The Kids Shoplift (74)

Lacking a balcony, the back stairs made a good set piece. Good for loud urgent running, clumsy or drunken falls, wistful stargazing, wounded patients who couldn’t quite make it into the kitchen, and meetings of all kinds. More practically, it was a good place for flinging dirty water into the alley, hanging wet towels and yelling fruitlessly for Erik and Maggie to come home for dinner. And they made natural benches, of course.

Soup and Erik and Maggie were employing them as such at the moment and eating sandwiches out of cheap brown paper towels with ragged edges (the perforated ones cost extra). Mordecai was currently in charge of the kitchen and he was not going to allow Soup any dishes — they lost enough plates in this house due to Barnaby’s machinations.

And she got Milo to go shopping,” Maggie said, as regarding their new boarder. They had already shown Soup what Calliope had done to Room 103. It was not possible to show him Calliope, due to the shopping.

This was why Mordecai had the kitchen. Hyacinth was drinking sodas at the drugstore on Eddows Lane in case Milo and Calliope got nicked by the police, or some other disaster ensued. It was the nearest public phone and they didn’t like Mordecai to sit at the counter, so along with the kitchen, he was also in charge of running out to get Hyacinth if an emergency showed up at the house. Something beyond his limited skill set of dishing out medications, patting hands and saying, ‘There, there.’ An amputation, perhaps.

Milo and Calliope had failed to notice the upheaval their little excursion was causing. Milo was too worried about the shopping itself (and the pretty girl in the green sweater) and Calliope seemed to notice things completely at random, even if you were yelling at her and pointing (“Oh, look. A caterpillar.”). Hyacinth had managed to get her to accept a folded piece of paper with the drugstore’s number on it and a firm note in block letters: I AM GOING TO BE AT THE DRUGSTORE, SO YOU CAN CALL ME IF SOMETHING HA (erased) GOES WRONG. ‘If something happens’ did not seem to be safe phrasing to use with Calliope, (“Hi, Cin. I saw another caterpillar.”) and Milo, of course, was incapable of using a phone.

“Milo doesn’t do shopping, you know?” Maggie said. She tended to be in charge of disseminating large amounts of information, since Erik sometimes got tangled up in his words. She didn’t mind. “That’s Ann. I don’t think Calliope knows any magic — she had my mom stick everything to the walls in there — but maybe she knows hypnotism.”

“That would be mean to use it like that,” Erik said, frowning. “Ann said Milo doesn’t want to be different.”

“Yeah, but I think it’s better if he can shop,” Maggie said. “And those flowers he drew are really neat.” Hyacinth had forbidden the whole household from being anything less than thrilled about the flowers on Milo’s wall, but Maggie didn’t have to pretend.

“So is this weird lady hot, or what?” Soup asked Maggie, licking crumbs from his paper towel.

Maggie frowned thunderously and glared at him, “Guys who don’t respect women get fragged, Soup.”

“What’s ‘fragged?'” Soup said.

“That’s murdered in the worst way,” Maggie said. “Shot in the back by your own people. Because you’re a liability and the unit functions better without you. And they don’t respect you,” she added at a snarl.

Erik winced. Geez, that really would be awful. Like your whole family saying they didn’t want you. And worse than when Hyacinth’s parents gave her away, because your family decided you were so bad you needed to die. Also, you’d be dead. That would suck.

“Hey, they used to crucify people,” Soup said. “I saw it in a comic book!”

Erik choked on the last bite of his sandwich. He didn’t see it really happening, he just saw the picture, but that was enough. It was crudely drawn in black and white and there was a lot of bleeding and suffering going on, and guys with hats like push brooms. The Man Joshua died for your sins!

Are you sure he didn’t die because they nailed him to a board, tiny comic book?

Maggie thumped him a few times absently on the back. “That’s an execution, Soup. It’s political. Murder is personal. That’s how come you go to jail for it. But you don’t go to jail for fragging because it’s in the middle of a war and they can’t tell. And they know you deserve it.”

“People go to jail for mutiny,” Soup said. “Isn’t that like the same thing?”

“Sailors have no discipline,” Maggie said. “They just do stuff for no reason. You’ve met my dad.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Soup allowed. He backed off a pace to get out of striking distance and grinned, “Is she hot, though?”

Maggie set the fingertips of her right hand on fire and held it up. “You wanna see hot, Soup?”

Soup backed off a bit more, to the other side of the alley, “I bet she’s super cute and Milo wants to bang her like a broken screen door!”

Maggie threw a fireball at him. It fizzled and hit the cobbled ground as a shower of sparks. It was a warning shot. Fireballs were complicated and she couldn’t do them very well. If she really wanted him on fire, there were easier ways to make it happen

“Soup, you wanna go out and dodge cars or lie down on some train tracks someplace?” Erik said. “It’s safer than teasing Maggie.”

“With you guys?” Soup said. “I doubt it.” He tipped back his hat. It was the chequered model from when they had stolen the car. He could’ve sold it, but he decided he liked it. He was still ambivalent about the car-stealing itself, what with driving on the sidewalk and the riot and all. “You all attract trouble like magic strikes.”

“Oh, yeah, like you don’t,” Maggie said.

“Yeah, but it goes around shit to find you guys,” Soup said. “I got no common sense, that’s why I’m the only one who hangs out here.”

“You hang out here because you like food,” Erik said.

“I am not the only person who likes food,” Soup said. “It kinda looks like I’m the only one okay with people who light themselves on fire to make a point.”

Erik likes me!” Maggie declared. She snatched him and hugged him while glaring at Soup. She could so have friends if she wanted them! Erik blushed and smiled but she didn’t notice.

Soup shook his head. “Erik is green, Maggie.”

“Well, so? Are you racist or something?”

Erik held up his hand and considered it. “I’m not sure it’s a race. We don’t come from someplace, we’re all over. My uncle says we have the same kinda names, but it’s different same kinda names in different places. Colored people from Xin still look like Xinese people.”

“But you hafta be okay with magic,” Soup said. “You are magic. If you wanted to be scared of Maggie, you’d have to be scared of you, too.”

Erik frowned. He was a little bit scared of himself sometimes, honestly. He didn’t have to learn how to do stuff like Maggie. Maggie, he assumed, had to know what she was doing. He’d been born with a gun glued to his hand. “My uncle says it’s dangerous and you have to be careful with it always.”

Soup flung a smug gesture at Maggie, “Well, obviously, you do not believe him. Or you wouldn’t still be sitting there.”

Erik slung his arm around Maggie. “Maggie is really smart and good at things. She doesn’t screw up.”

“Yeah!” said Maggie. “I do everything on purpose!”

“The fact that you both think that makes it all okay scares the hell out of me,” Soup said, not appearing much scared. “Whaddaya two freaks want to get up to today? Your uncle’s glued to the kitchen and if a huge eagle turns up, it’ll be real obvious. We’re extra free right now.”

“You owe me a lesson,” Maggie said. “I taught you how to summon things.”

“Yeah, thanks a lot,” Soup said. He took off the driving cap and brushed his blond hair back from his forehead. “Can you still see the bruise?”

“Hard to tell under the dirt,” Maggie said. “That’s why you put up your hand.” She drew a handkerchief out of her pocket. “Steal this from me. It’s soft.”

“Is it clean?”

“Like you care about a little snot when you go around sticking your hands in people’s pockets all day.”

“Look, I don’t know them!” Soup cried. “It’s different if it’s your snot! I wouldn’t like to sit on a toilet seat right after you, either.”

Maggie spread out the handkerchief and showed both sides, flawlessly creased and white. It matched her gloves. “It’s clean, see? Come on. Take it.”

Soup put up both hands, palms out, in front of his face. “Here,” he said, and flinched.

The handkerchief fluttered out of Maggie’s hand like a miniature ghost and landed in Soup’s. He failed to grab it and it likewise wafted towards the ground.

Here!” said Maggie, exasperated. It made a u-turn and she caught it, but it had still picked up a stain. “You just lost a free handkerchief.”

“Well, maybe I don’t want a free handkerchief. I’d rather have food.”

“Okay,” Maggie said. “Teach me how to steal that.”

“Like you couldn’t just call it over and then weld the police to the pavement.”

“I wanna learn how to do it the regular way. I’m lazy.”

“What about your conscience over there?” Soup indicated Erik. Erik had refused to be involved in the pickpocketing lessons previously.

“Teach him how to do it, too,” Maggie said.

Erik considered that for a grave moment and then nodded. It was, after all, possible he might need to know something like that in the future. Something bad could happen. He had been intimately acquainted with bad things happening since the pickpocketing lessons. (And Maggie had been able to help get metal for Hyacinth because of those.)

“Maybe I should learn how to start a car without keys while we’re at it,” he said.

“I’m not getting anywhere near you and a car,” Soup said. “Heavy machinery of all kinds is right out. I’ll teach you how to shoplift.”

———

Soup indicated a butcher’s shop in passing, with pale sausages dangling in the window and a pig’s head that was somehow intended for human consumption. “Lesson number one, do not steal food from places that only sell food. Butchers’. Groceries. Bakeries. It’s all behind the counter and half of it needs cooking. It’s no good trying to stuff half a pound of raw hamburger down the front of your pants. You want prepared stuff in packages. If you’re gonna steal from a grocery or whatever, you take those little impulse buys they’ve got sitting around for people to play with. Lighters. Candy bars. Instant raincoats. Or you head around the back and go through the trash — they throw away expired stuff, but a lot of it’s still good. Trash cans out in back of thrift stores are great for clothes, they just pitch out donations they don’t think they can sell.”

Erik raised his hand like they were in school, “What about restaurants?”

“Pretty good trash and okay for begging in front of,” Soup said. “Sometimes folks will give you their leftovers and they’re usually still warm. The staff will try to clear you off, though, so be careful who sees you. Now, fruit stands.” Soup put out his hands and brought them to a halt across the street from one of those. There were stacked wooden crates, two large umbrellas set up to shield the merchandise, and a lot of hand-written paper signs stuck on things and wafting in the breeze. “They’re an exception. Any kind of stand is kids’ stuff.” He grinned at Maggie. He knew she made a habit of stealing chips from newsstands, although it wasn’t like anyone was going to call the cops on a bird. “You’ve got people walking by all the time, no doors or intent lines, and even if they notice you, they can’t run after you because people would walk off with the whole stand while they’re gone. They put the cheap stuff in front because they know everyone’s gonna take it, but if you’re hungry, it’s no difference. Those shriveled up little apples right there look easy. I’ll demonstrate, then you guys can try.”

He did it about fifty-percent slower, so they could see. Erik and Maggie were on the opposite side of the street and he didn’t have to be as careful in that direction — there weren’t any cops at the moment. I am walking past with my hands in my pockets and not at all interested in fruit. I have taken an apple, it goes in the pocket without me even once looking at it, and I keep walking without slowing down.

“You know, I think you could put an intent line right there,” Maggie opined softly to Erik. She drew with a pointed finger along the edges of the stacked crates. “Make it for reaching over instead of walking over. And you wouldn’t have to stop people from doing it, just put a bell or something. That’d scare the hell out of someone like Soup, ‘cos they’re not expecting it.”

“I think that’s probably really complicated,” Erik said. “If intent lines were easy, they wouldn’t just have ’em on banks and fancy places, and no one could ever steal anything.”

“I bet I could figure out a way around,” Maggie said.

Erik nodded. “Oh, yeah. You. Or Milo.”

“Probably Milo. Or my mom, if she did that kinda thing…”

“Piece of cake,” Soup said. He took a bite from his apple. “They’re not too bad, either. Who wants to go next?”

Maggie did, obviously. Soup gave her a few pointers. “…And don’t start showin’ off, okay? This is just a proof of concept. Don’t be shoving cantaloupes up your dress. I’ll show you how to do hard stuff later, if you get away with an apple all right. You blow up a police officer and we’re through.”

“Buzzkill,” Maggie said.

“Hey, Soup, how do you steal cigarettes?” Erik asked, as they watched her stride away.

“Those’re behind the counter,” Soup said, without turning to look at him. “That’s hard stuff. You need money from somewhere. At least, I do, because I look shifty as hell.” Now he spared Erik a glance. “You might get away with it. You got this kinda wide-eyed innocent thing going.” He snickered. “At least on the left side.”

Erik frowned and pawed at his metal eye.

“So I put the money on the counter,” Soup said, “so they know I can buy something… Aw, Maggie, come on!” She had already pocketed one apple. She gave them a thumbs up and turned to make a second pass. “Will you look at her? Easy is never good enough! Your girlfriend is gonna get herself killed one of these days.”

Erik’s entire vocabulary backed up in his throat as he tried to sublimate the twin concepts of Maggie being his girlfriend and possibly getting killed someday. “…Nuh-uh!” he said finally.

Coincidentally, as she walked past the stand this time, a stack of oranges behinds the vendor collapsed and required immediate attention. Maggie was therefore free to tuck a cantaloupe under her arm and walk off.

“Gods, I never should’ve said cantaloupes,” Soup muttered, a hand over his eyes. “Watch her walk into a butcher’s now and take half a pound of raw hamburger. She could probably cook it by thinking at it.”

She did not do that, but she smugly tossed Soup the cantaloupe when she got back across the street. “Didn’t hafta stuff it up my dress.”

Soup juggled it and tucked it under his own arm. He wasn’t going to pass up free food, although he was not totally sure how to eat a cantaloupe. Peel it, maybe? “Had to cheat and use magic for a distraction,” he said.

“Hey, I did your proof of concept,” Maggie said. She displayed the apple and took a bite. “That was extra credit.”

“Ten demerits for being a jackass and disobeying orders,” Soup said. “Detention. Laps around the track.”

“What track?”

He grinned at her. “Magic one into existence and then do some laps around it.”

Maggie made a pointed gesture. “Magic this.”

“Soup, about the cigarettes,” Erik put in.

“Go get me an apple first,” Soup said. “We’ll work our way up.”

———

Erik approached the fruit stand and paused in an alley a few paces away. A large woman with a net shopping bag was arguing with the vendor over the quality of the cabbages. “These are practically brussel sprouts!

You gotta tell yourself you’re not doing anything wrong, Soup had advised him. If you feel suspicious, you’ll look suspicious. That’s what gets people caught half the time. They get nervous and they screw up. You’re not gonna steal stuff, that’s the furthest thing from your mind.

Erik was having considerable difficulty achieving mental innocence. He couldn’t keep his uncle’s face out of his head. No words in particular, just the face. Looking sad.

Okay, but I hafta steal an apple or Soup’s not going to teach me to steal cigarettes. Never mind that that would make his uncle even more sad.

Look, if I learn how to steal stuff in general, then I can do it if there’s an emergency. I should know how to do that! It’s helpful!

He remembered his uncle leafing through the front section of the newspaper and deciding with a sigh that they’d better not go out today. Because someone colored was in the front section and not for anything nice. Robbery. Murder. Sedition. We’ve got to be careful. When one of us does something bad, they blame all of us for it.

What if one of us does something good?

It doesn’t work that way, dear one.

Colored Kid Goes to Prison for Theft, Erik thought. Riots in Streets.

Colored Girl Thrown Through Plate Glass Window, Erik thought, wincing. That happened just because his uncle tried to make those guys stop kicking him, not even doing something really bad on purpose like stealing.

Come on! That won’t happen just because I stole an apple. Maggie stole a whole cantaloupe. Soup said this is kids’ stuff. They won’t even notice me.

What if the fruit guy has kids? What if he needs to sell apples so they can have shoes?

…Their names are Angelica and Martinique and he just bought them a puppy. They said they were going to help take care of it but they’re totally not. It’s chewing up all his pillows on the bed right now, and it pooped in the closet. He’s not gonna find it until way later.

Erik recognized Cousin Violet’s input. He also noted a single orange had rolled past the confines of the fruit stand and escaped notice. He didn’t even have to go past the fruit stand, he could just pick that up and exchange it for the knowledge of how to get cigarettes whenever he wanted.

You wouldn’t like to tell me he’s a horrible person and he’s gonna go home and kick the puppy, would you, Violet? Violet…?

He sighed. He picked up the orange and walked up to the fruit stand with it. “Excuse me, you dropped this.” When the fruit guy accepted the orange, Erik turned and addressed the big lady with the net bag, “The cabbages are fine, Mrs. Porcher. You just want a discount ‘cos you think you’re entitled.”

“Why you nasty little…” said the lady with the net bag.

Erik sighed again. “I am definitely not nasty,” he said wearily. “I think stuff would be a lot easier if I were. I’m pretty sure the puppy went to the bathroom in your closet, Mr. Gagne, you might wanna check when you get home. Bed-linens and pillows are on sale at Hennessy’s,” Defeated, Erik wandered back across the street to get dressed-down by his friends.

———

“Okay, round two,” Soup said. “Shoplifting from actual shops. You are disqualified.”

“Yeah, I know,” Erik said. He was standing somewhat apart. He still wanted to listen, because he might not mind so much about puppies and shoes if he needed an apple to live, he just knew he couldn’t make himself steal for practice.

Not a grocery store,” Soup said, indicating the wooden sign with the mortar and pestle. He slung an arm around Maggie and pointed through the large window as they walked past it. “Note prepackaged foods and various sundries on shelves. Also large, potentially angry pharmacist behind counter and single entrance with bells above.” He dragged her behind a bush. “So, that complicated enough for you, or you need something else?”

“Can you tell if there’s an intent line just walking past like that?” Maggie said.

“There’s not gonna be a intent line on a drugstore in Strawberryfield,” Soup said. “Hey, Erik, will you quit being obvious over there?” Erik was peering through the window at the penny candy like a normal child.

“Yeah. Logic,” Maggie said, rolling her eyes. “But could you tell if there was one?”

“We’d know pretty fast if we tried to walk in and ended up walking out again,” Soup said.

“But then the guy behind the counter will see us,” Maggie said. “There’s got to be some magic. Something subtle.”

“Yeah, let me know when you figure it out, then I’ll owe you another lesson,” Soup said. “Did you pick something out to steal or do we need to case the joint again?”

“I could take whatever I want as long as it’s on a shelf, right?” Maggie said.

“Yeah, but I want to know,” Soup said. “Me and Erik are going to be a distraction, so it’s my ass, too. I don’t want you grabbing a musical greeting card and trying to get out the door playing ‘Happy Birthday to You.'” He pushed her back and spoke seriously, “Shoplifting is not a prank, Maggie, so don’t get cute. You screw this up, you won’t just have your mom on your case, someone could call the actual cops. And some of us have records.”

“How about a comic book?” Maggie said. “They have the one with the morbidly obese kid and the polka dots. She’s funny.”

“Bad idea. They expect us kids to take comic books, and it won’t fit in a pocket. If you want to steal big stuff, you gotta wait’ll it cools off and you won’t look weird in a coat. It’s easy to steal a coat… and umbrellas,” he added. “They’re right near the door, usually.”

Maggie considered. “Okay, what about a lipstick?” There was a whole section with cosmetics.

Soup laughed at her. “What’re you gonna do with a lipstick?”

“Annoy people.”

“Your mom?”

“Maybe.” Maggie grinned.

“Okay. Me and Erik will go in first. Remember to kill the bell before you come in. Hey, Erik, you pretty interested in that candy?”

“Yeah…” He was still trying to look in the window from behind the bush.

“Think you can have an argument about it?”

———

Maggie hit the friendly little brass bell with a silence spell and opened the door on Soup and Erik, counting pennies on the counter and discussing how much red licorice they could afford — and if they even wanted any red licorice. Soup was uncharacteristically committed to the philosophical conceit that the black kind was way better.

“You get black licorice already with sherbets. You said we could get sherbets!” Erik was pretending to be upset. He was not super bad at it, but you could tell right away if you knew him because he wasn’t slowing down. And he did tend to oversell things a bit. Too many gestures — he probably got that from watching his uncle.

(If he was teasing Maggie or someone at the house, he’d fake slowing down, too, but he didn’t do that for anyone else in the neighborhood. Maggie thought he liked to pretend no one else noticed.)

The brown girl in the dark blue dress slipped inside subtly and kept to the wall until she hit the back of the store. (She had removed the white gloves before knocking over the fruit stand, so as to make her hands less obvious.) There were some mirrors up and she was theoretically visible back there, but the guy at the counter wasn’t looking. There were only three aisles to choose from, the medicine was behind the counter, along with cigarettes and other expensive things. The merchandise available for browsing appeared to be primarily aimed at women and children, who were expected to be equally childish and desire to play with things. I don’t know, why wouldn’t I want to look at something before I buy it? Maggie thought. (Hyacinth was forever annoying pharmacists by demanding to see the ingredients instead of just saying, “Excuse me, sir, I have a cold.”) She considered a detour to the toy section and rejected it. She told Soup she was going after a lipstick, and toys could be flashy and loud.

The cosmetics were on two shelves, next to “feminine hygiene,” a mysterious phrase she had also seen in the bigger drugstore on Eddows, which had a soda fountain in it. Did Soup pick an easier one with only the front counter on purpose? she wondered, frowning. I’m gonna have to have a talk with him about dumbing things down… Which her mother had compared to the practice of hobbling horses. A human being will not panic and bolt at the first sign of difficulty. At least they should not, Magnificent.

There was a mirror affixed to one shelf, and some open containers labeled ‘tester.’

Ooh. ‘Testers,’ thought Maggie. She took the tin cap off a lipstick and examined the substance inside. What color should I get? She couldn’t pick one of those from the window. There was a laminated card tied to the shelves with string, near the mirror. What’s My Perfect Shade?

Oh, thank you, helpful card. Maggie examined it. There was a spectrum of skin tones and suggested color palettes beneath. She held this up next to her face in the mirror, as suggested. It seemed to stop just shy of her exact depth of brown. Her dad or, more likely, her grandmother would’ve been shit outta luck. There was also a distinct lack of rainbow tones in the “skin color” column. Apparently, colored ladies did not like to be pretty.

(Her mother had frequently tried to argue her around to the idea that the female form did not require embellishment — makeup, complicated undergarments or otherwise. Yeah, that’s great, Mom. What if I WANT some?)

Maggie decided that, along with her “perfect shade” of lipstick, rouge and eyeshadow, she would also steal the card. Erik might get a kick out of it. She yanked on the string, attempting to break it in the simplest way possible, without even considering a spell. The shelf wobbled and a glass bottle of perfume fell off and shattered. It was not only loud, it was smelly, and due to her proximity, she was now also smelly — and with a pocketful of stolen cosmetics.

Oh, shit… Although she managed not to say it. Her first instinct was to turn into a bird and she also suppressed that. A bird could not open a door. She’d draw more attention with the flash and noise of the spell and then she’d be trapped here!

Optical magic…? she barely had time to think, before a shriek emanated from the front of the store and caused her to drop the bottle of concealer she had been clutching. (That did not break, but the lid popped off and it spattered her shoes.)

My eye! Oh, gods! My eyeball fell out!

Erik? Maggie strode two rapid steps forward, no longer concerned about being made to pay for multiple cosmetics and maybe arrested. But there was something not quite right about Erik screaming about his eyeball and this engendered a pause.

Help me find it!

He’s not slowing down…

“It doesn’t fit very well! It falls out all the time!” That was Soup, and Maggie knew that was crap. Milo and Hyacinth had fit Erik’s eye to him on, like, a molecular level. It never fell out.

He hit me! You saw him!” Erik cried. “He hit me because he doesn’t like red licorice!” He was sobbing.

This is so I can get out of here and I am going to do that right now, thought Maggie. She did an about face, changed aisles at the back of the store and began to work her way back to the door, edging along the wall as she monitored the situation at the counter. The pharmacist was bent over on his hands and knees and feeling his way around the floor. “Here it is, little boy! I see it!”

Ow! Oh, gods, don’t just pick it up! That hu-u-u-rts!”

Maggie forgot to mute the bell on her way out. She did not pause or turn or do anything stupid trying to rectify her further incompetence, she just kept moving. Apparently, there was enough chaos going on inside to prevent the pharmacist from noticing, or at least from doing anything about it. She beelined into an alley and hid behind a dumpster, looking out, but no one followed. She had progressed to trying to get the perfume smell out of her clothes by the time Soup and Erik showed up. Erik was smugly imbibing a grape soda through a paper straw. He toasted her. Maggie dropped her cherry-blossom-scented shoe and burst out laughing.

“Oh, yeah, almost getting arrested is a laugh riot,” Soup scolded. He was grinning, though, which did tend to blunt the message.

“It really is!” said Maggie. “Was it because you were crying?” She indicated the soda.

Erik shrugged. “I guess. And the other thing.” He meant being a grape soda vortex, but he wasn’t going to mention that in front of Soup.

“I got some cigarettes while he was at it,” Soup said, displaying the pack.

“You guys are my heroes,” Maggie said. “I’d hug you, but Erik’s uncle would wonder how come we all smell like hookers.”

“It was Erik’s idea.” Soup pointed. “I was gonna book it and let you clean up your own mess.”

“I knew something was wrong because I could smell that,” Erik said. “I was worried you’d think I was really hurt and come rescue me.”

“Nah, you didn’t slow down. I could tell right away.”

“I kinda wanted to,” the green boy admitted. “I couldn’t think about how you might get in trouble.” He snickered. “Or how it was so stupid the man thought I could feel my… eye on the… floor.”

“Gods, that was funny as hell,” Soup said. “I thought he was gonna pee himself. Or Erik might. He bawled like a baby.”

Erik frowned and turned his head aside.

Soup bowed to him and offered his hand. “Kid, you’ve got no spine. I respect that.”

Mystified, Erik accepted the hand. Soup pumped it several times and grinned. “I knew you had to be good at something! We’ve gotta go somewhere there’s cars. I’ll teach you how to do a flopsy. There is serious money in that!”

Erik was grinning and seemed willing to go along with this, but Maggie intervened. She had a better vocabulary for larceny. “Soup we are not gonna go out and get Erik hit by a car!” Erik abruptly ceased participating in his prolonged congratulatory handshake.

Soup held up his hands and gestured precisely. “You time it ju-u-ust right and they don’t break anything or kill you. I’ve seen it!” His stomach gurgled and Erik and Maggie stared. He could not possibly be hungry!

Soup appeared unsettled as well. “You guys, I am getting this feeling like maybe I shouldn’t have eaten a whole cantaloupe.”

“You didn’t have the seeds, did you?” Maggie said. She told him to leave those alone!

“No, but I am starting to think that didn’t make much of a difference.”

“Do you want Auntie Hyacinth?” Erik said. “Er…” Auntie Hyacinth was at a drugstore drinking sodas and away from her doctor bag. ‘Hyacinth’ was just a byword for medical attention, that was all. “I mean, my… uncle’s at home with…”

Soup cut him off, “I want a pay toilet! These are my good pants! Get out of the goddamn way!” He already had a hand in his pocket and was feeling around for a knife. He knew how to jimmy the locks!

———

Soup was therefore available to meet Calliope at the house when she turned up about an hour later. He was not in a happy condition and offered no opinion on whether or not she was ‘hot.’

Milo was numbly clutching a paper shopping bag that said ‘Rust’s’ and ‘Art Supplies’ on it, and too shell-shocked to process there were yet more strangers in the house that he had to deal with. He dealt with nothing, he handed Calliope a card he had preprinted days ago, and he staggered upstairs without waiting for her to read it.

Card Front 74

Calliope shrugged. She guessed agreeing to go to lunch and then sitting there staring at his sandwich for a half hour was a little weird, but not really anything to be sorry about. It wasn’t like she paid for it; it was his sandwich, he could do what he wanted. She called after him, “Hey, Milo if you’re gonna use that fixative, crack open a window or you’ll pass out!” There was no reply from Milo’s closed door. She shrugged again and offered Soup her hand, “Hi. I’m Calliope.”

“Fiber is the devil’s work,” Soup said heavily.

“That is an awesome name for an art piece,” Calliope said. “Maybe a collage… or a series! That’s a cool tie. You mind if I sketch you?”

“You are weird,” Soup said.

“Yeah,” Maggie said admiringly, as Calliope retrieved a small sketchpad from her shopping bag. “She’s going to get along just great!”

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