On Absent Fathers (78)

“Here ya go, Em,” Calliope said. She handed him a white card that was maybe four times the size of one of Milo’s.

Mordecai set down a mug of tea and accepted it. “What is this?”

“Ink and colored pencil on bristol board,” Calliope said with a shrug. “I didn’t name it or anything. I was just messing around. You don’t have to keep it if you don’t want it.”

Yes, but what is it? thought Mordecai. (He didn’t say it; he doubted there was any point in saying it.) It was a drawing of a sandwich with one bite taken out of it and some loose crumbs. The filling had been colored in with a suggestion of green and red, so he knew it was a cream cheese and olive sandwich. With the crust cut off. Beneath it on an elegant scroll, in typewriter-like printing that Calliope must have done by hand, was a missive: “I’m trying to do this new thing where I don’t hurt myself until I cry.”

Obviously, this was some kind of commentary on the brownie situation yesterday, but Mordecai had no idea what she was saying.

They were having a subdued Sun’s Day breakfast, eggs and toast. Half of the toast said ‘pacifism,’ in pale letters that showed through the butter, and the other half said ‘compromise.’ Both Ann and Milo were absent, also Barnaby and the General, and although this was the usual state of things, the lack of Ann and Milo stood out a bit more under the circumstances. Last night, Ann’s show at the club had provided ample time to hash out the brownie situation (no pun intended) with the rest of the household. Milo having an emotional breakdown in the basement went beyond what even Hyacinth was willing to call funny, and the fact that nobody was allowed to go hug him and check on him or even talk to him about it was weighing heavily on multiple minds. (Hyacinth had resolved to come up with some kind of project so she’d have an excuse to hang around him, but he might get suspicious if she just broke the toaster. Also, she was fond of the “rude words” model.)

That’s my sandwich, thought Mordecai. The one I took one bite out of before I ran off to get Milo.

‘Here ya go, Em. You left your sandwich in my room so I decided to sketch it.’ He guessed that was the simplest explanation, but it didn’t have anything to do with the words.

‘Here ya go, Em. It’s a memorial sandwich, so you can remember the fun time we had yesterday!’ Except, Calliope knew damn well that what they had yesterday was not a fun time, even if she had been okay with parts of it. She had also been standing right there when Ann said he’d almost unmade Milo as a person. He was glad she didn’t pick that for a quote.

This isn’t about the brownies, this is about me. This is my sandwich and something I said, but not about the sandwich. So it’s about me.

‘Mordecai Abraham Eidel, you are the kind of person who abandons a sandwich one bite in to run off and rescue people! That is your true nature!’ Well, no, not like that. It wasn’t an oil painting. It was like a cartoon. ‘Hey, Em, I noticed this about you. Funny, huh?’

Yeah. Funny. He brushed the illustration with a fingertip. He didn’t want to smudge the pencil. I’m also the kind of person who makes angry sandwiches at someone and then cuts the crusts off. And then sits down and eats a sandwich with that person. And, also, yes, I will hurt myself until I cry, and I’m trying to stop doing that, and I go around telling people about it…

This was either the most profoundly incisive thing he’d even been given or it was completely stupid — just an incoherent jumble of images. It bothered him.

He grinned and held it up, “I think I’m going to have this framed!”

Erik and Maggie wanted to see. After a moment’s hesitation, he let them. Maggie wouldn’t get it and if she did get it she wouldn’t care. And Erik… Erik probably knew a lot more about him than a sandwich drawing was capable of expressing. Unfortunately. “Don’t get it all sticky, you two. I’m serious. I want to save that. I think it’s great.”

Calliope beamed at him. “It’s just a sandwich, Em. They’re not hard to draw. I’ve still got it for the reference.”

“It’s not the sandwich, Calliope. It’s the intent.” He held up a hand. “And don’t spoil it for me. I want to puzzle it out on my own.”

Hyacinth leaned over and had a look at it, too. “One of you guys has a weird sense of humor and I’m not sure which,” she said.

“Oh, it’s probably me,” Calliope said, nodding.

“…Calliope, did you say you were keeping that sandwich somewhere?” said Mordecai, concerned.

———

“So is your baby gonna have a dad or what?” Erik asked, and Mordecai dropped the dish he had been drying into the empty sink.

But, Calliope displayed no upset or offense. She shrugged and picked up her belly with both hands. “I dunno. I mean, it already has one, but I don’t know if it’ll have someone it’d like to call that. I’ll have to check back when it has some opinions, and we can have a conversation.” She snickered. “It’s probably hard to hear right now. I’m not sure it has ears yet.”

“So, there is a dad,” Erik said. “But the baby might not want him?”

“The baby doesn’t get to pick, Erik,” Maggie broke in. “He didn’t want to be married to Calliope, so he’s not gonna be a dad.”

“Your parents get to pick if you’ll have a mom and a dad before you even get here?” Erik said, frowning. That didn’t seem very fair.

“Well, I mean, you hafta have a mom,” Maggie said.

I don’t,” Erik said.

Mordecai turned and wrapped both his arms around Erik, effectively tying him to the chair. “Why don’t we talk about something nice?” he offered. “Hyacinth! Ann hates me now because I was stupid! Your thoughts?”

“Better than the alternative,” Hyacinth said. She poured herself more coffee and sat down. “I think Maggie means biologically, kiddo,” she said. “It’s two different things. Everyone starts out with a mother and a father. The father can bugger off whenever he wants, and the mother has to carry you until you’re ready to be born, but there’s a lot of reasons you might not grow up with a mother or a father, or you might have some other people you call Mom and Dad, except they’re not really related. If Calliope’s baby has a dad, it’ll be different from the biological dad, but that doesn’t mean the kid will notice any difference.” She shrugged. “Or the kid might decide it doesn’t want to call anyone ‘Dad,’ even if Calliope gets married.”

“What if Calliope wants to marry someone the baby doesn’t like?” Erik asked.

Calliope regarded her stomach. “Man, I never thought about us having different taste in guys.”

Hyacinth shrugged. “That’s about how it works, anyway. Being related is no guarantee you’re going to like each other, just a reason to try.”

“I guess we were lucky,” Calliope said. “We all liked my dad, and there were nine of us. He was around a whole lot, too, so that could’ve been real awkward.”

Maggie sat forward. “Wow, what’s that like?”

“Liking your dad?”

“No, I know what that’s like. Having him around a whole lot. Every day?” Maggie asked hopefully.

Calliope nodded. “Oh, yeah. Hours and hours. He taught classes, but that was only a couple days a week. Mom was doing the career thing. He didn’t really care about being, you know, successful. So he just ran around with us all the time. It was pretty awesome.” She smiled. “Mom said we were like wild animals and she was a zookeeper. Dad did most of that stuff, though. ‘Don’t eat that battery.’ ‘Be nice to your brother.’ ‘Put down the paintbrush and step out of the living room.’ The family room was for paint,” she said heavily. “The living room was for guests. Mom would only break in when it was really getting out of hand. Like, ‘Ice cream is not for breakfast, Stephen, I don’t care if it has eggs in it!'” She shook a scolding finger. “I still think we would’ve gotten away with it if Euterpe hadn’t been eating sprinkles right out of the tin when she came in. I mean, that’s just rude. Other people want sprinkles, too.”

I think this person was destined to come and live here, thought Hyacinth. I wonder what kept her so long?

“My dad does a lot of stuff like that, too,” Maggie said. She rested her chin in her hands. “I thought it was because he’s not here a lot, so when he is he wants it to be fun. But maybe dads are just like that.”

“There’s usually a division of responsibility in relationships,” Hyacinth said. She had seen that starkly outlined with David and Barnaby. “A crazy one and a sane one. The one who makes the messes and the one who cleans them up. It’s not always the mom cleaning up after the dad, but it seems to work out that way a lot.” She shrugged. “Maybe it’s because dads are out of the house a lot and they’ve got no context.” Her father was usually out of the house — not for a job or anything. (What in the hell did he even do? Investment banking? International trade?) Riding around on horses and whacking grouse with a polo mallet, she guessed. If there was a mess in progress when he came home, he’d try to straighten it out with smiles and condescension, no matter that he hadn’t the foggiest idea what had happened or what they’d already tried to fix it. And her mother would fake like he was wise and profound. Yes, dear. You’re absolutely right. Rich people developed some truly bizarre manners. Too much spare time.

Erik glanced appraisingly around the table. He’d never thought about having a dad for fun, just for loving him and stuff, and he was already getting enough of that. His uncle was way too responsible to let him eat sprinkles out of a tin. Maggie and Hyacinth were a little better for stuff like that, but Maggie was a kid and Hyacinth still slapped him about not getting himself killed after Auntie Enora. She was always running around cleaning up messes, too.

He looked up at his uncle, “Was I going to have a dad but he died, or did he bugger off like Hyacinth said?”

“Oh, dear,” said Mordecai. He released Erik and sat down at the table. He’d been expecting to field the ‘where’s my dad?’ question a long time ago, but he wasn’t sure he’d like to do it now, in front of everyone. “It’s kind of a long story, dear one. Are you sure you want it now?”

“Will it make you… sad?” said Erik.

“Well, no. Not really. But I don’t know if it might make you embarrassed… or scared. Do you know you’re here because your mother got hurt?” This was the safest course. He wasn’t sure how much he’d told Erik about that or how much Erik remembered, and Erik knew a lot of things he had never been told.

“I know my mom’s not here because she got sick,” Erik said. He closed his eye and covered the other one with a hand. He thought he remembered, sort of remembered, a woman’s voice, but not very feminine in inflection, snarling and swearing: They shot my car! They shot my car! Oh, goddammit, they shot my car! “Shot?” he said painfully.

Mordecai pushed down both his hands, as if to silence a room with loud talking. “St. George was always very good about keeping her safe. I think he just didn’t notice it; there was a lot going on. He got her back safely so we could see to her, but we didn’t have a lot of time for it. Or a lot of bandages. Or medics. Anything. So we had her call Beauty.” He winced. “What do you know about Beauty, Erik? And, please, don’t go looking for information — I’ll tell you — just off the top of your head.”

“You wished I could call Beauty when I was hurt so I wouldn’t have been hurt so much and crying in the cot and you couldn’t hold me.” Erik hissed and flinched. He put a hand to his head. “I’m… sorry.”

“No, dear one. It’s okay. I know you can’t tell them to stop. I was very upset about that then, but I’m not sad like that now.”

Erik nodded. “Beauty heals people.” This was information he’d gotten in a more conventional manner. “But not like Auntie Enora or Dr. Beetle, just the person it’s in. It doesn’t fix scars. We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. It’s hard to tell what deal you’re making and what it’s gonna do because it never speaks. It wants sleep or sex.”

“Oh, boy,” Maggie said, though it was jaded rather than titillated. She had heard about a million invisible people trying to use Erik to get things and, yeah, sex was one of them. It wasn’t funny anymore, just super annoying and uncomfortable. Man, Erik’s mom had to deal with that, too?

Well, no wonder Auntie Enora said that about not calling Beauty for Erik yet, thought Hyacinth. Where in the hell would I have gotten a six-year-old boy with a head injury laid? The Dove Cot was certainly out, they were a respectable establishment.

Calliope was the only one who seemed even a little bit amused, “How is sex with a god, Em?”

Erik did a double take and stared. No, wait. No…

He put both hands over his ears and shut his eye. The metal one remained stock still. He was focused like when he was aiming the slingshot. Nobody tell me! Nobody answer what I’m thinking! All of you, back off!

“I wouldn’t know,” said Mordecai, icily. “I’m given to understand it’s not too terrible, but you don’t get a lot of choice in the matter and I’m glad I never won that particular lottery.”

Erik breathed a relieved sigh and thudded his head on the table.

“We don’t have to talk about this here, Erik,” said Mordecai, more gently. “Or at all. I’m just trying to explain to you how come we don’t know exactly who your father was. It wasn’t your mother’s fault, or anything she wanted to do. She was hurt and there wasn’t any time.”

Erik looked up with a pained expression. “Was it… lots of… people?”

Mordecai shook his head. He held up two fingers. “It was either Jimmy or Jim. We had two Jameses, so we called them like that. They were both very nice boys. We did supply runs with them a lot. I think it was probably Jim, because if it was Jimmy you’d have hair like Maggie’s.”

Maggie blinked and touched her hair.

“But I’m not sure. I’ve never seen a colored person with hair like that. It might just be one of those weird things that doesn’t happen to us. “

“Like how I can’t have a mustache when I grow up?” Erik said.

“Yeah.”

“Aw, Em,” Calliope said. “You couldn’t have a mustache if you tried?” She rolled to her feet and went after the kitchen pad. “I think I’ll give you one…”

“It saves on toiletries,” Mordecai allowed, rubbing his cheek.

“Are they… still… alive?” Erik asked.

Mordecai shook his head. “I don’t know about Jimmy, but I think probably not. I was there when Jim died. I think Alba didn’t want them to take care of you and be your dads because they were soldiers, and they did a lot of dangerous stuff, and she knew they might die. I wasn’t military, and if you needed someone to save you, I was allowed to run away. That’s why she picked me.”

“She might’ve given a thought to how goddamn smart and responsible you are,” Hyacinth said.

“It was mentioned once or twice, yes,” Mordecai said dryly. “But my kids weren’t stupid, Hyacinth. They just had other obligations.”

“Would they have been good dads, you think?” said Erik.

“They would’ve been really good friends with you,” Mordecai said. “I’m not sure if you would’ve wanted to call any of them ‘Dad.’ We all wanted to be your moms and dads, everyone at the wall. Diane found a starcatcher’s suitcase, and we put things in it to take care of you. Bottles. Blankets. Kurt and Amy made clothes for you. This fifteen-year-old kid who used to get chocolate for us brought powdered milk and we saved it for you. You had a couple hundred really scared and tired people all ready and waiting to love you.” He sighed. “It just didn’t work out that way.”

Calliope paused in her application of potential mustaches. “What happened to Erik’s mom, Em?”

“She didn’t make it through the siege,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about it and not in front of Erik because the Invisibles like to tell him things that upset him and I’m sure that would.”

“I try not to think about it,” Erik said softly. He knew there was a lot of blood and that was enough.

“I guess it’s not as big a deal if the baby and me have different taste in guys,” Calliope said. There were a lot worse things that could happen to a family. She got fired and kicked out of her home, but at least nobody was shooting at her. “I wonder if I should pick someone to take care of the kid in case something happens to me.”

Mordecai looked horrified, and Hyacinth broke in before any assignment of duty or appalling flashbacks could ensue, “Calliope, I think we can take care of that between all of us. I don’t think any cops or lawyers are going to interfere if anything happens, not unless one of us kills you. But you can set me up as a guardian if you really want to. A note and a signature is probably enough.” She knew Mordecai had by no means wanted to be saddled with the ultimate responsibility for Erik and that being the last one left who could do anything, the only one left who had to do everything, had damn near broken his brain.

Gods, she could still hear him going on in the dining room. Part of that was the fever, and, okay, she had promised him she was going to do something to kill him, but that was only to get him the rest of the way home. She was surprised he remembered it, honestly. But, he had only been about fifty percent more paranoid and a hundred percent louder because of the fever. The rest of it was the sound of an abandoned, sleep-deprived person disintegrating after being pushed just too damn far, and then trying to reassemble himself somehow. She had no desire to send him back into that state, or even to imply that it might be required. Having a young pregnant lady in the house was bad enough.

Calliope had both hands on her stomach again and appeared concerned. “Do you think you can get the baby to my parents okay, Cin? They live in Ansalem. I can give you names and an address, but I’m not sure if they’ll be there exactly. They moved and forgot to tell us this one time.”

“Your parents?” said Hyacinth, blinking. “Would they be all right with that?”

Calliope looked cockeyed at her. “Well, I guess they’d be a little upset I died, but they’d probably be happy the baby was okay. Ooo…” She tore several iterations of Mordecai with facial hair (the latest one had mutton chops a foot long) from the kitchen pad and set them aside on the table. “I keep forgetting to tell them I’m pregnant.” She hesitated with her pencil above the pad. “Or maybe I should just send a postcard. What do you think? It’s cheaper. My dad likes funny postcards. Like, the ones where the farmer has a giant piece of fruit, or an ear of corn the size of a bus.”

Mordecai put both hands on her arm to stop her from writing. “Calliope, I… I don’t know your parents. Maybe they’re very nice people…”

“Pretty nice,” Calliope said, nodding.

“Okay, but have you given any thought to how they’ll react to a postcard with a giant ear of corn that says, ‘Hi, I’m unmarried and pregnant and unemployed and I live in a slum now?'”

“For real?” Calliope said with a grin. “A real slum? Like ‘urban blight’ and stuff? It’s only a couple miles from my old place!”

“Yes, you really live in a for-real slum, but that’s not what I mean to talk about and I’m sorry I brought it up. Unmarried and pregnant is the issue. Unmarried and pregnant. A lot of people don’t approve of that sort of thing. Are your parents like that?”

“Like that awful bitch Mrs. Danvers who wouldn’t let me go back for my canvases?” Calliope said.

“Not cruel. I don’t mean cruel. I mean, would they think you’re a bad person because you’re pregnant with no husband?” And we will broach the subject of their disowning you at a later time if that seems appropriate.

“Gosh, Em, it doesn’t seem like it should be a really big deal. I don’t know why everyone gets so upset. I mean, who doesn’t like sex?”

Maggie snickered and Erik blushed. In this context, sex was funny again.

“I was dumb about the charm, I guess, but I won’t do that again. I just keep getting kicked out of places. You think my parents might kick me out?”

Mordecai nodded slowly.

“It has been known to happen,” Hyacinth put in.

Calliope expelled a long sigh and sat back. “Boy, I don’t know. A lot of us have screwed up pretty bad. Thalia can’t come home anymore, but that’s because of the court ruling. Mom and Dad still like her. That solid gold baby really did belong in a museum, I think. They’re okay with Euterpe getting arrested, but that’s not really his fault… And they bailed me out after that vandalism thing, but I don’t see what the big deal is about that, either.” She waved an irritated gesture. “Yarn comes off. Next thing ya know, they’ll be dragging in little kids for hopscotch grids.”

“Calliope, unmarried and pregnant,” Mordecai said gently.

“Yeah, yeah. I dunno. I guess they already have grandkids, but not one like that.” She rested her head in her hand with an irritated expression. “My dad used to say all the time that they’d always love us, even if they didn’t always love everything about us. Because we were their kids and that was their job.”

…So don’t make it hard for me, princess. If anyone else tried to bite your brother on the head, I’d call the police.

She snickered. “He said we shouldn’t ever be afraid to come home, either. Even if it was with the police. Or a ten foot tall hairy green monster.”

…Now, there might be screaming, I can’t promise you no screaming, but your mother and I will try our best.

What if I’d like to marry the hairy green monster, Daddy?

Well, then, princess, I hope you pick the nicest hairy green monster there is.

“I’d really better tell them,” she said, “because they might get worried about me. I’d better make sure they know all you guys are really great and you’ve been taking care of me. But I don’t think they’re going to be too unhappy about a baby with no dad.”

“I think you’re probably right,” said Mordecai.

Calliope sniffled and rubbed the heel of her palm across her eyes. “Man, there go those baby hormones. I kinda miss them, you know? I thought about going home after Mrs. Cock-Sucking Danvers threw me out, but I didn’t know what to do with my canvases and Glorie said I shouldn’t be on the train that long. She’s probably right. I hate those little-bitty toilet-closets; you can see the tracks when you flush.”

There was so much worth commenting on in that little speech that neither Mordecai nor Hyacinth could pick a place to start.

“I think you’re not supposed to say ‘cock-sucking’ in front of me because I’m little,” Erik offered her, but not with any venom. Maggie let go a laugh and Erik glanced at her with dry disapproval. I guess that how our ‘division of responsibility’ goes.

“Oh, yeah. Sorry,” Calliope said. There was a box of tissues on the table. She took one and snrfed into it. “How about ‘shitting?’ Can I say ‘shitting?’ Everyone does that.”

Erik shrugged and had a look at his uncle for confirmation.

“Dear one, I thought I might play on the boardwalk today,” Mordecai said brightly. “What do you think?”

Erik thought that was way better than swearing, for starters. “Papillon… Island?”

“Of course. There are plenty of people. The magic rides are still open.” He did not smile, but he inclined his head, “Might you like to come along?”

“Maggie… too?”

He waved a hand. “It’s Sun’s Day, Erik. She’s free to run around like a wild animal if she wants to. I don’t mind if she does it near us…”

“Yes!” said Maggie.

“Calliope, what about you? There are plenty of places to sit…”

“Oo, I’ll get my sketchbook!” Calliope said. Mordecai gave her a hand up. “I love drawing people after they get off the rollercoaster! They’ve been eating cotton candy and ice cream all day! You should see the colors when they puke! You think Milo might like to come?”

Both Mordecai and Hyacinth looked pained. “Ah, yeah, I don’t know about that,” Hyacinth said.

Calliope hung her head. “Because Ann is still mad at me?”

“Because all the people might make Milo puke,” Hyacinth said. “No rollercoaster necessary.” Also, yes, probably Ann was still mad at her, but that didn’t need saying.

“I guess he’d rather go during the week,” Calliope allowed. She smiled. “Is it okay if I ask him anyway?”

“Sure. I’ll go with you.” Hyacinth took her by the arm. Calliope could doubtless use some help with the stairs. “I’ll see if he wants any help with that darn record-player, even if he doesn’t want any metal for it.”

“I think Stephen is a pretty good name for a baby, don’t you?” Calliope said. “Can you tell if it’s a boy or a girl?”

“Nah, that’s a little subtle for me. People usually call Cousin Violet for stuff like that.”

“Do you think Erik would mind?”

“I think you’d better ask and see if Mordecai minds…”

“Uncle, what do you think?” said Erik, back in the kitchen. Violet wasn’t very big or hard to hold. And he was trying to get better at holding gods, specifically the part where he didn’t have to sit there and watch his body running around with none of his input and get all traumatized.

“Maybe,” said Mordecai, “but that’s for another day. Today is for eating fried food on a stick and watching people throw up after the rollercoaster and getting sand in our shoes.”

Erik hugged him. “You know, you’re pretty fun when you want to be.”

“Dear one, you don’t know the half of it. …And please don’t try!”

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