Oscar the Grouch’s Raison d’Etre (67)

Seth in a trash can holding a sign reading Right Where I Belong

The storm and the party began to wind down around three in the morning. Liam woke up at four and offered his assistance, which Hyacinth appreciated. Florian had checked out on them midway through Magical Mystery Tour and Pablo was vocally miserable after having gone over twelve hours with no food or sleep.

Maggie and the General came down from the roof at five. The General was without bunny ears, muffins, raincoat or other magic. She politely hung Mr. Olivier’s non-whistling un-magicked hat on one of the posts at the top of the stairs. “The sky is clear,” she informed them, somewhat hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “I have left the remaining rod in my place, in case there is some kind of emergency. Please do not hesitate to wake me if there is some kind of emergency.” She narrowed her eyes and the temperature of her voice as well as that of the entire front room dropped several degrees, “If there is not some kind of emergency, the consequences for disturbing me will be dire.”

“Where is my raincoat, please?” Ann asked her.

“Your raincoat no longer exists,” said the General. “Please inform Mr. Rose that if I ever hear him playing that damnable song again — not replaying, playing, only once — then he will no longer exist.”

“I… I suppose that’s fair,” Ann said faintly.

“It is merciful,” the General said. “Come to bed, Magnificent.”

“It was really funny, Ann,” Maggie added, removing one of her nightdresses from the hall wardrobe. Then she narrowed her eyes. “For about the first ten times. If I ever hear it again, I’m gonna rat Milo out to my mom so fast it’ll curl your hair.”

“He’s sorry, Maggie,” Ann said.

(He wasn’t sorry. He felt bad Maggie had to be up there listening to it, but he wasn’t sorry.)

Mordecai woke up maybe a half hour later with his head in a strange woman’s lap and considered that for a few bleary moments.

You’re not tall… Oh, my gods, Cathy?!

(It was Violette.)

That brought him around fast. An instant later, he went skidding across the tile floor in his stocking feet, kicked over his violin case and ran down the basement stairs. “Erik?

Erik was lying in bed under a tangle of bedclothes and pillows with his hand on Seth’s cheek. Seth was curled up tightly and hugging Erik’s stuffed elephant. Erik blinked awake, sat up and lifted both arms. “Uncle…”

Mordecai didn’t know if he wanted hugging or picking up, so he did both. Erik was cold and damp with sweat but his nightshirt was reasonably fresh. It smelled like cinnamon. Is that a new soap? Mordecai wondered, but he didn’t really care. “Oh, dear one, were you down here the whole time?”

Erik nodded against him, clinging.

Mordecai sat down on the stairs and gathered the boy into his lap. “Do you know about Seth, then?”

“He used to have a real house and a family,” Erik said softly.

“Oh?” said Mordecai. He guessed that was true, though it was a bit kinder than the sorts of things the gods usually told Erik…

“Sometimes he goes down to Candlewood Park and lets people hurt him so he can buy heroin,” Erik said.

“Okay, yeah. There we go. Oh, gods,” said Mordecai. He didn’t know that, but he guessed it made sense. He pulled Erik against him and hugged tighter. “We need to talk, don’t we?”

Erik nodded. “Yes, but not here. He’s really tired. He only stopped being sick a little bit ago. I think he’ll be okay if I go, but I don’t want to wake him.”

Mordecai carried him upstairs. This was a bit difficult as Erik was getting bigger and Mordecai was nursing a headache, but he did not offer or really even consider putting the boy down.

“Where is Hyacinth?” he demanded of the first pair of shoes he made eye-contact with coming up the stairs. “She’d better have a damn good reason…”

“Don’t, Em,” Ann said softly. She pressed a finger over her lips. “She’s sleeping. And she’s going to have to get up again in a minute and start managing things, so please…”

“How could you just leave him down there?” Mordecai hissed, involuntarily mirroring Ann’s quiet. The room was dim and a lot of people were sleeping, not just Hyacinth.

“Believe me, Em, I wouldn’t have if there was any other way, but he was just too sick. They both were.”

Erik lifted his head and spoke, “He needed me to take care of him.” His tone was scolding. The half-a-pill that made his voice flat was wearing off. He sighed and shut his eye. “But he wouldn’t have seen how his whole family died if I wasn’t there. That was my… fault.” The slowing was coming back, too.

“His family?” Ann said, one hand to her mouth.

Where the hell is she?” said Mordecai. “I’m going to…” He wasn’t sure. He was alternately picturing himself screaming at her and kicking her in the shins.

Barnaby stood and approached. “No, you’re not,” he said evenly. “Because there isn’t anything anyone could have done about it. You’re going to go into the kitchen and feed Erik breakfast and suss out Seth’s tragic backstory, because that’s what you’re meant to be doing. And the food’s going to be cold because you’ve used up every ounce of fuel in the house.” He reached out and did up one of Mordecai’s shirt buttons, the second one of three that were undone. Then he undid it again and buttoned it in the third hole. “Damn it, I do not want Xinese delivery for dinner! That stuff gives me heartburn! Paper wrapped chicken?” He undid the button again. “I need a scissors!”

With a weary sigh, he flipped over the sign around his neck. On the other side was an ad for a tarot card reader. Back in business! it read in smudged pencil. By way of commentary, he had added a frowny face.

“Don’t you dare move,” he told Mordecai. He bypassed the red man for the sweeping staircase.

“Quick, Em, go hide in the kitchen,” Ann said. “I’ll see what I can do to keep him away from your shirt.”

“I am kinda hungry,” Erik admitted, watching after Barnaby with a pained expression.

———

The kitchen was blue and shadowy; the lights didn’t work. There was a lot of food. Most of it was half-eaten and all of it was cold. There were pieces of broken bowl and a wooden spoon on the floor, which Mordecai swept aside. They were, indeed, out of both wood and canned heat. Had been for some time.

“How were you still cooking?” Erik asked.

“I dunno,” said Mordecai, bewildered. “I think I just expected it to happen.”

“Do you think you could do it again?” A lot of this stuff was eggs and cheese, rubbery and congealed.

He shook his head — then he winced and quit doing that.

They ate desserts. Those were the least disagreeable. Pie, and cheesecake, and the lower quarter of what appeared to have been a croquembouche.

My gods, I’m ambitious when I’m out of my mind, thought Mordecai. Did we have strawberries? He was reluctant to let Erik have any of those, but they tasted all right and he guessed they weren’t any more suspicious than anything else.

There was the sound of a scuffle in the front room, and muffled voices, only some of which were trying to be soft.

“He found scissors,” Erik said.

“Yeah,” said Mordecai.

They waited a few minutes, but Barnaby did not appear and make any demands of Mordecai’s shirt.

Erik sighed. He poked at the filling of one of the profiteroles, not to taste it, just for something to do. “Did you know that about his family?” He already knew his uncle knew about the needles. It seemed like everyone knew about the needles… except him, because he was always upstairs goofing around with Bethany before.

“Yeah,” said Mordecai. “I guess I did.”

“It’s really… bad I made him… see it,” Erik said, twisting his hands in his lap. “It… hurt him a lot. He’s… hurt a lot.”

“I know he is,” said Mordecai. He came around the table and knelt down by Erik’s chair. He held Erik’s hands. “It wasn’t your fault, dear one. If you could’ve kept him from being hurt, I know you would have.”

“It wasn’t on… purpose,” Erik said. He dropped his head. “But it… happened… because… I was there. Do you… think you could… help him… forget?” he asked. He was pretty sure his uncle did the thing with the quarter for Seth before. And Nicky had a necklace…

Mordecai looked pained at him. You don’t want me to help you? You want me to help him? And he didn’t even think he could do that. He had to shake his head. “I don’t think Seth would like me to do that, dear one. We’re not… We’re not really friends.” He wasn’t sure how much he would be able to tiptoe around this subject or even if he would be allowed to.

“It’s because you… hurt him a lot and he wanted to… kill you,” Erik said softly.

Mordecai shook his head. “It’s not that. It’s not just that… I know he only wanted to hurt me because I was hurting him. It wasn’t that he was… was cruel.” He had almost said, a bad person, but he still didn’t know if Seth wasn’t that. Not even after all these years. “Does he know I didn’t want to hurt him?”

“I think sometimes,” Erik said. “But not when it storms and it hurts again.”

Mordecai sighed. “Sometimes I wonder if that’s why. He didn’t… He could’ve helped your mother and me. Any of them could have, and none of them did, but I was especially mad about him, because he wasn’t military and he could’ve walked off whenever he wanted. They couldn’t have stopped him. He could’ve brought us Auntie Enora. He could’ve saved your mother, Erik.” He folded his hands up into each other, because they wanted to curl into fists. “And… And when I saw him again, I said something about it.”

Erik drew a little gasp and his eye widened.

Seth saw a red man playing violoncello on a street-corner. For an instant, the ‘cello was enough to convince him that it had to be someone else. Mordecai played violin, and Mordecai was dead.

But then he looked again.

He stepped off the curb and stumbled right into traffic.

Mordecai saw a blue man with a worn soldier’s coat and a dazed expression approaching, and recognized him instantly. (The dazed expression helped.) He stood and made ready to leave, but a violoncello required disassembly and by the time he had it back in the case Seth had managed to make it across the street without getting creamed by a bus and was lifting a hand to touch him.

Mordecai took a step back. “Don’t,” he said.

“Mordecai,” Seth said. “It is you, isn’t it?” He still had his hand up. He wanted physical confirmation on this.

“Yes.” He flattened his folding stool with a clack, collected the ‘cello case and prepared to walk off anyway.

“Is Alba…?” Seth said.

Mordecai stopped, and turned. “Alba is dead.”

“We all thought you were dead,” Seth said. “Both of you.”

“Keep thinking it,” Mordecai replied. He turned away again.

“I’m sorry…” Seth called after him.

He turned and he walked back. His eyes were narrow and his hands tight. “Oh, you’re sorry. Is that what you say to make it better when the drugs wear off and you have to live with yourself? You’re sorry? She would be alive right now if you’d come to save her! And you can’t pretend you didn’t know about it. The others left us there, and I can’t believe none of them made it back to the wall. Diane must have seen us, she has eyes everywhere, and even if she didn’t, you could’ve poured a goddamned bowl of cereal and asked Violet. We were in that hotel for weeks, and no one came! No men, no gods, no one!” If he didn’t have both his hands full, he would have struck the man. As it was, he only trembled. He lowered his voice, and all the heat left it. These words were perfectly calculated and rational, “I can’t say if you were high the whole time. I can only say I hope you were.” He turned his back, but he looked over his shoulder for one parting shot, “Alba was right not to trust you.”

And Seth shattered like glass.

“Yeah,” said Mordecai. He could see Erik had the gist of it. “I… It was pretty bad. I was mad and I was hurt and…” He shook his head. “I just wanted to hurt him.”

“Couldn’t… you… say… sorry?” Erik cried.

“I’m not sorry,” Mordecai said softly. He looked down and away. “Sometimes I start to feel like maybe I am, and then I think about it, and I’m mad and hurt all over again. I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, and I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean.”

Erik shivered and hugged his own shoulders. He felt mad and hurt, too. About both of them, about how his uncle knew how to hurt people like that and sometimes he did… but more about Seth.

I helped you, even though it hurt me. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to be brave and help people. That’s what the Silver Streak does. That’s why he gets to be a comic book and on the radio.

That’s what my uncle does. And Hyacinth. Even Milo does that, and he’s scared all the time!

It was like the paint man, John, who had hurt him. But it wasn’t like that, too. The thing John did, that had only been a moment, like falling down. What Seth had done, hadn’t done, that was weeks. That was like turning and walking away.

Did you decide not to help just because my uncle used to hurt you and say you couldn’t have drugs? Even though you knew he wasn’t doing it to be mean?

And he understood that Seth wondered that, too, he wondered that because he didn’t know. And that was why Seth didn’t live with them, or come over for dinners, or let them help him. He was ashamed.

It was like John, but it wasn’t like John. That thing was so small, a kick in the ribs when he’d already been down. It healed. Maybe the hurt didn’t go away, but the damage did. The fact that Seth felt approximately the same level of worthless and terrible for a thing that left people dead made Erik feel sick.

And mad, and hurt… and helpless and sad, too.

Is that all you can do about it? Feel terrible? Not even any ice cream?

This was too big for ice cream. If Seth had tried to bring them ice cream about this, Erik would have wanted to hurt him. Not because people had died, not even his mom, but because his uncle was still sad about it. Because his uncle cried at night, often enough that he had learned how to do it softly, and Erik had learned how to wake up and hear it anyway.

Yes. We hurt people. We throw things. When someone hurts a person we love and that hurt is forever, we damn well do throw things.

Not that it made any difference at all.

Not a good difference. He was glad he didn’t hurt John like his uncle had hurt Seth. John didn’t deserve that, not for something so small. And it didn’t even make his uncle feel better.

Erik sighed. “He knows it was wrong and he wishes it didn’t happen,” he said. He shook his head. “But that doesn’t change it or make it okay.” He wasn’t slowing anymore. He wasn’t upset about it. It just made him tired.

I can’t fix this. It can’t be fixed.

It was like a puzzle that was missing a piece.

You were supposed to be better than that. My mom was supposed to be here, for all of us. Then I could just love you and help you and you could come over whenever you wanted and we’d take care of you. And I wouldn’t have to feel like this.

He folded his arms on the table and he buried his head in them. He didn’t want to see anyone, and he didn’t want to know anything. “I… don’t like… knowing these things! I don’t like… knowing nice… people can be… weak and… bad and… sometimes the only way to… stop it from… hurting is to… hurt more and… bad… people can… break in and… kill… everything you… love and what it… sounds like when you… shoot a man in the…back and what it… feels like…”

“Erik… Erik…” His uncle was holding him. Tightly. Desperately. “Shh, shh…”

“And it… doesn’t get… better! There isn’t… anything… anyone can do to… make it… better!”

“Dear one, do you want me to help you forget?” The only reason he wasn’t turning his pockets inside-out in search of a quarter right now was he was afraid to let Erik go.

“Yes,” Erik said weakly. He closed his eye. “But you… can’t. I’ll… find it all out again the… next… storm. I don’t… want him to go… down to the… shelter on… Pine. They don’t give him… water and he has to… throw up in a… paper… bag.” He went on, while Mordecai still had his mouth open in dismay, “I would… find it out… again when I… grow up… anyway.”

“Not the part about being shot in the back!” said Mordecai,

“I… might,” said Erik. He shook his head. “That part doesn’t… bother me as much. It hurt but then it was over. The other… stuff doesn’t go… away.”

“Erik…” Mordecai held him. “Do you know how much I wish I could protect you?”

“Yes. I… know it… makes you… hurt and… scared. I’m sorry.”

“It isn’t you fault,” said Mordecai. “Some things aren’t anybody’s fault, it’s just the way things are. Things aren’t fair. Fair isn’t something that is. Nothing is fair. Nothing is right. Fair and right are things that you do. And, when something really bad or hard happens, and you can’t work out what’s right to do, or maybe there isn’t anything you can do to be fair… or… or maybe you’re just not strong enough and you can’t do what you know you should, you just have to do your best and keep trying. And not give up about it even though it all goes wrong.”

“It’s how come you’re not… mean to him and you both still try to smile and be… nice to each other,” Erik said. “Even if you can’t be sorry and he can’t make it better.”

Mordecai nodded.

“Seth still tries to be good, too,” Erik said. He sorted through his words. It was a little easier to do that now. He felt better just having said what was wrong, and knowing it was wrong, and his uncle understood it. “It’s a kludge,” he decided. “Or a substitution. It’s just enough so he can still come here when he’s hurt and we can try to make him okay, and we don’t have to feel so mad or hurt that we hate him.”

“Yes,” said Mordecai. “I guess it’s a lot like that.” He picked Erik up, and he sat down in the chair with the boy in his lap. “That doesn’t make it better, and I know it hurts. It’s not fair that you have to know all this stuff. It’s really heavy and you’re really small and I wish I could take it away from you and carry it instead. If it’s hurting you or it makes you mad or unhappy or you just don’t understand it, I want you to know you can talk to me about it and I’ll still hold you and love you, even if there’s not anything else I can do.”

“Sometimes you’re too hurt to hold me,” Erik said.

And something could happen to you, like what happened to Seth’s family, and then you couldn’t hold me anymore ever.

Mordecai sighed. “I know.

“There are a lot of people in this house that love you and want to help you. All of us are trying like hell to protect you and care for you. If I’m too hurt, or if I’m just screwing it up, you can still go to Hyacinth. And Ann and Milo. And Maggie, even though she’s still little. And Barnaby and the General, even though they’re weird and scary. And Sanaam, even though he’s not here a lot.”

I guess Sanaam would still be okay, even if everyone in the house got shot, Erik thought. I could go be a sailor.

Seth loves me, too. He cried when he was hurting me and he wanted to do anything he could to make it stop. I could live under the bridge and we’d take care of each other.

He shook his head, and he began to spill tears. He hid his face against his uncle’s shoulder. “I don’t… want that. I just… want you!”

Mordecai hugged him and rocked with him. “You have me, Erik. I’m here and I love you and you’re safe. I love you wherever I am, and always.”

Hyacinth came in while they were doing that. She was missing a long triangular piece of one sleeve, and the edges of the fabric were frayed and dangling. “We had a scissors-related incident,” she muttered. “Something about a lobster in Room 103, I don’t know. He’s back upstairs now. I have to find something for…” She blinked at them, and saw in the dim morning light from the window that they were both crying. “He told you about Seth, didn’t he?” she said.

“We told each other a lot of things,” Mordecai replied.

There weren’t any more tissues. There was no way to make coffee or chocolate or tea. There was water, and there were paper towels, so that was what she gave them. She also dished them out some antihistamines and decongestants.

“I’m really not happy you left him down there, Hyacinth,” Mordecai said. When Erik shifted in his arms and looked up, he sighed and added, “But I know it was the best you could do.”

Erik nodded, both understanding and approval, and then curled close again.

“Listen you two,” said Hyacinth, “get some sleep when you can. Liam’s out of your room and you can hole up in there where it’s quiet. I don’t need your help.” She trusted them to find cots or clean bed linen if they needed. The storm was over and the magical population of the household could be relied upon to act sensibly again… until the next one.

She put together breakfast for Barnaby and Room 101 and departed with plates.

“Do you think my mom loves me wherever she is?” Erik asked, as his uncle tucked him into bed.

“Even if I’m not supposed to try to talk to her and find out?” he added. His uncle had told him a lot of reasons you shouldn’t call gods who said they could talk to the dead.

Mordecai laid down beside him and put an arm around him. Erik’s bed was in the basement and Seth was asleep in it. They were going to have to share, and neither of them minded too much. “I’m certain she does,” he said, “and you don’t have to talk to her to find it out. She loved you like crazy before you were even here. That’s why you’re here. Because she loved you and protected you and she wanted you.”

Erik nodded. I guess even if something bad happens to me, I’ll have someone who loves me.

He wasn’t sure if that made him feel better. He was scared of bad things happening. To anyone.

But he guessed it was good to know.

[Author’s Note: Title references what I thought was a Chris Rock routine mentioning how Sesame Street never addresses why they allow one of their friends to live in a trash can, but for the life of me I cannot find it online. It’s possible I’m misremembering a Dave Chapelle routine, but that doesn’t seem to cover the same ground. Anyway, this is why one of our friends lives in a trash can, so to speak. Drawing this week’s illustration made me sad. 😦 In other news, we’re almost at the end of the magic storm, and two weeks from the end of the in-story “year.” I might take a month off to focus on other aspects of the site, like the illustrations, but if you guys are all about the text or, say, you desperately want some more off-site wiki stuff, let me know in the comments.]

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