An Unexpected Party
The phone rang, and Gwendolyn squealed in surprise. She sprang out of bed and dashed into the ruined living room, but she tripped over something dark and furry, and fell flat on her face.
The black cat rubbed itself against her cheek.
“Ugh.” Gwendolyn shoved the cat away and got to her feet. “As if destroying my home wasn’t enough. This is the last time I take in a stray.”
The cat bounded away and Gwendolyn started toward the phone in the kitchen, but at that moment, there was a knock at the door.
She froze, torn between the ringing and the knocking. But an unexpected knock was almost certainly a sign of trouble, the kind that made scratched up furniture seem tiny in comparison. The kind of trouble where polite men would politely tip their pointed caps and politely pack her away to the Home for Unclaimed Children.
But when Gwendolyn opened the door, it was not to a man in a blue uniform and shiny badge, but one in a grey suit and black bowler hat.
“Excuse me, Ms. Gray, er… Gwendolyn, is it?”
Gwendolyn squinted warily. “Yes? Can I help you?”
He took off his hat and held it in front of his chest. He had thinning hair and round features. “My name is Mr. Mason. I’m here on your mother’s invitation. Might we come in?”
An icy rush of terror swept over her. Mr. Mason was her publisher, and one of the richest men in The City. Well, he was her parents’ publisher, or so he thought. Gwendolyn had never actually met the man before. All their correspondence had been by mail (and one awkward phone call where Gwendolyn had done a passable job of imitating her mother’s voice). If he was here, he would know that his star authors were really a fifteen-year-old fraud, and would find out that her parents were missing, and he would call the police, and the Childkeeper would come and take her away—
But a word tripped her racing thoughts.
“Invitation? What invitation?” She darted into the hall and closed the door behind her, blocking his view of the wrecked apartment.
Mr. Mason took a startled step back, and produced a card from the inside pocket of his coat. “Your parents’ dinner invitation. I would have RSVP’d earlier, but I didn’t see it in the mail until a few hours ago. I’d have overlooked it completely if my daughter hadn’t found it just in time, thank goodness.” He stepped aside to reveal a girl Gwendolyn’s own age, but taller, slimmer, blonder, and prettier in every way.
Cecilia Forthright. Standing at Gwendolyn’s door with the posture of a gladiator who has scored a lethal blow on his opponent, and is preparing to feed him to the lions. It was a very specific sort of posture.
“Ce—Cecilia, what are you doing here?” Gwendolyn tried to adopt some semblance of normalcy, but her hands decided that this was the time to start trembling violently, and had persuaded her legs to join in the shaking. It seemed Cecilia would not confine her bullying to the walls of the School. “Mr. Mason, I didn’t know… I mean, my parents never mentioned that you had a daughter.”
A wicked gleam shone in Cecilia’s eyes. “Silly Gwendolyn, I’m sure I’ve mentioned him before. After all, he knows your parents so well.”
Mr. Mason nodded. “I must say, I was quite flustered when Cecilia brought me your invitation. I hope you’ll excuse the state of me.” He gestured to his wardrobe, which was perfect in every respect as far as Gwendolyn could tell. “And since the two of you are such good friends from the School, I didn’t think you’d mind if I brought her along. She did quite a bit of begging, and I can never seem to say no to her.”
He gave his daughter a adoring smile, and Cecilia beamed up at him, as innocent as a baby. Then she turned back toward Gwendolyn, innocence melting into malicious glee.
“But…” Gwendolyn murmured. “Your last name is Forthright, not Mason.”
Cecilia’s grinned even wider. “Oh, Mason is just the name he uses for business. Daddy hates it when people make a fuss over him. Always pestering him to read some manuscript or other.”
Mr. Mason shifted his weight. “Er, may we come in? I’m quite anxious to meet your mother and father. They’re so terribly secretive. Between you and me, I was hoping to convince them to do some book signings. Did you know they’ve never made a public appearance?”
“No!” Gwendolyn shouted to absolutely everything he had just said. “Father isn’t feeling well. I’m sure they wouldn’t want company just now, I’m sorry—”
“Oh, pish-tosh. Go and fetch your mother darling, Marie and I can sort this out.”
His tone turned hard. “Stop. I will not have my business dealings dictated to me by a child. Go and get your mother.”
“I can’t! I mean, not yet. Mother’s not done straightening up, and I know she wouldn’t want you to see an untidy home. So, forgive the awkwardness, but if you could just wait out here for one moment…”
“It’s no trouble, we’re more than happy to wait in the living room—”
“Take your time, Gwenny!” Cecilia said, her voice dripping with sickening sweetness. “Believe me, we’re in no rush. We’re looking forward to a very enjoyable evening. Oh, and here. You dropped this at the School today. I begged Daddy to let me come along just so I could give it to you in person.”
Cecilia held up a notebook. It was blue, with white flowers on it. She let the front cover flop open, and there the words Property of Gwendolyn Gray were written in a flowing hand. “I know how important it is to you. I couldn’t wait to see the look on your face when you got it back.”
The phone rang again.
“Oh! Excuse me, I have to get that.” Gwendolyn snatched her notebook, darted back inside, and slammed the door before either of them could get a good look. She pressed her back against the door and tried to slow her breathing.
Gwendolyn flipped through the notebook, noting her drawings, her stories, and more importantly, her journal entries. No doubt Cecilia had read every word. How her parents had been taken by the Faceless Gentlemen, and how Gwendolyn had spent the last two years impersonating them, making a living as a writer under their names, and dodging the clutches of the Home for Unclaimed Children. And likewise, there was no doubt as to who had written this “invitation.”
Knowing all of this did nothing to fix the situation. Gwendolyn looked at the apartment. The place was an utter disaster. The torn furniture bled stuffing, the dining room was in disarray, and the kitchen wasn’t so much cluttered as it was downright unhygienic. She hadn’t exactly been the best housekeeper before the cat had ripped the place to shreds.
But how long could she stall them? And what sort of dent could she make in this war zone? And that blasted phone just wouldn’t stop ringing.
Maybe she could whip something together in the kitchen. She’d just gone to the store, so she could pretend both of her parents were sick in bed and send Cecilia and her father away after a quick bowl of oatmeal—
“Oh, poor Rosecap, what have we here?”
Gwendolyn whirled to see someone sitting on the counter. A man, barefoot and clad in tight black trousers and a tight black jacket over an orange tunic that was open nearly to the naval. He was androgynous and beautiful, the very picture of eternal youth, with rich brown skin and a tousled mop of dark hair. He glowed, quite literally, filling the kitchen with a soft orange light. His pointed ears twitched as he casually flipped through Gwendolyn’s copy of The Annals of the Fae. He looked up, cocked one eyebrow, and gave her a fox’s grin.
“Dost mischief come and pluck my ear?”
Gwendolyn could not have been more surprised if a dozen dwarves had shown up on her doorstep. She stood frozen, with nothing but the incessantly ringing phone to break the silence.
“Puck Robin!” she cried out when she had found her jaw and picked it up again.
“A fellow now, as you can see, so Goodfellow is what I’ll be.” Robin gestured to indicate that they were currently in their male form, when they went by Robin Goodfellow. When in their female form, they preferred Puck Robin. Of course, there were those times when Robin was somewhere in between, but everything about Robin was fluid and unpredictable. For example, turning up uninvited in Gwendolyn’s kitchen.
“Where did you come from?” Gwendolyn asked. Then she noticed the green book he was holding, full of the stories of the Fae. “Did you come out of the book?”
Robin hopped down from the counter. “No, I’ve been here since the break of day, you brought me in and bade me stay.”
“What? You certainly have not, I… No, no, no, you were the cat, weren’t you?”
“You’ve seen that I can change my shape, it’s not just biped forms I take.” He started rifling through the cabinets and plucking out all the dishes.
“Stop that!” Gwendolyn snatched a plate from his hands. “You ruined my apartment!” She slapped him on the arm, which she knew was only possible because he chose not to dodge the blow.
Robin grinned again. “A bit of fun is all I’ve had, and what’s more fun than being bad?”
“Is that why you’re here? For fun?”
The faerie began juggling cups and plates, a dozen at a time. “A favor, I recall you owe. It’s time to pay, so off we go.”
“I can’t leave now! This is a very inconvenient time for me to have a faerie in my kitchen, and—oh, for heaven’s sakes, hang on—” She picked up the still-ringing phone and slammed it back down again, silencing it.
Robin stopped juggling, and the dishes crashed to the floor and shattered. “An inconvenient time? Do tell. Have I the chance to raise more hell?”
“I don’t have time for this, I have to…” But Gwendolyn had a sudden idea. “Robin Goodfellow… How would you like to help me play a little trick?”
Robin crossed his arms. “A trick, you say? A game to play? On whom shall we this mischief lay?”
Gwendolyn put on a somber face. “On a girl most foul and loathsome. She has brought her father here to trap me and take me from my home. You say you can take any shape you wish. So how about my mother?”
“I’m no ones’ mum, you little sprite. That is not my kind of night.”
“But think it through! You can pretend to be my mother, help me with dinner, and play a grand game of pretend to fool these… uh, foolish mortals. Such good fun. And then, once our trick is played, I’ll take you to the Revels.”
Robin put a finger to his chin. “A revel, eh? That just might do. Show me a good time, and I’ll help you.”
“And then we’re square, yes?” said Gwendolyn. “No one owes anyone anything?”
“If I have a night of fun, then we’d be square, our bargain done.”
Gwendolyn was about to clarify what Robin’s idea of fun was, but there was a sudden banging at her front door. She groaned in frustration. “Just… stay here! I’ll see if I can stall them a little longer.” She dashed out of the kitchen and through the living room. “Though I’ve no idea what we’ll do for dinner…”
But no sooner had she turned the handle than Mr. Mason burst through the door. “Young lady, I won’t be made to stand out here in the hall like some common salesman. I demand that you fetch your mother, and—” He stopped, glancing around the room.
“Let me explain—” Gwendolyn whirled around. Then she nearly fell over in shock.
The apartment was clean. More than that, it was immaculate. It hadn’t looked this good since Gwendolyn’s mother had been here to clean it. And maybe not even then. The black leather upholstery had been restored, the glass topped coffee table was clean enough to be nearly invisible, and all the chrome furniture legs had been polished to a high sheen. Pictures hung on the walls again. The carpets were free of the stains that had built up over the past two years. Even the air was fresher, carrying a hint of the woodlands of Faeoria.
And then Gwendolyn’s mother came out of the kitchen.
“Oh. Hello there. I wasn’t expecting you.”
Of course, it was merely Robin Goodfellow under one of his glamour spells, the image of Mother no doubt plucked from Gwendolyn’s mind by magic. But knowing this did nothing to stem the impact of seeing her mother for the first time in two years, standing right there in a red evening dress with white polka dots, her platinum hair styled up and sculpted into large curls that framed her face.
Gwendolyn felt as though she’d been hit in the gut by the monorail. She couldn’t breathe, her throat tightening, her eyes stinging.
I don’t have time for that, she thought. She had to stay in control of herself, and the situation. She’d had enough trouble balancing her bipolar disorder today, and she couldn’t afford an anxiety attack.
Yet, she still found herself throwing her arms around the woman and giving her a fierce hug. “Mother. You look lovely.” And even if it wasn’t really her mother, it still felt wonderful to hold her, to feel her, to smell her. Good lord, she even smelled right. If it was all an illusion, she might as well enjoy it while it lasted. But if she wasn’t careful, she would slip into a manic phase and start glowing as brightly as the faeries.
Mr. Mason and Cecilia traded an awkward glance. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Right. Er, did you say you weren’t expecting us? I have your invitation right here—”
Robin-Mother pulled away from Gwendolyn and swooped toward Mr. Mason. “No, I only meant that I wasn’t expecting you so soon. What a pleasant surprise.”
Mr. Mason looked down at the phony invitation Cecilia had made, then at his watch. “But you said to be here at six, and—”
“And you are right on time.” Robin-Mother took him by the arm and patted his elbow. “But punctuality is such a rarity that I’m surprised when anyone is on time for anything. There is an appalling shortage of manners these days, don’t you agree?”
Gwendolyn marveled at the speed and cleverness of Robin’s lies. Of course, to Robin lies were as natural as breathing. Faeries couldn’t tell an outright falsehood, but they could bend and twist the truth in ways that would make a contortionist blush.
Robin turned toward Gwendolyn. “Darling, you haven’t properly welcomed our guest.” She raised an eyebrow and gave a subtle nod at Mr. Mason.
Gwendolyn took the hint, and prepared to drop some names. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Mason. Mother, I don’t believe you’ve met his daughter, Cecilia.”
“Charmed.” Cecilia gave a snarky smile that was anything but charming.
Robin shot back a look of mocking disdain, one that was safely hidden from Mr. Mason’s view. Then she led him to a door in the hall. “Come, Mr. Mason, I’ll show you around and we can give the girls a chance to catch up.”
“This is a coat closet.”
Robin shot a glance at Gwendolyn. “Of course it is, I was only offering to hang it up for you.”
“But I’m not wearing a coat.”
“And yet it is still polite to offer, isn’t it? I pride myself on being a gracious hostess…” And their voices trailed off down the hall.
Cecilia whirled on Gwendolyn and planted a finger on her chest. “All right, oddling. What are you playing at?”
Gwendolyn swatted her hand away. She wanted to snap back, to shout at Cecilia for starting all of this, but now that she knew Cecilia was her boss’s daughter, shouting hardly seemed wise. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said haughtily.
“Yes, you do!” Cecilia seemed to have no problem shouting. “I read your diary! I know that’s not your mother. Your parents are missing. You’ve been living here, all by yourself. Playing house, pretending to be a grown up, living off my daddy’s money, you lying little—”
Gwendolyn forced a laugh, which stopped Cecilia mid-rant. “Oh, that! A bit of fiction. All those stories of monsters and men with no faces kidnapping my parents. Surely you’ve wished the same thing sometimes.” She put on a look of mocking concern. “You didn’t think it was real, did you? Silly Cecilia.”
Cecilia’s eyes flicked side-to-side and she bit her lip. “No. You weren’t making that up. You… it was too real…”
Gwendolyn laughed again. “Don’t be so gullible.” She leaned in close, right into Cecilia’s face. “But making up fake dinner invitations? Whatever it is you’re planning, it’s not going to work.” At least, Gwendolyn hoped it wouldn’t. There was no telling what Robin might do. And she hoped Cecilia hadn’t noticed how her hands were shaking.
Cecilia narrowed her eyes. “You think you’re so clever, don’t you? Well, you’re not the only one who’s clever. Just you wait and—”
Laughter interrupted the two girls’ argument, and Gwendolyn’s not-mother came back into the room, leading Mr. Mason by the arm. “What an amusing anecdote. I had no idea that a publisher’s accounting practices could be so funny!”
“Thank you for that… little tour,” he said. “It was a very interesting, er, hallway.”
Robin shot a withering glare at Gwendolyn that looked all too much like her actual mother. “Yes, this place does have much fewer rooms than one would expect… hard to imagine how one could live in such a cramped little hovel. Now, if you could all have a seat in the living room, I’ll get dinner on the table.”
Robin went into the kitchen, and Gwendolyn followed. “What are you doing? We don’t have anything to feed them. Do we?”
“Double, double, toil and trouble, cauldron burn and cauldron bubble,” Robin said with a wink. She did entirely too much winking for Gwendolyn’s taste.
“Is that a yes?”
Robin rolled her eyes. “Please, child. Who do you take me for? So far, this night has been quite a bore. Your revels best be quite the show, or my displeasure you shall know.”
Gwendolyn frowned. “You’re speaking in rhymes again. You weren’t doing that a moment ago.”
“That would ruin the trick, wouldn’t it? I’ve told you before, I can speak however I please.”
Gwendolyn gave a groan of exasperation. “Then why do you do it at all?”
“Because I’m terribly clever. Now, go care for our guests, young lady!” And she pointed to the living room.
“All right. Don’t get too into character.”
What Happened After dinner
Gwendolyn sat in the living room, across the coffee table from Cecilia Forthright. Each of them stared at the other as though blinking would be a sign of full surrender. Even Mr. Mason seemed to notice the tension.
“So… Gwendolyn, yes? Where is your father? I assumed he’d be dining with us.”
Gwendolyn glanced at Father’s typewriter in the corner. “He’s ill, like I said.”
“Well, perhaps, I’ll just pop my head in and say hello—”
“No!” Gwendolyn wished she was as skilled a liar as Puck. “I mean, he’s at a friend’s house. He… he didn’t want to disturb the meal.”
Mr. Mason frowned. “If he’s so sick, why would he go to—”
“Dinner!” called Mother’s voice, and Robin swept into the living room.
“Excuse me, Marie, but will Danforth be joining us? Gwendolyn seems a bit confused, says he’s sick at a friend’s house or some such rubbish.”
“That is what she said, yes. Enough of that. Come on, everyone, before it gets cold! Or warm, depending.” And she giggled girlishly.
“That’s laying it on a bit thick…” Gwendolyn grumbled to herself as she stood.
“Excellent!” said Mr. Mason, heading into the dining room. “I’m positively famished!”
Cecilia crossed her arms and stormed after him.
Gwendolyn followed as well, but froze as she stepped into the dining room. The sight that met her eyes was simply too much for her to handle after the evening’s events thus far, and all she could manage was a stunned, “What… the… devil…”
It was a feast. An utterly unfathomable feast. A fantastical, fantabulous feast.
The glass topped table was loaded with so much food it was like to shatter. The sideboard tables groaned under the weight of countless dishes. Summer salads, stuffed mushrooms, wheels of cheese, glistening berries, plates of turkey and ham, strings of sausages, joints of mutton, pots of oysters, slices of lavender bread, cakes and candies and sweets of all kinds, and even a box of iced cookies that said EAT ME in large, friendly letters, all of it gleaming with goodness.
The room practically steamed, and a warm wave of delicious smells wiped away any trace of thought.
Eventually, Mr. Mason found his voice. “What… What is all this?”
The faerie in the polka dot dress swept around the room, though there was scarcely space for sweeping among the towering piles of food.
“We have lembas, ambrosia, rainbow fish sprinkled with melange, golden goose eggs, roast beast, diamondfruit marmalade, deeper’n’ever beetroot pie, sweet cream, heavy cream, honey cream, nevercream, a couple gargle-blasters for us grown-ups and fizzy lifting drinks for the girls, and then for dessert there’s treacle tart, butter pie, strawberry glimmer pudding, turkish delight, whistling sweets, and a little hot soma for after dinner sipping. Good for the digestion.”
Gwendolyn shot Robin a look of wordless, mortified shock.
“Where did you get this?” Mr. Mason said.
“Oh, you know. Lots of places. Here, there, and everywhere.” She winked at no one in particular. “Now tuck in! It’s positively scrumdiddlyumptious!”
Mr. Mason opened his mouth again, but there was no room for words amongst all that food. So instead he nibbled a piece of maple-glazed bacon. Cecilia, clearly against her better judgment, tried a sip of punch.
Their eyes lit up, and they traded a look of utter bewilderment and joy. Then, abandoning all manners, they leapt into their chairs and attacked the mountains of goodies.
Gwendolyn eased into her usual chair and glanced at Robin. The faerie was staring hungrily at the pair as they aggressively stuffed their faces.
“This is…” grunted Mr. Mason between bites of venison. “This is stupendous! I’ve never had food like this.”
“No,” Gwendolyn said through clenched teeth, glaring at Robin. “No one has. We don’t have food like this here.”
“Well, it’s not my fault you live in such a wretchedly dull story,” Robin growled back, using Mother’s own exasperated tone. “Do you know how many other stories I had to pull this from? Ungrateful child.” She snorted. “I’d like to see some mere Christmas Ghost do better.”
If Mr. Mason noticed anything odd about the comment, he could hardly be bothered to mention it. Cecilia could hardly be bothered to breathe, given the way she was inhaling her pepper cheese popovers. Her face and fingers glistened with juices. All thoughts of ensnaring Gwendolyn seemed to have fled somewhere around the first bite of lobster.
“I didn’t know there was so much food left in the whole City,” Mr. Mason said, spluttering bits of peach across the table. He reached out and tore the leg off a chicken. “Darling, could you pass those little pastries over there?”
Cecilia did, in between mouthfuls of lemon-spiced almonds.
Gwendolyn wondered what sort of spells might be on this food to reduce those two to little more than ravening animals. Then again, maybe it was just that good. It smelled absolutely heavenly. Her stomach rumbled. The past two years had involved a lot of macaroni. She reached out and tried a jeweled pomegranate seed, which looked like a tiny ruby.
The glassy sugar crust crunched with a delicate sweetness, followed by a burst of juice. The tartness of it made her mouth tingle and pucker and water. Her eyes shot open, and she let out an involuntary moan of delight. She was just about to jam a handful of them into her mouth when she was startled by a loud bang.
She looked up to see Mr. Mason, face down in a plate of abbey cake. He didn’t move.
Gwendolyn leapt back from the table just as Cecilia dropped as well, her head hitting the table with a heavy thud.
“You’ve killed them!”
“Did I?” Robin said, looking up. She was peeling an apple with a wickedly curved knife that was very out of place in her mother’s hand. “Oh. That. Seems they’ve found the twilight forest truffles. It does tend to knock mortals out for a while.”
“They’re not dead?” Gwendolyn asked.
Robin poked Cecilia hard in the cheek, who muttered and turned her head away. “Merely sleeping. It could be worse. At least I didn’t serve them the pansy blossom juice. We could hardly have them falling in love with us at first sight. Though what fun that could be…” She twirled around, and suddenly Gwendolyn’s mother was gone, and Puck Robin stood in her place, now in her own much more voluptuous female form.
“That’s my boss. You’ve knocked out my boss. In my house. And his daughter. What are they going to say when they wake up?”
“I imagine they’ll thank you for the best meal of their lives so far.” The faerie pulled back one of Mr. Mason’s eyelids. “What does it matter what they say? These two were dullards anyway.”
Dashing around the table, Gwendolyn pushed Robin up against the wall, upsetting a tray of fig tartlets in the process. “Because I needed them to go away! I needed them not to know I’ve been living here alone! And I needed Cecilia Forthright to stop trying to ruin my life!” She didn’t know what gave her the nerve to shove the faerie about, but Robin seemed too surprised to react.
“Do you think it’s easy, pretending to be your own parents?” It all came rushing out in an unstoppable flood. “I’ve been doing everything on my own the past two years, and I wanted you to pretend to be my mother so that Mr. Mason would go home happy and keep paying me, only I haven’t been able to write anything in weeks, and now I—”
“Gwendolyn?” came a voice from behind her.
Gwendolyn spun around.
Miss Sahida, her teacher, stood in the hall, staring into the dining room with eyes as wide as saucers.
The three of them stood in silence for a moment. They all glanced at one another, and back again.
Robin clapped her hands and disappeared with a loud pop. The feast vanished with her.
Of course, seeing a grown woman and a room full of food vanish into thin air didn’t exactly help matters. Miss Sahida gasped, and stumbled back against the wall. “The… the door was open, so I just… I just…” Her knees buckled.
“Miss Sahida!” Gwendolyn rushed to her teacher.
“I—I need to sit down.”
Gwendolyn led her into the living room and away from the bodies slumped over the dining room table. She sat her down on the couch, then went to get a glass of water. Gwendolyn’s mind whirled for something, anything she could say to explain what the woman had just seen.
Gwendolyn gave the glass to her teacher, but Miss Sahida didn’t reach for it. Her eyes were glazed, staring off into the distance.
“What are you doing here?” Gwendolyn asked.
“Huh?” Miss Sahida said, turning toward Gwendolyn. She shook her head, and her expression cleared. “Oh, I, uh… You called me. Invited me over for dinner.”
“I most certainly did n—oh,” said Gwendolyn, burying her face in her hands. “Cecilia.”
“What? Miss Forthright? Is… was that her I just saw, unconscious in there? With her father? Are they all right?” Miss Sahida shot up and went for the dining room.
Gwendolyn followed, coming in as Miss Sahida checked Cecilia’s breathing.
“She’ll be fine,” Gwendolyn said. Or at least, she hoped Cecilia would be fine. Or at least, she hoped Cecilia wasn’t dead. Or… to be honest, at this precise moment, Gwendolyn wasn’t even sure she could say that much.
“But what are they doing here at all, let alone sleeping on your table?”
A dark weight settled on Gwendolyn’s shoulders. Her breathing quickened. “What did you hear?”
Miss Sahida went into the kitchen and over to the sink. She splashed some water on her face. “Well, I heard Cecilia do a convincing imitation of your voice over the phone, it seems. I mean, it was all a bit suspect, so I called the number we have on file for you, multiple times in fact, but when no one answered, I got worried, and I don’t live very far from here, and—”
She straightened up, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Then she turned toward Gwendolyn. Her eyes had taken on their customary piercing gaze. “But yes, I heard you. I came in somewhere around the ‘knocking out the mortals’ bit, which I’m not even going to pretend to understand—”
“Miss Sahida, I can explain—”
“Oh yes, please explain. I would so dearly love an explanation. I would love to know where that woman went, for example, and why she seemed to vanish into thin air, and how she did that disguise trick!”
Gwendolyn opened her mouth, then closed it again, then opened it again, looking very much like a fish.
“I see.” Miss Sahida put her hands on her hips. Her usual sweetness and warmth were nowhere to be found. “Then let me explain. You’ve been living here on your own for the past two years, if I heard correctly. Your parents are gone—
“—but Cecilia somehow found out, and invited me over for dinner tonight. So you managed to hire that… that person to pretend to be your mother. Does that about sum it up?”
All Gwendolyn could manage was her fish imitation again.
Miss Sahida went over to the phone on the wall. She picked it up and spun the dial.
That jolted Gwendolyn into action. She darted over and snatched the phone away. “Stop! What are you doing?”
Miss Sahida seemed taken aback, not used to having students snatch things from her. “Gwendolyn Gray, you give me that phone back right this minute.”
“Who were you calling?”
“I’m calling the authorities. I can’t leave you alone like this.”
“No, my mother’s here, you just missed her,” Gwendolyn said, panicked. “If you wait, I’m sure she’ll be back—”
Miss Sahida glared at her. “And how long would I be waiting? Two more years, from what you said? Or just long enough for you to hire another impersonator? You…” She closed her eyes and massaged her brow in disbelief. “You hired someone to pretend to be your mother, I don’t even know how you would go about doing such a thing, are there ads in the paper for it, or—”
“You can’t tell anyone. You just have to trust me, I promise…”
“Trust you? You’ve been lying to everyone all year. Not to mention that little act today, playing on my sympathies for your…” and she waved a hand in a gesture of delicate awkwardness, “… disorder.”
“But I’m fine, truly, just look around.” Gwendolyn gestured to the immaculate apartment, even if it wasn’t entirely honest to suggest that she had kept it so.
Miss Sahida did look. And Gwendolyn saw a flicker of uncertainty. But it vanished as quick as Robin had. “So, I should just go home, and leave a poor little girl all alone, with no one to look after her? And with your condition, to be under so much stress? How could I live with myself? How could I come to the School, and face you each day? No, I’m sorry, I know you don’t like it, but it’s for your own good.” And she took the phone back from Gwendolyn.
Gwendolyn didn’t resist. Instead, she made her eyes as big and sad and adorable as she could make them, even trying for a tear or two. “You’d really send me to the Home for Unclaimed Children?” she said, pitifully.
That struck a blow. The Home’s reputation was well-known, as was the new Childkeeper’s. The flicker of uncertainty on Miss Sahida’s face grew into full-fledged doubt. She sagged against the counter and dropped the phone, letting it dangle from its cord. “I don’t know—”
“I’ve got it all under control, I can take care of myself.”
Miss Sahida put her hands on Gwendolyn’s shoulders. “That’s just the point. You shouldn’t have to.” She sighed and let her arms fall. “What would you have me do, Gwendolyn?”
Gwendolyn knew it was an honest question. But she had no idea how to answer. “What if… What if you came to check on me? You could come every day, just to make sure I’m all right. Or…” She had an even wilder idea. “Or I could come with you. I could stay with you. If you’d have me.”
Miss Sahida looked at her. Gwendolyn looked back, and the her teacher’s gentle face made her melt a little. She had meant it as a ploy, to buy her more time, but was the idea really so bad? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a… to have someone to look after her? To not have to do the shopping, or the laundry, or the bills, to not have to be a lady, and just be… Gwendolyn?
Miss Sahida was silent for a long, long moment. Then she wrapped Gwendolyn in an enormous hug.
And this time, Gwendolyn’s tears were real.
When Miss Sahida pulled back, her eyes were a little wet as well.
“No,” she said. “I can’t.”
“But Miss Sahida—”
The words seemed to hurt her teacher as much as they were hurting Gwendolyn. “This isn’t like one of your storybooks. I can’t just go around adopting orphans at the drop of a hat.”
Gwendolyn pushed her back, and Miss Sahida stumbled against the counter. “I’m not an orphan,” she spat.
If Miss Sahida was upset by this mild assault, she didn’t show it. “Nevertheless. You are alone. And no one should have to be as lonely as this,” she said, gesturing around them.
“You’re as alone as this,” Gwendolyn said, putting some bite into her words. “Maybe you need someone more than I do.”
Miss Sahida flinched. “Well, that’s… that’s different. I’m an adult. Just look at the mess you’ve gotten yourself into.” She pointed at the dining room. “Consorting with shady characters. Poisoning two innocent people, or whatever you’ve done to them. No. You’ll thank me when you’re older. The Home won’t be as bad as… as everyone says. You’ll see.” She picked up the dangling phone and spun the dial again.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” Gwendolyn said, as firm and angry as she had ever been.
Miss Sahida fixed her with an equally firm stare. “Someone has to.”
Gwendolyn knew her attempts had backfired. Miss Sahida certainly wouldn’t listen now. She raced to the front door. She would escape, and no one could stop her. She’d faced much worse than the police, after all. She might find another home out there. On another world, in some other story.
Except… all the portals to the other stories were closed. She could still run, though. She could live on the streets of the City, staying one step ahead of the police and the Childkeeper, always running, always fighting… for the rest of her life…
Instead, she collapsed face-down on the couch, burying her head in a pillow. She didn’t even cry. She had no energy for tears. She’d been battling her depression all day, and was there really any point in fighting it anymore?
Her secret was out. She hadn’t been good enough to hide it, and there was no going back. She was tired of fighting. She was tired of being the one in charge all the time. A voice inside her screamed at her to get up, to get out, to get away. And there was a time when she would have listened.
But she was not the girl she used to be.
So, who am I? she wondered.