Liam was the first to leave. He got his things together and made quiet excuses, without disturbing the rest of the room.
“I’m sorry, Miss Hyacinth. I’m supposed to open the shop this morning. I don’t know if they’re going to be expecting me, but I haven’t been working there long and I don’t want to disappoint.”
“A bookshop?” Hyacinth surmised with a grin.
“Second hand shop.” He smiled sheepishly. “But there are books in it, yes. I-I’m very sorry about the books.” He had been making some effort to rectify the books, but he couldn’t find all of them, and he knew that awful green man blew one up. “I just… I thought they seemed unhappy.”
“Nah,” said Hyacinth. “After everything else that happened, flying books was practically a vacation. The rest of them’ll turn up sometime. You were a big help. We’ve got enough water in the house for days.”
“It really wasn’t any trouble,” he assured. “I’ll try to be better behaved next time. Goodbye, Miss Ann.” He bowed.
“Goodbye, Liam, dear.” She hesitated and put a hand to her mouth. “Liam, dear, you do know… That is, I don’t want you to feel I’ve been untruthful to you. I’m not really…”
He lifted a hand. “Please. A gentleman is not worried about what is under a lady’s skirts. I have no desire to treat you as anything else.”
Ann smiled. “Thank you, Liam, dear.”
He paused a moment near the door. “But Miss Cerise really is, isn’t she?”
“Oh, my, yes, Cerise really is,” Ann said, and Hyacinth’s mouth dropped open.
“Ah, yes, I thought so… I hope to see you both again. Thank you for putting up with me.”
The very instant the door clicked shut, Hyacinth said, “Ann! Cerise went upstairs with Violette! And into the carpet with Maria!”
“Cerise is a lesbian,” Ann said shortly. She blinked and straightened. “Oh, you do know what sort of a person that is, don’t you, Cin?
“Tha-a-at…” said Hyacinth.
…is impossible! she wanted to say. But she caught herself. Ann already seemed irritated about this, as if it were all perfectly reasonable and obvious.
“… must be extremely difficult,” Hyacinth finished.
“Oh, it really is. You have no idea…”
No, thought Hyacinth. No, I have no idea whatsoever.
“Her housing situation isn’t very good, so she has to pretend she isn’t. It’s a lot more dangerous out there for girls. And she has to dress up as Charlie for her other job, not a lot of people want to hire a girl to mow lawns and trim trees…”
“She dresses up as Charlie?”
“Yes,” Ann replied.
“Do you dress up as Milo or does Milo dress up as you?” said Hyacinth.
Ann sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, right where Milo’s glasses sat. “We’re two different people, Cin.” They’d been at the house for ages. She’d really thought Hyacinth had this down.
“I… I… Well… Yes,” Hyacinth managed finally. “I’m sorry. I do know that.” She also knew that they were the same person, but you had to treat them at all times like they weren’t. That was weird, but she was used to it. The fact that there was a lesbian with male equipment sleeping on a cot in the front room of her house had unsettled her perception of reality. “I’m a little tired,” she said.
Ann smiled at her. “It’s all right Cin, darling. I think we all are, a little. I’m sorry I was so short with you. Cerise just has a hard time of things.”
“Yes, I… I will try very hard not to be tactless about it, but I’m not sure I can promise.”
“Maybe I’d better just deal with her when she goes,” Ann said gently.
“Thank you. Are you sure you’re going to be here? Does Milo have a shift?” She realized she should have asked Ann that hours ago, and made her get some sleep. If Milo had a shift, he was going to pass out on a conveyor belt and get stamped into a watch.
“He does, but I’m not going to let him go,” Ann said. “This storm was a bit much, I don’t think he’s going to be able to manage around people.” Her head was still aching from what he’d done in the closet. “I’ll ask Maria to call the factory for him on her way home. They live near the drugstore. I think I’d really better not ask poor Ted to do anything,” she added.
When Ted and family got going about a half hour later, this was born out. Ted was able to remain upright and he seemed to have a vague idea they were going home. All else was beyond him. Maria couldn’t even get him to eat pie. He just stared at it.
“Can you keep him home from work today?” Hyacinth asked.
Maria shook her head. “But he doesn’t start until noon, he can have a little sleep. And we’ve got coffee at home!” she said bravely.
Hyacinth wasn’t sure coffee and a nap were going to make much of a dent in his condition, but she nodded. She guess there wasn’t too much damage Ted could do to himself painting signs… unless there was scaffolding involved. She decided not to ask. If he showed up later in the afternoon with a broken arm or something, she’d deal with it.
Bethany tugged on her skirt and offered a small crystal spire, maybe six inches long. “Miss Hyacinth, do I win a tiara?”
“Bethany, is that what you were doing?” Hyacinth said. “I thought you were just bored!” She’d been on the floor playing with the rocks since sunrise.
“A tiara?” Ann said.
Hyacinth disintegrated. “It wasn’t… I didn’t mean… They wanted it to be a contest… It was an emergency… My mouth just says things!”
Ann had a look at the tiny approximation of a grounding rod. She smiled. “Sweetheart, I think that’s definitely worth a tiara.”
Ted and family left with a tiara, two fire blankets, and a card with Milo’s work number on it.
“I have hated every instant of this and I hope to never see you again,” Mr. Olivier declared, when he had pulled himself together enough to go.
“Likewise,” said Hyacinth. “The next-closest shelter is on Pine. I hope they lock you in an anti-magic cell.”
“Where is my hat?”
She put his hat on his head and shoved him helpfully towards the door.
Tommy inquired after Mordecai.
“He’s sleeping,” Hyacinth told him. “But you come back and play for us any time. You don’t have to wait for the next storm.”
Elizabeth and Violette also inquired after Mordecai. (Violette did not mention Cerise, who had departed a few minutes before.)
Tania asked snidely if ‘Annie’ had stolen any of their business during the storm and Hyacinth ushered all three of the ladies from the Dove Cot out the door before any further remarks could be made.
(Ann and the ladies from the Dove Cot did not get on. Ann had never mentioned why and Hyacinth didn’t ask her about it — but she suspected it had something to do with why Milo had put such a particular emphasis on the fact that he had ‘a respectable job’ when he showed up at the house.)
The woman with the birdcage left next. She clasped Hyacinth’s hand and said, “Thank you for your hospitality.” Then she lifted the birdcage with the remains of the potato in it. “Jessica, say ‘thank you’ to the nice lady.”
She frowned and shook the cage when there was no reply.
“Fine, be that way,” she said.
“I think that woman may actually be insane,” said Hyacinth.
“No wonder she was so quiet,” said Ann.
Florian was the last of them. He was barefoot and toting a knapsack. They had made a valiant effort at removing his shoes from the floor, but they seemed to have become a permanent fixture.
Hyacinth thought probably the General could have got them, but she doubted Flo’s shoes counted as an emergency.
“I really should’ve tried it when the storm was still going,” he said. “I was just kinda having some trouble with the tile.” It seemed to have straightened itself out in the meantime, and it was no longer fuzzy.
“Yeah, you’re pretty brilliant with materials,” Hyacinth said. “I think you could’ve learned metalwork or stonework if you tried.” She was sure he would’ve been able to do them a grounding rod, if his brain had been functioning. His one attempt had palmate branches like a coral reef. It was sort of artistic.
He shrugged. “The war was in full swing when I signed up. They just gave me the basics and sent me out.”
“So what do you do now that you’re not patching people up anymore?” She knew they wouldn’t hire him at a hospital, not a colored person and a medic with no degree. She was hoping he did window dressings. Like, those really complicated ones they had up during Yule, with all the moving parts.
“Right now? I wash dishes in a pub.”
“They’ve got you in the back?” said Hyacinth. “Not out in front behind the bar where you can talk to people? You can do a charm that makes people like you! You could sell tequila shots to a nun that way!”
“I think they kind of don’t want me out front talking to people,” Florian said.
“Well, they’re idiots,” Hyacinth said. She shook his hand.
Seth was still in the basement, of course, but it was going to be a long time before he was in any shape to get up. Ann was relieved of duty and Hyacinth went down to the basement to catch a nap in a cot. That way, she’d wake up when he did.
Seth said, “Nuh-newspapers!”
Hyacinth rolled out of the cot and tried to remember how her legs worked. She knelt down next to the mattress on the floor. “No, hon,” she said. “The kids picked up your paper route. They know to do that when there’s a storm.” She put one hand on his forehead and looked for a pulse with the other one.
“Storm?” He blinked at her. “Hyacinth.”
“Yeah.” He was weak and dehydrated, but not feverish, and that was about the best she could expect. “I’ve got cold water. Can you drink?” Water was all she could do. It seemed sadistic to send Ann or anyone else to the store.
She held the glass. His eyes were closing by the end of it. “Sorry. Sleep,” he said, and she let him. He curled up around Erik’s stuffed elephant. He’d been holding it when she came down.
When he woke up again, she got two glasses of water down him and some pills. When he woke up the third time, he seemed to be approaching coherency.
“Erik,” he said.
“He’s all right. He’s upstairs asleep.”
“I hurt him. I said…”
“You mentioned cigarettes, yes. We’ve been over that. He’s fine and we didn’t have to give him any cigarettes. Don’t worry.”
“Okay.” He stared at the elephant and attempted to incorporate it into his worldview. “This is his.”
“Yeah, so’s the bed.”
Seth glanced down at it.
“…but I don’t think he minds sharing.”
He tried to hand her the elephant, “Please, give it back to him.”
“He can have it when he’s conscious,” Hyacinth replied. She set it aside. “How are you doing?”
“I don’t know.” He tried to sit up, but he didn’t quite make it. He rolled onto his back and put both hands over his face. “It’s like scrambled eggs. I remember I had an instant soup because I thought I’d feel better and I didn’t. Did you have to come find me?”
“No, you made it here on your own.”
“I thought the radio was talking,” he said.
“Yeah, the radio was talking,” Hyacinth said. “This storm was weird as hell, it wasn’t just you.”
“I was dreaming…” He took his hands down and looked at her. “I slept. Erik helped me.”
“Yeah. Do you remember what about?” She was ready to drug him again if he started to lose it. The kids could pick up his paper route tomorrow, too.
“…No,” he said softly.
He remembers enough, she thought. But he seemed to be handling it all right, at least for the moment.
“Why is it cinnamon?” Seth asked her.
Hyacinth snickered. “Maria. She cleaned the bedclothes. Also, your clothes.”
Seth pulled up his t-shirt collar and sniffed it.
“I guess she likes cinnamon,” Hyacinth went on. “She also liked you, but I was able to discourage her.”
Seth’s expression crumpled in pained confusion. “Maria is Bethany’s mother.”
“Maria is married. To Bethany’s father.”
“Yes, that tends to be how that sort of thing works out. Not always, but usually.” She patted him. “You poor guy. Haven’t you ever had a good time during a magic storm? Was it always like this?”
“Not always like this.” He sighed. “But I never… with a married person!” He stretched his t-shirt and examined it. He thought he recalled it having stains. He was never able to get stains out of things. He only had cold water. He did laundry in a fountain. “She didn’t take my clothes off, did she?”
“No, but it was a near thing. What do you think, Seth?” She shifted into a crouch, preparing to stand. “You want something to eat? We can’t warm anything up, but we’ve got a lot of desserts. There’s some custard left if you want…”
Seth gagged and rolled urgently on to his side but he did not throw up. He waved a hand at her and shook his head, until he could manage speech, “No… No… Thank you.”
Ooh, Mordecai used to feed people custard, thought Hyacinth. Damn.
“Sorry,” she said. “What about a piece of pie?”
She got half a piece of pie into him, then he needed to go back to sleep.
It was a lying-down-or-sitting-with-head-in-hands-and-staring-into-space-centric day. There was no coffee and no one was put-together enough to want to leave the house. They left the last rod on the roof and all the cold leftovers in the kitchen. People ate when they felt like it and didn’t do dishes. Hyacinth remembered Room 101 required lunch service when hunger drove Barnaby into the kitchen at two and he started rearranging plates instead of eating off of them.
At three, Ann discovered Mordecai having a nervous breakdown in the downstairs bathroom. Something Erik-related that had grown to encapsulate the nature of reality itself. She alerted Hyacinth and Hyacinth swatted him for hiding in the bathroom instead of saying anything (not on the head). She got him a kitchen towel (they were out of paper towels by then, too) and some aspirin and a tranquilizer and she sat on the toilet that didn’t work and listened to him go on (“Do you know what’s wrong with people, Hyacinth? Sentience! Intelligence was a bad idea and it got out of hand!”) until he quit making sense (“Twig technology… Prefrontal cortex… Supply-side economics…”) and then she put him back to bed.
At six, there was a knock on the front door. It was testament to Hyacinth’s exhaustion that her first thought was, Oh, gods, Ted fell off a billboard or something. Ted and Maria lived in the neighborhood, and they had been to Hyacinth’s house for help with minor disasters many times before. They would not have bothered about knocking and they would’ve gone directly around to the back.
It was a purple kid holding a cardboard box full of small white containers that had a tell-tale red missive on them.
THANK YOU! each folded lid advised in a mock-Xinese font.
“Got dinner for you,” he said.
He shoved the box into Hyacinth’s arms and while she was blinking at it, pushed past her into the front room. “Think my money’s on the table. Yep.”
Hyacinth blinked at that, too. The note was lying folded under the bowl of contraceptive charms. It was old money. You could tell right away because it was pink. A tenner. The new money from after the war was uniformly blue-gray. Some businesses still took old money and all the banks did, but it was worth a little less than face value.
“That’s a good tip even with the markdown,” the kid said. He pocketed it and returned to the porch.
“What…” said Hyacinth. “Why…” Just as the kid was picking his bike up out of the out of the yard and preparing to depart, she managed, “Who ordered this?” They didn’t have a phone. If someone had gone out of the house, she would’ve appreciated a heads up, so she could have had them pick up a few things. Some canned heat and some coffee, at least.
“Guy named Olivier,” the kid said. “See ya.” He experienced a little difficulty negotiating his bike. It might’ve been the cobbles.
I guess he must have paid for it, too, thought Hyacinth. She did not recall the folded pink note or that the boy had come into the house.
Maybe he feels guilty about being such a pain in the ass.
She paused a moment and tried to work out if she felt guilty about treating him like one, then decided she did not care.
It was nice to have hot food, and free food. The little white cartons had been labeled with room numbers in black marker. Hyacinth delivered them. She didn’t mind a few extra steps, it seemed less effort than trying to herd a bunch of exhausted people into the kitchen, and she didn’t have to bother about plates or silverware. There were chopsticks in the box.
Barnaby demanded a fork, and some antacids. He also opined that Mordecai should not be allowed shirt buttons.
When delivered the carton marked ‘Basement’ (that one was slightly different, it had soup), Seth broke down sobbing. Hyacinth took it away from him before he could drop it into his lap (she didn’t want to do more laundry) and hugged him.
“No. Hey. Come on. It’s okay.”
“You didn’t have to,” he protested. “You didn’t have to…”
“I didn’t,” she replied. “I didn’t pick it up, I didn’t order it… I didn’t even pay for it. This guy we had staying upstairs did. He must’ve figured we’d be too tired to cook.”
It was quite some time before he was in any shape to respond to that, or even to parse the meaning of the words. She had to repeat them several times while random information about varieties of Xinese soup and the restaurant that used to be next to the bus stop on the way home spilled out of him, interspersed with insistences that “It’s my favorite! It’s my favorite!”
It was a good thing the soup had a lid on it or it would’ve been stone cold by the time he was able to eat any.
He stared at the lid for a few moments, trying to absorb the fact of it before he attempted to remove it without spilling the contents. It said ‘Sp,’ (Spring rolls, maybe?) but that had been abandoned and scribbled out. Beneath that, ‘BASEMENT’ was scrawled in block letters. Something about this bothered him, but it was difficult to put together.
“How did the gentleman upstairs know I’d be in the basement, Hyacinth?”
She shrugged. “Probably just a guess. I was in and out of here about a million times. He must’ve figured someone was in bad shape down here, even if he didn’t notice you come in. Pretty sure I said something about being worried about you.” That seemed like a reasonable explanation. It did not account for how ‘the gentleman upstairs’ knew Seth had a tearful affection for Xinese soup, but that could’ve been a coincidence. Maybe it came free with the entrees, like the paper-wrapped chicken.
It was wonton soup, nothing to do with spring rolls. He managed it slowly, with occasional tears.
When he was through, he put in another request to be reunited with his coat and shoes.
Hyacinth had thus far conspired to keep him separated from his coat and shoes. She thought if she could delay him until dark, she might get him to spend the night. She really didn’t want him to go back under the bridge. She didn’t like that anyway, but he was only a few hours removed from seeing his whole family murdered and he just broke down over soup.
“Listen… What about a bath? Before you go? Just to go along with the clean clothes? We’ve got an awful lot of water. This one guy helped us fill up the whole washtub. I can warm up the water,” she added. She could do that, even with no oven or stove. She’d learned how to do that during the war, when she’d got away from David’s house with the hot water on tap. All you had to do was heat up some metal and throw it in… and be real careful testing the water because it was hard to tell how much you’d warmed it up that way. But, hey, if she overheated the bath, that was even more excuse for Seth to stay in the house.
The warm water persuaded him. She helped him up the stairs.
Erik and Mordecai were in the kitchen. Erik was interested in learning to use chopsticks, but Mordecai with a mild concussion and a tranquilizer that hadn’t totally worn off was unable to give a coherent lesson. After fifteen minutes of trying, they gave up and took their food into the kitchen to eat with a table and forks.
Seth wobbled against Hyacinth, uncertain whether he ought to walk in or walk out. Both options were awkward. He hadn’t even got around to considering words yet.
Erik saw a blue man in a white t-shirt with longish white hair and dark swollen half-circles under his eyes. He put his hands on the edge of the table and failed to push back his chair. Should I hug him? Do I still like him?
I can forgive someone who hurts me. Can I forgive someone who hurts a piece of my heart…?
“Hello,” Seth said. He bit down on his tongue to prevent, Do you need paper and pencils? from escaping.
Erik got up and hugged him. Seth knelt down and hugged back. “Erik, my dear, are you all right?” he asked. He did not pull back from the hug or make any attempt to investigate this visually.
“Yeah,” said Erik. “I had orange chicken.”
“I had soup.” He closed his eyes. “I’m so sorry for everything. I’m sorry I hurt you.” He expected Mordecai would have something to say to him about that, but he didn’t even care.
“I’m sorry, too,” Erik said.
Now Seth drew back and looked at him. “Erik, dear, what for?”
“Oh,” said Erik. And he understood that Seth wasn’t just being nice, he didn’t know. He thought he had a really awful dream, then he woke up and Erik helped him feel better. He didn’t remember kicking and screaming and being held down because the magic didn’t work that way. He didn’t know what he’d seen was how it really happened.
And Erik wasn’t going to tell him. There was no solace in hurting people, none at all.
“You didn’t want me there,” he said. “You didn’t want me to hear you, or see you. That hurt you a lot.”
Seth set him back a pace and put hands on his shoulders, “Now, that wasn’t your fault. I’m not certain of all I said, but even if I said it was, it wasn’t and I don’t think that. Do you know that?”
Erik nodded and sighed. Yeah. I know stuff. I know a lot of stuff. I wish I didn’t, but I do.
“Are… you… gonna… come back… next time?” he asked. “Even if… you didn’t… like me there… I can… help.” He weakly lifted a hand. “I felt… better doing… magic and I’d be… scared… alone.”
It’s like when he was scared of the radio, Seth thought. He’s scared I won’t.
Part of him didn’t want to, even if Erik could help him, because all this was hard and things to do with Erik and Mordecai were doubly hard. It was easier to go out and let strangers hurt him than to be around people he had hurt. After he’d met Mordecai on the street-corner, that same part of him had wanted to turn and walk away and keep walking and never look back.
But, he didn’t do that. He stayed in the city and eventually he saw Mordecai again and he apologized again and… It got to be like a job. Back before he had the school or any other reason to keep existing. (Well, except the one, and that was more of a habit than a reason.) Wake up. Try to work out how to apologize. Maybe find something to eat, so I can keep trying to apologize tomorrow.
And eventually he figured out where Mordecai lived, and he found out about Erik, and that knocked him flat on his back, but he kept up with the apologizing because… Well… What else did he have to do?
And eventually Mordecai started to sort of tolerate him, like you might tolerate a housefly you had failed to swat on multiple occasions. Well, apparently you are my pet now.
Now he could either hurt Erik by abandoning him altogether, or by promising he’d always come here and breaking that promise, or by telling him the truth.
I’m not really much of a person, he thought. How do I keep getting into these situations where I’m supposed to do something and people trust me?
“Alba was right not to trust you.”
Yes. Alba was a very smart girl. I always knew that.
And very kind. She’d been kind to him anyway, even though she knew how worthless he was.
I’m sorry I’m not more like her.
“Erik… I can’t promise I’ll always be here. I get very sick, and I don’t think very well when I’m sick. I promise I’ll try to remember you’re here and you want to help me, and I promise I’ll try to come. And… and I’m sorry that’s all I can do.”
“It’s okay,” Erik said, because he was kind like his mother and he didn’t really mind about worthless people who couldn’t be trusted. He hugged Seth again. “I know it’s hard sometimes.”
Seth did not want to stay for a bath, warm or otherwise, but Hyacinth would not allow him to exit gracefully and once she told everyone that was what he’d been about to do, Erik and Mordecai also said he should stay and have one and… and that put him in a box that he didn’t have the strength to claw his way out of.
Hyacinth wanted him to stay until his hair was dry, but Hyacinth wanted him to stay forever, and Mordecai intervened on behalf of his coat and shoes and he was finally allowed to leave — despite it being dark out. He knew his way home.
They made him take leftovers. They had a lot of little containers to employ.
“He wouldn’t come stay here even if we moved away,” Erik said to his uncle, while Hyacinth persistently walked Seth down to the corner. “Because he’d know why we left, and he’d feel bad.”
“That’s about the size of it,” Mordecai said. He’d come to that conclusion long ago, though occasionally he took it out of the back file and went over it again, looking for loopholes. He hadn’t found any yet.
“Is there another house like this where they like broken people?” Erik asked.
“I don’t think there’s another house like this anywhere,” said Mordecai.
“Do you think I’ll make him sad if I go to school tomorrow to see if he’s okay?”
“I’m not sure. But I suppose we might as well give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work out, we can try something else.”
The following afternoon, Erik scared the hell out of Seth by showing up with two cans of soup and a fire blanket. After a brief, muted discussion behind the chalkboard, it was decided it might be better if Erik didn’t come back to school until magic season was over.
Seth turned up at the house for the next storm, though.
[Author’s Note: We have reached the end of the magic storm! Took us two months to get through two days. One more installment next week and then a break. There will be another storm next in-story year. There will be some new faces, but who would you like to see again? The Dove Cot Ladies and Ted and Family live nearby, so probably most of them will show up, but does anyone have a fave rave? Tell me! I haven’t written the next storm yet. I’ve got some vague ideas but nothing set in stone. (This offer valid until I actually do write the next storm, if you should happen to come upon this while reading the archive. I’ll come back and stamp ‘VOID’ all over it later.)]