Cold Things (69)

Maggie in a lab coat with Erik in a test tube

Maggie was on the front porch with Erik, and some toys, and trying to approximate playing. The previous Sun’s Day, she had departed from Soup around dinnertime with a warning that he better make himself scarce next week. Today was for Erik.

Erik looked pretty rough. Not as bad as when Auntie Enora had been kicking him around, he’d been eating and sleeping, but he’d also been worrying. And the worrying did tend to take a chunk out of the eating and sleeping. As did the magic storms.

It was the last week in July, humid and hot, and there weren’t going to be any more of those. Regular rain, maybe. But Erik still wouldn’t stop wincing and looking up at the sky.

Maggie held up a tin soldier with a tiny rifle. He was frozen in a kneeling posture as if about to fire. Maggie thought it was a muzzleloader, like the olden days. “Come on, Erik. I’ll show you how to set up a sniper’s nest.” She thought the windowsill might make a good place, or the railing. They’d have to imagine some cover.

“I don’t feel good,” Erik said softly. He was sitting at the top of the steps with his arms wrapped around his middle, like when Milo knew someone was staring at him.

“You’re nervous,” Maggie said. “Regular nervous. That’s a thing that happens.” There was no reply. “Come on, if we were gonna get a storm, your uncle would’ve been up making weird meals hours ago.” She had gotten a little sick of desserts, also a little suspicious of them.

“What if it sneaks up?” Erik said.

“That is not a thing that happens,” Maggie replied. “Not even on the ocean when they come fast. You can see ’em a mile away. And Bill’s left arm always hurts. It’s got pins in it.”

Erik turned and looked at her. “Why don’t you take the pins out?”

“Because they’re inside, holding the bones together. It’s like Hyacinth has that plate in her head.”

Erik touched the silver-colored socket that held his metal eye. And he looked up at the sky again.

“Erik, seriously, I’m going to kidnap you. Your uncle said we could go to the movies, he won’t notice you’re gone.”

“Where would you kidnap me to?” Erik asked her.

“I dunno. The movies. Maybe there’s a new serial.”

“Don’t wanna go to the movies,” Erik said, looking down. It was too far away from the house if something happened. He didn’t want to be sick at the movies.

“And that’s why I’d kidnap you,” Maggie said knowingly. She looked up at the tinkle of a familiar bell. In another context, it meant someone coming into a shop. Outside and continuous, however, “Hey, look, Erik. Ice cream. You wanna get ice cream?” The man was going by on their side of the street, negotiating a wheeled cart around the potholes.

“Don’t have money,” Erik said.

“Well, you would have money if you told your uncle you wanted to go to the damn movies like a normal person, Erik.”

Erik didn’t say anything. He looked down again.

Maggie reached into her pocket. “I have money.” She counted it quickly. It wasn’t a lot. “We could split something.”

“Don’t want to,” Erik said.

Maggie growled at him. “You are really stupid sometimes, you know that?” She shoved past him to the plywood gate. “Hey! Ice cream man!” She purchased a bar in a paper packet that had a picture of a cartoon monkey on it. The bar bore only a passing resemblance to the monkey. The candy-coated eyeballs were melting out of its head. She removed them with her tongue, and a slurping sound that would have been disturbingly appropriate for real eyeballs.

The ice cream man lifted another paper packet, a generic white one, and motioned over at Erik. “Hey, kid. You want one of these?” Erik considered for a moment and then got up to investigate.

“How much is it?” Maggie asked. She was pretty sure Erik could get money for ice cream from someone in the house, but there was a logistical problem with the melting involved.

The ice cream man shrugged. “Free.”

“Can I have one?” Maggie asked.

“Sure.” The ice cream man pulled another packet out of the cooler. “Two scints.”

Erik had caught the tail end of this conversation and he smugly accepted his free ice cream.

———

It was an ice pop, a grape one. Erik was enjoying it on the porch steps, in the shade. Maggie’s blind monkey ice cream bar had gone ages ago, leaving her with ruined gloves and a sour expression. Erik did not believe in eating ice pops. He sucked them, and lapped up the melting trickles with his tongue. They went longer that way. It was annoying as hell.

“Why do you always get free stuff?” Maggie said finally.

Erik had occasionally wondered this himself, and he removed the ice pop in order to supply his theory, “I think it’s because I’m small, and I look like I had a lot of bad things happen to me, and I look sad about it, so people give me things to make me feel better.” He had a similar theory for why people gave his uncle money, although his uncle was also a very good violinist.

“How did the ice cream man decide you looked sad all the way over here on the porch from all the way over there on the street?” Maggie demanded.

Erik shrugged. “Maybe he could see my eye.”

“From the street?” Maggie stood. “Stay there.”

Erik sucked his ice pop and sat on the steps while Maggie backed off to the plywood gate. She tipped it into the yard and tramped over it to stand in the cobbled street, where the ice cream man had been with the cart. On the porch steps, she saw boy legs with shoes and gray stockings, and one green hand which Erik was resting on his knee. The remainder was shadowed and only a suggestion. “Erik, move your head like this,” she said. She turned hers slowly from side-to-side. She could tell Erik was moving over there, and she got a suggestion of a nose, but she couldn’t tell anything about his eyes, not even the weird one.

She returned to the porch and plunked down on the step. “Okay, what we have here is a genuine mystery. You gotta help me out on this.”

Erik frowned at her. He had finished his ice pop. “You’re teasing because you want me out of the house.” He stuck his hand in his mouth, the webbed place between thumb and forefinger, to remove the grape-flavored stickiness. He was only partially successful; his mouth was pretty sticky, too.

“No, I’m jealous because you got free ice cream,” she said. “Come on, Erik. You owe me.”

Erik pulled back from her. “How… do… I… owe… you?” He was getting awfully sick of having to do things and be brave and patient because he was supposed to.

“Because I could’ve smacked you and taken that and I didn’t,” Maggie said, with fist upraised. “And you’re making me use up a lot of nice on you and I’m gonna run out sometime. And I really want to know why you get free stuff sometimes because I want free stuff sometimes so come on!” She shook him.

“Geez!” Erik said. He guessed having to do something because it was a threat was new. “Lemme throw the stick away…”

“There’s trash cans on the street,” Maggie said.

———

“It’s too fa-a-ar!” Erik whined. Maggie was dragging him by the hand, which was hot and sweaty, as was the atmosphere.

Maggie let go and pulled him under the shade of an awning. “Erik, this is science. The instance we are studying was ice cream, so it has to be ice cream.”

“Drugstore… has… ice cream,” Erik said. Although the drugstore was farther away than the ice cream parlor at this point, there might be another drugstore.

“Yeah, and cough syrup and contraceptive charms,” Maggie said.

“No one ever gave me those,” Erik said.

“Yeah, so the place with nothing but ice cream is our best shot,” Maggie said. “Besides, wouldn’t you rather have ice cream?”

Erik nodded miserably. Ice cream and a swimming pool, but the ocean would do. Not that he’d like Maggie to drag him there, either.

“Look, we have to rule out movement of the sun and variant perspective,” Maggie said. “We’re testing your theory. So you better look really friggin’ pitiful, okay? Like your house burned down and your mom just died.”

“My mom died a long time ago, it’s not that sad,” Erik said.

“It’s called method acting, Erik. It’s like pretending so hard you believe it.”

“I don’t wanna be sad on purpose,” Erik said. He was kind of sick of being sad, too.

“You want some ice cream, don’t you?”

He nodded.

“You wanna figure out why people give you ice cream sometimes so you can have it whenever you want it, right?”

“Sometimes it’s sodas…”

“Okay, but either way, free stuff. You like free stuff.”

He nodded.

“Okay, so you gotta look sad. I don’t care how you get there, just look really, really sad.”

Erik spent a sweaty half-hour (approximately, with occasional breaks to dodge dogs and horses) positioned outside of the ice cream parlor and pretending he was in that movie where the little kid gets adopted by the guy with no money but the police take him away, and he needed to look sad for a paycheque. Maggie had smudged up his clothes and face a little to add to the effect, making tear streaks with a licked finger. This was a tactical error, though neither Erik or Maggie understood enough about slum life to realize it. People kept walking by like they couldn’t see him, which was how folks generally dealt with crushing poverty in an urban setting. A couple of them even went right past him and into the ice cream parlor.

At last, a man in a dark suit and a bowler hat leaned down and acknowledged his existence, “Little boy, are you lost?”

“This is my job,” Erik replied, fully in character. “I’m supporting my who-o-ole family.”

“Poor child,” the man said.

Maggie, invisible in a nearby alley, leaned forward an fisted her hands. Yeah. All right. We’re go for ice cream…

“Can you read?” the man asked him. Literacy rates among urchins in Strawberryfield were quite good, although he had no idea why that would be. His mission of mercy had yet to take him past the street school — but even if it had, he wouldn’t have thought much of it.

Erik nodded.

The man reached into his coat pocket and produced a folded ten sinq note. “I was lost once, too,” he said. He put the note in Erik’s startled hand, turned and walked away. “Bring your family,” he added, over his shoulder.

“…Maggie,” Erik managed shakily. No one ever gave him free money. This might be enough to buy a house. He was afraid someone was going to accusing him of stealing.

Maggie appeared. “What is it?”

He handed her the folded note.

“Pssh. Counterfeit,” she said. She unfolded it. “Oh. Wow. Even better.” She held it out for him to read, taut in both hands. It wasn’t even the right length for a note. She guessed they were cheaper to print that way.

More enduring than diamonds, Erik read. More valuable than gold. The Man Joshua’s Love. Sacred Heart Mision and Soup Kitchen. 1225 Pine St.

“Yeah, that and a sol will get you a loaf of bread,” Maggie said. “Notice he didn’t even offer to give you the bus fare.”

Erik plucked the note from her fingers and stared at it. “It’s… a…. prank,” he said, as if the words were new or he’d never quite needed to put them together like that. Marshmallow… lobster… concubine.

“Yeah. Kinda,” Maggie allowed.

“The church man is walking around Strawberryfield pranking sad people,” Erik said, with a little bit more certainty. He narrowed his eyes. “Maggie…” He was slowing down again, but this time because he was pissed, “Let’s… curse… him…” He had already taken a couple of steps.

Maggie hooked him around the arm and dragged him back. “Whoa, hang on, Erik. You are not allowed to abandon the ice cream experiment! You’ll cock up the results!”

Newexperiment,” Erik said through clenched teeth. He pulled on his arm, still glaring after the church man. “Pushingpeopleinfrontofbuses…”

Maggie didn’t dare let go of him. He looked like he meant that. “Erik, we don’t kill people for giving out soup kitchen directions in the stupidest way possible.”

Erik panted. He spat the words. There was no other way to get them out, “He’ll… keep… doing… it! He… has… more!”

Maggie considered Erik. She looked for the man. The dark hat and suit were obvious among the pedestrians, most of them were in straw hats and shirtsleeves for the season. “Erik, I’m gonna let you go, you’re not gonna push the man in front of a bus or call any gods, and I’m gonna make sure he doesn’t prank any more people, okay?”

Frowning, Erik nodded. Maggie gave him back his arm. She held up the phony note and had a real good look at the details. “Here,” she said softly. She held up her hand, above her head so she wouldn’t get hit in the face. Here, phony ten sinq notes printed on cheap pulp paper in blue-gray ink with a typo spelling ‘mission’ with only one S. Surely that was specific enough.

The first result was a shriek, then a sound of fluttering like pigeons, with no visible pigeons. Folded paper was not terribly obvious when flying in the most aerodynamically efficient way possible. A few people who happened to look up saw several apparent ten sinq notes soaring overhead in a V-shape, like migrating geese. One unfortunate gentleman snatched at one and received the mother of all paper cuts. The folded papers hit Maggie’s open hand, one after the other, stacking themselves like playing cards. She folded her thumb over them, and then all her fingers, crumpling them. “God’s retribution, asshole!” Maggie hollered, in the general direction of the stunned bowler hat. “The Man Joshua says stop being a dick!

“…And now we are running away,” she told Erik, stuffing the crumpled papers into the pocket with her sticky gloves. “Come on. Come on.” She snagged his arm again.

They cut through an alley and stopped half a block down, under a convenient ledge shielding some establishment’s back door for the comfort of smokers and trash collectors. There had been some shouting and Maggie thought she heard someone say police, but no whistles.

“Okay, I think we got away with it,” she said.

The back door opened. A man with a dirty white apron and a paper hat peeked out. “What are you kids doing back here?”

“Shade,” Maggie said weakly. She indicated the ledge.

The man regarded her, and then Erik, squinting. The day was painfully bright and the heat was baking off the dark cobbles. “Kid, you look like you could use a soda.” He closed the door.

Maggie had time to mouth the word no before the man returned with a cold bottle and handed it to Erik. He shut the door without awaiting any thanks or offering any explanation.

It was a grape Min-Min.

Maggie looked briefly, viciously annoyed… then she brayed laughter and slapped both hands over her face. “Oh, my gods, what in the actual hell?”

Erik examined the bottle with a confused expression. “Maybe it’s a… curse?”

“A free soda curse?” said Maggie.

Erik enumerated on his fingers, which was easy because the bottle wasn’t open yet, “And ice cream, and snow cones, and milkshakes, and one time I was in front of this fancy restaurant in SoHo and they gave me a mineral water.” He frowned. “I didn’t like it.” It tasted like pennies.

“But you like all the other stuff,” Maggie said.

He nodded.

“Do you ever get sick from it or anything?”

“My uncle says don’t drink from open containers,” Erik said. He ducked his head. “But… snow cones and… milkshakes and… ice cream… scoops don’t come in… bottles or… packages and I have those sometimes. I haven’t ever gotten sick and nobody tried to feed me a razor blade.”

“I think that thing about razor blades is something they tell parents to scare them,” Maggie muttered. “Like Black Peter for little kids.”

“Oh, no, Black Peter is real,” Erik said, nodding. “You can call him, but it’s not a real good idea. He hurts bad people but he’s really strict about things and if he decides you’re bad, he’ll hurt you, too.”

Maggie closed her dangling jaw. “I have really got to sit in on some of these god lessons with you and your uncle.”

Erik shrugged. “We don’t have a schedule or anything, it’s just whenever.”

“But you don’t know any gods who curse people with cool stuff they like,” Maggie said.

“I guess not,” Erik said uncomfortably. ‘Cool stuff’ had brought up a memory, a painful one. Being very, very hot and having everything taste like metal and not understanding how Maggie had gone away with the grape soda… or even exactly who that person with the grape soda was. Please… I want something cold…

Maggie snapped fingers and pointed at him. “Maybe it’s like a reward. For being good. The Invisibles are always hanging around you and if you do something they like, they give you stuff. We scared that guy with the fake money and you got a soda right away.”

“The Invisibles don’t always like stuff that’s good,” Erik said, frowning. A lot of them seemed pretty interested in killing people, for one reason or another. But maybe his uncle just knew more about those ones because of the war. “What would I have done that they liked before the ice pop?”

“Geez, I don’t know,” Maggie said. “I’m not downstairs a whole bunch, but you haven’t been doing a lot. You got real boring during magic season this year.”

“I… was… tired,” Erik said. It wasn’t really okay for him to get mad at Maggie about that because he didn’t tell her about what it was like in the basement, and he didn’t want her to see him sick and feel sorry for him, but he did have a legitimate reason for being ‘boring’ the past few weeks!

He considered that. “Maybe they liked I was taking care of Seth and being nice to him, but that’s a long time to wait for an ice pop about it.”

“Maybe they can’t just give it to you,” Maggie said. “Like there’s a rule, or they’re not powerful enough to do that. They have to poke someone near you to give you some stuff, and there wasn’t some guy walking around with a present until I dragged you out of the house.” She put a hand to her mouth. “You know, it is kinda weird for an ice cream guy to be on Violena. It’s not as many people as Strawberry Square. He went right past Eddows Lane and Green Dragon Alley.”

“You think Cousin Violet pushed him?” Erik asked.

Maggie shrugged. “Did you see her?”

Erik shook his head. “Not today, but I don’t always see them when they’re around.” He thought there would be a lot more of them if he always saw them. He was kind of afraid of that happening someday, like what happened to Barnaby.

“Okay,” Maggie said. She clapped her hands and rubbed them together. “New theory. Let’s get out there and be really frigging nice to everybody!”

“Why do you have to?” Erik said.

“I’m a control group. Come on!”

“What about the soda?” He didn’t think people were going to give him a soda when he already had one.

“We will drink the soda and then be really frigging nice to everyone!” Maggie declared.

They returned the bottle and got a penny for it, too.

———

After about an hour’s worth of being really frigging nice to people in and around Apple Blossom Square, Erik and Maggie met on a park bench and compared notes.

“What’d you get?” she said.

Erik opened his palm. “Three scints and this butterscotch candy, but it was in the bottom of a lady’s purse and it has lint on it,” he said. “I carried her groceries to the bus. What about you?”

“Seven scints. This old guy in a raincoat gave me a sol, but he put his hand on my butt when I was helping him cross the street and I had to break all his fingers and take his wallet.” She laid it on the bench between them. “So, like, five sinqs, too. And this picture of a naked lady.” It was creased and stained and she was not interested in touching it.

“That doesn’t seem very nice,” Erik said. He nudged the wallet with one cautious finger, as if it might bite. The naked lady was blurry and pale and she looked like a ghost. She kept winking at the camera, which got to look like a facial tic after a few repetitions.

“Hey, he started it,” Maggie said.

“Won’t it cock up your results?”

“I’m the control group,” Maggie said. “The phenomenon is centered on you. And the evidence would seem to suggest that anyone who goes around being nice will pick up some money, and maybe some purse candy, but not sodas and snow cones.”

“Also mugging people gets you way more money than carrying groceries,” Erik said.

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to get our paper in any journals,” Maggie said. She pocketed the five sinqs and stuffed the wallet with the naked lady in a trash can. “Okay. I think the next logical step is to get near someplace they definitely have ice cream and see if any of it comes your way.”

“Back to the ice cream parlor?” Erik said wearily.

“Come on, it’s not that far,” said Maggie.

Erik got sick of standing outside an ice cream parlor on a hot day with plenty of money and not having any ice cream after about ten minutes. He pushed past Maggie and through the door to see what his four scints (counting the penny from the soda bottle) would get him. Maggie had all the sinqs. He came back with an ice cream sandwich… and a rootbeer float with two scoops of vanilla in a paper cup with a pink and white striped straw.

“Oh, goddammit, Erik!” Maggie said. “Now we don’t know if it was being nice to everybody or going inside to buy something!”

Erik calmly sipped his rootbeer float. “If they might make me wait two whole months before they give me something because it’s not close enough, we’re not gonna be able to figure that out anyway. I was nice to, like, a million people, I could get free stuff for days.”

Maggie considered this with narrowed eyes. “How many people, exactly, did you help, Erik?”

“Oh, gods…” Erik said.

———

“I… don’t… want… twelve… ice creams!” Erik cried out, as Maggie dragged him along to the nearest drugstore, visible half a block away. There was a wooden sign out front with a mortar and pestle on it.

“Thirteen,” Maggie said. “You hafta get one more to prove it’s not being nice to people. And you better not be nice to anyone else while we’re doing this!”

“I’ll… get… sick!” Erik said.

“You don’t have to eat ’em. We’ll throw some away!”

“That’s… awful!” Erik said. “Can’t we… give them to… people?”

“No, because that’s being nice! Gods, Erik, don’t you know anything about science?”

Erik wrapped both arms around a metal lamppost and clung. “I… will… not… throw… ice…cream… away!” he shrieked.

———

“All right,” Maggie said. She opened the shopping bag and had a look at the spoils. She had slapped several enchantments on it to keep everything cold and upright and the brown paper had gone stiff like cardboard. Suspended inside, in perfect stasis, were half a dozen sodas (four of them grape, two in paper cups from fountains) one snow cone (a striped mixture with grape, cherry and orange) three sample spoons from ice cream (Erik had to eat those right away but Maggie included the empty spoons for scientific accuracy), one kiddie ice cream cone in a cake cup, a chocolate-dipped frozen half-a-banana on a stick, and a green glass bottle of sparkling water.

They had been at this since lunchtime, the sun was starting to go down, and it was time to draw some conclusions before they ran home for dinner.

The one uniting feature between all of these items, and the ones Erik had been given before, was that they were cold. Maggie thought this experiment might warrant repeating on a snowy day in winter to see if the weather had anything to do with it, but at the moment she had to assume that Erik only got cold presents. It made a big difference going inside of places where they had cold stuff and getting noticed, he picked something up that way seventy-five percent of the time. Buying something else was the best way to accomplish this, but occasionally a friendly stranger would take Erik up to the counter, or just buy something and hand it to him. Mentioning the phenomenon, such as asking, “Do you think you might like to give me something?” seemed to queer the whole deal and sometimes got Erik thrown out for begging. People liked to decide they were giving things out of the goodness of their hearts, it seemed like, though they often walked right past her or other kids to give stuff to Erik. Looking happy or sad didn’t seem to make any difference, but holding bottle of soda kept any other presents away, even the ones that weren’t soda. Erik did once pick up a soda while holding the snow cone. This and the contents of the bag suggested Erik’s soda magnetism was stronger than anything else, but they’d need more data points to confirm it. There was also fifty-three percent preference for grape or partially grape-flavored things.

“I think you’re like a vortex,” Maggie said. “It’s not anything to do with behavior, or deserving it. And I don’t think the Invisibles have to be watching you. It’s not a conscious decision at all. There are several grape sodas or grape-soda-like objects being drawn in towards the center — you — at any given time, and you can do things to bring more objects into the radius of influence — like being near lots of people and cold things, or fewer of them — like hiding at home all the time. You can speed them up or slow them down by the way you act and how easy you make it to fall in, but you can’t control how many there are or when, exactly, they hit you.”

Erik had a concerned expression that was not much to do with being a grape soda vortex. He had drawn his own conclusions. “Maggie… Soup can’t… ever find out about this. He will… kidnap me for… real.” He’d picked up seven sodas and a whole bunch of food just walking around, and all in one afternoon.

Maggie shut the bag and shook her head at him. “Erik, where would he put you?”

You… think… he’d… care?

Maggie opened the bag and had another look at the comestibles within. She shut it quickly and crumpled it into a fold. “We gotta ditch this thing somewhere.”

Erik pointed up the street, a few doors away from the drugstore on Eddows Lane. “Ted… Maria and… Bethany. And Pablo,” he added. They lived over a dry cleaner’s, in an apartment above the owner’s. Steven was pretty okay, too. “If we’re allowed to do nice things again.”

Maggie nodded. “But, honestly, I think this is just self-preservation, here.”

Ted, Maria and especially Bethany were thrilled with a gift of cold treats on a hot summer evening. They were also somewhat mystified by the inclusion of some flat disposable ice cream spoons. Pablo wanted to chew on them, but he was gently convinced to trade them for a teething ring.

[Author’s Note: Okay, we’re on soft hiatus until July 15th. New art and possibly wiki pages, but no new installments until then.  Website may occasionally go weird if I try new customizations/themes. Now’s a good time to catch up on Year 1 if you haven’t read the whole thing… Or to recommend to people, maybe. But any time’s a good time for that! New installment beginning Year 2 on July 15th.]

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