The Taken: After A Fall, Chapter 5

Synopsis:

"And yes, your love for these boys."

Story:
***

“I needed you these last few days.” There, she had said it.

“Janie, Janie, you know I would have come.”

“Yes, dear, I know.”

“Which is why you weren’t going to call me tonight, I presume?”

“Didn’t Diana have something to go to tonight?”

“Nothing that couldn’t have been cancelled. Really, Jane.” They fell silent for a while. “I’m sure he was just trying to negotiate some boundaries,” he went on. “It’s quite normal.”

“I suppose so. In any case, I’m more concerned about Valerie right now.”

“The nightmares?”

She nodded, in defiance of the thousands of miles separating them. “Not that she’ll talk about it, of course. Oh, and this whole business about wanting to move out to the gatehouse. It’s curious that it should coincide with Jonathan’s arrival.”

“Not really. He’s a competitor for your time and attention.”

“Oh Art, that’s such a cliché.”

Art chuckled, overrunning her next words with the lag.

“If she wanted to spend more time with me she could spend a little less time riding that death-machine at God-knows-what speeds around the countryside or locked up in her room playing with those computers.”

“That’s called ‘being seventeen.’ My dear, you were really quite spoilt with Darryl.”

That was being spoilt?”

“Yes, it was,” Art replied. “In fact the normality of Valerie’s behaviour is almost reassuring, given what she’s gone through. Of course all children that age are trying to find and understand their place in the world, but few have such an extreme set of difficulties in that regard as she does. If I were her I think I’d be struggling not to feel… well, not to feel surplus. No one likes to be a burden, Jane.”

“She’s not a burden,” Jane protested. “I need her.”

“No you don’t. You wanted a surrogate Eugenia.” Only Art could say such a thing to her. She felt like she’d been slapped. “And lo, the universe hiccuped and you got one, literally out of nowhere. Deus ex machina and all that, ready-trained to your specifications and having no other home to go to, and before you’d even talked to me you’d made a life-commitment to this poor girl.”

“I stand by what I did. I don’t have any regrets.”

“No, of course not; and nor do I, for what it’s worth; but Jane, you don’t need her. You don’t need her for who she is, only for who she reminds you of, and that’s not only Eugenia, is it?”

There was a bitter silence.

“Why do you think she wanted to put in all that security equipment? You know how she feels about what you do, but she really wanted to do that for you. And I’m glad you let her.”

“She wore me down, Art,” she admitted. “It’s not as if that would have made any difference last year.”

“If you hadn’t gone to the dance, they would have come to the house,” Art pointed out. “Yes, maybe she’s fighting the last war, but she’s not the only one, Jane.”

Jane clutched the phone to her ear and listened to it, her chest hurting with memory. She watched Natasha in the grainy low-light CCTV picture shifting fretfully in her bed.

“Not to mention there’s another matter that you two haven’t talked much about, I’m sure,” Art went on, eventually, “because it’s been pushed out of the way by everything else that’s happened.” He paused. Jane shut her eyes and rolled onto her back. She knew what he was going to say. “We’ve only known her as Valerie, but only eight months ago that wasn’t her name.”

It was true, Jane agreed silently: no-one had talked about it if it could be avoided. Valerie’s very lack of legal existence when she arrived even helped everyone avoid the subject, in the end. There was no old paperwork to replace. Everything could be set up from scratch, with some favours called in from the Witness Protection Service — one very large favour in fact.

“No-one, no-one is going to tell me that there aren’t outstanding issues relating to her transition. They’ve just been submerged while she’s been in crisis mode. How could your having a new student fail to affect her?”

Another silence.

“And now she’s getting into a relationship with this girl at college,” Art continued. “Which I think on balance is a good thing, by the way, but it’s terribly risky. Did you think that was a coincidence too, that she’d wait until now to take a risk like that?”

Jane sighed. She hadn’t thought about it in those terms at all. “She’ll need me when it falls through,” she said sadly, understanding.

“It may not. We don’t know anything about this girl; she might surprise us all. But yes, if it does, Valerie will need you. And you’ll be there for her of course.”

“Of course.” Jane felt a yawning pang in her abdomen, for Valerie, for what lay ahead for her. ~Am I really so distant, so obsessed, that she has to go to such lengths?~ Still she doubted. Still she wanted to believe Valerie was stronger than that, smarter than that, and more complex than to set herself up like that.

“We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming,” Art said. She could hear his smile. “Rant over.”

“No, dear, you’re quite right. It needed to be said.” Dr. Art Philips, her husband, was a recognised authority on gender identity issues in adolescents (which was not entirely a coincidence), so Jane had no difficulty in paying attention to what he had to say on such matters, nor indeed on many others. Even had she not fallen in love with the man, she would have valued his patience, his generosity of spirit, his calm intelligence. Indeed, she would probably have fallen in love with them.

~I feel safe when he’s around,~ she thought. ~Safe from doing harm. If my discipline should fail…~ The fear clenched her belly.

“I think I should come sooner rather than later,” Art continued.

“Oh, no dear, you should see out the semester. You don’t want to let down your students.” She opened her eyes. It had cost her to say that. She wanted him back so badly.

“They’ll be fine. The finals have started, so it’s too late now even if they’re not fine. I’m mostly just marking course papers, and I can do that just as well there as I can here. I’ll need Valerie’s help to set up something so I can connect to the university network.”

They fell silent again.

“Janie?”

“I think you should come,” she admitted. She tried hard not to think of it as an admission of failure, and didn’t entirely succeed. “You don’t have to drop everything and book a flight on Concorde,” she qualified. “There’s no immediate rush.”

“No,” Art agreed.

“Come when you can. I need to enlarge Natasha’s world anyway. It’s difficult with a housebound student, but where can I take him where I know he’ll be safe?”

***

Sound came back in a rush. The road was still passing under the wheels. The bike’s engine noise was still there; the course constant and easy, winding slowly out of a bend. “Fuck!” Valerie exclaimed into her helmet. She needed to pull over, but she was still on the country lanes, with high enough banks rising directly out of the road that she couldn’t park anywhere. She blinked and shook her head and kept going to the next lay-by, and there she pulled in onto the uneven, pitted gravel behind a small grass verge. “Oh fuck,” she said again, struggling to pull the helmet off. ~It can’t have been more than a second!~ Her breathing came fast and panicky and she couldn’t stop shivering.

She pulled herself off the bike and, leaving it on its side-stand, went to look up and down the road. She recognised where she was, which was worse, because it meant she had no memory of the last five or six miles, at least.

She tried to slow her breathing. At least the adrenaline of realising what had happened had given her a bit of a kick, but it wouldn’t last. ~Must have been on autopilot.~ The back-brain, the zombie brain that did most of the riding anyway, just getting on with it and not piping the logs to backing store. In a way she wished she could depend on that. She imagined being able to hand over to a perfect robot rider and just sit pillion and snooze against its broad back, safe in the care of a gentle positronic mind.

***

She hadn’t slept at all in the night. In desperation she’d switched on the surveillance monitor, telling herself it was for security reasons, because Jane had decided not to lock Natasha in her room for the night. Really she was hoping she might drop off watching Natasha sleeping, the way she’d almost done by accident the previous night. She suspected she had actually fallen asleep then for a short while, which was worrying in itself. Natasha was still such an unknown quantity.

She’d been watching a few minutes when she realised the curled-up figure on the bed wasn’t sleeping, but crying. She’d sighed and listened for the crying, even making a trip to the bathroom she didn’t really need so she could pause outside Natasha’s door to listen; but she couldn’t hear anything, which meant there was no pretext to go in and find out if Natasha was all right. It bothered her that she had wanted to.

Eventually, Natasha had got up and gone to the dressing table. Their lights flared out the high-gain camera, so Valerie had to switch to one of the standard ones. She’d watched Natasha put on make-up. The whole works. Then wiped it off and did it again. And again. Valerie had half-smiled, understanding. ~How else do you get to Carnegie Hall?~ The picture wasn’t good enough to tell how well Natasha was doing, or what progress she was making. Valerie watched anyway, hoping it would send her to sleep, but it didn’t, and the sun finally dragged into the sky.

***

She had to think what to do. ~Logically, call Marie, ask her to bring me into college. I’ll pick the bike up this evening.~ She didn’t want to do that, especially with the tension between them right now because… ~Because of Natasha,~ she remembered. ~Because I’d dared to ask if he was all right.~ It was obvious he was having a bad time, in turns panicking and depressed, but she’d said she didn’t want to be involved, so any time she tried to raise any concern for the kid they just threw that back in her face. They were so sure they were in control, and their ‘we were doing this before you were born’ bullshit.

A lorry thundered past, too big for the small lane, followed by a frustrated line of cars.

“Something’s not right,” she said aloud.

***

Jane sighed, allowing her frustration to show. It was obvious the girl hadn’t slept a wink. If she had been openly rebellious it would have been something, but this morose acquiescence was harder to deal with. She was obedient enough, and attentive enough, but Jane had sought in vain a repeat of the feeling she’d had in the previous day’s voice lesson, of the student’s own excitement and enjoyment at learning something new, and the joy she, as the teacher, gained from making that happen. Today Natasha was being dull and unengaging. Jane honestly wasn’t sure if it was mere lack of sleep, or if it was a rebellion of its own.

~Well,~ she decided, ~if I can’t engage the mind today, I can at least train the body.~ She brought the voice lesson to a premature close and started Natasha on Walking. Two-inch heels were as high as she dared go for this first lesson, and only so high because she had tried to provoke a complaint out of Natasha. She had not complained, despite obviously finding the shoes difficult and uncomfortable, leaving Jane with nothing to do but show her how to walk and start the drill.

She opened the two sets of double-doors that separated the main entrance hall from the music room, allowing an unimpeded straight-line run from the front door all the way through to the wide rear bay, and the doors to the terrace. “Go to the parlour,” she commanded, “to the bookcase. There, on the left side, the second shelf from the bottom, you will find a volume of the Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Fetch it for me. I shall wait here.” She sat on the window-seat next to the terrace door.

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.” Natasha started to go.

“Curtsey,” Jane corrected sharply. Natasha turned back, quickly curtseyed, and went. She got some satisfaction from watching the ungainly manner of her going — ~all knees and elbows, like a gawky boy, oddly enough,~ she thought with an ironic smile — and rehearsing in her mind how she would begin to remedy that.

She waited, just long enough to wonder why Natasha was taking so long, then the parlour door opened — Jane could see from the music room — and Natasha came, awkwardly. ~Oh, but she’s trying though,~ Jane noticed. Feet one in front of the other, and that turn of the hip that made it work, but the movement was stiff and a little precarious from the unfamiliar heel. ~All right, so she has been paying attention.~

She rose as Natasha approached, bearing the battered old volume. “Very good, dear. Now, stand straight.” She took the book out of Natasha’s hand and inspected her stance. “Feet together,” she commanded, then raised Natasha’s chin with a finger and moved around to the side. “It’s not a moment too soon. I’m not sure how you’re managing it, but somehow you’re learning to slouch even in a corset. No, not like that,” she remonstrated, as Natasha pushed her shoulders back. “Arms out in front… and now raise them above your head, and stretch.” Natasha obeyed. “And now drop them slowly so they’re held out to your sides. That’s right, and down all the way. That is your correct posture.” She put a hand to the small of his back. “Do you feel the shape of your back like that?”

“Y-Yes Mrs. Thompson.”

“Naturally I don’t expect you to be waving your arms around every time you have to correct your posture, so remember what this is like, and practice, and learn not to slip out of posture in the first place. Now…” She had entirely circled Natasha, and stood once again in front of her. Now she raised the book and lowered it gently onto the top of Natasha’s head.

“Oh, right,” Natasha murmured, suddenly understanding what the book was for.

“Mm-hmm. We will be developing an elegant carriage. I noticed you’ve been trying to get it right already, and I’d only held off commencement of this part of your training in view of your being not well. This is tedious, but drill and repetition is the only way your body will learn. It will become automatic and comfortable quite quickly if you apply yourself. Now,” a light hand on Natasha’s shoulder, to turn her back to facing into the house, towards the front door. “Off you go.” And a moment later, “Elbows in!”

“Sorry–” The book fell.

“Pick it up, replace it and carry on,” Jane said. “It’s not necessary to apologise during this exercise. I want you to maintain a rhythm, so I will call out corrections and you are simply to apply them and continue.”

“Yes Mrs. Thompson.”

“Now, again. I want you to pretend you’re walking on a tightrope. Imagine it stretching away in front of you to your destination, in this case the front door. Take your time.”

“What, like in Drama class?”

“Yes, if you wish. Do you like doing Drama class?”

Natasha shrugged. “It was all right– Argh, I shrugged!” She doubled over in mock anguish for a moment. “Sorree.” She straightened and gave Jane a quick, shy, wry smile, the first of the day. ~Odd that I had missed it,~ Jane thought. “Okay…” She put the book back on her head and slowly drew her hands away, stretching them out to her sides until they pointed about forty-five degrees downwards. “I dropped it for GCSE though. I wasn’t good at it or nothing.”

She placed one foot directly in front of the other, slightly turned-outwards like a tightrope-walker, and shifted as if finding a good grip, then transferred her weight onto it, and began the process again with the other foot. ~This was going to take all day,~ Jane realised, but she had said she could take her time, and it did introduce the right kind of movement, even in exaggerated form. She contented herself with saying, “The words ‘or nothing’ were not merely redundant in that sentence, Natasha, but actually incorrect. Don’t apologise,” she reminded. “Keep going.”

Another step. The book stayed on. “’Course, I bet real tightrope walkers don’t have to do it in high heels,” Natasha observed.

“Nor with books on their heads, normally,” Jane agreed. “And that’s ‘of course,’” she pointed out.

“Of course,” Natasha said. Jane couldn’t be sure if she was being sarcastic. Another foot.

“However, considering that you are at little risk of plummeting to your death from that height, I think you might try pretending to be a good tightrope walker, and speeding up a little.”

Natasha grinned quickly, turning her face to Jane’s, as if about to say something, then as the book fell, “Oh f–” Thud. She bent to pick it up.

“No, bend at the knees and keep your back straight. You should find it easier that way while wearing a corset, in any case.”

“Oh, right.” She complied. “I was just going to say, I was already pretending to be a good’n, ’cause a crap one would’ve fallen off by now.” She stood, with another wry smile on her face. “Then I fell off.”

“Well, get back on, then,” Jane said. “And refrain from uttering more obscenities, if you please.” She held off from a further critique of Natasha’s use of language. There was so much to do, there, that if she pressed every correction when the fault arose nothing else could get done. It would have to wait for the dedicated speech and elocution lessons.

“What? Oh, ‘cra–’ Right. A-And I’ll try to go faster this time.”

“Just go as fast as you can go without dropping the book.”

“Gotcha.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Sorry, Mrs. Thompson. Yes, I’ll try.”

“Better. Resume, then.” Jane paced alongside, and a little behind, so she could watch her progress. “Take smaller steps. You don’t have to bestride the world.”

~He seems to be recovering his spirits, then,~ she observed as the session progressed. ~Good-humoured. It makes him very resilient, of course, quite unlike the brittle, easily-shattered machismo of my usual intake.~ “Elbows in!” she called again. “And your knees should go forwards, not to the sides. You look as if you want to go in two directions at once.” Natasha chuckled at that, and modified her gait, without losing the book. “Well done,” she said. ~Is it cultural?~ she wondered. ~The famous British self-deprecating sense of humour? Or is it just him?~

Natasha came through the sets of double doors into the entrance hall. “You’re doing well. Remember, toes point forward.”

“Toes–” Natasha nodded, which of course was a mistake. This time she tried to catch the book as it fell. A corner of the hard cover jabbed her forearm as it fell, making her yelp from the pain and snatch her hand back, further putting her off-balance. A heel skittered out from under her on the tile floor of the entrance hall, and she started to fall backwards with another yelp. Jane darted forwards a step and caught her against her own shoulder, her hands at the girl’s waist to steady her as she got her feet back underneath her. ~So light!~ The book had landed awkwardly, open and pages down, some of them folded under. Nothing worse than the treatment it usually received at the hands of a new student.

“Less impulsiveness. Remember what you’re doing,” Jane said into Natasha’s ear, and set her back on her feet again. “Retrieve the book and continue.”

“Y-Yes Mrs. Thompson.” She started to bend from the waist, then almost immediately checked herself and dipped her knees to retrieve the book.

“Good, you remembered,” Jane said, then as Natasha straighened. “Barely. How is your arm?”

“It’s okay, I think–”

“Let me see.”

Natasha hesitated, then proffered her arm. The dress she was wearing had short sleeves, so the arm had been entirely unprotected. The skin hadn’t broken, at least. “I’m going to get a bruise,” Natasha commented. Jane took her wrist gently and probed the area.

“Is it painful when I do this?”

Natasha shook her head dumbly until Jane’s eyes flicked up to meet her own. “No,” she said. “Just a bit. Like I’m going to have a bruise.”

“All right.” Jane released her. “Carry on.”

Natasha took a breath and turned back towards the front door, then carefully replaced the book on her head and sighed. “Onwards.”

“Come along, we’ve barely started.”

“I know,” Natasha said feelingly. She started forwards.

“Elbows! And shoulders back!”

***

She saw Natasha consciously straighten her back, then another thing: almost experimentally she stretched an arm down, fully extended; only her wrist flexed so her palm faced downwards and swept back in a horizontal arc. The movement was answered by a greater swing of the hips. ~Good!~ Jane thought, but in the next step Natasha, unsure of the movement herself, abandoned it. “Why did you stop?”

“I–” Natasha collected her thoughts and managed to keep the book on her head and keep walking. ~Very good.~ “It seemed too campy?” she said, uncertainly.

A good fraction of her students’ petty rebellions had been in the form of an exaggerated, sarcastic campness in their speech and mannerisms; little knowing that even as they did so, they walked — literally — into Jane’s trap. “Exaggeration has its uses,” she explained to Natasha. “By all means overdo it now, and let it feel camp. It will help you find the correct rhythm, the swing, if you like. We can tone it down to a more realistic level later.”

“O-Okay.” She tried the action again, hesitantly, with both hands.

“Hmm.”

“It’s not–” Natasha began.

“I have an idea. Keep walking. I shall hear if your footfalls stop.” She broke away and hastened up the stairs to Natasha’s bedroom, picked out a small handbag from the large chest of drawers and came back out. She paused at the top of the stairs, listening. The monotonic clack of Natasha’s heels still reached her. Jane descended the stairs. “Stop when you reach the door,” she directed, and went to meet her there.

“All right, put this over your left shoulder, like so.” Natasha did so, and Jane paused to undo the buckle and pull it in a couple of notches. “There, so that it’s comfortable at your hip.” Natasha watched the process impassionately, and only flinched slightly when Jane caught up her hand and placed it on the handbag, to steady it there. “A little introduced assymetry. Let’s see if this helps.” She stepped backwards to give Natasha room. “Let your right arm swing more to compensate, but keep it straight as it goes behind you. Go.” Natasha started back towards the music room. “You may lengthen your stride a little now if it helps.”

Natasha tried that too. There were a couple of mis-steps, and the book fell. She knelt quickly to pick it up, and lost the handbag from her shoulder as she stood, so she had to go down again to retrieve it and fumble for a moment putting it back on her shoulder. Then carefully she put the book on her head again and set off. She was stiff for a few steps, then she lengthened her stride slightly, as Jane had told her, and suddenly found her pace. “There it is!” Jane called after her, immediately recognising it. She’d got the swing of her hips, and that flowed down her legs to put her feet where they should be. Her upper-body posture was good, her shoulders back, her right hand sweeping back and forth comfortably and naturally, her head, perforce, level.

“That’s it?” Natasha called back. There was a little excitement in her voice, and disbelief.

“That’s it,” Jane agreed. “It’s not hard, you see?”

“Oh…”

“The hard part is the days and weeks ahead as you practice this over and over again until you can do it without even thinking, whether or not you have a handbag on your shoulder, or a book on your head, or heeled shoes on your feet, and most importantly, whether or not I’m here to watch that you do it properly. Turn around at the window and return.” She watched Natasha execute the turn. “So needless to say, the best way to be finished with these dull exercises is to quickly progress to the stage where you can convince me you no longer require them.”

Natasha concentrated on her walk, and completed two straight lengths without dropping the book at all. By then, Jane had seated herself in the bay window to watch, and only needed to call out the occasional correction. ~Quick study,~ she thought. It was already becoming a refrain. She had a lot to think about. The girl was intelligent. Jane had already known it, but she was still adjusting to it. It was clear Natasha had never done this before; but she picked it up, like everything else, so quickly.

She was showing a little fatigue as she returned to the bay. ~She’ll be sore from the unfamiliar action,~ Jane knew. “All right, well done, Natasha. Come and sit here with me.”

Natasha approached the rest of the short distance and then dropped to her knees and sat on her heels in front of Jane. ~That’s not what I meant at all!~ Jane thought, but she was so taken by the gesture she didn’t object. ~Interesting.~

“May I ask a question, please?” Natasha asked.

~Oh my.~ “By all means.” She couldn’t keep the smile off her face put there by the last syllable.

“It’s not just anatomy, is it? The way women walk like that. All exaggerated. I mean, they don’t all the time, do they?”

“No, they don’t.”

“Men and women aren’t that much different, really.” She paused, as if she had more to say, so Jane waited. There was silence for a few moments. “I mean, I know their hips are different, but it’s not that different, is it? Why do they walk like that?”

“That’s a good question. Do you have your own theory?”

Natasha looked off to the side, outside the glass-panelled doors to the terrace for a moment. “Yes.”

“Do share it.”

“It’s a mating signal,” Natasha said flatly, as if in a biology lesson. “It says, ‘I’m female, I’m fertile, I’m available.’” She gazed at Jane quizzically, as if looking for confirmation. “Even when it’s fake, it works, doesn’t it? People are hard-wired. When I was walking like that… When I got it right. It felt… sexy.” She looked back out of the window. A little smile curved Natasha’s mouth.

Jane was a little taken aback for a moment. “Did you enjoy feeling that way?”

“Yes,” Natasha mused. Her hand rose idly to her breast and she sighed, still looking out of the window. Then both hands, slowly, down and around her corseted waist, to her hips. She stretched, arching her back a little, and relaxed.

Jane was captivated. “What are you thinking, my dear?” she asked quietly. Always the most interesting question.

Natasha took a breath, as if to speak, then hesitated, then spoke finally, “If I do everything you want, I can go home,” she said. Not a question. “Clean slate. You can do that.”

~Back to that?~ “Yes,” she said. It wasn’t entirely true, of course, but it was true enough. Reggie would trust her to effect a true reformation of character. He’d stake his own career on it. Again.

“All right.” Natasha shifted off her heels to sit on the floor, her legs curled beside her. She supported herself with her left hand, her right casually stroked her thigh, pushing up amidst the folds of her petticoats. Jane was transfixed; her breath stopped. Natasha’s eyes met hers, and they were knowing, and inviting, and afraid at the same time. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Jane.” A smile, trying to be seductive, but uncertain.

~Why the little slut–~ Jane’s first rush of anger was followed hard by a queasy fear. ~She sees me!~ She fought to cover any outward show of her emotions. ~Jane you idiot, he’s playing you!~ Her gut wrenched, and through all her control she felt the corner of her mouth twitch, once.

~No. Anger is right. Be angry!~ Her hand, almost unbidden, flicked out and slapped Natasha hard across the cheek. “What do you think you’re doing?” she snapped. “How dare you be so familiar with me?” Natasha’s eyes widened in shock, a hand rising to the side of her face where she’d been slapped. Jane found herself on her feet, without entirely recalling when she had risen. “What did you think you’re doing here?”

“I-I-I–” Natasha stammered, shrinking away from her. Her eyes were wet, stung with pain and shock.

“You’re here to learn good manners and self control and that is all! There is no place here for that kind of behaviour. Go to your room immediately and do not emerge until you are called for.”

“I-I’m sorry! I’m really sorry! I thought–”

“You thought wrongly. Now get out of my sight!”

Natasha staggered to her feet and fled for the door at a run.

Jane stood trembling in the music room for a full minute, then she threw open the terrace door and went outside for air. She flung the door shut again behind her. In the split moment between doing so and the slam she feared the glass in the door might shatter, but it held. It was a solid old house, she reminded herself, sucking in the cool Spring air. This wouldn’t be the first rage it had seen. She braced herself on the stone balustrade at the top of the steps and looked out across her land. ~Not enough.~ She descended a couple of steps and sat and covered her face with her hands, carelessly pushing her glasses aside as she did so, and just sat, for a moment, as if tears would come. But they didn’t. Her head screamed in pain, and she barely noticed the breeze stirring her hair.

By the time she raised her head out of her hands, she knew what she had to do. She stood, stiffly, and went inside, upstairs to her own bedroom suite, her own bathroom, and washed up and re-made her make-up.

And then the half-expected knock on her door. Marie entered. The look on her face confirmed she had heard at least some part of the altercation.

Madame?”

“Marie.” She sighed. “I need you to fetch Jonathan’s belongings down from storage and return them to him.” Marie’s face fell. “I’m sending him home today.”

“But…” Marie stared appalled at her, then she turned quickly and closed the bedroom door, without leaving. “Might I ask why?”

“Art was wrong. Jonathan wasn’t negotiating boundaries. He was–” Her voice caught. “He was negotiating a price.” ~And so was I.~ “And so was I,” Jane reported aloud, just to complete her shame. “He tried to play me, Marie. Where do you suppose he learnt to do that?” She shook her head. ~He probably thought he was being subtle, too,~ she thought. ~In fact he was being clumsy and obvious. Thank God.~ “I knew this was a mistake,” she said quietly. “I knew it was too soon–”

“Jane–”

“It felt wrong from the start. I kept trying to tell myself it was just me, my nerves after everything that happened last year.” Jane mastered herself. “I’m sorry. You were trying to tell me what happened yesterday with the dolls? I’m sorry, I was too distracted to listen.”

“Yesterday? Oh.” Marie had to put her mind to it for a moment. She sat on the edge of the bed opposite Jane. “It was distressing for him, and not in the usual way. He didn’t want to play with them, but he didn’t say anything about it being girly or sissy or embarrassing. What he did do,” Marie remembered, “I got him to change the clothes on one of the dolls. And he did it, but his hands were shaking. He was sweating like it was the hardest thing he’d ever done.” Jane found her mouth had gone dry. “And he tried to hide her from me. It was as if he was shielding her from my eyes, while he was undressing her. And he kept… He kept looking at the mirror.”

“Which mirror?”

“The one on the wall in the playroom.”

“Looking at himself?”

Marie shook her head. “No. Not from that angle. We were down on the floor by the toy chests. He wouldn’t have been able to see anything except the ceiling. I don’t know what he was looking at.”

~Oh, this is not a happy picture,~ Jane thought. “I think I do,” she said aloud. And now, finally, a tear escaped her eye. She swore and produced her handkerchief and dabbed it away. “We have not been told nearly enough about Jonathan’s history, it appears.” She could hear her voice shaking, and she couldn’t even determine whether it was sorrow or anger, or even rage at her own hypocrisy. At times like these she felt she was an emotional illiterate.

“I don’t understand.”

“Unless I miss my guess, he probably thought he was being watched through a one-way mirror. They do that, when they’re trying to determine whether a child has been sexually abused, or how. Often the child doesn’t have the language skills to explain what happened, so they use dolls. Anatomically complete dolls; and they let the child play, or ask him to re-enact what happened, using the dolls, and they… observe. And Jonathan being as smart as he is naturally realised that’s what they were doing.” She looked at Marie long and steadily. “And we — accidentally — recreated the scene. I wish you’d told me this sooner. It’s my fault,” she added quickly. “I should have made myself more available to be told.”

Marie sat quietly for a moment, subdued entirely. “I knew something was wrong,” she admitted, eventually. “I stopped the game right away. Last night I told him he wouldn’t have to play with the dolls again.”

Jane nodded. “No, he won’t. Because he’s going home.” She sighed. “Give him his own clothes.”

Marie stood and started towards the door. Then she stopped. “And then what?” she asked quietly, turning back to Jane. “What happens after he’s gone home?”

“Nothing that wouldn’t have happened had he never set eyes on me,” Jane replied, her voice low and dead. “That’s the best I can do.”

“He’ll be arrested,” Marie said. “He’ll be put on trial, if he’s lucky, and he’ll be locked away.”

“I know.” She had no more than a whisper.

“I don’t think he’ll survive. You were his last hope–”

“I can’t do anything for this child!” Jane protested. “He shouldn’t be here! I must send him home before I can do any more damage.”

“And he’ll go to prison and you can see what that’s going to do to him, Jane.”

“I can’t help him,” Jane insisted. “He has problems I’m not equipped–”

“What if you’d sent Darryl home? What if you’d send Kendr– Kenneth home? To that ‘mother’ of his?” Jane thought it remarkable that even in fury Marie could enunciate the quotation marks around that word. “What would have happened to them if you’d just thrown your hands up and said ‘something bad happened to them once, so they don’t belong here?’”

“What if I had sent Eugene home?” Jane replied quietly.

“Ohhh,” Marie drew it out. “That’s what this is about.”

“No it isn’t,” Jane snapped, “and don’t you dare patronise me, Marie. You of all people.”

“I’m not patronising you. I’m… I’m horrified at you. I’ve served you from the beginning, and I have never seen you just give up on a boy so easily. Not even when you were bluffing about his alternatives.” Tears glistened on Marie’s face. “You always worked it out. You always found a way.” She ran out of air on the last word, and gasped in a breath. “Jane, you give up on this boy, there might as well have been three bullets fired that night.”

I am not safe!” Jane hissed back urgently. “I’m not safe around him!” she pressed, struggling for a normal voice. There it was. Aloud. She couldn’t bear to look at Marie now, and broke away to the window, to look out at the quiet countryside. “Marie, he’s lovely,” she said. Her voice wavered, but she made herself say the rest of it. Barely a whisper. “I want him.”

“Well so what? You can’t have him.”

~Such certainty.~ Jane clung to it like a raft. ~Oh Marie, it would have been so easy. I had only to reach out my hand and take what he was offering.~ An image, inescapable: A hand on a silk-stockinged thigh, losing itself in rippling petticoat folds. The slick material sliding under her fingertips giving way to the pretty lace detail of a garter-belt strap, and smooth flesh, trembling slightly in apprehension, but unresisting, wanting, yearning for the quickening touch.

“Do you remember what Valerie said,” she began, and had to clear her throat to continue, “about the quantum nature of the universe? How every decision we make represents a cusp; a parting of the ways.” Valerie hadn’t used those words. “Every road not travelled somewhere is,” she breathed. “Every potential is somewhere fulfilled. Everything I might have been, somewhere I became.” The litany ended in a whisper as she held her hands to her face, almost as if in prayer. Her hands shook slightly. She felt Marie come up close beside her. “It’s horrible to contemplate. My imagination seeks them out, those… others, and I…” She took a breath. “I know them, Marie. I know their reasons. I can hear what they tell themselves.” Soft, deceiving words. Pretty words, drawing a counterfeit likeness of love.

“I know this,” Marie said. “You have been given a grace–”

“Oh spare me such superstitious nonsense!”

Marie just waited for Jane to be ready to listen. Finally, Jane sighed and nodded.

Marie began again. “By what agency, if any, I don’t know, but you have been given a grace to see this work done, and a gift with which to do it. Your genius, your insight, and your energy; and yes, your love for these boys.”

“It’s not love that…” She sucked in another breath, but she couldn’t finish the sentence.

“No it isn’t,” Marie agreed after the silence. “And because you know the difference, you won’t fail, and you won’t fall. Your love is the stronger part of you.”

Jane looked at her, understanding the words but unable to comprehend.

“Positing such a thing as a state of grace,” she said, forcing an analytical cast onto her voice, “how would one know it had been lost? Perhaps… one would perceive it in the deaths of innocents in one’s care, don’t you think? You see, Eugá¨nia was so very lovely.”

~Doubt me, Marie. For one second of your life, doubt me. Then you would not ask me to keep Jonathan here, within my reach. Your faith is such a weight to bear.~

“And she was happy,” Marie answered. “I remember the happiness she found. I remember how alive she became; how funny she was; her ideas. Her art was like an explosion; it was like springtime. It was like for the first time she’d been allowed to draw a real breath and see that the world is lovely.” Marie’s eyes were full of tears. “This is how I know she came to no harm by your hand. How dare you even try to insinuate… just because you’re… you’re afraid and you want me to be afraid too!”

“Marie–” Jane began. She was sorry now, knowing after all, this was the worst mistake she had made, the worst hurt she had given. She might as well have struck Marie through the heart.

“Do you think you’re the only one of us that was wounded? Do you think I don’t miss them both every day too?” Marie’s hand was pressed over her lower belly, over her womb, as if in pain. “What happened was not your fault! What do you think it was like watching you… wall yourself up inside like that? And you wondered why I had to leave.” Marie’s tears ran freely now. She broke herself away from Jane abruptly and ripped a handkerchief out of a pocket to dry her face. “Valerie brought you back to us, but don’t you see? Natasha’s going to heal us both, and Valerie too. It’s so obvious! You have to see that!”

***

~Such a lot of hope to lay on a boy with troubles enough of his own.~ Jane stood at her window watching the two small figures by the lake. Natasha was a little splash of blue from this distance. ~Such a lot of faith to lay on a dangerous, selfish old woman.~

~She’s become so fond of him. Well, I have too. Too fond, perhaps. Too timorous, after Eugenia and Julia. Too gentle, and he took it for interest of a different sort.~

~Not without reason, Jane. Don’t forget that. He sees you. He knows what you are, the apotheosis you’ve always denied yourself.~

~He knows nothing! He guessed. He presupposes. And he has his own reasons for doing so. (Oh, the poor child.)~

~I should have been more remote. I should have exercised a more professional demeanour.~ She recalled the success of Natasha’s first singing lesson; the sessions of reading-practice. ~What am I going to do with him?~

She wanted, more than anything, to call Art. ~He’ll drop everything and come. Now, perhaps, asking him to do just that would be less than selfish. Or Eric,~ she thought, suddenly, ~precisely because he’s not family– But I can’t tell him about this. I can’t tell him my part in it. I can’t tell him why I’m afraid. He was my student, once.~

~I’ve never doubted your wisdom before, Marie.~ All this talk of grace and there being a purpose, even a kindness in random events disturbed Jane greatly. It was not rational to think in such terms, and she never could understand people who did.

~Oh but then why deny yourself, Jane? Why go to your grave with a desire unfulfilled?~

~For shame, monster; you can do better than that. I am no primitive to need the fear of retribution in the afterlife to make me behave in a moral fashion.~

The phone rang suddenly, making her jump. She took a moment to settle herself and went to her bedside table to pick it up. “Thompson residence, Jane Thompson speaking.”

“Mrs. Thompson? This is Lindsey Shaw. I’ve just got that email you sent yesterday.”

“Oh yes.” ~Oh no. What do I say to her?~

“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. We went away for the weekend to visit my mother. I thought I gave you my mobile number?”

Jane picked up the threads of thought she needed. “Yes, you did. I felt this was a subject that was best discussed in private, and it wasn’t completely urgent.”

“I understand. And yes, we knew about the problem he’s having with that little bit of breast growth. He’s seen Dr. Balham about it, and he said don’t worry, Nathan should grow out of it in time.”

“All right,” Jane said. “I wanted to be sure that if the subject came up here and I needed to reassure him, I wouldn’t be contradicting anything else you might already know.”

“No, that’s fine. If you can avoid drawing his attention to it unnecessarily… Talking about it is one quick way to make him ratty.”

Jane allowed herself a tense, ironic smile. “I take it this is why he’s excused school sports?”

Pause.

“Yes, it is.” Another pause. ~There’s something you’re still not telling me,~ Jane thought. “We go out cycling a lot, and we go walking, so he does get some exercise.”

“With all due respect, Mrs. Shaw, I believe there’s something you’re not telling me,” Jane said, repeating her thought aloud.

There was another pause from the line. “I’m not sure I know what you mean,” the voice came back, tightly.

“How much do you know about his past, Mrs. Shaw?” she asked, as evenly as she could manage.

She heard Lindsey Shaw sigh at the other end. “Not very much, and if you don’t mind, most of what little I do know is private.”

“How long was he living on the streets before you adopted him?” Jane asked suddenly. She hadn’t even known in advance she would say that. From Lindsey Shaw, there was only a stony silence. “Intuition and experience, Mrs. Shaw,” Jane answered the unspoken question truthfully. “He wouldn’t be the first of my students to have such a background.”

Still there was only silence, for a few more moments. “I don’t know,” Lindsey Shaw finally admitted. “He says not long, a few months. He was only nine…” ~Nine!~ Jane had to sit down on the edge of her bed. “He said his father threw him out of the house. Can you imagine that? Only nine years old…”

“Yes,” Jane said quietly. “Yes, I can. Is there anything you can tell me about what happened during that time?”

“No.” This time the answer was quick and unequivocal, but then she seemed to pause.

Jane waited.

“Just what I was told when he came to us: he was found in a building being used by squatters. Someone had phoned for an ambulance because a girl had been stabbed in the hallway. When they got there they found her body slumped against a door, and him locked inside the room and screaming. The blood–”

“The blood was running under the door,” Jane completed. ~Well, that closes that circle,~ she thought to herself sadly.

“How did you know that?” Lindsey asked. “You haven’t locked him in anywhere have you?”

Jane was ready for this. “To do so at night is standard policy in the first weeks,” she said smoothly. “Much of our intake has a history of violent or destructive behaviour. That doesn’t apply in Jonathan’s case; and in view of what happened the first two nights, and his good behaviour the rest of the time, we’ve already relaxed that policy. His door wasn’t locked yesterday evening and we all had a quiet night.” Not a very sleepful one, Jane reminded herself, but quiet nonetheless. “The first two nights my daughter Valerie was quickly on hand to help him and keep him company.” For a moment she enjoyed the feeling of those words falling so easily from her tongue, ‘my daughter’. Then she remembered her failure: Valerie wanting to move out to the gatehouse. She continued, “In fact, we’re still getting through the cookies they baked together Sunday night.”

“Cookies?” Lindsey queried, surprised. If she was distracted from being angry about Jonathan being locked in, Jane could only be glad.

“A very large quantity of cookies, with far, far too much chocolate, which is something of a speciality of Valerie’s.” Jane described. She needed to pull the conversation back to where information could flow to her, not from her. “Anyway, the ambulance arrived and they found him there…”

“And he went with them in the ambulance, to stay with the girl, but she died. She’d lost too much blood. Anyway, that’s when social services caught up with him, at the hospital. He told them his name but they’ve never been able to find his family and I’m glad of that.” Pause. “That’s all I know. The girl was twelve or thirteen I think. He said she’d been looking after him.”

She fell silent. Jane nodded. “Thank you. As you can see, we inadvertently awoke some old memories, which is why I really need to know anything else you can tell me.”

“He’s never told me anything himself, All I know is what I was told by the social worker when she brought him round. We took him to the girl’s funeral. It was so sad, he was the only one there who knew her.”

“I see, yes. So you were his foster parents in the first instance?”

“Yes, it was an emergency placement.” Lindsey allowed herself a little chuckle. “Phone call at three o’clock in the morning, ‘Hello? Can you take this child for a few nights if I bring him round now…’”

“Ah, I see.”

“Then a few nights turned into a few weeks… It wasn’t until later that we applied to adopt him.”

~And I do wonder what prompted that decision,~ Jane thought to herself. ~Ragamuffin charm, perhaps?~ Whatever the reason, it had been a stroke of good fortune for Jonathan. She knew the damage that could be done by the turmoil and indifference of life in the care of the state; she had met the results on a train platform on many occasions. Her own decision to adopt Darryl had come from knowing that, had she not, he would have been sent into such a life, so she felt she understood Lindsey Shaw well enough.

“We’ve done our best to provide a stable and loving home, and he’s done so well, when you think about it. He’s still so young, and he’s so resilient,” Lindsey continued. “If he can forget whatever happened to him out there, if he can heal, don’t you think he should be allowed to?”

It was Jane’s turn to be silent. From her bed she looked out of the window. She could still just see the blue of Natasha’s coat, with Marie’s darker form almost lost in shadow, near the little bridge over the stream that fed the lake. ~Going to see the naíad,~ Jane recognised the route.

“I don’t know,” Jane admitted, finally. “I’m not qualified to offer an opinion on that. In fact, I have to consider whether my methods are appropriate to his needs.” ~Release me from this.~

“Oh,” Lindsey sounded crestfallen for a moment. “I don’t… Whatever happened all those years ago, what’s it got to do with his computer hacking? Has he been any trouble?”

“No,” Jane said. “No, he’s been good. As good as can be expected.”

“We’d be so disappointed,” Lindsey continued. “After everything Mr. Waters said about you.” She sighed. Jane knew Mr. and Mrs. Shaw hadn’t been told about the full seriousness of the trouble he was in, and the consequences of his not coming. It would have sounded too much like blackmail, and proved unnecessary in the end. “You know, everyone has a past, Mrs. Thompson. I’m sure you do. I certainly do. And I’m sure you know that not everything you do and everything you are today has to be all bound up with something that happened to you when you were nine. He’s moved on. He’s not the one who’s obsessed by this. You can’t just reduce him to one awful thing that happened — that might have happened, because we don’t know — and say that’s who he is, forever, this victim, and he can never be anything that isn’t defined by that. I think that’s the worst thing anyone can do. You should give him a little credit for inventing himself.”

~Interesting turn of phrase,~ Jane thought. She was beginning to wish she had met Lindsey Shaw in person. She was gaining an entirely new perspective on the woman.

And on her adopted son.

Lindsey continued, “I mean, I thought we were sending him to you to learn something about how to make his own decisions and not always follow what other people want him to do.”

~Oh?~ Jane thought. She could practically feel her antennae perk up. “What do you mean?” She reached reflexively for the notebook she kept by the phone.

“Well, that’s something Mr. Waters said,” Lindsey replied, sounding curious about having to explain something she obviously thought was already understood. “He talked so much about how much self-confidence he gained from his time with you; how he learned to think for himself and be himself and not always having to worry about what others thought about him.”

~Oh, that was the hook he used,~ Jane thought, scribbling notes, angry at herself for being caught unprepared; after all the material Mrs. Shaw and Reggie had sent, this was new. She had to think. Her brain was already starting. “Would you say he’s more comfortable letting others take the lead in most situations?”

“Yes, definitely,” Lindsey replied.

“He doesn’t need to feel that he’s in charge all the time,” Jane observed. It wasn’t a question.

“That’s right–”

“Does he help in the house?” Jane asked suddenly, following another hunch. “Does he do household chores for you?”

Pause. “Yes he does.” Lindsey sounded faintly surprised. “Well, I mean, if I ask him to do something I know it’ll get done. Sometimes he’ll take it into his head… When he was younger he’d…” She chuckled at a memory. “I’d come home from work and everything would be done already, and I mean everything; in the time between him coming in from school and me getting home from work; the washing-up, the laundry, the hoovering and dusting would all be done and I’d usually find him in the living room doing the ironing.”

“Really?”

“It was very nice, but I didn’t want him to feel he was there to work for us, you know? I did feel a bit uncomfortable about that.”

“No one likes to be a burden,” Jane echoed.

“Yes, yes, I suppose so.”

“Did you praise him for it, when he did that work?”

“Well, of course. How could you not?”

“Indeed. How did you resolve that, then, so he didn’t feel he needed to do that all the time?” Jane asked, not merely curious for Jonathan’s sake.

“I don’t know that we did anything in particular,” Lindsey responded. “I think he just grew out of it in the end. Became a teenager, I think that was the end of it.” Jane chuckled. “He started to take us for granted a little, which was the whole point I suppose.”

“Of course.”

“It’s possible getting the dishwasher helped a bit. But still, he’s so eager to please, and show off how good he is at something.”

“So, you’d say he transferred that eagerness to please onto his peers? People he came into contact with online. He was a quick study, and learned the tricks they wanted to teach him, and thrived on the praise and the kudos. Yes, of course.”

“Yes, that’s what Mr. Waters said too. He lets himself be led too easily.”

~Even by the light touch of a finger on his shoulder,~ Jane reminded herself. ~He didn’t flinch at that. Perhaps if he had I might have been more careful, but he’s not twitchy about being touched the way Valerie can be.~ Thinking about that would lead her back to unhappy thoughts about Valerie’s own secretive past. She needed to focus. ~Well, that’s another puzzle.~

“Is there anyone in particular whose lead he tends to follow?” she asked.

“I suppose there’s still his friend from school, Simon. He got him into computers in the first place, back when they were in first year, and they’re still friends, though I suppose they’ve grown apart a bit since then. And there’s that other hacker, the one who was caught first. He called himself ‘Ground Effect,’ I think it was. I don’t know his real name, but apparently he led Jonathan on, and got him to do those things.”

“Hmm.” ~How old–~ “How old is he, do you know?”

“Oh, not very. The police said he was, oh… Sixteen? Seventeen? Something like that. A little older than Jonathan, but not… Not like an older man, or anything like that.” Jane nodded, relieved. At least that wasn’t the story. “Quite charismatic though, apparently; but since he’s out of the picture now, Jonathan’s made friends with this new hacker called ‘Jester,’ and we only know about that because we try to watch him on the computer most of the time now.” ~And he still managed to do some hacking under your noses,~ Jane thought privately. “And I can just see it all happening all over again. He’s so eager to please and impress.”

“Do you know anything more about him? This Jester?” Jane asked, adding the name to the list.

“Well, for a start it’s not a him, it’s a her.” ~Oh now that’s interesting,~ Jane thought, and put a ‘(F)’ next to the name, and underlined it. “She’s American, I think, so they’ve never actually met. And she’s only sixteen or seventeen as well, or at least she says she is, and Jonathan said he’d checked up on her. He can do that, he says, although I suppose that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? He doesn’t think anything of going around snooping into other people’s personal details. As long as it’s through the computer it doesn’t count as being a bad thing to do. I mean… he wouldn’t do that in real life, he’s not like that. But I’ve sat and watched them talking online, and it’s mostly just about computers and science fiction and all that stuff. So far at least she doesn’t seem to be trying to get him to do anything, that I’ve seen, but I know what he’s like, you see? He’ll want to impress her, and show off how clever he is, and it’ll get him into trouble again.”

“Hmm.” Jane thought. “All right, I won’t make any hasty decisions. You’re giving me a lot of new information to think about, anyway, and I want to confer with some of the expertise I have available to me.” ~And I’ll see what Reggie can dig out about Ground Effect and Jester,~ Jane was thinking privately. ~Hmm.~ Her pencil-tip tapped against the first name on the list.

“Oh, I’m glad.”

“In the meantime, what can you tell me about that schoolfriend of his? Simon? What sort of influence is he?”

“Oh.” Jane heard a chuckle from the other end of the line. “He’s a bit of a character, I have to say. Quite the charmer. I can see what Jonathan sees in him, once you get past the way he looks.”

“What about the way he looks?”

“Well, he has a habit of turning up at the house wearing lots of make-up and skirts and black lacy tights and Victorian jewellery, that sort of thing.”

“Oh really?” Jane said, writing ‘CD’ in big letters next to the name, and underlining it. Three times. Then a box around the letters. “He likes dressing up as a girl, then,” she continued lightly, adding ‘in public’ after the box.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I think it’s just a Goth thing. It’s all blacks and purples and androgyny, and he certainly doesn’t behave in any way camp or girlishly, and he’s so tall. No, you wouldn’t mistake him for a girl. In fact I think he’d be very put out if you did. It wouldn’t have the same effect, then, would it, I suppose.”

“I see.” Jane wrote ‘(Goth)’ under the boxed ‘CD’. “No, I suppose not.”

“He looks quite spectacular in all his regalia. A bit like a young Ziggy Stardust, I suppose, though I think he models himself after that pop singer, whats-his-name, Marilyn Manson?”

“Oh yes, I think my daughter listens to him as well.”

Lindsey was still speaking, “I have some photos of them both I took once before they went out with some of his other friends. I could send them if you like.”

“If you would. Does Jonathan dress up too?” Jane asked easily. The million-dollar question.

“No,” Lindsey replied. “He certainly doesn’t do with the whole make-up and skirts thing.”

“As far as you know,” Jane pointed out.

“Well, yes, I’d be astonished if Simoom never once persuaded him to at least try something on, but if he wanted to do it more he’s had every opportunity to be open about it. He should know we wouldn’t mind. I think he’s just not very into that stuff. It’s not something Simoom’s been doing for very long. It’s only because Simoom’s his friend and they’ve known each other right from when they started Secondary school.”

“All right. Sorry, ‘Simoom?’”

“That’s his nickname. I don’t know anyone apart from his parents who really calls him by his real name. He’s a lovely boy, somewhere under all that make-up,” Lindsey ran on. “He wouldn’t lead Jonathan wrong. Not like those hacker types.”

“Indeed. Well, thank you Mrs. Shaw. I certainly have a fuller picture than I did.”

“I just wish we’d spoken more beforehand,” Lindsey said.

“Yes, in retrospect, so do I,” Jane answered. “It’s been very illuminating. I have plenty to think about.”

The phone call ended with the normal parting pleasantries. Jane sat for a few moments looking through the notes she’d made; then she brought the notebook with her to her office, shut herself in, and brought out her large Jonathan log-book. She quickly wrote out what she remembered of the morning’s events. It ended with, ‘negotiating a price’ and ‘offered himself to me’ and under that, in capitals, ‘HAS HE DONE THIS BEFORE?’ ~But he’d been so clumsy and nervous about it.~ She wrote something to that effect too. Then she transcribed the new notes, and other impressions she got from the phone conversation with his mother, while it was still fresh. ~So he’s subject to peer pressure, in common with every other teenager I’ve ever met,~ she thought. “Is it more than that?”

She wrote, ‘The mother wants me to disregard concerns about his earlier childhood. Homeless. (Abused? Prostituted?) Witnessed a horrific murder, at the least. Mother says he has “moved on.” Wishful thinking?’ She thought for a moment and carried on, ‘Or was she right until I blundered in and reopened old wounds that had long healed?’

‘Do such wounds ever heal?’ she wrote. And that brought to mind Lindsey Shaw’s exhorting her — pleading with her — not to define him forever as a victim. ~And we don’t know what actually happened to him back then,~ she reminded herself. Imagination filled the gaps. ~Did he even get any therapy?~ she wondered. He had been fostered with the Shaws within days of the events that had brought him into the care system. Lindsey Shaw hadn’t mentioned therapy, and Jane was angry with herself that she’d forgotten to ask.

~Art is coming,~ she reminded herself. ~There’s more here than I can deal with alone. Art is coming. He’ll know what to do.~

‘Dolls & Mirrors’ she wrote. Things had been going well until then. She remembered with fondness the long voice lesson she had given earlier the same day. How attentive he had been, how well he had responded to instruction, how engaging he was as a student. She wrote, ‘we accidentally recreated a set of circumstances he has experienced before, and from then on it was obvious something was wrong.’ ~I think it started to go wrong then.~ ‘How subdued he was in the evening, and then this morning. And then to offer himself to me like that; he’d clearly come to a decision about what he must do. A decision based on things he had seen, surely.’

She put down her pencil and stood, then went across the landing, around the oval stairwell, and into the playroom. The large mirror was screwed firmly to the wall; she needed tools to remove it, so she went downstairs to the kitchen utility room and found the toolbox and carried it back upstairs into the playroom. She had to move the daybed to get at the mirror properly. It was mounted above the mantelpiece of a disused fireplace. She found the right screwdriver and unscrewed one side, lowering it gently onto the mantelpiece, then repeated with the other. She had to move some ornaments out of the way in the process, then she concentrated on getting a good grip on the mirror and on lifting it away and down, so she could carry it back into her office and leave it leaning against a cupboard.

The exertion left her a little flushed and breathy, but she felt better for it as she wandered back into the playroom and restored the ornaments and daybed to their proper places.

She sat on the other daybed, across from where the mirror had been, and looked at the space it left. There was a small scratch in the wallpaper where she hadn’t been quite careful enough in unscrewing the mirror, and of course, the two empty rawlplugs. She’d get someone in to clean that up at some point. Or find a picture to put up in its place. The room itself seemed a little smaller and a little darker than before, which was the only reason the mirror had been put there in the first place.

~He lay here,~ she remembered, her hand touching down on the cushion beside her. He’d been captivated by the light and the play of the curtains and the mobile, now hanging silent and lifeless in front of the closed window. It was overcast today, and quite drab in comparison. Still, she kicked off her shoes and brought her feet up onto the daybed, and lay down, where he’d lain; first only on her side, then she turned onto her back, her head propped up on the chenille-covered cushions that she had chosen. She gazed slowly at the window, and the sky, a scrolling grey parchment of clouds. She checked what else she could see from that vantage. No, she could not see the doorway at all. The mirror would not have betrayed her either, and there wasn’t anything else reflective in her field of vision.

She felt so tired. She’d had little enough sleep in the last two nights, and hadn’t really slept well for several nights before that. And it was restful on the daybed, and so very quiet. She let her eyelids flicker shut. Her hand, on the closed side of the bed, fell naturally to her breast, and she breathed deeply.

Notes:

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