MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“The house on Grosvenor Street is sold again,” said Mel, and gooped yogurt onto her Cheerios, disgustingly.
There was only one house on Grosvenor Street. Freddy vaguely remembered their stepfather, Jordan, calling it a “bizarre accident of city planning” back when Jordan and Mum had still been eating meals with them. Grosvenor was a fairly short street that went through the middle of Roncesvalles Park; then the park ended on one side of it as it made a T intersection with Elm Drive. Freddy’s house was on Elm, though the side yard let out onto Grosvenor. Behind it, fronting on Grosvenor, was the one house. It had a couple of vacant lots on its other side, and then Grosvenor—and the park—ended in another T intersection. Freddy had always been fascinated by that house. In and of itself, it was … kind of odd … but the most noticeable thing about it was that no one ever lived in it for more than a year at a time. It would have been nice if there had been rumours of ghosts or evil disappearing basement rooms, but the reasons the owners had for moving were always more boring than that: the lawn was too big, or the roof leaked, or there was that one useless room that made the house truly unusual but took up way too much space, or it felt too creepy to be living in the only house on a street across from a park. The last owners, the Johannsens, had moved out eight months before and had been trying to offload the house on somebody else ever since. Every once in a while, Freddy would notice a real estate agent showing people around the place, but it hadn’t happened for some time now.
“Oh yeah? Who?” Freddy was mashing her spoon into her own bowl of cereal in an angry sort of way. The anger was just something she seemed to be feeling all the time these days. It simmered gently beneath everything she did.
“Dunno,” said Mel. “I forgot my magnifying glass, so I couldn’t read the fine print on the ‘Sold’ sign.”
Mel had discovered sarcasm at the age of six, though she’d never used it very well. She always sounded cheerful when she was saying something biting.
Freddy said, “There’d better not be little kids.”
“The Wongs weren’t that bad,” said Mel. “I liked Horace.”
Horace had been the oldest of five boys and the only one, as far as Freddy was concerned, with any self-restraint. “I’ve still got the scars from where the twins bit me,” she pointed out. Mel shrugged.
Someone went thud on the stairs. “Here come the elephants,” said Freddy, “again.” The anger surged, predictably.
When Roland entered a room, the room seemed to get smaller. It wasn’t that he was fat, exactly; Mel was wider than he was, for all she was a foot and a half shorter. He just seemed built on a different scale from other fourteen-year-old boys. Admittedly, fourteen was a funny age for boys. Freddy’s classmates ranged from kids barely taller than she was with unbroken voices to hulking giants who had already started shaving. Roland had taken the “hulking giant” option to extremes. He was more than six feet tall. As he shambled through the doorway, Freddy could see him going through his usual failed attempt to make himself smaller by slouching and drawing his arms close in to his sides. As usual, she found herself fighting the urge to push back the table and make space for him.
“Milk,” said Roland, who did not do mornings. His black hair was sticking almost straight up, and his eyes were closed to puffy slits.
Mel flapped a hand at the milk. It was useless for anybody to say anything. When Roland was in this state, he would have been able to manage advanced gymnastics more easily than lip-reading.
Freddy and Mel sat at the table and watched as Roland made a lunge for where he may have thought the milk was. His hand caught the edge of the Corn Flakes box and sent it spinning into the air. Freddy winced as it landed upside down on the linoleum. She didn’t think Roland noticed. He groped blindly over the table, his bare feet crunching in cereal.
“I hope he puts orange juice on his Cheerios,” said Mel, a hint of wistfulness in her voice. Roland had made this mistake once months ago, and ever since, Mel had been longing for a repeat.
Roland’s questing hand found the milk carton. He dragged it towards him, popped it open, and raised it to his mouth.
“Oh, hey,” said Mel, and Freddy added, “No!” She knew it was no good, but she could never seem to stop herself from speaking aloud to him, even when he wasn’t looking at her. She heard Mel’s chair scrape, and she turned to see Mel on her feet, signing as hugely as she could, Stop it. Mel had started learning to sign about two days after their mum had begun dating Jordan. As far as Freddy was concerned, it was pointless. Roland could read lips. Mel didn’t need to humour him with the stupid signing all the time.
Freddy turned quickly away from the signing. I didn’t understand that, she told herself, as she always did.
Roland lowered the carton and peered over it at Freddy and Mel. His eyes were open most of the way now, though they were still puffy. He glanced from accusing glare to accusing glare. “What?”
“Now we can’t drink our own milk,” said Freddy. “Thanks so much.”
“I was going to put it on my second helping,” said Mel, signing simultaneously.
“I didn’t gob in it. Jesus,” said Roland. The twist in his voice turned the words topsy-turvy.
“It has boy spit in it,” Mel informed him, “whether you gobbed in it or not. There are probably harmful microbes.”
“There’s this cupboard over the sink, right,” said Freddy, “and there are all these glasses in it and stuff.”
“You need to find something else to hate me for,” said Roland. He put down the milk, picked up the box of Cheerios, and slouched from the room, trailing smashed Corn Flakes.
“I keep telling you,” said Freddy.
Mel sat down heavily. Mel did most things heavily. “It’s just that it’s morning. He’s usually all right.”
Freddy shook her head. “He isn’t to me. You’re too nice to him. I wish you’d stop.”
Jordan and Roland had been living with them for almost a year, though Mum and Jordan had got married only four months ago. Freddy knew everyone expected her to have got over her resentment by now. She didn’t want to get over her resentment. Jordan was bad enough, but Jordan, like Mum, was out most of the time and easy to ignore. Roland was forever thundering all over the house, leaving a trail of destruction behind him. She did know he didn’t deliberately mess things up. It was more as if rooms just fell into disorder whenever he appeared. It didn’t make much sense, since to all intents and purposes, Roland was naturally neat. He would wander into the living room, fold all the newspapers, put several books back on their shelves, and wander out again, leaving the place in chaos. Freddy had never been able to figure out how he did it.
The point was that he was big. Everything he did was big. If he’d been small and humble and easy to ignore, she could have lived with his presence, but wherever he went, Roland was the centre of attention. Okay, he didn’t set out to be, but it was all just so intrusive. Their house had once been quiet, full of private corners. Now, everywhere, there was always Roland.
“He’s nice to me.” Mel was gazing sadly at the plundered carton of milk. “I like playing RPGs with him and Todd and Marcus. Our latest campaign is this hybrid fantasy-mystery thing set in an alternate dimension, and I just got piles of XP for deducing the purpose of the crystal water sphere.”
“They only let you play because they want a fourth player and don’t have any other friends,” said Freddy.
Mel regarded Freddy for a moment. “You’re not nice to me. My own sister isn’t nice to me. It’s sad.”
“RPGs. You’ve reminded me,” said Roland from the doorway, and both girls jumped. Another thing about Roland was that though it was often possible to tell where he was from all the thumping, he was also capable of standing so quietly in place that no one would know he was there until he spoke. Freddy caught his eye; he looked away immediately, his lips tightening. It was lucky she’d been facing away from the door. He must have doubled back almost immediately and heard—well, seen—most of Mel’s side of that conversation. He had pretty clearly got the gist.
Roland continued, “We’re playing later today, and I need a setting. You’re good at that kind of thing, Mel. Where should we go?”
“I thought you had everything worked out,” said Mel, sounding mildly scandalised.
Roland smiled. Freddy had to glance away. When he smiled, the sullenness vanished, and he looked like someone who might be nice to get to know. She couldn’t hate him properly when he smiled like that. “I know where the campaign is going, but I’ve procrastinated on the details,” Roland admitted. “Please? I just need a place for you guys to explore for a bit. I know what’s going to happen to you there—”
“Tentacles,” said Mel to Freddy out of the side of her mouth. “It’s always tentacles.”
“—but I’m not sure what it looks like.”
“Well, I dunno. I’m not the GM,” said Mel.
“I’m no good at imagining stuff in the morning,” said Roland.
Mel hitched her shoulders up towards her ears. “Who is? I guess it’s random book time again.”
“Random book time never works,” said Roland.
“There’s a first time for everything,” said Mel.
She leaned over and plucked a volume off the chair in the corner that always held a tottering pile of books. People left books there on the way through the kitchen or forgot them there after reading them at the table. Every once in a while, the pile would grow so tall that it would become unstable and fall over. Mel would put most of the books away, and the cycle would begin again. Some books were on the chair permanently; Bullfinch’s Mythology was the biggest of those. Freddy had read that one a lot in an absentminded sort of way. She wouldn’t have described herself as being interested in myths and legends, but she liked reading about them anyway.
Bullfinch’s Mythology would have worked well for Mel’s purposes, but it was halfway down. The book on top of the pile at the moment was a slender paperback entitled Selected Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Freddy suspected that Mum, an English professor, had been the one to leave that particular book on the chair. No one else in the family went in for poetry much.
Mel eyed the book with apparent suspicion. “Oh well. It may work.” She dramatically opened the volume to a place about halfway through. “Behold,” she proclaimed, “your setting:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Mel blinked down at the book. “Hey.”
“Give that here,” said Roland. “Is there more? It’s perfect. How’d you do that?”
“Raw talent?” Mel handed him the book. “There’s lots more. You’re going to use it to kill us all, aren’t you?”
Freddy had had enough. It was excruciating to see Mel and Roland getting along, and worse that they were bonding over role-playing games. Freddy thought there might somewhere on Earth be something more stupid than role-playing games, but she honestly didn’t know what it was. She could tell the conversation was shortly going to be all about hit points and XP and other boring, incomprehensible things. She shoved back her chair. As Roland started waxing poetic about caves of ice and damsels with dulcimers and how spot checks would work in a pleasure-dome, Freddy exited quietly through the kitchen door.
It was a cool Labour Day but not—unusually for Vancouver—a rainy one. Freddy crossed the patio to the smoke bush, which she had always thought was the prettiest plant in the yard. The leaves were naturally deep purple instead of green; in a few weeks, they would turn red. It towered over the patio. If Freddy moved around to its other side, she would no longer be visible from the house. For now, she just stood beneath it, breathing in its clean scent. The best thing about the smoke bush was that it wasn’t a treacherous genius little sister or a shambling mess of a stepbrother. It just sat there. It didn’t drink milk straight from the carton, and it didn’t talk back.
Mel was good at dealing with change. She’d accepted Roland as a matter of course almost as soon as she’d met him. Mel accepted most things as a matter of course. Freddy never could. It had been hard enough trying to fly under the radar at school when it had just been Mel cheerfully spreading her weirdness around. Now Freddy had Roland to deal with as well. She’d been relieved—and guilty about the relief—last year when she’d started grade eight and left Mel behind at the elementary school, but Jordan and Roland had moved in in late September, meaning that Freddy had once again found herself living in the same house as someone who went to her school and was no good at flying under the radar at all. Sure, Roland took most of his classes at the School for the Deaf, which was, unfortunately, housed in buildings connected to Roncesvalles High, yet he was always in at least one hearing course per semester, and last year, he’d turned up in Freddy’s math class. It was hard to avoid being noticed when you had an almost-stepbrother blundering all over your geometry lessons.
Freddy glowered at the smoke bush. And it gets to start all over again tomorrow. She had worked so hard at seeming normal. She knew she was normal compared to Mel, who could have been in university by now if she’d wanted, and Roland, who was proud of the fact that he had been voted the School for the Deaf ’s student most likely to drive accidentally off a cliff within the next ten years. Everyone knew she was nothing like either of them, but it didn’t seem to matter. Bits of them clung to her like secondhand smoke.
And there’s Mum, she thought. She immediately shoved the thought away. Mum wasn’t the problem. She was never around, anyway.
Someone yelped nearby, jarring Freddy out of her reverie. She raised her head. A voice said something indistinct; another voice went, “Sssh!” Someone was in the yard behind her backyard, the side yard belonging to the house on Grosvenor Street.
The yards were separated by a chain-link fence and two rows of cedar bushes, one on either side of the fence. The bushes on Freddy’s side were neatly trimmed and rose only to Freddy’s shoulders, a fact of which she was a little bit proud, as a year before she’d barely been able to see over them. The bushes on the other side had grown out of control. They towered above the fence, their upper branches spilling over into Freddy’s yard. Jordan had tried to get the Johannsens to cut them back, but the Johannsens seemed to be trying to pretend the house didn’t exist. Now Freddy ducked around the smoke bush and approached the cedar hedge. If the house had been sold, it was possible the new owners were in the yard right now. She wouldn’t be able to see them over the bushes, but she could at least hear what they sounded like.
The people in the other yard were whispering frantically. Freddy paused beside the bushes to listen. She couldn’t make out much, though she thought there were two voices. “… being obtuse,” she heard, and then, “… can’t chance it. Even this was a hundred to one against. If we…” The whispers sank into incomprehensibility. Cautiously, Freddy pressed herself against the cedar branches. “… listening! Right now!” hissed one of the whisperers. Freddy jerked back a little. Did the speaker mean her? She—or he—couldn’t have. Freddy had moved silently over the grass; these people couldn’t have known she was here. “Well, we should go over…” said the second whisperer. Something rustled, and there was silence.
It had all been just strange enough that Freddy went out through the side gate onto Grosvenor Street to take a look. But the street was empty of cars, and the house looked as unlived-in as usual, and when Freddy dodged around the big pine and peered right into the yard, she could see there was nobody there.
* * *
By noon, shortly after Freddy discovered that the book her friend Rochelle had recommended to her a few months ago was about tragic nuzzling immortal teenagers and deserved to be shredded, Mel and Roland had gone a bit overboard with the whole RPG thing. Their campaign wasn’t starting until three, but it didn’t seem to matter. Freddy was drearily certain they were going to spend the next three hours talking about nothing else. Then Todd and Marcus would show up, and the game-speak would continue until midnight. Mum and Jordan wouldn’t care. They were out already. Typically, they hadn’t said where they were going, but had just slid out of the house while everybody else was focussed on breakfast. Freddy had the vague sense it had been days since she had seen them properly. She sometimes wondered whether they got around by tunnelling through the walls.
The problem was that Roland and Mel were having their conversation in the living room, which had been deserted and deathly quiet when Freddy had sat down to read in it ten minutes before. Freddy scowled at her book and tried to ignore the half-spoken, half-signed, entirely earnest discussion about thrice-woven circles and the particular skills of Mel’s cleric character. Mel had the Coleridge book with her and apparently felt it was a good idea to read the entire pleasure-dome poem aloud in dramatic tones, complete with signed translation. The game itself was going to be worse. It would inevitably involve screaming and a fistfight. I wanted to read, thought Freddy. And she had been here first. Deliberately, she brought the book up in front of her face, blocking out the other two and trying to force herself to concentrate on a book that she kind of wanted to throw against the wall or possibly burn.
“I think you should maybe use monsters that aren’t eldritch tentacled horrors from beyond the depths of space and time,” Mel was explaining. Freddy gritted her teeth and read a description of somebody’s sweater for what felt like the thirty-fifth time. She couldn’t seem to take it in.
“I like tentacled horrors. I’m comfortable with them,” said Roland.
Freddy sighed loudly. She knew Mel would notice and Roland wouldn’t. If he had, he would have ignored her. It was their whole relationship: she was helplessly angry with him without knowing exactly why, and he pretended she wasn’t there. Maybe I should just lose it and yell at him for an hour, she thought. She knew she never would. She didn’t confront people. Confronting people was just another way of drawing attention to yourself, which wasn’t the best thing to do when you weren’t even sure you were right about anything. At school, she had turned not confronting people into an art form. It wasn’t always fun to be invisible at school, but it was safer that way.
She peered over the top of her book at Roland and Mel, happily engaged in a discussion involving the logistics of pleasure-dome ice caves. Neither of them was invisible at school. Both of them had friends. Roland had Todd and Marcus, and Mel had Jonathan and Clara, and sometimes they even all hung out together, and there was always a lot of laughter, plus some squabbling and the occasional full-out screaming match. It was all just … messy. Freddy was glad she wasn’t part of it.
I have friends, too, she thought. She hadn’t seen Rochelle and Cathy in weeks. She would talk to them tomorrow, anyway, and they would start doing stuff together again, and she could stop feeling as if she was—
No, thought Freddy, I am not the odd one out. She plunged back into the book, which she was genuinely beginning to despise.
“Stop squirming,” said Mel. “If we’re stopping you from enjoying your pink sparkly book, go read it somewhere else.”
Freddy said, “I was here first.” She cringed at the whine that had crept into her tone.
“It’s our house, too,” said Roland, “in case you hadn’t noticed.”
She opened her mouth, then shut it again. The anger surged, choking off her voice. She saw Roland’s mouth quirk in what could easily have been contempt. He thought she was a coward. Maybe he would have liked her more if she had yelled at him. Maybe not. She couldn’t imagine a world in which she and Roland were friends.
Her right hand hurt. It was in her pocket, and it seemed to be clenched tightly around … that key. She had no idea why. Impatiently, she straightened her fingers. “Whatever you say.”
“Don’t you go and cry,” said Roland.
Her hand clenched again. “I don’t cry.”
Roland laughed derisively. Mel pulled herself to her feet. Outside, there was a crash so violent that even Roland jumped as the impact vibrated through the floor of the living room.
Freddy said, “What the—?” and ran to the window.
“No,” said Mel, “not that way. It was on Grosvenor.”
She took off into the kitchen. Roland and Freddy shared one glance, then followed, out the door and across the yard to the gate in the hedge that led to Grosvenor Street.
Copyright © 2017 by Kari Maaren