Hyacinth met Ann at the front door at three o’clock in the afternoon on a Tiw’s Day. “Okay, Ann. Where’s the suitcases?”
“There aren’t any suitcases,” Ann replied. This was overselling it and she caught herself with a wince.
“There are two suitcases,” Hyacinth said, showing fingers. “A big one and a little one. And I haven’t seen Milo since Calliope moved in, so I know you’re hiding him somewhere.”
Ann sighed. “They’re in Green Dragon Alley behind some trash cans.”
“You’re not changing out there, are you?” Hyacinth asked her.
“Of course not!” Ann hung her head and looked away, like Milo. “We walk to a pay toilet in Strawberry Square and change there. Then we walk back and hide the suitcases again.”
“Ann, you can’t keep doing this,” Hyacinth said. “I’m willing to overlook a couple of days, but it’s been more than a week. We talked about this. It isn’t safe.”
Ann twined her fingers in her long red hair. “I know it isn’t, Cin. We know it isn’t. But Milo has an easier time coping with pay toilets than this other thing. It’s familiar to him.”
“‘This other thing’ being Calliope.”
Ann nodded weakly.
“Can we talk about it?” Hyacinth asked. “I know he won’t.”
Ann folded her arms around her middle, again like Milo. “I suppose we have to.”
Mordecai would’ve put out cookies, but he was out trying to make money with new urgency for the impending crisis. Hyacinth poured drinks. She didn’t ask, she just put one near Ann and one near herself and left the bottle on the table. Ann peered into hers and examined the smiling orange on the jelly glass but did not drink.
“We’re twins,” Hyacinth noted, showing her own glass. Given that there were only four total flavors of jelly, this sort of thing was hardly worth commenting on, but it was going to be that kind of conversation.
Ann smiled grimly and traced the rim of her glass. “I don’t think that’s what we are at all.”
“Twins don’t have to be alike,” said Hyacinth. “They tend to get kind of snotty when everyone treats them that way.”
“So, are you the brave, confident one and I, the shy, damaged one that needs helping?”
“Come on, Ann, it’s not like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Ann said. “I know it isn’t. I know, and I understand — I have to! — but sometimes there’s nothing I can do about it and I just get so frustrated.”
“Milo’s got both feet on the brakes again, huh?”
Ann laughed, but not a good laugh. She nodded.
“Calliope wasn’t here when I told everyone about you,” Hyacinth said. “You’ve never had anyone new move into the house before. Is that what it is?”
“Some of it.” Ann said. “But she has been very kind to us… to me… and I’m certain she understands. As much as she’s able to understand, anyway.” Calliope had her own method of understanding things, which didn’t always seem to make sense. Ann had never had someone follow up the revelation about their being two people with a question about the closet space. “I don’t think she’d be cruel to him, I really don’t, but it’s not just about being cruel.” She sighed and she tipped back her glass to have a better look at the orange, which was suddenly dreadfully important. There were little scratches scrubbed in the paint. “Milo and I like women rather a lot, you see.”
“Really?” said Hyacinth.
Ann nodded but continued to examine the orange.
“Me, too,” said Hyacinth. She had a sip of her drink and rested her head on one hand.
Ann blinked and looked up at her. “What do you do about it?”
“Get a little older, get sick of all the complications and decide to quit liking anybody,” Hyacinth said. She had another sip. “But I don’t think that’s a good idea for you.”
“It seems like it would make things a lot easier,” Ann said. She sipped and smiled painfully.
“It does,” said Hyacinth, “but that isn’t always the best way. You… You’re not a cold person, Ann.”
“I don’t think you’re cold, Cin,” Ann said, sitting forward.
“No, maybe not, but I’m not a good way for a person to be. Especially not a person who needs love and attention like you and Milo. If you cut yourself off any more than you already are, you’ll shrivel up and die.”
Ann nodded. “Sometimes it feels like Milo would prefer that.”
“Yeah, but you’re not going to let him.”
Ann nodded again.
“Is there some way I can help push him?”
“I don’t know… Even this is pushing a little.” Another sip, and another pained smile. “We thought we were being so clever and we’d get away with it. Now we know it’s not working.”
“It was kind of obvious when he didn’t come out to fix Calliope’s window.”
Ann winced. “Didn’t the General…?
“Yes,” said Hyacinth, “but she’s stubborn and she doesn’t get why the glass needs to break. A head full of tactics and no understanding of human nature.”
“Oh, Milo feels badly about that,” Ann said. She put her elbows on the table and rested her head in both hands. “It’s my fault. I didn’t want to pressure him. He isn’t thinking very clearly about this and I get distracted worrying about him…”
“Is he having hysterics in there?”
“It doesn’t really work that way, Cin.” Sometimes he did things like that, but when it was a dire emergency he tended to shut down entirely, which made it easier for Ann to do the thinking, at least when she was in the dress. At the moment, he just felt guilty and sick. “He’d like this to not be happening, but he isn’t hurting me about it. He doesn’t like to hurt people.”
Hurting himself was another matter, of course.
“Will he listen if I talk?”
Ann shrugged and smiled again, but this time it was more self-conscious. “Even if he doesn’t, I can listen and tell him again later.”
Hyacinth nodded. “Well, look, I know about girls. I am one, and I’ve dated a whole lot of them.” If you could call that ‘dating.’ “I’m not just the toy version like you are, Ann.”
Milo was offended by that. Ann, you make a really good woman! People hardly ever suspect you’re not one!
Ann snickered. That might be, Milo, but I’ve very like a toy. You made me to love, didn’t you?
“Girls are people too, okay? People don’t like to hurt other people, and most of them don’t go out of their way to do it. Calliope is a weird person, but she isn’t a mean one. If he’s kind to her, she’ll be kind back to him. You both know that, you’ve seen how she is.”
Ann nodded. “That’s part of what makes this so difficult, Cin. He… he already likes her very much.”
“…And the instant she sees him she will start formulating an opinion on whether or not she likes him,” Hyacinth finished. “Right?”
“It’s so much more than just being kind,” Ann said. “She’s a girl his age. She could be the kindest person in the world but he would just want to die if underneath all that she didn’t like him.”
“He’s not thinking wedding bells or anything, is he?”
“No, nothing of the kind.” Milo was thinking rejection and exile, doss houses and cardboard boxes. Suitcases, and no more closet. “He’s pretty much convinced himself she’ll hate him.”
“I don’t think Calliope hates anyone, Ann,” Hyacinth said. “She thinks she’s friends with the General.” She was unwilling to guess whether the General thought she was friends with Calliope.
“Then he would feel especially bad if she decided not to be friends with him,” Ann said softly.
“So he thinks she’s going to slam the door in his face, and if she does anything less than that, he’ll suspect she’s just being nice because she’s nice and she’d like to slam the door in his face?”
“Mainly it’s the first part that bothers him, Cin.” That second bit was uncomfortably close to how Milo related to everyone. “If she doesn’t come right out and say she doesn’t like him, then there’s still some hope.” And a reason to keep Milo from packing his bags and taking off altogether.
“I don’t think it would even occur to her to hurt him that way,” Hyacinth said. “Do you?”
“I don’t.” Ann smiled at her. “But if I didn’t think the best of everything, I could never get Milo to do anything.”
“Would it help if I went with you and spoke to her, or would you rather have my mouth out of the room?”
“Cin, I have frequently been very grateful to have your mouth in the room, as well as your heart and your brain. And sometimes I worry what Milo would be without it. I’m just not certain what we ought to say. She’s been here over a week. She does know about him. We’ve mentioned he’s…”
Crazy. A weirdo. Broken. Dumb. Wrong in the head. That guy belongs in a straitjacket…
Milo, no one has said anything like that about you.
Maybe you should, Ann.
“We’ve mentioned he’s different,” Ann said firmly, “but maybe it would be a good idea to find out what she thinks about it, and how she’s going to treat him.”
“You think if we sort of gently introduce him to the boiling oil he might get used to it and he won’t scream so much when we shove him in?”
“I am hoping very much he has the capacity to understand it’s not boiling oil.” Ann sighed. “But I suppose it will end up closer to what you said, yes.” Milo was only able to approximate bravery by holding a gun to his head and shrieking at his hostage that the consequences for not doing the scary thing would be even scarier — which was not so much ‘bravery’ as another permutation of causing himself pain so that he could be in control of it.
“I don’t think he’s going to get burned,” Hyacinth said. “Usually it’s the being scared part that hurts the most. And sometimes people are mad you’ve been keeping secrets and didn’t say something before.” She had been on both sides of that equation. “People who get mad at you for being who you are are crap people and it’s nice of them to weed themselves out… even if it doesn’t feel like that right away.” She snickered, gazing into her glass. “I guess you and Milo don’t care one way or the other about me liking girls, do you?”
Ann reached over and took both her hands, “It’s not that we don’t care, Cin. It’s just… Well, it doesn’t make an awful lot of difference, does it?” She considered. “I’m sorry if I’ve ever said anything… or if we’ve been insensitive about it somehow. I just… Milo has a hard time with people and I don’t always pay as much attention as I should. I-I am sorry about that.”
“No,” said Hyacinth. She shook her head with a smile. “You might’ve had an awkward moment or two, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to notice.” Ann did tend to go off on some truly weird tangents, which made it easier to disregard anything in particular she might’ve said. “And it’s not as if you knew.” Hyacinth took one of her hands back and had a sip of her drink. She grinned. “It sure did confuse the hell out of me when you introduced me to your friend Cerise, though. I was trying not to let on.” She wasn’t sure how well she’d managed it, or anything else. It was just after the first magic storm of the year and they had all been exhausted.
“Oh, yes,” Ann said. “I can see how you might find that particularly surprising.” Cerise was not, technically, a woman. But she was in every other way, and Ann and Milo did not experience any difficulty assigning people whatever gender or pronouns they wanted, regardless of the reasons. In Cerise’s case it seemed to have been an accident of birth, like a beauty mark or an extra finger, except she was understandably reluctant about having the thing removed. Cerise also preferred women, which got her into a lot of awkward situations. “I’m sorry I was short with you about her.” Ann winced. “And I believe I may have tried to explain to you what a lesbian is, for which I also sincerely apologize.”
Hyacinth laughed. “Don’t bother. I had to have it explained a few times at the start. I could always use a refresher. And it was nice knowing you understood it.”
Ann still looked uncomfortable.
Hyacinth leaned in and, half-teasing, said, “Hey, so, listen, now that you know about me, do you think you might like to introduce us again?” It was at the very least a unique opportunity.
Ann sipped her drink. She did not seem particularly amused or disarmed. “Cin… I’m sorry. I think… I think if you wanted to get to know Cerise like a person, you would’ve asked about her before now. I’ve seen how you are with people. Not with women, because I didn’t notice any difference, but just with people. It’s very difficult for Cerise to find friends and… and I don’t think she would have a very fun time with you. You’re not cold, Cin,” she added, looking up. “But… you’re not always kind. And sometimes it’s like you kick people. Even your friends. Just to see how they hold up. It’s okay, really. Everyone here is used to it, even Milo. But I wouldn’t like you to do that to Cerise, especially if you didn’t even care about her in the first place.”
“You run around protecting everybody, don’t you, Ann?” Hyacinth said — a bit sourly, which surprised her.
“It’s what I’m made for, Cin,” Ann said, looking down.
“Wanna go out and pick up girls sometime?” said Hyacinth. “I can give you and Milo a few pointers.”
Ann did not look up. “No, Cin, I don’t think Milo and I would enjoy that very much at all.”
Hyacinth expelled a long sigh. She set down her glass. The entire point of this conversation was that Milo and Ann were uncomfortable with the possibility of being rejected by a girl, let alone lots of them.
I guess I knew that, didn’t I?
“I just kicked you, didn’t I?”
“No, Cin,” Ann said. “I think that was more of a reaction. I insulted you.” She shook her head. “I just didn’t know how else to get it across.”
Hyacinth sat back and blinked. What? You think I run around hurting people for no reason? I have reasons! I always have reasons!
She didn’t say it. They weren’t always good reasons, and she thought she had an idea of what Ann was talking about. She didn’t kick her friends to see how they held up, she kicked them away to see how she held up with no friends.
It was usually pretty okay, and she was proud of that.
…But not proud enough to be telling Ann about it right now. Or anyone about it ever.
“You might be right about it,” she said finally. “I don’t do very well with fragile people.”
Ann smiled at her. “No, Cin. That isn’t true at all, and Milo and I are grateful.” She laughed. “We need someone to keep us out of suitcases, don’t we?”
“I don’t know,” said Hyacinth. “Maybe we all need that sometimes.”
Hyacinth and Ann approached the door to Calliope’s room well after five, allowing a little time to get on top of the liquor and the circumstances.
Room 103 was somewhat more habitable. A little sparse, and with canvases and random objects resting against the walls, but the bed and the art table took up some space. The bed was a double. All occupants of the house were united in their belief that morality took a back seat to practicality, and it wasn’t as if Calliope was obligated to put a man in the bed with her. It fit the room, it could be magicked back together without metal parts, it was cheap and it was available immediately. The extra space for the baby was a plus.
Calliope was folding a tissue-paper flower with the aid of the table. She had stolen one of the kitchen chairs to use with it. There weren’t enough kitchen chairs for everyone at this point anyway. Presumably more furniture would be hunted up from thrift stores and things would continue to settle down over the next few weeks. Baby supplies were needed, too.
“Okay, Calliope,” said Hyacinth. “What do you know about Milo?”
“Milo is a figment,” she replied, without looking up. “People talk about him, but he’s never around, and he’s not in the newspaper like a politician or anything. The evidence is inconclusive. They say he eats canned pasta, but the same five cans are still in the pantry from before. The toaster is definitely weird, but maybe it formed naturally, like a stalagmite. I’ve never seen a kitchen without a toaster.”
Ann spoke sideways in Hyacinth’s ear, “It would really make me feel better if she laughed when she said things like that instead of just smiling the whole time.”
“I’ve thought about looking for him in the closet, but maybe Ann would get mad at me.” She separated the last few petals and displayed the flower. “What do you guys think about pink? I don’t want to start imposing gender roles on it already… I don’t think it has a brain yet, but it already has fingers. That’s super weird. Maybe I should get some blue tissue and even it out…”
“Calliope…” Ann had to stifle an urge to snap fingers and wave her hands, like she was trying to get the attention of a squirrel. Look! I have a peanut for you! “I might be Milo for dinner tonight but he’s nervous about it. He wants to be sure he’s not going to make you uncomfortable. And I don’t want you to make him uncomfortable.”
“I mean, he’s not going to sit in my lap or anything, right?” Calliope stood and began examining the general chaos for a place that might be improved by a pink flower.
Hyacinth emitted an unhelpful noise that was very much like “snork.”
“No,” Ann said stiffly. “That sort of thing is exactly the opposite of what Milo does. Calliope, are you capable of being serious about this?”
Calliope stopped in the middle of the room and looked at them, not smiling. “If I scare him, is he going to vanish again?”
“He might want to,” Ann said.
Calliope put down her pink flower. “I’m sorry, Ann. I’m kind of mad at him for hiding all this time. But I really would like to meet him. I won’t tease him like that if it’s not okay.”
Teasing, thought Ann. Is that what that was? It felt more like trying to decipher a train schedule while running a high fever.
We weren’t being very clever about hiding me at all, were we, Ann?
No, Milo, I guess not.
“He’s sorry, Calliope. It isn’t that he’s unhappy with you, or doesn’t want to meet you, he just has a hard time with this sort of thing.”
“Barnaby came down and said ‘hi,'” Calliope said. “And he’s got that thing where he sees stuff. Is Milo worse than that?”
“Well…” Ann said. She couldn’t vouch for whatever was in Barnaby’s head. Milo’s seemed a bit of a mess, but she didn’t have a lot to compare it to. Maybe other people were just better at hiding things…
“It’s not about better or worse,” Hyacinth broke in. “Milo doesn’t like to make people unhappy. I mean, he’d rather run off and hide in a pay toilet. Barnaby doesn’t care about stuff like that.”
“Ann, do you not care about stuff like that?” Calliope asked suspiciously.
“I have a better idea what makes people unhappy,” Ann said. “Milo glances at people and makes guesses.”
Calliope nodded. “Because he has that thing where he doesn’t like eyes…” She frowned. “Milo has way more things than Barnaby.”
Ann was blinking and open-mouthed. She was certain she didn’t say “Milo doesn’t like eyes.” He didn’t, but she always said ‘eye-contact’ or ‘he can’t look people in the eye,’ because the other thing was treading too close to a painful memory. Does Calliope see things? she wondered. Or is it like that theory with infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters?
“Barnaby has way more things than Milo,” Hyacinth said. “But he comes up with them randomly and there’s not much we can do about them. Milo is consistent, so we can try to explain him.”
“Barnaby likes to be inexplicable!” Calliope declared, regaining her smile.
Hyacinth laughed. “Yeah. He cultivates it.”
“Does Milo like anything?” Calliope asked.
“Yeah,” said Hyacinth. “Gears. And music.”
“And shoes and dresses,” Ann put in.
“And canned pasta,” Hyacinth said. “You’re right about that.”
Calliope was frowning again. “He’s been so upset about me that he didn’t want to have any of that stuff?”
This was not wrong, but neither Ann nor Hyacinth felt very good about saying it was right.
“Milo gets like that sometimes,” Hyacinth said. “It’s not your fault.” Well, actually, Calliope being a nice girl Milo’s age had certainly exacerbated the situation, but it wasn’t like Calliope intended it that way.
“Calliope,” Ann said. “Milo and I feel badly about this. Would you like to meet him now…?” Calliope didn’t give her time to add, we don’t have to wait for dinner. She was already nodding, “Oh. Uh-huh.”
Ann took a breath and nodded, too. “Okay.”
Hyacinth waited with Calliope and got an impromptu lesson in paper flowers, “You can give them texture like a chrysanthemum if you use a scissors. These are more like roses or carnations. I know how to make, like, a daisy, but that’s origami. I bet Barnaby would like that.”
“I don’t know if Barnaby and flowers are on speaking terms,” Hyacinth said.
“I could teach him how to make a fortune-teller!”
There was a tap on the doorframe. Milo was standing there looking down and away. He had put himself together very carefully. Hyacinth suspected he had wet his hair before he brushed it back. At least he didn’t drown himself in cologne, she thought. But she did not detect any traces of Ann’s perfume.
“Wow. Glasses, huh?” said Calliope, approaching.
Calliope made no further mention of the similarity of their outfits — if that was even what she meant in the first place. “Near-sighted or far-sighted?” she asked him.
Milo considered that with a hand to his mouth. He lifted the glasses and narrowed his eyes to peer into the distance.
“Near-sighted,” Hyacinth clarified. “I think.”
“Milo does better if you ask him yes or no questions,” she added.
“That’s cool,” Calliope said. She took off her glasses and offered them. “You wanna trade? I bet it looks really weird.”
Milo shook his head.
“Aw. That’s okay.” She pocketed the glasses. “Hi.” She held out her hand to shake.
Milo shriveled and stuffed his hands in his pants pockets.
Calliope considered her hand. “No, huh? High-five?” She repositioned for one of those.
Hyacinth snickered, despite Milo’s obvious discomfort. He made no attempt at a high-five.
“Wave?” Calliope offered, doing so.
Milo took out one hand and made a tiny wave. The hand looked friendly. The rest of him was cringing away from it like he was holding a flare.
Calliope smiled. She waved some more. “Hi, Milo.”
Milo nodded. He put his hand in his shirt pocket and presented the single card he had there for this occasion.
Calliope accepted it. “Oh, see? Suspenders are awesome. It’s like a rubber band. You could hang upside-down from a streetlamp and that card would stay right where you put it.” She replaced her glasses, which were similarly secure, and had a look at the card.
Milo was shivering and expecting some serious fallout from the “I think you’re nice” part. He had to say something about not hating her, because she thought he might, but “I like you” would’ve been even worse. She could still say she didn’t care about what he thought and she was still mad or she never wanted anything to do with him in the first place.
Calliope looked up at him. “Hey, you do talk to people.”
Milo blinked. He shook his head.
She peered at the pocket. “You got anything in there about the weird toaster?”
Milo shook his head.
“You’re kinda like a fortune cookie. ‘That wasn’t chicken,’ right?”
Milo… had no idea how he was supposed to respond to that but apparently it didn’t matter.
Calliope picked up the pink paper flower and tucked it in his shirt pocket. “Here, you can have that one. It matches Ann’s dress.”
Milo turned the same approximate color as the flower and stared past her at the opposite wall.
“So I guess we’ve got time until dinner. What do you do, usually?”
Milo stared at the wall.
Calliope shrugged. “That seems like it’d get kind of boring, but I’ll give it a shot.” She stood next to him and had a look at the wall.
Hyacinth was uncertain if she should allow this to continue. On the one hand, it seemed cruel to Milo. On the other, she wished she had a camera. It would make a hilarious postcard. Dear Mom and Dad, Never put your head in a Fermé suitcase. Love, Alice.
Hmm, seems like Calliope’s artistic integrity is contagious.
“It’s kind of meditative,” Calliope said. “I guess if you don’t have a bonsai… How do you get your eyes to go blurry like that?”
Hyacinth took Calliope gently by the arm, “I think Milo might need a couple of minutes, here, Calliope. He’s processing.”
“Like a wood chipper?” said Calliope.
“Ah, I was thinking more like some gears or a spell, but I guess I don’t know.” He did look like he might be pureeing code instead of running it.
Milo stood alone and stared at the wall. It was starting to get dark. Calliope didn’t have any lamps yet.
Ann… I have this flower.
Ann was finally able to break into his thoughts, It’s not like a dozen roses, Milo. It’s just because she wants to be friends and it matches my dress.
Okay… but… flower right now… He didn’t quite dare reach up and touch it. It was made with a wire and the wire felt hot, like the heating element in the toaster. He thought it would burn. It didn’t seem to be doing anything to his shirt, but his skin was tingling and his heart was banging at a dangerous intensity.
Yes, it’s very nice. I’m glad she was nice to you and not mad. Are you going to be able to do dinner?
…I can’t remember how to eat. He suspected the flower. It was a color and it didn’t belong there. It was as if he’d spliced a line of code from a refrigerator into a hotplate. Excuse me, what am I supposed to do with THIS?
He still didn’t want to go back and erase it, though.
I suppose I can help you with it. Do you remember how to walk?
He tripped on the dining room step trying to make his way into the kitchen, but there was carpeting in there and nobody noticed the noise.