December 2007 Volume One Issue Five
And Now Abideth These Three - Sherwood Smith
Cynthia leaned her forehead against the cool window glass, watching the traffic inch forward in Mother-May-I steps on the street below. It was time to leave, and she was a little excited, but mostly afraid.
Her mother yelled from downstairs, "Cynthia! Are you ready?"
Cynthia opened her door and her mother charged in, heels clacking. "We've got to run, we'll be late! Now let me see you."
Cynthia obediently turned around. The outfit was brand new, bought for this birthday party, exactly the same label the other girls were all wearing. It had taken her mother two weeks to find an outlet selling seconds at discount. They couldn't find the flaw in the blouse, or the jeans.
They got into the brand-new Lexus her mother had borrowed. "Your present is on the back seat, Cynthia."
"It's not jewelry, is it?" Cynthia asked.
"No." A quick, suspicious look. "You said they aren't giving jewelry any more."
Cynthia tried to sound careless. "It's totally tacky. Only boys can give a girl jewelry, now that we're in middle school. Boys or relatives."
Her mother never argued with school pronouncements of what was, or wasn't, tacky. "No jewelry, no hair things, no school things...it's getting harder to find something they'll like." She sighed, rattling her bracelets.
They don't like anything I give them, Cynthia thought, but of course she didn't say it out loud. Her mother went to some expensive store to ask the snippy ladies what well-to-do preteens were buying in this or that item, and then shopped tirelessly for hours to find the same thing, or nearly the same, for a decent price. Then she used boxes from the best stores, carefully hoarded, and expensive wrapping paper, only gotten out for the school birthday parties.
And no matter what Cynthia gave any of them, she never saw it again.
As they neared Beverly Hills she felt her stomach tighten. She'd managed to skip three parties so far this year with sickness excuses, but there was a reason she didn't want to skip Wallace von Diefenburg's party. The reason was in the garden. She could ignore the girls if the garden, and the pond, were still there.
Cynthia shut her eyes against the sun glaring through the windshield, thinking about the pond behind Wallace's mansion, and how important it was to see it again. If it wasn't there... Well, she thought, if it isn't there, at least the Christmas lights will be on, and I can take off my glasses and the lights will be pretty snowflake shapes. Pretend magic is better than nothing.
Her mother said, "You know, it's not too soon to talk about your birthday. March is right around the corner."
Fear burned in Cynthia's middle. "Dad wants me again this year."
Her mother slammed her hand flat on the steering wheel, being careful not to ruin one of her long painted nails. She always dressed up before the parties, just in case a mother might come out to ask her if she wanted some coffee. They did, sometimes, to each other, but never to her.
"Talk him out of it, okay?" she said. "Tell him how important it is to your future. You have to socialize with these girls, and that means entertain them. Take your turn. We'll rent a good place at a decent address. Get it all catered."
"I'll try," Cynthia said, but it made her angry to lie even that much. Instead, she'd make sure her dad would take her the whole weekend of her birthday, even if it meant spending it babysitting her little half-brothers as part of the deal.
Anything was better than a repeat of her own party in third grade, her second year at that school. Cynthia hated to remember it, but it always came back to her mind, like a bruise that would never go away. Of course they didn't have the party at her apartment on crowded, noisy La Brea, because the other girls all had nice homes in Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, or Malibu. Her mother had rented a fancy ice cream parlor near Rodeo Drive. Cynthia had to sit there at the head of the long table set for twelve, wearing a Sleeping Beauty crown with fake jewels, and watch the two girls who came poke at their cake and exchange looks and giggles of embarrassment.
"They don't like me," Cynthia had cried when she got home.
Her mother said firmly, "What have you done to make them dislike you?"
"Nothing! Nothing! But I'm different."
"No you aren't. You all wear the same uniforms, and if you don't tell them where you live, no one will know you're not from Beverly or Malibu or the Palisades."
"But they do know," she'd cried.
"Here's the street," her mother said, breaking into the bad memories. "Help me find the number."
Cynthia obediently scanned the curbs. Many of the mansions had no other sign of residence. You just seemed to have to know where they were.
Long green lawns and beautiful landscaping flowed uphill from the quiet street. "It'll be worth all the sacrifice, when you live in places like this," her mother said, slowing down as she peered at the mansions barely visible behind trees and ironwrought fences.
Cynthia's hand rose to her mouth, unnoticed until her mother slapped it down without looking. "No biting! Pretty nails are a sign of a girl with poise and breeding."
Cynthia twisted her hands in her lap as the car rolled slowly up the last hill. The really big mansions were up high. You couldn't see any of them from the street.
Cynthia looked out the car window, thinking of the things she didn't tell her mother. How Ashleigh Sullivan bit her nails right down to the nubs. How Emma Herrera threw up in bathrooms after she ate, just so she'd stay skinny, and her breath always smelled like vomit.
How the girls had secret nicknames for each other, and mean names for everyone else -- how Cynthia was called Synthetica, never to her face, but she knew anyway. Wallace had made certain of that.
Cynthia saw the number, hesitated, but her mother had already recognized the huge gate.
"Here's the von Diefenburg girl's place." And her mother began the ritual: "Remember your manners, child."
"Yes, mom. Please and thank you, no seconds, smile, don't laugh with my mouth open, sit with my legs together, leave the bathroom as clean as I found it."
"And if anyone invites you somewhere after, you call." She handed Cynthia her expensive cell phone to put in the tiny purse she only carried to these parties. "I'll say yes, but I have to know, so I can borrow the car longer."
Cynthia took the present, thinking of Wallace's friends up there already, with their sleeping bags for the sleep-over. She hadn't told her mother -- and wouldn't -- that it was a school rule that the girls in every class had to invite the whole class to birthday parties, but only friends got invited to sleep-overs before or afterward.
"Have a good time. And smile," her mother said, eyes searching the driveway -- hoping someone would appear and wave her in, Cynthia thought as she carefully closed the door to the borrowed car. Her mother's voice came faintly: "Remember! To make a friend, be a friend!"
Cynthia started slowly up the driveway. She didn't even have to buzz. Someone was on duty watching, for the gate swung open to let her in. For just a moment, she had this wild idea of throwing the stupid present into a trashcan and sneaking to the fence and climbing over. She could stay in the garden all afternoon, and watch the pond -- if it was still there.
But she had to call her mother to pick her up, and then she'd have to make up a million lies about the party. Her mother loved to talk about the parties all the long drive back to their apartment, hearing about every detail.
Cynthia walked up the long driveway to the house.
A maid in a uniform waited in the big vestibule. She looked Cynthia over from her hair to her shoes, then said with a pronounced French accent as she pointed, "Ze party's back dair."
"Thank you," Cynthia said, though the woman had already turned away.
Cynthia was used to the maids. If they didn't already know your name, they didn't bother learning it. They knew right away you weren't one of the girl's real friends, just a classmate for the birthday party.
Cynthia walked slowly through three huge rooms, looking at the antique furniture, the grand piano, the giant wall mirrors, the indoor plants. The tile under her feet was different from last time: they had redecorated again. Had they redone the garden as well? Fear made her stomach cramp.
She stepped down into the conservatory, and put her present on the side table with other gifts.
A fat girl in a very expensive party dress stood at the window. When she heard Cynthia's steps she looked up, her expression changing from hope to disappointment. Then, just as quick, she smiled a fake smile.
Courtney Nabor acted glad to see her, but that was only because she was alone. That meant the maid had also said to her, "Ze party's dair," instead of greeting her by name and sending her up to Wallace's room.
Courtney fingered her hair then carefully tossed it back. Cynthia realized it had been cut and styled since she'd seen Courtney last at school, and she wondered if she was supposed to say something about it. Except she'd learned never to say anything about people's appearances -- if you weren't popular, no matter what you said was wrong.
"Cody's still upstairs getting ready," Courtney said with another hair toss, and then giggled.
Cynthia nodded and smiled, though she was sure that Courtney could hear as well as she could the shrieks of laughter echoing down the marble stairs from above. Wishing that Courtney would move away from the window, she wandered over to the table to inspect the decorations for later description to her mother.
Courtney said, still fiddling with her hair, "Everybody stayed up late last night, working on that stupid statistics thing for Social Studies."
Cynthia nodded again, guessing that some of the girls upstairs had already spent one night, and Courtney had found out by calling on some pretext or other.
"Cody says that Maddy will probably be here, if she doesn't have jetlag too bad," Courtney added, giggling again.
Cynthia was surprised. Madeleine Devereux, the richest girl in the school, almost never came to the birthday parties. In fact, half the time she wasn't even at school -- she flew around the world a lot, and had a private tutor to keep her up with their class.
"Cody says -- " Courtney turned quickly toward the door, but the newcomer was only a servant, who put a big chunk of dry ice in the punch.
That's the third 'Cody', Cynthia thought, knowing that Courtney wouldn't dare use the nickname to Wallace's face. Sometimes Wallace permitted wanna-be followers to use her nickname, but often she'd make her eyes big and say, "You talkin' to me?" while all her pals laughed.
Cynthia never used any names, never addressed anyone first. As Courtney wandered over to the table and started picking at the chips and dip, Cynthia wondered if she knew that Wallace's gang called her Whale Nabor behind her back.
Now that Courtney was busy with the food, Cynthia went to the window and looked out. Some of the dread in her stomach eased. There was the garden -- it had not been changed. But a hatted head bobbed close to the pond. Digging. A gardener? As soon as he, or she, left, Cynthia could escape to the garden.
Clattering and thumping and high-pitched giggles preceded the arrival of Wallace and her shadow Ashleigh Sullivan, and their five satellites.
They were all in shades of blue. Courtney started cooing and cawing over how cool Wallace looked, and how cute her hair was. Wallace grinned and flounced to the head of the table. "Books isn't coming?" she asked, looking around, her blue gaze flicking Cynthia and away.
Cynthia said nothing, knowing she'd already been dismissed. But Courtney hurried in, her voice gossipy and eager: "She said she won't come. Neither are her three musketeers. Books said they'd rather be at the libe all day." She giggled.
Wallace and her gang snickered too. Taylor Tomlinson-Ferguson, nicknamed Books, was Wallace's rival in the classroom. Taylor cared passionately about grades, and Wallace ignored them. Cynthia didn't see any difference between the girls for meanness.
Cynthia wondered what Courtney had said about Wallace to Taylor in order to get that gossip. As if Wallace was thinking the same thing, she said, "Well, Maddy will be here any time. Send her upstairs, okay?"
The gang ran out again, the giggles giving way to screams of laughter.
Courtney's face was pale except for two red spots. Cynthia turned away quickly, pretending not to notice -- pretending it was just a request, and not a horrible putdown. But it was a putdown, and Cynthia saw in Courtney's stiff smile that she knew it. They were not welcome upstairs, but Maddy was. Of course the maid would catch Madeleine at the door so they would never even get the chance to tell her anything, but the hint -- I don't want you -- was there.
Courtney still grinned, but her eyes looked sick. It was those eyes that made Cynthia brave enough to speak first. "I'd like to look at the garden until they come back."
Courtney could be as mean as Wallace or Taylor, but she only seemed to do it when the leaders were there to approve. Now she giggled. "Why not?" Another giggle. "It's stuffy in here."
The hazy sunshine carried scents from the flowers, all nodding bright heads in the breeze. Courtney headed straight for the pond. Cynthia followed, her heart thumping against her ribs. Before, she had gone to the pond both times alone, once on a sunny warm day like this, and once when it was drizzling.
"Did you know that her grandmother owns this place?" Courtney said.
Cynthia shook her head, noticing the lack of 'Cody.'
"Her dad's been fired from two places. Not like they need the money, with this house to live in," Courtney went on. "Did you know it's practically the oldest house in Beverly Hills? But Wallace's parents don't own it, though they talk like they do. It belongs to Wallace's grandmother. Her name is Mathilde Oslossen. Mathilde! Oslossen! What dorky names! We don't know where they got their money."
They were very near the little bridge. The broad hat moving among the shrubs indicated the gardener still at work. As the girls reached the bridge, the hat lifted, revealing an old, seamed face. Two bird-bright eyes studied them, and then the gardener smiled.
Cynthia politely smiled back. Courtney turned away. "Ugh." She tossed her hair. "That gross algae! You'd think they could clear this pool out."
Cynthia looked down, holding her breath in case the figures were gone, that she had imagined them after all. Courtney certainly saw nothing. But when she stared down into the cool green water, there were the delicate fronds wavering up toward the surface, and dancing between them the fairies. Still here! And real. Cynthia leaned against the bridge rail, enthralled.
As delicate as figures on etched glass, the graceful little sprites swooped and whirled in the water, eyes slanting and laughter bubbles rising from open mouths. A bird divebombed the water, and the figures darted away, then regathered, swimming in dizzying circles. Tiny houses made of sand and bright pebbles and moss were cleverly hidden among the ferns along the bank. Trails no wider than a finger wound up and down little mounds, disappearing into tiny tunnels under sheltering fronds.
Cynthia drew in a deep breath. How could Wallace's family live here and not want to spend all their time at this pond?
"Watch how many times I can skip." Courtney picked up a pebble. She cocked her wrist back.
"Oh, don't!" Cynthia yelled.
Courtney gaped, almost dropping the stone.
"Don't you see them?" Cynthia asked, pointing at the pond.
Courtney hopped back up on the bridge, and wrinkled her nose. "Some kind of silver fish. So what?"
"The algae," Cynthia said quickly. "It'll stink if you stir it up."
"Ugh." Courtney dropped the stone. "Disgusting." She wandered back down the bridge toward the house.
Cynthia lingered, unwilling to leave the fascinating creatures unless she had to. So she was startled when a husky voice said right next to her, "Do you see them?"
Cynthia whirled around, found the old gardener standing there. "See what?" she asked cautiously.
"Them." A gnarled hand pointed down at the dancing figures. Rainbow patterns shifted across the water as they swam upward, touched the surface, then dove down.
The gardener cackled in delight. "You do see them!"
"I've seen them three times now," Cynthia breathed. "But -- you mean everybody doesn't see them?"
The gardener pointed her trowel. "Your friend didn't, did she?"
"You mean Courtney? No, I guess she didn't."
The old woman laughed, then squinted up at Cynthia, her bright blue eyes and cocked head sparrow-like. "Who are you?" she asked. "One of the girls here for my granddaughter's party?"
Cynthia blinked at the old woman in the rough clothes and ratty hat, trying to equate her with the formidable image of a white-haired lady in diamonds and black lace, with a cruel face like Wallace's, but old. "You must go to that school, then." The grandmother jerked her trowel over her shoulder.
"Never seen you around."
Not sure how to interpret this, Cynthia said defensively, "I've been here for two of Wallace's other birthday parties. That's when I saw them." She pointed at the pond. "I thought Wallace knew about them, but just didn't care."
"She hasn't seen them. At least, she couldn't when she was small. Now neither the kid nor those shrieking brats come out here." The grandmother still eyed Cynthia. Then she grunted softly. "Tell me. What's she like at school?"
The blue eyes were steady. Cynthia formed a polite lie in her mind, but when she opened her mouth, out came the word "Mean."
Mrs. Oslossen pursed her lips. "Thought so." Her tone was matter-of-fact, but Cynthia could tell in the way the old woman's gaze went aside and then down that she felt badly.
Cynthia mumbled, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't -- "
"Never mind," Mrs. Oslossen said.
For a time they stood there on the bridge, watching the fairies in their continual whirl of activity below the surface of the glinting water. Big silver fish swam slowly among them, unnoticed, unnoticing.
"Which girl are you?" the old lady asked presently.
Cynthia hesitated. The way the question was phrased indicated that Mrs. Oslossen already knew the names of the girls in Wallace's class.
Cynthia thought about how Wallace probably talked about her classmates, if she mentioned them at all, and she said, "They call me Synthetica." She was glad her voice sounded as matter-of-fact as Wallace's grandmother had sounded after Cynthia called the granddaughter mean.
Mrs. Oslossen nodded, her eyes steady but kind. "It seems the only sin you've committed is pretending to be wealthy."
Cynthia stayed silent. She thought of Open House, the one night a year her mother came to school, and how she'd go from group to group of the adults with her big smile, talking loudly about the film industry, and trips to New York and London, new cars, and high-fashion label clothes. None of it was outright lies -- Cynthia's father did work in the film industry, but he was just a sound editor, and Cynthia's mother did arrange trips to New York and London, but for other people at the travel agency where she worked, and she certainly knew all about expensive cars and clothes. But everything was exaggerated to make it seem bigger and nicer and richer and more important.
"Ah," the old lady said. "Yours must be the Stella Dallas mother."
Cynthia's lips parted. She was about to say that her mother was Toni Deal, then she realized that adults would have their own nicknames. Her face and neck went hot.
The old lady patted her arm with her brown, knuckly fingers. "A strange world we live in, child." Her voice was warm with sympathy and humor. She held out her gnarled hand and gripped Cynthia's. "I am Tilda Oslossen. Tell me your real name."
"Cynthia Deal. Have -- have the fairies always been here?"
"Near as I know." Mrs. Oslossen waved the trowel in a little circle. "My grandfather built this place, long before it was fashionable. He planned the house around this pond. My sister and I both saw the fairies. My grandmother didn't, nor my parents or either of my brothers. My grandfather did all the gardening, and when he died, it was I who inherited the place. Now I do the gardening. I can't risk having some blind fellow trample one of the houses, or kill a family with his big boot." She bent and plucked a pale pink petal from a rose, and dropped it. The petal drifted down, landed on the water, and tiny fairy children darted up and swam round and round it.
What will happen after she's gone? Cynthia thought. She stole a look sideways. The old lady's lips were pursed as she watched the fairies in the water. She's thinking the same thing, Cynthia realized.
"My sister died young," the old lady said. "Polio."
"I'm sorry," Cynthia whispered.
"So am I -- still. It was her idea to travel over the world and try to find more places like this. We couldn't believe it was the only one in the world. After she died, I lost interest. Maybe this is the only one, and not everyone can see it. Do you think it is?"
Cynthia shook her head. "I don't know," she said, then added in a burst, "I don't want it to be. I want there to be lots and lots of them, and I want to find one that -- " She stopped.
"That's yours," Mrs. Oslossen finished, her smile turning wry. "I work every day to keep their surroundings congenial, but most of them don't see me any more than my family sees them. A couple of them do, I think. Sometimes I kneel on the edge, right over there where the flat rock is, and there are three or four tiny faces just below the surface, round and sweet as flowers, looking up at me. Like little children with their faces pressed against glass." She plucked another rose, and tossed the petals down. "You can't own them, any more than you can own your children. The most you can do is try to keep them safe, but it takes constant vigilance. And when we're gone -- "
A shriek from the house made her turn suddenly. In the big window they saw only Courtney, standing at the refreshment table, eating. More shrieks and laughter echoed down. "Mad-dy! Mad-dy!"
"Feel free to come back down after the ritual is over," the old lady said, and Cynthia realized it was time to go to the party.
Reluctantly she walked back up to the house. Inside, Cynthia found the girls all circling around Madeleine, their chatter and giggles punctuated with shrieks of admiration. Madeleine stood still, looking blank -- she was clearly used to being the center of attention whenever she reappeared in their lives. She was still as skinny and plain as ever, and her hair was still long. Cynthia envied that hair. She wanted long hair, but her mother made her cut hers in styles like the other girls wore.
Wallace oohed and ahhed loudest over Madeleine's clothes and hair, though her smile looked fake and her giggles were the high, sharp kind that hurt your ears after a while. Above her grin her eyes flicked back and forth between the other girls, and Cynthia realized that Wallace was annoyed at not being the center of attention at her own party, but of course on Monday every time Wallace opened her mouth her words would begin "Maddy says -- " Especially if Madeleine wasn't there. Taylor would be furious, because Madeleine hadn't come to her last party even though she'd definitely been in California.
Finally the maid appeared in the doorway, and Wallace shrieked, "We have to go in the dining room now! Come on, let's get it over with!" She gave a loud, fake sigh -- followed by louder giggles than anyone else's.
Madeleine turned with the rest. "I'm hungry. Is this a lunch thing, Wallace?"
Wallace tossed her blond hair. "Just sandwich stuff, but I can get you anything you want. Oh no!" she shrieked, stopping with dramatic suddenness and staring at the potato chip bowl. "Who oinked all the chips?"
The mound of potato chips was slightly dented on one side, but Courtney Nabor cringed as if she really had eaten them all. Ashleigh glared at her, hands on her hips, followed by Niles and Emma. Cynthia saw all eight girls snake looks at Madeleine to see how she reacted.
Madeleine walked right past as if Wallace hadn't spoken, bent over the table and piled chips onto a plate.
"Sit here, Maddy!" Wallace pulled out the chair next to her seat. Ashleigh tried to look unconcerned as she quickly moved her Coke.
But Madeleine had already taken a seat in the middle of the table. She bit into a sandwich and didn't seem to notice as the other girls quickly reorganized themselves so that Wallace and Ashleigh were sitting on either side of Madeleine. Emma and Niles pushed past Cynthia and Courtney so they could sit across from Madeleine, and the rest took chairs at either side of them.
You can change a place, but you can't change your place, Cynthia thought as she sat in Wallace's old seat. Courtney went to the other end, tossing her hair and giggling obediently at everything Wallace said.
The maid came back in with more food, and spoke in a low voice to Madeleine, who looked up and smiled. Cynthia realized it was the first smile she'd seen from Madeleine -- that Madeleine had spoken to the others with exactly the same sort of blank expression that Cynthia knew she wore herself.
Now Madeleine spoke in rapid French with the maid, who smiled back. The other girls watched in sudden silence; though they all took French at school, nobody could speak it like that.
The maid went away, and Wallace and Ashleigh started chattering about Paris, and Europe, and the talk slowly made its way to school gossip as the girls vied for Madeleine's attention, while Madeleine sat there and chomped steadily through her plate of food.
The maid brought her a crock of soup, and once again there was silence but Madeleine just said "Merci," and so the party went on.
After the cake, when they got up to go into the conservatory for the presents, Madeleine said, "Oh, Wallace, I didn't bring anything -- we just got home yesterday. I'll have something on Monday."
"Oooh, I can hardly wait," Wallace gushed. "When we were upstairs, Tori was just saying, 'Oh Cody, you're so lucky, Maddy always brings the coolest things.'' Cynthia realized she wanted Madeleine to call her 'Cody'. "I know I'll love it!"
Cynthia's insides cramped with hot anger. She glared at Madeleine there eating her soup, imagining how Madeleine would tell some servant on the way home that she needed a present for Monday, and the servant would take care of it -- maybe even deliver it. She thought about the weeks her mother had spent in trying to find what was just right, and then the hassle of finding something she could afford, and getting it wrapped right, and all along Cynthia knew that whatever it was, Wallace would hate it. And whatever the Devereux servants got would be hugged and cooed over and shown to Books like a trophy.
Cynthia felt a surge of hatred for Madeleine. She's plain and skinny and brown, just like me, Cynthia thought. She even wears glasses during Math and Reading. Just because she's rich, everybody thinks she's perfect.
Cynthia moved, trying to get away from her anger. She picked a seat by the window, as far from the other girls as she could. She couldn't quite see the pond, but it was comforting to know it was there, and strange to think about the fairies being a secret even from Wallace, who lived right with them.
"Excuse me," Madeleine said from the middle of the group. "Bathroom call."
Wallace and the rest giggled -- of course -- and as soon as Madeleine was out of the room, Wallace said, "I'll just get started. We'll save the cool ones for when Maddy gets back."
Cynthia's present was the first one she picked up. Usually it was one of the last. Cynthia stayed where she was, and listened to the rustle of paper, and the voices of the girls. Crows, that's what they sounded like. The giggles were more like machine guns, little machine guns that shot invisible needles instead of bullets. Wallace croaked in her phoniest voice, "Oh, thank you so very much, Cynthia. How very nice."
Cynthia stayed by the window. She didn't even know what the present was, and didn't want to. Not seeing it somehow made it less real, less a part of her, and Wallace's invisible needles dissolved in the air before they reached her. The other girls looked at her, then looked away again, as Wallace picked up Courtney Nabor's gift.
I'm free, Cynthia realized. They'll never notice me again.
She slid off her seat and walked to the door as the machine guns tittered away at the grinning Courtney. Outside, the air smelled sweet and fresh, and Cynthia ran happily down toward the bridge -- and then stopped when she saw a scrawny figure crouching on the flat rock next to the pond.
Madeleine looked up at Cynthia. She pointed at the pond and said, "Come here, and tell me what you see."
Cynthia didn't move for a long breath. Two breaths. Why? she thought, angrier than she'd ever been in all the years she'd had to sit alone at that school and pretend not to notice the insults she didn't deserve, while the lucky ones like Madeleine got all the admiration they didn't deserve. Why did Madeleine have to see the fairies too? Why couldn't Cynthia have one thing, just one, that the rich girl couldn't?
Maybe I can take it away from her, Cynthia thought, and stalked forward. Her teeth felt cold -- she realized she was grinning, a big fake grin just like Ashleigh and Wallace and all the others. "See what?" she said, and her head jiggled as giggles machine-gunned out. As if she had practiced all her life. "Oh! You mean the holograms. It's a garden fashion. Didn't you know? So easy, when you know people in the industry. You didn't think those were real?" Her voice sounded just like Wallace's, and the lie came out as if she'd practiced it, except her stomach hurt.
Madeleine's mouth went round.
Cynthia giggled louder, gasping giggles that made her shake all over. "It's fake! Totally fake! Fake, fake, fake!"
Madeleine's eyes narrowed like she'd been slapped -- like she really felt those invisible needles. Hunching over, she stared down at the pond, her skinny body so still she had to be holding her breath.
Were the fairies gone? Cynthia wondered then if her lie might make them disappear forever -- either that or she wouldn't see them, as a kind of punishment. She ran to the bridge and scanned the water, breathing fast.
The fairies were still there, swimming in their mesmerizing circles. Cynthia's stomach unclenched slowly as she watched tiny fairy children playing some kind of game under the rose petals still floating over gently rippling surface. Then she looked up, and saw Madeleine watching her. Cynthia stared back. The giggles had dried up, and so had the lies.
She couldn't think of anything to say, except, "They're waiting for you at the party."
One of Madeleine's bony shoulders rose sharply in a shrug. "No projectors."
"What?" Cynthia's brain felt like a rock.
Madeleine's brown eyes were blank as marbles. "No projectors. You can't have holograms -- or movies, or anything else -- without a projector. There isn't one here."
Cynthia felt heat rush up into her face, and her armpits prickled.
"You really see them too," Madeleine said slowly. "Nobody else does -- I made sure of that last time Wallace had me over. Why did you lie about them being real?"
Cynthia looked down at Madeleine's face. Those waiting brown eyes, her skinny chin, the freckles on her nose, her plain brown hair in the single long ponytail down her back. Madeleine never giggled, never lied. She didn't have to.
"Because you're rich," Cynthia said. "You already have everything in the world. I -- I didn't want you to have this too." Her face felt hotter than ever, but her stomach didn't feel as nasty as it had when she told the lies. "Anyway, Wallace's grandmother sees them too." Cynthia looked around quickly, hoping Mrs. Oslossen hadn't heard her lying. The bobbing sunhat was down at the other end of the garden. "Her grandfather saw them. Built the house for them."
Madeleine let her breath out in a long sigh. "One of my governesses saw ghosts," she said. "I never did. I told my father -- a big mistake -- and he sent her away. I wanted so much to bring her here."
Cynthia wasn't sure how to answer. She just stared at Madeleine, who stared back, her face still blank, her thin arms still wrapped around her bony knees. Cynthia realized the time was past for Madeleine to run shrieking back to the party, to tell the girls about Cynthia's lie and get them all to laugh -- and she realized that Madeleine was talking to her like a normal person, just like she had talked to the maid, and to Wallace and the others.
"I'm sorry I lied," Cynthia said.
Pink spots glowed in Madeleine's flat cheeks. "They're creeps." She pointed up at the house. When Cynthia nodded, she said, "They're just as creepy to each other." She got up and brushed her skirt off. "I wish I knew whether they don't see the fairies because they can't, or because they won't."
Cynthia said, "Wallace's grandmother and her sister wanted to travel around the world and see if there were any more places like this."
"There have to be," Madeleine said.
Which meant that Madeleine, the world traveler, hadn't found any. But maybe she wasn't allowed to look, Cynthia thought.
"No." Madeleine stepped up onto the bridge beside Cynthia. "There are. We just have to find them."
Cynthia heard herself saying to the grandmother, I want there to be lots and lots of them. She wondered if Madeleine, too, had read every book she could find about fairies, and had made up stories about them in her mind. She wondered if she believed in magic, if she looked for it even when she didn't believe in it -- like pretending Christmas lights are colored snowflakes when you take off your glasses.
They stood there side by side and looked down at the graceful sprites in their unending water dance. It was getting hard to see them, for the westering sun was making a mirror of the water's surface.
Cynthia stared down at the cool dark silhouette of the bridge, and on it two identical girl outlines. Cynthia thought about her mother sitting by the phone, still in her nice dress, the borrowed car still outside, waiting in hopes Cynthia would be invited to someone's grand house for something besides one of the birthday parties.
"Want to come over to my place?" she said.
Slightly edited version of story published in Realms of Fantasy, spring of 1998
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