When the Snow Queen drove up in a white limo, Dad called her “your mother” and let her into the house.
“My darlings, oh, my darlings,” she said to Kay and me in that fake sentimental voice of hers. She stretched out her pale hands, and I ducked around the kitchen island, putting the stove between myself and that treacherous touch. Her face was hidden behind a pair of designer sunglasses and some kind of dead animal she was using as a scarf. I wondered if she had the Sun King's permission to be in his territory, or if she'd sneaked in. Even if he knew she was here, I wasn't sure the King would try to protect us; we were only allowed to live in Florida as long as we stayed out of politics and acted more or less like norms.
“Gerda!” Dad scolded, but the Snow Queen just laughed and pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head. She took in the triangle of mold in the corner where the roof leaked, the linoleum that stopped a few inches short of the fridge, our own particular brand of squalor.
“Kay will kiss his long-lost mummy,” she said, as Dad pushed my brother forward. Kay had never really met the Snow Queen; he'd been a baby when she tossed us out nine years ago. I'd been six, old enough to remember snowstorms and state dinners and lot more besides. Though I'd warned him from the time he could talk, my idiot brother stepped towards the Snow Queen and raised his face.
“Kay!” I shouted, but with the flick of a finger the Snow Queen sent a black-thread silencer to swallow it. I might see her intentions clear as day, but I was powerless to stop her. Literally, powerless, like my completely non-magical Dad. She gave Kay the full mouth-on-mouth kiss (“It's a European custom,” Dad used to tell me, blinded by the Snow Queen's spells), and I watched furiously, helplessly, to see what change she'd make.
And, oh, she was good; not a drop of power wasted. She simply strengthened that dirty little spell Kay had picked up at school last week, the one they all pass around on unwashed auras, the one that whispers things like “no one will like you without $100 sneakers” and “no one understands you at home.” I should have taken him to the witch doctor right away; it was probably why he'd accepted the kiss in the first place. Now the ragged strands of it wove themselves together, wrapping Kay in dirty gauze.
“I've come with the most delicious invitation for you,” the Snow Queen told Kay. “I'd like you to spend the summer with me in Le Chateau Frontenac, up North where you were born. It's the nicest hotel you could imagine, with towers and turrets like a real castle, and a swimming pool, and a skating rink, because you know it gets quite cool in Quebec City, even cold, in winter, with snow in the streets, and icicles on the windowsills. . .”
Her words were like a spell themselves, as we panted there in the kitchen with the broken air conditioner, in the Florida heat.
“I might need some new clothes, if it's going to be cool,” Kay said, a new, calculating expression his face.
“Of course, my dear, of course!” The Snow Queen knew victory when she heard it.
She straightened, tall and slim as an icicle in her white sheath dress and magical web of silver lace. She could never sneak past me wearing all those protection spells, but then, there were more airports in Florida than people with True Sight in the whole world.
“You'll let him come, Doug, of course.”
My Dad was all happy befuddlement, glowing in odd places as long-dormant spells reactivated in the Queen's presence.
“After all, you've had nine years with him.”
Before I could even think of
arguing, Dad was taking Kay to his room to pack.
The Snow Queen and I were alone.
“Pity you were born a no-talent, or you might have been invited back to court, too,” she said. I was such a disappointment, Sighted but Blank. She'd told me so often when I was little, I could hear it without her saying, even after all these years.
“Fix Dad while you're here,” I told her. I didn't ask; I wouldn't ask her for anything.
“No,” the Snow Queen said.
At first I thought she'd tire of Kay and send him back. He was a little imp, besides being what I loved best in this world, and the Snow Queen was never one for pranks. But weeks went by, dripping, suffocating, July and August weeks, with no Kay turning my shower spray to sleet or my hairbands to spaghetti.
“I'm sorry, he simply won't come to the phone,” the Snow Queen told me when I called. I couldn't see, across thousands of miles, if she told the truth. But I doubted it.
Gerda, I am staying with Mother and going to a proper school. The kids wear nice uniforms. They ride horses. Dad knows. Kay
I scrubbed my eyes to make the tears stop and went to find my dad. He was painting in the studio that would have been his bedroom, except he slept on the couch. The huge painting by the window was very blue, with severed body parts around the edge. I didn't get it.
“We have to go up there and get Kay,” I said. “He's an American citizen and you have custody. She won't say no if you threaten to go to the embassy. It would make her look too bad.”
“I know you miss him,” Dad said sympathetically, wiping his hands on a rag. “But she can give him so much more that I can. I'm not surprised he wants to stay.”
“He's under a spell!”
Dad pulled me into a hug. “Oh, Gerda, I thought you'd outgrown that by now.”
I wanted to scream. The Snow Queen had Dad wrapped so thickly in spells he wouldn't believe in magic even if someone made him sprout wings and fly. The spells were a poncho he always wore, a garish tapestry of misdirection and self-doubt. When we were living at court, they kept him safely out of politics, made him less than a pawn. She probably would have done the same to me, except deception spells don't work on anyone who can see them operating.
I didn't like to imagine what she'd dressed Kay in by now. At the least, she'd make him want to obey her. Kay wasn't the obedient type, and it was so vulgar, the use of force against one's offspring, so despicably low-class. The Snow Queen had waited until Kay's powers had settled to claim him: he had a talent for transformation, and not a glimmer of Sight. He'd be easy to manipulate.
If I'd been an ordinary spellcaster like Kay, we all would have stayed in Quebec. Right before we left, I almost started a war when I asked in open court what the Snow Queen was doing to the Lord of the West's Ambassador with those shiny ropes. Dad said the divorce was because of grown-up relationship stuff, and the Snow Queen said she was sending us with him to keep us safe, but I didn't believe either of them.
I couldn't fight the Snow Queen, but she couldn't control me in public without embarrassing herself, either. If I threatened her reputation, she might let Kay go. Even if I ended up wrapped in silencers and paralytics in a closet, I had to try. Kay was up there alone.
I should have taken Kay to Esperanza as soon as he picked up that dissatisfaction spell. The witch doctor was old as a giant turtle and knobby as an alligator, but spry. When I brought her my Dad's passport to disguise she put us forehead to forehead in the witches' kiss (an actual kiss, the kind that gives the other power over you, is not something witches do often) and told me everything would be all right. I breathed in the scent of the workshop, lavender and mint and everything else hanging from the ceiling, and held back my tears. Esperanza took the passport over to her workbench, and set me to making cooling droughts.
I had my own little workspace by the window, with some ordinary botanical reference books, a rare compendium of spells with diagrams for the Sighted, and of course, a picture of Kay. Dad thought I helped Esperanza with cleaning and cooking after school, but really I saw harmful spells and diseased auras. In return, Esperanza paid me eight dollars an hour and taught me healing. My preparations didn't work until someone with power blew in them, but I thought it was a good skill to have, something Kay and I could always fall back on together.
I was grinding herbs with an ice stone when she came up behind me and began stroking my hair.
“Shh, m'hija, it wasn't your fault. Nothing you could do against her. Nothing anyone could do. She's too strong for the likes of us.”
My hands stilled. I felt the hard lump of guilt that had been sitting in my stomach since Kay left begin to dissolve.
“No reason to go up there, when nothing can be done. Just stay, little no-talent,” she crooned, still stroking. “Just stay and be safe--”
Her touch felt so good, so comforting, that I leaned back into it. But as I moved, I caught a flicker of light in the corner of my eye. A golden thread.
I gasped with the effort of pulling myself away. The pestle crashed to the floor; green and white powders spread like mold.
“I'm only protecting you!” she called after me as I ran for the door. “Sun King's orders...”
Politics. If the Sun King thought he could use me as a bargaining chip someday, he was wrong. I meant nothing to the Snow Queen, nothing at all.
When I left for the North, Dad was in the zone. He didn't put down his brush or even glance at my bulging backpack as I said goodbye. I hoped he wouldn't feel too bad when he realized I'd gone. I also hoped he wouldn't notice for a good ten hours.
The airline didn't even consider me an unaccompanied minor, since I was already fifteen. I arrived in Burlington, Vermont around three, took out as much cash as the ATM would let me, bought a map, and went off the grid.
Hitchhiking wasn't dangerous for me like it would be for another teenage girl. I could see auras, so I knew when it was safe to get in. The only problem was that I couldn't cross the Canadian border in a car. Without a passport, I'd have to skirt checkpoints and walk a few miles on either side.
Evening found me at a campground on the edge of America. I sat on a swing in the deserted playground and remembered Kay on my lap: baby weight on my chest; baby hair in my nose; one hand holding on; one hand wrapped around him; pain at the inner elbow where the chain dug in, but it was fine, that pain, it was fine if it kept him with me, kept him safe. “Sometimes, she's more like his mother than his sister,” Dad was saying, at a half-remembered parent-teacher conference. Yeah.
I opened my eyes at a scuffling noise. Another girl had taken the swing next to me, a girl maybe my age, maybe older, but clearly much too cool to notice me under normal circumstances. She had two dark braids, a nose stud, an eyebrow piercing, and a tattoo peeking out of her tank top--some kind of animal, but I couldn't quite make it out. It was almost dark.
She was smoking something that made her aura shimmer. Not a cigarette--I could see that kind of aura poisoning no matter how dark it got—-but something else.
She dropped the roll among the mulch and rubbed it with her toe. I felt uneasy, picturing a little kid finding it there in the morning, but I was too chicken to say anything.
The girl and I watched darkness drape itself over the playground like the gentlest of silence spells, slapping mosquitoes in tandem.
“On your own?” my companion asked me eventually, nodding towards my backpack. Tomorrow's white underwear was poking out from behind a bag of pretzels, just visible in the light leaking out of the communal bathrooms.
“Alone and lonely,” I said, feeling melodramatic my first night as a runaway.
“I'm with my mom and dad. Live in the camper. We're up and down here near every week, up and down.” The way she said it made that sound lonely, too.
“Heading anywhere?” she asked me.
She had the right kind of aura (not a nice one, exactly, but a right one) so I told her the story, how my mother had taken my brother and wouldn't give him back, even though my dad had sole custody. Of course, I refrained from mentioning magic to a norm.
“She get mean, your mother?” the girl asked when I was done.
I considered a moment. The Snow Queen was much too aristocratic to hurt her children in the way this girl meant. “A real witch,” I answered finally.
“Huh. Wish I had a little brother to save.”
“Wish I had a passport,” I said.
“Might be able to do something about that, for a friend.” The girl peered at me intensely. “Are we friends?”
There was a glint of something fierce in her aura, and I could tell it would be better to be her friend than not. “Sure we are.”
My new friend led me through the woods to an RV, but left me outside while she argued with the man I could see through the window. I wondered if I should slip away while I had the chance, but I felt reckless, careening around with a big Kay-shaped hole.
When the girl came banging through the screen door, her arms were full of blankets and pillows.
“They'll take you to Montreal in the morning, no worries. But we have to sleep outside tonight. No room.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Really, really, thanks.”
We made a kind of tent out of a bent frame and two sheets. My friend's dad just grunted when I went inside to use the bathroom, but her mom said, “Sleep well, sugar,” in a rich, Southern voice. It was too hot for sleeping in the camper anyway, definitely better outside.
“I don't know your name,” I said, when we'd sealed ourselves away from the bugs.
“Dad said don't tell,” my friend said. “You'll see why tomorrow.” There was nothing threatening in her aura, so I let it slide.
“Mine's Gerda. I'll give you my email in the morning. In case you ever need, well, anything.” She turned her back to me; the movement threatened to topple our precariously balanced sky and crush our whole mosquito-safe world.
“Don't have email.”
“Not at school?”
“Well, there's always the library. In case of emergency.” I sounded like a geek. Or a mother.
In the morning, my friend introduced me to the false floor of the RV, and laid me down in a narrow, unpadded space smelling of gasoline.
“You're lucky it's empty heading North,” she said. “Though some grass would make it softer.”
Grass? I spent an hour mulling that over before I realized my coffin-shaped hiding place was meant for smuggling pot.
The Snow Queen's castle was a soaring, many-peaked wonder, with more gables than I could count; the web around it was the sheerest spider-silk, with a pattern of endlessly varying snowflakes. I couldn't approach. I stood at the bottom of the hill, looking up the long staircase with its wrought-iron railing to the towering Chateau Frontenac. Old-fashioned streetlamps lit the steps of tourists and Quebequois alike as they passed through the ephemeral barrier. My foot snagged on the gossamer over and over, and couldn't touch the first step. Frustration swirled inside me like my own private snowstorm. I hated myself and I hated the Snow Queen for giving birth to a useless, powerless, Blank.
Suddenly I heard my name, caught a glimpse of brightly painted nails, and was wrapped in a fierce embrace. All my good memories of Quebec, all the warmth I remembered in this icy city, had come from Dad and this woman.
“Oh, Finny!” I said, and then pulled back, embarrassed. It was an awful nickname the Snow Queen had given her, based on my baby mispronunciation, but I couldn't remember her real name, if I'd ever known.
“I hoped you'd come,” said my old nanny, laughing and not at all upset with me. “You're so big now, so beautiful--and I missed you so much! I'm married now, you know, and I have two little boys, but you'll always be my first baby, the first I took care of, anyway.”
I could see the love shining out of her, and it was a bit hard to bear, seeing how I was a miserable failure who'd lost her brother and couldn't even attempt a rescue.
“You're taking care of Kay?”
“In the afternoons. I just left him. This is a good time to go up, Gerda. Your mother's across town.”
“Oh, Finny, I can't! I can't get through!”
“Through this?” she brushed the lace with her glittering nails. “Of course you can. You always did before.”
“She must have changed it,” I whined; I was four again, tiptoeing through a world of dangerous spells I could not name, and I wanted Finny to explain, explain, explain.
“No, not this. It's old, and not...specific. It keeps out those with intent to harm.”
Did I want to harm? Did I want to smash some ridiculously expensive china, and the Snow Queen's cool demeanor, and maybe her face as well? My fists clenched despite me.
“It's not my fault if I'm angry! She sent me away and forgot about me, like a dog, not a daughter. She never said one word to me till she came to Florida, and then she only wanted Kay--” But that wasn't why I'd come, was it? That wasn't the story I'd told my smuggler friend, or at least, it wasn't what that story was about.
My shoulders drooped, and Finny nodded, seeing I understood.
“Will you come up with me?” I asked her.
“It would only make her angry.” She looked at me knowingly. “Besides, you have everything you need.”
I inched right up to the delicate lattice, and, thinking only of holding my brother, took a step.
The Snow Queen's aged housekeeper, Mrs. Lapp, opened the door. She used to grimace like a gargoyle whenever I entered the kitchen but sneak me treats anyway: pickled mushrooms, bread with butter and caviar, anything salty and sharp. Now she sighed, exhaling a red-message thread that flew out the door behind me.
“Your mother would never forgive me,” she explained.
I kissed her on the cheek, though she frowned. There had never been any chance for me to get in and out without the Snow Queen noticing. My plan was just to get Kay somewhere crowded, somewhere Her Royal Snobbishness would decide he wasn't worth a vulgar scene.
“Kay is in the dining room, doing his homework. You remember where, yes?”
I remembered chairs with leopard feet and a tablecloth hemmed with loyalty spells; watching myself curtsy in the mirrored walls; Je m'appelle Gerda, monsieur; and off to bed, Finny and I having eaten in the kitchen long before.
I crossed the marble floor, shivering in the over-zealous air conditioning. The door to the dining room was made to look like part of the wall, with squares of gold-painted molding and no knob, but it opened to my tentative touch.
Kay was seated at the long table, dwarfed by the massive silver punch bowl serving as a centerpiece. He looked up when I entered, but didn't seem to recognize me.
“Gerda,” he said, bending back over his spiral notebook. “How do you spell eternity?”
He recognized me, then, but didn't care.
I ran to him and hugged him--he accepted this impassively--and held him back to see what she had done. A band across the eyes, so he'd see what she wanted him to; a belt around the chest, so he wouldn't feel love or loss; and all over, that dissatisfaction spell from school, feeding a need for luxury. I pulled him to me again, breathing in the soapy scent of his hair, not so different from when he was a baby, not too different at all.
“We have to go,” I told him. “I'll take you to someone who can help.” I'd take him to the Sun King if I had to; at least he hated The Snow Queen. I tugged on my brother's arm, but he resisted me, turning back to his homework.
“I have to write 'eternity' ten times,” he said tonelessly. “I got it wrong.”
“Come with me!”
He clamped one hand onto the edge of the table, and took up the pen in the other. There was no time, and Kay was so big now, only a few inches shorter than me; I started to cry. My tears trailed wetness down my cheeks and dripped off my chin, splashing onto Kay's shirt. Where they passed through his wrapping of spells, they left minuscule, sizzling holes.
I scrubbed a hand over my eye and examined the water on my palm: it glowed with power. Impossible. I was a no-talent, a norm, a Blank! Plus, I was spell-free; I checked every morning in the mirror, and rechecked now in the mirrored wall, lifting my arms, craning my neck, gasping frantically, gulping air. Nothing.
Then I groaned at my own gullibility, tipped my head as far forward as it would go, and looked inside, as I did for Esperanza's patients. And I saw it, a silver coil, hard as steel, wrapped round and round in the core of me, shaped like a torso, spindly limbs, and probably a head, though I couldn't see it--the outline of a baby, bound at birth. I had grown through the spell, hiding it in my flesh before I was old enough to recognize it, and I had believed my mother's disparagements, even knowing what she was.
The child of wire faded as I watched it. It was only a deception spell, in the end, no sooner seen than vanquished.
I turned back to Kay and curled my fingers to claws. I had no training, no finesse, but I could rip and rend, tearing her spells away from him. Soon he was free from his bindings, as I was. Kay shuddered, as if feeling the over-chilled air of the apartment for the first time, and threw himself into my arms.
“Oh, Gerda, oh Gerda, you came!”
“Quite touching,” came my mother's icy voice, and I instinctively threw a net of protection around Kay and I, a flimsy, unpracticed, thread-bare net, about as stable as last night's tent. My mother should have broken right through it; she tried; but her ropes of obedience and loyalty bounced right off. I saw that Kay was feeding it, too, and it began to look rather like strands of peacock feather, with my emerald green and his royal blue.
We stood to face her--our royal mother. She was glittering and beautiful and distant and cold. She didn't seem to care much that we'd beaten her, or that she was about to lose Kay; I bet he hadn't made a very good pawn.
“You should let me redo it, Gerda,” she said lightly. “It's no kind of life. You think the others will leave you alone now, The Sun King, the Queen of the Isles? They'll use you or you'll learn to use them; either way you'll end up just like Mummy. I should never have had a child.”
“You had two.”
I wanted her to see the difference, but her eyes stayed blank, just mirrors, just ice. She was what she was, and now, despite all she'd done to shape us, Kay and I were ourselves.
“I want to see Daddy,” Kay said, squeezing my hand. “Let's go home now.”
At the door, I looked back at my mother in her sequined silks. I looked at her carefully, in case Kay's memory faded as he grew up, and someday, he asked. He wouldn't be seeing her again.
Hey, Gerda. Decided to ditch the camper at last. The kids in this group home are *so* messed up. But friends is friends, right? BTW, your Dad's paintings on ebay are kind of psycho, except for the new ones--he find the right pills or something? Make that Kay write me, yeah? He sounds like my kind of trouble.
Seeking representation for HOLOGRAM HALLOWEEN,
a middle grade SF novel.
It's up to Jake to sneak off while trick-or-treating and find an invisible crashed spaceship. Jake has never hear of a learning disabled hero. But faced with bullies, police cars, grabby aliens, poisonous air, and electro-shocking robots, that's exactly what he and his new friends will have to be!