the box under the stairs and ran back up with it. “Seth, dear, are you drinking? Oh, dear, you’re not doing very well, are you? Oh, poor Erik! It’s all right. I’ll come back and I’ll bring Hyacinth, I just have to do this right now. I’m sorry!”

That was a double strike, Erik thought numbly. It broke the rod.

It wouldn’t be bad like that again, or maybe once more. That made him feel a little better. Exhausted, and still scared, but better. Empty and scared and hopeless was a vast improvement over how he’d felt a moment ago. He wiped his eye with the heel of his palm and he hugged his elephant and sniffled.

Seth was tipped over on his side on the floor, curled up and weeping. He did not attempt to sit up or speak.

“Are you okay?” Erik said.

Candlewood Park, the radio said, but there was nothing from Seth until Hyacinth came down and pulled him upright.

“Seth? Hey, come on. Are you with me?” She was still wearing the same dress. She didn’t have time to go upstairs and change the dress. Maria had kindly removed the puke for her. With an infant and a five-year-old and a sign painter for a husband, Maria knew from getting stains out of things. The dress was now a bit damp, as was her hair. She guessed Maria could probably do something about that, too, as well as any further puke that might result from trying to ascertain Seth’s coherency.

Ann had also come down, and she was seeing to Erik with a handkerchief. (The house’s supply of tissues had been severely dented due to the dead cat.) Her hair was dripping. She had removed the raincoat, but not the boots, and her dress was darkened with water all down the middle of the back, beneath the hair. “Oh, Erik, my little darling, it’s okay. It is okay, isn’t it? Are you in any pain?”

“A little,” Erik said, “but…”

“Oh!” said Ann. She enveloped him. She smelled like damp, and a little like sweat, and not at all like perfume. She’d brushed her hair and put some lipstick and powder, but that was all she had time for. It was a bit streaked from climbing up on the roof. “Poor Erik. This is all so hard for you. It just isn’t fair. Do you want anything? Is there anything at all I can get for you, dear?”

Erik pushed back from her, “Cigarettes!” he said.

“Oh?” said Ann.

“I hate you,” Seth said faintly.

“Hey, that’s great,” said Hyacinth. “Are you aware of who I am at the moment?”

“I don’t care.”

“Yeah. Okay. Drink this.” She gave him tea.

“Cin?” said Ann. “Erik wants cigarettes. Do you think I ought to go to the store?”

“Not for cigarettes,” said Hyacinth.

Why?” said Erik. “My… uncle isn’t… down here!”

“Your uncle isn’t, but Seth is.” She refilled the mug. “It’s not fair to make him watch you having what you want while he can’t have what he wants. It’s cruel.”

“I’ll go… upstairs!” He was sure he could manage the upstairs if he had a cigarette!

“Your uncle is upstairs.”

“I’ll go… outside!”

Hyacinth sighed. “There’s a magic storm outside, Erik.”

“I’ll find a… thorn… bush!”

“Not on Violena Street, you won’t.”

“Candlewood Park,” Seth said.

“How’s that?” said Hyacinth.

Seth closed his eyes and put a hand to his head. “No. I don’t know.” He blinked at her. “Hyacinth.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Coming around a bit?”

He dropped his head and put both hands over it. “I’m really sorry, Hyacinth.”

“It’s okay. We just had a double strike. That’s what it was.”

“I know that’s what it was!” he cried. He flinched. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. Drink some more.”

He did. “I shouldn’t be down here with him. I’ve hurt him.”

“No you haven’t,” Hyacinth said. Seth never hurt anyone, not even himself. And Erik wasn’t hurt, he was sitting up and demanding cigarettes — coherently!

“I said about the cigarettes. I asked if he missed cigarettes. It’s why he wants them. I can’t drink anymore, I’m going to be sick.”

Hyacinth set down the mug. “Okay, I guess that was dumb of you, but it’s not like it was on purpose.”

“It doesn’t matter if it was on purpose, it hurts the same.”

“Seth, I can’t have you upstairs,” Hyacinth said. “Either of you. That would hurt more. I’m sorry about it, but there isn’t anything better I can do.”

“Pills,” Seth said. Or a shot, he wouldn’t mind that, but he didn’t want to say it. He’d cry again. “Put me to sleep. Then I’ll be quiet.”

“Bad idea,” Hyacinth said. “It won’t stop you from being sick and you won’t be able to drink. You might choke. I can’t be down here to watch you.”

“Erik, then. He isn’t being sick.”

“No, but he’s little and if I try to knock him out that way, I could kill him. I can’t be down here to watch him, either.”

Seth began to cry again. It wasn’t even about needles this time. “I don’t want to hurt people!”

“Honey, I know it. There just isn’t any other…”

Magic stuck the house again, concurrent with a roar of thunder.

Sewing needles! Knitting needles!” Seth shrieked.

Erik moaned.

He’s dying, the radio said. I can’t get any sense out of him anymore…

Seth shuddered and stared. That was a woman’s voice, thick with tears. Not Alba’s, it went on long enough and clear enough that he could tell. Diane’s.

“Oh, gods, I wish it would stop doing that,” he said, pressing hands over his ears. If it started calling him ‘Sprite,’ he was going to scream.

“What’s it doing?” Hyacinth said, looking over. It sounded like a random piece of soap opera.

“It’s reading my mind,” Seth said. “Please, turn it off. Unplug it.”

Hyacinth winced. She did not like having sick people in the basement begging her to turn off the radio again. That made everything seem a whole hell of a lot worse than it was. It was just a storm. “It doesn’t really unplug…” she hedged.

“Just a moment, please,” Ann said, lifting a hand. She conferred with Milo, who was begging her not to damage the thing with a shoe. Not because of Seth. She nodded and stood. “I’ll take out the diode. Then it won’t get any reception.”

“Thank you,” Seth sobbed. “Thank you, Miss Rose.”

Ann commandeered a screwdriver with uncertainty and determination and undid the back of the radio. She didn’t know what a ‘diode’ was, but she had Milo’s voice in her head to point it out and he seemed certain the radio wouldn’t work without it.

Hyacinth had emptied the last of the teapot into the mug and was trying to get Seth to take a pill. He was nodding but reluctant, “I know. I’m sorry. It’s hard.”

“I know it is,” said Hyacinth. “I wish I could be down here to look after you, but the best I can do right now is patch you and run out.”

“Mm-mm,” Seth said. He sipped tea and swallowed the pill. “I know how it is. It’s not your fault.”

“Do you want more tea or something else?”

Seth closed his eyes and sobbed with a hand over his mouth. “I’m sorry, Hyacinth. I don’t think I care.”

“I’ll pick, then. I’ll send Ann back down with it.”

“All right.” He didn’t really care about that, either, but it wouldn’t do any good to say so. He drew both blankets around him and curled up.

“Erik, what about you?” Ann asked. She had removed a small, telegraph-looking device from the radio and set it carefully aside. “Do you want more to drink? Or something to eat? There’s kind of a lot of food at the moment…” She laughed softly.

Erik shook his head. “Not food. The cold water was good. I’d like more of that.”

“I’ll bring it right away!” said Ann. She left with Hyacinth and she returned a few minutes later with hot tea for Seth and cold water for Erik. She made done with Seth quickly and she fussed over Erik for a little while, but she didn’t stay long.

It wasn’t that Hyacinth needed her that badly (although Hyacinth could certainly use her), she just… Well, she had a bit of difficulty in the basement during storms.

Well, no, Milo had a bit of difficulty in the basement during storms. Not with the basement. With Seth.

Ann thought Seth was a very nice man. He was always kind to her, and Milo, and he never had any trouble mixing them up or calling them a boy and a girl or treating them like two people. He was just stellar about that, particularly for someone who wasn’t in the house a lot. It seemed like he really understood them, and that was a rare thing. He was in a lot of pain during storms, and sometimes he cried out or didn’t make sense, and that could be scary, but it didn’t make him a bad person. Ann felt sorry for him.

Milo didn’t like him, and not because he was loud sometimes and scary. Milo…

Milo was disgusted by him.

Seth talked about needles when he was in the basement. Seth talked about needles like he liked needles. Milo did not like needles. Milo would rather swallow pills that hurt him than have anything to do with a needle, because a shot was so painful and it came on so fast. How could Seth be sitting down here in the basement, crying about needles because he couldn’t have any?

Milo wanted to grab him and shake him and scream at him — which was kind of a big thing, for Milo. Milo wanted to crumple him up and throw him away without even looking at him, like a bad drawing. Above all else, Milo did not want to be down here existing near him and taking care of him.

So Ann couldn’t do that, even if she didn’t feel that way herself. She couldn’t get Milo to understand, he was too upset by the mere concept. She didn’t think Seth wanted to like needles, and he hadn’t had any more choice in the matter than Milo. She thought Milo might’ve come out liking them, too, if things had been a little different, or Seth might’ve come out hating them. It wasn’t either of their faults, they had both been hurt, but Milo didn’t see it that way.

Seth made Milo’s brain feel dirty.

So Ann brought basic comforts and pet Erik and then got out of there as fast as she could.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Erik asked softly, when Ann had gone.

It took Seth a little while to pull himself together enough to answer, “I don’t know right now. I should just say ‘yes’ and not hurt you anymore and not scare you, but I don’t know… I don’t know…” He sighed. He knew he was supposed to drink, but he didn’t want it. He poured tea and left it in the mug on the floor. “I shouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have come if I’d known you’d be here. I should’ve gone…” the shelter on Pine. That was what he should’ve said and that was what he should’ve thought, but that wasn’t what came out.

“… to Candlewood Park. It’s so nice. I should’ve gone there and felt nice.” He closed his eyes and spoke fondly, “It’s warm. It’s so much better when there’s not a god in your veins, stealing everything. I bet the cigarettes are better. I bet even the coffee’s better. Is the coffee better, now that she’s gone, Erik?”

“I guess the coffee’s better,” Erik hedged. But he liked to drink it with milk and chocolate syrup, that was better than straight and black and bitter. The cigarettes weren’t, not at all, but he guessed that was because he didn’t know how to smoke.

“They used to let me have some after he’d gone, so I wouldn’t be sick,” Seth said. “I can’t call them when I’m sick. Can’t focus. But I do all right when I’m high.” He smiled weakly. “Sometimes your uncle would be very nice to me, Erik. And sometimes I needed to kill him.”

Erik looked pained at him. He didn’t like to hear Seth say stuff like that, but it wasn’t scary. It was just sad. “You don’t feel very good right now, do you?” he said.

“I feel terrible,” Seth replied faintly, but he didn’t lose the smile. Thunder rumbled in the distance. “I wish I could sleep. I wish I could have something and just…”

Magic struck the house, and they both cried out.

The radio said, That is exquisite.

“Oh,” Seth said. He was all out of horror. He couldn’t even find any surprise. Of course the radio could still talk. Why wouldn’t it?

It was his voice this time, but not his voice. It was his voice like when he used to hear himself talking and he couldn’t do anything about it. It was Taggart using his voice. It was what he said when the needle went in.

He choked and he threw up in the chamber pot.

There goes the pill. I wish to the gods she’d give me a shot.

“It feels like… we’re having a lot of strikes, Erik, dear,” Seth said dizzily, one hand to his head. “Is it just me?”

“I dunno,” Erik said, clutching his elephant against him. “I used to like it when it hit the house. It was like a rollercoaster.”

“A rollercoaster,” Seth echoed. He closed his eyes, they were damp with dark circles beneath. “I used to like it when the needle went in. I could feel it sting. I could feel everything. I was never any good at dissociating. Your uncle tried to teach me, but…”

Thunder roared and magic slammed into the house at the same time, and then again.

Erik gasped and paled. He saw stars, and then nothing — just gray.

They broke open my head and poured in fire… He remembered when the dark man with the gold tooth and the feather touched him and made him nothing, and he wanted that again.

The radio said, Do you like it? Do you love it? Do you want some more of it?

“Oh, please,” Erik whispered. He squeezed his eye shut and pressed both hands over his ears.

The mage lights had gone out and only one of them came back on, yellow and flickering like a seizure.

Erik heard Ann come down the stairs and grab another rod, Oh, my gods, I’m sorry! I’ll be right back. I’ll get Hyacinth. I don’t know what’s happening…

Didn’t that already happen? Erik thought. He opened his eye painfully and tried to focus. Didn’t that just happen? Where am I?

Then Ann was holding him and he clung to her and he said something very bad about wanting cigarettes and called her a mean name. He couldn’t help it, it just came, like when they used to make him talk. He wanted to say he was sorry right away, but he was crying too much. Ann said it was okay. Maybe she didn’t hear him. Maybe he just thought it.

The one light came back on and the other one smoothed out and stopped flickering. There was thunder again and Erik shuddered. “Please… make… it… stop… hurting… me…”

“Oh, Erik, I’m so sorry,” Ann said. “If I could go up there and hurt this storm and kill it, I would.”

“Yes,” said Erik. He didn’t like to nod. The pain in his head was going away, but… No. He didn’t like to nod. “I’m… sorry I… called you a… bitch.”

“Oh, sweetheart, it’s all right. I know you’re just hurt. I don’t mind about anything you say right now. I won’t be hurt or mad.”

“Thank you.”

She held him. It was a little better.

That won’t happen again, will it? But why did it happen again so soon?

“Is Seth okay?”

“Um. Well, I’m not really sure, dear…”

Hyacinth was still trying to get him to talk to her. He had curled up in ball with his hands laced over the back of his head and he wouldn’t even look at her. He was shivering.

“Hey, Seth. Come on. Please… Do you know where you are?”

“Nicky, I don’t think I can do this anymore,” he said softly. “Do I have to?”

“No,” said Hyacinth. “You don’t have to. That’s not happening anymore, and you don’t have to. You understand?”

“I’m so tired,” he said.

“I know. Can you drink?”

“Mm.” He turned away from the cup and put up his hand.

“Please try. Just a little…”

“Can I just have a little so I can sleep?” he said.

Hyacinth shook her head. “No, hon.”

He cried. “I want to go home, okay?”

She embraced him, then she pulled the blankets up around his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Seth. We’re going to do our best to take care of you here.”

“I’m sorry, Nicky…”

There was a crash from the upstairs and a cry. Barnaby’s voice drifted down, “Hyacinth, I can’t get him to come off the banister!

“Damn it,” said Hyacinth. She’d got him talking, but she hadn’t got him oriented, and he didn’t want to drink anything… But all these damn strikes were messing with everyone. “I’ll come back soon. Please try to drink.”

“See if he’ll play something…” Seth muttered, curling up again.

“Ann, come help me,” said Hyacinth.

“Erik, darling, are you going to be okay?” Ann said. She was looking over at Seth when she said it, but she couldn’t say that.

“I’m okay,” Erik said. He was looking at Seth, too.

Ann tucked the blankets around him and put his elephant in his lap and kissed him on the head and wandered after Hyacinth, looking distracted.

“Seth?” said Erik. “It’s not the siege anymore and you don’t have to call anyone.”

“Nicky needs me to do tactics,” Seth said.

“No. She’s not here. We’re in the basement. You’re just really sick and you’re remembering stuff.”

“Sick?” He shivered and stroked his arms. “Yes. It keeps hitting the house…”

“Yeah.” Erik looked up and winced.

“Have I been talking?”

“A little bit,” said Erik. “It’s okay.”

“It really hurts.” He cried softly and covered his head. “I’m sorry. I just can’t. It’s hard.”

He didn’t know where he was. They just said, but he couldn’t hold on to it. There was something he was supposed to be doing and he wasn’t sure what and he was getting it wrong. He was sick. He needed not to be sick, but he couldn’t push it away. He was drowning and no one would throw him a line. He knew he was supposed to drown, it had happened often enough. If he cried out for help, they would just hold him under.

It didn’t kill him to drown, it didn’t even hurt that much, not physically… but it was desolation.

I’m alone and you’re not going to help me because I have to be hurt to get better.

“What am I supposed to do?” he pleaded. “I can’t do it, I can’t remember…”

Erik crawled out of bed and braved the floor with his bare feet. Really, he didn’t even think about the floor. He might not’ve noticed if he did get a shock. He sat down on the floor next to Seth. The cement was cold through his thin nightshirt, he noticed that a little bit. Seth must be cold, too.

He’d forgotten his fire blankets in the bed and he left them there. He picked up the cup of tea and held it. “You’re supposed to drink so you don’t get more sick.”

“Oh,” Seth said. That was hard, too, but he tried to do it. He drank a little. It tasted like licorice. “Alba?” he said.

“No,” said Erik. “Just Erik.”

“Erik.” He drank again. Erik’s in the basement. I shouldn’t have said about the cigarettes. I don’t want to hurt…

Magic struck the house. Only the once, but the mage lights had been hanging by a thread after two double strikes. They both went out.

Seth had been hanging by a thread, too. He got very quiet and he laid down with his face in his hands and his burning cheek against the cold floor in the darkness.

Is this what you want? the radio asked faintly.

The pain faded, and Erik was able to focus and see. The light was green and soft and wavering.

It’s me, he thought, regarding his hand on the cup. He was still holding the cup. He set it down on the floor and spread both hands in front of him. A green aura like gauze enveloped them and trailed after them.

It is me, isn’t it? he thought. I’m why it keeps hitting the house and hurting. He looked over at the shrine against the far wall. Did you guys do this to me?

Cousin Violet peeped out from behind the shrine like she was playing hide-and-seek and smiled at him. She looked green in his light. Sorta. You’re gonna have a lot of fun with it, Erik. She giggled. Well, I guess one of you is.

Don’t I need my eye to see you, Violet?

Nah. Not if you don’t want to. Can I have cereal?

He shut his eye and turned his head away. Go away, Violet.

“Seth?” said Erik. He crawled closer so he could see. “It’s okay…”

Well, he was glowing and seeing gods and he thought the house was gonna get a lot more strikes and even double strikes and it was really gonna hurt… but he wanted it to be okay.

Seth’s eyes were closed and sunk in shadows and his expression was calm. “Do whatever you want. I don’t care if you hurt me. I only want enough to sleep.”

“Oh,” said Erik. “I’m sorry.” He was sorry Seth did that and he was sorry Seth felt that and he was sorry he knew about it.

I hope you don’t remember you talked about it. I wish I could make you forget.

He didn’t know how to do that. He couldn’t make medicine or do really big things, but there was a little thing he thought he might know how to do. It was scary and he didn’t like what it had done to his uncle, but it wasn’t to hurt… and it might help.

He brushed Seth’s damp hair out of his face and smoothed it back with a glowing green hand.

It is okay.

Seth felt… better. He gasped and opened his eyes. One of the mage lights flickered and bravely relit.

“Did she show you how to do that?” he said.

Erik shook his head. “I don’t think on purpose.”

Seth closed his eyes again and smiled.

It wasn’t just the same. It wasn’t memory, not only memory. It was like a promise.

Do you remember when your mom used to tuck you into bed, and she’d kiss you to take your temperature, and you’d have ice water and orange juice to drink, and she’d cover that mint stuff on your chest with a washcloth, and your dad would bring you comic books and soup from the Xinese restaurant in a white paper carton?

(Yes. I do.)

It’ll be like that again. I’m going to take care of you and make sure.

(Yes. I believe you.)

“I like the Silver Streak,” Seth said fondly. “He used to just be a comic book before he was on the radio.”

“Is he still a comic book?” Erik asked. He liked the Silver Streak, too, but he only read comics in the newspaper.

“I don’t know. It was a long time ago.” He sighed. “I think I’m going to sleep now.”

“Yeah,” said Erik. He slid closer, and he picked up Seth’s head and put it in his lap. He didn’t think Seth ought to be on the floor, not all of him on the floor. There were pillows, but he’d have to go back to his bed and get one. He thought he could probably get Seth to go in the cot if he touched him and asked nicely, but Seth was tired. Erik thought he should just have sleep for a little.

He stroked Seth’s hair and helped him do that.


Ann came rapidly down the basement stairs, already talking, “I’m so sorry about that. Are you two…” She paused, halfway down. Erik wasn’t in his bed. “Erik?”

Erik was sitting on the floor with Seth and glowing.

“Erik, sweetheart, you’re on fire.” She stayed where she was. She wasn’t sure if she ought to get near. She might hurt him, or scare him. He didn’t seem like he was upset, but…

“I know,” Erik said. He smiled and lifted his hand to examine it. “It’s less, though. I’m using it.” He laughed, but just a little bit, not like he was hysterical or hurt. He pointed at the darkened mage light on the ceiling. “I thought I might fix that light, but I’m scared I’ll break it. Do you think Milo might like to show me how to do that later?”

“I don’t know, dear. Maybe tomorrow. He doesn’t really like to be out during storms. It’s all the people. They bother him. Did Seth pass out on you?”

Erik shook his head. “I’m just helping him sleep.” He needed the help, because they kept getting strikes. Sometimes he said stuff about needles, but he didn’t really wake up for it, and Erik was able to get him back to wonton soup and comic books pretty easily.

It helped Erik, too. It was something to do, like Uncle Mordecai magicking all the food in the kitchen. The pain had stopped, and feeling so lost and afraid because of the pain. If he’d known doing magic would help so much, he would’ve tried cooking stuff, too.

He still kinda wanted some cigarettes, though.

“You’re helping him sleep,” Ann said, frowning. “How exactly are you doing that, dear?”

Erik flinched. He didn’t like to say what he was doing. It was scary when Auntie Enora did that to his uncle, and she tried to do it to Milo once and… and he wasn’t supposed to remember, but he knew it hurt Milo a lot. Ann might say he should stop if he told her, and he really didn’t want to.

“It’s just some magic I figured out how to do.”

Ann put a hand over her mouth and spoke through it, “Oh, I don’t know… I’m going to get Hyacinth.”

Erik nodded. “It’s okay.” He’d like Hyacinth to come down and make sure things were okay, too.

Thunder rumbled its warning and magic struck an instant later. The mage light flickered.

Ann, I don’t like Erik in the basement with him! the radio said sharply. And I’d swear to the gods he is wearing my shoes!

“Sewing needles…” Seth said. Erik pet him and he settled. The mage light stabilized, too.

I wonder if we’ve got some candles if that goes out, Erik thought. He looked at his glowing hands and snickered. Maybe it doesn’t matter…

Hyacinth came down slowly, like she was approaching a hurt animal. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and smiled gently and spoke, “Hey, Erik. How’s it going over there?”

“I’m kind of better,” Erik said.

“Not hurting you, is it?”


“Mind if I come see you a second?”

“No, it’s okay. Check Seth.”

“I kinda want to check you, too,” said Hyacinth. But since Erik was coherent and conscious and calm, yeah, Seth was the next order of business. She knelt beside them. “Can he wake up?”


She touched his shoulder. “Seth…?”

“Mom?” He blinked at her. He picked up his head but he didn’t quite sit up.

Hyacinth smiled at him. “No, hon. Just Hyacinth.” She was used to getting ‘Mom’ed, it went with the whole medic thing. She guessed she was going to start getting ‘Grandma’ed one of these days, here.

“Hyacinth.” He smiled. He threw up on her. “Oh, no…”

“Nah, it’s all right.” She examined the stain. Just tea, not even any pills. “I seem to have that effect on people. How are you feeling?”

“Okay,” he said. “Want to go back to sleep.”

“Think you could drink something?”


She poured tea for him. He sat up and took the cup from her. “Erik is kind like his mother,” he said, smiling.

“Erik is pretty amazing,” Hyacinth replied guardedly. Yeah, this seemed okay, but she didn’t trust situations that resolved themselves without her screaming and pushing them. Something is going to happen. Where’s the other shoe? There’s always another shoe.

Seth finished the cup and handed it back. “Can I sleep now?”

Hyacinth just nodded. Seth usually didn’t sleep during storms at all. He was too sick. He was still sick, but he seemed to be doing the sleeping all right. “Um… Do you think you can make it up off the floor?”

“Yes,” he replied placidly. He didn’t try to get up on his own, but he offered her his hand.

“Auntie Hyacinth, can he be in my bed?” Erik asked. “I think if I try to help him and he’s in the cot, I’m gonna get zapped.”

“Do you mind if he throws up in your bed?” said Hyacinth.

Erik considered it. “I guess not. But maybe we better put my elephant someplace else…”

They walked him over to Erik’s bed. Hyacinth negotiated him out of his shoes and his coat, then she bundled the fire blankets more tightly around him. He was wearing a white t-shirt with gray dusty stains and no socks. There was some vomit on his coat sleeve. Hyacinth guessed she would either wash it or get the General to do some magic to it later — although it was pretty threadbare and it might not survive. I think we can find him a new coat someplace, we should probably do that anyway…

Hyacinth made certain to lay him on his side, and she folded a blanket under his head instead of a pillow. She dragged over the chamber pot, too. “Don’t let him lie on his back, Erik,” Hyacinth said. “He’s still being sick, and I don’t know if he’s going to always wake up and be sick. It could hurt him.” She sighed and touched a hand to her head. “This isn’t okay. You shouldn’t have to be in charge of taking care of someone like this. You are not in charge of taking care of him! But I know I can’t be down here and I have to ask you to do things. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Erik said. “I want to help.”

“I know you do, and you might be okay with it, but it is not okay. You take way too much responsibility for things. You’re like your damn uncle. It isn’t fair to load you up like a pack mule just because you don’t complain.”

Erik shrugged. He settled cross-legged in the bed near Seth’s head. “Someone has to do it.”

“You are your damn uncle,” Hyacinth muttered. She sighed again. “He needs to lie on his side and he needs to drink. Can you do that and whatever this other thing is, too?” She guessed maybe she could spare Barnaby, if needed. Maybe, although he wasn’t very good with this kind of stuff, either. Maybe Liam might…

No. Liam was being very helpful, but he needed constant supervision. He had ideas.

“Yeah,” Erik said, nodding. “I think he’ll do stuff if I ask.” Maybe not like ‘cook dinner,’ but ‘drink some tea’ or ‘turn this way’ was stuff like Auntie Enora used to say.

“What are you doing to him?” Hyacinth asked.

Erik shrugged again and ducked his head away. “I dunno.” Hyacinth sounded mad and Ann was looking down from the top of the stairs and being worried. “I guess I’m saying it’s okay. Being sick doesn’t hurt him as much as being sad about being sick. He feels like no one’s gonna help. I said I would.”

“But with magic.”

“He wouldn’t believe me if I just… said it,” Erik replied, with just a bit of irritation. He lifted his hand and showed it. “I feel better doing magic, too.”

“Hold still a second,” said Hyacinth. She felt for his pulse with one hand and laid the other across his forehead. “Do you feel like you need to laugh or cry?”


“Or like you can’t switch off your thoughts and you need to go very fast?”


“Are you scared or anything like that?”

“I’m kinda worried about stuff…”

“You and me both, kid,” said Hyacinth. She moved both hands to his shoulders.”You feel okay and it’s not hurting?”

“I can kinda feel it in my head when it hits the house. It doesn’t hurt like it did, but it’s like…” He touched a careful hand to his head. He got shocked if he touched the metal part. “Someone pushing on me. It feels full. I’m scared it’s gonna hurt again, but it hasn’t.” He touched his hands together. The glow brightened when he did that. “This feels kind of funny. Like a furry coat.”

“Usually people who are on fire feel way more than kind of funny, Erik,” Hyacinth said. She still sounded mad. Maybe she was, a little. She was angry with things for being weird and making her uncertain.

“Sorry?” Erik offered her.

She shut her eyes and shook her head. “No. It’s good that you’re able to help each other. I don’t know what it is or how it’s happening, but it’s good. I don’t understand it and it’s making me nervous as hell, but don’t stop doing it… Unless something changes or goes wrong, then I want you to…”

Magic struck the house. Twice. The mage light went out, but Erik was bright enough to read by.

“Oh, what in the actual fuck?” said Hyacinth.

Nuh-needles!” said Seth.

That’s all right, child. Just you rest now, said the radio.

Hyacinth did a double take like a cartoon character and stared at it. That was Auntie Enora. Not Erik as Auntie Enora, and not Nina. Some woman’s voice. Also, didn’t Ann do something to break the radio?

Ann came thudding down the basement stairs in her red rubber boots. “Cin, I’ll get it! I’ve got it! You just look after Erik and the others!”

There was the sound of hysterical shrieking laughter from upstairs and Barnaby called down, “Hyacinth!

Ann went scrambling back up with another rod.

“Auntie Hyacinth?” Erik was stroking Seth’s hair with a hand. His glow had brightened considerably and the aura was flickering in little tongues around him. He looked pained. “It keeps hitting the house because of me. There’s something different about me. Violet said. I think it’s just going to keep happening. I can help Seth, but I don’t know what to do about the rods. Do we have enough rods?”

Hyacinth slowly shook her head. They had started out this experience with five, which should have been more than enough. Seth had arrived maybe three hours ago, and the strikes had started soon after that. A magic storm could go more than a day, and they were down to two rods now.

The mage light faded back on.

Oh, look, Alice, the radio said. It was David’s voice. The other shoe!


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