…Milo is Baked (76)

Milo found a plate of brownies in the kitchen at five AM to be within normal parameters. Mordecai had been known to wake up and cook at odd hours and go back to bed — or not even go back to bed, but usually that meant a storm. One time there had been a plate of thin pancakes with powdered sugar and orange marmalade just for him. That had been really sweet (and not just because of the sugar) and special and he’d felt warm all day. There was a note with the brownies that said ‘One at a time.’ There had been a note with the pancakes, too, but that had been a lot longer and more clear. He guessed ‘One at a time’ probably meant the brownies were for the whole house and not to just have all of them like he had all the pancakes.

That made him feel a little bit ridiculous. He wouldn’t have had all the brownies. Not at five o’clock in the morning. Maybe two. Or three. They were small and there was this enormous pile of them.

Well, he took one, and he made cereal and coffee.

At first bite, the brownie seemed a little bit… off. The texture was all right. It was sweet and chocolate enough. There was something else going on in there. Maybe something from the spice rack? He regarded it from across the room.

This is a substitution. We’ve run out of something. No stores open in the middle of the night. I wonder what it is?

He had another bite and chewed slowly, attempting to detect it. There was really no hope of it. He couldn’t cook or sub things. He didn’t know what was going on when he saw Mordecai doing a substitution right in front of him, or when he knew exactly what it was he was tasting. This is applesauce instead of an egg? Really? Whatever this was, it was a little weird, but not terrible. He didn’t notice it at all with coffee, and it didn’t prevent him from wrapping two brownies in a paper towel and tucking them into his shirt pocket for work.

Look, he was protecting his own interests. He was not going to be home. Everyone else could have ‘one at a time!’ This was one for a coffee break and one for with lunch, which he would have had if he was going to be home. That was just fair. If there were no more brownies left when he got home, then he had a fair amount of brownies.

No one was going to notice he took three, anyway. There were a lot of brownies.

He rearranged the brownies slightly so it didn’t look like he took three.

He grabbed his coat and he went to work.

———

His shift didn’t start until nine, he had nine to three today — the factory was only open a half day on Sigurd’s Day. He liked to eat early and take early buses without a lot of people, though, so unless it was a very late shift or he needed the sleep very badly he did that. There was a park bench near the factory where he liked to hang out and wait for it to be time to go in. Just a tiny square of grass with a streetlamp and a couple benches and some planters with flowers and a tree. That was enough park for him. He could sit and maybe drink coffee and look at people. He liked looking at people all right, as long as they didn’t look back. He could try to understand them. Especially the part where they held hands or smiled or laughed or hugged each other.

He understood wanting to. He was trying to get the mechanics of it. Sometimes he took notes.

He was starting to feel pretty good by the time he got to his park bench!

You know, he should’ve known it was going to be a good day when he found brownies in the kitchen for no reason, even if they did taste a little weird. It was sunny and there were some fluffy white clouds and it was warming up nicely. The flowers were nice. The people seemed happy and nice. The leaves were just starting to turn. He didn’t have to go in for, like, two whole hours. He could just sit here and do whatever. This was great.

He slipped out of his shoes and put his stocking feet in the grass.

He wore black silk stockings. Ann took the dress and Ann took the corset but there had been no panties or stockings during the siege when there had been taking of things so it didn’t matter about those and they got to share. Ha!

The stockings were so-o-ort of sheer but he didn’t think anyone was going to notice. There weren’t, like, a lot of people.

He thought they were pretty, and the grass felt nice.

He sighed, and he thought about the grass being nice, and about silk stockings, and then about shoes. There were a lot of nice kinds of shoes to think about, and some on the people going past. Let’s see… High-heeled boots… wedges… there went some t-straps… ankle straps… kitten heels… platforms… ballerina flats like Calliope wore… That cloud looked like a stiletto…

Was he going to be late for work?

He drew out his watch and had a perusal of it.

It was… seven… oh… five… six… AM, presumably, because it was light out. Hm.

He stared at the watch and admired the working of it until seven-thirty, at which point he decided he might as well take it apart and get to know it a little better. He carried a small set of screwdrivers in a pocket, not the one with the brownies and the pencil and the cards for telling people he couldn’t talk. A pants pocket.

There were a lot of gears in here. Look how they fit together like that. That was pretty neat.

He really ought to find space for an AM/PM one, though. You couldn’t trust the sun. The sun didn’t have gears. You couldn’t take it apart.

He wanted coffee. He pocketed his watch, which he had by this point reduced to individual watch molecules, and wandered off to get coffee. A moment later he wandered back and put on his shoes.

There was a storefront coffeeshop he liked near work for coffee. They had the little paper takeout menus. Both he and Ann preferred the places with the little paper takeout menus. Ann liked them because she couldn’t read the big menu boards behind the counter. He liked them because he could point directly at what he wanted and even underline it, no ambiguity, no most-expensive-thing-on-the-menu. This-thing-right-here!

He tried smiling at the person behind the counter. That came a little easier today. It was a pretty good day!

They didn’t try to talk to him. They knew he didn’t do that. They had a brown button-down shirt and a white apron. …And a smile! Well, that was nice.

He was going to just say the large coffee and then take it over there to the table and put two sugars in it but he was reading down the little paper menu (he didn’t usually do that, but his glasses were a little smudgy and he couldn’t seem to locate the large coffee exactly) and he saw coffee that said caramel in it and he blinked at it. That was candy. You could have coffee with candy?

He pointed at that.

It wasn’t really candy, like, in wrappers. It was syrup in a bottle that needed stirring in like the sugar. Thick syrup that swirled. There was also ice and a straw. It was cold. You didn’t have to sip it and wait, you could just have it. Which he did.

Oh, wow. This was… He stared at it. This was the best possible coffee. Why was this not all coffee? That hot and bitter and non-syruped coffee existed was like a war crime. People should be brought up on charges. He tipped the price of the coffee again and drew a glowing heart on the back of one of the cards that said he couldn’t talk and put that in the tip jar, too.

I love you, coffee person in the white apron. I love your amazing coffee forever.

He waved farewell and then wandered out again, sipping coffee through a striped paper straw like oxygen.

He sat back down on the park bench with a contented sigh and attempted to clean his glasses. His glasses were pretty messed up. Maybe they needed the charms redone. He had repel charms on his glasses. He did a lot of stuff with oil. He couldn’t put really strong charms on, though, because they messed with the prescription. He had to redo them a lot. Did he have time to redo the…? He attempted to consult his watch and dumped a handful of gears on to the pavement and grass. Oh. Right. Okay. Well, it didn’t seem like it was time for work yet. Judging from the amount of best possible coffee left. He sipped.

He was kind of hungry. He’d like something sweet, to go with the coffee. He should’ve gotten one of those cereal bars.

Oh. Wait. He had brownies!

He had a brownie. One at a time.

He arrived at work a full two minutes late, he appeared completely unconcerned about this, he waved at the lady in the nice tweed jacket at the front desk, he made another futile attempt to clean his glasses, he punched in, and he began enchanting windless watches.

Work was pretty good today, too! The enchantments were cheap and easy like always, but he had a new appreciation for the watches. The way they fit together. All the gears. He slowed down the conveyor belt slightly so he could appreciate them a little better. No one noticed. Hey, and as long as he had a little bit more time with the watches, he improved the enchantments. He did the one Calliope had been so enthusiastic about, the one that wound the watches better and played Petula Clark every hour.

That Sigurd’s Day morning, while Milo did approximately three-and-a-half hours of work wasted on two (and, after a coffee break at eleven, three) hash brownies, the Windless Watch ™ factory in San Rosille cranked out seventy-eight watches that would flawlessly wind themselves until the end of time, give or take a millennium, and play ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ in low-definition chimes at the top of every hour. All seventy-eight escaped through total-lack-of-Quality Control and were shipped out to unsuspecting customers worldwide. Seventy-six were immediately returned, due to the chiming. The seventy-seventh went to someone with the same poor taste as Milo, and the seventy-eighth to a deaf person.

———

Mordecai did not sprint all the way downtown from the house. He had done that distance once, it had nearly killed him, and it really was not the most efficient way to get there. It was hell waiting for a bus, though. Just standing there. He could have detoured to a drugstore or a pay phone and called the factory, but that would have taken time away from getting there. He needed to actually, physically be there and do something.

He just hoped that when he got there, the police or the fire department or an ambulance would not also be there.

Drugs did not make you hurt yourself, still true. But Milo was a broken person who was quite willing to hurt himself without any drugs, Mordecai had seen it. Being scared made him want to hurt himself, and being on drugs without wanting it or knowing it was incredibly scary. The drugs were secondary. Mordecai was running out of the house on an emergency mission to help Milo cope with fear, and whatever other behavior might result because of it.

He had been past Milo’s building on a few occasions. He was aware of it. He played downtown a lot. He might drop by around lunch if Milo happened to be having a shift at that time. Milo was not really a sociable person, but he could play or eat lunch near Milo, and Milo seemed to like that. At least, he didn’t seem to hate it.

The nearest bus stop was half a block away and he did sprint that distance, which got him to the front desk panting and gasping in about three minutes. No police, no fire department, and no clue in the expression on the lady with the tweed jacket at the front desk. However, when he blurted out that he was here to get Milo Rose and that Milo Rose was sick, she said, “Ohhh, that’s what’s wrong with him!”

He was allowed onto the factory floor to collect Milo Rose.

———

Milo’s factory was a dystopian nightmare. Mordecai thought it was like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in there. No windows, that was evident from the outside of the building, a couple of skylights that only let in gray, and pale electric lighting that buzzed and glowed. A lot of men, mostly men, wearing brown and gray and frowning at small spaces in front of them. A lot of conveyor belts, in black and dark gray with clacking metal wheels under them, but also some dangling and stamping assemblages that could do a lot of damage to a guy with real long hair who might not be paying the best attention. There was the constant threatening rhythmic rumble and thud of heavy machinery doing its work without a care for humanity. A gray-painted floor and dark metal stairs and catwalks running up and down brick walls in industrial brown. And no colored people, which only added to his anxiety. (“There aren’t an awful lot of us and we keep to ourselves,” his father had told him, “but if you don’t see at least one happy idiot who doesn’t know how to mind his own business, then there’s a policy.”) There were a lot more places like this since the war.

Milo was cheerfully enchanting watches and bobbing his head in time to some music that he was neither humming nor listening to, he was just going over it in the abstract. He was thinking of rewriting the code for ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ so he could have ‘Downtown’ instead. It wouldn’t be hard. But brownie number three was making its presence known and it was getting a little hard to focus on just the one thing. He kept… sort of… trailing… off…

Coffee with syrup in it was really great. And all the smiling. Smiling was easy today. Smile oil would be something really smart to invent, like machine oil. There was some kind of synergy going on here, with the sunny day and the brownies for no reason and the most perfect coffee and all the sugar. He had put, like, twelve sugars in his coffee at coffee break. He did not care anymore!

Synergy…

What kind of gears does a person need to smile?

His glasses were really messed up! Everything was all smeary. There were trails on things. He kept forgetting to redo the charms. He pulled out his shirttail and wiped them again.

Hey! That was… a red..?

He replaced his glasses and blinked.

Mordecai! Mordecai came to visit him at work! Oh, wow! Best day ever!

Mordecai made a rapid assessment and smiled relief. He’s all right. He’s happy. He’s got all his fingers. He’s not paranoid. He’s not scared. He’s not sick.

Oh, my gods, he has absolutely no idea.

And now there was urgent business: I have to do everything I possibly can to keep him this way.

Okay, he thought, carefully smiling. He is having a really good time at work. It might upset him if he has to leave work. Can I sort of monitor him and let him stay here at work? What is the nature of this situation?

“Hey, Milo, you’re having a pretty good day, huh?” said Mordecai.

Milo nodded, smiling. (My gods, it was weird to have him smiling like that.) Behind him, a line of unenchanted watches were marching bravely into Quality Control. These also got past.

“Did you have a couple brownies this morning? I’m not mad or anything. I was just wondering.”

Milo’s smile broadened. There were teeth in there. He looked almost like Ann. He hugged his own shoulders and rocked back and forth. Most awesome brownies for no reason, Mordecai. Excellent start to an excellent day. Synergy!

“Do you know how many brownies, exactly?”

Milo grinned. He toted up fingers slowly because: One at a time!

One…

Mordecai breathed a sigh. Okay. Good. One brownie on someone Milo’s size would be weird, but not unmanageable. He seemed a little too high for one brownie at five, but maybe he took it with him and had it later. At least it wasn’t liable to get any…

Two…

Okay, well, less good. Not an amount of brownies he would’ve given Milo for a first time, but he would not have given Milo any brownies at all. Maybe Milo could get by until lunch, that would only be a few more minutes. It would probably upset him less to leave after lunch. Sudden transitions were the most difficult. He’d be expecting lunch…

Three!

“…And, we are going home right now,” said Mordecai. “Milo?” He tried smiling again. “Would you like to come home early with me? I’ll make you a nice lunch at home. Do you think you might like that?” He was willing to negotiate, but he really wanted to get Milo out of the factory. Out of public came next. Priority number one was keeping Milo clueless and smiling and pliable. If Milo wanted to go to the movies with Hyacinth, then, okay, they were probably going to do that.

Lunch at home? thought Milo. He pointed at Mordecai and nodded. You know, that is a really excellent idea. There are brownies at home. I ate my lunch brownie with my perfect coffee. He cocked his head to one side. Were you aware they made perfect coffee? I have had some! I can’t stop smiling. I think I have had way too much coffee. Why don’t you ask me how much coffee I’ve had, Em? It’s fun answering things! Have you seen this factory? These watches have these really great gears! He pulled a watch off the conveyor belt and showed all the gears.

Mordecai obligingly examined the watch. “Yes, that is really very nice. It’s intricate, isn’t it?”

Milo nodded. Em, you have the best words. Maybe I should just have you write down all the words and I can point to the ones I want. Intricate. Watches are intricate. Now say ‘synergy.’

Mordecai said, “I really think we’d better put it back with the others so we can go have lunch.” He had considered saying that they could just take the nice watch with them, but he was worried that might get Milo in trouble with work. He wasn’t quite sure how this whole ‘factory job’ thing shook out in the details. Milo did get watches from work, but he didn’t think that way. If he offered to buy it from the lady in the tweed jacket at the front desk, she might just get irritated.

Milo was agreeable to putting the watch back. They got sidetracked looking at a couple of conveyor belts (he doubtfully assigned these the terms ‘industrial’ and ‘utilitarian’) and Milo wanted to punch his time card two times, but they did get out of the factory. He told the lady at the front desk that Milo had a high fever and was delirious and Milo was sure acting weird as hell, what with the time card and the smiling and he kept wiping his glasses and blinking, so Mordecai was pretty sure Milo would still have a job on Moon’s Day morning — though he would be short a few hours’ pay.

They had to walk past the coffeeshop with the perfect coffee on the way to the bus stop and it was not possible to walk past the coffeeshop with the perfect coffee without getting more perfect coffee. Milo grabbed Mordecai and dragged him in.

There were three kinds of possible perfect coffee that said ‘iced’ and ‘latte’ like the caramel kind on the paper menu. ‘Caramel.’ ‘Mocha.’ ‘Vanilla.’ This presented Milo’s melting brain with a dilemma of near happiness-derailing proportions. It did not seem possible to have all three. He did not have three hands. He stood at the counter and stared at the menu. This went on for quite some time.

“Um?” said the woman behind the counter. There was a line forming.

“Just give us a minute, please,” said Mordecai. “Take orders from people behind us. We’re having a bit of difficulty.”

Milo was having more than a bit. He was having extremely long and eloquent trains of thought about it. He was trying to do math about it. He was developing theories. (‘Mocha.’ What is ‘Mocha?’ Is the theoretical possibility of ‘Mocha’ better than the concrete reality I know to be ‘Caramel?’ Is it better merely because is it theoretical? What value does the thrill of discovery add to the experience? If we assign discovery a value of ‘d’ and reality… no… certainty a value of ‘c’…)

“Milo?” said Mordecai, gently. “Is it a little hard to decide?”

Milo looked up and blinked. He nodded helplessly. He was no longer smiling.

“I can have one, too, and we can share. Does that make it a little easier?”

TWO variables!?

Milo returned to the menu and (with effort) focused on it.

Yes! Then let’s have the two I haven’t tried!

He employed his pencil. He circled ‘Vanilla’ and ‘Mocha’ and a folded square of paper towel with chocolate crumbs on it fell out of his shirt pocket.

Mordecai sighed and pressed a hand over his eyes. He now knew that Milo had taken between one and three brownies to work with him and randomly re-upped his dose at some point or points during the day. So, now he had no idea how bad this was going to get or how long it was going to go on. Great.

He paid for the coffee. He let Milo sample both coffees as desired and agreed with the enthusiastic gesturing that resulted. He did not really want coffee, he badly wanted some food and to lie down in a dim room with both hands over his face for a while, but he had to have coffee to keep Milo happy. He agreed that the coffee was very, very nice. (It was incredibly sweet, it made him feel sick, and he thought it was melting his teeth.) He got Milo onto a bus and he sat next to Milo on the top deck of that bus and held two near-empty coffees while Milo shut his eyes and checked out of reality for the entire ride home.

Milo was aware of warm sun and a pleasant breeze and a residual taste of really excellent coffee. That was about all he needed and all he was capable of handling at the moment. He was developing some very important theories about stuff. Watches. And time. Maybe the sun should have gears, and AM and PM. The way the planets and everything turned. It was connected. Everything was circles, even the things that weren’t circles. They came around again.

Not that he could express any of this. He couldn’t have said it, in any case, but he seemed to have gotten beyond math, too. He was in the empty space beside the paper where the pencil didn’t work, just making no marks on thin air. There was a lot of idea over here, though. He’d never been over here before.

He lost hold of most of if when Mordecai said softly that they needed to go home now, there are words and pencils and math for a reason, but it came back to him sometimes when he was half-sleeping, or when he was working on something and it fit together just right. It also left him with a vague idea that there was something beyond circles, like maybe there were too many circles. The goddamned circles, the goddamned mechanics of the universe, were distracting. There was something warm and real and human out there that he needed to be reaching for — past circles, maybe only a little bit past — but he had no idea what it was or what it might look like.

He was pretty sure it would feel nice and he’d like petting it.

But it was time to go home and it was hard to think about stuff he couldn’t put into words and he really wanted some lunch.

There were not any brownies left, which was annoying, but it made him feel smart that he’d taken three. There were already some sandwiches, which was great. He didn’t have to wait. Also, Calliope was in the kitchen! He waved at her, and he showed her how he was smiling a lot, but then he needed to do all the sandwiches.

“So he seems pretty all right,” Calliope said, smiling.

“You dodged a bullet,” Mordecai said. He put the coffees on the counter. He noted that Calliope had added to the sandwiches. These appeared to be nonjudgmental ones with peanut butter and jelly. She had also made chocolate milk. It looked like out of all the milk, in a pitcher. “And we’re not done with it yet. I am going to steal a sandwich and some of that chocolate milk, because I am dying, and then I am going to have to give you Milo and go lie down in the other room for a little while. I am trying very hard to do this new thing where I don’t hurt myself until I cry.”

Calliope accepted this with a placid nod. When Calliope Marshmallow Otis was presented with new navigational information that required a course correction, she did not brake and ratchet the car into park, she smoothly steered onto a new path without slowing, even if this required running over a concrete bollard, or a police officer. Em needs to lie down in the other room for a while so he doesn’t cry? Cool.

Mordecai collapsed into a chair and availed himself of a sandwich, he did not care or really taste which sort. Calliope found some glasses and poured everyone chocolate milk, since they didn’t seem to be doing that themselves, and Em did say something about the chocolate milk. Em said ‘thank you,’ and Milo smiled and gave her a thumbs up.

It occurred to her that Milo didn’t smile a whole lot. She hadn’t ever noticed him being unhappy. She guessed right now he was extra happy.

Aw, that was cute. Milo should have brownies. She didn’t care what Em said. Maybe she could get him to draw some more flowers.

“Calliope, listen to me,” Mordecai said, finishing chocolate milk. He had somehow managed to avoid the indignity of any suggestive stains, as he eschewed mustaches of a more mundane sort. “Milo is happy right now, and it is in everyone’s best interest that he stay that way. Do you think you can be very kind and careful with Milo and try to keep him happy while I take a break?” One concept, and this was the main one. He waited for a response.

“Oh, yeah.” She nodded.

“Thank you. I think you should take him into the basement and let him draw something or build something. That’s what he usually does when he gets home. It’s safe. He doesn’t have blowtorches or anything, he has Hyacinth.”

“Cool. So, say I have an idea for this enormous metal duck. Like, the opposite of a rubber duck…”

No. No, he did not mean to offer Hyacinth’s services as a blowtorch. He held up a hand. “I’m sorry. I’m getting off the subject. That’s my fault. Please play with Milo in the basement. That’s what I mean to say.”

She snickered. “That’s really cute, Em.” (She was picturing sailor suits and hopscotch.)

“Yes. Will you?” (He was sincerely hoping they wouldn’t start talking each other’s clothes off, but with similar innocence.)

“Sure.”

“Thank you. But, just be nice to him. Help him stay happy. That’s the main thing.”

“Right, got it.”

“If anything happens or it starts to get out of hand, you yell for me. I’ll have the door open.”

“Not a problem.” She smiled.

The smile did not fill him with confidence. Not with the freckles and the upturned nose. She wasn’t even wearing the glasses, they were tucked away in her shirt pocket. He was getting that feeling like she was a four-year-old girl who almost poisoned the whole house again.

Milo was blissfully, unsuspectingly staring into space and sipping chocolate milk, with his head resting in one hand, thinking of shoes and smile oil.

Look, damn it, Milo survived however many hours high, walking around downtown San Rosille, and then in a factory with conveyor belts. He can manage one or two in the basement of his own house with a pretty girl and a lot of nice toys to play with!

“Hey, Milo,” said Mordecai, leaning down to eye-level. He waited until Milo blinked and seemed reasonably focused on him. “After you’re all done with sandwiches and chocolate milk, would you like to go into the basement with Calliope and maybe draw?”

Milo gasped and blinked again and set down his glass. (He had not avoided a mustache.) He nodded.

This is the best day. This is better than the day I bought my dress!

———

The record-player was in the basement. The record-player was the first thing Milo drew for Calliope with colored pencils. He wasn’t very good with them. He had a better grasp of them than he had of the chalk pastels, at least from the start, because they were like a regular pencil. But they were stiffer when it came to shading and blending and they didn’t erase and it was harder to get gradients out of them and if you wanted to have a black shadow you actually had to drop the color and bring in the black pencil, and the white pencil did not make a significant highlight — it was almost as bad as a white crayon. Nevertheless, he had attempted to draw the record-player, because it was important about the record-player. The record-player was in a scuffed light blue bakelite case and he had attempted to draw that. It was light blue, at least. He drew the dark green electrical cord coming out of it like a swishy tail and he put a big red X over the plug. Then he drew soundwaves and musical notes coming out of the speaker. She picked up what he was saying right away. He didn’t have to do her a card. She said, “For real? You can do that?” and when he nodded, she closed the case and deposited the record-player in his arms before he even had a chance to drop the pencil.

She noted it on the worktable and nodded to it. The case was open. It had been gutted. The speaker’s dark cover was laying flat on the table with red and white wires poking out behind it. The stacked records, which had been secreted in a small cubby, had been gently removed and set aside. “So I guess that doesn’t work yet, huh?” she said.

He smiled and tilted his head. Are you being funny at me? Is that on purpose? That’s great!

“You mind if I play the radio?”

The smiling alone was insufficient, he’d been doing that so long. He signed Okay! and he gave her a thumbs up, too.

She flicked on the switch and racked the dial across the entire band. The stringed amplifier flashed and crackled incoherently. When she hit the extreme right end, she began to go back in the opposite direction without a pause.

Milo did have a tiny nodule of sense left rattling around in his brain, like a single cracker in a tin, and a lot of real sympathy for machines — particularly the radio, which he had put together practically from scratch. (And once broken with a shoe. Sort of.) He put his hand on her hand and stopped her from making it scream. Lady, do you know how a radio works? He stared at her.

He was both touching her and looking directly into her eyes for the first time ever and neither one of them particularly noticed or cared.

“What?” she said.

He took his hand off hers and he shooed her away. She folded her arms across her chest and took a step back. He gently adjusted the dial and tuned in his favorite station. They were playing ‘Sugar Shack.’ He grinned. If he could’ve laughed, he would’ve. Sugar. Oh, great. I love sugar. I have had so much sugar.

“Oh, you have a station you like,” Calliope said, smiling.

Milo smiled and nodded. He made the vicious motion of Calliope twisting the dial and grit his teeth. Yes. I have a station I like. As opposed to this.

She shrugged. “I just wanted to hear everything.”

His eyes widened slightly. At once?

She was considering the music. “I guess this is okay.” She’d never really listened to anything like this before. But it seemed to make Milo happy. (Which Em said was important, but she would’ve thought that was important anyway. He had a very nice smile.) “Want to draw?”

Thumbs up! And a smile! And a pencil!

They stood next to each other, bent over the worktable, and drew. Calliope used the colored pencils and did flowers. She was sort of hoping Milo might do that. Milo preferred the gray pencil that erased and blended properly and he was trying to get across his theory of everything. That was complicated and it needed a lot of circles and he wasn’t doing the circles very well because of the issue with his glasses so he sighed and ripped off the top sheet of paper and started in on the subject of smile oil. That went a little easier, though he was still having some trouble nailing down the concept. There were a lot of good things that went into the smiling. He couldn’t identify a base factor, merely a first one, the plate of brownies.

Calliope abandoned a fantastical butterfly with clockwork wings (she wasn’t happy with the wings) and inquired of him, “Smiling needs gears?” She liked the idea. She’d seen a film like that once, smiling over and over again, like a machine.

He shrugged and frowned and gestured in the air with the tip of the pencil. He sketched a quick unicorn, just the head.

Metaphorical gears.”

Milo nodded.

Calliope considered the gears powering the smile. She labeled one happiness.

Milo nodded, bobbing his head from side to side. Yeah, obviously.

She added understanding, and, after a moment’s thought, pleasure.

Milo drew arrows switching the happiness gear and the pleasure gear. These are interchangeable.

“No, I don’t think so,” Calliope said. “Smiling just feels good. It’s the difference between feeling happy and telling someone about it.”

Milo tried smiling. He closed his eyes and just felt smiling. Yeah. That was… Yeah.

He flipped the pencil and erased the arrows. He gestured at Calliope with the eraser. You see, this is why you need a real pencil!

He drew and he rocked to the music and he smiled. Calliope said she thought the way the amplifier lit up (she just called it a speaker) was neat and he tried to draw for her how that worked. It was wood and strings and magic, like when Mordecai made the violin sing. He made it light up because he thought that looked cool. She seemed like she understood it a little. He showed her how to replay songs. She wanted to see if the button would replay static, too. She was so funny!

He really liked the music, and the strings lighting up. He extra liked it. He wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with the day, or the smiling. He drew some notes, so she’d know he was liking the music, and maybe they could draw things about that, but then he wasn’t sure if she’d think he was just saying more things about the amplifier. So he wrote, I think the music is really pretty, next to the notes, so she’d know. Smiling, he switched out the gray pencil for the pink one and he added, I think you’re really pretty, so she’d know that, too. And, I love you. And, I love gears. He drew some. He switched colors and made green and blue and purple ones, too.

“Aw, Milo,” Calliope said. She picked up a pencil and drew a big red heart around everything. “That really loosened you up, didn’t it? You should have drugs more often. You’re so nice on them.”

Milo smiled and nodded. Yes, I…

What?

There was a soft sound, growing louder, which he was slowly beginning to recognize was screaming. The need to scream. Forever.

Drugged?

Memory awoke like a tiger, tearing and snarling. Images slammed into him, whole with feeling and sensation. Straitjacket. Metal bed. Pills. Needles. Things on the ceiling. Shh, quiet. Don’t do that. Calm you down. White sheets. Drool into his pillow. Blurred eyes. Smile. I’m not stupid. Dizzy. Disconnected. Things with trails. Smile. Everything’s strange, but I don’t mind, I don’t care. I just have this smile.

He clawed at his head, his eyes, his mouth.

The smile.

No, please stop. Make it stop. Take it out of me. I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to feel this way ever again…

PLEASE MAKE IT STOP NOW, I DON’T WANT TO GO BACK THERE!

It was no longer the best day ever. Or, indeed, any day at all.

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