"So when did Stella recover?" Lucas asks in his usual lazy, teasing way. "Was Julia always beautiful? Was Finn always aloof? When did you first meet Dan? Who shot that lion in the library? Do you remember America? Do you like milk in your coffee or cream?" He yawns, then glances up, eyes narrowed, measuring my face and making me. Two quick lines, a smudge of the thumb. I like Lucas. He likes me. I think he prefers me to my sisters, though I could be wrong. Anyway, we understand each other, and we both find that restful. He gives one of his small smiles.
"Come on, Maisie," he says in a coaxing way. "I want to know everything. Tell me more."
I like being Lucas's Scheherazade, and of course there's no fear of his executing me when my stories end. There is the danger of boring him, though, and I'm always aware of it. So I'm careful never to give him what he wants. This is a lesson both my sisters ought to learn, and soon. Also, his questions are less innocent than they seem. I sometimes think he's after some specific piece of information, though he'd never admit that. Today, I suspect, it's the lowdown on Dan that he wants. So I decide to give with my right hand and hold back with my leftif you keep Lucas guessing, if you always stay one jump ahead of him, then you don't lose his interest, I've found.
So I pretend to hum and hah, and juggle my memories. Then a memory does pop up, of its own accord, so I say that I'll tell him about Dan's grandmother, alias the wicked witch, alias the Munchkin (Julia's nickname for her; it's cruel, but she is very small).
"I'll tell you about the time she told our fortunes, about the day she read the cards for us," I begin. Then I hesitate. I can feel something cold and hard inside me, as if I've tried to swallow a pebble and it's too big. It's stuck in my throat; it won't come up and it won't go down.
Lucas is watching my face. His expression is kindly, though no one would describe Lucas as a kindly man. Sometimes I think he pities me, and I suppose there could be reasons to do sostuck in this house with Gramps, who's getting doddery, and Stella, who inhabits a planet far, far from here; plus two sisters who are both legendary creatures of beauty and intellect. People fuss over me, but they won't listen. If the nuns didn't speak to me, I'd be starved of conversation. I'm the girl in the corner, the one everyone ignores. I do not have breasts yet. Yes, I can see that in the pitying stakes I might score.
"Dan's grandmotherand she told the cards for all three of you? Did you hear what she told Finn and Julia, too?"
"Was Dan also present?"
"How old would you have been?"
"Let's see. . . ." I pretend to tot it up, though I know the answer perfectly well. I'm the afterthought in my family, the last-ditch attempt at a boy, so there's a long gap between my sisters and me. I was almost seven, Finn almost fourteen, and Julia sixteen. "It was Julia's birthday," I say. "That's why we went to see Dan's grandmother. We were consulting the oracle. Birthdays are a propitious time to do it. There was also a full moon."
"Powerful stuff." Lucas makes another delicate smudge on his page. At this rate, I'll be composed of shadows. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, says a familiar voice in my ear. For thou art with me, I answer silently.
Copyright © 2005 by Sally Beauman
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