Snow crunches under lavender snow boots. There are little anthropomorphized ponies dancing around the poofy ankles and rainbows trying to peek out beneath a fair coating of snow. Wearing the snow boots is a petite 12-year-old girl decked out in an eggplant wool jacket lined with fur over a very expensive, marigold satin dress that swishes about her skinny calves just inches above the formerly pristine snow. Thus far, she has ignored the pointed glares and passive-aggressive remarks from her step-mother, a pinched-faced, old-money type with bottle-bronze skin and bottle-blonde hair, who is clinging to her father’s arm as though the decorative walk to the looming mansion is made out of ice and wreathed in carnivorous vines. Her father regally leads the procession, his three sons seeming to be mere extensions of his long shadow.
When they are in sight of the grand double doors, the father turns his almond-shaped eyes on the snow dancing figure just as she reaches down to scoop up some of the fine powder. “Masayoshi!” His voice whips across the frosty grounds. The girl freezes. Then she straightens up and with considerable dignity, considering the depth of the snow she traverses, she returns to the walkway and stands obediently behind her father and in front of her brothers, hazel eyes down-turned and humble. One of her brothers snickers, which she ignores except to identify the perpetrator for later.
At the front door, a slim, white woman in a black dress takes their coats. In the foyer, Masayoshi takes off her snow boots and slips into the painful heels which were kept safe from the elements inside her voluminous purse. She declines to check her purse, pointedly ignoring her stepmother’s pursed lips, because it holds her laptop and she expects she’ll have time to do some homework while the adults drink. She gracefully wraps her lilac shawl around her bony shoulders, over where her breasts would hopefully be any day now, and begins to follow her parents through the large archway leading to the ballroom.
“Excuse me, miss?” The coat lady gently touches the girl’s arm to get her attention. “The children are assembling in the second ballroom for the birthday party.” Masayoshi’s heart-shaped face darkens momentarily, but the idea of standing by a wall while her parents get trashed with Darclan’s social elite is unappetizing, so she follows the clusters of smaller party-goers up one of the grand staircases to the second story. Some of the younger children gape at the massive chandelier that dangles over the heads of their parents, but most of them have learned to feign disinterest from an early age. Masayoshi has been to this mansion many times, though it has been years since her last visit, so the grandeur of the decor is not as interesting to her as the wafts of hot food floating down from above.
The second ballroom is far more intimate than the grand ballroom, being only large enough to hold a pee wee hockey rink. Lining the rich, mahogany walls are long tables heavily laden with cheese and fruit trays, bite-size savory appetizers, carved roasts, and soups. Masayoshi weaves through the milling crowd to attack the soup table, which opens the dam for everyone else to start grazing. Scattered geometrically across the main floor are large, round tables dressed with spotless, white table clothes, delicate ivory china, shining silverware, long stem crystal glasses, and delicate centerpieces made of colored-glass flowers. Masayoshi ignores these seating arrangements and heads instead to the top of the room where a brown leather sofa is flanked by matching armchairs. This intimate seating area faces the main room, but also provides a view out the 20′ window that makes up the rear wall of the room and showcases the gardens visible just beyond the balcony. The girl carefully sets her tureen-sized bowl of soup on the walnut coffee table, slips out of her high heels, which had by this time murdered all feeling in her pinky toes, and sinks into the luxurious cushions of the sofa. Then she leans over her soup and lets the savory, pork-scented steam melt away the chill still clinging to her appled cheeks.
A spoon full of hot broth is making its precarious way to her taste buds when a small voice nearly causes a dry cleaning nightmare. “Why are you sitting over here?” the voice says, apparently unaware of the near couture cataclysm it had caused. The spoon is gingerly returned to the bowl and then Masayoshi turns the look her father used outside on the intruder. Said intruder turns out to be a white-haired, pale girl with large blue-green eyes and a square chin. It is obvious by the amount of frills on her taffeta dress and ribbons in her hair that her parents are aware that she is not cute and needs all the help she can get.
Pity kills the disdain that normally resides on Masayoshi’s tongue. “I always used to sit here when I was younger.” The girl blinks owlishly, then turns her head to observe the other guests. Their jabbering is growing louder as the get more comfortable in the space. The string quartet will be drowned out before they finish their minuet. “Besides,” she continues, “this is better than sitting with my brothers.”
The girl continues to study the crowd, eyes scanning methodically as though searching for Waldo after the initial 20 minutes of random eye-work has wielded no results. “I don’t know anyone here,” the girl says softly, just as Masayoshi considers a second attempt at her soup. There is something hard in the girl’s tone. She isn’t sad about this. She seems edgy and keeps clenching her fists as though she feels threatened. Masayoshi suddenly notices how muscular the girl’s shoulders are, how rigidly she stands in her froufrou dress and her pastel pink ballet shoes. Despite all appearances, the girl is exuding an air of barely contained violence, a sadly familiar sensation Masayoshi knows from before her parents divorced.
Against her instincts, Masayoshi relaxes her body language and smiles as she says, “You know me. I’m Masayoshi Pratchett. What’s your name?”
The girl turns back to her and forcibly flattens her palms against her dress, recalling a carefully taught etiquette lesson from the depths of her young mind. “I am Susan Rebecca O’Connell.” The girl starts to extend a hand, changes her mind, and awkwardly curtsies, tearing off a ubiquitous frill in the process. Clutching the piece of fabric in her hand, her face burning crimson, she looks ready to bolt when Masayoshi says, “Well have a seat, birthday girl! I’ve been dying to meet you but Uncle Bryan said you were ‘getting used to the family,’ whatever that means.”
“Uncle Bryan?” She’s hovering, still prepared to flee.
“Yeah. We’re cousins. My dad is your mom’s big brother. Er, foster-mom, I mean. Not your real mom, obviously. Sorry, I didn’t mean.” Embarrassed, she considers spilling her soup as an escape strategy.
“Sharon is my real mom now, M-masa…er.”
“Masayoshi. It means ‘justice’ in Japanese. Dad’s a lawyer, so he named us all law-names. That’s why mom divorced him. He was running out of ideas. My youngest brother’s name means ‘gavel.'” She laughs at her own joke. Susan smiles politely, clearly unsure as to what might be humorous. “Er, anyway, my friends call me Hana. It’s my middle name.”
“Am I your friend?” It occurs to her that her little cousin is almost as tall as she is.
“Yes, but only if you sit down. You’re making me uncomfortably aware of how freakishly short I am.” Susan sinks immediately into the open armchair facing away from the balcony so she can continue to scan the room. “You should relax, kiddo. It’s not everyday you turn six.”
“I don’t like crowds.”
“Well, to use the vernacular, duh,” she says and finally digs into her soup. The warmth of the broth traces a path down her throat and outward from her chest, relieving the frosty tendrils snaking up her nylon-ed legs. The first wanton bursts on her tongue in a delicate blend of tender pork, rich mushroom, and just a touch of spice. She can’t believe she almost let embarrassment kill this greatest of delicacies.
While she gorges herself, Susan fills the space. “It’s just loud. Everything gets confused so I don’t know where things are coming from. And everyone smells so, so strong. And I have to sit here and waste time when I could be, um, could be doing other stuff.” By this time, Hana has abandoned decorum and her spoon so she can finish the remaining broth drinking straight from the bowl.
“What other stuff?” Hana asks, using a convenient roll to wipe up any umami dregs.
“Oh, um,” she scrambles, eyes flitting around in search of inspiration. “R-reading.”
Hana gracefully wipes her thin lips with a napkin, slips her shoes back on, and stands, swinging her purse up onto her shoulder and irreparably wrinkling her shawl. With her spare hand, she pulls Susan to her feet and leads her outside through the balcony doors, forcing herself to notice that even in 4″ heels, she’s only a head taller than her cousin.
The frigid air immediately begins nibbling at her resolve for privacy and her ankles, but she pretends to ignore it. “Susan, you don’t have to keep secrets from me. I know we just met, but we’re family.” This is greeted with a weighted silence. It’s the type of silence that is trying to decide what part of its training it should follow. There’s ignorance, of course. But there’s also an icy balcony, a thin railing, and a long fall. “Okay, you can have your secrets if you want. I’ll tell you some of mine. The worst day of my life was my tenth birthday. Dad finally let me get my blood tested. The results came back “marginally talented.” I don’t know if they taught you what that means, but to me it meant I could never wear a cape. It really hurt.” It still hurts. “When people say I look just like Aunt Sharon or Aunt Sylvia, I just want to yell. Yeah, I’m their freaking clone, only I can’t punch through concrete or light things on fire with my mind.” She stamps her feet to warm them and exorcise out some angry energy.
“When they adopted you, I knew exactly what you were. You are the heir they need. They had to adopt you because I can’t wear a cape. So, I guess, you’re welcome.”
“That’s not true,” she says after a moment. “Mother and father chose to adopt me because they can’t bear their own children. It was just luck that I had talents.”
She’s lying about that. Hana can sense the lie insinuated into her words. But by now, no amount of stamping is going to revitalize her poor toe. “Great buggering ball sack, it’s cold out here!” The words explode past her chattering teeth before she remembers that her audience is six. She doesn’t seem six, until she starts giggling.
“What does ‘buggering’ mean?”
“Nevermind. Let’s just get Hana inside before the frostbite sets in.”
For most of the evening, Hana and Susan remain on their sofa, talking about the types of things that are painfully humorous until the story is told to someone else, when it is reduced to, “I guess you had to be there.” At one point, a magician dressed like a clown shows up and demonstrates how unamused spoiled, rich children can be by magicians dressed like clowns, even when spangled assistants are sawed in half and giant pythons writhe forth from apparently satin hats. When the 6-tier birthday cake is rolled out, Susan is actually smiling when she blows out the candles, like a little girl on her birthday.