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The sky is painted in bleak tones, dragging and drooping under the weight of a thousand clouds. No surprise there; I doubt I have ever glimpsed a drop of color in it. The tiny hairs on my arms shiver and stand on end, and I tug my threadbare T-shirt tighter around me. I allow my feet to carry me in a winding path through the narrow streets, which seem to reflect the color of the heavens through years of accumulated filth. I turn corner after corner, taking a wayward route past several abandoned warehouses, towering cookie cutter apartments, dark storefronts, anywhere but home.
My rapid pace gradually slows and comes to a halt. I have come to the edge of a lonely, dry expanse, dotted here and there with erratic stone benches and tumbling, garish bursts of neon plastic: the park. At first glance, I could swear the entire space is void of life, but then I spot two figures, heavily bundled against the brisk December day, sitting easily on the nearest bench. My first instinct is to shy away. I have never found other people to be compassionate, and so I tend to be wary of interaction. I pick up my feet once more, toes curling into icicles against the dead, frozen earth, and attempt to hurry past, keeping my head low and shoulders hunched. Maybe I won't be noticed...
But I have no such luck. The figure nearer to me turns at the sight of my movement and raises an arm in greeting.
“Nice day, eh?” It's hard to discern either of their genders underneath all their hats and scarves, but the one who waved has delicate, smiling eyes and speaks in high tones, suggesting a girl.
It isn't a nice day at all. I shrug tentatively. The bundled girl peers at me curiously and beckons me closer, but I remain where I am, about a meter and a half away, ready to make an escape if it becomes necessary.
“What's your name?” the girl asks. Neither she nor her friend seem bothered by the fact that I prefer to keep my distance.
I shake my head and point to my mouth.
The girl does her best to politely hide her shock, although I catch her eyes and mouth widening slightly. “Oh! Have you got a card?” She pulls her own identification card out of an inner pocket of her thick woolen coat.
I shake no again. Of course I have a card. However, to display it, to reveal my last name, would be highly risky.
“Could you write it, then?” she asks. As she rummages inside an ornately decorated purse at her side, she explains, “My name is Mae. This is my brother, Zeke. We're twins.” Zeke grins and waves from under his furry hat.
Twins? I peer closer. They do have matching sky-blue eyes.
That's when I realize I've seen them before.
It was a week ago, and I was on my way to do some job or other that Dad had set me. My mind was full, stuffed with thoughts of the task I was to complete, and, stepping out to cross a wide street, I glanced about in the usual manner for passing vehicles, but failed to check for other pedestrians. Suddenly I run full-on into something that moves, two people, people who reach out caring hands to steady me on my feet and apologize profusely for the collision, people who give me and my useless mouth an odd, searching look before they hurry off, people with kind, smiling blue eyes...
I get the feeling that Mae and Zeke knew that we had seen each other before from the moment they laid eyes on me today, and they must have assumed I'd remember them, too. Why else would they strike up an easy conversation with me?
Mae holds out a pen and a leaf of paper to me, but I am just out of reach. Etiquette would request that I step closer; deep, ingrained fear keeps me back. After an awkward moment of stillness, Mae rises briefly instead, bridging the distance between us. I gingerly accept the mode of communication she offers, and hand it back with Tessa scrawled messily through the white fibers.
Zeke and Mae both greet me again as if for the first time. “Hi, Tessa.” I am grateful that they don't ask for a last name. “Do you come here often?” Zeke asks.
I shake my head once more. I don't go anywhere often; instead, I go everywhere occasionally.
Zeke gets to his feet, a little bumbling in his thick costume, peeling back one glove to examine a glint of gold and crystal on his wrist. “We'd better be off – it's almost noon We've some errands – you know. Nice to meet you, Tessa.”
Mae follows suit. “Yes, lovely. Will we see you again tomorrow?” A simple question? Or an invitation? Should I accept it? I take a leap of faith and nod. I can always run if need be. The park is flat and open, and I will be much quicker than the blue-eyed twins in their boots and coats. I stand still and watch as they disappear across the brown grass and around the nearest street corner. They have not turned malicious yet, even though they know of my affliction, even though they could clearly see the many rips and tatters in my dust-laden clothes.
If I am not mistaken – oh, how I hope I'm not – I have just met who will be, before long, the first friends of my life.
With Mae and Zeke gone, I have no excuse to put off my return home any longer. I dread the journey back, but when I actually raise my leaden legs and begin it, it is not as awful as I had anticipated. As I walk, four blue eyes flash in my memory, so bright that I can almost imagine the sky in the same shade. Whirlwinds of dirt and rancid-smelling trash receptacles fade behind a buoyant, glimmering fog that tries jubilantly to lift me off my feet and transport me straight to my front door. But I don't trust the cheerful fog, and, knowing it could drop me with a crash back to the hard gray street at any moment, I busy myself fending it off. Consequently, I get the feeling of being suddenly awoken by a splash of ice water when I find myself standing outside my house.
It is barely a house. It gives the impression that it might have been, once, but it has been squashed down between a giant apartment complex on one side and three abandoned houses just like it on the other. Mine had been abandoned, too, but, as Dad says, “We gave it a new home, and it gave one us.” We keep the mildewy yellow curtains on the windows, the ones that were there when we moved in, to keep up the impression that it is uninhabited. The door is nearly falling off of its rusty hinges, and when I step up to it, it suddenly opens with a bang, and there, completely filling the wooden doorframe, is Dad. Scraggly beard, mismatched socks and all. His fiery expression flickers slightly to anxiety as he glances up and down the street. Once he's satisfied that nobody has heard him open the door, he turns his frown back to me.
“Where the -” He growls, automatically censoring his language for my benefit. “Where the heck've you been, Tessa?!”
I shrug. It's not like I could tell him if I wanted to.
“You tell me where you been, girl. Didja go to the cops? Nod or shake. It ain't that hard.”
Giving him a look that plainly says he's insane to suggest such a thing, I shake my head. Although I'm not surprised he asked. I'll stay out thirty seconds longer than I'm supposed to and Dad will still worry that I've gone to the police.
Dad sighs, his shoulders relaxing. “Well. Good. Now, you git in here, warm up a bit, then I've got an errand for you.”
I tense, a bowling ball of dread landing in the pit of my stomach. Errand – Dad's word for what I must do almost every day. I don't like it – I despise it – but it's the only way to keep Dad safe and sane. To keep both of us alive.
The memory flashes in my head, unbidden. Stealing... ain't good for naught... silent... stealing in the night... only way...
I stumble past Dad, barely noticing the slight warmth of the inside of the house, and plunge through into the next room, to collapse on my worn-thin sleeping bag.
Ain't good for naught now... stealing... silent... got to go, now...
“Got to go, now, Tessa.” At first I think it's my memory Dad speaking, but then I look up to see the real thing towering over me. “Hurry, girl. You'd best be back by dark.”
Slowly I rise out of my lake of memory, shaking off droplets of pain. After a long moment I clamber to my feet and nod my assent, absently fingering the faded bluish blooms on my upper arm. I glance at Dad for further instructions, but first he launches into the usual spiel detailing cautions I am to take.
“Remember, girl. Don't show your card.”
I incline my head.
“Don't get caught.”
I nod again.
“Don't go to the cops.”
“Get lots of food. Don't just get a -” he stops just short of cursing again - “don't get a darn loaf of bread again. I want something with substance, got it? Get some good meat, right?”
I nod once more. And then I am off, traversing once more into Dad and my game of thievery, of life, of death, of stark survival.
A month after my first meeting with the twins, I am already walking the same zigzag path to the park in my mind, while my body is shrugging on the most intact shirt I own by the front door. I have managed to meet up with Mae and Zeke at least three days a week since then, and, as I had hoped and wished and prayed, our friendship is beginning to bloom, even in the face of my disability. I am looking forward to spending the morning with them again today, but my heart sinks like a stone as a heavy hand lands on my shoulder before I can turn the doorknob and escape.
“Where do you think you're going, Tessa?”
I sigh deeply, refusing to turn and face Dad, merely giving a slight shake of my head.
“Nowhere,” Dad proclaims firmly. “That's where. Except where I tell you. Got another errand today, you do.”
Miserably running a hand through my hair – it'll be at least another day before I see the twins again – I listen with one ear to Dad's list of instructions, which he ends with, “And a good bottle of whiskey if they got any. They will.”
My insides clench up. Dad must be sending me uphill if he's so sure the house's occupants will have whiskey.
And then my fears are confirmed when Dad opens his mouth again.
“You're going to the Blanchaire's.”
“Get back, Tessa!” At her father's command, the mousy-haired five-year-old scampers behind a streetlamp creaking in the light wind. Her eyes are as big as floodlights, nearly as bright, too, in the midnight alley, and her small body is overcome with a trembling quaver.
After a brief glance to be sure his daughter is well hidden, Aaron Caddigan raises to eye level a gleaming hunk of smooth metal. With one hand he holds it steady; with the other, he points a shaking finger at the man opposite him.
“What did I tell you, Blanchaire!?” he bellows. “You don't mess with me. That little scheme of yours cost me my job. But now – now! It'll cost you your life!”
The other man, dressed to the nines in a neatly creased tan suit, but with his pepper-gray hair and silk tie askew, narrows his eyes, squinting across the dim, narrow street. “Don't stick your blame on me, Caddigan. I merely sought to improve my own standing. Your loss was just a byproduct.”
“Lies!” hisses Aaron Caddigan. “You can't tell me you didn't want me gone. I used to respect you, you know. But I was just in your way, wasn't I?”
A woman moves suddenly between the two men and places a gentle but firm hand on Aaron Caddigan's shoulder. She holds a flickering candle and clutches a heavy shawl about her thin shoulders. “Aaron,” she pleads. “Don't do this. I don't want either of you hurt.”
Aaron pushes her roughly away. “Oh, so you're on his side, are you?, Greta? Should've known.”
“No!” Greta gasps. “Oh, please, Aaron. How can you do this to your closest friend?”
“He is no longer my friend,” growls Aaron, avoiding Greta's gaze and glaring instead at the other man, struggling to get the tip of his gun around his wife. Across the alley, the other man draws a weapon of his own.
“Get out of my way, Greta. Caddigan, if you would kill me – you're dead yourself.”
“You've got that backwards,” snarls Aaron. He attempts again to move past Greta, and though she stands her ground, Aaron's sharp shove breaks her stance and she stumbles, hands flying out for balance. Her candle flares, and a single spark escapes, landing on delicate feet inside the barrel of Aaron's gun.
Then everything happens all at once, so quickly that the five-year-little girl behind the streetlamp has only just enough time to shrill “Mommy – Daddy!” before the air explodes with noise that stabs her from every side and throws her to the cold cement sidewalk. Dust rises from the dark corners of the alley, and when it clears, the tense scene is sprawled in disarray. Aaron stoops, hands on knees, his gun clutched, forgotten, in one hand. His breathing is ragged and his eyes far away, full of pain. The other man, Rhys Blanchaire, grimaces and clutches his left arm at an unnatural angle. But the worst of the damage has fallen on Greta; her broken body reclines awkwardly on the cobblestones, an open wound in her skull shining red, rubies beading on her brow.
Aaron flings himself at her side. “Greta,” he wails. His voice is high, keening. As he bends over her, his eyes squeeze shut and his mouth yawns open in a scream too agonizing for sound.
And then his daughter is at his side, tugging at his shoulder. Aaron glances up in time to see her mouth the words, What's wrong with Mommy, and the shock registers on both faces at once. The little girl tries again, tries to say Daddy, what's – but her voice has fled, met with the same fate as her mother. She frowns and wipes a dribble of blood from her throat.
Aaron roars in anger. “I told you get back, Tessa! Now look what's gone and happened. You're mute, darn it! Silent as the grave. You ain't good for naught no more!”
A low whisper interrupts Aaron's rant, and he and his daughter turn as one to look back down the street. Rhys Blanchaire is clambering awkwardly to his feet. “Shouldn't've done that, Caddigan,” he hisses. They'll lock you up for sure now.” And then he's gone, disappearing into the network of alleys, shrouded in cobwebs of dense darkness.
Lock you up. At these words, Aaron all but collapses. His entire body is wracked with shakes and sobs. He sinks to the ground and covers his head with his hands. The police advance, laughing, pleased that their job has practically been done for them, but as for little Tessa, she is seeing her father with new eyes. Every ounce of her being repels this sight, longs to strike out against the fear that has pushed Aaron to his knees. Suddenly she darts forward and grabs his hand, pushing away a scraggy lock of hair to silently mouth the words, Run, Daddy. Run! Come on! I won't let them hurt you! Aaron's mind seems to clear as he peers up at Tessa, and then he comes to his senses. And amid shouts of protest from behind them, Aaron Caddigan rises to his feet and sprints with his daughter away to the safety of the shadows. For, just as they make their escape, two men have appeared at the other end of the block, their silver badges gleaming in the pool of light from the streetlamp. Thy catch sight of Aaron's face as he disappears around the corner, and one of the men jots something down in a notebook before the two take off running. But when they round the corner, the man they pursue is nowhere to be found.
“We can't be seen now, you hear?” Aaron whispers hoarsely once he and his daughter are well hidden. “Leastways, I can't. You could, though, in a few years. Them dumb cops won't recognize you once you've growed up a bit. But you got no voice now. Ain't good for naught. Except quiet stuff. You could steal about in the night – get food and clothes for us. Yeah, that'd be the only way. 'Cause if they ever find me, ever, even when I'm eighty years old, they'll – they'll put me in pr – in -” He can't even say the word, and Tessa slips her hand back into his until his shaking shoulders calm once more.
“C'mon, Tessa,” he mutters gruffly. “Got to go, now.”
I should have known it was coming; sooner or later, Dad was going to send me to the home of his worst enemy. I must take extra caution; one slip, and it's all over.
Because if I'm caught... that means Dad is caught, too. And the police won't understand. They won't care that if they put Dad in chains, lock him in a cold metal cell for eternity, it terrifies him, it hurts him in a place deep down inside that can never be healed. And every time he opens his eyes, the metal walls will close in around him and jab at the sore spot, and it will bleed all over again. The cops, the court, the prison guards – they don't understand that.
They don't understand that watching it will hurt me, too.
So, as I approach the vast Blanchaire residence, my empty – but not for long – backpack flapping on my back, I keep my head ducked, and my eyes scamper every which way. Luckily, there is no threat in sight. The long driveway yawns open to greet me as I begin the nerve-racking journey up its vacant path, and floating, and lace curtains gently ripple against lofty windows, hiding an unlit interior.
I slip a bent paperclip from the depths of my pocket and expertly maneuver it into the metal fastening on one of the lowest windows until there comes a soft click and the lock pops open. The window, likely well oiled, slides soundlessly upward at my shove. The curtains flutter, and the room beyond emits little sounds that make my heart jump pointlessly: the steady tick of a wall clock, the faint hum of electrical devices, the rustle of heavy textiles in the breeze from the window I have opened. Carefully, I slide one leg over the sill, ducking the rest of my body through the cramped opening, and straighten up to find myself in the most majestic living room I have ever seen.
At least, I assume it's a living room. It really looks more like a ballroom, only with deep carpeting under my feet like a mossy forest floor. A massive chandelier, dripping with diamonds that must be real, graces the high ceiling, and the walls are lined with exquisite drapes, famous works of art, and plump sofas. A slight sweet scent perfumes the room. The whole effect is so overwhelmingly pristine and elegant that I am ashamed of my filthy bare feet. I dig out a rag that's only barely cleaner and hastily wipe them off before they have a chance to make a single mark on the house's perfection.
Even though the premises are completely vacated, I crouch close to the walls as I tiptoe through a side door into the next room, the kitchen. It's almost as grand as the living room, and even more immaculate, but the basic elements – a refrigerator, cabinets, sink, stove, dishwasher and counters – are discernible beneath shining surfaces. I poke around a bit and soon unearth enough food to last Dad and me for days, all while barely making a dent in the supply in the refrigerator and cabinets. As Dad predicted, I find three bottles of the city's finest whiskey on a high shelf, and I slip one down and tuck it under one arm to prevent it breaking.
My bag now considerably weighted down, I backtrack out of the kitchen and make my way through at least five more luxurious rooms (what can they all be used for?) until I locate the staircase. Broad enough for four horses to ascend it side by side, it follows a slow, sweeping spiral up three flights, adorned at its foot with two intricately ornate newell-posts. As I climb it, my footsteps land on each stair without causing a single creak. I head to the highest floor first, assuming that's where the bedrooms will be housed. When I arrive there, however, my breathing ever so minutely more labored, I am faced with a long, sunlit hall lined with closed doors. Where to begin?
But then my thoughts are interrupted harshly by a dull, metallic slam from the left side of the house. Pulse thumping wildly, I rush into the closest room on the left of the hallway and peer out the window – and what I see nearly makes my heart stop.
The driveway is no longer empty. A long, silver automobile has pulled up and a man in a shiny black hat and matching overcoat has stepped out. Rhys Blanchaire? He strolls sedately toward the front door, his mouth pursed as if whistling, though I can't make out the tune through the windowpane.
I try to take a deep breath to stop myself from panicking, but all I can manage is a slightly slower gasp. Fervently, I scan the room I have entered. It's a bedroom, about as big as my whole house, with a massive canopy bed draped in gauzy linens and flowing silks dominating the center of the space. I throw open drawers and closets at random, grabbing fistfuls of sparkling jewelry and silk gloves. Then, shutting the bedroom door as quickly as I dare while being careful not to slam it, I practically slide down the staircase and dart for the living room. Maybe I can make it outside before Blanchaire comes in.
But luck is not with me. As I am about to go careening through the arched doorway to the living room, a low voice sends me screeching to a halt.
“Drat, it's cold in here. Ah – window's open a bit. Must be the darn kids. Should know better than to leave the window like that in these temperatures.” Blanchaire is already in the living room. He ceases talking to himself and, from my temporary hiding spot against the adjoining wall, I hear him shut and lock my only escape route.
Footsteps meander across the living room, coming ever closer. If I don't move now, I will be discovered within moments. Clenching my teeth, I dart on lean legs back into the room I had just left. But I miscalculate the distance, and crash headlong into a bookcase sparsely filled with heavy, leather-bound tomes. I grab at one of the shelves to check my fall, but a book merely comes away in my hand and the whole bookcase teeters forward, hovering on the verge of toppling. I roll aside, the book still clutched in my fingers, every particle of my mind screaming in terror. The footsteps are running towards me now, and before I can think about what I'm doing, I raise my arm and heave the volume through a window, shattering the fragile glass, and jump out after it. A stray fragment of glass nicks at my ear as I go by, but I force myself to ignore the shooting pain. Wrapping my arms protectively around the bottle of whiskey, I tuck myself into a ball and roll down the grassy hill on which the house is perched. Brays of anger echo after me as I tumble away.
Once I reach the bottom of the hill, I duck behind a nearby hedge and carefully squint through its thick brambles to see Blanchaire reach the broken window and lean out, bellowing, “Stop! That impudent little – When I get my hands on him – ooh, that filthy little twerp'll wish he'd never been born-”
Him. So I wasn't seen. I have been told I look like many things, none very pleasing, but I haven't been called a boy since the year I was eight and had my hair cropped close to my head after accidentally sticking it together with maple sap from trees in the park. Heaving a sigh of immense relief, I hastily check the whiskey bottle and the contents of my backpack for any damage, and as soon as Blanchaire pulls his head back in the window, I dart out from behind the hedge and run as fast as my feet will take me until I reach the relative safety of the city streets.
The next morning rises cold and clear, and the beams of light that cut through my unfurnished room are dazzlingly bright, yet offer no warmth whatsoever. I rise briskly, determined to return to the park before Dad wakes up and stops me. He never made it to his bed last night – ecstatic over the fruits of my latest journey, he opened the whiskey right then and there to celebrate and before long was passed out in the middle of the floor, the empty bottle spinning across the floor out of his grip. Luckily for me, he was so jubilant that he failed to notice the swollen cut on my ear, which I was able to clean up later.
I step delicately over Dad, ease the front door open, and hurry through the sleeping streets to the park. The cold air dives ruthlessly through the holes in my clothes, pinching my face and limbs into a shivery, numb, pink mess. I am positive I will arrive first, seeing as it's so early, but when I reach the edge of the park and pause to look around, two silhouettes heavily adorned with woolen garments are already situated on the same bench. I approach cautiously. Zeke is eating a toasted bagel, and Mae has her pen and another piece of paper on her lap and appears to be doodling something. My steps are so quiet that I am nearly right in front of the twins before they notice me.
“Oh!” Zeke swallows a bit of bagel. “Hi, Tessa.”
“Hi!” Mae echoes, tucking her paper back into her purse. “How've you been?” She holds out a fist, thumbs up, thumbs down. “Good? Bad?”
I choose good, showing her my own thumb sticking up at the sky. Bad would provoke questions that I can't answer. “Oh, that's good,” Mae nods. “Us, too.” She grins, and, unexpectedly, I find myself smiling too, very faintly, but still noticeable. I haven't smiled for real in a long time.
“Yep,” Zeke adds, “all good. Except, well...” He stops talking when his sister gives him a stern look, but then protests, “Oh, come on, Mae. I can't tell her?”
“Why? You don't want to hear about our mundane family matters, do you, Tessa?” Mae appeals to me. Wishing to remain impartial, I merely shrug.
“You'll hear about it sooner or later anyhow,” Zeke tells me, ignoring Mae, who promptly butts in to steal the spotlight. “I guess that's true. Well, Tessa, this is what happened. We were robbed yesterday afternoon. Not long after we met you, actually.”
Each muscle in my body freezes solid. I nearly forget to breathe. Loud, petrified denial pounds in my head: no no no no no no no – over and over so that I can barely hear Mae's next words.
“There were a few of Mom's necklaces stolen, and some of Dad's best alcohol. Nothing huge, but Dad said the thief was actually there in the house with him when he came home. Nearly saw whoever it was, too, when they jumped out the window. That was the worst damage – the broken window. It's all very exciting.”
“A bit creepy, too,” Zeke cuts in. “Imagine knowing someone had been in your house while you were away. Maybe even in your room.” He shivers dramatically.
I can't move. I wouldn't be able to say anything anyway, but I can't even alter my expression to form any sort of response.
It can't be.
Mae and Zeke. No. But they seem so kind, and Dad had always portrayed Rhys Blanchaire as hostile and malicious...
I wish fervently that I could take back all the events of the previous day, that I could turn back time and stay at the park until nightfall, so that I would not have been sent to the Blanchaire house at all. If it were possible to reveal myself without risk of punishment, I would throw myself at their feet, sobbing, scribbling a hasty note on some of Mae's paper begging for forgiveness. Because I refuse to believe that the twins are evil in any way, even if their father is. They are the first people in a long time who have ever seen me for anything but a dumb sewer rat of a girl.
“Tessa?” Zeke pronounces my name questioningly. “You're blushing...”
Oh! I mime writing with a pen, then hold my hand out to Mae, who plunks her writing implements into my hands. Just from the cold, I write. I have to go. Terribly sorry about your break-in. I give the note and pen back to Mae, offer another tiny, embarrassed smile and a shy wave, and exit at full tilt with the twins calling goodbyes to my retreating back.
How could Mae and Zeke possibly be Blanchaires? How did I not realize this? Why couldn't Dad have sent me to some other house yesterday, any other at all? There are so many questions, and I need time to sort them out, time alone to think. But time is not to be granted to me, for as I arrive back at home, the door opens once again before I can reach it. Dad is awake, but instead of frowning, he is grinning, still somewhat inebriate, blinking with difficulty in the harsh light.
“There you are, girl,” he grunts happily. “Been looking for you. You're goin' back to that house, you hear?”
No, I don't hear. Well, I don't understand, in any case. Why would he send me back? It doesn't make sense, and besides, I won't go. I ignore Dad and push him aside, intent on securing some time on my own, but he grabs my arm. “Listen, Tessa! You got to get me some more o' that brew. See?” He gestures wildly to the empty bottle lying in the dusty corner. “All gone! I got to have some more. So you're goin' back.” He beams, pleased with his idea.
The whiskey. Of course. It's so like Dad to want more. I wriggle out of his grasp and scoop up a scrap of paper and a pencil stub from the floor. You can do without whiskey until I sell the jewels, I scratch out.
“No!” He shakes his head. “God, Tessa. I need more now, okay? You wouldn't understand.”
Isn't there another house I could get it from? But I know there isn't. The whiskey I stole was the finest money can buy, likely custom-brewed for Blanchaire himself. Dad shakes no even more emphatically. “Just go, Tessa!”
I all but impale the paper as I bear down it it, writing two thick, definite capital letters. NO. I add a shake of my own head to prove my point.
That's when Dad seizes me by both arms and shakes me until I fear my head will snap clean off. His untrimmed fingernails dig deeply into my biceps so sharply that my mouth opens in an involuntary, silent shriek of agony. I pray to all that is good that he doesn't tear my arms out of their sockets.
“You will go, Tessa!” he bellows. “And you better come back with that damn whiskey!” He is so livid that he doesn't even bother to cut out the swearword. He doesn't complete his threat, but I know that to return without the alcohol is to risk Dad's full rage. He will hurt me, worse than he's doing now. I'm afraid he'll even kill me; he gets so worked up.
A part of me wants to resist further, to face the risk. What does it matter if I die, if I can show a little respect to my new friends while doing it? But with me gone, Dad will be forced to venture out of the house at some point – be seen – get imprisoned – and then – I can't even consider that. I cannot possibly commit my own father to a life of pure agony.
I will go.
I will just have to be even more cautious than last time, that's all. Get in, get the whiskey, get out. Mae and Zeke won't even know. Maybe later, years later, when all this is past us, I can confess my crime and apologize. Maybe it can all be okay. I can barely convince myself, but I sternly instruct my limbs to move, to carry me once more out the creaky wooden door and all the way up the hill to the better-off section of this godforsaken city, rubbing the painful places on my arms, the old wounds that have been refreshed once again.
As I approach the Blanchaire house for the second time this week, I again notice that there is not a soul in sight. But, this time, I am wary of the fact, and vow to make the trip inside within five minutes to diminish my risk of being caught. Rather than open the same window as last time, and possibly announce my presence, I creep around to the back of the house. Yes, it's as I thought – the broken window has not yet been repaired, but merely covered with a mess of duck tape and cardboard. It seems disturbingly out of place in the posh setting. I reach out, carefully, and rip open the crudely arranged cardboard without much difficulty. Keeping my fingers away from the shards of glass still protruding from the frame, I scramble deftly inside the house –
– and fall with a crash to the floor as alarms blare in my ears and my limbs become immobile as they crumple beneath me. Soft, quick treads hasten into the room, and I hear a loud gasp. Someone is home, and, inferring from the sound of the voice, it is not Rhys Blanchaire.
A second set of footsteps approaches, followed by another, higher gasp, and then a shocked whisper. “Tessa! Oh no – oh God no -”
I open my eyes, and find myself staring directly into two pairs of bright blue ones. One arm, numb with pain, throbs as it lies under my body.
I blink, and Mae and Zeke's faces, distorted with shock and disbelief and framed in vivid white-blond hair that I had not seen previously due to their hats and scarves in the park, come into sharp focus.
Then Zeke screams. “Why did you do this, Tessa?!” he shouts, and lunges sideways to snatch up a white plastic telephone from its cradle on a nearby shelf. I realize what he's going to do just as he finishes dialing, but, tied up, there's nothing I can do. I silently curse my vanished voice as I scream for Zeke to stop without a single sound. Standing over me, Mae simply gazes down at me, tears welling in her sapphire eyes. My brain puts up walls against the agony that is surely to come, because this means the end. The end for me, the end for Dad, the end of my friendship with Zeke and Mae.
In my warped, protesting state of mind, it seems that the police simply appear in the Blanchaire house out of thin air. They transport me away, but not before I get one last glimpse of the twins' faces, staring after me in despair.
The police station is cold, damp and dismal, lit with florescent abominations that sear stripes into my retinas. I am shoved into a wobbly metal chair, which rocks back and forth on the gray cement. One of the cops kneels before me and shoves his squashed-looking, squinting face into my own.
“Who are you? You the same one what broke into that house yesterday? Come on, now, you got a mouth, now use it.”
I point at my tightly closed lips and shake my head.
The cop narrows his eyes suspiciously. Suddenly he lunges for my throat, and I am surprised into letting out a yell, a silent one, of course.
“Huh,” the cop grunts, sitting back on his heels. “She's not kidding. Can't make a sound, I reckon.” He straightens up. “Search her! If you can't tell us who you are, we'll just find out on our own.”
I resist with all my might, thrashing about in the chair, but the cop summons reinforcements to hold me down. They find my pants pockets to be empty, but they promptly pause their search when they push up my shirtsleeves.
“Now, now, what's all this?” the first cop drawls, holding up my arm for inspection. Clearly visible, parading in down my arm, is a line of fresh blue-black bruises. None of the cops need to say a word to figure out what happened.
“Who did this to you?” demands a second cop, shaking my arm like a limp trout, pressing a sheet of paper into my other hand. But I just grab my arms away and cross them over my chest in obvious refusal to write a word.
The first cop signals to the rest, and they commence their search once more. I can barely keep the tears at bay as one of them draws out my white plastic identification card from an inner pocket.
“Tessa Gail Caddigan. Fourteen years,” the cop reads aloud, and exchanges a meaningful glance with his coworkers. “Where do you live, Tessa? Can you lead us to it?”
No! I could never do that – lead them straight to Dad. I'm not sure it would even be physically possible; before I'd led them five steps, the ache deep in my heart of knowing I'd betrayed him would bring me to my knees.
I need a way out. If I stay here, they'll force me to reveal Dad's hiding place eventually, or kill me trying. I've heard all the stories of the tortures that can be inflicted on you if you are hiding important information. Maybe I should just let them kill me – it might be better that way.
But then I remember something. Something so simple, so obvious – I've done it several times, although never in a situation like this. For a moment I worry that it won't work, that they'll have seen it too often and catch me before I can get away, but then I put the thought out of my head and grit my teeth. It's my only hope.
I hold out my hand, pointing to a pad of paper on the officer's desk, which is swiftly handed to me in the hopes that I'll dash off my address. Instead, though, I write, Need the bathroom. Please?
The first cop gives the others a look that says, No way is she for real. Hoping to convince him, I squirm in my seat, pressing my knees together and putting on a pained expression. To my relief, one of the other cops says, “Ah, let her go. She can tell us what we need to know when she comes back. The door's guarded, so she can't get out. You, Tessa,” he addresses me, “the restroom's right down the hall there. Don't try any funny business. You're gone more than five minutes and we're coming after you, privacy be damned. Got it?”
I nod fervently, rising and walking at a steady pace down the hallway as soon as I am freed from the chair. I turn the corner as the cop had directed me, the door to the bathrooms coming to sight. But I don't go in. I keep walking, down another hallway and through two more doors, until I reach the exit. It is indeed guarded; two more cops stand sentry outside, and I duck against a doorframe before they can spot me.
Then I bolt between them, darting past the guards so quickly that I am blocks away before they have even realized what I've done, and away through the twists and turns of the city streets, ducking and dodging, until, panting, I press myself flat against the back of a brick warehouse, safe for the moment. Wiping beads of sweat from my forehead, I send a mental message of gratitude to the powers that be for my impossible escape. Keeping a diligent lookout for my pursuers, I sneak along until, finally, I reach my own house. Bursting through the door, I slam it shut behind me and collapse to the floor.
I barely have time to catch my breath before Dad is standing over me, shaking me by the shoulders, demanding, “Where's the whiskey, Tessa?!”
I grope wearily for my pencil and scribble, No whiskey. Got caught. I instantly regret writing this, because Dad's face drains of color, and he stammers, “C-caught? No. No. Tell me you didn't. Tell me we're safe, Tessa, please!” But I can't; I can't lie to him. He raises one hand, almost absentmindedly, as if to strike me, and I wince in preparation for the blow, but when I look up again, Dad is disappearing into the bathroom, locking the door behind him. I start to go after him, to make sure he'll be able to get out again – the bathroom lock is renowned for getting stuck at the least opportune moments – but my energy fails me.
Slowly, I pick myself up, all the broken pieces, and drag myself over to our only chair, by the window. Slumping against the frame, I let the horrors of the day wash over me: fingernails piercing my skin, florescent lightbulbs blazing across my vision, pearly tears pooling in bright blue eyes...
Blue eyes. They are real, gazing at me from the street below. Somehow, Mae and Zeke have found me, have come to haunt me in my despair. Our three faces reflect each other's expressions of agony, wordlessly conveying the same message: How could you do this to me?
Then, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows painfully, Zeke raises one arm and points behind me. I turn, and my jaw drops open. Behind me roars a blazing fire, eating at the sides of the house until the walls peel back and burn with black smoke. My path outside is free, but I am frozen.
Dad. I hear the bathroom lock jiggle noisily, but the door does not open. The faulty lock, yet again, has stuck at the worst time possible.
“Tessa,” he calls. “What's going on out there?”
I start to leap over the ring of flames toward the bathroom, but them something outside the window stops me in my tracks. Two fire trucks and a police car are squealing to a halt outside the house, presumably coming to our aid to put out the fire.
If I break Dad out of the bathroom, the police will see him, capture him. All that we've worked for, his freedom, his sanity, will be lost. Dad will be lost, forever trapped within his own fear.
Can I save his life only to let him be locked away? Is a life of anguish really a life at all?
“Tessa!” Dad shouts, and I flinch inwardly, in utter despair.
Which is better?
Or a horrible half-life, locked in the poisonous vice of your own mind, forever dying?
And then, before I can hear his desperate cry again, I turn and flee, escaping the confines of the burning house.
All else fades in the distance as I stand in the cold street and watch my only home blaze to the ground.
“You are Tessa Caddigan, correct?” The matter-of-fact female voice brings me back to my senses. I nod slowly.
“Daughter of Aaron Caddigan?”
I nod again.
“Aaron Caddigan?” A male voice joins the female one. “Has he been apprehended, then?”
“No,” the woman's voice explains. “He... he was lost in the fire.”
Lost. Lost in the fire. I should be crying, devastated. But the tears are still waiting, it seems, for a better moment.
“I see.” says the man. “And what of Tessa? She was the one caught stealing today, was she not?”
“Yes,” says the woman. “But it seems she is innocent. Her father forced her into it.”
The man sighs, whether with content or grief, I cannot tell.
And then another voice pipes up, a very familiar voice.
“Is that true? Tessa – oh no – I'm so sorry – will you ever forgive us?”
My eyes open blearily. Standing around me are four people: a stout woman in a police uniform, a man in an ornate black coat, and a young boy and girl with light blond hair. Mae dashes forward and clutches my hand. “Oh, Tessa, I'm so terribly sorry. We had no idea... about your father... I'm so sorry...”
“Hold on,” the policewoman interrupts. “The fire. Do you know who was responsible?”
Zeke's eyes grow wide, but I am the only one who sees him slip a small matchbox into his coat pocket. His expression pleads with me, I didn't mean to, I swear, Tessa, please...
Mae sidles up beside me and puts her mouth to my ear as the policewoman turns away to ask the man something. “We feel horrible, Tessa, really,” she explains in a barely audible whisper. “When we cau – after the police took you away, I mean, Zeke and I... we were... upset. We left the house, just, you know, to walk, to get away, to think. And after we had been walking a while, we spotted you hiding in a dark corner. Nobody else saw you, and we – well, we were still pretty mad, of course, because we didn't know... and we followed you – and Zeke happened to have the matches in his pocket – and he lit one – and held it up to your house – it was a joke, really, we didn't mean for it to burn... Zeke tried to put the fire out as soon as it had started, but it spread and there was nothing we could do -” She blinks back tears, drawing away from me as the policewoman pivots back to face us.
“So? The fire? Any ideas?”
I point to myself and mouth the word, accident. And I am rewarded with an enormous, relieved, grateful smile from both of the twins.
“I see,” says the policewoman, scratching this information down on an official-looking notepad. “Now, there is just one more matter to attend to. Tessa. Where will she go? We could put her in a foster family, or -”
“I believe I can solve that problem,” puts in the man in the black coat. Rhys Blanchaire turns to face me, bending slightly to accommodate my shorter height.
“Tessa... your dad and I used to be friends. Close friends. Did you know that?”
No! I had no idea. I am listening intently now.
“Then, well, we ended up working at the same company, in nearly the same position. The day came when on of us was to be promoted – just one. I wanted the job so badly, as it would put me in a very powerful position. But so did Aaron.
I knew our boss would most likely select Aaron for the position. He had the better qualities. So I cheated, Tessa. I conned my way into the job. Soon after, Aaron's job was removed, and Aaron was out of work. He blamed me, as he should. He finally confronted me in a back alley one night.” Rhys Blanchaire sighed. “You were there for the fight, you know. Do you remember?”
I nod my head. I do remember. Vividly.
“Greta's death was neither of our fault. We were both shooting for each other, and somehow hit her instead. But after she died, I got scared. I ran for it. And Aaron got the blame. From then on, he hated me with a passion so deep it could never be reversed. But I did not hate him.
“Tessa, I think the time has come for our families to resolve our differences. Would you like to come and stay with us?”
For a long moment, I am so surprised that I can do nothing but stare blankly at him. Go and live with the Blanchaires – my father's greatest rivals? Just two days ago, it would have felt wrong, but now... Rhys is smiling at me expectantly, and Mae and Zeke tug and my hands, pleading, “Yes, Tessa, please do.”
Dad is gone, and my eyes are heavy with the waiting tears. I know my choice will weigh on me my whole life long. But I now realize that it took his death for me to see that his views do not have to bind me, that his mistakes do not have to guide my future.
I blink back those tears to come; they must wait a little longer. Once more, I incline my head, and treat Mae, Zeke and their father to my first real smile in years.
They may have been my father's enemies, but they will be my friends.