Who is Responsible? (77)

MORDECAI!

That was Calliope, and that tore him out of a sound sleep, and he was aware that he should not have fallen asleep, and then aware of the situation in the house, and with Milo, and then he wondered briefly if Erik was okay and if Hyacinth was still at the movies. Then he went thundering down the stairs into the basement and he almost went tumbling down the stairs into the basement and he attempted to understand what was happening and what he needed to do and viciously smother everything else with a pillow.

Calliope and Milo were both under the worktable. There was a scattering of pencils on the floor. The radio was on, playing something awful and bouncy and saccharine. Milo had his wrist pressed against his mouth, the hand clenched into a bloodless white fist, and he appeared to be biting and tearing through his shirt cuff. He was rocking violently back and forth and occasionally turning and banging the side of his head against the brick wall. Calliope had her hands on both sides of his face and was trying to prevent this, but she could only cushion it and slow it down. When Milo made contact with the wall, he caught the fingers of her right hand between his head and the bricks, and she winced. She had removed his glasses and folded them and set them aside. She was stroking his hair with her left hand and saying “Shh.” He had the fingers of his right hand tangled in the hair on that side of his head and he was pulling it. Some of it had come loose from the braid, and a slender coil had been torn out entirely and was lying twisted on the floor like copper wire.

There was a familiar aroma that was not associated with fun times and musicians and before-the-war, but during-the-war and the wall and the siege and gods who used people and didn’t care. Milo had wet himself.

“I can’t get him to stop,” Calliope said. “I can’t hold him. He’s too big.”

Oh, my gods, I wish I had that straitjacket, Mordecai thought. He wasn’t sure if that was really a good idea, not after what Erik said about Milo, about people hurting Milo with a straitjacket (and whatever else they’d done to him in a place with metal beds like a hospital) but in any other context this was absolutely the kind of thing that was meant for.

This was not the wall, this was not the siege, he was not handling people. He had no straitjacket and no other handlers and no resources — unless one counted his brain, with all these experiences in it that he was rapidly filing through looking for some aid.

Milo thudded his head against the wall again and Calliope flinched.

Mordecai brought up a well-leafed and useful file stamped DAMAGE CONTROL in big red letters. He slid down to his knees and crawled under the table. “Let me try. I’m bigger than you.” Which wasn’t saying a lot, but still.

Calliope nodded and made room. Mordecai got his hands in and tried to still Milo. He was fully prepared to be bitten or punched, but there was no attempt. “Calliope, he hasn’t hurt you, has he?”

“No,” she said. “Only him.” She picked up his glasses and tucked them into her shirt pocket beside her own.

“What about your hand?”

She examined it. The knuckles were somewhat reddened. They might bruise. “I was just in the way.”

Milo was shaking. There also seemed to be a slight vibration going on in his throat, perhaps a whine or sob, but it made no sound. Mordecai was unable to prevent Milo from rocking, though he did slow it a bit more. When Milo turned and tried to hit his head, it took all his strength to prevent him from making contact with the wall. The rocking increased, and Milo pulled at his shirt cuff with his teeth.

“Milo…” Don’t was pointless. These were stress behaviors. Stop one, you’d get another. The problem was the stress. However, Milo could not talk to him about the stress or tell him where it hurt. He had to make guesses. He knew Milo had been given drugs that he did not want or understand… and everything else was conjecture. Well, he didn’t like it, obviously.

“Milo, you’re safe.” Milo did like being safe. That was why he had Ann. “I know this feels strange, but it isn’t forever. You can still be scared. You can still be normal. You can still be you.” Milo’s sense of safety and identity was all wrapped up in his ability to feel fear. He’d found that out after the quarter, when he’d told an incredibly suggestible Milo he felt fine, which was not a feeling Milo was comfortable or acquainted with. He had…

He blinked and straightened. He almost hit his head on the table.

This was that emergency he hadn’t been able to come up with.

Milo twitched in his hands like a dying trout and Mordecai tightened his grip.

“Calliope, I need you to find me a quarter,” he said.

Wait!” he cried, before she could vanish up the stairs. “I need you to find a quarter and pick it up and bring it back here and hand it to me, okay?”

“Okay,” she said.

“Thank you, dear.”

He wasn’t sure if she was really that bad, but this was all very upsetting and he really needed that quarter.

It got him a quarter, and no side dish of sarcasm or sharpness at being patronized or wondering what in the hell he wanted with a quarter. (He wasn’t sure if he missed Hyacinth or was glad he didn’t have to cope with her.)

“Thank you, dear,” he repeated. “Ah!” (Milo had sensed that he was no longer being held with two hands and he made another attempt at the wall. He did it twice. Mordecai fumbled the quarter and prevented him from doing it again.) “Please turn off the damn radio.” (He did not want Milo to pick up an ad for soap flakes or used tires. Milo was like a radio.)

The cloying music mercifully ceased.

Okay. Now the problem was “opening our eyes and looking at the quarter instead of hitting our head on the wall.” He wasn’t sure he could have both of those at once. He might have to accept a couple helpings of “hitting our head on the wall,” which he guessed he was willing to do. Milo was doing that pretty hard, but not hard enough to crack it open, not all at once.

He spared one hand to hold the quarter. He had to have the left one, because the right one was on the side with the wall. He was not left-handed, but Milo was great with the quarter, so that probably wouldn’t matter. Hopefully. “Milo? Please open your eyes. I want to try to help you.”

Milo was not in a position to parse ‘open your eyes’ or ‘please’ or his name. He might’ve understood and clung desperately to ‘it isn’t going to happen again,’ but Mordecai didn’t know to say that and he wasn’t hearing Ann. What he did grok, immediately, was ‘help you’ which was part of a package deal with ‘this is to help you’ or ‘this will help calm you down’ and then pills or a needle.

It got his eyes open, though. Fast. No, no. Please. No needle…

The needle hurt and it was so scary and so fast…

He did not see a needle. He saw light and a quarter.

Pretty…?

“Milo? Do you see how the light dances?”

Milo saw. His reddened eyes made two full sweeps back and forth with the dancing light (he was very upset) before they rolled closed. He let go of his shirt cuff and his fingers slipped out of his hair. Both hands slid down and lay limply, as if suddenly heavy. He stilled.

Mordecai gave rapid instructions, for safety’s sake. This was better than before, Milo wasn’t hurting himself, but it would be easy to hurt him. He tried to hit all the high points. Nod or shake your head. You do not have to talk. Just listen to me. Only listen to me when I’m talking to you. And this is okay. This is okay now. This is nice.

He let Milo have “this is okay now” with closed eyes and even breathing for a couple of minutes while he tried to take a few breaths and calm down himself.

“Okay. Calliope?” he said, because Calliope was in the room, even if she wasn’t screaming at him or demanding information. “Milo is hypnotized. It’s not hurting him. I… I don’t know what else to say about it.”

“Is it gonna help?” she said.

“Boy, I sure hope so,” he said.

“Are you gonna wake him up?”

“After I do some more stuff to see if I can help.”

“Okay.”

And that was apparently all she needed to know about it, at least for the moment. She was standing nearby, slightly off-balance, with one foot behind the other and her hands splayed. She was ready to go get something else if he should require it, but she was not crying or screaming or mad. She was not demanding. She didn’t want attention. She wasn’t happy, she was frowning and quite pale, she understood that this was serious and not okay, but she had adapted to it. The water was cold but she swam, or perhaps she had gills.

Calliope in crisis-mode was capable and quiet and he was grateful.

(Even if she had caused the crisis.)

“Milo,” he said, “please let me talk to Ann.”

Ann’s voice was ragged and soft, as if she had been screaming for hours. It came out of Milo without disturbing his placid expression in the least: “Oh, my gods, Em. Thank you. I was hoping you’d do that. I can talk ’til I’m blue, but I can’t make him listen.”

“It’s Ann,” said Calliope. This was shock. Ann didn’t look like that. Even without the glasses. It was wrong.

“Ann, what the hell happened?” said Mordecai. He sounded faintly drunk, like a scoopful of mashed potatoes slopped over the edges of a tray. It was relief. He didn’t have to meter his words with Ann. He wouldn’t hurt her. She was immune.

“That,” Ann said tightly. Milo’s expression still didn’t change, but he lifted a hand and pointed as Ann spoke. “That… that… damn platypus told him he was on drugs!”

Calliope dropped her head and turned away. “I’m a platypus,” she said softly. Ann was really mad at her. ‘Platypus’ was ugly, but not something really ugly like Milo wouldn’t want her to say. Oh. That was too bad.

“How is Milo on drugs?” Ann asked Mordecai. “Where could he possibly get drugs?”

“It was the brownies,” said Mordecai. “The brownies had drugs in them. I made brownies with drugs in them.”

Calliope turned and stared.

Why would you do such a thing?” Ann cried.

“You know, I’m really not sure!” he said. He would throw himself on the grenade, okay, but not smiling. “It was pretty stupid. Even if I wanted some, I certainly shouldn’t have left them in the kitchen. I probably shouldn’t have had one before I decided about that.” He shook his head. “I am really sorry about it, Ann. I didn’t mean to hurt Milo, or anyone. I just wasn’t thinking.”

Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Ann said, through Milo’s clenched teeth. “Do you have any idea how much you’ve hurt him? You can only see what he’s doing to cope with it. Do you have any idea what it looks like in here?

“No,” he said. “But if you want to talk about it, or if you just want to yell at me and hurt me about it, then I’m here.”

Silence, for a time. Milo was calm, with disheveled hair and a ripped shirt cuff and gaunt circles under his eyes and a cold wet patch on the front of his trousers.

Clean up your mess,” Ann said. “And you be careful about it, damn you. I’m listening. I hate having to trust you with him, but there’s no one else who can do it, so you damn well better be careful!”

“I will, Ann,” he said.

“Don’t you hurt him,” Ann said. “I can hurt you.

He swallowed. He had just offered to let Ann hurt him, but he did not think she meant emotionally. At least not just that way.

Would she hurt Erik? If I hurt Milo, would she hurt Erik? Just to hurt me the same?

He couldn’t think about that now. He needed to start watching his words again, and help Milo, and definitely not hurt him.

“Milo, you had a pretty good day today, didn’t you? It got a little scary just now, but it was good right up until then, wasn’t it?”

Milo nodded.

“Do you think…” No, it was pointless trying to get Milo’s input on this. He had none. He was empty this way and you could fill him up. This ambiguity was dangerous. “Milo, you had a good day. You’re going to remember the good parts and forget the bad ones. You had some really great coffee and a fun time at work and you came home and drew pictures with Calliope.” He did not mention the brownies, but he didn’t say to forget them. Maybe they would fade. “You were in kind of a silly mood and there might’ve been something wrong with your glasses but that’s all that was weird about it. You were happy, and you and Calliope were in the basement drawing, and you were talking about…” He spoke aside, “Calliope, please, what were you talking about?”

“He thought the music was pretty,” she said. She frowned and looked away. “And gears.”

“You were talking about pretty music and gears and that’s all. There isn’t anything that happened after. We’re going to open up a big black hole and push it all in. It feels very nice to forget all that. It feels nice every time you try to remember it and you can’t, like that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be.”

Milo sighed. He rocked slightly, just a few degrees off center. Not like when he needed to scream. Like when he liked the music. He liked the big black hole and the forgetting. Do it again, please. Let’s put more. He had a lot of things lined up on the edge of the hole that he’d like to push in, but he couldn’t get them to go. A vast pile of jagged garbage verging on a deep black void. It stretched back for miles. Some of it was on fire.

Ann was beside him and holding his hand. No, honey.

Oh, please, Ann. I think we could do it if you helped me! Just the part where she glued my head to the wall and I had to see all of them and I couldn’t…

She shook her head. I don’t trust it. It’s not safe.

Just the one where the man caught us and cut our hair with a knife. It was a small piece, like crumpled paper. That happened to Ann, but when she was new and they were still changing in toilets. She wouldn’t like to remember that. Maybe she’d say yes about that one and they…

No, Milo. She pulled him gently away. Now you need to listen and leave forgetting things alone.

He sighed again. Yes…

The listening part was nice, too. He could listen. He rocked with his eyes closed and he listened like when the music was good.

“Milo, things are going to be a little different when you wake up, and I’m going to be here, but you won’t be bothered about it at all. You won’t even notice. Like when you have something really interesting to do and a lot of coffee… Like when you were doing Erik’s eye and you didn’t notice it was Yule.”

Milo sketched the faintest half-smile. (He felt a lot like smiling, but it was so hard to move.) Oh, yeah. Erik’s eye. That was a lot of fun. All the gears.

Milo’s brownie experience had peaked on the bus, with the revelations about the nature of the universe, but he had eaten his dose, he had done so over a prolonged period, and he was still feeling the effect. Now that everything about needles and terror was down the big black hole, he was fond of it again. On top of that he was hypnotized, and laboring under several firm suggestions that everything was okay and nice. He was perhaps the most chill human being on the face of the planet. Were it possible to move, he would’ve melted.

“The interesting thing you need to be thinking about is getting cleaned up and getting changed. That is a really excellent idea. It would be so much fun. Won’t it be nice to be Ann again, Milo?”

Milo nodded. Yeah. Ann. Dresses. Shoes.

“And start right away when you wake up?”

Milo nodded.

“When I wake you, you are going to feel fine.” He went ahead and brought out ‘fine,’ which he had put away with the quarter. He needed both. “You won’t be bothered about feeling fine, or anything at all. It’s only going to be for a little while, until you get changed. It will fade away naturally and you won’t notice about it and you can go back to whatever’s normal for you.” Ann had seemed to suggest that this was a state of constant terror, but he did not want to say Milo should have that (Milo shouldn’t have that. No one should have that!) and perhaps there had been some change in matters since she said that.

Milo nodded.

“All right, Milo. You are very good at listening and you are going to remember to do everything we talked about, but when I wake you up, you are going to forget what I said and forget that I put you to sleep at all. It’s all down the hole. It’s gone.”

Milo sighed. He nodded. The half-smile returned. Oh. More things down the hole. I like that so much. Goodbye, things.

Goodbye, hole.

What hole?

Mordecai gave Milo until the count of five to wake up, not three, certainly not just ‘wake up.’ Milo went so deeply, it seemed like he ought to have a few more numbers — although this was not at all rational and Milo was so good at taking direction he might be able to keep up with ‘you are now an opera singer’ for at least a couple minutes.

Milo blinked open his eyes and smiled. He was not bothered about smiling, there was no particularly upsetting context he recalled about smiling. He was not bothered about being under the worktable with Mordecai and wet pants. He did wave a small friendly greeting at Mordecai, Hi there!

“Yes. Hello.”

Nor was he really bothered about that. He thought it would be a super fun idea to get changed. It would be nice to be Ann now. He thought he’d probably need some water from the kitchen to fix his face and hair. He crawled out from under the table and climbed the stairs.

Mordecai followed him. Calliope followed Mordecai. He was not really bothered about that, either!

Mordecai and Calliope shadowed Milo — frowning studiously, as if tracking the migratory patterns of birds — on his pathway through the front room and the kitchen and the dining room, until he went up the stairs to his bedroom, holding a pitcher of water, and he waved at them again and he shut the door in their faces.

“I am so sorry about the brownies,” Calliope said.

“Yes,” said Mordecai.

They were standing at the top of the stairs and they had not bothered to face each other.

“Why didn’t you say I made the brownies?”

Now he turned to look at her, “Because I think Milo likes you. And I think… I’m not really sure about this, because you’re weird… but I think you like Milo. And that is going to be easier if Ann doesn’t think you just tried to kill him. Even on accident.”

“Is Ann still going to like you?”

Mordecai shrugged. “Ann has been pretty good about forgiving me about things. This is a pretty big thing and we’ll see, but Ann and I haven’t ever been best friends. I can handle it if she likes me a little less. You just got here. Please try to earn yourself a little more trust before you blow everything up with hash brownies.”

“Do you kind of not like me now?” Calliope said, looking down.

“I am kind of not sure,” he replied. “Please give me a minute or two to decompress.”

He kind of did like her, that was what infuriated him. She did a really stupid irresponsible thing, but he couldn’t work his way around to not liking her. She wasn’t mean. She wasn’t even all that dumb, once you figured out how the brain was working in there. She didn’t pull up and bail out at any point during the weirdness, nor did she even express a desire to, she pitched in and helped. This, and the unflappable composure were excellent qualities, she just really needed to not feed everyone drugs.

Okay, after all this, he was positive she was not going to repeat the thing with the drugs, but something like that. Some weird thing that she thought was okay which was not okay and which would come right out of left field like a plate of hash brownies.

She was like a soft fluffy kitten wired up with nitroglycerin.

No, something weirder than that. A ferret. A lizard. A kind helpful exploding lizard.

They sat on the top step (He helped her. Seven-months-pregnant made sitting in the traditional sense a bit difficult.) and waited for Ann.

Ann looked, Mordecai thought, reasonably well put together given the circumstances. Stunning, actually, given Milo’s condition about a half-hour ago. Brushed and painted and neat and in the right dress. (Sigurd’s Day was red satin, and that was a little too much dress for Mordecai’s brain right now, but it was a nice dress.) Matching shoes and everything. Maybe a little bit pale, under the makeup, but that was hard to tell. Not smiling, though. Ann without a smile was almost as unsettling as Milo with.

She took small quiet steps, which was not easy to do in those boots with the heels. Her hands were folded in front of her and her head bowed. She was subdued. Ann, in a red dress and heels. Subdued.

She was not a happy person.

“Calliope, I believe you may have Milo’s glasses,” she said softly.

Calliope nodded. She fished both pairs out of her shirt pocket. Hers were smaller, but they were similar styles and she tried them on just to make sure.

Mordecai could not suppress a shudder when Calliope produced Milo’s glasses. He hadn’t seen Calliope pick up Milo’s glasses. Granted, Milo had been facing Calliope and he hadn’t, but Milo had his eyes closed practically the whole time.

Are we absolutely one-hundred-percent certain that Milo made Ann?

He shook his head. Even if they were, Milo was capable of making some pretty amazing things.

Some pretty dangerous things.

Ann held up the glasses and peered through them. “I’m not sure I can do this, but I’m going to try. I’m not going to ask him about it. If I can’t, I think I might just have to step on them…” She held the lenses between thumb and forefinger and she shook them, then she licked her index finger and attempted to make a mark. “Oh, no. Come on. Glasses are expensive.” She frowned and she shook them again. This time, they marked up easily, and she smudged them all over with both hands. “I think they were starting to wear off anyway, or I never would’ve got it. I should really pay more attention when Milo does magic. Calliope, if you ever want repel charms on your glasses, please ask him. You do things with paint.” She returned briefly to the bedroom without closing the door and she set the folded glasses on the dresser.

“Mordecai,” she said, when she emerged, “just how long is this liable to last?”

“When did he have them?” he asked.

She enumerated on her fingers, not proudly like Milo had, but frowning and holding her hand down and pressing each digit with her opposite hand. “One with breakfast. One with coffee before work… and I’m not sure when that was because he thought it was a good idea to take his watch apart. Before nine. One with coffee at work at eleven.” She staggered and pressed a hand to her head. “My gods, he’s had a lot of coffee. And sugar. I think he put twelve sugars in the coffee. Is it possible this is just coffee and sugar?”

Mordecai offered her a shrug and a vague nod. “It should be winding down by now. I mean, I don’t know about the coffee and sugar, but the brownies. If the last was at eleven, you should be all right to work tonight. I mean, if you feel like it otherwise.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I believe I will use my own judgment on that matter, thank you.”

“I don’t suppose you’d like me to sit with you?”

“No. Where is Hyacinth, please?”

He sighed. “Hyacinth had two brownies and went to the movies.”

“I see,” said Ann, icily. “Then I believe I will deal with the remainder of the experience alone in my room.”

“Calliope could…” Mordecai offered.

“No, thank you.” Calliope had ratcheted down several notches in Ann’s estimation merely by being the idiot who told Milo he was on drugs. Never mind that she couldn’t have had any idea what that would do to him.

“Mordecai,” Ann said, one hand on her door, “before I am shut of you, we must deal with the matter of the quarter. I don’t ever want you to use the quarter on Milo again. It is dangerous. Even if he’s hurting himself…” She shut her eyes and shook her head. “I want to say you should use your judgment, but after today I am not certain you have any, so I’m just telling you no.”

What Milo had wanted to do, the way he had everything lined up like that, and the way he was picturing it. Like trash. Memories hurt, and forgetting them felt good, and this was not a difficult decision, particularly with drugs in his brain. Hey! That hole looks like a good place for everything! Like a toddler who just figured out he can flush things down the toilet. Consequences? What’re those? And he hadn’t even been differentiating between them. Her memories? His? It didn’t matter!

It was a damn good thing he didn’t like to move when he was that way (he could move, he had given her the box, but he felt sleepy and warm and he didn’t like to) or else he would’ve pitched half of the things down there before she got hold of him.

“You almost woke up an entirely new person today,” she told him. “One who didn’t have any idea who he was or who any of you were, and I’m not sure I would’ve been around to help him. No. More. Quarter.”

“Absolutely no more quarter,” Mordecai said, thinking: Oh, my gods. Oh, my gods. Oh, my gods.

Ann shut the door and Calliope somehow prevented him from falling down the stairs. It was possible she had a hand on his arm. “Two seconds please thank you,” he said faintly.

Okay, it did not work like that. No, it didn’t. You could not alter people with the quarter. Not in one go. Not forever. You could hurt people with the quarter. You could upset people with the quarter. You could not make entirely new people with the quarter, he did not care what Ann had seen happening inside Milo’s head. Maybe you could really, really, really screw up a person’s brain if you kept at it for months. Years. He did not almost unmake Milo by accident in one go.

What in the hell did I even say?

Forget the all the bad stuff? But I limited that to today! And bad stuff!

Did Milo just make a great big sticker that said ‘Bad Stuff, Expiration Date: Right Now’ and try to get everything under the wire?

Oh, my gods, Milo. What does it look like in your head that it even seems like that might work?

It wouldn’t work. He was certain of it. Milo might’ve managed to hurt himself or confuse himself or scare the hell out of everyone for a couple of minutes, but it wouldn’t have worked.

Okay, but no more quarter. He agreed with that.

Also, please, no more today. What time was it?

Gazing down the stairs and out of the front window, it was still light outside. Oh, damn it.

“Calliope, please put me somewhere.”

He didn’t know what that was going to get him and he didn’t care. The roof. The bedroom. A train with a ticket going out of the country. The damn bathtub. (There were no bathtubs in this house. They got used up during the siege. They just had kind of a wooden laundry bucket thing. It was great.)

“All right.”

She put him at the kitchen table. She refilled his glass with chocolate milk. He did not want it. It was warm. It sat there.

There was a note on the kitchen table, on the pad. It had not been torn off. It was possible it had been there during the sandwiches earlier. Erik had not bothered to punch it like Milo’s time card. He knew it was Erik without even reading the damn thing, because of the random letters going the wrong way, and it had been done in a hurry because he hadn’t tried to erase or fix any of them.

Uncle, Maggie’s mom said she should go out and play after lunch! (He had drawn a smiling face.) I don’t know what happened! M says we have to go quick before she says no, she says she’ll buy me anything! (She had also said she would steal him anything, but he did not write this down.) We’ll come home before dinner. Please don’t worry. (He drew a heart.)

Please don’t worry?

He read it again and the content and the sincerity of it had not changed in any way.

(heart)

He began to laugh. He bent double and he rested his cheek against the table and he held the kitchen notepad in both hands and he laughed.

Oh, gods. Okay. Right.

Calliope absorbed the laughing, then leaned in and read the note. It didn’t seem like it was that funny. Some of the letters were going the wrong way, but that was more like one of those cute, kid things.

Maybe Erik was a little old to be doing that thing with the letters? Some of them were the right way and the wrong way and the right way right way again right next to each other. Like in ‘she says she’ll.’ The S’s. That looked a little funny.

“Is it because of his eye?” she said.

The laughter faded. Mordecai sniffled and lifted his head and regarded her.

What?

How did Calliope think his having a hysterical fit in the kitchen was in any way related to Erik’s eye? Oh, gods, did she even mean Erik’s eye? He couldn’t find the thread of it. He was in no shape. He sort of didn’t want to. It was so weird and perfect. Like finding a hedgehog in a matchbook.

“Calliope, where are you?” he said, with a smile that was midway between puzzlement and glee. “I have no idea where you are or how you got there!”

“I’m in…” she said.

He overrode her, “You’re in the kitchen!” He shrieked and dissolved in laughter again.

She shrugged. Well, she was in the kitchen. She guessed Milo wasn’t going to want his chocolate milk glass anymore. She did some dishes.

———

The reason Erik and Maggie were unleashed upon an unsuspecting public at one-thirty on a Sigurd’s Day afternoon was, of course, the plate of hash brownies. Indirectly, it was twenty cans of paint and a peanut butter cake several months previous. The peanut butter cake was not terrible. Mordecai’s baking contained calories.

The General had since ameliorated her conscience somewhat by reading up on the matter of calories, and it seemed like carbohydrates were not necessarily inferior to protein, provided you got enough of each. And, of course, there were matters of nutrition, but the ability to transform into a giant golden eagle required large amounts of easily-burnable fat, and baked goods were reasonable at providing such.

Of course, she would never be seen availing herself of Mordecai’s baking because it was Mordecai’s baking. Either of those words alone was unacceptable. She was a cold-blooded killer of pigeons and hater of useless violinists. She had pocketed a brownie in the kitchen that morning to go with the pigeons in the afternoon. Brownies were not breakfast, and everyone had been looking at Hyacinth smugly proving otherwise. Eagles, and women who turn into them, are opportunistic predators. She didn’t usually go into the kitchen for lunch, anyway. That would look odd. She had only gone down for breakfast because she thought she detected chocolate, but she had been expecting something reasonable, like croissants, or muffins. So, instead of stealing something for immediate consumption, she had to hide it and have it later.

She had it on the roof, with pigeons, and about an hour later she decided that, you know what, it was a nice day. There were some really great updrafts out there and being indoors all the time was kind of a waste. Maggie should probably play outside more. Sunshine for bone growth, and muscle development.

Possibly fun?

The upshot of this was that at three o’clock on a Sigurd’s Day afternoon, while Hyacinth pressed her movie ticket to the maximum and watched the same series of films a second time (but more soberly) and Erik and Maggie ate expired jam tarts in the alley behind a bakery (“It is not stealing! They were going to throw them away!”) and Mordecai had hysterics and Calliope did dishes and Room 101 couldn’t quite seem to stop crying and Ann sat on her bed and waited for the brownies (or possibly just all the coffee and sugar) to wear off and Barnaby clipped out coupons for baby formula — above it all, on the roof of the cupola, a glorious golden eagle was lying on its back and examining its own toes against a backdrop of blue sky.

And wondering, really, what is the place of eagle toes in the universe? What does it all mean?

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