“When she’s older, she’ll realise it was just some performing arts graduate trying to make a quick quid by dressing up in a sparkly dress and a crown. The pictures I saw, I could have done better with my old prom dress and a few pints of glitter.”
Janie struggled through the snow to the back door. She stamped off the worst of the icy sludge from her boots before going in. The kitchen was almost too warm after hours in the freezing stable and she had to sit down hurriedly on the nearest chair as she went light headed.
“Boots off,” her mother said automatically, sticking her head around the door.
“In a minute,” Janie said, rubbing her stinging, stiff hands to try to get enough feeling into them.
Her mother came forward and knelt down beside her. Apparently not caring about the dung and hey that must be lurking under the snow and mud, she took hold of each of Janie’s boots in turn and drew them off. Janie couldn’t help a smile. She knew her mother would claim that it was purely for the sake of the floor but she knew better. All the same, her mum’s expression looked pinched as she straightened up.
“What’s up?” Janie asked, flexing her socked toes against the kitchen tiles.
“Go and get a hot bath, I’ll bring you a mug of tea.”
Janie wrinkled her nose as her mother put her riding boots neatly on the rack with the other outdoor shoes.
“Now you have me really worried.”
Her mother sighed and her shoulders slumped as she turned towards the kettle.
“The people meant to be doing the kid’s party cancelled.”
“What?” Janie asked. She half got up, then remembered just how much her legs ached from all that time running to and from the feed store and thought better of it.
“Weathers too bad, apparently. Won’t risk it.”
“But you spent months planning that!”
“I know,” her mother sighed. “Can’t be helped. They’ll just have to make do with the crafts and cakes.”
Janie nodded, though she could tell her mother was crushed. Ever since she’d had to give up work due to her health, doing events for the community centre had been a good focus for her. She’d been so invested in making them better than the shambolic, glitter encrusted messes Janie had gone to when she was little. It wasn’t fair to have the work undone by a bit of snow.
“Lily will be disappointed,” her mother said, flicking on the kettle. That would be an understatement. Janie’s six year old sister would be destroy-the-house-scream-the-place-down-devastated. Or worse, wide eyed and solemn, silently heartbroken like she’d been last year when mum hadn’t gotten discharged from hospital in time to watch her school play.
“She really wanted to meet the snowflake queen, didn’t she?” Janie couldn’t help herself, though she knew dwelling on it would make it worse for her mum.
“She did,” her mother agreed, reaching for a mug.
“She’ll get over it though,” Janie tried again, “When she’s older, she’ll realise it was just some performing arts graduate trying to make a quick quid by dressing up in a sparkly dress and a crown. The pictures I saw, I could have done better with my old prom dress and a few pints of glitter.”
“Not really the point at their age, is it?” her mother smiled ruefully at her.
Janie could tell she was reminiscing about how Janie had been far more interested in going out and trying to make a snowman out of muddy sludge than sitting on Santa’s lap. Lily was the one who imagined that the horses Janie mucked out were actually unicorns and pegasuses (pegasi?) in disguise. Janie had taken her out riding a few times and Lily was so determined to cling on to her fantasy that she hadn’t even cried when she’d fallen off. Janie was sure her sister hated the bumpy, cold, smelly reality of riding but she’d never say as much. Her head was too stuffed with fantasy to accept defeat that easily.
“You’re right though,” her mother said, “She will get over it.”
“Yeah…” Janie finally managed to lever herself out of the chair.
“Bath,” her mother insisted.
Janie made an ‘I’m going, I’m going’ gesture and began to stump out of the kitchen, her legs complaining all the way. She could hear a swelling orchestra from the living room and knew Lily would be sitting transfixed in front of some glimmering fantasy, dreaming about it coming true. Janie began to drag herself upstairs. Her mother was right: she would get over it. But Janie had been right too: she could do as good a job with her prom dress and Lily’s craft supplies. Snowflake queens could wear masks, couldn’t they? Providing they were sparkly and unthreatening enough. She just had to find out where she could get her hands on enough glitter…
Only Christina was about to repay Petra’s delicious food with the meal from the planet zog.
Christina let out an irritated noise as mixture flicked out of the bowl. She put down her whisk for a moment and surveyed the splatters on her cream tiles. Try as she might, she could not get the mousse to turn remotely mousse-like: it was just a bowl of chocolate and hazelnut slop. She blinked away the prickling feeling in her eyes that was threatening to turn into tears. Why had she done this?
She turned her back on the bowl and peered anxiously through the glass door of the oven. The amoretti biscuits didn’t look golden yet. With her luck though, they’d go from underdone to burnt in a nanosecond. She reached up to push strands of sweaty hair out of her eyes. It was so much work given that she’d only be crushing the darn things to sprinkle on top of the non-moussey mousse. The urge to cry had transformed into hysterical giggles that threatened to choke her.
She shouldn’t have let Petra get to her. She knew that their life wasn’t as perfect as it looked or sounded. What was more, Petra could afford to take half a day off before a dinner party to get her yuzu grissini perfectly crisp. She had Daniel to lend a helping hand too.
Christina knew all this so why in the name of goodness had she offered to host everyone here? It was just a heat of the moment thing after Petra had revealed her choux pastry dessert and they were all cooing about the trouble she’d gone to for them. It had seemed only fair that someone actually put her money where her mouth was and repay her like for like. Only Christina was about to repay Petra’s delicious food with the meal from the planet zog.
She looked at the clock and felt the need to laugh suddenly die. She only had 20 minutes before they were due to arrive. She’d intended to have another hour at least to get a shower and do her make up. But then Kyle had called her in for that ‘catch up’ and she’d felt honour bound to stay late to prove that she really was trying to do better. Now, she hadn’t changed, the chicken was still in the fridge, she’d forgotten to chill the drinks and even with that extra time put in, she was sure Kyle was still going to fire her next week.
She stared at herself in the stainless steel fridge door. She ought to have just invited everyone round for a film and takeaway pizza like they’d done when they were younger. She’d kill for some greasy cheese and terrible acting. More to the point, she was half convinced everyone else would as well. They couldn’t honestly enjoy small talk over grilled scallops more than explosions over barbeque feast? Or maybe they did and it was her still struggling to catch up. When had life gotten so complicated?
I must admit, I definitely have a talent for desserts! And now that the day was fast approaching when the family would be arriving, I'd have to add holiday decorating to my list of talents, and I'd have to master it quickly if I had any hope of making our home presentable!
“Come on, Charis, just a little more. You can do this.” I was doing my best to motivate myself. I had been burning the midnight oil every night for the past week. Everything had to be perfect for the holiday celebrations! My father's aunt and uncle would be arriving, and we hadn't gotten to see them since last year. My housekeeper, Polly, was getting older, had become ill and was currently bedridden, and I had depended on her since childhood. Suddenly I was expected to cook, clean, and decorate for the holidays. I had purchased a spell book during my last trip to Diagon Alley, and while the book had some really nice housecleaning tips, I had a really difficult time motivating myself, and I'd been procrastinating. I'd also located some really basic cook books, and had almost gotten the hang of that, at least. I must admit, I definitely have a talent for desserts! And now that the day was fast approaching when the family would be arriving, I'd have to add holiday decorating to my list of talents, and I'd have to master it quickly if I had any hope of making our home presentable! Oh, how I wanted to sleep!
After my pep talk, I turned my attention to adding candles to the tree. Dang! What's the spell? I'm so tired, I can't even think straight! Is it mobiliarbus? Mobilicandle-us? Levicandle-us? Locomotorcandle? Oh, forget it! “Accio candles!!!” I carried the candles over to the the tree and attached them by hand. And then I realized I'd need a ladder, just to reach the taller parts of the tree. We didn't own a ladder. No wizarding family owns a ladder!
I heard laughter coming from the doorway. My husband had been watching me, and seemed to think this was all so amusing! “It will all be fine, Charis! It's after midnight. Tomorrow, just owl your sister. Doesn't Maris actually enjoy cooking and decorating? Cygnus and Dorea are her family, too. You don't have to do all of this on your own, you know. Besides, maybe we should accept the fact that Polly is getting old and may not be around much longer.”
I glared at my husband. I hated the thought of losing Polly. That wonderful lady had practically raised me, and had been my best friend until I met my husband. By accepting help from my sister, I'd be admitting that she may not recover from her illness. I knew my husband was right, though. After checking on Polly, I agreed to owl Maris in the morning.
Maybe Headmaster Hopkirk needs some deliveries and I get to tag along. Oh, I hope so. I've never been to Hogwarts!
The best day of the entire year had finally arrived: my birthday! This year was no doubt going to be the start of the best year ever. I had finally turned eleven years old, and while it may be snowing outside, in only a couple of months it would be warm, and I would be on my way to my very first year at Hogwarts!
Every 17th January, after father returns home from his position at the Ministry of Magic (he works as an Obliviator in the Obliviator Headquarters – somebody has to work with muggles and those pesky memories, right?), he enters the front door bearing my birthday gift. It's always something spectacular! Last night, I overheard him telling Aunt Callidora he's concerned he's been spoiling me too much since mother died, and giving me the family house elf was probably a bit too much, but she helped him realize how silly that idea was! My gift should be particularly wonderful this year!
Father's home now, and he's carrying a huge box, but it's sealed and I have no idea what's inside. He does have a much smaller box on top of that one, though. He places the smaller box on the floor, and then tells me the two of us are going on a short trip and taking the larger box with us. He expects me to remain quiet and only observe. I'm confused, but excited. A trip! This is different! Maybe a peek inside Hogwarts? Maybe Headmaster Hopkirk needs some deliveries and I get to tag along. Oh, I hope so. I've never been to Hogwarts!
We step outside, and I grab father's arm. We apparate, and end up in a rundown looking area just outside of London. I'm really confused. Definitely not Hogwarts! Father and I turn a corner and walk up a couple of blocks. He stops and knocks on the door of a very simple-looking house. A man opens the door and welcomes us inside. I notice a woman and four young children. The man looks a little embarrassed, but the lady smiles warmly. My father unseals the box and passes out coats to each of the children, the man, and the lady, whom I now assume is his wife. While he's doing this, I look around the room, and I notice the family doesn't seem to own very many possessions, and the coats are definitely needed. Father shakes the man's hand and we leave. We return home.
Once we are back inside, father turns to me and says, “Lysandra, today is a very special birthday! You are growing so strong physically and mentally, and I want you to grow strong in other ways, too. You're eleven years old now, and I'm afraid I've been protecting you a little too much. Before you know it, you'll be starting at Hogwarts. You're going to be spending your days with a wide variety of people. Not everyone is wealthy or pure-blood. Some will be coming from homes where they barely had enough to eat. While the people you saw today have access to food, they needed coats so they could keep warm. While I want you to be proud of your heritage, I also want you to never fail to help other people when you can. They are human beings, just like you. Giving a gift can often feel as wonderful as receiving a gift, probably even more. Do you understand?”
I nodded. I felt really glad that father could help that family, and I promised him I would do my best to help others every chance I got. And the smaller package? It contained the latest Wally Wilkins music I wanted. Today was truly the best birthday ever!
Their eyes get wide and there’s always one of them near her to watch.
My sister Sarah is away a lot of times. I hate it when she goes away.
Mommy and daddy often tell me that I should be grateful that I am not as sick as she is. That I should be grateful that my brain is working right, where neurons are firing all the right ways. I mentioned to mommy that I am bored when Sarah is gone, that I have no one left to play with. She tells me that Sarah is likely worse off than I am, confined to a single room.
I beg mommy and daddy to let Sarah stay. They do, at first. Sarah comes home and for a few weeks, everything is awesome. But then valuables go missing and are found in Sarah’s chest of secrets and animals disappear and turn up almost unrecognizable in her hiding spots.
Mommy and daddy are scared of Sarah. I see it when Sarah comes home, every time shorter than the last. Their eyes get wide and there’s always one of them near her to watch. To see if she will be bad again.
They do not want to use “second chances” anymore. They use them very rarely now. I asked them why Sarah cannot come home that she’s always nice to me. Mommy told me that Sarah has an illness that makes her very nice, that she can fake being normal like Charlotte faked being my friend. That she knows how to make doctors believe that she does not need the hospital anymore. Daddy tells me that I will need to handle being bored if it means that we will be safe from Sarah.
I love my sister and I hate it when Sarah goes away. I have to pretend that I am a good girl until she comes back.
“You didn’t say it, but I heard it,” I muttered.
“Gosh, no idea where I left them,” I whined as I patted my shirt and jeans pockets.
Kevin sighed and looked at his watch. “We still have enough time to stop by your dorm. They can’t be anywhere else.”
I winced, despite knowing that Kevin was right. But there was a reason that I never allow anyone inside my dorm room, something that I could afford since I had a single.
Since we were still on campus, it only took ten minutes for Kevin and me to reach the apartment that I shared with other students and my room inside it. I stopped before the door, playing with the keys to it. After a few moments, I decided to stop stalling and opened the doors to my room. Kevin’s sharp intake of breath told me that the situation in my room was worse than I thought. But I knew exactly where the item that I sought was. I heard shuffling behind me and couldn’t help myself.
“Stop judging me!” I almost screamed in Kevin’s face when he overturned one of the dirty clothes piles with his foot. He had a disgusted look on his face and I don’t think he heard my excuse that the washing machine was broken.
“I didn’t say anything,” Kevin raised his hands in a placating manner and took another look around my admittedly messy room.
“You didn’t say it, but I heard it,” I muttered as I zeroed in on the piles of white and colored papers that littered my desk. I stepped to the piece of furniture and started looking for the item that I sorely needed.
I saw a red glint that was captured by the light overhead and exclaimed in triumph. I raised my first, the item clutched in it. I joined Kevin near the entrance to my room and led him outside, giving one last look at the structured chaos in it.
“So, let me ask,” Kevin started and I already knew what questions was coming. “Why were your car keys in your class notes?”
When Grayson opened it, it sounded like the screaming of the tortured souls, warning him to stay away from the building.
Grayson looked up to the house that it seemed as if it had been in the neighborhood forever. It looked like any typical haunted house looked. The old façade was gated off by thick, onyx bars, which were topped by little trident points. They reminded the people of the stereotypical staffs the demons would hold. The large entrance gate was broken and barely holding on to its hinges. When Grayson opened it, it sounded like the screaming of the tortured souls, warning him to stay away from the building.
The grass and garden, if one could call it that, were overgrown, the green and gray shoots spilling onto the narrow path that led to the door. The nearby trees were dead, as if life itself got sucked out of them and would never return. With a feeling of trepidation, Grayson moved down the path.
He stopped before the front door. The wood looked weathered, but still sturdy, with an eyeless demon’s head for a knocker. It was painted black, but had dark silver sigils all around the outer edges.
Grayson sucked in a breath and rang the bell. It had a deep, sonorous tone so loud that he was afraid the whole block would wake up. But after it stopped, silence reigned. Even the usual sounds of the night stopped, as if the smallest animal was looking at what would happen next.
With a creek, the old gothic door opened and soft candle light spilled onto the porch.
“Oh, what a lovely ghost you are, my dear,” the old widow that lived in the house commented and threw a full fist of candy in his pillowcase. “You’re the first one I’ve seen in a while.”
Grayson grinned as he thanked the old lady and skipped to his friends who were waiting on the sidewalk. “I didn’t get eaten!” he screamed and that brought a volley of middle-schoolers to the old lady’s doorstep.
Eat mine first.
“You can’t be serious,” Keisha incredulously said as she looked at two of her friends whom she had known since third grade. Both looked pretty serious, actually, as they nodded almost in unison and pointed at the two plates on the table in front of her. “Come on, Claire, Sam…” Keisha tried again, but in reply, the pair each pushed one plate closer to her. There were several more people around as well, who were whispering to each other and exchanged money.
“Eat mine first,” Samuel offered and glared at Claire’s snort of disgust.
“You’ll be able to cleanse your palate with mine,” Claire commented and jumped when Samuel’s elbow found her ribs.
Keisha sighed and resigned herself to her fate. She picked up the food from Samuel’s plate, wincing at the feeling of slight dampness from the top slice. Keisha took a bite and nodded. “It’s good,” she commented as she ate it all. Audibly letting out a moan of despair, Keisha pushed the empty plate away and pulled the second one closer. Taking a moment, she just stared at the other piece of food.
Claire leaned towards Keisha and whispered in her right ear. “Come on, you know you want to.” On Keisha’s left, Samuel rolled his eyes, but ultimately said nothing.
Keisha frowned and looked at the food on the plate. She lightly poked the remaining option and took it in her hand. Looking at it distrustfully, Keisha tried to ignore the stares from the people around her and took a bite. She chewed and rolled the food around her mouth before swallowing.
People waited with bated breath at Keisha’s decision. The woman in question turned to Samuel and shrugged. “I like this one better.”
Samuel closed his eyes in regret as Claire and three other people cheered. Claire pointed her finger at Samuel and jeered, “Told you peanut butter slices and jam in between is the more superior option than your stinky half-half.”
Money and other trinkets exchanged hands between friends as the winning group all hugged Keisha and chanted ‘one of us, one of us’ much to the other group’s exasperation and rolling eyes.
The letters dipped and looped: she was sure that A towards the end of the line was deliberately doing cartwheels.
She cracked the window open, then thrust it wide. She closed her eyes, hoping for an in-rush of cool, rain scented air. She got a slightly soupy breeze with a faint tang of exhaust fumes. She wrinkled her nose and plopped down in her office chair.
Nothing was quite right here. She’d thought moving to the city would lift her spirits a bit: that the feeling of being in a huge, bustling space would be refreshing. Something to get rid of that itch, somewhere deep inside. It just felt lonely. And right now, hot. Very hot. She pushed sweaty hair away from her face and irritably shunted herself back to the desk. She’d left the report this late in the hope she could work better at night. Turns out, it was no cooler and no quieter. She’d feel awful tomorrow and there would be nothing to show for it. More fool her.
She stared at the screen, her eyes itching like they were full of sand. The letters dipped and looped: she was sure that A towards the end of the line was deliberately doing cartwheels. She reached out and slapped the laptop lid shut. This was no good. She lurched to her feet and stretched her arms high above her head. At home, she’d go down to the bottom of the garden and indulge in a good long scream to get all her tension out. If she did that here, that nice couple next door would likely ring the police. Something itched, deep inside.
Her lips twitched up in a grin and she could feel laughter bubbling up instead of the scream. She took a slight run-up and cast herself onto her bed. That was one advantage to having downsized into such a tiny place, at least she could pull stunts like that. That thought made her laugh harder and she buried her face in her pillow, muffling the sound. She really was an idiot. Thinking a move would be enough to make her happy. She knew it went far deeper than that. She would really have to do something about it this time. Something drastic: maybe quitting this awful new job would be a good start. But to do what? Did it matter? So long as it was different. She punched the mattress lightly. There she went again, hoping that she would one day find the right fire to light under herself. She rolled onto her back and took a deep breath of the too-warm air, letting the faint sounds of the city wash around her.
Seeing them in the early morning when he was half asleep, it almost felt like it was his flat that was the wrong size.
He glanced out at the balcony. The sunflowers were bobbing their heads in the slight breeze. They looked absolutely ridiculous out there, far too large for the 2 foot by 5 foot concrete box. Seeing them in the early morning when he was half asleep, it almost felt like it was his flat that was the wrong size. Like it had shrunk, so that flowers towered over the rooftops. Jessie, with her best worldly wise look, would tell him that was how insects felt. Just like she’d looked when she’d informed him that putting the seeds from her breakfast cereal in empty soup tins full of soil would produce a garden for him. She’d insisted, no matter how many times he’d told her that the seeds were roasted beyond any hope of germinating. And there they were, nodding their shaggy heads in the sunshine.
He set down his coffee mug and stood. He needed to get to work. But part of him just wanted to watch those flowers as they turned to follow the sun: turned so slowly over the course of the day that you’d have to watch them for hours on end to see them do it. He wasn’t sure, even then, he would be able to swear that he’d seen it happen. Would they last until Jessie came for another weekend? He doubted it. He must remember to gather the seeds so that they could try again. She’d probably have lost interest by the time it was the season for them again (did sunflowers have seasons?). She’d be off chasing some new miracle of nature or science, glancing over her shoulder occasionally, bemused as to why her old dad wasn’t keeping up. She’d probably have shot up a few more inches as well; would Danielle remember to take her shopping for new jeans, not just school uniform?
Jessie was nothing like the sunflowers: she moved so fast. And yet, he wasn’t sure he could ever swear that he’d seen her do it either. Particularly not now he only got to see her for those few, precious weekends. He nodded back at the sunflowers, sighed and turned away.