The violin lived on the top shelf of the closet — which had somehow survived the siege and the de-metalling of the house so the gods alone knew what was holding it up now, but it was enough to handle the weight of the violin and its case. At least, it had been so far. Things were prone to sudden startling breakage in this house — usually the windows but one time his table had snapped in half for no apparent reason and he was still suspicious of the mend. He had discouraged Erik from playing under it.
Anyway, the violin was on the top shelf of the closet and Mordecai had a hand on the case, but he hadn’t picked it up yet.
Seriously, though. Bethany is coming along and they are going to stick me with Bethany. Because Erik is closer to her age than Maggie and they get along okay. And because we’re all colored. Segregated amusement-park-going, like the Candy Dish. My gods, everyone is racist, aren’t they?
‘…Go away, Bethany. I’m working. Go play with Sanaam.’ That would work, wouldn’t it?
Sanaam liked kids. Sanaam was basically an enormous child himself, he had just fooled the authorities into giving him command of a boat somehow. Sanaam had a fun, bouncy sense of humor and boundless energy. And no excuses, like a violin.
‘…I’m sorry, Erik, I will not be riding the rollercoaster until I throw up. I’ve nowhere to put the violin, you see. I’m sure Sanaam will be happy to go with you!’
‘…That is a remarkable rendition of ‘Cat’s in the Cradle,’ Erik. I suppose you must’ve learned to play it when I wasn’t paying attention. Run along now and enjoy the rest of your life without me.’
He sighed and removed his hand from the violin case.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans… or you’d much rather be doing something else.
Mordecai emerged from the bedroom clutching a repurposed paper tote crammed with towels and a spare change of clothes for Erik, and a straw hat and nothing approaching a bathing suit for himself — and no violin. (Wingtip shoes would do for the boardwalk and if he absolutely, positively had to he could take those off and stuff them in the tote with the socks as well. Nothing above the ankles was coming off for any reason.) “All right, are we ready to go to the beach out here or should I go back and hide for a little longer?” he said.
Hiding for another hour or three might have been the safest course. The front room was chaos. It was difficult mobilizing the household for any reason, and in this case Ted and Maria and Bethany and Pablo had been added to the mix. Ted and Maria were trading a Bethany-filled Sun’s Day for a Barnaby-indeterminate one. He was downstairs at the moment declaiming that he did not require a babysitter, but he might either vanish upstairs for the duration or try to turn the house upside-down in Hyacinth’s absence — it was a toss-up. Pablo, unfortunately, was not yet old enough to be foisted on strangers for an entire day, although Calliope was making an attempt. He seemed to find her relatively amusing, playing peek-a-boo over his mother’s shoulder.
“You’ve gotta let me borrow him sometime, Maria. I need the practice!”
“Er, yes, perhaps,” said the orange woman, although this Calliope-person’s inexperience and enthusiasm for childcare were not points in her favor as far as Maria was concerned. Never mind the lack of a husband.
“Is he still in diapers? Do you know how to fold those? Do you mind if I sketch him?”
“She is going with you, isn’t she?” Maria asked Hyacinth.
“Ba!” Pablo opined.
“Check it out, Ann, he’s growing teeth!” Calliope said. “It’s like he’s mutating!” (“My son is not mutating,” Ted said, stepping protectively between them.) “Wouldn’t it be fun to take a lot of photos and do a time lapse? Maybe a flip book? I thought it’d be fun to do one of me blowing up like a balloon, but I don’t have a camera…”
“Calliope, would you like to borrow a kerchief for your hair?” Ann said sensibly. “I have extras…” She had brought some down, as well as a blanket to sit on. Ann did not swim, or wear swimming attire. Sun’s Day’s dress was lavender muslin, and she had paired it with espadrilles as a concession to the sand. Her hair was tied back and wreathed in a lime-green cotton kerchief with a paisley pattern.
“Huh? No, it’s cool, I have a hat.” Calliope whipped out the hat from beside her and put it on her head. A sketchpad, a pencil, a sharpener and the hat were all Calliope felt she needed for the beach. It was about three feet wide and quite impractical for close quarters, which the front room certainly was at the moment. Pompoms dangled from the brim and ‘Iliodario is for Lovers’ was embroidered across the front in pink thread. Maria recoiled from it. Pablo reached for the pompoms.
“Calliope, where did you get that?” Sanaam cried, delighted. All he had was a straw boater, like regular people, although it came across quite a bit more outré on his head. He had a black and white striped bathing suit with a sleeveless top waiting under his clothes and socks, underwear and more towels in a canvas rucksack for afterwards. “Do they have more?”
“No,” said the General, preemptively. She had not seen fit to alter her daily attire in any way.
“Donkey was wearing it,” Calliope said. She indicated the holes in the brim. “They were selling souvenirs. I asked to sketch him and they let me buy it after. It was a sinq.”
“It was over-priced,” the General said.
“Ya think?” said Calliope. She somehow found the space to examine the hat. “They threw in one of those sparkly wrestler masks…”
Erik came tearing over and wrapped both arms around his uncle’s waist. Bethany, who had been following him quite closely, did likewise. Bethany, like Maggie, was clad in ruffled bloomers that dropped below the knee and a sleeveless dress of dark sturdy fabric that stopped above it — de rigueur for annoying little girls who intended to swim, although Bethany’s outfit had polka dots and her curly hair had been pulled into a simple ponytail quite unlike Maggie’s tight braids. Erik did not have a designated swimming costume, being only a couple summers removed from unashamedly running around the beach in his underwear, so Mordecai had put him in a pair of old trousers that didn’t quite fit anymore and topped it off with a ragged white t-shirt whose original ownership was in doubt. Mordecai didn’t wear those himself and if it had been Sanaam’s the hem would have been dragging on the floor. He suspected it was Hyacinth’s. She certainly didn’t wear corsets.
“Hi,” Erik said, which was going to have to stand in for any excited babbling that would’ve resulted from this situation pre-injury.
Bethany noticed it, too. She giggled. “Erik’s funny now he doesn’t talk anymore.”
“I do, uh, uh, so,” Erik said. He tried to put spacers in like that when he was talking to people outside his immediate circle of friends and family. ‘Um,’ ‘ah,’ or, very rarely, ‘er.’ He thought it sounded a little more normal that just standing there silent with his mouth open while he looked for a word. Sometimes it did, but for a tiny sentence like ‘I do so’ it didn’t work very well. He frowned.
Mordecai set down the tote bag and picked up Erik. “I thought we sprayed for pixies in here, didn’t we, Erik? We’re going to have to go after this one with a broom.”
Erik snickered and nodded.
Maggie plowed through the surrounding adults and addressed Bethany with a murderous expression, “Damn it, Pinky, I know you have my hair tie. Give it back!” Her right braid was fraying and dangling in three hunks.
“Don’t call me ‘Pinky,'” Bethany said, frowning.
“Don’t steal my stuff!” Maggie replied.
“You should just hard-stick it; you’re magical,” Bethany said. Nevertheless, she put out her hand and surrendered the hair tie, relieving a grateful Mordecai of the responsibility of doing anything parental.
Hyacinth put two fingers in her mouth and blew a sharp whistle around them, quieting all other islands of conversation. She had clambered partway up the staircase, putting herself head and shoulders above the rest. “Okay, would everyone who is allowed beach and ice cream and Papillon Island today please start making their way out the front door and I will try to sort you out on the way to the bus? If we are missing anything, Sanaam will buy it for you, okay?”
“I seem to have forgotten my gold-encrusted scepter, Daddy,” Maggie said in a low voice. She had fixed her braid and finished applying the hair tie with a snap.
“Don’t you dare come back into this house without ice cream, Alice,” Barnaby said sourly. “I am allowed ice cream. There is nothing about my fragile mental health that prevents the ingestion of ice cream.”
“Nor the indigestion of it,” Hyacinth muttered aside. “If you paper the house again, I’m having your file boxes mulched,” she added, much louder.
“You suffer from an appalling lack of imagination,” Barnaby said. “There is more than one way to skin a cat. For instance, I am given to understand that wallpaper is quite flammable.”
“I said, ‘Goodbye!’ Enjoy the beach, dear Hyacinth!” He waved to her and mounted the attic stairs.
“He said that to fuck with me,” said Hyacinth, to no one in particular. “You know he just said that to fuck with me…”
Mordecai took her by the hand and pulled her down the stairs on his way out the door.
She turned on him and accused with a pointed finger, “I am not allowed one minute’s peace!”
“No, but I don’t think you’d enjoy it very much if you were,” said Mordecai. “I’m sure herding a cadre of idiots and small children up and down the pier will prove much more to your liking. Come along, ‘dear Hyacinth.'”
Papillon Island was, indeed, a peninsula — most of the time. When the tide rolled in all the way it covered the narrow finger of land connecting it to the beach at a minimum depth of five feet, inconvenient for park-goers, so a pier had been built. This was broad and expansive, leading up to a boardwalk that fronted the park itself. A metal sign arced over the farthest end, just as the boardwalk began, welcoming all to Papillon Island Park. (Not that anyone ever bothered about the ‘park’ part. If you weren’t saying ‘the beach’ in general, you meant the park.) The wooden rollercoaster and the steel Ferris wheel dominated the landscape behind glass storefronts and a few facade-fronted dark rides. The Ferris wheel had a multicolored butterfly with lights on it affixed to the hub — at night it made quite a show, in the daylight it came off a bit faded. Mordecai was displeased to see that the Gravity Drop, one of the magic-assisted rides, was also still evident, with a wheel full of shrieking people being yanked up and down its scaffolded shaft — the ladies all having their skirts modestly belted to the harness. Yes, the magic rides were supposed to be open, but the Gravity Drop often broke. (It had once broken with him on it, and Cathy, which went a long way towards explaining why he didn’t like the stupid thing. It got torn to pieces during the siege, but damned if they didn’t order another one.) The Sea Breeze, a swing ride with no strings attached, was also visible, though quite a bit shorter and tamer and less-ostentatious. Mordecai hoped Erik would be happy with just that one, but he very much doubted it.
Given the weather (sweltering) and the hour (late morning), they had decided to do the beach adjacent to the pier first. Unfortunately, the rest of the city had decided to do the same.
Calliope had a land-locked person’s appreciation for the beach. She had grown up with six hours and a mountain range between her and the seashore and a day at the beach was still a special occasion. She had grown only a little more jaded after a few years in San Rosille — no longer parking out there with a folding easel every day and painting wistful silvery seascapes, and willing to admit an occasional annoyance with the gulls. Everyone else was quite used to it, meaning they could go whenever they wanted so they almost never did, and they always found it a bit disappointing. There were no perfect beach days. Today it was overcast, muggy, and much too crowded. The burr of conversation punctuated by screaming children almost drowned out the ocean — which looked slate-like, cold and threatening. There were quite a few umbrellas set up, beach towels and blankets and changing tents, and it seemed like everything, even the people, was in bold stripes. As if in defiance of the sameness of the sea and sky — or maybe camouflage like a bunch of zebra afraid of land-going sharks.
Options for entertainment were sitting, walking, running, or bobbing up and down — essentially stationary — in the cordoned-off water surrounded by orange buoys. There wasn’t enough room to swim or throw things back and forth, or even to get a good sandcastle going, though a few kids were trying. Eating and drinking were also indulged in, usually while doing the other things. The sand was littered with balled paper wrappers from hot dogs and sandwiches, bent bottle caps and cigarette filters, along with the attendant sticks and rocks and shells and seaweed and dead fish of even the most virginal ocean landscapes. Many of the men and women were in shoes and full dress, toting hats and parasols, preferring to view all of this from a comfortable distance like the displays at the natural history museum rather than get their feet dirty.
“Eeww, it smells,” said Bethany, toeing a brown scraggle of seaweed that was hopping with sand flies.
“It always smells,” said Maggie. “It’s the ocean.”
Sanaam inhaled deeply, expanding his barrel chest. “Gods, I don’t even notice anymore,” he said. Maybe he never had. He had grown up on an island. He wasn’t wired for noticing it.
“It’s salt,” Erik said, though he wasn’t too fond of it himself. Not until he got used to it.
“I got salt at home and it doesn’t smell like that,” Bethany said.
Mordecai refrained from enlightening them about the intricacies of the San Rosille sewer system. He was pretty sure nothing came out right at Papillon Island, anyway. There would be complaints. And little floating bits of paper, like the canals.
Bethany swatted Erik on the shoulder. “Tag!” She laughed and ran off.
“Stop right there!” Mordecai demanded, before Erik could even go a step. “Bethany, you too! Both of you, take off your shoes right here, right now so I know where they are. And don’t go farther than I can see you so I know where you are.”
“That’s not very far,” said Erik, examining the crowds.
“There is a sliver of ocean I behold immediately before me that you are allowed. Run that way.”
Ann broke off alone, holding her blanket and looking for a good place to set up a base of operations — not past the high tide line where the sand was dry and filthy and not so near the current tide line that she’d need to move every ten minutes to keep from getting wet. The General produced a bag of chips from her purse which Maggie had been expecting but hoping not to see.
Gods, why can’t we just be normal? she thought, rolling back her head. The birds wheeling in the sky above were numerous, dark black shapes against gray.
“Magnificent, if you would do me the favor of spreading these around?”
Sanaam was grinning. “I think baited traps are against the Florentine Conventions, sir,” he said.
“Seagulls are not uniformed combatants,” said the General. “They are a pest species.” She laid a hand across her chest, “I am doing a service,” and she smiled.
“You wouldn’t like to swim or eat hot dogs or do anything social, would ya, Mom?” said Maggie.
“Why, you are welcome to join me if you’d like, Magnificent,” the General said. She appeared wounded, but it was likely feigned, like those birds that draw off predators by faking a broken wing.
“No, thanks. I’m good,” said Maggie. She opened the chips and crumpled a handful of them, staining her fingers with orange powder. Her mom always picked the barbecue ones, better visibility. Multiple gulls squawked a warning that there was food available and they began to clot together on the ground and tumble in from the sky.
“My personal best is eighteen,” the General noted. She vanished in a flash of white light. There was the tearing sound of air filling a sudden space as a golden eagle winged skywards with a cry. A seagull with a punctured throat landed amongst its comrades and the chips forthwith.
“One,” sighed Maggie, already bored. She dumped the rest of the chips in a pile and wandered off to see if she could locate Erik and Bethany. Mordecai had long since collected their shoes and he was standing at the edge of the boardwalk leading up to the pier in black wingtips and a three-piece suit, clutching the paper tote and looking lost. He didn’t have his violin to play and it wasn’t as if he wanted to sit in the sand…
Calliope whapped him lightly in the chest with her shoes. “Here, Em. Keep an eye on those, will ya?” She had already rolled up her trousers to the edge of her boxer shorts, they were quite roomy in the leg area. “I’m gonna run after the kids, see if I can draw ’em.”
Mordecai set down the tote and put the shoes in it. He drew out a towel; they were all solid colors, faded, and clearly for all-purpose use. “Please take this so you can sit down.” …And possibly cover up, he thought, examining a length of far-too-much leg. He doubted she would bother unless she got cold. It was like Erik in his underwear.
“You wanna come with?” she asked him, smiling.
“I suppose I may as well,” he said. A brief search of the tote exposed the straw hat and he put it on. It was no match for Calliope’s, but the curled brim was ragged with waving strands of seagrass and quite unsuited to the rest of him. Erik had picked it out at a thrift store.
Calliope laughed. “Awesome.”
“We used to make them like that out of palm fronds!” Sanaam said. Another seagull fell dead at his feet. “Seven,” he noted.
Hyacinth adjusted her sunglasses, which were a not-entirely-useless gift Mordecai had given with the intention of winding her up. The frames were cellulose and they had outlasted the shell. She had tucked her shoes into her purse. “I’m gonna get a hot dog. Sanaam? Hot dog? Soda?”
“I’m not quite done with the seagulls,” Sanaam said. Another one thudded down. A scattering of chips was still remaining and there was cleanup involved. They couldn’t just leave them like that, it was a health hazard. “I’ll meet you at Ann’s blanket.”
“Sounds good,” Hyacinth said.
A few minutes later the General walked up with a dissatisfied expression and an eviscerated seagull clutched in one hand. She threw it on the pile with the others. “Damn. Only ten.”
“She didn’t spread them out very much,” Sanaam said. He was already hunting about for the nearest trash can.
“A bag of chips is too subjective,” the General muttered. “What we need is a stopwatch.”
“Perhaps if you hint about it demurely, Milo will make you a wooden one for Yule,” Sanaam said. He batted his eyes.
“If I wanted one that badly I would make it myself!” she snapped. She was still sore about his patches in her damn uniform. The excitement of learning new magic from an unexpected source had long since worn off. And she really couldn’t think of any way to kill people with ‘blends.’
“No room for a hot dog?” he asked her.
“No,” she replied, walking past him.
Calliope was not ideally constituted for chasing kids through the surf and trying to draw them, not at the moment, anyway. She gave up and plunked down on the blanket with Ann after a little under an hour, well after Sanaam and Hyacinth had made done with hot dogs, and the General had gone off in search of someplace that sold barbecue chips.
“Oh, I guess I’m getting too old for this,” the young pregnant lady said with a huff, but she was grinning.
“Mm-hm,” Ann replied.
“I got some good ones of Erik with his shirt off. He looks like a tiny sea monster. I ought to give him tentacles. What’s Courtney’s?”
Calliope nudged the somewhat-moist paper tote with her bare foot. “Courtney’s.”
“It is a shoe store,” Ann said.
“Oh, yeah. On Mille Fleur Road. That’s a lot of shoes.” She meant the size of the bag. She nudged it again. It crinkled.
“It was a reasonable amount,” Ann said. “Seemed so at the time,” she added, with a faint embarrassed smile. “There was a sale.”
“Sometimes I get art supplies like that,” Calliope said.
Mordecai ran by, carrying his own shoes in one hand with the socks balled up inside them, his jacket off and his pant cuffs rolled up a modest three inches. “Erik, don’t go out too far!”
“Em’s a good dad,” Calliope said. “Or, whatever you want to call it.”
“I suppose,” Ann said tightly.
Calliope looked up at her, frowning. She decided to remove the enormous hat, which might make talking a little easier. She set it aside. “Ann, when you’re talking, does Milo listen?”
“Most of the time.”
“I guess when he’s talking you listen, too?”
“…I suppose it’s something like that, yes. Most of the time.”
Calliope sighed. “I know you’re still mad… even if Milo doesn’t get it and he’s after you to quit. I get it. I do.”
“I would like you to be very careful, Calliope,” Ann said. She couldn’t say more. She was thinking it might be safer just to get up and walk away right now, but Milo wouldn’t understand.
Calliope drew in her legs and curled up as much as she was able. They were wet and she got sand on the blanket, which she brushed absently with a hand. “I’m not very careful,” she said. “I mean, that’s not like a thing I don’t do. That’s a thing that I am.” She shook her head. “I don’t even want to say I’m trying, because I don’t always. I forget to. I’m not super smart.” She looked up again, “You can ask Glorie if you don’t believe me. Sometimes I tease people, but this isn’t a put on.”
“No, Calliope, I don’t think you’re putting me on,” Ann said, rather more gently. “But I don’t think you’re stupid, either.”
“I’m not slow,” Calliope said. “Sometimes I’m going a hundred miles an hour and it seems like nobody knows how to keep up, but I don’t always notice if I run someone over. I’m really sorry about Milo, Ann. About the cooking oil. I wasn’t thinking… he might not like it.”
Milo had absolutely no objection to the cooking oil even after spending three hours combing it out of his hair and he was frustrated and mystified that Ann was not clearing this matter up. Ann knew it wasn’t about the cooking oil, of course. She opened her mouth and Calliope put a hand on her hand to stop her.
“…But I can’t promise I won’t ever do it again. I probably will do it again. Something else. Not that. Something that hurts.” She was near tears.
Ann softened further. She took Calliope’s hand, “Dear, it wasn’t really your fault, you didn’t know…”
“If I thought about stuff more, I would know,” Calliope said. “But I’m not fast where it matters. Just drawing goofy aspic molds and dead ants. Ann… If you’re going to stop being mad and like me even a little, you’re gonna hafta be okay with me being sorry a lot.”
“I think…” Ann said, and she paused for a moment and did think about it, which was difficult with Milo screaming at her. “I think Milo and I are both okay with that, dear. I don’t think I can promise okay every time right away but… I’ll try to remember what you’ve said.”
“And sometimes you’re gonna hafta yell at me because I don’t notice!” Calliope added frantically. “Em’s really nice about turning me around when I need it, but you don’t have to. You can smack me if I’m not listening, okay?”
Ann drew her near and put Calliope’s cheek against her chest. It was padded there and soft. “No, dear. I don’t think we’re going to do anything like that at all.”
“You might want to later. You don’t have to promise.”
“I don’t have to promise because I know I won’t want to.”
Calliope wiped both eyes with her hand and then ran her sleeve under her nose. That was enough. She hugged Ann and then settled back against her like she was a lounge chair. “I never really had a sister around my age, you know?” Calliope said. “I mean, Terpsichore and Polyhymnia were right ahead of me, but they made up their own language and only talked to each other for twelve years.”
“Um. Oh,” said Ann.
What kind of mental defective wouldn’t want to talk to Calliope all day every day? thought Milo.
If the rest of Calliope’s family are like Calliope, I could see doing that, thought Ann. It’s like insulation. I don’t think it would actually help, but I could see doing it…
“Well, if you ever want to talk, darling, I certainly don’t mind,” Ann said.
A man wearing a flat box around his neck wanted to know if either of the pretty ladies would like to purchase a necklace… or possibly a candy bar or some cigarettes or a cold sandwich. Ann had a look at the necklaces. She was a soft touch and had already purchased a pack of gum and a hand-crocheted ‘scrunchie’ in such a manner.
“You got any barbecue chips in there?” Calliope asked, pawing into the bottom of the box which was deeper than it ought to be. “Glorie said she’d let me spread ’em out this time, ‘cos Maggie’s bored of it…”
“Ooh, look, Calliope!” Ann cried. She popped on a pair with pink heart-shaped lenses. “Sunglasses!”
Changing gears to attack the park required different levels of rearrangement for all parties concerned. Ann and the General had not undressed in the slightest (sitting on a blanket and eating seagulls, respectively, did not require it). Hyacinth, Mordecai and Calliope needed clothing rolled down and shoes put on. Sanaam and the children had gone in for full body immersion and either required magical intervention or a hose. Queuing up for the changing tents was out of the question, that would take hours.
They wandered off to a reasonably-secluded area under the pier and Maggie demonstrated her talent for optical magic by putting up a pink shower curtain with duckies and bubbles on it. Erik and Sanaam circled it suspiciously, making sure the illusion held up from all sides. They had clothes to change into. Annoying little girls were considered ‘decent’ in swimwear until they became annoying young ladies.
“Now, Mag-Pirate,” Sanaam said, “even though it would be incredibly hilarious, you are not going to wait until Erik and I are bare-butt naked in there and then dispel that, are you?”
“Nah,” Maggie said. She might have if it was just her daddy, but Erik didn’t have that sort of sense of humor. Vicious pranks were for the deserving, not best friends. “Don’t want you to get bottled for indecent exposure.”
“Three days in jail or a fifty sinq fine,” the General noted.
“I have to be back on the boat tomorrow night!” Sanaam said. They were engaged in a complicated scheduling gambit with Barnaby’s assistance that might have Sanaam home for two holidays (at least one) and maybe snow for fake Yule. But it did mean that his summer vacation was a bit truncated.
“Don’t get your father arrested, Magnificent,” the General said. “He can do that on his own if he likes.” Calliope was still pestering him to pose nude. Possibly on the roof. (“Natural light! I love natural light!”)
Calliope and Ann were reclining against one of the pylons, wearing sunglasses and pretending to be young, cool and trendy. They were pulling it off extremely badly, given that Ann was in mismatched pastels, Calliope pregnant and in trousers, and the sunglasses were cheap cellulose models with hearts and palm trees around the frames.
“Like this, dear?”
“Slumpier. More bored.” Calliope leaned hard on the pylon, jammed her hands in her pockets and stuck her neck out like a turtle. “Everyone’s bored nowadays. We’re jaded, traumatized kids who grew up during the war.”
“We should have cigarettes!”
“Yeah, but I don’t want one of the ones out of the sand.”
“Perhaps you should try being cool with your hat on,” Ann said with a snicker.
“I don’t think my neck’s long enough to do that and lean on the pylon. Maybe Em would trade me.”
Ann straightened. “Do you need any sunshield, dear?” she asked. It was about time to reapply hers.
Calliope shrugged. “I dunno. I figured I had the hat. It’s not very bright out…”
“At least let me get your face…”
“Can you do that? I thought Milo got all the magic stuff in the settlement.”
“…It’s in a bottle,” Ann said sheepishly. She removed it from her purse.
“That can’t be any good,” the General opined, having apparently teleported the distance upon hearing something needed a critique.
Ann recoiled and then tipped up her head and tugged her dress straight. “The Repel Rating is 100 percent.” Which was marketed for infants, there being a picture of a baby in a sun hat on the bottle. If melanin were lard, Ann and Milo wouldn’t have enough to fry an egg. Milo occasionally entertained the fantasy of being half-vampire. That was a perk of growing up in a workhouse: endless speculation over who the hell your parents might be and why the hell they had abandoned you.
The General snatched the bottle and examined it. “Alpha and beta radiation?”
“I’m sure,” Ann said.
“Calliope, if you will allow me to apply a full radiation shield, it would take but a moment and will not need to be reapplied over the course of the day,” the General said. She would just need to take it off eventually so Calliope’s bones didn’t warp due to the vitamin D deficiency.
“Ann knows how to do stuff, too, Glorie,” Calliope said, frowning. She took the bottle back, then leaned forward and presented her face for painting. “You should let her sometimes.”
“I gotta go pee!” Bethany announced to the gathering at large.
“What?” said Mordecai. “Why didn’t you go in the ocean?”
“They put special dye in there so they can tell if you do that!” Bethany said.
“That’s not the ocean, that’s swimming pools!” Mordecai shook his head. “That’s not even swimming pools! How would they put dye in the whole ocean? Who would put dye in the whole ocean? Who’s going to get mad at you for peeing in the ocean, the fish? You’re not helping me by laughing at me, Hyacinth! Erik, will you please let me dry your hair?” He was clutching a blue towel which was adequate to the task, but Erik kept ducking him and walking away.
Erik put up his hand and turned his head aside. “I don’t… need all this!” Everything was such a big production now. He couldn’t just pull off his shirt and dive in. He had to have his eye out — okay, he was used to doing that all the time — but there was still the metal socket he shouldn’t get wet — especially not salt water. He had to be careful. He had to tell Bethany to quit splashing. (He should’ve let Maggie put a repel charm on, but that was more stuff he had to do, too, and he didn’t like her taking care of him all the time.) Then he had to put up with Hyacinth cleaning it with oil and a hanky, like he was a little kid with food on his face. And now he knew his uncle wanted his hair dry so none of the salt water drips would get into his eye and mess it up and he was just sick of all this stupid… petting!
I’m tired of being special. I’m tired of it.
He had been okay a minute ago, but now he almost felt crying bad.
Am I gonna have to take my eye out to go on the Gravity Drop?
They’d been here before, when the magic rides were going, but the Gravity Drop wasn’t working that day. He checked the ‘you must be this tall’ sign and he was big enough to go on this year, if they ever caught the ride when it was working. He’d been excited when he saw the ring with the screaming people at the top. He wanted to go on the Gravity Drop.
Maybe I don’t want to go on the Gravity Drop.
He couldn’t even tell them he wanted them to go away and leave him alone.
He pushed a hand at his uncle. “Just… quit it.”
“People eat those fish!” Bethany cried, horrified. There were people fishing right off the pier!
Hyacinth stepped up and took her by the hand. “Come on, kiddo. I’ll help you find a fish-free toilet.”
Bethany looked haunted, and not too terribly interested in a toilet. “Do tuna sandwiches have pee in them?” she asked Hyacinth.
“Trace amounts, but I don’t think it’s really fair to call it pee…”
“Mordecai, I’ll meet you guys at the ticket booth when I’m all done scarring Bethany for life, all right?”
“Yes,” he replied. He absently dropped the towel back into the paper tote, which was dangerously near losing its structural integrity. “Dear one…”
“No,” Erik said. He shook his head, too. “Always… talk.”
“It’s all I know how to do,” said Mordecai. And there was nothing else he could say.
“I’ll get your hair if you want, Erik,” Maggie said.
Erik frowned at her. “You… always… fix… me.”
Maggie threw back her head and laughed. “I do not always fix you! I mess you up half the time!”
Mordecai shuddered and cringed.
“I take advantage of you for practice,” she went on. “You’re like one of those baby dolls with the buttons and the shoelaces.”
“Hey, do they make one of those with diapers?” Calliope wondered aloud.
“…Mom’s teaching me atmospheric effects. Come on, let me experiment on you.”
“The atmosphere?” said Mordecai. “The air? Like Erik needs to breathe?”
“Mostly humidity and particulate matter, but the air is involved, yeah.” She was getting pretty good at smokescreens. Fog was a little more difficult. “I’m not gonna ban anything, Uncle Mordecai,” she added with a grin. “I’ll just stir it up a little.”
“Like a dust devil?” Erik asked, approaching.
“No dust,” Maggie said. “Possibly sand,” she allowed.
“Uncle, I wanna see it. I’m interested.” Erik presented himself for an atmospheric effect.
Maggie shut her eyes and did a little math, then she made a swirling gesture with her index finger. A hot gust of wind blasted Erik from the ground up, as if he’d been jammed feet first into one of those big hairdryers at the salon. It flapped the material of his trousers, pulled out both shirttails and turned the shirt itself inside-out over his head.
“Whoop!” Erik said. His shoes were dangling a foot off the ground and he was starting to tip sideways.
“Maggie, cut it out!” said Mordecai. Erik was going to hit his head on the pier!
Maggie cut it out. Erik spilled into the sand on his backside, laughing and hiccuping. He was so dry his lips had chapped. His hair was sticking up in corkscrews like Barnaby’s.
“You must focus more on your control, Magnificent,” the General said. “As always.”
“That looks fun!” Sanaam cried. He elbowed his wife. “Why don’t you ever do that to me?”
“Deconstructions are much more efficient,” the General said. She had rendered her husband and daughter completely sand and salt-water free with a gesture and a subtle orange light.
“With the added potential of tearing me asunder and exploding my head,” Sanaam said, nodding.
“You exaggerate,” the General said. She would put a few holes in him at most, surely.
“I think that last one might have been just a little bit over the top, Maggie, dear,” Ann put in. She strode forward urgently, dumped a couple more towels into the paper tote and picked it up. “But very well done. Do you want your hat, Calliope? Shall I just carry it…?”
There were no people under the pier with blankets, because of the pylons, but a few were standing around to take temporary advantage of the shade, and a flying, giggling boy did tend to attract attention. Not good attention. A few groups had clotted together suspiciously and one female voice was speaking in a high, near-hysterical tone. Some people had also noticed the shower curtain and were pointing at it.
“Ah, yes,” Sanaam said. “I think we have finished with the beach portion of the day.” He had bundled his bathing suit (dry) and towel (also dry) and other sundries back into the rucksack and he shouldered it. “Maggie, if you dispel that, I think we might just be able to get away while they’re still talking about it.”
The General had rooted herself like a tree and was standing with her fists clenched and her purse strap slung across her chest like a bandolier. “There is absolutely no rule of law or etiquette against doing magic in public! Those men on the beach selling worthless items are openly utilizing slipspace, refrigeration and heating spells!”
Sanaam did not attempt to move her physically — that never worked — but he did lay a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Yes, sir. It’s more of a totally-arbitrary, unjustifiable social-pressure thing.”
“I feel none,” she said coldly.
“Ye-es, but I am experiencing just a twinge, and I’m worried they’re going to think Erik did that himself and shout at him.”
Mordecai had picked up Erik and was already trying to exit the scene as subtly as possible. The people who weren’t pointing at the shower curtain were pointing at them.
“That is blatant sexism,” the General said.
“I think it’s more like racism, but they’re both very close,” Sanaam said. “You can stay and try to correct all of society’s assumptions in one blow if you want to, sir, but Maggie and I are going to ride rides and eat ice cream. Probably nothing but ice cream if you allow us to go unsupervised.”
“They are never going to learn unless somebody teaches them,” the General said, but she had taken a step in his direction and that was as good as a surrender. When he retreated from her, she took another. “It is unfortunate that lessons are disallowed on Sun’s Days,” she muttered.
“Very,” Sanaam said. “Mag-Pirate, please get the shower curtain.”
She had only been waiting for an opportune moment. As soon as it became clear her mother wasn’t going to start another war, Maggie dispelled the shower curtain. The resulting commotion was quite adequate to cover their escape. She didn’t even have to throw any fireballs!
[Author’s Note: As I am recovering from (minor) surgery, the pain and pain killers may have interfered with the quality of the final proof-read, for which I apologize. I also semi-apologize for the length of these two installments, this one is not quite double and the next is even longer. The only thing that really needed to happen for the plot was Ann and Calliope hashing out their relationship, above. But if you like character development and world-building, you’re in the right place! Including you, new followers. Welcome!]