Hyacinth had her hand on Calliope’s forehead and was feeling around in a dark room with no light switch. For convenience’s sake, this sort of thing was called ‘doing a touch-know.’ Also for convenience’s sake, given that you could not see a damn thing, the human body was divided into seven segments. Some kind of grid system might have been more efficient, but Hyacinth and generations of physicians before her had been taught seven segments and it seemed to work well enough.
Her materials teacher at the academy had handed out a smudgy apograph with all seven chakras and their associations and dismissed it as ‘cute.’ You might get tested on some of this stuff, but I’m not going to test you on it and you do not need to know it to work in the field. The important thing is we go from the top down, and seven sections. Even that’s arbitrary, but that’s how I learned it and that’s how I’m going to teach it.
Her metaphysics teacher had handed out the exact same sheet and called it ‘essential.’ He had given several lectures on which materials ought to go in which section, because they were ‘sympathetic.’ Also zodiac signs and phases of the moon. It gave her serious flashbacks to living with Barnaby. Hyacinth had shit-canned her notes from this class along with both apographs as soon as she was done with the final. She much preferred her materials teacher, a fat lady with a limp and a metal leg that had physically prevented her from going back to the trenches.
It was arbitrary, her own experience had proven it, which was why she smacked people on the forehead and ignored the crown chakra where she was supposed to start. Soldiers wore helmets. It was easier to tip them up than take them off, especially when time was a factor. She had tried to explain as much to the General, but there was no explaining things to that woman. If the method had no basis in reality, you ought to tear it up and put together a new one that did. This whole thing has no basis in reality! I’m feeling around in a dark room with no light switch and pretending what everything looks like! That little outburst had engendered no confidence. Even Mordecai had requested some clarification afterward.
Look, there are real things in the room, in you, I just have to call them something in my head to keep them organized. It’s like… there is no earthly reason the alphabet should look like that, or be in that order, we just decided on it a long time ago and there’s no point in changing it now.
Her materials teacher had taught them to use wheels. A young lady for whom Hyacinth had conceived an instant loathing (the metaphysics teacher thought the young lady was brilliant, of course) wanted to know if they oughtn’t to be visualizing lotuses in various stages of bloom. Miss Parish had smirked at that. Okay, hands up. Who knows off the top of their head what a lotus blossom looks like? A real good idea. Three dimensions. One… two… five. Right. So anyway, wheels…
Hyacinth had modified this system to use gears. She grew up messing around with automatons at David’s house, and they had a lot of gears. You could get a pretty good idea what was going on in there if you had a look at the gears. So it was with a human body, although she had never quite got around to arranging the gears so that they intermeshed or did anything but spin. The interactions were too complex. The head gears were connected to the everything-else gears, for starters. That was why there were two of them. The head’s so nice, we check it twice. Once for the physical, the meat and the bone, and once for the processing power. You could put together a cursory schematic of what you were going to find in the rest of the body if you had a careful look at what it was telling the brain. A fever, a broken ankle and a stuffy nose sent their own signals in chemicals and electricity. It was much quicker than asking ‘So, where does it hurt?’ and it worked equally well on screaming or non-verbal patients.
Calliope’s gears were hanging in dark space and spinning in overdrive. Given that she was building another human being, this was only to be expected. Number 3 was particularly busy, and Hyacinth gave this one special attention. It was her best shot at monitoring fetal development, which she could only tell obliquely. Something wrong in the womb would send Calliope’s gears off-kilter, but there was no way to smack a hand on the developing baby and have a look at its (his, she guessed) gears. The placenta acted as a filter and obscured the physical connection through the umbilical cord that she might have used. Yep, that’s a pregnancy. About twenty-six weeks along. It’s not stressing Calliope’s body any more than usual, was the best she could do. She might have hazarded a guess at the gender from hormone levels, but Cousin Violet was a lot more accurate for that and she’d already had her say.
“Back’s killing you, huh?” said Hyacinth.
Calliope snickered. “Just guessing, or can you tell?”
Hyacinth shrugged. “Little of both.” She pulled out a chair. “Go on and sit down. You’re doing okay. You want some lunch?”
Calliope rested her elbow on the table and her head in her hand. “Maybe in a sec, but I don’t want to make Em cook.”
Mordecai was sitting across the table, slumped forward with his arms folded in front of him. Hyacinth’s open doctor bag was blocking his view of Calliope. Beside it, Erik’s stuffed elephant had been diapered with safety pins — which Mordecai had forbidden Hyacinth from stealing. No diaper pins. No. Everything else in the house that’s metal is yours, but no diaper pins.
(Hyacinth had privately resolved to get Milo to put some soft-stick charms on the diapers, just in case.)
Calliope had completed the current diaper job with only minor assistance and felt much more confident in her ability.
Mordecai straightened. “I don’t mind lunch, Calliope,” he said.
“Yeah, but I’ve been pestering you for lessons and you seem kinda stressed out,” Calliope said. She swept back her hair with a hand. It was damp with sweat. The kitchen was already warm and she didn’t want him to run the oven or the stove. “I’m not super hungry, anyway, I just wanna sit for a second.”
Mordecai stood. “I’ll make you some toast. Then you can decide if you want anything else.” He kicked a chair. He apologized, set it gently against the table, and sidled past it to the kitchen counter.
“I guess that’s okay,” Calliope allowed. “Thanks, Em.” She smiled. “Hey, so do you think this kid is gonna pop out on schedule, Cin?” After eight months she was starting to get a little impatient with the process. And the backaches and the peeing.
“From what I can tell, everything is coming along,” said Hyacinth. “I can’t really see the baby, just what it’s doing to you,” she added. “The closer you come to delivery, the more you’ll change. Once labor starts I’ll have a much better idea, but then so will you.”
“S’pose so,” Calliope said with a grin. She looked around. “Man, I don’t wanna make a mess of your kitchen. Do you usually do babies in here or in the bedroom?”
“I usually don’t,” said Hyacinth. “But I have been known to make housecalls in an emergency. I think we can do it wherever you’re comfortable. Milo’s amazing at laundry…”
Mordecai dropped a butter knife with a clatter. “Wait a minute… Here?”
“I think probably the bedroom,” Calliope muttered, considering the space. “More room to walk around…”
“Why on earth would you have the baby here?” said Mordecai. “There are hospitals! There’s a hospital!” He pointed out the kitchen window, in the general direction of the nearest one. “With doctors in it!”
“Cin’s a good doctor. I like her better than any of the other ones,” Calliope said. “Anyway, then I don’t hafta pay for a taxi.”
“Hyacinth is not a doctor!” Mordecai said. “Hyacinth trained as a medic for eighteen months in an abandoned warehouse in Chatreton!”
“Good ol’ U of This-Space-for-Rent,” Hyacinth said, grinning. “Our mascot was a dead rat on a stick.”
“Did you dress him up?” Calliope asked.
“You know, we should have…”
“Hyacinth is not a doctor!” said Mordecai. “Hyacinth does not have any doctor things!”
“Excuse me?” said Hyacinth. She indicated her bag on the table.
“Hyacinth does not have an entire hospital’s worth of doctor things!” He demanded of her, “What are you going to do if something goes wrong?”
“I believe I will deal with it as per usual,” Hyacinth said dryly. “Was there anything in particular you had in mind, Mordecai?”
Mordecai stood there for a moment with his index finger indicating the ceiling and his mouth open. His mouth closed slowly, but the finger remained, as if begging a moment’s pause. “Eclampsia!” he said finally.
Hyacinth blinked at him. “Well, okay, apparently both of us know what that is. Do you know how it’s treated?”
Mordecai slumped and folded his hands contritely before him. “It’s a shot.”
“It’s a magnesium sulfate shot.”
“Do you have one of those?” he said.
“I can arrange to have one if you’re that worried about it, but Calliope hasn’t been showing any signs of hypertension and her calcium intake is good. It’s slightly less likely than the roof falling in on her.”
Mordecai suspiciously regarded the roof.
“I notice you didn’t even bother with anything obvious like hemorrhaging or a breech birth. Can you come up with something else obscure so I can allay your fears?”
“…What if the baby isn’t breathing?”
“Then I’ll clear out its airway. I can bypass it entirely if I have to. I’ll make sure I have some gold.”
“And that’s another thing!” he said. “You are entirely too quick to fix everything with metal! Calliope should be at a real hospital with real doctors and real solutions, not kludges you’ve come up with on the fly!”
“I like how Cin knows how to fix everything,” Calliope said, frowning. “What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong with it is I have gold lungs that try to kill me every winter and Erik has a tin skull!”
“It’s an alloy,” Hyacinth said tightly. “And in both instances I was working with no materials and no time.”
“Calliope and the baby should be at a hospital with lots of materials and lots of time!” said Mordecai. “And lots of people. Experienced people. Real doctors and nurses! Not all alone with no one to help them!”
Hyacinth shut her mouth without commenting. She had just realized what they were actually arguing about and did not know how to proceed.
“I don’t like the hospital,” Calliope said. She could not be expected to know the hospital had nothing to do with it. “It’s too big and I don’t know anyone there. It smells weird. I was only going to go because I had to and it was closest. I like Hyacinth and I want to stay here. I like it here.”
“This isn’t about liking,” said Mordecai. “This is about responsibility!” He turned on her and advanced a step. “And I know you don’t know anything about that and I don’t think you even care, so just sit down and shut up and listen to me. Damn it, Calliope, you are going to that hospital if I have to tie you up and throw you in the trunk of a taxi. It’s the only way to be safe!”
“…Then I guess I won’t be here,” Calliope said. She stood and walked out.
For a brief time there was silence. They heard Calliope’s door close with a ‘click.’
Hyacinth folded her arms across her chest and leaned back against the kitchen counter. “Okay, I know why you just turned into a crazy kidnapper. Are you going to tell her, or do I have to?”
“No,” said Mordecai. He shook his head. “I will. If she lets me…”
Calliope threw her suitcase on the bed. It bounced but the latches held. Probably you really could throw them out of airships, like the commercial said.
She didn’t know where she was going to go where there was another great doctor like Hyacinth and she wouldn’t have to go to the creepy hospital, but she was pretty sure she could find someplace where people didn’t threaten to throw her in the trunk of a taxi like a goddamn spare tire.
She didn’t know what she was going to do with her canvases. They didn’t fold.
She swiped a clawed hand at both eyes, which were dry but stinging.
It was such a nice house. It was such a nice room. With the big window. And the neat things from all the old boxes. And the paper flowers. And the baby furniture! It hurt her to look at it now and think how she would even begin to take it apart and get it into the suitcase, but she didn’t like it any less.
Her chest ached like a bruise.
Milo took my record-player apart. What am I gonna do about that?
He just got done fixing the lights for me…
There was a tentative knock on the door.
“What the hell do you want?” she said.
She gasped and covered her mouth with both hands. Oh, gods, I hope it’s not Milo…
Mordecai spoke without looking in, “Calliope, I have nonjudgmental sandwiches and I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean what I said. I screwed up.”
Calliope cracked open the door. Her eyes were red and narrow and she scrubbed the back of her hand under her nose. “Yes you did,” she said. Her voice wavered like a cheap flute. “You did mean that. I’m dumb sometimes, but I know when people mean things.”
He sighed. He nodded. “I was scared and for a minute I thought I could fix it by yelling and hurting you. I was stupid. I’d like to tell you why I was scared and stupid so maybe you won’t be so mad at me anymore.”
“I won’t let you kidnap me.”
“No. I promise I won’t try to. Ever.”
She pulled open the door and stepped aside. “I don’t want a sandwich. I’m hot and everything hurts and I don’t want a stupid sandwich.”
“I don’t really want one, either. Maybe you can draw them later if you like.” He lifted the plate and tried smiling. The bread was unevenly sliced and he had not bothered to do anything about the crusts.
“No,” she said. She sat down on the edge of the bed with a light thump. The suitcase bounced again and so did she.
Mordecai noted the suitcase but did not remark upon it. He entered with a vague sense of unease and a total lack of idea where he should put the sandwiches. They shouldn’t go on the bed if she didn’t want them…
Then he saw the baby furniture in the corner and almost had a heart seizure. The rocking chair and the bassinet, mother and child, had been upended like dead insects. The dull white wicker had been brightened with myriad designs, and ‘WET PAINT’ signs had been taped to the bottom of each piece — that was the reason, but Mordecai couldn’t help feeling it was an omen. A bad one. (The paint was no longer wet. Calliope left them that way because she didn’t want anyone to use them before there was a baby to use them on. ‘Bad omen’ was a little too dark for her, but she had confided to Ann that she didn’t want them ‘jinxed.’)
Mordecai kept hold of the sandwiches and a modicum of dignity. He approached the art table opposite the dead furniture; it had a tiled top, but there was a lip at the edge to stop things from falling off. There were scattered papers on it, drawings of human figures and cans of spaghetti, as if she were thinking of getting back into advertising. He brushed them aside but slightly and deposited the sandwiches in the empty space. They slid to the lip and stayed. He put both hands on the table, too, and held onto the edge as if he might stick similarly. He did not look up or look over. “This is… not easy. It’s a lot easier to yell.” He shut his eyes. “I don’t want to push you around and make you do things. I know I hurt you and I’m sorry… I’m sorry I’m putting this on you now. I was… I am afraid for you to have the baby here, and I should have just said why, but it’s a hard thing for me to say. All of this is… very hard.” He took a breath and let it out slowly, then he took another and made the words go. They tumbled over each other like falling leaves. “It’s because of what happened to Erik’s mother. I told you how Erik’s mother didn’t make it through the siege. I mean, I told you it happened, not how it happened. It happened… because she was sick. She was very, very sick.
“We… There was this…” Hotel. He didn’t want to say it and wasn’t sure he could make himself. He wasn’t even sure it would make any sense. It wouldn’t mean the same to her. “We… We used to do supply runs. We’d go into the city and look for things. But sometimes we’d get stuck. And we got stuck, and we got sick. Alba and me and Jim and Janice and they left us there because they didn’t want to get sick. And it was just me, it was just me…
“No.” He rattled his head and tried to reset his thoughts. “Jim died and Janice died and then it was me and Alba. And I tried to take care of her, but I couldn’t make her better.”
He had prayed. It was all mixed up and very hard to sort out and remember, but he had prayed for hours at a time. Not like Erik who nipped into the basement for five minutes and came back with Cousin Violet — or Aunite Enora. Silent hours in front of a makeshift shrine of icons he’d drawn on hotel stationary and taped to a night table, and no one came. Just him, and Alba so hot and dying in the bed, but she didn’t die, and he didn’t die either, and it wouldn’t be over. And no one came.
“What I mean to say is… I was there when Erik was born. And… And there was nothing I could do for her. Not even for the pain. And she died. She was too sick and too weak and she died… and then I really was alone and I didn’t know what to do. There is a lot… there is so much that can go wrong… And I can’t… I can’t do that again. I can’t have it be… something very wrong and I have to fix it and I can’t. I know it won’t happen that way again.” He clenched his hands and shook his head. “I know, but I can’t make myself…”
“Em,” Calliope said. She was behind him and she put her hand on his shoulder.
He turned, but he couldn’t bring his head up and look at her. “So, listen, if you want to have the baby here with Hyacinth… I’m the one who needs to not be here. I’m the one who needs to go. This isn’t on you. This is me. This is something wrong with me.”
Calliope looked pale, and he put a hand on her to steady her, “I’m sorry…”
“Was it because there was something wrong with the baby?” she said. “With Erik?”
He dropped his head again and shook it. “I don’t know… There’s a lot I don’t know and I should know. I wasn’t… I wasn’t okay.” Sick, yes, but that had been the least of it. “But I don’t think that was it. She lived… She lived a very long time. I didn’t know it then, but I looked up the dates, when the Gray Wall came down and when Hyacinth found me… found us. I did the math for it. She shouldn’t have lived that long… I think she wanted to see him.” He twitched a weak smile, not a happy one, and he shook his head again. “It doesn’t make any sense, but I think that’s what it was. And then when he was here and he was okay, she… She didn’t want to get him sick. It doesn’t make sense,” he repeated.
“I think it makes sense,” Calliope said. She folded both hands over her stomach.
He turned away. “You don’t have to put up with me right now and you don’t have to have sandwiches. I know this is… a lot.”
“What kind of sandwiches?” she said.
“Just peanut butter, I don’t know. There’s cold toast out there in the toaster, too.”
She sat down on the bed. “I don’t want you to go,” she said. “I don’t want to think about this all by myself.” She snickered weakly. “But I am not super into sticky sandwiches right now.”
“Are you really uncomfortable?” he said. “I know it’s like a giant armpit outside today. Do you want a dishrag?”
She laughed. “Were you gonna fan me with it?”
“I was going to soak it in cold water so you could put it on your face.” She couldn’t have a cold bath. There were no bathtubs in this house. Not real ones.
“Maybe in a minute,” she said. She put her feet up on the bed and scooted back against the headboard. After a moment’s thought, she tucked the suitcase under her knees for a cushion. It was a little better that way but it was getting harder and harder for her to be comfortable in any position. She rubbed her hand against her cheek and fiddled with the lank hair at the side of her face. She didn’t feel right sketching and she really didn’t want a sandwich. “You and Erik’s mom were friends, huh?” she said tentatively.
“More than friends?”
“Yes. I was a handler. I was her handler. That means…” He had to stop and get it organized. It meant an awful lot, and some of it he wasn’t comfortable talking about. “I was in charge of her. I was supposed to take care of her. She was doing some really hard and amazing things, and someone needed to be there to help if she needed it, or pick her up if she fell.” Or feed her and get her to the bathroom if she couldn’t do that. Or hold her when it was too much and she cried or screamed or hit. “There were a lot of us like that. We helped everyone and we helped each other, but we all had someone special we were in charge of. She was mine.”
“Mm-hm,” Calliope said. More like a dad thing, she thought. “That must’ve been really hard.”
“I don’t think it was any harder than what she was doing…”
“No, I just mean the last part. With the dying.”
“Oh. Yes.” He didn’t think she meant to be flippant, that was just how she talked about things, but a part of him rankled and wanted to lash out. It was only more pain.
She sighed and sat forward, but that was really uncomfortable so she rearranged herself in a cross-legged position and scooted to the edge of the bed. “I like Hyacinth… And I like it here. I like everyone here. I’d like to be here if something goes wrong, or even just if it hurts and I’m tired. But if something goes really wrong…” She let out a long slow breath and blew a strand of hair out of her face. “No, I don’t want to do that.” She smiled. “I guess I better talk to Cin about the hospital. Is Our Merciful Lord still the closest one from here?”
“I-I think so,” said Mordecai. He never really had much to do with the hospital. They didn’t like him at the hospital. Any hospital. He blinked and shook his head. He sat down on the bed beside her. “But, Calliope, you don’t have to…”
“Yeah, I know you’re not gonna kidnap me if I don’t, but I still think I’d better,” she said. “I mean, it’ll hurt me no matter where I am. The best thing I can do is try not to hurt my friends.” She frowned. “Do you think Cin’ll figure I don’t think she’s a super great doctor and get mad at me if I want to go to the hospital?”
“No, I think she’ll figure I bullied you into it somehow and be mad at me.” He couldn’t quite fathom that this was over, it was done with, it was solved. Fifteen minutes ago he hadn’t known there was a problem (well, except the baby and the pregnancy and all that other stuff) and now… He was back to there not being a problem again? No compromise? No screaming? (Minimal screaming.) Nothing he had to put up with or do? He felt inexplicably light.
He frowned at her. You have taken this from me. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
“Nah, I’ll explain that part,” Calliope said. “Em? Do you kinda think no one’s ever gonna help you or do you just not like it?”
“It’s okay. I’m not mad anymore, but you get really mean when you need something. You were mean to Cin, too. I guess you wanted us to go away and leave you alone, but is it because you didn’t want us to feel bad or you thought we’d make you feel worse?”
“I… I… What?” Where in the hell was she getting this? It was like watching someone pull a steam engine out of a hat.
She shrugged. “I don’t mean to poke you about it. I was just curious. You said that about being handlers and everyone helping out during the siege. I know you like helping. I guess they gave you a job doing it because you wouldn’t quit even if they shot you. I just have a hard time picturing you getting help.” She closed her eyes. “There’s a lot of yelling involved.”
…And a coal car and a boxcar and a little red caboose. “It… It was very much like that, Calliope. Yes.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll try to remember about it, but I can’t promise I won’t ever get mad again. You’re pretty good at being mean.”
“I think it would be much better if instead of your trying not to be mad, I stopped being a vicious person who tries to hurt all my friends.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Calliope said. “But you don’t have to do everything,” she made an expansive gesture with both hands followed by a minute one with thumb and forefinger, “but I would like a cold rag and the sandwiches gone.”
He removed the sandwiches first. Hyacinth was still in the kitchen, sitting with her legs crossed in a very unladylike manner. She was eating the toast. She sat forward. “Well?”
He said: “Hyacinth, I’m sorry I laid into you for how you fixed Erik and me. That wasn’t fair. I know you did the best you could and I’m grateful for it.”
Hyacinth stood up. “Did she hit you in the head?” She lifted her hand to check. That would be gear number 6.
“It was very much like that, yes.” He brushed her away and had a look in the doorless cabinet under the plumbingless sink. “Now, where have you hidden the damn dishrags?”