The Taken: After A Fall, Chapter 2

Synopsis:

"A secret passion for girls with boyish good looks."

Story:
***

There was so much blood. The smell of it, hot, metallic and cloying, filled her head as her footing slipped. She’d been too late. Too late, but in time to see Mike go down. After that she hadn’t been able to stop. Something had broken inside her. How easily a sharp blade slips through the skin. Would she never tire of it? Someone was screaming. She thought it was Teresa, but Teresa’s face stared unmoving back at her from next to Mike’s body. Something had broken inside her. Someone was screaming. Someone was crying. And somewhere mixed in with it was the singing of a nightingale. She couldn’t open her eyes properly; something was trying to keep them shut so she wouldn’t see; her feet were tangling and slipping in something she didn’t want to look at–

~Eyes Open,~ Valerie commanded, gasping with the effort, but her eyes opened. She was in bed. ~Dream!~ she told herself. “Didn’t happen didn’t happen didn’t happen,” she found herself saying, gasping, like a mantra. She could hear her own voice hoarse from screaming. “Oh God. Oh God.” The only thing she could see was a sliver of indigo through the gap in the curtains and the grey outline of her room. Then she had to reach down and pull the old chamber pot out from underneath the bed so she could throw up into it, halfway hanging over the side of the bed. ~That’s more like it,~ she thought bitterly. ~Blistering return to form there, Tucker.~ Shivering, fumbling for a tissue, some other sense prodded her for attention. She held her breath. Someone was still crying. It wasn’t quiet, sad crying either; this was someone who was desperate and panicking and banging on a door–

~Nathan!~ she realised suddenly. ~Kid must be having a problem. Where’s Jane? Get up, Valerie.~

She willed herself to move, and rolled herself out of bed, forcing her body to decide how awake it was going to be. She landed on her feet rather than her face, so she guessed it was awake enough. She stumbled to the door and out onto the landing, quickly checking that her boxers and camisole were at least on straight and not showing bits they shouldn’t. They, and she, were sweaty and stinking, but there wasn’t time to do anything about that. The banging was definitely coming from Nathan’s door, the crying she could hear was breathless with panic. She ducked back into her own room, remembering the keycard, and returned to swipe it through Nathan’s lock and tap the code into the panel. The bolt snapped open and she turned the handle.

“What–” she started testily as the door opened, and stopped at the sight of Nathan’s face. He was clearly distraught; the make-up had run horribly under tears.

“There was so much blood,” Nathan cried, his voice tight and horrified. Valerie felt every hair on her body try to stand on end. “I couldn’t get out.” Valerie still wasn’t properly awake. That must have been why she let him run into her arms. Or that’s what she chose to tell herself. Nathan was just hanging on. She let her arms wrap around his shoulders, to calm him. “I heard you screaming,” he was continuing. “I couldn’t get to you. The door was locked.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “It was just a bad dream.” ~Jesus.~ Her cheek was prickled for a moment by one of the curlers in his hair. She shifted position, got a hand to the back of his head, where she could direct where it went better. She was going to get make-up on her top.

“It’s coming under the door,” he was still in the horror of it, his voice coming in a whispered scream. “It’s coming under the door.”

“Shhhhh.” She rocked him slightly, where they were standing in his doorway.

“You’re all right,” he gasped.

“Yes, I’m all right. I just had a bad dream too.”

“I heard you screaming.” He was still shaking. She wanted to snap at him for repeating the obvious, but she knew too well what this felt like. He was switching over to normal crying now anyway, so she guided him back into his room, elbowing the light-switch on as she passed, and sat with him on the edge of his bed for a few minutes while he cried, unselfconsciously, like a child, and wouldn’t let go of her.

***

“Guess that was a bad one, eh?” she said awkwardly, as he was crying himself to a stop. He nodded.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“Haven’t had that one… for a while.”

“Me neither,” Valerie agreed, meaning her own dream. It won a chuckle out of Nathan.

Nathan separated himself from Valerie at last, curling himself up into a ball on the bed. He was still shaking.

“You going to be all right?” Valerie asked. He didn’t say anything for a while; long enough that she thought he’d fallen asleep. She stood up carefully.

“Are you going to lock the door?” he asked, without having moved. His eyes were open.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Don’t lock me in.”

She looked at him, trying to read if this was — had all been — a ploy to give him the run of the place. She didn’t think so, but that couldn’t change her answer. “It’s not my call. I’m sorry.”

“I won’t go anywhere, I promise,” Nathan said, sitting up.

“If you were good at keeping promises, you wouldn’t have ended up here,” Valerie observed. She saw it hit home.

“It wasn’t me! I–” He stopped, upset, and sagged.

“You’re denying you’re Lacuna?” Valerie asked. Nathan took a breath as if to speak, but only shook his head. “You understand why I can’t just let you go nosing around?” He nodded, dejected.

“What if you stay with me?”

“I’m not your babysitter, Nathan. I have to sleep too.” ~Who am I kidding?~ she thought harshly. This wasn’t one of those nights where she’d be getting any more sleep. Besides, her sheets were rank from the sweating she’d done earlier, and not very tempting. His looked as bad. Nathan just curled up again, hugging his knees and looking at the floor.

Dammit.

“If this is a trick there will be hell to pay, you realise that?”

“It’s not a trick. Honest.”

All she was getting off him were scared-kid vibes. Still she hesitated. “Okay,” she said eventually, getting another hit of that cute-as-kittens smile off him that she’d seen earlier, in the main hall. ~Could get used to that smile,~ she admitted to herself. She kept herself focused. “One night only, you understand? You’re going to have to talk to Jane in the morning about it.” He nodded slowly. “So, this is how it’s going to happen. I need to have a shower and change. I have to lock your door while I do that, okay? Ten minutes tops.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Guaranteed. Can you handle that?” He nodded. “You take the time to sort yourself out and change into something clean and dry.”

He nodded. “Okay. I’ll find something, I guess.” A crooked smile.

“When you’ve done that, start pulling the sheets off the bed. I’ll help you put clean ones on.” ~That should keep him busy,~ she was thinking. ~Too bad I can’t get him to help me change my sheets. Don’t want Lacuna getting a look at the toys in my room.~ There would be too much temptation for nimble fingers, she was sure.

“All right. Thanks.”

“Clock’s ticking,” she said, and left, locking the door behind her.

***

Ten minutes later, having showered the nightmare-juice off her body, she was back outside his door carrying a spare set of bedclothes over an arm. She’d taken her time, not wanting to return earlier than her promise. Enough time to give consideration to what to change into. In the end she’d decided on actually getting dressed into a flowing gypsy skirt she’d bought in a weak moment with Mary, who seemed to have a thing for them, and a plain top. She grabbed a sweater and went.

She unlocked the door and knocked, waiting three clear seconds before opening the door. She would knock, she decided, because Jane would not. Nathan was waiting, sitting hugging his knees on the bare mattress. He’d found another nightgown and a pink chenille cardigan.

“You okay?”

He nodded.

“Let’s make this bed.”

They made short work of it. Nathan admitted to only having used duvets before, but he paid attention as she showed him what to do with the sheets, and picked it up quickly. It seemed to cheer him up, oddly. When it was done he clambered aboard triumphantly. Valerie couldn’t help but laugh.

“You’re such a kid, you know that?”

He just grinned. “I’m not sleepy,” he declared. “Hey, you want to play a game?”

“Er…” ~This better not be some kind of come-on,~ Valerie thought. “What did you have in mind.”

“I don’t know. What you got?”

“What, like board games?”

“Well yeah, ’course.” All innocence.

Valerie thought. Jane had a good selection of board games, as it happened. For bored kids at boreding school. Ha ha. There’d be time enough for Nathan to play all of them, and other Approved Gentle Pursuits, after looking decorous to Jane’s specifications had become automatic. “Come on,” she said. “I’ve got a better idea.”

He bounced off the bed.

“You’d better put something on your feet,” she suggested. “The floors get cold. There should be some slippers around here.”

He made a face. “I found them. They’re fluffy.”

Valerie gave him her best ‘Jane’ look until he humphed and went off to recover them.

***

Valerie found the right light switch. The concealed lights over the kitchen work surfaces flickered on. It gave them enough light to see by while keeping the overall ambient level low, for the benefit of her tired eyes. “Go sit down,” she indicated the kitchen table with one hand while the other groped in the fridge for the cream. “I’ll make you a hot toddy.”

“A what?”

“Oh you know, a hot toddy.” She found the cinnamon and cocoa, but– “Where has Marie hidden the nutmeg–”

“Oh,” Nathan giggled quietly from the table. “Not so hot toddy. I get it now.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing. Just something I read as a kid, I didn’t get it ’til now. Duh.” He slapped the side of his head and grinned.

“Er, okay.” Valerie shrugged, then regarded Nathan for a while. ~Idle hands,~ she was thinking. ~I know how to keep ’em busy.~ “Hey, I got a better idea.” She leaned on the counter separating the cooking area from the table. “Have you ever had real home-made American chocolate-chip cookies fresh from the oven?”

“Um. Well, they have American cookies in Sainsbury’s, Lin gets ’em sometimes.”

Valerie made a rude noise. “Right, Get up here, you’re making ’em.” She had a thought that she might learn something about how he felt about food. Like whether he really was anorexic, or if he just didn’t trust what was being put in front of him, like a certain someone she remembered.

“Me?”

“Yeah. You want Jane in a good mood when you talk to her about that lock?” Nathan nodded earnestly. “Tip: She’s got a big soft spot for my cookies. It’s one thing I can actually do better than Marie, though she’d never admit it. So you bring her some you made yourself, maybe it’ll sweeten her up before you ask, right?” Nathan nodded slowly, understanding. “Hang on though,” she added, “lemme just check we got the stuff. Otherwise we revert to plan A.”

A quick flurry through the cupboards later and she had assembled the ingredients untidily on the counter. “Okay, we’re good to go. Get up here, raccoon-face.”

“Hey, not my fault,” Nathan protested, coming back round into the cooking-area. “Mrs. Thompson said–”

“Mrs. Thompson said she wanted you to fall asleep wearing it, right?”

“Yeah something like that.”

“And you did?”

“Yyyeah…” Uncertainly.

“Well then.” Valerie reached into an overhead sundries cupboard and got out some facial cleansing wipes. “Let’s get this off or it’ll end up everywhere, and mascara in the cookie mix doesn’t appeal.”

“Won’t I get in trouble?” Nevertheless, Nathan stood still while Valerie wiped brusquely at his face.

“You can tell her I did it. That’s why I am doing it, so you don’t have to lie.” She grinned. “Better leave the curlers in though.”

“God knows what that’s going to turn out like,” Nathan replied. “Probably end up with an Afro.” He giggled.

“Nah, curlers aren’t that strong. Wait’ll you get that perm though–”

“What perm?”

~Oops!~ “You’ll see. Stand still, I’m nearly done.”

“God that feels better. What perm?”

“Shush. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

“I don’t want a… perm,” he trailed off, probably remembering how much what he wanted would have to do with it.

“Can you cook at all?”

Nathan shrugged. “Oven chips and burgers type stuff–”

“‘No,’ in other words. Go put on an apron and wash your hands while I get this lot organised.”

“Apron?”

“Third drawer.” She pointed to the drawers near the main sink.

***

“Eww…”

“What?” Valerie looked over. Nathan was holding the packet of chocolate morsels as if he’d found a decomposing rodent.

“Nestlé. Do you know what they get up to in third-world countries?”

“Oh God, you sound like…” Valerie sighed.

“Who?”

“Never mind. Just put the damn chocolate in.”

“Made from the bitter tears of malnourished babies’ mothers!”

“Look, you didn’t buy it, you’re not to blame. If it matters to you that much you can help with the shopping in future.”

Nathan poured the chocolate pieces into a measuring jug. “You sure this is right? Seems like an awful lot…”

“Trust me. It’s my secret ingredient.”

Nathan stopped pouring and looked at her, deadpan. “Your secret ingredient is double the chocolate.”

Valerie grinned. “Triple for special occasions.”

Nathan just looked at her. “There was me thinking you were going to use a — herbal additive, if you know what I mean…”

“Huh?” Valerie returned the look blankly for a moment.

“You know, ‘wow man,’” he imitated the stereotypical stoner, “‘these cookies are really mellowing me out!’”

“Oh God no,” Valerie protested. “Gotta stay alert, you know?”

“Country needs lerts,” Nathan finished automatically. “Can’t have you getting stoned with an ’ardened crim like me around, right?”

“Ri-ight,” Valerie agreed.

“I’m pretty dangerous with a wooden spoon you know.”

“Oh shush, and start beating that mix.”

“What’s it ever done to me?” Nathan grinned and started mixing. “This, my friends,” he assumed the stoner voice again, “is a Camberwell Cookie.” He grinned at her. “Why trust one cookie, and not another?” He giggled. “Ah well, chocolate’s not so innocent. Nature’s prozac, innit? Got serotonin in it. And other things. Really addictive stuff when you look at it.”

“Shut up and work, perp.”

“Yes Boss.”

***

“Oh wow, this is bringing back memories.”

“Huh?” Valerie looked across at Nathan stirring the cookie mixture. He’d slowed, looking into space. “Hey, keep up the rhythm.”

“Oh, sorry.” He started up again. “Just, I suddenly remembered when Granny used to let me cook. You know, make cakes and stuff. I can’t believe I forgot that!” He grinned at Valerie. She noticed he’d got a smudge of flour on his forehead, and another, God-knows-how, on the end of his nose. ~Aw, that’s so cute,~ she almost said aloud. What she did do was wander to the main set of drawers and open the third one, where she knew Marie kept a small compact camera. “’Course, in those days I had to stand on the stool to reach the sideboard…” He carried on stirring for a while, lost in memories. Valerie, sensing there would be more, waited. “I miss her,” he said eventually, more to himself than to Valerie. “I think she almost understood us.” He stirred the mix.

Valerie shrugged. “Could be worse.” She was thinking of her own grandparents, on her father’s side. She had never met them. This, as far as her father had been concerned, was no accident. He’d had a hard enough time escaping from them, and the cult group of which they were part and in which he had grown up. In the end his only escape had been into the Marines, and he’d had to lie about his age to manage that. She had a good idea what he would do if any of them showed up looking for his children.

~Oh God, what if he thinks they kidnapped me?~ Valerie thought suddenly. ~If he got that into his head, that they’d taken me to brainwash me and fix me…~ It was too plausible for comfort. ~Dad would never stop,~ she realised with a shudder, ~until he found me. But they didn’t take me, so he won’t find me, so… he’ll never stop.~

She pulled her mind away from the images that evoked, knowing she’d get enough of them next time she slept, and forced herself to focus back on the moment. Nathan had just said something. “Pardon me? I didn’t hear you.”

“Mrs. Thompson,” Nathan repeated, “she’s not your real Mum, is she?” It wasn’t a question. She knew she bore little physical resemblance to Jane.

“No.” She met his eyes for a few moments. “It’s a long story,” she said, finally. “And you’re so not cleared for it,” she added, with a grin to soften it.

“Ooh, Mystery Girl,” Nathan teased, and gave her that gorgeous smile again. This time she was ready.

Flash!

***

The oven door closed.

“Now what?”

“Now we clean up this mess before Marie comes down and crucifies us.”

***

The only noises came from the appliances. The fridge, the freezer, the louder sound of the oven. Nathan was standing on the bench looking at the pictures by the window. “Who’s this?” he asked quietly. “She looks a bit like you, but she’s not, is she?”

“That’s Eugenia. One of Jane’s former students.”

“Eugenia,” Nathan said softly. “And?” He indicated the picture next to it.

“Teres– um, Julia. And that one’s Charlene.”

“Who drew them?”

Valerie pointed back at the first picture. Nathan studied it again.

“They’re girls’ names.”

“Uh-huh.”

Nathan traced Julia’s brow carefully, down to the line of her jaw. Eugenia had drawn her idealised, but still you could, if you were watchful, see the young man Julio would never now grow to be. Not here. Valerie turned away, pointlessly checking the clock on the oven.

“I’m going to get given a girl’s name, aren’t I?”

Valerie took a few moments to decide whether to answer. “Yes.”

She turned back in time to see Nathan balancing on the edge of the bench, as if he was tightrope walking. He jumped off. “I s’pose it makes sense.”

“Don’t you mind?”

He shrugged. “Never liked Nathan. It’s a stupid name.”

“It is only temporary,” she reminded him.

“Well, duh, I know that.” He grinned. “Do I get a say in it?”

“If you’re quick. Why? Did you have something in mind?”

“No.” His attention was already starting to wander, to the books on the shelves on that side of the jutting sideboard. He got up to look at them.

***

A hand snaked towards the hot baking trays. Valerie slapped it away reflexively.

“Ow!”

“Wait!”

“But–”

“But nothing. Wait.”

“But I’m hungry!” Nathan protested.

~Hello,~ Valerie thought. ~Pay attention, Tucker.~ “Well, I’m not surprised,” she said aloud, as if it was no significance. “You hardly ate anything all day.”

That got a guilty look. “I… I wasn’t hungry then.”

“No?”

“I had a big breakfast. I was tense.”

~Yeah, right.~ He looked hungry now. His eyes were practically tracking on the baking tray. “Well, they’re not ready yet,” she said.

“They smell ready.”

“Well they’re not,” she said, more firmly. “They’re still cooking inside. You’d burn yourself.”

Duh, I’m not a child!”

“Stop behaving like one then. Go and sit down like a good little girl,” she teased, “and I’ll bring them over. When they’re ready.”

Nathan made a noise that was not in Jane’s book of delicate feminine behaviour, but he went, like it was a big imposition.

With his back turned, Valerie took a kitchen tissue and folded it a couple of times and picked up a hot cookie with it. “Nathan,” she called, as if changing her mind. He turned. “Here,” She handed him the wrapped-up cookie. He gave her that smile again, like she had a friend for life. She was going to lose a saving throw sooner or later, she thought, if she hadn’t already. “And be careful,” she said to his back. “It really is hot.”

She watched him surreptitiously while she busied herself with pouring out a couple of glasses of milk. Nathan gingerly took a bite, immediately sucking air in around where he held it with his teeth, then he ate it with every appearance of relish. She brought the glasses of milk to the table. As soon as she put his down, he grabbed it and gulped at it.

“You like?” she asked.

“Hnn!” His mouth was already occupied again.

“Hey, easy. No-one’s going to take it away.” ~Now to keep an eye on him, see if he keeps it down.~ Nathan just chuckled and popped the remainder of the cookie in his mouth.

He’d managed to get a streak of chocolate on his cheek, the cookie having been hot enough that the chocolate chips were still a little molten. Valerie resisted an urge to wipe it off, contenting herself with pointing it out and “You’ve got a bit–”

“Oh, sorry.” He wiped it up himself with the tissue the cookie had been wrapped in. “That was nice. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Valerie replied. “You made them, remember?”

“Heh.”

“Would you like another one?” At least he hadn’t scalded himself.

“Yeah.” So she went to get one.

“Yeah, what?” she said on the way.

“Yeah I wan’ anuvver one.”

She gave him a look, and he giggled.

“I can see Jane’s going to have fun with you.”

“I was joking!” He huffed.

“I know.” The cookies were cool enough to handle bare-handed now. Just about. She put a few onto a plate with quick, snatching movements of her hand and brought it back to the table, hoisting up the kitchen roll on the way.

“You going to have any?” He picked one up and started on it immediately the plate was down.

“When they’re a little cooler. They’ll keep for days, you know. You don’t have to stuff yourself with them now.”

He didn’t slow down. “I like ’em, see,” he said around a mouthful (~Jane is going to have such a lot of fun…~) “but I don’t know what they’re supposed to taste like so they might be shit.” He hadn’t seemed too bad at dinner, but he’d hardly eaten anything then, only some of the salad, so perhaps it just didn’t show what his eating-manners were like.

“Well, they smell right.”

OIP?” he belched suddenly, caught out in the middle of forming a grin, then he snorted with surprised laughter at the sound he’d made. “Eww.” Valerie passed him another tissue silently. “Thanks.”

He started on another cookie.

This time Valerie took one too, using a pair of tissues folded over as an impromptu plate. Not that he was really watching, but she demonstrated the ladylike way to eat a cookie that was still more like the proverbial hot cake, and thought that she should probably stop him eating many more or he’d have a legitimate reason to go and throw up, which would ruin the experiment. They ate in silence for a few moments. Nathan grinned past his milk at her and drained his glass. He reached for another cookie.

“I’d better stop,” he said quietly, and pulled his hand back. “I’ll be sick if I don’t.”

Valerie was going to let him have one more, but she’d go with that “There’s loads, you can have some more later.”

“Maybe,” he said a little sadly. “Hey, you din’t tell me they really are addictive!”

She toasted with her milk glass. “First hit’s always free.”

***

Nathan yawned, trying to fight it.

“Come on, admit it,” Valerie said.

“It’s all lies!” He smiled groggily. In the silences between, Valerie could hear birdsong. The sky through the window was a dark shade of blue shot through with pink streaks where the sun was finding high-level clouds. “You’d have to lock me in again wouldn’t you.”

She nodded. He sat in silence, biting his lip.

“Talk about it?” she prodded. He shook his head. “Okay.”

“D’you really think if I asked her nicely she’d not lock the door?”

“Honestly I don’t know.”

He rubbed his eyes. His hand was shaking slightly as he did so, Valerie noted, possibly presaging another panic attack.

“Listen,” she continued, “it wouldn’t stay locked the whole time you were here anyway. That’s just until she knows she can trust you.”

“Yeah, well, how long’s that going to take?”

“Depends on you.”

“Not any time soon, I bet.” He took a palsied breath. “I wasn’t warned about this. Lin and David weren’t either or they’d have said something. I know they would.”

“Well, you should say that to Jane and she can talk to them about it.” He swallowed and nodded. “And think about what you can do to make her trust you. Bearing in mind the main reason you’re here is to learn how to be trustworthy.”

He chuckled. “By wearing girls’ clothes.”

“Yes.”

He drew his legs up onto the bench and hugged his knees, burying his face against them. The sheer fabric of the nightgown tried to slip up to his hips but he caught it and kept hold of it without looking. “I don’t see the connection,” he said, his face still buried, but then he looked up again.

“You’re not meant to yet.” She sighed. “And I’m not meant to be talking to you about it either.”

“Okay. Sorry. Forget it.” He sank his face against his knees again. “God, this is so weird.”

Valerie smiled. “Okay. What if we just grab you a duvet and you can crash in the living room for toni– the rest of the night.” There wasn’t much of it left.

He looked up at her and smiled that damnable cute smile again.

***

Marie rounded the corner on the landing and stopped short at the sight of Nathan’s door hanging open. It took her only a moment to collect herself and run into the boy’s bedroom, finding it empty. The bed didn’t even look slept-in. “Oh no,” she whispered, fighting a swell of panic. She did not want to have to tell Jane about this. She left the room, turning the light off as she went, and walked quickly to Valerie’s door. It was still locked. She knocked on it; five quick raps that she hoped would convey some of her urgency. There was no answer. Jane’s strange foundling had an all-too-normal teenager’s aversion to mornings. She looked at the keypad by her door, considering hitting the master alarm. ~Now, now,~ she admonished herself, ~not to panic. We haven’t run this school for over twenty years by panicking every time a boy isn’t found where he is expected.~ “Valerie?” she called softly, knocking again, then again louder: “Valerie?”

“What is it Marie?” The voice didn’t come from behind the door but downstairs; in the main hall, by the sound of the echo. She went to the top of the stairs, seeing Valerie near the bottom, in a loose skirt and top, and bare feet, clutching her laptop by her side.

“Nathan’s gone,” she said simply, trying to project a whisper down the stairs. Valerie shook her head and beckoned her down.

“It’s okay, come see.” Valerie seemed almost pleased with herself as she put her finger to her lips to indicate quiet, and headed back towards the private living room. Marie hurried to catch up, was practically caught by Valerie as she dashed into the living room. “Look,” Valerie whispered, and pointed towards the long sofa, and Nathan’s curler-laden head protruding from a duvet, an expression of utter peace on his sleeping face.

“Oh,” Marie almost sighed with relief.

“There was a crisis during the night,” Valerie explained, keeping her voice low. “Everything’s fine, he didn’t try to run or anything. I was with him the whole time.” Marie nodded, understanding. The first night was often hard on the new boys; generally the plan was that they should be left to stew. She wasn’t sure how Jane was going to react to Valerie’s intervention. “Hey,” Valerie was continuing, a grin on her face, “go look in the fridge.”

Intrigued, Marie went downstairs to the kitchen. The fridge contained some Tupperware boxes that hadn’t been there the previous evening. Opening one, she found it full of chocolate cookies, the kind Valerie was so fond of making, when she needed something from Jane, or sometimes just when she was in one of her domestic moods. Almost reflexively, she tasted one. It was good, as usual, so she carried it back up to the living room. Valerie had seated herself on the couch watching Nathan. Marie joined her there and offered Valerie the open box.

“Oh, no, no more,” Valerie protested. “He made them.”

“Really? They’re very good.”

“Under my supervision of course.” Valerie grinned. “Thought it best to keep him busy. He ate a whole bunch of them too.”

“Ah, did he?”

They watched the sleeping youngster for a few moments. “It’s funny,” Valerie began, then hesitated and fell silent.

“Mmm?” Marie queried through a mouthful of cookie.

“Nothing. I’m just tired, I guess.”

Marie swallowed. “No, go on,” she enjoined. “What were you going to say?”

Valerie didn’t reply immediately. “The house,” she said eventually. “I don’t know. Feels different?”

“The kitchen smells of baking cookies for a start,” Marie commented wryly. Valerie smiled at that. “Yes, of course it’s different. It’s different every time. How do you think it doesn’t get boring, doing this year after year?” She smiled. “Every one of them…” She gave a little sigh of satisfaction. “Every one of them brings their own stamp to the house. It’s… a renewal. Constant renewal. Nathan’s hardly begun to make it different, I assure you.” She smiled. Valerie nodded.

“I suppose… I don’t know what I was expecting really. An extra face at dinner– Oh, good morning Jane.” Valerie said suddenly, her voice changing.

Marie turned to the doorway, guiltily. She was supposed to be in the kitchen, preparing breakfast.

“What is going on here?” Jane asked, her voice chilly.

“Last night–” Valerie began.

“Jonathan, where is the make-up you were wearing last night? I specifically told you not to remove it before coming down.”

Marie saw with surprise that Jonathan had woken up. He was scrambling to sit upright. “Um–” he began, and immediately corrected himself with a “Sorry.” He stood up. He was in a different night-gown from the one she had chosen for him the previous evening — a fuller, more Victorian one, and a pink chenille cardigan over the top.

Valerie stepped between him and Jane. “My fault, Jane,” she said. “I cleaned it off. It was a mess and threatening to contaminate the mix. Marie, why don’t you take Nathan up to get ready for breakfast?” she added, not taking her eyes off Jane. Marie could well see the signs of an impending row between them. She hesitated, but Jane turned her head and nodded curtly, releasing her to get herself and the boy out of the conflict.

Allons-y, chérie,” she addressed Nathan. “Nous allons te faire belle.”

Nathan got the idea immediately, and didn’t hesitate to follow her.

***

“Valerie, if it’s your intention to undermine me at every turn–”

“No, that’s not–”

“–I may as well send Nathan home this morning. I’m not going to compete with you–”

“Jane, listen!” Valerie let some of the exasperation show through. “That’s not what’s going on here.”

“Nevertheless, that will have been the perception. I cannot have my authority undermined in this way. This is delicate enough as it is.” She stopped herself, hearing her own voice louder and more snappish than she had intended. She was already tense and missing her first morning coffee, and the last thing she needed was Valerie acting up again.

Even so, she did not miss the dark shadows under Valerie’s eyes.

“Valerie,” she tried in a calmer tone. “I’m sorry. I suppose you had reasons that seemed valid at the time. The truth is, I’d be delighted if you’d agree to big-sister Nathan–”

“I’m not–”

“But it has to be under my direction or not at all. You’re the one who said how dangerous this could be, and you’re right. Too far one way and he could suffer real trauma, of exactly the kind you’re worried about, or worse. Too far the other, let him get too comfortable, and it may as well just be a fancy dress party for all the good that would come of it. That’s why it has to be managed carefully. It’s hard enough to get the balance right without a big sister to help. I can’t have you going behind my back–”

“I’m not trying to go behind your back–”

“I can’t have you setting yourself up as an appellate court Nathan can turn to whenever he doesn’t like what’s happening!”

“He had a nightmare, Jane. A bad one.”

“I’m glad to hear it! I should expect nothing less.”

That made Valerie pause. “Yeah, well, you didn’t see him. I know a panic attack when I see one, okay?”

“Will you please not speak in that common tone!” She saw that land like a slap on Valerie’s face as well. “You’ll make a counter-example of yourself and you’re better than that.”

“Oh fuck you,” Valerie exclaimed, and stomped for the door.

“Valerie, I haven’t finished–”

I have! I’m not your fucking student! I don’t have to take this shit!” She flung the doorway open.

“Valerie!” The tone of her voice stopped Valerie in the doorway. She slammed the door shut again, and turned angrily back to Jane.

What?”

“You agreed to abide by appropriate standards of behaviour while I have a student here.” A tight exhalation from Valerie; acknowledgement of that, she supposed. “It was your choice not to be otherwise involved. I want to respect that, but if you won’t even stand by it, what am I supposed to do? Look at you, dressed like that in front of my student. Where do you think you are?”

“Home,” Valerie said simply. “You said this was my home.”

In the silence that followed, Valerie quietly opened the door and left.

Marie had left the Tupperware with the cookies on the table, so Jane picked it up, meaning to return it to the kitchen, and found herself taking a bite out of one. It really was very good.

She sighed. Valerie had acted out of kindness, of course. Jane hated to castigate her for that; it was by far the Valerie she preferred to see, under normal circumstances. But in so doing she’d shown herself to Jonathan as a more powerful potential ally than he should have, at this stage. She’d shown him that her, Jane’s, authority was not above question or challenge, and she could hardly prove otherwise without demanding more of Valerie than she would be prepared to give, to restore the correct seeming balance of power.

She sighed again. ~I never had this problem with Darla,~ she thought sadly.

***

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Valerie swore, slamming her bedroom door. “Should’ve let the brat scream. Obviously.” she muttered bitterly, and sat tiredly on her bed.

Up again in an instant. ~It’s not fair! What the fuck was I supposed to do? Why does she always have to do this?~

“Authority,” Mike would say. A guilty pleasure to imagine him doing so, so clearly. “There has to be a clear chain of command.” His steady voice. She missed him so much. She was still shaking. She wanted to hit Jane; the anger filling her, threatening to consume her, to make her forget all limits. She hit the wall instead, by the window, and immediately regretted it, hoping she hadn’t damaged her wrist. “You’re becoming more like your Mom every day.”

“Fuck off.” ~No, wait–~

She sat down on the bed again, the feeling of desolation washing over her. Not at all convinced it was preferable to murderous rage. ~Well, no-one gets killed this way. That’s a good thing, right? Tell me it’s a good thing.~

She looked around her room. It was starting to get messy again, but then, who was there to tidy it for? The day stretched ahead. Empty. She could go out for a bike ride… but she didn’t feel like it. It needed too much concentration.

~I’ll call Mary,~ she thought suddenly, and picked up her phone. Maybe that would suggest something. Maybe the group were having an extra rehearsal and she could hang out for the day. She paused over the speed-dial and checked the time. ~Will she be awake? What am I thinking? She has a four-year-old-kid. Of course she’s awake.~ She hit the last button.

“Heya, Vee.” She sounded tired already.

“Hey, are you guys doing anything today?”

“I wish. Dad’s gone to the boot sale. He’s going to come back with more junk than he left with, I can tell. Mum’s decided today’s the day she has to catch up on the housework, but she needs the car to go shopping later, so I’m stuck here.” She sounded exasperated. Bizarrely, Valerie enjoyed listening to her tirade. “They’re driving me nuts,” she confided quietly. “Lizbeth’s doing her part too. Five o’clock she was in here this morning.” A breath. “Why? Did you have anything in mind?”

“Just to get out,” Valerie admitted. “No ideas beyond that. I was wondering if you had a rehearsal with the group.”

“No. We were going to, but Jo’s off with her boyfriend somewhere being made up to, and Aid’s… Being a prick, to be honest,” she muttered.

“Same boyfriend as before?” Valerie asked, regarding Jo.

“Yeah. She took him back. Again.”

~Gah.~ “Something Must Be Done,” Valerie declared. “Makes me almost miss social work,” she added.

“What social work?”

“Nothing.” Valerie flopped back on the bed. “It’s badness, that’s all.”

“There’s only so much you can help people,” Mary said sadly. “Well, anyway.” Pause. “Yeah, I could really go for getting out of here for the day, if you’re up for it.”

“Sure–”

“But I don’t have a car today. Reasons already stated. I suppose I could leave Lizbeth with Mum, but…”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll borrow Marie’s and come to you, and we’ll go somewhere.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure. I know for a fact she’s not going anywhere today. It’ll be fine.”

“You know, you should get a sidecar for that bike,” Mary suggested, non-seriously. “Then you could take me and Lizbeth on that together–”

“God, you have to be kidding!” Valerie tried to picture it.

“What? A bit Two Fat Ladies for you?”

“Somewhat.” She couldn’t help grinning at the thought.

“Hm. You know, we could go to the seaside, if you like,” Mary suggested. “Let little one run off this energy.”

“Sounds good,” Valerie agreed. “Did you have anywhere in mind?”

“I thought Weston-Super-Mare’s nice, and good for kids. It doesn’t take an hour to get to from my house, and it’s better than bloody Severn Beach anyway.”

“Okay.” The names meant almost nothing to Valerie.

“Besides, I don’t think you’ve been exposed to the British seaside town meme yet, have you?”

“What, sunbathing in the rain? I’ve heard of it. Talking of which, I’d better check the weather…”

“Okay. You do that and come anyway. If it’s going to turn grotty, we can do something else.”

“Sure.”

***

~… Sunblock, baby-wipes, sunglasses, my hat, Lizbeth’s hat…~ Mary had got as far as the kitchen. The doorbell rang, surprising her. Of course, she had been expecting to hear Valerie’s bike pull up, which was stupid. She heard her daughter run out of the living room into the hall.

“Lizbeth wait!” Mary ran after her, to be met by Valerie walking in with Elizabeth bundled over her shoulder in a fireman’s lift.

“Hi, I found this running loose. Is it yours?” There were small sounds of a struggle behind her back, and Elizabeth’s feet kicked ineffectually.

“It is, I can’t find the leash,” Mary quipped back. “Hi Vee. You look beachy.”

Valerie grinned under her wide ribboned straw hat, her eyes hidden behind stylish black sunglasses. “I think that was the idea. Are you ready?” She was already wearing her black swimsuit, under a large unbuttoned white linen shirt and khaki shorts. Pale white legs which looked like they could do with a bit of sunlight, Mary thought, and hiking boots.

“Nearly. I can’t find her sandals anywhere.”

“Bah, who needs ’em.” She turned to walk back outside, still carrying the barefoot child.

“Mummy!” Elizabeth protested, when she could see her.

“Oh, you mean these ones?” Valerie asked, pointing down by the side of the front door.

“Yes, I mean those ones.” Mary growled and dove for them. “I must be stupid. While you’ve got her, turn around and I can get them on her.”

“Nooo!” Elizabeth wailed. “I don’t want to!”

Valerie agreed, treacherously, “Yeah, we’re going to be in the car then on sand aren’t we? What’s the point?”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth added. Then a quieter, “let me… down…” She struggled.

“Because…” Mary realised she wasn’t going to win this one. “Okay, I’ll put them in the bag for now. I think I’ve got everything.” She went back into the kitchen and stuffed the sandals in the backpack, closed it up and came back out into the hall.

“You’ve got to be carried out to the car if you won’t wear your sandals,” Valerie was saying as Mary came back into earshot. She had at least manhandled the child off her shoulder to her hip, which was probably more comfortable for both of them.

“And they’re packed now, so I’m not getting them out again–”

“Mummy, can Abbie come too?”

“I don’t know, dear; you’d better ask Auntie Vee.” She rolled her eyes at Valerie. “Let’s get out of here before Mum decides she has to be Hospitable.”

“Auntie Vee, can Abbie come with us?”

“Sure she can,” Valerie said indulgently. “Hey, I’ve got something for you in the car.”

“What?”

“Are you planning to corrupt my daughter’s mind with more of those comics?” Mary accused.

“Yep–”

“Comics!”

Valerie wheeled around and headed back outside.

Mary tousled her daughter’s head as she went, and, at the last minute, grabbed Dad’s huge Norwich Union umbrella. Just in case. “We’re leaving now!” she yelled upstairs, and manhandled the umbrella and backpack outside. “I’ve just got to get the booster seat out of Mum’s– Christ, are we going in that?” A huge, gleaming, brand-new-looking dark blue Mercedes seemed to almost fill the small driveway.

“Er, yes. Is there a problem?”

Mary recovered quickly. “Nah. I don’t mind travelling in style.” She grinned and went to get the child seat from out of her mother’s Fiesta. She knew Valerie’s adopted mother was wealthy. Valerie hardly ever talked about it of course, but it stood to reason she’d have a posh car. She just hoped Elizabeth wouldn’t damage it, or be sick in it, or something. Behind her she heard Valerie open a door and tumble Elizabeth in.

***

Valerie drove carefully. Mary looked at her in wonderment.

“What?” Valerie asked.

“Nothing. I’ve just seen the way you ride.” Mary grinned and looked back out at the motorway gliding past silently. Valerie had turned on the cruise control as soon as they reached the motorway, so they were travelling at a rock-steady 68mph.

“Are we nearly there yet?”

Mary looked over her shoulder. Her daughter was unconcernedly looking out of the side window behind Valerie, the somewhat worn-looking comic-book she had been reading lying forgotten on her lap for the moment. Mary caught a glimpse of a cartoon moose. Elizabeth realised her mother was watching and looked back, smiled and waved.

Well, it was a long way across to the other side of the car. Especially when you’re small. Mary waved back.

***

“I think you take this next junction.”

“Got it.” Valerie started signalling. “That was quick.” She grinned across at Mary. “Guess I really am on an island.”

“Haven’t you been to the seaside at all since you got here?”

“Just never got around to it.”

“What about back home? In America, I mean? Which part are you from?”

“Mm.” Mary felt the slight lurch as the cruise control disengaged and Valerie took control to navigate the car up the slip-road to the roundabout that straddled the junction.

“Don’t tell me: That’s classified?”

Valerie chuckled. “No. Deep Midwest. Ohio, Tristate area.” Then she intoned, suddenly, in a different voice, like an American TV announcer, “There are two ways of dying in Ohio. One was just living there.”

“That bad?”

She chuckled again, and didn’t elaborate.

“So where is that? Near Colorado?” The suggestion seemed to make Valerie splutter in shock. “I’m sorry, my geography is crap.”

“Ah, you know where the Great Lakes is? Are?”

“Um, like Niagara Falls?”

Valerie hesitated. “Yeah. South-west of there a ways.”

“What was it like?” Mary ventured. This was already as much as she’d ever got out of Valerie before.

Valerie drove on in silence for a while. “Actually, can we talk about something else?” she said, and turned her full attention to the next roundabout.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–”

“It’s okay, it’s just…” Signal, turn off onto the main approach road into Weston-Super-Mare. It was a dual-carriageway, so she put the car back on cruise control at a lower speed. “Middle-class suburban,” she said, finally. “A bit like this, you know, strip malls and stuff.” She waved a hand at the retail parks on either side of the road. “Could be anywhere.”

“Feels like nowhere,” Mary agreed. Valerie nodded.

“There’s just… not much to say about it. Really.”

***

“Left, then right, I think,” Mary said. The car swung around the two mini-roundabouts.

“Oh, there it is.”

“Can you see the sea, Lizbeth?” Mary asked.

Elizabeth tried to crane her neck around Valerie’s shoulder. “No…”

“Well, we’re very nearly there now. We have a choice,” she continued to Valerie as they stopped at some traffic lights. “We can find somewhere to park on the promenade, or we can go into one of these multistoreys, or we can go down to the beach car park. That’s cheapest, and easiest to find a space, but it’s a long way from everything.”

“Lots of bikers,” Valerie noted quietly.

“Oh yeah. That’s normal.” The lights changed and Valerie turned left onto the promenade’s one-way system. “Just keep going down here, the turn-off’s on the right.”

Valerie drove, eventually turning right to approach the promenade itself.

“Oh, there’s loads of space,” Mary commented. “I didn’t need to worry. Well, we can find somewhere to park a bit further along if you like. Then it won’t be as far to go to laugh at all the cheesy British seaside stuff.” She cast an evil grin across to Valerie.

“I didn’t come to laugh at your quaint native customs,” Valerie countered.

“Oh, that’s no fun,” Mary replied, but Valerie glanced back, grinning, letting her know she’d been slightly had. She turned right again, so they were driving along the one-way promenade itself, the sea wall, and the sea to their left, across an expanse of sand.

“Sea!” Elizabeth identified, excitedly. She was on the wrong side of the car to see much though.

Lots of bikers,” Valerie said again. There were motorcycles parked for some way along the promenade, shining in the sun, and clumps of riders gathered here and there, hundreds of them, some drinking, and beyond the low wall, sea. Something about Valerie’s voice as she said it made Mary look over at her.

“Valerie?”

“Is this… normal?”

“Yes. You need to turn just up here.” Valerie turned, thoughtfully. “And left at the end.”

“I see…” She still seemed perturbed by the motorbikes. “You ride a bike. What are you so nervous about?”

“You don’t think there’s going to be any trouble?” Valerie stopped at the corner into the car park, leaving herself the option of going the other way.

“Why should there be trouble? What happened, did you watch The Wild One a hundred times? Come on, park the bloody car.”

“Park the bloody car!” Elizabeth concurred from the rear.

“See what you made me do?” Mary said to Valerie. Elizabeth laughed out loud. “Here. We can go down onto the beach.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll park the bloody car.” Valerie grinned and swung the car left.

***

“Don’t run off and get lost,” Mary told her daughter while she dove back into the car for her backpack and the umbrella.

“Too late,” Valerie reported, then she was gone too, trying, not too hard, to catch a weaving, squealing Elizabeth. Mary chuckled and looked around her. There were few enough cars moving on the beach car park that she didn’t have to worry about an accident. The sea was quite a long way out. It didn’t look too busy for a bank holiday, she thought. Of course, it was still early in the season. She’d noticed while Valerie was buying the parking ticket that this was the first weekend of the year they were even bothering to charge for parking.

Elizabeth ducked around and back towards the car, where Mary caught her. She suspected she’d been allowed to. Valerie followed, smiling, and opened the boot of the car. She hauled out a medium-sized army-green rucksack. “Christ, what’ve you got in there?” Mary asked.

“Hm? This?” Valerie eased herself into the arms of the rucksack. “Just a few things. You know, a beach is one of the most hostile environments on Earth.”

“I’m not expecting Lord of the Flies. What have you got in there?” she asked again.

“Groundsheet, tarp, some poles, so I can put up a shade, um,” she shrugged evasively. “Water, supplies, few other things.”

“Anything you couldn’t stand to lose?”

Valerie looked at her hesitantly. “We expecting to lose stuff?”

“No, but if that’s valuable you’re going to want to sit over it like an old mother hen, aren’t you?” Valerie shifted her weight to her other foot. “And I thought it’d be nice if we could all go down to the sea to muck about, like, at the same time. You don’t want to be stuck up the beach all day keeping watch on your stuff do you? You didn’t bring your laptop as well, did you?” she pressed, suddenly suspecting.

“No. No laptop.” She thought a moment longer, then shucked off the rucksack and dumped it back into the boot. With it there, she opened it and started pulling things out and moving things around.

“Mummy did you bring the bucket and spade?”

“Yes, I did. Where’s your hat, dear?”

She had to think about that. “I left it in the car.”

“Go and get it then.”

Valerie emerged from the boot holding a large rolled-up towel that almost certainly had other things rolled up inside it. She had a second thought, then, and bent to remove her hiking boots and socks and dump those in the boot as well. “Better?”

“Much.”

Valerie locked up, and they started walking. Mary kept hold of Elizabeth’s hand to make sure she didn’t run off again at least until they were settled somewhere.

***

“This’ll do, won’t it?” Mary suggested a randomly-chosen patch of bare sand. They’d left the car some distance behind. Valerie looked around. The tide had turned, but it was still quite a long way out, and the spot Mary had chosen was a little up from the high tide mark. “We’ll just settle in, and get some gloop on the child,” she directed at Elizabeth meaningfully, “and we can go down for a swim, can’t we?” She unrolled a towel and laid it down, knelt and started unpacking things.

“Sun-gloop?”

“Yeah.”

“Factor fifty,” Elizabeth recited.

Valerie stood for a while longer, just staring down the long, even slope to the sea. Mary thought she seemed a little nervous about something.

***

“Come on, Valerie, you said!” Elizabeth pleaded.

“She’s right you know, I remember,” Mary added wickedly. She and her daughter were already down to their swimming costumes. Valerie was wavering. “You might as well have brought your expensive camping stuff if you’re just going to sit up here like an old granny. Would you like a blanket and a thermos of hot cocoa?”

“Argh!” Valerie fell backwards under the onslaught.

“Come on, show me that body!”

“You don’t want to see that body,” Valerie muttered, flat on her back.

“Show me that body!” Elizabeth echoed, then laughed and ran off.

“She’s going to be a menace when she’s older,” Mary said under her breath. “Lizbeth!” she called. “Don’t go too far!”

“Anyway, I thought you weren’t that way inclined,” Valerie said, sitting up again.

“What can I say? I have a secret passion for girls with boyish good looks.”

“Oh God.”

Mary cackled. “Come on, sexy. Last chance. I need to catch the Creature.”

“Go and catch her then. I’m coming. Promise.” She smiled, urgingly. Mary got the message and set off in pursuit of her daughter, who naturally saw it as a reason to run away faster.

As expected, by the time Mary had tackled Elizabeth to the ground and tickled her into submission, they were able to look back and see that Valerie had shed her overshirt and shorts and was standing diffidently by the towels waiting for them. Mary set Elizabeth pointing in the right direction. “Go get ’er,” she directed, and Elizabeth ran towards Valerie, yelling. Mary followed at a walk and watched.

“I don’t see what you’re so nervous about,” Mary said, approaching. Valerie was slim and athletic, rather than curvy, which was how Mary would describe herself on a good day (‘lumpy’ on the other days). A little long-limbed for her height, maybe, but she carried it well, her every movement a study in elegance and poise. “And anyway, you’ve got a nice bum,” she added aloud, just to be mischievous.

“Come on, let’s get this child wet,” Valerie said, changing the subject.

***

~Okay, Val, I believe you,~ Valerie decided at last, and relaxed another notch. It was nice to be wearing a swimsuit that didn’t look faintly (or totally) ridiculous, even if it did mean guys were checking her out down by the water’s edge. In a way she was glad she was with Mary and Elizabeth. She wasn’t in the mood for fending.

Picnic lunch, which meant Valerie had to stop reading out the dialogue in the Rocky and Bullwinkle comic-book she’d given Elizabeth. She’d protested she couldn’t really do the voices very well, but Elizabeth disagreed and insisted she carry on. But what did she know?

“Mmm! You made these?” Mary asked around a chocolate chip cookie.

“My recipe,” Valerie agreed. “The new girl had a nightmare. I ended up babysitting.”

“Oh? So you didn’t get any sleep last night?”

“Some.” Smile. “I’m okay. Coffee is a wonderful thing.”

“So, what, is she having problems settling in?”

“You could say that, yes.”

“So what’s she like?”

“I don’t know yet. She only arrived yesterday.”

“Is she pretty?”

Valerie looked at her sternly. “Are you jealous?” She cracked a grin to show she got the joke too.

“I’m not jealous, I’m just curious. What’s her name?” Valerie had no answer for that, of course. Nathan hadn’t been Named yet. She didn’t even know how they were going to do it. “Oh come on, you can’t tell me her first name? Am I supposed to just call her ‘the new kid’ forever?”

“Student data is confidential,” Valerie reminded her. “You’re pumping me again.”

“Uh-huh. Want me to get Lizbeth to help?” Elizabeth was off in a world of her own, again. “Come on, Vee, I’m going to meet her anyway, aren’t I? When you invite me round to your place. Your stately country pile.” She grinned evilly.

“You don’t want to see my pile,” Valerie warned.

“I’ll settle for your house then.” She rolled onto her stomach and rocked her feet in the air behind her. The sun was warm. “Come on, Vee. We’re eating her cookies, it doesn’t feel right not even knowing her name.” It didn’t stop her grabbing another one.

“Do you know the name of the guy who bakes the bread you have at home?”

“Who, Ken? Of course. Fat balding bloke with three podgy kids. Big Elvis fan, married Marge in Las Vegas in an Elvis-themed wedding.” She took a bite and looked at Valerie smugly.

“Liar,” Valerie challenged. “You made that up.”

“How do you know?”

“’Cause you go to the Tesco next to Ikea. You said.”

Mary stuck her tongue out at her. “Still. Thing is, I buy bread. These were free. That means I want to know who did them. Tell me!”

“Why do you want to know so much?”

“Because. Mmm–” She popped the remainder of the cookie into her mouth. “It doesn’t matter,” she said through the mouthful, “and you’re being silly and secretive anyway and because it doesn’t matter I’m going to win this one.” She licked her fingers, her eyes on Valerie.

“Oh, God.”

Mary cackled. “Just her first name, so I know what to call her. C’mon. Is that such a national secret?”

“Uh…” Her eyes alighted on the comic-book Elizabeth had forgotten at her side.

Notes:

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