At the far end of the kitchen was the back staircase that led up to the servants' wing. I had never been up it. Now, sitting on the upper steps and looking at us, was a little girl, my age. She was pretty, with dark blue eyes and brown hair thick around her face. She was wearing a long pale blue nightgown, tucked down over her feet. Her hands were hidden in her lap, and she was watching us. I had never seen her before, this girl my age. She was with us here in the house, sitting on the back stairs, looking at us.
The four of us watched her as we ate, not speaking. The girl did not move. She was watching us through the wooden banisters. Once she raised her hand to tuck back her hair, which had fallen across her face. Her skin was very pale. She put her hand back into her lap and then leaned her face against the banisters, looking through them as though they were bars.
She was living here in the house. I wondered if she would be there in the morning, opening presents under the tree. Would she have a stocking? I felt a kind of private outrage rise up in me: how could there be a girl like me here, my age, my size, in our family's house?
Molly, hearing our silence, turned from the stove and saw our stares. She looked at the staircase and erupted.
"You get out of here," she said to the little girl, and started over toward her. "Get back up those stairs. You're not to come down here, and you know that. I told you that, go on, get up there."
Before Molly could reach her, the little girl stood and ran back upstairs. She didn't look at us; she fled. We saw her feet, which were bare, and the bottom of her pale blue nightgown, and then she was gone. Molly turned without looking at us and went back to the stove in a temper, banging the pots. We looked at each other in silence and went on eating.
When we were finished, we were sent through the pantry into the dining room and then the living room beyond, where the grown-ups were. They were sitting in front of the fireplace, on big sofas and chairs covered in blurry flowers. Huge lay on the rug, and he raised his head when we appeared, his tail thumping.
Coming into the living room, we passed the Christmas tree, tall and glittering. We stopped, staring at the packages beneath it, eyeing them for size, trying to decipher names on the tags.
"I have more than you do," Jonathan said to me under his breath.
"You don't," I said, tilting my head sideways to look for my name.
"Come over and say hello," my father said. Sam was nudging a package with his toe, trying to shift it so the tag was visible. "And leave the presents alone. Don't start pushing them around."
"I wasn't," Abby said virtuously and went over to sit on the sofa between Grandmère and Grandpère.
"Sam," my father said, and Sam left the packages and went over, giving an athletic kick in the air on the way, to show that he had really been practicing soccer, not nudging presents. I went over by the fire, and I felt the heat on my face. Outside there was snow on the long lawn that sloped down to the pond and the creek beyond. I could see the Christmas tree in the corner, rising in shimmering tiers, fragrant, brilliant, intricate. This was the reason we were herestockings, presents, the boundless glitter of anticipationbut it was all before us still. There was nothing to do now but wait. The night ahead was endless, and I felt myself tingling with impatience and excitement, but our parents and grandparents seemed content here, sitting by the fire and talking, indifferent to the time moving so slowly.
Excerpted from A Perfect Stranger by Roxana Robinson Copyright © 2005 by Roxana Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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