See a light. A round glass bulb…
“I can do the whole lamp.”
I know, dear one. But this isn’t about going very fast and having everything right now. We want to go slow and get everything right.
“I want a rollercoaster later.”
I know. But that’s later. Can you do the light right now?
Okay. A round glass bulb with a glowing filament inside…
Erik saw a light. A round electric bulb of clear glass with a glowing filament inside. It was on, but floating in dark space. Not full dark, but the undefined static and reddish-yellowish lambency of a closed eye. He built the lamp around it: a long, slender brass neck held in an s-curve with the teardrop-shaped body and gawky legs of a flamingo. The bulb went where the head was supposed to be. He’d seen it in a second hand store and loved it right away, even though they couldn’t have it because of the metal.
Is the left leg up or down, Erik?
“Up.” It was hard to be sure about left and right when he was looking at something, but his uncle didn’t think that mattered too much. It was the left leg if he said it was.
That’s very good. Let’s put a shade.
It was a green and gold glass shade in the shape of a tulip with clear crystals dangling from it which he had seen and liked on another lamp. He put the whole thing on the end table from the front room, whose scarred countenance and varnished scent was familiar from much playing under.
Now he needed someplace for him.
The floor came first, one plank at a time, in a pattern his uncle said was called ‘running bond.’ Erik was encouraged to stamp his feet and feel how solid it was, the thereness of it. Listen to it. Get right up against it and have a look at the nail holes and the splintered places, if he wanted. The floor, and his presence on the floor, always took a long time. Once he felt reasonably secure in the floor and his ability to walk on it, he put a rug on it. He had decided on the oriental one from the bedroom because it was familiar like the end table, but he wished he’d picked an easier one because he couldn’t ever get the pattern to firm up and stop jumping around. His uncle said it would come in time. If he wanted a rollercoaster later he had to nail the pattern on the rug first, but at the moment it was an uncomfortable reminder that this was all in his head and not real. He lost the feeling of the floor under his shoes and his uncle had to go back and help him about that for a while.
It’s real. This is my room and I can have it however I want it and it is real. Even if it’s not.
And I mustn’t look out the windows.
It was dark out there and quiet now, because this was practice. Later, when he called Violet, there would be talking and moving and touching and all kinds of things going on out there. If he didn’t want to see and feel and hear every instant of his body being run around without his permission he had to get super comfortable with the room.
I do not want to forget how to move again, Erik thought, frowning internally. I can move and talk and pick things up and do cartwheels and whatever I want, if I just remember I’m in here and not out there.
Out there, he was sitting cross-legged in his bed on the floor, with the oriental rug that stayed one clear pattern and his uncle on the floor nearby. He could feel it if he focused on it, and he knew his real eye was closed and the metal one was in the jelly-glass on the table, but that was looking out the windows and he didn’t want to do that.
His focus, and the thereness of things, wavered. It did that when he got frustrated. He was sleeping, because it was easier to focus that way, but it was harder to be mad. He wanted to snuggle up and listen, and let things happen. If he wanted to be pissed off and throw things instead, he’d have to wake up. He’d done that a couple of times before, just said to hell with this and woke up mad, because this was hard. This wasn’t hugs and shh, everything’s okay now and being put back together after Auntie Enora, this was a goddamned violin lesson…
“I’m mad again,” he admitted, with effort. “I’m mad about it being hard. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, dear one. Do you want to stop and wake up?”
“Okay. I’ll try to help.”
Erik stamped around on the floor like a toddler pretending to be a dinosaur and picked things up and examined them and moved them around and waved his arms and touched all his fingertips together and in all ways made a complete fool of himself but no one could see it so it was okay.
You don’t need to make every little detail and force it. You don’t notice those anyway. Just let things be there, give them the opportunity.
“‘Let it be,'” Erik said and snickered. He pointlessly adjusted the lamp shade, tweezing the warm glass between his fingers and watching how it changed the light — and the very few shadows. The place had a floor but no walls yet. He had also rolled up the rug, it worked a lot better that way.
Yes, Erik with the sense of humor. ‘Let it be.’ Do you want to try the soldiers?
“Yes.” He was going to do this for real in a minute, he’d like to have the soldiers. Even if it wasn’t for very long.
…And I might screw it up and get someone who wants to turn me into a bird or eat kittens or something and then I dunno how long it’ll be. He tried lifting the lamp again instead of thinking that. Getting scared made him want to wake up, too. Let it be. Let it be…
See a smooth wooden case with dark varnish and ‘Ekkehardt Toy Co.’ on the lid in gold paint. There are scars where the hinges used to be, because your Auntie Hyacinth is out of her damn mind…
Erik snickered again. He put the case on the table with the lamp. He ran his fingers over the printing, which was slightly incised, but he didn’t pick it up for a while. He let it be. Then he sat cross-legged on the floor by the table, reached up and set the case carefully in his lap. He opened it.
“Aw, it’s just one.”
Yes, because that’s how we do this, dear one.
Erik sighed. “Yes.”
They started with the one. It was in the second row from the top, beneath the extra large spaces for the cavalry. This guy was a sharpshooter. (He didn’t have to be, he just had the gun out and was kneeling like he was going to fire, but Erik thought he ought to be super good at it. Also, it was a good word. Sharpshooter.) They nailed down the scent of the wood and the metal and the color of the uniform and the weight of it all, then Erik tried picking up the soldier. He pried his fingers past the fuzzy lining that perfectly cradled each man, he felt the cold metal and he examined his prize. Yes! Whole on all sides and no blank spaces or missing paint.
“He’s good,” Erik informed his uncle, somewhat smugly.
They did more soldiers, one at a time, and Erik dutifully removed each one and lined them up on the floor, ready and awaiting their comrades.
Erik resisted the impulse to peel back the fuzzy liner and see if the others things he had in the case, the ones his uncle didn’t know about, would be there. The pasteboard dial from the watch Milo made him, with the pictures… and lately he had added the remains of the balloon from Papillon Island, the last time they went with Sanaam and Bethany and did the Gravity Drop. It was purple with a teacup on it, like the ride. The teacup had a flower on it. The teacup was just an outline and he’d only been able to see the flower when they brought it home in the dark. It was kind of hard to see the teacup and the flower now with the balloon all deflated and sad, but he still liked having it.
He’d be sad if he looked in the case and it wasn’t there.
He’d stopped paying attention to the soldiers and he gasped and checked to make sure he hadn’t lost any of them.
Erik? Are you okay?
“Yeah, I just wandered off there for a second,” Erik said. It took him a moment to realize there was a difference to his saying. It was flatter, somehow, and not so far away.
It was in the room, and he had an idea he hadn’t said that at all.
He gasped and everything wavered, even the light — which he was really, really good at! The first thing they ever did was the light!
Erik, if you can’t talk to me right now, it’s okay. This is what’s supposed to happen. When you do this for real, you’ll only be able to talk in the room. I’m going to leave it like this for a little while and then bring you back and check on you… in case you’re not okay. But, please, try to be brave. Try to get used to it. This is what you’ve been practicing for.
Oh, shit, I got it right on accident, Erik thought. “Oh, shit,” he said, not quite aloud. He listened for any kind of recognition from the outside, although if he was really on the ball, he wouldn’t be able to hear his uncle talking to him, either.
It was quiet, inside the room and out. Kinda too quiet. He tapped a nervous rhythm with his shoes on the planks, then he sang… the first thing that came to him, “I don’t need you to worry for me ‘cos I’m all right! I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home!”
Nothing, not even echoes.
“Geez, you guys, I really need some walls in here,” Erik confided to his soldiers. “And a radio…” He frowned and shook his head. He couldn’t have one of those, they got a signal from outside. That was just asking for it.
“I guess I’ll make some birds, I dunno,” Erik muttered. He pointed at the soldiers, “But I am totally making a rollercoaster later, and it is going to be awesome and you can come. And my elephant.” Surely he’d have the hang of the rug and all those red and gold patches on the elephant by the time he was rollercoaster-ready. He unrolled the rug to see if he’d maybe got it right all of a sudden and he could play with his soldiers properly by lining them up with the patterns.
The border was red and dark blue flowers on a white background and the center was this white and dark blue and yellow hexagonal thing with squigglies in it. This was surrounded by a larger hexagonal area of red with more squigglies that had long sides to fit the oblong construction of the rug itself. That was all he was sure of, and all that remained relatively the same. Everything else was dancing like the gag lights in the funhouse.
He sighed. “You know, I am going to figure you out eventually. I play on you all the time and I’m super smart. …Well, maybe not like Maggie, but I try harder!”
He sat down on the bare wood and he played with his soldiers on that instead. He had almost half of them!
Waking up was like grabbing onto a hook and being pulled out, being pulled up, as if he’d been somewhere way down deep and secret. Oh, I’d better not put a roof, he thought. Then he heard his uncle’s voice counting him down from three and he opened his eye. The real one.
Erik grinned and fisted both hands. Then he dove into his uncle’s lap and hugged… upsetting the box of soldiers, which Mordecai had open for the reference. “I’m… awesome!” Erik said. He frowned.
Oh, yeah. I forgot I talk all stupid.
That doused the glowing coal of excitement in his chest and the next words came a lot faster, “I can talk like normal when I’m in there, it’s way easier… Even when I got mad at the rug.” He looked down. “I sort of forgot I can’t really.”
Mordecai hugged him again and then set him down on the bed to talk to him, “You seem to have an easier time of it when you’re hypnotized, too.” He did not want to say ‘better’ or ‘like normal.’ “I think you’re hurt in a very specific way that makes it hard for you to talk and sometimes you can get around it… Most of the time,” he added sternly. It was just that the other times were when Erik had something really important to say and they stood out.
“Do you think I’ll… figure out… how to get… around it… all the time… when I… grow up?” He was very excited about that!
“Hyacinth would have a better idea,” Mordecai hedged. “But can we please be happy about the hard thing you’ve just done right now and leave growing up and rollercoasters for another day?”
Erik grinned again. “Yeah, I guess.”
In the front room, the rest of the household were occupying themselves in anticipation of the big event. Calling Cousin Violet to find out if the baby was a boy or a girl did not need dressing and packing and logistics like going to the theater or the beach, so they were doing a lot of fiddly stuff that didn’t much matter.
Barnaby was absent. He wanted nothing to do with Cousin Violet.
Calliope was getting the General’s opinion on a series of sketches. She liked to draw in the front room, the light was better. The bay window in her room was big enough to work by, and she did have that glitter lamp now, but this room had mage-lights and biggest window in the whole house. Also the glitter lamp had a cord and she couldn’t plug it in.
(Milo said he’d fix the lamp, and the dead mage lights she had hanging up, but she said it could wait until he was done with the record-player.)
“… I mean, I’ve got anatomy books, I can fill it in,” she said. “But I don’t wanna be insulting. He’s gonna see it when he gets back. Average…? Above average…?”
“I find it ridiculous that men are so attached to a singular facet of their anatomy which they have no control over,” the General said. “Intelligence and skill should be a point of pride, and perhaps physical fitness, but nothing so frivolous as that.” She cleared her throat. “But it is above average, yes.”
Sanaam had posed in his underwear, as a condition of being on the sweeping staircase where there were going to be people walking by.
“Yes there is!” Maggie snapped, stamping a neat little black shoe on the tile. “There is magic there! I’m lookin’ right at a pair of oxblood tassel loafers stuck three inches deep in a floor, so you’re not gonna tell me there’s no magic there!” A gridwork of light bars nearby showed a place where they had hard-stuck the loose tile, but there was no such indication over Florian de la Fontaine’s shoes.
“Magnificent,” said the General, “if the spell is not giving you information as it should, that is an indication that an entirely new type of magic may have been accidentally discovered in our front room during a storm, and you should feel privileged to study it.”
“So I guess all the swearing and banging on the floor with a metal object I heard down here the other night was you feeling privileged?” Maggie said.
“That sounds more like Mr. Graham’s behavior.”
“Mr. Graham’s voice sure has gotten higher.”
The General sniffed. “It was a momentary loss of coherency, which I regret, that nevertheless had no effect on the final outcome. The shoes remain, despite my inappropriate behavior.”
“Aren’t I allowed a little of that?”
“It is not a matter of being allowed, but you must work in all cases to control it.”
“So that’s why my frying pan had a dent in it,” Hyacinth said. She knew no one was using it for a frying pan, the iron was half gone. Honestly, she had also suspected Barnaby. She returned to flattening steel cans, for easier storage. This was accomplished with her bare hands, which looked quite impressive if you didn’t know she was doing it with magic. She tossed the latest specimen, paper thin, into a growing pile between the upholstered chairs. The labels, when there were any, went into a secondary pile for kindling.
“Hey, Ann, if you used magic, do you think you could get it like snakes?” Calliope said.
Ann looked up with a mouthful of bobby pins and said, “Hrm?” The hand mirror was lying on top of the bookshelf, with a fashion magazine folded open beside it, 20 New Styles for Fall! This had been standard operating procedure for learning new hairstyles and makeup — and smiling — since the siege, but they’d had less hair to work with then.
“One of the old heroes is like that,” Calliope said. She twisted fingers into her hair and held it up in wild clumps. “From Thessalonia. It was a curse. I think my dad’d get a kick out of it if I drew you like that and said you’re my roomie. You okay over there, Erik? You look kinda like the pool’s too cold.”
Erik staggered a step back and wrapped both arms around his uncle’s waist. After all that quiet and concentration, it was so loud and so bright and so solid out here. It was like being pushed into traffic downtown. He was afraid reality was going to plow right through him — and then keep speeding along like it didn’t notice.
Mordecai put a hand on his back — more for the emotional support than to prevent him from running back into the bedroom. “He’s a just little disoriented, Calliope… and, frankly, so am I.” It was always a little bit like that. Living in this house was like getting a hold of some bad drugs. Wow, canned jimson weed! And it’s expired! Far out! “How long were we in there?”
“Thank you, Calliope, but I’m going to need another reference point.”
“I don’t think you need to figure a vanishing point for the front room, Em,” Calliope said, considering. “But I guess it’d look interesting…” She framed the big window with her fingers.
“I think it’s about lunchtime,” Hyacinth offered him.
“Your head still screwed on straight, Erik?” Maggie said suspiciously. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about Mordecai rearranging Erik’s brain for optimal god occupancy — yeah, she guessed he needed the help with it, but Milo got real weird when Mordecai hypnotized him and they were barely even doing anything. Erik was building, like, a house.
Erik rolled his head back and stretched, he grinned at her. “Seems like it. But I’m getting real good at taking it off. I’ll show you once I learn how to juggle it.”
Maggie snickered. “Yeah. Okay.”
“Dear one, would you like something to eat?” Mordecai said.
Erik smiled. “I’m gonna have cereal, aren’t I?”
The green boy paused self-consciously at the top of the basement stairs and rocked back and forth on his shoes. His right eye was in his shirt pocket, for safekeeping. Auntie Enora didn’t like wearing the eye. He didn’t know about Cousin Violet. “You guys won’t look, right?” he said, as if they couldn’t find a pay toilet and he was about to go pee in a bush.
Maggie was there and she helped him with the shrine when he called Auntie Enora, he guessed he wouldn’t mind that again, but he didn’t want everyone staring at him. Weirdly, he felt the most embarrassed about his uncle. Uncle Mordecai knew the most about calling gods and he was the most used to it… but he hated it the most, too. Even if he said it was okay, it wasn’t very okay. Erik didn’t want to scare him.
“We’ll do this however you’re comfortable,” Mordecai said. “But if you want help with anything…”
“Yeah, I know,” Erik said. He was pretty darn sure he could manage getting there and finding a god, it was just after. “Violet will come up on her own, right?” He wouldn’t like her to be downstairs fooling around with the radio for hours.
“Yes,” Mordecai said. He smiled a tight little smile. “She just loves attention.”
Erik nodded. “Okay.” Halfway down the stairs he added, “Seriously, don’t look, though.”
Mordecai laughed sickly and shook his head.
“You sure it’s okay, Em?” Calliope said.
“Yes,” said Mordecai. “He needs the practice.” He sighed. I just wish he didn’t.
Maybe five minutes later (Gods, he’s already fast, thought Mordecai.) Erik came up from the basement, smiling. It was an entirely different species of smile, alien on Erik’s young face — mischievous and cunning, somehow too childish and too knowing all at once.
“Oh, my gods, that is amazing!” Calliope said. This was her first time seeing Erik making faces that weren’t his own. “I gotta get my sketchpad!”
Erik narrowed his eye, the one he could. “How did you like the Gravity Drop, Uncle Mordecai?”
“It was very nice,” Mordecai said. “Thank you for breaking it for us, Violet.”
“I did not break it!” Violet said. Erik stamped his foot to emphasize. He made a precise gesture with both hands, as if stretching a fine thread. “I moved a single molecule a teeny-tiny distance out of place so later it broke on its own.”
“Then thank you for that,” said Mordecai.
Violet turned Erik’s creepy smile in Maggie’s direction. “I to-o-otally broke it. You better grow up and like problem solving, ‘cos you’re su-u-ure gonna need it later.” Erik turned back to Mordecai. “I want my cereal now,” Violet said.
“Yes, let’s do that,” said Mordecai, quickly. He lead the way to the kitchen.
Violet, for all her perception and her span, only understood three increments of time: before, later, and now. Occasionally she expanded the latter to ‘right now,’ which meant, ‘it is already too late.’ If Violet wanted cereal now, she was going to get cereal now.
They had purchased the kind with the marshmallows, just for her. She appeared satisfied with it. Calliope sat on the opposite side of the table, sketching away. Everyone else was standing and looking varying degrees of uncomfortable with the situation. Hyacinth looked a tinge more irritated, Ann looked a touch more concerned, Maggie was curious, the General was impatient and Mordecai was all business. Erik ate cereal and smiled.
“Any of you guys wanna guess how you die?” Violet said conversationally.
“No thank you, Violet,” Mordecai said.
“Are you su-u-ure?” Erik smiled and leaned forward like an eager movie-goer. “It’s super fun.”
“I know you think it is, but that isn’t why we asked you here.”
“You don’t get torn to pieces and eaten by a bear, if you’re curious,” Violet told Mordecai. Erik rocked back and forth in his seat, either bored or amused. “And it’s not the next war. Do you wanna know if you shoot yourself in the head or not?”
Mordecai frowned. “Violet, I am not going to talk to you at all if you’re going to be silly. We didn’t call you to play games.”
Erik rolled his eyes. The rocking continued. “I know. You don’t ever do that. Not even la-a-ater. You’re such a killjoy. I told your mom before. She said, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ and I said, ‘It’s the most bo-o-oring person on the pla-a-anet.'”
Maggie covered a snicker with her hand.
Erik glared at her, “You’re gonna need that sense of humor later, lady.”
“Violet, we want to ask you about Calliope’s baby,” Mordecai broke in.
“Calliope doesn’t have a baby,” Violet said.
“Calliope is going to have a baby later, we want to ask you about that. The one she is pregnant with right now,” he added, since ‘later’ could cover and number of potential children.
“It’s a cat,” Violet said.
Calliope grinned. “Wow, how does that work?”
“That might be your baby’s first costume for Mischief Night, Calliope,” Mordecai said. “We still haven’t specified enough. Violet,” he said sternly, “we just want to know if it’s a boy or a girl.”
“Yes,” said Violet, smiling.
Mordecai sighed. He should’ve seen that one coming. “We would like you to tell us which one.”
“No, this baby. This baby that Calliope is pregnant with right now. Please tell us if Calliope is pregnant with a boy baby or pregnant with a girl baby.”
“Calliope’s baby is like Erik,” Violet said. Erik nodded once firmly.
“A boy?” said Mordecai.
Erik rocked back in the chair and looked up at the ceiling. “I mean, later. I really like Erik, he’s super comfy.” Erik had a look at his hands, both sides. “I just wish he was white like his mom. I like all white. He’s not cute.”
“Violet, do you mean Calliope’s baby is a boy or do you mean Calliope’s baby is not cute?”
“Yes, right now!” Mordecai sighed and pressed both hands over his face. Gods, he hadn’t done this in years. He wasn’t used to it anymore. At least he wasn’t trying to get life and death information out of her. Violet, are there going to be any bombs right now?!
“It’s really not cute right now,” Violet said. Erik made a small space with his hands. “It’s kinda red and squishy. It’s not gonna be real cute later, either. They come out with gunk on them…”
“Yes, Violet, thank you. I mean…”
“He means, does Calliope’s baby that she is pregnant with right now have a penis,” Hyacinth attempted. She was pretty sure the darn thing had genitalia after eight months, right now.
Mordecai turned on her, “Hyacinth, damn it, don’t you start trying to untangle her. She’ll just get distracted and start asking you if you want to know how you die!”
“Oh, I’m sorry, was I somehow interrupting her total lack of concentration?” Hyacinth said.
“You’re interrupting mine!” said Mordecai.
Erik smiled. He rested his chin on his hands. “I ship you guys. But it’s a crack pairing.”
“Like on a cruise someplace?” Calliope said, looking up from her sketchpad.
Erik regarded her with his head tilted to one side. “You were supposed to be ordinary and relatable. I don’t know what happened.”
“Ordinary?” Calliope frowned.
“Violet, did you say Calliope’s baby is like Erik?” Maggie broke in.
“Damn it…” said Mordecai.
Erik rocked back in the chair again. “Yeah. Before.”
“Calliope’s baby is a boy?” Maggie said.
Erik examined Violet’s empty cereal bowl. “Yep!”
Maggie folded her arms and smiled smugly. “Well, there you go.”
“You’re not half as smart as you think you are,” Violet said. Erik was still smiling. Violet sighed. “Am I all done, you guys? If you want more talking, I want more cereal.” She snickered. “I always want more cereal.”
“That’s enough talking and enough cereal, Violet,” Mordecai said. “Thank you.”
“Oh, it’s never enough,” Violet said. “But maybe right now.” Erik picked up a hand and waved at them. “Bye-bye.” He tipped back his head and closed his eye.
When he sat forward again he was already crying.
Mordecai slid into the nearest chair, pulled him nearer and held him. “Oh, no, dear one. It’s all right. You did really well. Did you get scared? It’s okay…”
“I…” Erik said, and Mordecai quit with the ‘it’s okay’ so Erik had space to talk. “…don’t… want… you… die!” He sobbed and shuddered. He’d been okay and he’d even managed to get some of his soldiers together before Violet started talking about that.
“I’m sorry, dear one. I didn’t even think how that might bother you. That’s just how she teases people. I wasn’t scared or mad, I was just annoyed with her.”
Erik was hot and damp and breathing as if he’d just run a mile. He shook his head against his uncle’s shirt, afraid to come out. “If… she… said… I… couldn’t… make… stop…”
And that was when Mordecai realized Erik had spend most of that meandering conversation glued to the window, unable to object, and waiting for Violet to tell everyone if his uncle was going to shoot himself in the head. He held tighter. “No. No, no, no. I’m so sorry. I should have stopped and sent her away right away. She never gives anyone a straight answer about that kind of thing, she just likes to tease, but you didn’t know that. I’m sorry.” He verbalized, because Erik couldn’t, it was like when he’d been toddler-aged and needed help with words for feelings, “It must have been awful. It must have been so scary. I’m so sorry…”
Calliope abandoned her sketchpad and stood. The standing was not easily accomplished and both Ann and the General approached to be of assistance. Hyacinth couldn’t get through the tangled chairs. Calliope brushed a hand at all of them, pressed the other one over her eyes and walked out. She stumbled over the kitchen step — that brought Ann and the General at a run, but they got jammed up in the doorway and glared at each other. Hyacinth cut through the dining room and got there first, “Hey, careful. Careful…”
Calliope turned away and clutched both hands on the balusters of the sweeping staircase, like a prison vixen in an exploitation film. “No, go fix Erik. Go fix Erik.” She sobbed and shook her head. “I broke Erik.”
“Oh, no, dear,” Ann said. She had made it past the General and was urgently holding out a handful of tissues from the top of her dress. “No, he’s only a little upset, that’s all. It isn’t your fault.”
“I made him,” Calliope said. She took the tissues, if only so Ann would stop waving them in her face. They smelled like perfume. She hid her eyes in them. “It’s not even important! Why do I need to know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“You have a provisional answer about whether or not to name the child ‘Stephen,'” the General said. “And I am given to understand there are some logistical complications when diapering a boy that Mordecai may be able to assist you with, or I could research the subject myself…”
“My gods, sometimes you’re worse than I am,” Hyacinth said. The General’s loose association with reality was almost admirable.
“I don’t care if it’s a wallaby!” Calliope said. She honked into the tissues. “I was gonna love it anyway! Erik didn’t need to be huh-huh-hurt!”
Hyacinth shook her head. She put her hands on Calliope’s arm. It was close quarters around Calliope Central at the moment. “He isn’t hurt. This is so he won’t get hurt. It was never about the baby, Calliope, that was an excuse for him to call someone again and practice. The last time he called a god he ran off and did it all by himself and he almost got killed. He’s learning… It’s like riding a bicycle, he’s going to pick up a few bruises.”
Calliope looked up from her tissues. “It could kill him?”
“It could if we don’t let him take small steps and practice like this. He needs this, Calliope. It’s really not about you.”
“I’m sorry I drew it,” Calliope said. She turned away. “It was like he was hanging off a building on a flagpole and I thought it looked cool so I drew it.” She choked and shuddered. “And I don’t want everyone in here being nice to me while he’s crying!”
“I must remind you that you are also crying, Calliope,” the General put in.
“But I’m old enough!” Calliope said.
Erik appeared in the kitchen doorway — tear-streaked, disheveled and clutching Calliope’s sketchpad. With his eye out, he was particularly pathetic.
“Mordecai!” said Hyacinth, hotly. “Control your angst vector, please!” She smacked a hand over her mouth and hoped very much that Erik didn’t have the vocabulary to understand that.
Mordecai appeared behind him, looking weary and defeated. “They tell him things, Hyacinth. What do you want me to do?”
“It’s not his fault,” Maggie added, frowning. She understood ‘angst vector.’
Erik approached cautiously and took Calliope’s hand, which was damp and had shredded tissues in it. There was still room for holding. “I like the drawings,” he said softly. It seemed in this case being brought abreast of upsetting matters in the household had prompted him to pull himself together rather than fall apart, but it was a fragile construction and he hoped Calliope wasn’t going to test him too hard. He tried a smile. “I never saw me being somebody else before. It’s neat.”
“I thought it was,” Calliope said. She poked reluctantly at the pad. “Now I don’t like it as much.”
“I guess it’s like that for me, too,” Erik said. “I like the part where it helps people.” The smile faded. “Do you like knowing about the baby?” It was hard to tell, and he didn’t mean to make her sad.
“Honestly?” Calliope said. She walked a few paces away, leading Erik by the hand, and sat down on the staircase with a huff. “I dunno right now. I probably will later. But I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I knew it was hard. If you wanted to practice, you could’ve picked something you wanted to do.”
Erik sat down next to her. He shrugged. “Violet is pretty easy. She just scared me. It’s not like Auntie Enora. And I did want to.”
“I’ll draw you Min-Min not-dead if you want,” Calliope said.
“I guess I’d like that,” Erik said. He picked up the sketchpad again and folded it to a blank page. “But, do you think maybe you could draw me the rug from the bedroom? I could use it… If it’s not too hard.”
Calliope frowned. “Ooh, with all those little bitty flowers? Is it okay if I do it on graph paper? I think Milo has some…”
“Graph… paper?” Erik said. “Yeah!” That was perfect! He could count the little squares. It would be like a cheat sheet!
“Dear one, it doesn’t need to be exactly…” Mordecai said, but uselessly.
Calliope pulled out her reading glasses, somewhat tear-specked, and attempted a vague mock-up of the rug. It wasn’t very good. “Hey, Ann? I’m doing flowers on Stephen’s stuff, too.”
Erik looked up and smiled at the baby’s name. It wasn’t like Auntie Enora, but at least he’d helped Calliope a little.
“It’s kinda bleh, you know?” she went on. The rocking chair and bassinet (a matched set!) had been purchased with Sanaam’s assistance — second hand but metal-free and quite sturdy, and the paint was faded. “I think Milo does really great flowers, would he like to help?”
Ann consulted with Milo — mainly about how best to avoid upsetting Calliope any more. “He’s flattered, sweetheart, and he’d like to learn paint but he wouldn’t like to ruin your things doing it.” He had helped do the puzzle pieces on the house, but those were just flat. Calliope’s flowers had shading.
“I don’t mind,” Calliope said, sketching. “But if he’s nervous about it, he could play with the lights instead and watch me paint, and then maybe try it on paper if he feels like it. I guess wicker is kind of hard to start out with, anyway, everything goes all wobbly. It’s his turn for dinner tonight, right?”
“Ah,” Ann said. And that would certainly explain why Calliope had been expecting to see Milo for dinner so often. “Well, we don’t really… we don’t exactly take turns, dear. We don’t have a schedule, we just pick what we like. He usually has breakfast and I usually have dinner. Usually.” As in, before Calliope came to live here. “It’s… It’s just a bit difficult for him to eat around people, that’s all.”
Calliope ceased sketching and looked up. “Is that how come he stared at his sandwich the whole time when we went to Rust’s?”
“Well… Ye-es. A little bit.”
Erik was broadly shaking his head, but too late. Calliope’s expression cratered, “Have I been starving him?”
Ann swept forward, already removing a handkerchief from the front of her dress. This left her a bit lopsided — the tissues were for tears and sneezes, the hankies were for padding — but she paid it no mind. “Oh, no. No, no, no, dear. Not at all! Milo likes not-eating things with you! And he’s getting ever so much better at it… He had a crouton last Tiw’s Day!”
“Does he hate me stealing his art stuff, too?” Calliope said. She clutched her hands in her hair like she was being Medusa again. “I didn’t even ask about the graph paper!”
“Oh, Calliope, he says you can have all the graph paper if you want it!”
“Miss Rose, your histrionics are counterproductive,” the General said in a low voice. She sat down next to Calliope on the staircase, causing Erik to recoil. (But he didn’t get up and leave.)
Hyacinth dragged Ann aside and spoke more gently, “Ann, it’s not about the graph paper…” Maybe it hadn’t even been about Erik crying, not entirely.
Erik flashed a memory — you know, with help — of Calliope lying in the double bed, surrounded by pillows, with her knees up and both arms flung over her face, as pale dawn leaked in through the bay window. Damn it, I’m too fat to sleep. He espied Lame Anthony above her on the stairs, who smiled and made the motion of patting her on the head before vanishing.
“Oh, geez, being pregnant is like being broken,” Erik said, much to Mordecai’s chagrin.
Calliope sniffled and beamed at him, “Oh. Hey. Yeah!”