Nesting (71)

“I do not understand what is happening,” Ann said. “I do not understand…”

Erik was clutching Maggie’s arm and regarding Calliope, who was sitting at the kitchen table and once again wearing her reading glasses. “Is… it… a… prank?” His eye was in his shirt pocket. He’d taken it out to be sure.

“I dunno what it is!” Maggie said. “She didn’t look like that when we picked her up. She changed!”

“Huh. So that’s how contraceptive charms work,” Calliope said, folding the flier.

“Pretty much,” said Hyacinth. “Got any questions?”

She pointed to one of the illustrations, “Do they really make the sperm unhappy like that?”

“I think they’re just trying to be funny,” said Hyacinth.

“I like how he has a little suitcase,” Calliope said, smiling. “I think I would’ve put him in a fedora, so he looked like a salesman. You know, trying to get his foot in the door. I’ve never done pharmaceuticals before. I did pretty good food. Soups and aspics. You know those weird aspic salads with the fruit chunks?” She made the wiggly motion with her hands. “Those’re my favorites.”

“To eat?”

Calliope wrinkled her nose. “Oh, gods, no. To illustrate. For the ad agency.”

“Oh, this is your job,” said Hyacinth. She had a look at Calliope’s feet, which were swollen but not unusually so. “Have you been having any pain?”

“At my job?”

“Well, anywhere. In your body,” Hyacinth specified.

“My back’s killing me. And I pee and puke a lot, but that’s not really pain…”

“They threw her out of her home?” said Mordecai, at a discreet volume.

“They also fired her,” the General replied.

Mordecai shook his head. “I do not understand people.”

“Why is she dressed like that?” Ann said. She couldn’t get past Calliope’s music hall version of Milo’s outfit, as if the girl were going to do a routine about toasters and social ineptitude. Even the General’s spattered uniform had failed to register.

“Apparently she grew out of her dresses and it did not occur to her that women’s clothing comes in maternity sizes,” the General said. “I am aware that pregnancy can cause a mild cognitive impairment, but from what she has said of her family, I believe it to be congenital.”

“But why suspenders?”

The General folded her arms across her chest. “In her condition, they are more comfortable than a belt. It makes logical sense, if you pay no attention to the constraints of morality.”

Erik shyly approached the kitchen table. He had put his eye back in so he looked at least halfway normal. He took a breath and tried to speak evenly, “Excuse me, did you say you draw ads?”

“Sure did,” Calliope said to the green kid. “At least, I used to.” She laughed.

“Can you draw Min-Min?”

Maggie brightened. “Yeah!”

“Oh, the ant,” Calliope muttered. She flipped the flier, looking for empty space. “Do you have a pencil?” Erik retrieved one out of a drawer. “Let’s see…”

Erik and Maggie peered over her shoulder as she worked. Erik took particular note of her technique, so he could reproduce it later. There was the cute little segmented body, the skinny arms and legs (Min-Min only had four total, he was a friendly cartoon ant.) and the bulbous gloved hands. The feet had roundish sneakers, which varied in color along with Min-Min himself, depending on the soda. It looked like Calliope was going to have him sitting down. Against his back she drew a long pole.

She put Min-Min’s head on the pole and added a gathering pool of blood around the base. She crossed out both eyes, and drew the whizzy lines of circling flies. “There ya go.”

“Uh,” said Erik, recoiling.

Maggie snatched the drawing. “Cool!”

“I despise that little commercial shill,” Calliope confided to Hyacinth. “He can’t even decide what color he is. And what has he done with the rest of his legs, I ask you? He’s a race traitor.”

Erik tugged weakly at Calliope’s sleeve. He offered the kitchen pad. “Can you… draw him not… dead?”

“I can if I’m being paid for it,” Calliope replied with a smile.

Erik put a hand in his pocket and felt around, “Um…” Mordecai took him by both shoulders and guided him away, “Don’t bother Miss Otis.” He pronounced it with a short O, like ‘oddity.’

“I’m not bothered by being paid,” Calliope said, still smiling. “I kinda like it. Can I have that flier back, Maggie? I want to give the sperm a hat.”

———

Calliope obviously wanted to live there, but Hyacinth insisted on showing her the rooms anyway, because that just made logical sense. The General opined that putting Calliope in the free room downstairs also made logical sense.

“I think we ought to give her a minute to decide whether she wants to put up with the stairs or the smell,” Hyacinth said.

“I believe I will at least be able to mitigate the smell,” the General said. “Do you have some idea of its material components?”

“Well, there used to be a goat living in there, but I don’t think that’s all of it…”

“I don’t think that’s even most of it,” Mordecai put in. “Gary collected things. Miss Otis, wouldn’t you rather sit down? This room isn’t very…”

“These boxes are great!” Calliope said. She did have a hand over her nose and mouth, but she was opening lids with the other one. “Look at this shirt with the holes!” She held it up and turned it this way and that, as if examining goods in a department store. “And an ink stain!”

“Are you done with that one yet, Miss Otis?” Maggie asked. She had already applied levitation spells to a couple of boxes and was preparing to remove them to Room 204.

Ann was also braving the boxes and the smell, but with more practical considerations in mind. She was hoping to find a bed, or at least the components of one. She had a show in a few hours and not enough time to go shopping for large pieces of furniture. “Calliope, I think we’d better have you in our room tonight. Even if I do find something for you to sleep on, I don’t think we’re going to get things very well set up in here by bedtime…” It did not help matters that Calliope insisted upon having a look through each box before it was removed. “You can have the bed. Milo and I… Er, that is to say, I don’t mind a cot.”

“It’s okay, Ann. I know you’re, like, a weird person,” Calliope said disarmingly. “Glorie already said.” Glorie had basically said that everyone living there was weird, in one way or another, which made Calliope even more eager for a room. The big bay window with the carnival-looking glass in this one was a plus!

“Milo and I are two weird people,” Ann allowed. It didn’t seem like Calliope meant to be insulting. And it wasn’t as if she and Milo could be two normal people, not as they were.

“That’s cool,” Calliope said. “I guess I feel like that sometimes. At least two. How do you divide up the closet space?”

“That… That actually isn’t all that difficult. Milo doesn’t want much. And he has the basement to spread out in for his mechanical things.”

“Like, automatons and stuff?”

“More like watches and toasters, although he did have a toy doggie for a little while, before Hyacinth took it apart.”

“That was not a ‘doggie,'” Hyacinth said. “Maybe it started out like one, but not when Milo was through with it.” Taking it apart had been a mercy.

“Remind me to check out the toaster,” Calliope said with a snicker.

“It puts rude words on the bread,” Maggie said. “But that was Miss Hyacinth’s idea.”

“‘Pacifism’ and ‘Compromise’ are not rude words,” Ann said. Milo had been unwilling to put up with Hyacinth’s other suggestions. The kids ate toast.

“Yes, they are,” Maggie and the General replied on top of each other, though Maggie did it smiling.

“You mind if I sketch you, Ann?” Calliope said.

“Well, I… I am a bit busy, dear…” Not to mention a bit dusty.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to pose or anything. I’ll just get the idea of you. I’m not really helping a whole bunch.” Looking at all the things in the boxes and insisting random items stay was more like the opposite of help. Calliope went after her own box, which was definitely staying. It contained a spiral-bound sketchpad, nine by twelve. The bigger things were in the suitcase. She folded a few cafe-goers, a carousel horse, and a dog she’d met outside a grocery store to the back.

The next few hours were cataloged in smudged pencil with occasional captions. A few pages of statuesque figures in vase-shaped dresses with occasional smiles and suggestions of facial features ended abruptly with one figure being dragged off the page by a vaudevillian hook. A banner beneath it read: “But now I must go!” After which Calliope shifted her attention to Glorie and Hyacinth, who made a nice contrast. Fat and skinny. She put them in bowler hats with curly little mustaches like a comedy duo. Erik noted the drawing going on, picked up his courage and wandered over to make sure Calliope wasn’t killing more people.

“That’s a cool eye. Mind if I draw that?”

“…I guess not,” he decided. He tipped it out of his head with a ‘click’ to show her.

“That is kick-ass,” Calliope said heavily. “Can I touch it or is that like poking you?”

“I can’t feel it, and I can’t see out of it when it’s not in, but it’s got oil on it so I dunno if you want to touch it…”

Calliope did a couple of slightly oil-stained pages on Erik and his eye.

“Do… you… already… know what happened?” Erik asked her, from a seated pose on the dining room floor. He wasn’t sure which was worse, having someone else explain him when he didn’t get to have any say in it or having to explain himself again.

“I dunno. I mean, I guess you lost it somewhere, right?” She looked up from the pad with a frown. “You didn’t poke it out on purpose, did you?”

“…No.”

“Yeah.” She returned to her drawing. “Glorie and Maggie already said how you slow down. I’m not upsetting you, am I?”

“Uh-uh. I was just worried because you’re new… and you killed Min-Min,” he added.

“Sorry, kid, that’s just policy. You have to have artistic integrity.”

“Could I get him not-dead for a penny?”

Calliope considered it with a frown. “Yeah, but not happy. Maybe standing on the edge of a building and thinking about his girlfriend who left him for the milkman… ant.”

“Min-Min has a… girlfriend?”

Calliope smiled.”I’d give him one if it got him to jump. How does that little shutter thing work, there?”

“It gets bigger and smaller. It’s held on right there, but I can’t see inside very well. It shrinks down when I take it out and when I try to focus on stuff. Milo has the plans for it somewhere, but it’s complicated…”

Calliope was also interested in the mechanical function of a violin, such as where the fingers were supposed to go. Mordecai was interested in what she might like to have for dinner, but somehow he found himself diverted. He didn’t like to be rude to her, or condescending. The best way to explain where the fingers went on a violin was to haul out the violin and hold it, so this eventually resulted in violin music, with dinner being neglected until it started to get dark out. (A cartoon version of Hyacinth was wedged between front and side views of a violin with a balloon coming out of her mouth: “Damn it, why don’t we have a CLOCK?!”)

Barnaby reacted to his late dinner of boxed noodles served a la dusty Hyacinth with glee, “Is the lobster here?”

“Yes,” she replied. “The lobster has arrived. I wish you had mentioned something about it this morning…”

“Show me the face you made!”

“No.”

He rose from his desk chair with a ratcheting sound that could’ve been the ancient joints in the chair or the ancient joints in his body and combed fingers through what remained of his hair. “I’m going to go and meet her!”

“Barnaby, eat your damn dinner!” Hyacinth said, as he engaged the balky mechanism of the stairs.

“No.”

Barnaby introduced himself as the madman from the attic, admired the paintings and requested Calliope’s actual name. “Marshmallow! I knew it was something ridiculous! Now let’s see…” He commandeered the kitchen pad and did a few sums. “Fifty-five percent! Oh, that’s horrible. Veronica and I were at fifty-five percent. I don’t suppose your parents could be persuaded to go back and name you after a different muse?”

“It was only me and Euterpe left by the end,” Calliope said, taking a break from boxed noodles to do a detailed study of Barnaby’s eyes. They were labeled, Seen It All.

“E-U-E-E,” Barnaby muttered. “No, that’s even worse. I suppose the course of love never runs smooth. I’m still pulling for it. At least your life compatibility shows promise.”

The General had also made use of the kitchen pad. She stood and addressed Hyacinth and Mordecai at the end of the meal. They had been in the house the longest. “All right. Dead cockroaches. Assorted trash, some of it organic, including vegetation and flesh. Animal hair, skin, sweat, droppings and urine, particularly mice, rats and a goat…”

“Not any goat droppings or urine,” Hyacinth put in and Mordecai nodded.

“Indeed,” said the General. “Human hair, skin, sweat, droppings and urine…”

Erik breathed a panicked whisper in his uncle’s ear, “Human…?

“I think shed skin,” Mordecai said. “Like when you scrub in the bath.”

“Most household dust is composed of human skin,” the General said, momentarily diverted. “Also the corpses of dust mites. Hmm.” She added these to the list. “Rotten paper, black mold, mildew, rotten wood… Expired dairy products?”

“He was trying to figure out cheese,” Hyacinth said wearily.

“Do you know if he got hold of any rennet?”

“I do not know what that is and I have no idea,” Hyacinth replied.

“It’s from the fourth stomach of a cow,” said Mordecai. “It curdles the milk. I have no idea if he had any of that, either. I don’t think he actually did any research about the cheese.”

“Rennet can be found in the digestive tract of any ruminant animal.” The General said. She added ‘cheese’ to the list, just in case. “Now, is that all? No magic or complicated chemistry?”

Hyacinth flung a gesture. “There was gas during the siege, but that didn’t hang around like whatever Gary did.”

“Very well,” the General said. “Do not come in,” she advised them without turning. “I will not require you.” She shut the door to Room 103, now vacant of boxes, to attack the smell.

Calliope wandered a few paces after her, “I wonder if she’d mind if I drew…”

Mordecai snagged her by the arm and gently pulled her back, “Miss Otis, she is doing something in there to get rid of human skin. Do not open that door.”

“I bet it looks interesting,” Calliope muttered, frowning.

It certainly smelled interesting, and the flickers of orange light under the door did not look like anything you’d call safe.

The General emerged with her hair and skin intact, and no damage done to her green civilian dress. (Her uniform was back in the bag in the closet, awaiting triage.) “Is that pile of items intended for donation or destruction?” she inquired.

“Those’re mine,” Calliope said. She protectively stood between her pile of rescued trash and the lady who could do all the magic. “I’m going to use them.”

“Might they also contain dead cockroaches, mice, or various unhealthy passengers?”

“I shook ’em out real good,” Calliope said.

“Yes…” said the General. She toed suspiciously at an old shoe.

Calliope picked up her suitcase. “Are you all done? Can I move in?”

“You are not going to be able to sleep there,” the General said. She felt it unwise to offer the option of a cot. Calliope might accept it. “But I suppose you may store your clothing in the closet and… whatever it was you intended to do with these things.”

“I think that’ll take me awhile,” Calliope said. She marched bravely past the General, suitcase in hand. “But I can get my art stuff set up, at least. You guys mind giving me a hand with the table? It’s kinda heavy once I get it out of the suitcase.”

Calliope disappeared into her room and the household considered her words with varying levels of comprehension. “Oh, it’s like Dad’s trunk!” Maggie said, an instant later. That was enough context for everyone to position reality the right way up again. Erik, Maggie, Mordecai, Hyacinth and the General followed Calliope into the room. Barnaby had been distracted by the pile of objects. (“The pattern of these ink stains is insupportable!”)

There were no lamps in the room, but there was some light from the big window and through the door. Calliope had set up in the floor space with the most light, on her knees with the open suitcase on the bare boards. The first layer of things was clothing, and she was piling this beside her. “It’s a Fermé,” she said proudly, indicating the case. It was light gray and rectangular, with hard sides and latches. There was a baggage claim ticket looped around the handle. SRO, San Rosille. “From before the war. My mom had a whole set, but us kids stole ’em. Euterpe got the makeup bag. Did I tell you about him?”

“The enchantment is fairly simple,” the General noted. She did not wish to pick up the subject of Calliope’s family again. “Although I understand the local manufacture of such objects has been discouraged, due to their application in starcatching, and other types of smuggling. Fermé luggage was also well-known for its durability, however.” The General had an appreciation for craftsmanship, even if the function was elementary.

“You can drop them out of airships!” Calliope said, nodding. “My mom said there was an ad on the radio. They had a whole dinette set in there, with plates!”

“Shock-absorption would be a nice feature,” the General muttered. “Although I put little faith in a radio advertisement from two decades ago…”

Calliope was elbow-deep in her suitcase. “Oh, here’s the table. That’s great. I really hate putting my head in there…”

“It is extremely inadvisable to consciously explore slipspace,” the General said, frowning. “All such experiments have ended in permanent alteration of cognitive function…”

Mordecai was shaking his head. “Starcatchers used to do it. It was like an initiation. ‘Seven Minutes in Heaven.’ But I believe you about the cognitive function.” He had to talk some of the kids at the wall out of trying that during the siege. It was alternately terrifying and boring during the siege. Permanent brain damage was the least of what people would do for a break.

“…We used to have a lot of fun playing hide and seek in these, but now it just makes me queasy,” Calliope finished, regardless.

“Hide and seek,” the General said.

“Yeah. It’s this game we made up where everyone hides, except one person is ‘it,’ and they have to find you.” No one in the room felt qualified to comment on this. “Glorie, do you think you can get a hold of it? You’re little, but Mordecai and Hyacinth have really skinny arms. It folds, but it’s kinda wide and I think if we have two people grab it someone’ll pinch their fingers.”

“Indeed,” said the General, filing away Calliope’s possible brain damage for later consideration. She let the idea of being ‘little’ slide, in light of the circumstances. There was something past the dark film lining the suitcase that felt hard and straight-edged. If it wasn’t a folding table, it was something she needed to get out of her way so she wouldn’t mistake it for a folding table again. She pulled it out an inch at a time (it required wiggling, even turned to its narrowest width), like a gag in a cartoon. The metal legs (Well, those won’t last long.) were folded up against it, and the tabletop was perhaps two by three feet.

Calliope applauded eagerly. “Can I have it over here by the window?”

“That would be inadvisable,” the General said. “People have been known to throw things at this house and the bay window is a frequent target.”

“Newspapers?” Calliope asked.

“Bricks,” Mordecai said.

“Seth walks up and puts our paper very nicely on the porch,” Hyacinth added defensively. “Of course, we’re feeding him, so I guess he has to…”

“I think you ought to get Milo to have a look at the window before you try to sleep in here,” Mordecai told Calliope. “He fixed Room 102 so the glass still breaks but no one gets hurt.”

The General strode to the bay window and tapped the merged glass. “It would be entirely more efficient to prevent the window from shattering in the first place.”

“We have been through this,” Hyacinth said. “When the windows don’t break, people take it like a challenge.” The General’s attempt to ‘fix’ the windows when she first moved in had resulted in graffiti, fires, and a couple of dead cats. Erik and Hyacinth had been particularly upset by the cats.

“Why would people break your windows on purpose?” Calliope said, frowning. “Don’t they know you guys live here?”

“Oh, my gods,” said Hyacinth. She could not handle explaining something so obvious and painful to someone so goddamned innocent. Did this girl honestly not understand what she was moving into? How far her station in life had just fallen? “Mordecai, can’t you…?” She sure as hell didn’t want the General to do it.

“Calliope,” he said. “The people in this house…” He wasn’t sure whether to start from ‘magicians’ or ‘prejudice,’ but doubtless they would meet somewhere in the middle.

“We don’t care what other people think about us,” Erik put in. “Some of them don’t like it and they try to make us. They’d like us to be scared, but we’re not.” He shrugged. “So they break things, but we like broken things okay. They’re not that hard to fix.”

Calliope nodded. “Oh, yeah. People are dumb like that. They’re always saying ‘put on a dress,’ even if I don’t need one. Or ‘that’s not funny,’ or ‘that’s not possible,’ or ‘that’s not good enough.’ If they don’t like who you are, they want you to drop everything and be someone else. I mean, who does that?” She smiled at Erik. “I kinda like broken things, too. They’re way more interesting. If the window breaks, do I get a new one made of all different pieces of glass again?”

Erik nodded. “Uh-huh. Auntie Hyacinth makes windows in the basement.”

“That’s really cool,” Calliope said. She turned and addressed the others, “Do you guys have a brick?”

Calliope was gently discouraged from preemptively breaking her own window — if she’d even been serious about it in the first place. It was hard to tell with her. After a cursory attempt at organizing the room (Calliope appreciated Barnaby’s input, but Hyacinth removed him when he proved unable to control his volume or accept any kind of criticism) the children were dispatched to change the sheets on Ann and Milo’s bed (The General considered a bed which had previously occupied by a man in a nightie to be neither morally sound nor hygienic) and the subject of rent money was discussed in the kitchen. Calliope raised the matter by jamming a hand into her front pants pocket (sending fifty percent of the kitchen’s occupants into a moral panic while Hyacinth failed to notice anything odd) and counting its contents out on the table.

“Okay. If it’s ‘pay what you can,’ this is what I have. I just sold some stuff.”

There was a three-angel pileup in the kitchen.

Mordecai pounced first, “No, Miss Otis, you can just take your rent money out of the glass jar…”

“I don’t see any reason you need to pay me at all,” said Hyacinth.

“I am perfectly capable of covering any of Calliope’s household expenses,” the General said. She smiled at Calliope (which had a further deleterious effect on the constitution of half of those present). “I will accompany you to the bank tomorrow and assist you in opening an account. Your child will require an education, if nothing else.” The General considered sound financial and parenting advice to trump all protestations of charity and appeared smug about it.

“A bank account?” Calliope said. She wrinkled her nose. “Like an old person?”

“Like a smart person,” the General said, with surprising gentleness.

“I don’t see what’s smart about giving your money to an institution that takes down all of your information, gives the money away, and then wants more information to give any it back,” said Mordecai.

“That is because you have no money to speak of,” the General said. “The insurance and the interest rates alone…”

“Insurance is a scam,” Mordecai opined.

“I dunno what kind of interest thirty-five sinqs is going to get you,” Hyacinth said, counting the notes on the table. “Even if you put it in stocks.”

“The stock market is notoriously unstable,” the General said. “A savings bond is much more reasonable for a casual investor.”

“Stocks and bonds.” Calliope snickered. “Kinky.”

Mordecai and the General were involved in an argument over the stability of any and all institutions and pulling no punches.( “I’d think you would’ve smartened up a little after what they did to your military record!” “Your child will have no means of support or advancement due to your own stupidity!”) Hyacinth took Calliope aside and spoke reasonably, “You’ll have to make up your own mind about it. I’ll back you up, whatever you decide, but I think it wouldn’t hurt to have the money in the bank. It’s not that hard to get it out again.” Forging signatures was a piece of cake.

Calliope nodded. She retrieved her sinqs. “So, how much do you think I’m going to need for a bed?”

No!” said seventy-five percent of the kitchen.

———

Ann came home in the small hours, took off her shoes at the bottom of the staircase and cautiously investigated her own room. A dark-haired head was resting on the pillow and facing the wall. The flat glass mage light above the bed was burning at its lowest setting. Ann wondered if Calliope had been uncertain as to its function or if she had just decided to leave it on for the comfort. It was hard sleeping in a new place, no matter how friendly.

The light had three settings. If she touched it, it would brighten and wake Calliope. Milo, can you get that?

An instant later, the light faded to darkness, without a flicker.

Ann went down to the basement to find a cot and a blanket. She would sleep in her dress.

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