Chicken Soup for the Soul

[Author’s Note: Congratulations! You’ve just found the secret message!

[“Milo…” Don’t was pointless. These were stress behaviors. Stop one, you’d get another. The problem was the stress.

[Having written these words, the author is left wondering if the fucked-up casserole that is Milo Rose might not have turned out a bit better if a certain red individual with cooking skill and knowledge of stress behaviors had been present at the workhouse.]

Joshua X. Christopher, what the hell are you ladies doing?

“Language!” said the one with the hypodermic needle.

“The language is appropriate!” he cried. He addressed the two who were trying to drag the kicking, struggling child out from under the bed by the ankles, “Drop that! Drop it! Drop it!” As it appeared necessary, he slapped hands.

The thin bare legs scrabbled and disappeared under the bed when released. There was gasping and sobbing going on under there but, oddly, no screaming. He might not’ve noticed this at all if he hadn’t been near enough to hear the scuffle. That bothered him more.

“Put that thing down!” He aimed a slap at the one with the needle as well. “What are you trying to do?”

She set the syringe on the table and addressed him with hands planted on her hips. Aha, this was Sister Mary Catherine. He had conceived a particular loathing for Sister Mary Catherine. “We are attempting to treat an uncooperative child with a high fever.”

“Did it occur to you that the child might be a bit more cooperative if you weren’t abusing it and threatening it with needles?”

“He has not been,” she replied. “This boy has a history of antisocial behavior.” She nodded to the file on the table.

“Doesn’t he react well to tormenting?” He snatched up the file and flipped through it.

“He refuses to speak.”

His attention was drawn to a yellow piece of lined paper, torn from a legal tablet. The first line read, Milo will be allowed sugar with dinner if he asks. Below it was a voluminous list of additions. There were columns. All meals, came first. Salt, was beneath it. Milo was also disallowed meat, fruit, vegetables, hot meals, a pillow, blankets, tea, socks and underwear, a page’s worth of basic amenities and kindnesses — oh, and there was a starred note at the very bottom that said he couldn’t have crayons even if he asked.

“What in the hell does this kid eat?” muttered Dr. Eidel.

Sister Mary Catherine peered over his shoulder at the file and answered him, “Bread and water with lime juice.”

“Lime juice?” He looked up at her and frowned acidly. “You have no idea how thrilled I am that Milo is allowed to keep his teeth — even if he doesn’t ask.” He tore out the yellow sheet and brandished it. “Has any of this damned nonsense helped?”

“Helped?” said Sister Mary Catherine, blinking.

“Does he speak now? Is he behaving himself up to your standards?”

“Obviously not,” said Sister Mary Catherine. She gestured to the boy under the bed. “But, presumably, when the situation becomes intolerable…”

“The situation has become intolerable,” Dr. Eidel replied, closing the file. “I am not going to tolerate it. The boy is sick now — I wonder why!” He lifted the file and threatened the nun’s nose with it. “He is in the infirmary and he is my responsibility. That means we are going to treat him like a human being, and that means I get to decide what that means! I wouldn’t treat a dog this way!” He slammed the file onto the night table, unsettling a further catalog of papers detailing the battle of wills with the boy who wouldn’t speak.

“A dog?” said Sister Mary Catherine, regarding him. Dr. Eidel was a colored person.

“Yes!” he snarled. “Even if it were attempting to gnaw its way through my lower leg at the time! You are to stay the hell away from this child,” he told her. “You and your ilk. You have proven that you cannot be trusted. I will take care of him. If he needs something or acts up, you come and tell me. If I catch you interfering or screwing around with him, Joshua Christopher and all Twelve Apostles will not be able to help you. I can’t fire you, but I can lock you in a closet. I know where you sleep, and I can do magic!” He lifted a red hand and grinned. Yeah, that’s right, lady. I will follow you around for the rest of your life and make everything taste funny!

Sister Mary Catherine appeared suitably disturbed, though she could not have known the substance of the threat. Perhaps she just preferred not to be locked in a closet.

“You can start staying away from him right now,” he added, positioning himself between the nuns and the bed. He waited until he saw the backsides of three white habits before he crouched down and had a look at his new patient.

The boy was thin and quite pale, with dark red hair that was growing over the tips of his ears, a ragged white nightshirt that had been buttoned askew, and dirty bare feet. There were bruises on his legs. His condition bespoke neglect, his posture and expression bespoke abject terror. He had curled the fingers of both hands into the bedsprings under the mattress, hanging on for dear life. His face was hollow, with dark shadows and sharp lines. There was a mad blush burning in his cheeks. His eyes were wide and glassy, searching constantly and seeing nothing. He was breathing hard through an open mouth. He had tucked his legs under him and was digging his toes into the cold tile floor, as if he desired to burrow into the grout.

“Hey, little guy,” Dr. Eidel said gently. “They’re gone now. It’s just me.”

Eyes… thought Milo. It was always eyes. Even when he tried to hide. He couldn’t get away. They wouldn’t stop hurting him.

He shuddered.

“It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. You can stay under there right now if you need. I’d just like to…” The red man reached out a careful hand. He’d like to get some idea of the fever.

Milo uttered a high, soft whine. He clutched harder in the bedsprings, pulling himself against them and making them creak.

Dr. Eidel withdrew his hand and regarded it. “No, huh? Okay. Let me see what I can do.” He stood and searched the immediate area for more nuns. There was one refilling the waterglass of a young woman with a mangled hand and arm. He caught her eye and lifted a finger. Don’t you dare come over here, lady. You heard what I said to the others.

She frowned at him and went on about her business.

They had a refrigerator, for specimens and the various medicines that needed it. It did double duty for food and drinks. There were shelves designated. He found ice and half-filled a soft blue bag with a screw top. He wrapped this in a towel, so it wouldn’t be too cold. He didn’t want to hurt the kid. He also took a bottle of cold ginger ale. They were always getting ads in the mail that said you ought to hydrate with soda. Of course, they also got ads in the mail saying they should not hesitate to use the really excellent drugs those nurses had been about to impose upon the boy with a needle. There was one in particular that featured an old man brandishing a cane, and recommended the use ‘For Senile Agitation.’ He thought it was truly hilarious. He framed it and hung it in his office.

The sisters thought he was bizarre. Possibly even sacrilegious. Fortunately, they could no more fire him than he could fire them. This was practically volunteer work. He got paid just enough to eat and not quit. As long as he showed up semi-regularly and didn’t murder people, he was golden.

Circumstances seemed to suggest he might even get away with murdering people, as long as he wasn’t too gleeful or persistent about it. But, he confined his weird behavior to swearing, yelling at people, and framing funny pharmaceutical fliers. Pretty much.

He did not select any amazing new drugs from the fliers. He dished out two aspirin for the fever and a couple antihistamines to see if he could get the kid to sleep. Poor kid looked like he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about a year. Worse than the kids in the library during finals week — and they had access to amphetamines. Milo under the bed was running on pure adrenaline.

The gods alone knew what they’d been doing to the boy, or why. He’d have another look through the file when he had a moment, but he doubted the whole story was in there. For the moment, it appeared he had a torture victim on his hands.

Was it just because he wouldn’t talk? He wasn’t lighting small animals on fire or peeking up little girls’ dresses or anything like that? Did anyone ever sit down with him for a minute and try to work out why he quit talking?

No, of course they didn’t do that. They didn’t have time for that. They were trying to run a business here. (Or, no, excuse me, a charity!) Poor sinners in — poverty in and of itself being a sin — repentant workers out. Also, fabric and clothing — but only enough to cover the costs. Plus a little bit extra, because we’re doing a good thing. Aberrant behavior was corrected with cruelty. Understanding cut into the bottom line.

He sighed. He didn’t really have to work here. He wasn’t that big of a screw-up. He didn’t send in cereal box tops for his degree. He had broken the color barrier at a fairly nice university — no ivy on the walls, but some lovely box hedges — and demonstrated sufficient competence to get away with a diploma, despite his obvious shortcomings. He completed his residency at a real life hospital. He had then proceeded to wow precisely no one and contribute precisely nothing of note by getting himself lodged in a workhouse, taking care of the abused and the neglected and the mangled-by-poorly-maintained-machines. Oh! And he picked up some hours at the free clinic every week! That, too!

Why? That was certainly what his parents had wanted to know. They had maybe been a little more entitled to ask it than some, having contributed financially to his education and upkeep. (Although, not all of it. He had picked up enough money for food and housing and textbooks playing ‘cello nights and weekends in a wretched little bar near the campus.) Was he that damn selfless? Couldn’t he just contribute money to charity around Yule every year like normal folks?

Well… No. He wasn’t selfless at all. He was selfish. He didn’t like people. They were stupid and they annoyed him. Making a success of himself would have required him to cope with so many more people. University people, and grant money people, and research people, and colleague people. Cocktail parties. Break rooms. Libraries and laboratories. All crammed to the rafters with stupid people, and he would have to be nice to these people. He would have to smile at them and put up with them. There were still plenty of idiots at the workhouse, but he could scream at them when he wanted, and there was nothing they could do about it. That was great. That was a perk!

And, honestly, now that he was here, he was terrified of what the place would be like without him. They had been feeding the people in the infirmary nothing but bread and water when he got there.

It keeps them from feigning illness to get out of work. (Sister Mary Catherine again.)

Lady, let them feign! If they’re faking it, I will figure it out! I have a large, very official-looking piece of paper on the wall that says I am qualified to do that!

Sometimes he let them stay anyway, the kids who worked the machines and the ladies who did the sewing. They weren’t lazy, most of them, they were just tired. It wore them down, all the work and all the deprivation and all the gray. All the praying. It was a mental health thing instead of a physical one. He was willing to make an attempt at mental health, when it seemed necessary — despite not liking people. It wasn’t like anyone else was going to do it.

One thing was certain: Milo under the bed was not going to be Milo back in the workhouse until Dr. Eidel had made an assessment about the not-talking, no matter what damage aspirin and care and real food did to the fever.

“Hey… Little guy?” He sat down on the floor and adopted the half-lotus position, which was more suited to primary-school children and looked a bit odd on a forty-five-year-old man in a white coat. He had left the pills and ginger ale on the night table for the moment and was holding the ice bag wrapped in the towel.

Milo was still clutching his hands in the bedsprings, but he had closed his eyes. He gasped and opened them when he heard words. He pulled himself away.

“It’s okay. I think you’re probably not understanding me very well right now, but it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to try to show you.” He kept his voice even and soft, and he leaned in with the ice bag. “This might be scary for a minute, but I’m going to be as careful as I can…”

Milo whimpered. He drew his knees to his chest and curled into a ball. His eyes were wide and they stared. He looked from the man’s eyes to the man’s hands that were coming closer to grab him and hurt him. They were slow. They were tortuously slow. No. No. No, no, no… He couldn’t scream.

“It’s okay. I’m sorry. It’s okay. Let’s just try this for a little. Let’s just try..” He touched the ice bag… not quite to the back of the boy’s neck. Sort of to the side. He couldn’t reach the back, the boy wouldn’t stop staring at him. It was like he had a knife in his hands. Oh, gods, I hope it doesn’t hurt him. He did it very lightly, just so Milo could get the idea of it. Here. This is what this does. This is what I do. I’m not trying to kill you, honest.

“Is that okay?” he said softly.

Cold… Milo closed his eyes and sighed. Everything had been so hot. He thought they had taken cold away from him, too, like everything else. Milo is willful. Milo can’t have cold. Or crayons. Or a pillow. Or peace.

Nobody ever gave anything back before.

He clasped it in both hands so they couldn’t take it away again and he nestled against it.

“Hey. Yeah,” said Dr. Eidel. He smiled. “That’s better. Okay.” He helped Milo hold the ice, with his hands under Milo’s hands. After a few minutes, he spared one and touched the side of the boy’s face.

Cold… But this was different. Not soft and fuzzy like the towel with hard chunks behind it. Smooth, and just soft. A hand. A person. He opened his eyes and looked at the hand. It was red. Really red, like a red crayon. There were short nails that were filed down to the quick and couldn’t scratch.

Dr. Eidel emitted a soft sound, Hoo. The boy’s cheek was dry and burning, like someone with heat exhaustion. He couldn’t do a touch-know, not really. They tried to teach him, he just didn’t have the capacity for it. Everyone else was walking around with a bucket, some of them empty, but they could be filled. He had a shot glass. Still, you could tell a lot from looking and feeling and experience. “I think you must be pretty miserable, kid.”

Milo glanced at the sound and the voice. No. Eyes. He gasped and turned his head away. This brought his own eyes under the shadow of the cold red hand, and he liked that. The hand stroked him once, then departed. No… It touched his hand and pressed it against the fuzzy towel with the ice.

“Can you hold this for a second, little guy? I’ve got some more things for you…”

Both hands pressed his hands around the ice and then let go. Milo stared at the ice bag and the towel. I can have this? He buried his face in it. Cold. I can have cold.

Dr. Eidel retrieved the soda and the pills. He pocketed the pills and opened the soda. Milo looked up at the hiss and crack of the bottle cap being removed with the aid of the metal bedframe. Soda? They didn’t ever get soda. He didn’t ever get anything except water now.

Past the soda, there were staring eyes that made him wince. He looked at the soda and the red hands. The bottle was wet and breathing a faint white vapor. It was cold.

He wanted to cry. He might get cold soda, or he might not get cold soda. Either one of those was too much right now.

He got cold soda. The hands held it for him so he could hold the ice.

It was ginger ale. He blinked at it. Am I sick?

They had ginger ale in the infirmary. It was good in the infirmary, because there was a nice doctor that thought sick people should have nice things to help them get better. The doctor was red. There was soup in the infirmary. There were two kinds. You could pick which one you liked best. He liked tomato, but chicken noodle was okay if they didn’t have that. And there was canned fruit, and juice and tea, and sometimes custard or aspic. You could lie in the bed and sleep as much as you liked. Or you could have a book, or a puzzle, something quiet. They let him draw.

Maybe I don’t have to go to school today, Milo thought. He did something he hadn’t done in months. He smiled. It was faint, but it was there.

“Oh, that’s pretty good, huh?” said Dr. Eidel. He smiled, too. “I’ll get you another one of those when you’re done with that, if you like. You should drink.” He thought the kid was probably dehydrated, but he wasn’t going to pinch him to make sure. “Do you think you can do some pills for me, little guy? I can do syrups if you can’t swallow, but they don’t taste very good.” He drew out the pills and showed them in the palm of his hand.

Milo saw pills, round white ones and small pink ones, held cupped in a red hand. I’m sick, he thought, relieved. There was medicine in the infirmary, too. Sometimes it didn’t taste good and sometimes the nurses were mean if you didn’t want to take it, but they couldn’t hit your hands or make you stand in the corner, because you were sick. They didn’t take things away in the infirmary. The doctor wouldn’t let them.

But he didn’t want anyone to be mean, even if it was just talking, and medicine was to help. He didn’t feel good. He was dizzy, and hot, and his head hurt. It had been like that a long time. Not as long as being afraid and always needing to scream, but a long time.

He didn’t think he needed to scream right now. Not if he was careful and he didn’t look at the eyes. If he just looked at the hands. They were nice hands.

He opened his mouth for the pills. He had one at a time. The white ones were bitter, but he got sips of ginger ale after each one. He put a hand on the bottle and Dr. Eidel took a hand off the bottle and put it on the ice bag. They traded. Dr. Eidel held the ice and Milo drank ginger ale. When he finished the bottle, the doctor took it away.

“Do you think you’d like a blanket, little guy?”

A blanket? thought Milo. He nodded. He didn’t have blankets in forever. He liked the cold, but the floor was hard, and it would be nice to have something over him. A blanket felt heavy and safe.

But was he really going to get a blanket or would the doctor say he had to ask?

He got a blanket. It was white, and not very soft or thick. It had a dobby weave, a little like a gauze pad. It was like heaven. He gave the ice back to the doctor and pulled the blanket against him with both hands.

“Do you still want the ice?” the doctor asked. “I can hold it.”

Milo nodded.

“Show me where.” He offered the ice bag and his hand.

Milo guided the ice to his forehead and held it over his eyes.

Aha, thought Dr. Eidel. The little guy can communicate. He just doesn’t want to talk. He only withdraws when you scare the hell out of him. He put his other hand behind Milo’s head and held that, too.

Milo leaned against his hand, and then against him, pressing a cooler cheek to the breast of the white coat. He didn’t seem to mind the pen in the pocket, but Dr. Eidel removed it when he had a chance.

It was easy to tell when Milo fell asleep, even with no talking and the ice bag over his eyes. He relaxed. Conscious, he was like a bundle of wires. Dr. Eidel couldn’t fathom what it must be like to feel that afraid. It had only lessened a little bit, enough for him to accept human contact and parse words. He could only be calm asleep.

What did they do to you, Milo? he wondered. Is there some way I can get you to tell me?

He held Milo for a little while, and when he felt reasonably certain the child would remain asleep, he lifted him and put him in the bed. He made sure to put Milo’s head on the pillow. Milo would not be deprived of pillows, or any other available kindness. That was going to stop.

He got Milo another blanket, the blankets were not very good, and tucked him in.

The whole journey from ‘hysterical and clinging to the bedframe’ to ‘asleep and smiling in the bed’ had taken a little over half an hour.

———

“He’s under the bed again,” the young sister informed him smugly.

He sighed and stood up. He had been sitting on a bed and giving a little girl three minutes with a thermometer. “Of course he is. He’s hurt and sick. This is not poor behavior. He is not acting up. He is trying to be safe.”

“He can’t stay under there.”

“No, but the way to get him out isn’t to punish him. So rarely is that a viable solution. You’d be surprised.” He removed the thermometer and read it. He handed it to the nurse. “Here. This child’s name is Karen. She has bronchitis because of those damn cotton fibers. Be kind to her.”

He thought Karen with bronchitis, at six, was better capable of coping with marginally kind people than Milo under the bed, at eleven.

He had since been through the file and yelled at a few people. Apparently the thing with the no-talking had been going on for a little over a year. Notes prior to that time indicated that the child was ‘willful,’ whatever the hell that meant, and that he should be encouraged (read: punished when he doesn’t) to stand up straight, speak up, and give oral responses. Dr. Eidel gathered from this that the kid was shy. And they had apparently been smacking him about the shyness for some time. There was a bizarre little notation that the kid should be discouraged from drawing dresses too much. Also, he stole things and lied (Yeah, who doesn’t do that in the workhouse? You don’t let people have things, they will steal them. And of course he’s going to lie about it, you will hit him if you find out!). He had done some damage to a sewing machine at age nine. He helped out with the weaving machines and coped with the attendant respiratory problems until age seven, then they moved him on to the laundry. He had thus far managed to escape being permanently mangled by any of the machines, so he had to be pretty smart and fast. He got good grades in math — well, he used to, but he was no longer turning in work. He was nearsighted. (The glasses were folded in a drawer in the night table, the prescription was in the file.)

There was no indication as to why he had quit talking, except for the part about being ‘willful.’ There was no mention of the boy’s evident terror. Dr. Eidel had a pretty good idea why the sisters had bent over backwards to torment the kid, though.

He had pissed them off.

He wouldn’t break. He did not cry and apologize and repent. He kept misbehaving, and everything they did to try to stop him made it worse. He was flouting them at every turn. It was like he didn’t care that they were mad, or that he enjoyed it. Clearly, this was all on purpose. Well, they’d show him!

Dr. Eidel thought they had broken him quite some time ago, but because they didn’t get the behavior they wanted out of him, because he did not speak up and say he was broken, they didn’t notice it. So they just kept on. It was like they found a loose thread on a sweater, and it annoyed them so they pulled it. That weakened the integrity of the sweater and further annoyed them, so they just kept pulling, berating the sweater the whole time for being a bad sweater. And now, in the infirmary, Dr. Eidel had been delivered a pile of lint.

It will eventually revert to a sweater if we continue to punish it!

Yeah. No.

Gods, he really did hate people.

He collected aspirin and ginger ale and ice and got Milo out from under the bed. It went easier this time. Milo was glazed and unresponsive and he shied away from the ice, but when he heard the soda bottle open, his eyes cleared up and he seemed to remember. He drank, then he crawled into Dr. Eidel’s lap and hugged him. He did not object to being put back into bed.

Dr. Eidel asked yes and no questions and managed to get a lunch order out of him. He filled it and delivered it personally.

Milo crawled under the bed once more in the middle of the night (Dr. Eidel was currently sleeping on the couch in his office, and thus available to deal with it) and then never again.

On the third day, with Milo remaining in bed and attending and responding coherently to gentle questions about basic care, Dr. Eidel tried something new. He filled out a piece of lined paper from a pad in clear printing (He was capable of printing clearly, though poor handwriting was an affectation of most physicians. Sister Mary Catherine said his signature looked like someone had been killing spiders on the charts.) with sections for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He listed options and wrote directions for Milo to circle which he preferred. At the end, he asked one question which required a written response: Favorite Soup? He drew a line leaving space for the answer. He gave the paper to Milo on a tray table with a pen.

“Here, Milo. I think this might be easier than me asking you questions over and over.”

Milo flawlessly followed the directions and filled out the form. In the space for his favorite soup, he wrote, tomato, in neat lowercase.

He also drew staring lidless eyes all over the paper. He did that while he was reading, and while he was thinking about what he wanted to eat. Not absently, like he was doodling — vacantly. He would be touching under words with the tip of the pen and then his hand would wander off and put eyes in the empty spaces. He didn’t even look at what it was doing. Then he would circle something and move on to the next question, and a moment later: more eyes.

Okay, thought Dr. Eidel. The kid can read and write and he’s willing to do both, at least a little.

He didn’t know what the thing with the eyes was, besides creepy. He thought that probably wouldn’t be a good first question to ask.

In the end, what he decided on — after lunch and a nap for Milo, and delivered along with pen and paper and aspirin and a ginger ale — was simply, “Do you think you’d like to write something, little guy?”

Milo glanced at him and cringed. He was always doing that. Dr. Eidel didn’t know what he was doing that bothered the boy. He tried not to look mad. Smiling or frowning didn’t make any difference to the reaction. When Milo looked up at him, he saw something he didn’t like. Milo preferred to look down, or away, or just at his hands. Sometimes, usually when the sisters walked past but not always, he would pull up the blankets and hide under them.

Milo considered the paper. He picked up the pen and drew eyes around the edges while focused on the blank center. He didn’t know what to write. He had sort of forgotten that was an option. School wasn’t anything to do with writing things anymore. Everything was eyes and needing to scream.

Except here, sometimes. Still eyes, but not always needing to scream. Sometimes… Sometimes when he was tired, he forgot, and they weren’t always doing things to remind him. The doctor was nice to him.

He could write. He could write anything. ‘Help me,’ or ‘I’m scared,’ or ‘Please don’t make me go back there.’

Or ‘Thank you.’

He remembered wanting to write. Wanting to turn and write on the board. ‘Please stop. I’m sorry. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ That was when he thought it might stop, maybe he could make them stop. But he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t move. He had to look, and look at them looking. Then it was eyes and it wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t get away. He couldn’t scream. He didn’t have a voice anymore.

No, he had it, but it was too scary to use. If he tried to talk he would scream, because he always wanted to scream. He needed to scream. But it would make them all look. He didn’t want them to look anymore. It hurt so much…

The paper was full of eyes.

His mouth gaped open as if he were screaming — he didn’t, couldn’t — he dropped the pen and he shoved the tray and the paper with the eyes away from him. He covered his face with both hands and began to rock back and forth, issuing a high, thin whining sound, but no sobs or words. He was too frightened to cry.

“Oh, shit!’ said Dr. Eidel. He didn’t know what was going to happen if the kid filled up the whole paper with eyes. He had thought about maybe taking it away before that happened, but it also seemed like it might be something Milo needed to do. Maybe he did need to do it, but that didn’t mean he was okay with it. He was obviously not okay with it.

“No! We won’t do that. We won’t do that anymore…” He removed the tray and the paper. He was going to stow them under the bed, but he thought Milo might end up under there and he wouldn’t like to see them. He balled up the paper with one hand and stuffed it in the drawer with Milo’s glasses and he dropped the tray on the floor. The pen went clattering away somewhere and he ignored it. “Milo, I’m sorry. You don’t have to write. I’m sorry that happened…”

It wasn’t getting through. It wasn’t what Milo needed out of him. He required safety on a much more basic level.

He was still rocking and whining, but he had curled the fingers of both hands into his open mouth, like he was trying to tear out his tongue.

“Oh, no, please don’t…” But that didn’t make any difference and he knew it wouldn’t. Milo was only trying to fix himself. This fear was killing him and he was doing whatever he could to cope with it.

Dr. Eidel took both of Milo’s wrists in one hand — it was easy to hold them that way, Milo was thin. He pulled gently, but not so hard it would hurt. If Milo really started to hurt himself, he would pull harder. He put his other hand on the boy’s back and pressed there. Not holding him down, just… I’m here. There’s someone here to help.

“Milo. Milo, look at me. Listen…”

Milo moaned. He put both hands over his eyes and wildly shook his head.

“Okay. Don’t look at me.” Dr. Eidel put his hand over Milo’s hands. “I know you don’t want to. You don’t have to. I understand. Just listen. I’m not going to hurt you and I’m not going to let anything hurt you. I know you’re scared. I know you’re scared all the time and it hurts a great deal. I want to help you. Right now, I’m just going to try to be with you and hold you. If you hate that and you don’t want it, I’ll try to pay attention and figure it out. If there’s anything you can do to help me understand, that’s wonderful. If you can’t right now, that’s okay, too.”

You know I’m scared? thought Milo. You know it hurts?

Will you really not hurt me? Do you not want to?

He sobbed.

“Okay,” said Dr. Eidel. He took his hand down. He’d have to guess something else…

Milo shook his head. No… He almost said it. His tongue came up and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He couldn’t say it, but he didn’t hate this and he didn’t want it to stop. It was just too much. He didn’t know what to do with it. It was almost more scary that there might be help. It was different. It was a shock.

But he didn’t want it to stop. He reached out for the doctor’s hand and he put it over his eyes again. He held it there with both of his own. Please…

He couldn’t smile and he couldn’t speak and he couldn’t stop crying, but he needed this.

“Milo? Do you just need to cry right now?”

Milo nodded rapidly, still holding the hand.

“Okay. Then that’s okay, too.”

———

Dr. Eidel returned to his office without speaking to anyone and put a fist through the dingy wallpaper and into the rough plaster. He wanted to hit a person, but he didn’t know who deserved it. He rinsed his damaged hand with rubbing alcohol and bandaged the knuckles. It stung like crazy, but he wasn’t going to go into the washroom and take care of it properly. He might see someone and do something stupid, and he sort of enjoyed the stinging. It made him feel vicious and justified, like a wounded animal that bites.

He considered moving one of the framed fliers to hide the dent in the wall, but he decided against it.

Go on. Let them ask why. I’ve got some questions, too.

Like, How in the hell can you hurt someone that much and just keep doing it? Don’t you believe in a merciful god?

Or, You were just going to drug him? You were going to make it so he could communicate with us even less? Do you care anything about helping people, or would you just like everything to be easy for you?

But, those were not good questions to ask. They would garner him no useful information and they would end in him hitting people, no matter the response.

Oh, just let one of them open a mouth about the mark on the wall, though. Come on…

He felt sick. Worse than sick. Helpless.

Milo had things he badly needed to say, but he couldn’t talk and he couldn’t write. And it was so easy to hurt him when he couldn’t tell you what you were doing wrong. Another screw up like the eyes on the paper might damage the boy irreparably. Dr. Eidel was afraid to try anything else, but Milo was dying inside. It was like he’d been chewed up by one of those damn machines and he needed a shot of morphine just to stop the screaming and the doctor couldn’t find a vein.

Yeah. Let’s just keep sticking him with a needle indefinitely. That’ll do him a lot of good. It hurts and it accomplishes nothing!

He sort of wanted to do something else stupid, but now was a really bad time. In the middle of the day. And he couldn’t be stupid right now, he needed to be really smart.

It seemed like maybe words were off the table, any words. When you tried to get words out of Milo, you got eyes. Even reading and circling things had brought up eyes. It was something very important and very scary about the eyes, but Milo couldn’t explain it. Dr. Eidel needed to work his way around the eyes.

If words were out, then pictures might do it. There had been a note in the file about no more crayons, not even if Milo asked. That made Dr. Eidel want to go out and purchase the biggest box of crayons he could find, but that was just being contrary. He was a contrary person. It was possible the crayons had also resulted in fear and disturbing behavior from Milo and that was why they didn’t want him to have any.

A pencil was an option, maybe even some colored pencils, but he thought pencils were more to do with writing than drawing, even if he gave Milo unlined paper to use with them. Pen and ink, same problem, and Milo had already had a tiny nervous breakdown regarding a pen.

Maybe he could give Milo some glue and scissors and some old magazines to cut up, get kind of a collage-thing going, but there were words in magazines, and a lot of pictures of people with eyes, and if Milo had an issue with the magazines, Dr. Eidel did not want him to be holding a scissors at the time. He guessed there was more esoteric stuff, like watercolors and oil paints, but Milo wouldn’t know how to use them and more importantly Dr. Eidel didn’t know how to use them. He didn’t know what sorts of tools oil paints needed, and he didn’t have a whole hell of a lot of money to throw around getting them.

So he was back at crayons. Crayons were free, if he sneaked into the schoolroom and stole some. Milo knew how to use crayons. Crayons were specifically for drawing stuff.

Okay, so he’d try crayons, but not today. The rest of today was for recovery. No more trying to find a vein. Milo had had enough sticks and Dr. Eidel had had enough of sticking him.

———

Milo slipped both hands under the pillow and hugged it against the back of his head. He had a pillow. He had ice again, too. And blankets for when the ice made him too cold. And a soda. Dr. Eidel just gave the whole bottle, he didn’t pour some in a glass like the nurses and split it between two people.

He had a lot of presents.

They didn’t take things away here. Sometimes they would trade the ice for different ice, so he could still have cold, or clean blankets, or they’d take empty things, but they didn’t take good things.

Crying and not having to hurt with everyone looking at him was a good present, too. There was someone looking, he guessed there might’ve been a lot of people looking, but he didn’t have to see and it didn’t hurt. It felt better. Then he got medicine and soda.

But I’m gonna go back, right? I’m going to stop being sick, because I have medicine and they’re being nice. Then I have to go back. Then they’ll take everything. They’ll take more things. They want me to be hurt.

It was scary to have things and know that. It was scary to feel even a little bit better.

All he wanted was for it to stop. It had stopped, at least it was less, but it wouldn’t really.

He couldn’t be happy. He couldn’t be safe.

He turned his face against the pillow and cried.

Dinner was tomato soup and there were canned peaches and some crackers and it was really good and he had to stop in the middle and cry about that, too.

They brought the doctor back and he got to have his eyes covered and he didn’t have to look at anyone and he could just cry. It was so hard to stop crying. They had to warm up the soup again. He had the rest of it and more medicine and he slept.

———

Milo saw crayons.

He opened his mouth like screaming and he clapped both hands over his eyes and began to rock and shake his head.

“Oh, gods, Milo, I’m sorry. You don’t…”

Dr. Eidel was going to take the crayons away.

No! He almost said it. He almost shrieked it. He wanted to reach out and put a hand on the crayons and physically prevent that from happening, but he couldn’t.

He wasn’t allowed.

He turned his face against the palm of one hand so he didn’t have to look and see eyes and so he could use the other hand. He did not make a grab for the crayons. He pointed. Desperately. Repeatedly. The doctor had a pen in his pocket. Milo was allowed the pen. He’d had it before, but it made eyes and he got scared of it so the doctor took it away. But he didn’t say he couldn’t ever have it anymore ever. He didn’t say that. Milo could have the pen.

“What is it? What?” Dr. Eidel turned and looked behind him. Nothing particularly disturbing there. He touched his coat where Milo was pointing, first the lapel and then the pocket and then the pen. He drew it out.

Does he want it or does he want me to get rid of it?

“Milo… Do you need this?”

Milo nodded. He reached out his hand. He still didn’t look.

Dr. Eidel gave him the pen.

There was paper on the tray, with the crayons. Rough heavy paper like they had at school sometimes. Some of it colors. The sheet on top was light blue. Milo scrawled across it in rapid printing that ended in a spatter of ink: Milo can’t have crayons.

Then he began to draw eyes.

Dr. Eidel snatched the pen and the paper away. Milo put both hands back over his face, leaving an ink smear on his right cheek.

Milo can’t have crayons, read Dr. Eidel.

“Milo, do you want crayons?”

Milo nodded. His expression was tight with pain. He let go a soft sound, not quite a moan, only a little more than a breath, ahhh…

“Milo, you can absolutely have crayons,” Dr. Eidel said. “That yellow sheet in your file that said everything you couldn’t have, I got rid of that the day you came here. There isn’t going to be any more of that. They’re not allowed to treat you that way anymore. Because I said so. Because I’m a really mean person and I scream at people who are cruel to little boys and hurt them so they’re scared all the time and they can’t talk. Do you understand?”

Milo shook his head. He wanted to, but he was afraid to think the thing he thought the doctor was saying. What if that wasn’t it? That couldn’t be it. It couldn’t stop just because somebody said.

Dr. Eidel was still holding the pen. He leaned over the tray and wrote on the top sheet of paper, a pink one: Milo can have crayons. He added, below that: Milo can have anything he needs so he can be happy and not be afraid anymore. He put his squashed-spider signature at the bottom like it was a prescription. “Milo, look at this. Don’t look at me, look at this. This is for you.”

Milo took the pink paper from the red hands and read the words on it.

Milo can have crayons. Milo can have anything he needs so he can be happy and not be afraid anymore. Dn. Mnlcni Eel

Milo clutched the paper against his chest and wrapped both arms around it. He drew his legs up, too, and wrapped his whole body around to protect it. Don’t take this. I need this. This is mine.

“No one’s going to take it,” Dr. Eidel said. “They can’t. Even if they take the paper, they can’t take the words. The words are for you. That’s what you’re going to have now. You understand?”

Milo nodded.

“Do you want to draw? You can have the crayons and the paper even if you don’t want to draw right now. We’ll keep them in the drawer so you have them whenever you need.”

Milo took the lid off the box of crayons and set it aside. He held the pink paper against him with his off hand. The crayons were unevenly worn, and they were all out of order. You were supposed to keep them nice like they were on the lid. He fixed them. The yellow and white ones had gray tips from drawing over the darker colors. The gray was missing and there were two brown. He put those next to each other.

There.

He swished around the papers until he found one of those yellowish gray ones that passed for white. They didn’t have really nice white paper in school, or really nice anything. Sometimes he had good white paper, but he had to find it in places.

Okay, steal it. If no one was looking. Some of the sewing patterns had nice white paper, but funny shapes and very thin. You had to be careful with it.

This was the heavy stuff. It had a rough grain that marbled the lines of the crayons so you couldn’t get a really good, solid color. It held up well to repeated passes so you could get good gradients out of it, though. He gently employed the orange, then white and pink and a little yellow.

Geez, thought Dr. Eidel. Milo had successfully improvised a human skin tone.

He regarded his own red hand. Okay, technically, everything in the box was a human skin tone. But, you know, a Milo-like one. There wasn’t one of those in there. Not even close.

Milo drew a boy with dark red hair and a gray uniform. (It was hard to get the uniform right with no gray crayon. On the rough paper, the black and white made a pattern like herringbone.) No face and no eyes, just a smooth space. He was standing with his hands clenched at his sides so that they wrinkled the fabric of the trousers.

When he had finished the shoes, he returned to the blank face and drew a dark black ‘X’ where the mouth would’ve been.

“That little guy can’t talk,” said Dr. Eidel. He had just been staring, absorbed in the process. He wasn’t even sure for how long. He had, like, doctor stuff that he ought to be doing. Probably.

Milo made a see-saw gesture. He began to add a dark green chalkboard behind the boy.

Dr. Eidel glanced from the drawing to the artist. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to.”

Milo bobbed his head from side to side, a noncommittal nod. That was a little bit closer. Sometimes he wants to.

He drew angled lines and sketched comfortable darkness behind them, lightly with the black crayon. The boy was standing in a spotlight. He put eyes in the darkness, darker black lines on the dark field, no color or texture or emotion, just intent.

Dr. Eidel fidgeted briefly, then allowed Milo to draw eyes without comment. He was looking at them. He looked like he meant them. He was calm about it.

“That little guy looks pretty scared,” Dr. Eidel hazarded at last. He looked at Milo, not at the picture.

Milo looked at the picture, he was still doing eyes. He nodded.

“Is it because of the eyes?”

Milo nodded. He filled the paper to the edges with eyes, but he didn’t put any in the spotlight with the boy and the chalkboard. That was how it was.

He considered the drawing. Maybe he should’ve left room for Sister Mary Francis but he didn’t really want to draw her. He wasn’t sure how to make it look like her, she wore the same clothes as everyone. He didn’t know what her face looked like. Just really mad, probably, because she always sounded that way. Sharp words in a gray habit. Maybe a scissors, or a knife.

But he thought it was pretty okay this way. He was done with it. He flipped the paper over to the back and wrote ‘Milo Rose’ in round careful letters with the pink crayon. Three staring eyes sprang up around it, but he didn’t notice them. He flipped it back around to the front and handed it to the doctor.

It was as if he’d completed an assignment. He thought he’d draw a dress next. For fun.

Dr. Eidel regarded the detailed nightmare in crayon. A terrified mute figure being stared at from all sides, pinned by the light like a beetle in a glass case. Not dead and peaceful, though. Maybe dying. Helpless, in any case. “Milo…? Is it always like this?”

Milo nodded.

“Do you mind if I keep this?” He sort of minded keeping it. He thought he’d like to lock it in a drawer and walk briskly away from it. But it was a thing he needed to examine and understand.

Milo shooed a hand at him. Sure. Whatever. It’s okay. He thought the dress should have ruffles. He wasn’t sure about the neckline yet.

Between lunch and dinner. Milo produced three dresses, a sewing machine, and a screaming boy on fire with a lot of eyes watching. He did another dress before bed, a green one.

When he checked in the middle of the night, the paper and crayons were still in the drawer. He had folded the pink sheet with his words on it and put it under his pillow. That was still there, too.

Milo can have crayons.

———

“Hey, Milo. What do you think?”

Milo glanced up from his drawing. He made an open smile and laughed. Very soft, just a rapid breath, aha. Then he covered it with both hands and flushed, embarrassed.

Dr. Eidel was wearing sunglasses.

They were dark blue with round rimless lenses, shiny and opaque. Milo could see himself in them, a little. A vague pale shape with hands over the mouth.

“I’m entitled to wear these indoors, you know,” Dr. Eidel said. He lifted them slightly with a thumb. “I’m a musician sort of!” Like it was all one word. A job description. A musician-sort-of.

Milo removed one hand from his smile and signed, Okay!

“So, what have you got there?” The doctor leaned in a bit closer and regarded the drawing.

Milo picked up the pencil and wrote in the lined space: A pretty girl in a yellow taffeta dress. He drew one small eye in the lower left hand corner, like an afterthought. Drawings of dresses always picked up the fewest eyes.

Dr. Eidel had swiped these papers with a blank space and a lined space from the schoolroom yesterday. He did not ask if Milo wanted to write, but he did provide a pencil to make any theoretical writing easier. Milo drew a red hand holding a cold bottle of ginger ale (you could tell it was cold because it was sweating) and entitled it, Thank you. The words were ringed with five staring eyes.

If I talk I’ll scream, a later creation, had been practically black with penciled eyes, in the lined and the blank spaces. It looked like boiling water.

Dr. Eidel had sat down on the bed and tried to talk to Milo about that one. “Little guy, if you need to scream, it’s okay. I won’t be mad, and I won’t let anyone else be mad. This is the infirmary. Hurt people come here. Hurt people are allowed to scream.”

Milo only shook his head and looked away.

Dr. Eidel had also gotten paid yesterday. This morning, he had proceeded to a drugstore and got rid of his eyes.

Milo’s pretty girl had waist-length red hair with soft waves. Milo seemed to like his pretty girls with red hair. She had no face, Milo didn’t do faces. The dress had a full skirt with a lot of billows and a big bow.

Taffeta, thought Dr. Eidel. Do they even make taffeta here? Milo seemed to be able to pull the names of fancy fabrics from the aether. Chiffon. Organdy. Tuile.

A nurse who was striding past the foot end of the bed halted in mid-step and stared at them.

Well, at the sunglasses.

Dr. Eidel smiled and folded his arms across his chest. “I have a hangover,” he declared.

Milo gasped another laugh and pressed hands over it.

Dr. Eidel cast a glance at him. He continued his smile, “Yes, I was out all night last night, drinking and dancing with loose women. And taking the Lord’s name in vain. No real reason. I’m just evil. I think with my next paycheque, I may renovate an old church. Turn it into a themed bar. Or perhaps a brothel. Charge extra for use of the confessional…”

Milo was flopped back against his pillow with both hands over his face. He was panting. In another context, Dr. Eidel would’ve been worried that he was sobbing, but it wasn’t that.

Oh, no. He can’t say those things! Those are horrible things! He’s saying those things! He’s still saying more things!

Milo was about three seconds away from passing out in a delighted heap from too much oxygen and joy.

“In front of a child,” the nurse said, disgusted.

“I was thinking of making him my business partner, actually. We were just discussing it as you came by. Milo, what do you think? Shall we make our fortune with drunks or women of negotiable virtue? Both? What a precocious little boy!”

Milo just shook his head, blushing furiously.

They’re gonna be mad at you! They’re gonna yell at you! Don’t you care?

He peeped out from behind his hands and looked at Dr. Eidel with the sunglasses and the easy smile.

No. You don’t care, do you? You just like making me laugh.

“Ha,” said Milo, faintly.

Dr. Eidel blinked at him. He almost took off the sunglasses so he could get a better look at the boy. He pushed them up higher, instead. Nope, these are staying. I’ll just have to go out drinking and dancing with loose women every night.

Milo’s next artistic endeavor was entitled, Church with a bar and easy ladies inside. He put a sign out front that had a martini glass in green fey lights. Dr. Eidel put tape on it and hung it over Milo’s bed.

Actually, Milo wrote Church with a bar and easy lays inside, first, because Dr. Eidel was looking and Milo thought he might like that. He did like it, he laughed like crazy, but Milo erased it and changed it when he said he wanted to put it over the bed.

Milo still cared a little bit if people yelled.

The drawing had no eyes on it at all.

———

Dr. Eidel examined the drawing in his hands. It was a little hard to see with the sunglasses, but he was getting used to functioning with them on. Things were starting to seem uncomfortably bright with them off.

This drawing had no eyes. Milo had been steadily improving about the eyes, even with the scary things that hurt him to tell. This drawing did not require eyes. This drawing was about the eyes.

Milo was revisiting the subject of the terrified boy in front of the chalkboard. No eyes and no spotlight this time. There was a line of other children sitting at desks and looking at him, you could only see the backs of their heads. Supervising was a thin woman in a gray habit with an open scissors in the blank space where her face ought to be.

Milo had progressed, also, in the amount he was willing to write. Simple titles and sentence fragments had given way to complete thoughts and whole stories. In the lined space, he had used the dotted guideline that was supposed to help him do lowercase letters as a line for more printing, doubling the space he was allotted for exposition.

Sister Mary Francis glued my head to the wall. They knew I didn’t like people looking and they knew I didn’t mind standing in the corner. They made me stand in front of the class. They were always saying stand up straight and look up but I COULDN’T. She made me look up THE WHOLE TIME. I wanted to scream but I COULDN’T. Then I couldn’t talk for real. Now if I do, I think everything bad will come out. I have a lot of bad. I’m scared.

“I… I think I’m going to go kill Sister Mary Francis right now,” Dr. Eidel said faintly.

No… Milo mouthed the word and shook his head. He wrote on one of the blank papers he had for just drawing, Please don’t say I told you. She’ll hurt me.

“No,” said Dr. Eidel. “She will not hurt you. I don’t care what I have to do. I don’t care if I really do have to kill her. She will not hurt you and people are going to stop hurting you.”

Milo erased, She’ll hurt me. He wished he didn’t say that. You’re scary right now, he wrote, with an eye beside it. He wished he could take back the drawing, too. It made the doctor mad. The doctor already said he didn’t have to be hurt anymore or have things taken away. It was on the pink paper. He didn’t have to tell what happened. He didn’t want things to be different and more scary. He shouldn’t have told anything.

“I’m sorry,” Dr. Eidel said. “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad about what happened.” He lifted the drawing and shook it, once. “I’m mad this happened.”

It wasn’t so bad, she only did it one time, Milo wrote quickly. He wasn’t sure if she only did it one time, because everything got really hard to understand after that and he could only remember being hurt and scared and eyes. She only needed to do it one time.

“I don’t care how many times she did it!” said Dr. Eidel.

Milo flinched and dropped his pencil. He looked away.

“I’m not mad at you, little guy,” Dr. Eidel said softly. “I won’t hurt you. Do you know that?”

Mad because of me, Milo wrote. He looked up with eyes winced narrow.

“I’m mad because of what happened to you.” He sighed and put a hand over his eyes. It smudged the sunglasses, but he didn’t take them off. Milo just didn’t like scary mad people. The thing he’d done had made this man who was supposed to be helping him be scary and mad. There was no room for fine distinctions there. “Milo… It’s good that you drew this and it’s good that you told me. I needed to know. I’m sorry I got mad and scared you. I won’t be mad forever. I’m trying to stop right now.” He held up the drawing again. “This wasn’t okay. Please don’t pretend it was just so I won’t be mad anymore. I can be mad about something bad that happened and still be okay again and take care of you. Okay?”

Milo nodded.

“Do you want me to go away until I can stop being mad? It won’t be forever. It will only be a little while.”

Milo shook his head. Still frowning, but cringing a little less, he spread his arms for a hug. Will you? Is it okay?

“Yeah, okay,” said Dr. Eidel, nodding. He leaned over the bed and hugged Milo. Milo wrapped both arms around him and curled against him. He cried softly. Dr. Eidel took a few deep breaths and tried to relax and hug like a human being, he knew he must feel like a bundle of wires.

Milo calmed, but whether that was being held better or being held period, Dr. Eidel had no way of knowing.

Gods. He doesn’t want me to scream at people and try to make it better or make it fair. He just wants someone to hold him.

Maybe that is making it better?

He shuddered and closed his eyes.

No. It absolutely is not.

———

Dr. Eidel dealt with Sister Mary Francis. He did a lot of screaming and threatening and he invoked sacred texts and he hit her over the head with a prayer book. He could not fire her. He also lacked sufficient magical capacity to turn her into a frog, or something even more wretched, though he might’ve said he could.

He did not tell Milo about it. He was very careful around Milo and he tried to breathe deeply and smile and not seem like someone who was contemplating burning the workhouse to the ground with everyone in it.

No, not everyone. Not the workers.

Everyone ELSE.

He was also thinking, a bit more seriously, about quitting. The workhouse, certainly. Maybe the whole doctor thing entirely. Adopt Milo — or just steal him, whichever worked — start playing ‘cello in bars again to make ends meet. Hell, with tips, he might make more doing that than he did now.

I haven’t picked up a ‘cello in decades. Could I really do that?

He wasn’t sure he could still do this. Be a doctor at the workhouse. He was helping them. He was helping abusive people to abuse more people. Not just little boys who were afraid of talking, everyone in the workhouse, more or less. Little kids who did eighteen hour days split evenly between work and school and prayer with no time for, you know, life. Kids who picked up malnutrition and respiratory ailments instead of jacks and balls, who fell into machines and got maimed for life, or just died. Grown women who didn’t have it a whole hell of a lot better, too. No school, a lot more guilt and repentance, because it was their fault they were here, of course. Yeah, the sisters only hit hands and assigned penance and ‘consequences,’ but that was enough to destroy a person if they employed it properly, and they didn’t care.

Or maybe they thought some people deserved to be destroyed.

Well, he was with them there.

But what would it be like if I left? What would they do to people if I wasn’t here? What would they have done to Milo if I wasn’t here?

I think they might’ve killed him. I think if I wasn’t here, they might do that to somebody else. A lot more people.

Right, so… Burn it to the ground, then leave. That would work, wouldn’t it?

Yeah, then everyone who’s here has to go and live on the street. This place is awful, but it has food and a roof. There are blankets and beds. How many of them would die without that? How would those kids grow up with no parents and no food?

Yeah, but that wouldn’t be my fault. That wouldn’t be me helping it to happen.

Would it?

He wasn’t going to quit and he wasn’t going to burn the place to the ground. It didn’t matter what he thought, he would talk himself out of it. He didn’t do things like that. He didn’t do things, period. Doing things was hard. It involved people.

And pain.

I can’t have a kid. I’m not stable enough to have a kid. I’d screw him up worse than he already is. The only reason I can take care of him now is I can go hide out in my office or do something else when it’s too much.

Okay. He couldn’t have a kid, and he couldn’t become a crusader of burned workhouses, or even a mediocre ‘cellist, but he could damn well do something about Milo being too terrified to talk and always needing to scream.

He would just have to be very clever and think of what.

———

“Milo, how do you think you’ll be at walking?” Dr. Eidel asked. He knew Milo could make it to the bathroom, but he hadn’t been doing much else for the past few weeks. That was maybe not the best situation for a growing boy who needed exercise, but he thought it was all right for a thin one who’d just got done being sick and having a diet of bread and water.

Milo made a see-saw gesture. He was all right with it, he just hadn’t been doing it a lot. He’d rather draw.

“I want to take you back into the workhouse… Not to stay there or do anything, and we won’t go to the school. I just found a place you might like and I want to try something to help you. What do you think?”

Milo frowned and bobbed a slight nod. He went for his papers and did a quick sketch with the pencil. The pencil did gray best, he didn’t have the gray crayon. (He kept forgetting to ask for one. He wasn’t sure he wanted it.) He drew a gray shirt with a fish symbol on the pocket. He wrote words and held it up: Do I have to wear the uniform?

Dr. Eidel snickered and shook his head. He was aware that Milo hated the uniform. He’d done a drawing about it: WAY better uniform! It had a pink shirt with ruffles and a skirt, and knee-high white boots. He was not entirely certain Milo had meant it to be a girl’s uniform, either. “No, but you have to have shoes and socks. And I’ll have to wrap you up somehow.” It was warm where they were going, sweltering actually, but there was snow on the ground outside and the workhouse was not well-insulated.

Milo nodded.

There were brown shoes in the cabinet with Milo’s things. There were not socks. Milo had arrived without socks. Dr. Eidel stole long woolen stockings from a sick little girl of approximately Milo’s size — he’d put them back before they were missed. They came up above the knee and he thought Milo could use a little extra coverage in the leg area. The night-shirt was about knee length.

Milo did not object to girl’s stockings. (Privately, he was annoyed they were gray. And wool. There were way better stockings out there, he’d seen some in with the donated clothes. There were fishnets out there.)

Dr. Eidel considered wrapping Milo in a blanket and attempted it, but the blankets were not very good. Wrapping Milo in two blankets seemed to be asking to get a piece of the configuration eaten by a machine — followed rapidly by Milo. At last, he took off his white coat and put Milo in that. It fit better than blankets, but he had to roll up the sleeves. To complete the ensemble, he gave Milo back his glasses from the drawer. They were round with thin silver rims.

Milo pushed up his glasses automatically and blinked. He didn’t have really bad eyes, he just needed the glasses to see the chalkboard. He didn’t need them to draw or get to the bathroom. He hadn’t had them on in a long time.

Wow. Dr. Eidel looked older. He had lines in his face. He had a vest and a tie on under the coat, too. The vest and the pants were gray herringbone, Milo had thought they were just gray.

I guess I need these to draw stuff right, Milo thought. He took them off and wiped them with the edge of the coat.

Dr. Eidel was grinning, delighted. With the glasses, Milo looked like a tiny scientist. Like he was playing, but very serious about it.

Yes, I want to be a totally useless doctor when I grow up!

No, you want to be a fashion designer or something sensible, Dr. Eidel thought.

The kid really needed a clipboard. He removed the chart from the end of the bed and provided one. He left the chart itself on the bed and put some blank papers under the clip. Milo needed paper to talk, and Dr. Eidel might need paper to talk, too. That was the point.

“Here, little guy. Hold this.” He laughed. “You look really great like that.”

Milo held the clipboard aside and regarded himself. He took the pen out of the coat pocket and paced down the aisle between the beds, peering down at the clipboard and taking notes with the pen cap on. He paused and looked up and scolded an invisible nurse, shaking a finger. He looked back at Dr. Eidel and smiled.

“Yeah! Like that!” Dr. Eidel crouched and hugged him. His shoes cracked at the creases and pulled away from the soles. “Please don’t be a doctor when you grow up, little guy. You have so much potential. Promise me you’ll do something happy with yourself.”

Milo nodded, but gravely. Doesn’t being a doctor make you happy? You’re really good at it…

“Come on. Let’s blow this joint,” Dr. Eidel said. He tipped his sunglasses at a nurse on the way out. “Spent all last night in an opium den! My gods, Sister Mary Catherine, the walls in this infirmary are loud!”

———

The machines in the laundry were also loud. Milo was acquainted with them. Usually he put some cotton in his ears because they made his head hurt. They also steamed up his glasses pretty good. He got used to working with them in his shirt pocket when he had anything to do with the washers or the irons — he just had to be careful not to lean over too much or he’d lose them and get yelled at. He could still tell they were yelling, even in the laundry where he couldn’t hear because of the loud and the cotton. It was scary enough that they were mad.

The laundry was okay. It didn’t turn his hands weird colors like the kids who worked in the dyehouse, they just got red and sore from being wet all the time. The smell was better in here than in there, too. Not fantastic, because they still rinsed the dye out of the dyed things, and there was bleach and other chemical stuff, but mainly it was the soap and that was okay. He didn’t get sick all the time like when he used to help with the weaving machines, either.

He wasn’t sure if he minded being back here. He had been worried about eyes and screaming here, but he hadn’t really been too worried about where he was back then. He was scared wherever. He guessed he thought there might be a chalkboard and being glued to the wall and kids with desks wherever, too.

That was dumb. That wouldn’t happen.

He was still a little scared of it, though.

Dr. Eidel was holding his hand. He let go and put both his arms around Dr. Eidel’s middle, instead. The doctor put an arm around his shoulders and said something. “Milo…” and the rest was lost under machines. He took the clipboard from Milo and the pen from the coat pocket and wrote, Is it still okay?

Milo nodded.

Dr. Eidel cupped hands around his mouth and shouted, “I want to get closer! I think you can still hear me a little!

Milo showed his fingers a small space apart.

Dr. Eidel nodded. He lead them up some stairs to a catwalk directly above the washer. The floor was iron mesh. There was a thin railing. The whole thing wobbled when they moved. Dr. Eidel stopped, turned Milo around and crouched down. He spoke again. Milo could see ‘Milo’ but not hear it. Only the washer beneath them thumping and slobbering.

Dr. Eidel cupped both hands around his mouth and tried again. Milo could hear a very faint sound, like maybe a voice miles away carried on a breeze, but not what it was saying.

Dr. Eidel wrote on the clipboard, Milo, if you want to scream here, no one will hear you. You can say bad things or whatever you want. Even I can’t hear. No one will LOOK at you. No eyes!

Milo pressed a hand over his mouth and looked pained. No, but…

Dr. Eidel lifted a finger. He tipped his head back and screamed. There was a faint sound over the thudding of the machines, wavering as the volume ebbed and swelled. Maybe a distant voice singing, or the sound of a reed flute.

Dr. Eidel leaned over halfway, fisted his hands around the railing and said something. Screamed it out over the laundry floor. Milo thought he saw the doctor’s mouth say ‘pills’ but he couldn’t hear it. The kids and the ladies and the sisters working below did not look up or pause in their motions. Dr. Eidel gestured to them and smiled. See?

Milo’s mouth moved faintly behind his hand. His eyes were winced narrow and his glasses were steamed up. He was blushing from the heat.

He took his hand down, he clutched his own shoulders beneath the coat and said more.

He shut his eyes, he dug his nails into the fabric of the coat, he opened his mouth and he began to shout.

Dr. Eidel saw Milo’s mouth say, ‘crayons,’ and ‘Sister Mary Francis,’ and ‘please stop.’ Then, ‘hate,’ that over and over with different words around it. I hate you. I hate this place. I hate being afraid, maybe. Then he just screamed. He tipped his head back like Dr. Eidel had done and he made tight bloodless fists of both hands and he screamed up at the rafters. The machine beneath them thudded and swished and ate the sound, as it would eat unwary workers who leaned in too close, or Milo and Dr. Eidel if they should go over the rail.

Milo pressed both hands over his face, over his glasses, and he clutched his fingers in his hair. He wobbled and collapsed to his knees. Dr. Eidel caught his shoulder with one hand, so he wouldn’t go over the rail and get eaten, and knelt down with him. Milo didn’t seem to notice. He was still speaking, eyes covered. Dr. Eidel was pretty sure he saw Milo’s mouth go, ‘I want to die. I want to be dead,’ and his heart turned over in his chest, but he didn’t snatch the boy or stop him. Milo needed to say that, and he didn’t want anyone to hear.

Milo took his hands down. He stopped speaking, but only for a moment. He crawled forward and looked out over the laundry floor. He shouted again, this time smiling, but Dr. Eidel was holding him back to be certain he wouldn’t fall and he couldn’t see what.

I’m going to have a pretty dress! Milo told the sisters and the laundry and the workhouse and the world. I’m going to have all the pretty dresses I want, and you don’t get to tell me ‘no!’ I can have anything I need to be happy! I’m going to grow up and have pretty dresses and be happy!

He began to sob. He shuddered and curled up and sobbed. You could see his mouth gasping and see the tears but not hear any of it.

Dr. Eidel gathered him up and held him and rocked with him. He said some things, mainly about it being okay, but you couldn’t hear any of that, either. Milo put arms around his neck and clung.

Dr. Eidel commandeered the clipboard when it seemed like Milo could bear a little less hugging and wrote, Go? He tapped Milo’s shoulder and showed it.

Milo nodded and then hid his face against the doctor’s damp vest. Dr. Eidel carried Milo over the catwalk and down the stairs, then he had to put him down. Milo managed to engage his legs, though shakily. He slipped his embrace around the doctor’s middle and hid there. Dr Eidel put both arms around him, too, and they walked back to the infirmary like that.

“That boy Jacob is vomiting again,” Sister Mary Catherine informed Dr. Eidel, upon his tardy return.

“Right,” said Dr. Eidel — a bit thickly, because of all the screaming. He put Milo back in bed, arranged two blankets over him, and left to see about Jacob with the food poisoning. (Jacob had found a tin of expired corned beef in the trash and eaten the whole thing, because of course he did. If someone else caught him with it, they would’ve taken it away.)

Milo curled up and slept.

Dr. Eidel returned to check up on him with aspirin and ginger ale about an hour later. (After Jacob with the food poisoning had been Maria with the broken arm and Rachel with the amputated thumb.) “How’s it going, little guy?”

“…voice hurts,” Milo said softly.

“I’m sorry. I’ve got some aspirins. Maybe that’ll help.” He intended to take a couple himself when he had a minute.

Milo nodded. He took aspirin.

“Do you want some tea? I can get you some hot tea with honey.”

Milo nodded.

“I’ll pick the least horrible sister I can find and send it over.”

“…Mary Constance is okay.”

“I will send you Sister Mary Constance and a teapot with all speed.”

“…thank you.”

Dr. Eidel returned to his office and punched the wall again, this time with a grin. Yes!

He had to straighten his framed flier with the old man and the cane.

———

Shit!

Something glass was dropped and clattered but did not break, and something scattered, a sound like rain.

Milo was a light sleeper. Even back in the dorms, a lot of stuff happened at night. Sisters going in and out, kids crying. Sometimes mice ran over him, and that really bothered him because he didn’t know if he slept with his mouth open and he didn’t want a mouse to fall in and wake him up that way. And one time he heard one of the sisters say how rats could get into a crib and eat the fingers off babies and he wasn’t sure if mice could do that or if there were rats, maybe.

There weren’t mice in the infirmary — at least, he didn’t think — but there was still stuff going on. People going up and down the aisle, crying and sometimes screaming, whispers and soft talking, people taking medicine, drinking water and going to the bathroom. He woke up enough to confirm that whatever it was was okay, then he settled down and went back to sleep. Usually he didn’t even remember waking up.

But that was Dr. Eidel’s voice being mad in the middle of the night. That was not okay. He was mad during the day sometimes, he’d grab the nurses aside and scold them like the sisters scolded the kids, but at night he was quiet — asleep in his office or whispering with the nurses over a bed about something and serious.

What happened? Can I fix it?

Milo slipped out of bed and put his bare feet on the cold floor. He found his glasses in the drawer with the crayons and put them on, too.

Dr. Eidel was kneeling on the floor between two empty beds with his coat splayed around him and the thin soles of his shoes showing. There were a lot of pills on the floor, too, and under the beds. He was sweeping them up with his hands and trying to put them back in the bottle, but that wasn’t going very well. The opening was narrow and they kept bouncing out. He dropped the bottle again and more pills went flying. He put some in his coat pockets.

There were three pills in the aisle near Milo’s bed. They were green and white capsules. He picked them up and held them in one hand. He added two more on his way over. He tapped Dr. Eidel on the shoulder and offered them.

(He could talk, but his voice still hurt and he didn’t like to do it a lot. It didn’t hurt in his throat, sort of in his chest. He saved it for Dr. Eidel and sometimes the nurses who were nice. He said ‘thank you’ a lot, that seemed to hurt least.)

“Milo!” He dropped the bottle again. “Oh, gods, what are you doing up? No. Go back to bed, little guy. I’m fine. This is fine. This is fine.”

Milo put the pills in Dr. Eidel’s hand, then he crawled under the bed to get the glass bottle. He handed that back, and few more pills, too.

Dr. Eidel had drawn one knee up to his chest. He was resting his elbow on it and he had buried his head in that arm. He raked his fingers back through his hair, looked up and shook his head. He wasn’t wearing the sunglasses. His eyes were wet. “Please don’t, Milo, okay? This is my mess. Go back to bed.”

Milo sat down next to him. He took the pill bottle away and set it aside on the floor. He wrapped both arms around Dr. Eidel and hugged.

Dr. Eidel shook his head. “Please…” He hid his eyes in his hand and he began to sob. “Go to bed. Go away.”

Milo didn’t do that. He reached up and put his hand over Dr. Eidel’s hand as well. Dr. Eidel touched Milo’s hand, then held it against him and wept softly into it. He only did that a little bit. He shook his head, he said, “No,” and he pulled Milo’s hand away. He got back on his hands and knees and began to sweep up the pills. “I can’t leave it like this, someone’s going to see…”

He shuddered and dropped his head. He was still crying.

Milo put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him back. Dr. Eidel sat down. Milo shook his head at him and held up a hand. No. Stop. He got down on his hands and knees and collected the pills. He made a small pile of them. When he had cleaned the immediate area, he pushed up his glasses and stood, and had a look around for any escapees. There were a couple. He added these to the pile, then he scooped up the whole thing and handed it to the doctor.

Dr. Eidel winced and turned his head aside. He accepted the pills and put them in a pocket without looking at them. He picked up the bottle and put that in the pocket, too. “I’m sorry, Milo,” he said, still looking away. “I wish I could say how much and what for.” He choked. “I’m not even sure what for. Everything.”

“It’s okay,” Milo said. He tried to help the doctor up.

Dr. Eidel rose with difficulty and staggered. He put a hand on Milo’s shoulder to steady himself and left it there. It was warm. “You’ve got to go back to bed, little guy. Please, it’s so cold tonight. You’ve been sick.”

Milo nodded. He let the doctor escort him back to bed — or, he sort of helped the doctor escort him in the general direction of his bed. Dr. Eidel wasn’t walking very well and he didn’t seem certain where they were going.

“Sometimes everything is shit,” Dr. Eidel said. “Do you know that, little guy?”

Milo nodded.

“This whole world is rotten,” Dr. Eidel said. “Little girls freeze to death on street-corners, and little boys get double pneumonia from cold and cotton fibers, and ladies fall into washing machines and get torn to pieces and there’s nothing you can do about it.” He laughed weakly. “No. There’s a lot you could’ve done, but nobody did it. Do you know that, little guy?”

Milo nodded. Yeah, he guessed he did. He saw a lot of stuff like that, but it didn’t bother him. It was just how everything was always.

Maybe he was a little sad about the little girl who didn’t have a hand and she couldn’t draw. She was learning how to use the other one but she was really bad at it for a long time and she liked him to draw for her. Judy, or Jody, maybe. Yeah. Maybe he was a little bothered about her.

Did you fix her when that happened? he wondered, regarding the doctor. Did it bother you, too?

“I don’t even want to feel better,” Dr. Eidel said. He stared at the floor. “I’m just trying to be numb.” He removed a pill from his pocket, then he tipped back his head and dry-swallowed it with a grimace. He smiled at Milo like a wobbly line drawn with a broken pencil and he showed the bottle. “These are supposed to be really excellent, you know. There’s this hilarious ad with an old man and a cane. Would you like one?”

Milo shrugged. He offered the palm of his hand.

Dr. Eidel blinked at it. He lifted the bottle, then he clasped it in his hand and held it away. “No, gods, what am I doing?” he muttered. “You shouldn’t be numb. The gods know you’ve got every reason to want it, but you should be happy. You should have codeine, or amphetamines.” He shook his head. “You should have a life, and sunshine, and a park with some grass… and a puppy or something.”

“I like dresses better,” Milo said.

“You can have dresses, too,” Dr. Eidel said. He staggered and sat down on Milo’s empty bed, then he dropped the bottle of pills into his breast pocket. Something clattered there and was taking up space and he drew it out.

“Sunglasses… Oh, gods.” He put them on, with difficulty. “I’m sorry, Milo.”

Milo shook his head. He sat down next to the doctor and he pulled the sunglasses down. He folded them neatly and tucked them back in the breast pocket with the pill bottle. They didn’t quite fit, but he hoped the gesture was understood.

Dr. Eidel stared at him for a moment, then he nodded. He took the glasses out of the breast pocket and put them in one of the side pockets, with the things he needed less often.

Dr. Eidel has brown eyes, Milo noted, for future drawings. They’re really sad, though. I wonder if they were sad always and I just couldn’t see?

Milo reached over and opened the drawer in the night table. It squeaked softly and the glass of water on the table top jittered and spilled a drop. There were crayons in the drawer, and paper and pencils. Milo selected the crayons and a pad of unlined white paper that was thick with a light texture and worked really well with the crayons. He guessed Dr. Eidel had found that somewhere for him. (Dr. Eidel had gone into an art store and asked for paper that was good with crayons. After some argument about whether crayons were suitable for serious artwork, he had purchased a sketchpad that was labeled for use with charcoal.)

There was a drawing in progress of his pretty girl with long red hair and a pink dress. He folded it to the back, and he offered the blank paper and the crayons to Dr. Eidel. Here. I drew stuff about being hurt and it helped a lot. I think maybe you’re hurt, too. “Do you want to draw?”

Dr. Eidel accepted the sketchpad and held it, but he shook his head. “Little guy, I don’t know how.”

“Just make how stuff is,” Milo said. He selected the red crayon and began to sketch a rose as an example.

“I don’t want to draw that,” Dr. Eidel said.

“Then make how stuff isn’t.”

Dr. Eidel nodded. He selected the green crayon and drew a line of grass through the middle of the page. He put a tree on the grass, then a boy and a girl, and a kite. He gave the boy red hair — really really red, because he didn’t know how to mix colors like Milo did. He had to make the boy orange. He made the girl blue. He outlined some white clouds in blue and added a yellow sun. “Yeah,” he said weakly. He sobbed and scrubbed a hand over his eyes.

“They’re really happy,” Milo noted, which was, indeed, quite some contrast with reality. He added a couple of flowers in the grass. Dr. Eidel badly needed an assist. He really didn’t know how to draw. Everything was all scribbles. But the boy and the girl had smiles.

“Yeah.” Dr. Eidel held the red crayon and did nothing. He had been intending to add a ball, but Milo’s flowers made the rest of his drawing look like hot crap on a cracker and he was sort of embarrassed to put anything else. He liked watching Milo draw, too. “Do you think that would make you happy?”

“I dunno. Where would I eat and sleep at night?” Geez, those two kids didn’t even have fingers. And he thought probably they were supposed to, since they weren’t workhouse kids. He added a normal-looking lady with a parasol in an attempt to balance things out, but he abandoned her when he noticed she made the scribble kids look worse.

“Soup kitchens and cardboard boxes,” Dr. Eidel said. Then he shook his head. He was drawing how things weren’t. He picked up the yellow crayon and began a house in the distance. “You’d have a real house, like that. With a yard and some flower boxes in the windows.”

A house like that? thought Milo. A yellow scribble-square wearing a hat? Dr. Eidel, have you seen a house? I’m pretty sure they have space inside and are not flat! I mean, why else would we have them? He nodded, though. He felt kind of bad for Dr. Eidel, like he felt bad for the little girl with no hand.

She got better at drawing, though, and she quit asking me to do it. I dunno what I’m going to do about him.

Dr. Eidel put a chimney on the house, as if that made it any better. “You’d have someone in the house who really knew how to cook for you, too. And bakes cookies.”

“How are cookies?” Milo asked. He drew one, but it came out flat and stereotyped because he didn’t have a really good idea of the physicality of it.

“‘How are cookies?'” said Dr. Eidel. He stared at Milo. “Milo, haven’t you ever had cookies?”

Milo shook his head.

“Oh, my gods, you’re eleven years old and you’ve never had a cookie?”

Milo shook his head, but a bit more reluctantly this time. Is that bad? Am I bad?

Dr. Eidel placed a hand on his pocket. I could just have all the pills, you know? I think it would stop hurting if I did that. I think maybe nothing would matter anymore if I did that.

Who’s going to bring Milo cookies if I’m dead?

“Milo…” He wanted to say he was sorry, but he couldn’t say anything anymore. He buried his face in his hands and cried. The sketchpad with the drawing of the happy kids who knew about cookies but not about amputations or pertussis slid out of his lap and thumped to the floor.

Milo put both arms around him and held him. He was thin under the coat, and he shuddered when he cried like it hurt. He cried really soft like everyone else in the workhouse, because they didn’t want people to hear. Kids weren’t supposed to talk after lights out, when most of the crying happened, and Milo wouldn’t have wanted a kid to come over and talk to him, anyway. If the sisters noticed, they wouldn’t hug you or anything, they would ask if you wanted to pray. Like maybe you were crying because of a guilty conscience. Milo didn’t like that, either. He cried because everything was awful and he was sad about it, which he assumed was why Dr. Eidel and everybody else cried, too.

He was sorry he’d added the thing about no cookies to all the other awful stuff Dr. Eidel was sad about. It’s okay, really. It doesn’t hurt me. I can’t miss them if I’ve never had them. But he thought if he said that he’d probably make it worse. Even in his head, that didn’t sound comforting. So he didn’t say anything, he just hugged.

“I wish… I wish like hell I’d just kept up with the ‘cello like my father wanted,” Dr. Eidel said.”People who play the ‘cello don’t have to deal with pain. They just make something pretty and people either like it or they hate it.” He sniffled and drew his sleeve across his face. “Sometimes they throw stuff. I guess that hurts.” He laughed and sobbed. “I’m so sorry, Milo. You don’t need this. You’ve had enough pain.”

Milo shrugged. I don’t know why I wouldn’t hug you when you feel bad, just because I’ve been hurt.

Maybe if I was too hurt and scared to hug anyone, but I’m not anymore. You helped me.

Maybe I should say… What should I say?

Milo drew back to look at Dr. Eidel and spoke slowly, “I’m glad you were here. I’m sorry it hurts, but I think you’re a good doctor and you helped me a lot. I like hugging you. That doesn’t hurt me. I just want you to feel better, because you helped me feel better. I can say that because you were here to help,” he added, nodding. He sighed and closed his eyes. That was probably the most he’d said about anything since he started talking again, maybe ever. It was hard, but he guessed it felt all right. It sort of felt good.

“Thank you, Milo,” Dr. Eidel said softly. He didn’t know what else to say. He was having kind of a hard time processing it. The words stung, but like disinfectant on an open wound, with healing purpose. Or maybe like ice on a high fever. Maybe it just hurts because I’m not used to it yet.

“You are really, really bad at drawing, though,” Milo said with a small smile. “Do you want me to show you how to use crayons a little?”

“Yeah, little guy,” said Dr. Eidel.

They sat next to each other on the bed and drew quietly, ignoring the disapproval of the occasional nurse, until the sunlight started to show blue through the windows and the pills had pretty much worn off and the embarrassment started to set in and Dr. Eidel felt the need to excuse himself to the kitchen and drink a lot of coffee.

Milo produced one more drawing before he went to sleep. There were a lot of sunny days and parks and playgrounds folded to the back of the pad, none of them very good, so he didn’t bother with anything like that. He sketched in a gray and white room with a pencil, just the vaguest idea of one. In the center, he drew a red man in a white coat and a boy with red hair, hugging. They both had eyes and faces, and they were not scary. They weren’t smiling like all the scribble people in the parks, but not really sad, either. Maybe thinking about smiling. He wrote, Dr. E, this is how it really is, in pink crayon, and he tore it off the pad and left it on the night table under his folded glasses for the doctor to find.

———

Dr. Eidel walked to a bakery and purchased cookies at the earliest possible moment. He also attempted to negotiate a tax-deductible donation of any day-old baked goods that hadn’t been sold by the end of the day. Milo and the other kids at the workhouse could probably use a lesson in muffins and cupcakes, as well. It didn’t go very well, the man behind the counter said, “We usually just take that stuff home…” but the possibility had been left open. He thought maybe if he kept going back and being annoying he might pick up a free donut or two.

“It’s kind of a lot,” Milo said, examining the bag.

Dr. Eidel had gone with an even dozen, assorted. It wasn’t like he needed to buy food for himself, he could just eat in the dining hall. He didn’t mind soup.

“We can save them,” he told the boy. “They’ll be all right tomorrow.” He bought fresh ones. He did not want Milo’s first cookie experience to be in any way sub par.

“Can we share them?” Milo asked. There were some kids in the infirmary.

“Oh, all right,” said Dr. Eidel. “But you take first pick.”

Milo had a gingerbread man, selected for both design and aroma. It was pretty okay. He didn’t want to like it too much because he wasn’t sure when he’d get another. He had a look at all the other kinds so he’d be better at drawing them, too.

Later, when Dr. Eidel’s pocketbook had recovered from the cookies, he had Milo’s drawing of the man and the boy hugging in the infirmary framed — but he couldn’t bring himself to put it on the wall. He kept it in a drawer and looked at it sometimes. It didn’t always make him feel better, sometimes it made him feel worse, but he guessed it was something he needed to remember.

———

“Gods, I hate scissors,” said Dr. Eidel. “There’s just something feral about the damn things…”

“You could use a scalpel,” Milo said.

“Not on your hair, little guy,” Dr. Eidel said, snipping. “This is going to look bad enough as it is.” He usually had Sister Mary Catherine help him with his. He could trim the front on his own, but he couldn’t get it straight in the back. Also, he liked annoying her.

Milo examined his new and somewhat uneven cut in the bathroom mirror. He tugged a piece of it over his ear. “I think I might like it better longer.”

“You can have it however you want it when you get out of here,” said Dr. Eidel. He trimmed off the piece. “If we left it the other way, the sisters would’ve tackled you and cut it themselves, first thing. School is bad enough.”

“You could put another note in my file that says I can have it long.” Milo smiled, but Dr. Eidel wasn’t certain if he was joking or he just liked the idea.

“You’ve gotta pick your battles, little guy. You might be happier with long hair, but I think the other stuff is more important. I can only fit so much screaming into a day.”

Milo nodded. He tried combing it back with his fingers, but it didn’t look any better. You could hardly tell it was wavy when it was this short.

“Now, listen,” said Dr. Eidel. “You know you’re going to come right back here after and tell me how everything went, right?”

Milo nodded.

“And I’m going to be here the whole time. If anything goes sideways, you run out of there. I don’t care if you have to kick them in the shins. They’re not allowed to hurt you. You’re allowed to protect yourself, and you can come back here whenever you need.”

“And to sleep at night, right?” Milo said.

Dr. Eidel nodded. “Yes. Every night forever, if you want to. You show up, and I’ll find you a bed. I’ve told all the nurses, so they know, too. If there aren’t beds, you can have the couch in my office.”

“But you sleep there,” said Milo.

“I have a very nice throw rug that will do for me,” said Dr. Eidel. He had a look at Milo in the mirror, winced (Geez, I’m terrible at this. I should’ve had Sister Mary Catherine do it.), and then turned him back around to speak to him. “So is that all? Do you think you’re ready to do this?”

Milo sighed and nodded. He wasn’t too eager to get back into the uniform, they’d left that until last. He wasn’t really in love with the nightshirt or anything, but at least it wasn’t gray. (And it meant he still got to be sick in the infirmary, even if he didn’t feel sick anymore.) “Can I look at the note again?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” said Dr. Eidel.

———

The note was careful printing on lined white paper, in ink. It said: Milo is not required to give oral responses. And if you should get it into your empty little head to challenge that, see Dr. Eidel in the infirmary first, and I will explain it to you. If you try to get around me, I am going to find out about it, and I am going to come down on your head like when Joshua threw the money lenders out of the church.

It was like wearing armor.

He could tell that they wanted to hurt him, sometimes, but they knew they weren’t supposed to and it stopped them. They would open their mouths and look mad at him, but nothing came out. Then they’d say something else instead, but it would come out mad. Pick up your pencil! or, Do this on the board! At first he was scared about that, because he knew they were mad and they hurt him before when he made them mad, and he was still a soft, squishy person under the protection of the note. He talked to Dr. Eidel about it. I’m not like you, he said. I don’t want to smile when they yell at me.

Dr. Eidel thought maybe he should try smiling anyway, like maybe if he pretended he didn’t care, he might feel better.

So, he tried that.

It made them madder.

But… it made him mad, too. I just look happy! Why are you mad about that? What’s the matter with you? Does it bother you that much that I’m happy?

And he started to understand why the yelling made Dr. Eidel smile.

You’re horrible. If you’re mad and yelling at me, I must be doing something right.

He started to like smiling.

And if they did try to hurt him, if they tried to make him talk or made him stand in the corner for no reason or that one time Sister Mary Francis slapped him, all he had to do was tell about it and Dr. Eidel would come down and scream at people. Dr. Eidel did some really great screaming at people. It seemed like maybe he wasn’t as strong when he was out of the infirmary, so he got louder. He knew a lot of verses and prayers and parables, too. He didn’t care about the Man Joshua one way or the other, he just studied up so he could scream better. It worked really well.

Milo was so confident in the integrity of the note and Dr. Eidel’s ability to scream at horrible people that he started raising his hand to answer questions. Yeah. Come on. I know this one. I’m going to get it right and you won’t be able to hurt me about it. When they finally called on him, he stood up straight and he answered really loudly, probably too loudly, because he knew they would hate that.

“The Marselline Parliament has its representatives allotted by district and population size,” Milo told Dr. Eidel.

“Oh? Uh-huh,” said Dr. Eidel.

Milo grinned. “I got it right and I said it right and she just had to say it was right and I could sit down.”

Dr. Eidel smiled and broke away from the filing cabinet to ruffle his hair, “Good job, little guy.”

“If Sister Mary Francis has an aneurysm, you can’t fix it, right?” Milo asked, executing a slow spin in the desk chair. “She’ll just die?”

“Yup,” said Dr. Eidel, filing papers.

“Awesome,” Milo said.

———

Milo showed up in the infirmary on Dr. Eidel’s birthday holding a desk lamp with a newspaper bow on it.

At first glance, Dr. Eidel was more touched by the bow than the present, and a little upset by it. He learned how to make paper bows when he was a kid, and he had Yule at home with his parents. The gifts always got wrapped in newspaper, too. He tried to save the Sun’s Day comics for them, so they’d be colorful. “Milo…”

“Your lamp is awful,” Milo said firmly. “You’re gonna ruin your eyes. This one is better.”

“Where did you get a lamp?” Dr. Eidel managed finally. Never mind where Milo had found out his birthday.

“It was broken so they threw it away. Nobody wanted it.” Milo smiled and ducked his head aside. “I broke it.”

“Oh, I see,” said Dr. Eidel. He accepted with lamp with a grin and tested its weight. “What happened to the cord?” There was only a small frayed nubbin poking out of the back.

“It’s magic,” Milo said. “If you see any bugs, you might wanna smash them with it.” He made the motion of doing so, as if he were using a stamp. There was a sacrifice circle on the bottom of the lamp base.

Dr. Eidel flipped the lamp over and puzzled at it. “Where did you learn how to do that?”

“The soap dispenser in the laundry runs on sacrifices, there’s a circle like that, and there’s a page of magical notation in the math book. It’s just there for an example, but it says how to make a mage light.”

“And you read magical notation,” Dr. Eidel said. Not incredulously, just expectantly. Is there a story here?

Milo shrugged. “I dunno. There was a picture of a light, so that’s obviously what it was about. I guess I figured it out. I couldn’t get all of it, but the lamp works.”

“Well, hell, let’s try it out,” Dr. Eidel said, grinning. Even if it blew up, it was sure going to be interesting. He took it into his office and plunked it down in his desk — next to his current lamp which offered a faint yellow glow from beneath a green glass shade. This one was all silver, with a gooseneck and a knob on the base. He gave the knob a twist and it clicked.

Ah! Holy Joshua Christopher! My eyes!

Milo approached the desk with his own eyes winced narrow and turned the lamp down from ‘pure white hell’ to ‘reasonable.’ “Geez, Dr. E. It’s a dimmer switch.” He wiggled it, demonstrating. “You don’t have to turn it up all the way.”

“Milo!” cried Dr. Eidel. “Why is it even possible for me to blind myself with my new lamp? Have I offended you in some way?”

“That’s just as bright as I could get it,” Milo said.

“Oh, my gods,” said Dr. Eidel, blinking. Everything looked purple. “Milo, are you aware of the concept of idiot-proofing? Is this something you’ve heard of?”

“I’ve heard of idiots, I guess,” Milo said.

“You are speaking to one,” Dr. Eidel said. “If you make it possible for me to burn my eyes out of my head with a lamp, I will figure out some way to do it. People are geniuses when it comes to being stupid. If you’re going to build something like this, you have to realize how dumb people are going to be with it. You have to figure out how they’ll hurt themselves with it and make it so they can’t.”

Milo adopted a contemplative expression. “Is this why the hemorrhoid ointment says ‘Do Not Take Orally’ on it?” he said.

“Yes! That’s it exactly!”

“Okay, but it’s still in a tube. If I were really dumb, I could. It’s possible.”

“Yeah,” Dr. Eidel admitted. He experimented cautiously with the dimmer switch. “I guess you have to compromise. Make it harder for idiots to hurt themselves, but still make it so you can use the thing. I need to be able to turn on the lamp. People need to be able to access the hemorrhoid ointment. But you make an allowance for stupid.”

“Like when you mark space for the seams in the sewing patterns?”

“I guess so,” said Dr. Eidel.

Milo considered that. “Do you want me to try idiot-proofing your lamp?” he asked with a smile.

Dr. Eidel handed him the lamp. “Please,” he said.

———

“Milo,” said Dr. Eidel, regarding three birthday’s and two Yule’s worth of magical devices stowed in various places around his office (this birthday’s present was a coffeemaker, there was a label on it saying: “WARNING: COFFEE IS HOT!”). “Do you think you could do something to make the machines in the workhouse safer?”

Milo shrugged. “I think the machines do all right for themselves, Dr. E. They could probably use a good cleaning, and some oil, but it’s pretty hard to hurt them.”

“No, no, no.” Dr. Eidel shut his eyes and waved his hands. “Not the machines. I mean, not safer for the machines. Safer for the people. Safer so they won’t hurt people so much.”

“Do you mean, like, idiot-proof them?” Milo said.

Dr. Eidel sighed. He didn’t like to put preventing exposed gears from snagging little girls’ dresses in the same context as stopping people from eating the hemorrhoid ointment, but it was a context Milo understood. Milo had a hard time with people. He thought it was probably because people had hurt Milo a lot. The machines never had. Milo had often expressed that he wished people made sense like machines.

“Yeah, I mean idiot-proof them,” Dr. Eidel said.

“I probably could,” Milo said, sitting forward. He was comfortable in Dr. Eidel’s office and he still liked spinning around in the desk chair, though he was too embarrassed to pick up his feet and do it fast. “I know them pretty well, at least the ones in the laundry, but I’d like to have a look at the plans and the manuals and stuff.” He smiled. “Or I could try breaking some to see if they’ll throw them out.” Breaking things was his favorite way of getting new toys to play with, and presents for Dr. E.

“I don’t think they’re going to throw out a washing machine,” Dr. Eidel said. “I’ll get you the plans.”

———

They began idiot-proofing the workhouse in the spring of 1366. They had to stop abruptly in 1367 when the war ate the city of San Rosille.

———

The workhouse went into survival mode. Dr. Eidel threw open the infirmary to the city at large, he had the authority to do that, but he couldn’t get them to do the same to the workhouse itself. The production of fabric ceased and the bales of donated clothing became tradable goods. To supply the infirmary, and the women and children in the workhouse, Dr. Eidel traded, begged and stole.

In an impromptu starcatchers’ market, searching for supplies, Dr. Eidel crossed paths with a frazzled-looking blonde woman in a blue dress. He had found a box of morphine and was going to engage in negotiations for it when she kicked him in the shin and snatched it away. He got hold of a piece of her dress and yanked her back towards him, “I am a doctor!” he cried. “I’m going to use that to help people!”

So am I!” she snarled, and she tore herself free — not minding the considerable vent that left in the back of her dress.

After that, whenever he tangled with the blonde woman over supplies, he opened the boxes and split them with her.

———

“They want to do what, now?”

“They want to lower the age of majority…” Milo shook his head and rephrased, “They want to kick me out of the workhouse next month when I turn fifteen. And a bunch of other boys, too.” He looked sick.

“In the middle of a goddamned siege.”

“Yeah.” Milo was pretty sure it was because of the siege. And the supplies.

Dr. Eidel stormed the Mother Superior’s office and began screaming. “As if sixteen years old wasn’t bad enough… People are dying in the streets out there… What kind of a religion is this?…

He emerged half an hour later looking murderous but not defeated. Milo glanced up from a book he hadn’t been reading and looked hopeful.

“Milo, how would you like to come and work for me in the infirmary?” said Dr. Eidel. “Not in a month, right now. I can’t pay you, but I’ll feed you… When there’s food.”

Milo touched the back of his neck. “Can I start growing my hair out?”

“Yes.”

Milo smiled. “That sounds like it’d be really great, Dr. E.”

“Can you tell me who those other boys are that they think they’re going to get rid of?” Dr. Eidel asked, collecting his new assistant.

———

“Milo,” Dr. Eidel said desperately. “Isn’t there something you can do to keep out the gas?”

They were attending to an infirmary full of choking women and children, during another hard push to break through the defenses, while the bombs and shells rained down around them but not on them. Milo had done something huge and complicated to the workhouse roof. Bombs and shells veered sideways and hit the ground, breaking the windows and spraying them with shrapnel.

“The gas?” said Milo, pouring vinegar-water over the eyes of a sobbing little girl. “Dr. E, air is a gas. If I close up all the windows and tell the spell to keep out the gas, we’ll smother the whole building!”

“You could kill a whole building full of people with that thing you put on the roof?” said Dr. Eidel.

Milo considered it. “I guess maybe a whole neighborhood.”

Dr. Eidel stopped running around and stared helplessly at Milo. He pictured a red label on Milo’s forehead, like the one on the coffeemaker they’d traded for supplies ages ago: “WARNING: MILO GETS IDEAS!”

Then a woman started vomiting and he had to clamber his way over there and deal with that.

———

By the time the siege was over and they could begin picking up the pieces to rebuild, Milo’s hair was long enough to pull into a ponytail. By the time the war was over, and they could start getting life back to normal, it was down to his shoulder-blades, and Sister Mary Constance had to say twelve Hosannas to chastity for confessing she thought about running her fingers through it.

When Dr. Eidel considered the university system functional (or at least near-functional) and the railway system passable (or at least near-passable) he braved the crumbling streets and made a purchase at a bookshop.

“Here, Milo. Why don’t you see what you can do with this?”

It was a practice book for a college entrance exam.

He did pretty well with it. His understanding of literature and analogies needed some shoring up. He had the concepts, he just needed the words to talk about them.

“‘Hyperbole’ just means exaggerating things to make a point,” Dr. Eidel said. “Like when I say the workhouse is the worst place in the world.”

“I don’t think that’s an awful lot of hyperbole, Dr. E,” Milo said, frowning.

Dr. Eidel laughed. “No, maybe it’s not.” He put the book on his desk and turned his lamp down to conversant brightness. (Milo had made him a new lamp, of course.) “I don’t think you’re really going to use this stuff, little guy. It’s just for the test. They’re going to spend a little time trying to turn you into a well-rounded individual, and I guess you need that, but the stuff you’re going to use is the math and the magic. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it yet, but I think once you’ve got a piece of paper that says how awesome you are at it, you’re going to be pretty amazing.”

Milo went away to college at nineteen, somewhat delayed due to the war. Once they quit trying to make him a well-rounded individual and he declared a major (Magical Engineering) he made up time fast. He got a job doing appliance repair to cover expenses, though Dr. Eidel sent him extra money for food whenever he could. (Milo appeared to be living on boxed noodles and canned pasta. He figured out how to heat them up in a coffeemaker!) On the strength of one of his papers (“Applied Physics and High Energy Magic”) he was hired by a government research facility right after graduation — and they offered to pay for the remaining credit hours he needed to pick up his Master’s.

Dr. Eidel received postcards and voluminous letters and photographs, some of which he framed. Some of the photos were of Milo in dresses, which Dr. Eidel really appreciated. He thought they were hilarious, and they bothered the sisters. (One of his favorites was of Milo in a strapless number with flashing sequins, mouthing silent words into a stand microphone that he was holding tipped at a dramatic forty-five degree angle. It was overwritten, Amateur Night! in black marker.)

Milo still occasionally availed himself of Dr. Eidel’s promised bed in the infirmary, too. Usually around birthdays and holidays, but one time he rode six hours on a train in the middle of the night to show up at five o’clock in the morning in tears over a girl. (“She said I was cold and stupid! Dr. E, is there something wrong with me?” “No, little guy. I think there’s just a few things you have a hard time understanding, that’s all.” “Can we idiot-proof the girls, Dr. E?” “No, little guy. Not if we still want them to work like they’re supposed to.”)

Armed with a college education and government funding, Milo succeeded in splitting the magical atom at the age of twenty-six. This technology was applied to create a new kind of bomb, which killed a lot of people. Faces were melted off, shadows of human bodies were etched into buildings and sidewalks, eyeballs were vaporized and left smoking craters in heads. There was a lot of screaming. Oh, it was terrible. But, it could also be used to power submarines, and presumably toasters. People are still talking about whether or not it was a good thing, and if the bombs saved more lives than they destroyed. Not too long after they dropped the first bomb, Dr. Eidel took a whole bunch of pills and died, but that might’ve been something else. That was never a very stable model of human being. There may be something wrong with the factory where they are turning those out.

I like my chicken soup, with a little drop of poison!

[Wow! It makes you wonder how many people that ‘red flower, green stem’ kid killed, doesn’t it? I think Milo has him beat! Thank god for child abuse, huh?]

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