For the real Queens of the Universe…
and Mollie Smith
Mare Fortune bounded down the stairs of the family home in her ragged blue running shorts just as the wind caught the front door and blew it open, sending coppery dust swirling in. She batted the dust away and looked out, but instead of Mrs Elder’s beat-up front porch across the street, she saw golden sunshine beaming down on a red tiled roof and a fat laughing baby toddling in a dusty road while a tough dark-haired guy chased after it, laughing, too. She sucked in her breath and thought, Crash, and reached out into the sunlight for him, but he vanished, him and the baby and the red tiled roof and the sunshine, and it was just boring old Duckpond Street under cloudy skies in Salem’s Fork, West Virginia, with Mrs Elder’s peeling porch across the way, no coppery dust at all.
‘Oh,’ Mare said, feeling bereft and then feeling stupid for feeling bereft. He left you, he’s gone, it’s been five years, you’re over it. She turned to close the heavy door, just as her oldest sister Dee took down their mother’s jewelry chest from the mantel in the living room and, beyond her, their middle sister Lizzie bent over her metallurgy book at the battered dining room table, everything normal, nothing to worry about.
‘Big storm coming in.’ Mare yanked down on her tank top, shoving Crash and the whole vision thing out of her mind. ‘Big old Beltane storm.’ Her tiger-striped cat, Pywackt, padded down the narrow stairs with dignity, and she made kissing sounds at him, which he ignored. ‘Lightning on the mountain just for us, Py, baby.’
‘Didn’t we throw those away?’ Dee said, cradling the brass-bound jewelry box in her slender arms as she frowned at Mare’s tattered shorts.
‘You tried,’ Mare said.
Dee nodded, looking distracted. ‘Come on,’ she said and turned toward the dining room, her gray wool suit perfectly fitted to her tiny waist. Mare stuck her tongue out at Dee’s auburn chignon and followed her into the dining room where ethereal Lizzie sat hunched over her book in her purple silk kimono, her blond curls tangled and blue eyes wide, dripping muffin butter onto her notebook as she ate.
Dee put the jewelry box on the table and said, ‘Mind the butter, Lizzie,’ and Lizzie turned another page, oblivious to Dee, the butter, and the wind whistling outside the open garden windows.
Mare plopped herself down at the table and looked at the muffins. ‘They’re all apple bran, Lizzie. That’s boring. I like blueberry and lemon poppy seed and-’
Lizzie moved her hand over the muffin basket, still not looking up from her book, and tendrils of violet smoke trailed from her fingertips and across the apple bran.
‘Thank you.’ Mare craned her neck to look into the basket and then went for a newly transformed blueberry, but Dee moved the basket out of her reach.
‘First we vote.’ Dee straightened the jewelry box.
Lizzie looked up from her book. ‘Now?’
Crap, Mare thought, and looked longingly at the muffins. Lizzie had baked them so they were bound to be munchable.
‘Yes, now.’ Dee sat down at the head of the table. ‘If Mare’s going to college, she has to register now. Which means we have to decide if we move so she can go to a school we can afford. And which piece of Mother’s jewelry we sell to finance it. And I have to be at the bank in an hour, so we have to do it now’
‘Not now.’ Mare stared at the blueberry muffin just out of her reach – come here, damn it - so that a couple of dust motes lazing in the air sparked blue. ‘Not now, not ever.’ She lifted her chin, feeling the weight of the muffin in her mind, and it rose slowly until it hovered at eye level.
‘Mare,’ Dee said. ‘Not in front of the window.’
Mare grinned and crooked her finger, and the muffin floated toward her, sparking blue once or twice, like a misfiring muffler.
‘Oh, dear.’ Lizzie waved her hands a little, as if to warn Mare off, tendrils of violet smoking from her fingertips, and her butter knife turned into a rabbit.
Py sat up and took an interest.
‘Easy there, Lizzie,’ Mare said, staring cross-eyed at her muffin, now floating in front of her nose. ‘You know Py and bunnies.’
Dee flushed. ‘Put down the muffin, please, Mare. You know how important this vote is.’
‘It’s important to you,’ Mare said, concentrating on keeping her muffin afloat. ‘It’s not important to me. As mistress of all I survey, I feel that college is, how can I put this? Unnecessary.’ She scowled at Dee – why were they having this conversation again? She was twenty-three, if she didn’t want to go to college, she wasn’t going to go – and her annoyance broke her concentration and the muffin dropped and broke, and Mare said, ‘Damn.’ She focused on another one, lemon poppyseed this time, making it rise from the muffin basket while Lizzie’s butter-knife rabbit began to forage for crumbs on her notebook page.
At the end of the table, Py began to forage for the rabbit.
‘You are not mistress of all you survey,’ Dee said, exasperated, ‘you’re-’
‘Queen of the Universe,’ Mare said.
‘-assistant manager of a Value Video!!’
Mare pulled the muffin toward her with her eyes. ‘That’s temporary. It’s only a matter of time until I’m queen of the company.’
‘I don’t think Value Video!! has queens,’ Dee said. ‘I know, they have presidents. But when I get to the top, that’s gonna change.’
‘Well, to become queen of Value Video!! you have to go to college.’ Dee opened the jewelry box. ‘It was always Mother’s dream that we’d all go, and it’s your turn. It’s past time for your turn. So we vote.’
‘I don’t want to,’ Mare said. ‘Lizzie doesn’t want to vote, either, do you, Lizzie?’
Lizzie looked up. ‘What?’
‘It’s time to vote,’ Dee said gently.
‘All right,’ Lizzie said, her focus drifting again.
‘Lizzie!’ Mare shrieked, betrayed.
Lizzie jerked back, startled, and Mare saw her fright and said, ‘Lizzie, it’s okay, it’s okay,’ but it was too late. Lizzie was waving her hands, fingers trembling, as she warded off Mare’s anger, purple tendrils of apology wafting over the table.
‘Oh, hell’ Mare said as lavender smoke rose around them.
Lizzie let the purple cloud engulf her. It was so quiet in there. Two more bunnies had popped up, depleting the knife count on the table and drawing Py closer. She blinked rapidly as the cloud grew thicker; it felt as if coppery dust had gotten into her eyes. For a moment she’d drifted away from her contentious sisters and their tiny living room in Salem’s Fork, and she was floating, distant, in a castle in Spain, lying on her back, and someone was leaning over her, and it was…
‘Lizzie, honey, take a breath,’ Dee said, as the smoke cleared.
‘I’m sorry,’ Lizzie said to Mare, pulling herself together. ‘I wasn’t paying attention.’
‘It’s okay.’ Mare floated a muffin over to her, dispersing more smoke with blue sparks. ‘Dee’s trying to get us to vote and I don’t want to because I don’t want to move again.’
Lizzie picked the muffin out of the air and sighed the rest of the purple away. Violet smoke, drifting around a castle in Spain, moody and romantic. Stop it. ‘I’m not sure I want to, either.’
‘We’re voting,’ Dee said sharply.
She startled the bunny and made it quiver, and Lizzie picked it up and petted it, trying not to quiver herself. They were fighting again. She hated the days when they voted. Three more bunnies had popped up on the table during the argument, and Lizzie wondered whether she could take them and sneak back into her room while Mare and Dee glared at each other.
‘Then I vote we don’t vote,’ Mare said. ‘It’s my future, and I’ll take care of it when it gets here.’
‘And just how is refusing to plan for your future going to protect you from Xan the next time she finds us?’ Dee said, goaded.
‘What makes you think we need protection from her?’ Mare said. ‘She’s our aunt. And she hasn’t come after us in years. I’m not even sure she’s the demon you make her out to be.’ Dee began to protest and Mare overrode her. And anyway, I don’t see the connection between going to college and escaping Xan. I don’t see your college degree getting you much protection or anything else except stuck in that damn bank. At least I get to watch movies.’
‘I wouldn’t be stuck in that damn bank if you’d grow up and take care of yourself-’ Dee stopped.
Oh, Dee. ‘I’m sorry,’ Lizzie said into the silence, trying to fight the sick feeling inside her. ‘Dee, I’m sorry about the bunnies and I’m sorry about the bank. I’ll get us money, I’m almost there, I’ve almost got it, I’ll get us the money and you can quit and paint fulltime, I swear-’
‘No, Lizzie, it’s all right.’ Dee patted Lizzie’s hand. She reached out to Mare and Mare pulled back. ‘Mare, I didn’t mean it, I’m fine at the bank. We’re fine. I just want you to have a future.’
‘I have a future.’ Mare focused on the muffin crumbs and they piled onto each other in lumpy parodies of muffins, little Frankencakes, misshapen and wrong.
That’s not how you make a muffin, Lizzie thought. Mare didn’t know how to make things. Making things took time and patience and thought and understanding.
Mare shook her head and let the muffins fall apart again. ‘You don’t need to work at the bank for me, Dee. I don’t want college.’
‘You haven’t even tried it,’ Dee protested.
Mare met her eyes. ‘College can’t teach me what I need to know, Dee. I need to know how to use my power, we all do, we’re cramped here in this little house, hiding our powers from everybody, and they’re rotting inside us. The only one who can show us how is Xan.’
‘No,’ Dee said. ‘You don’t know her. You were too young when we ran, you don’t remember. She killed Mom and Dad, Mare. She could-’
‘She didn’t kill anybody.’ Mare flipped her hand as if she could flip the idea away. ‘They died of stupidity, just like the coroner said. You really have to get over that, Dee.’
Dee clenched her hands. ‘Trust me. She’s dangerous. Isn’t she, Lizzie?’
‘Yes,’ Lizzie said. I can’t stand this, she thought, picking up her book again.
‘At least Xan doesn’t hide who she is,’ Mare said. At least Xan doesn’t tie her own hands and hide from the world.’
Dee straightened. ‘We are not going to Xan, and that’s final. Now it’s time to vote.’ She turned their mother’s jewelry box so they could see inside. ‘I vote yes. We use one of Mother’s necklaces to send Mare to college.’
‘Not the amethyst,’ Lizzie said from behind her book, and blinked as she felt that coppery dust in her eyes again. She could feel the satin sheets against her naked skin, the weight of the purple stone between her breasts, his breath warm and… She shook her head. Not the amethyst.
‘Not any of them,’ Mare said. ‘I vote no.’
‘Lizzie?’ Dee said to the cover of the metallurgy book.
Lizzie lowered the book. ‘You really don’t want to go to school?’ she asked Mare.
Mare rolled her eyes in exasperation. ‘No!’
Lizzie looked at Dee. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t think we should force…’ Dee scowled at her, her eyes stormy, and Lizzie sucked in her breath. ‘I abstain.’
Dee drew a deep, angry breath, and green fog began to rise, swirling around her.
‘Oh,’ Lizzie said faintly. ‘Oh, no…’
Well, that tears it, Dee thought, coughing green fog. It wasn’t bad enough that her head was about to explode, now the rest of her was, too. Her skin burned. Her heart pounded like a jackhammer. Her body was in the throes of cataclysmic change, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.
Couldn’t she just cry when she got upset like other women? Maybe throw a tantrum? Hell, even spinning muffins would be better. No, she had to be theatrical. But God, didn’t the two of them understand? Did they want to end up stuck here for the rest of their lives?
She didn’t. She wanted what she’d seen when that copper dust had blown through the door and into her eyes: a high, white studio in Montmartre and paint on a canvas, and a model she seemed to know. A breathtaking man who smiled as if he’d waited just for her…
‘Oh, Mare,’ Lizzie said.
‘I am not taking responsibility for this,’ Mare said.
Dee could feel her cells metamorphosing, twinkling into new patterns like the transporter beam in Star Trek. Her throat tightened, her vision sharpened, the colors faded. Damn it, this was the worst time for this to happen. It was tough enough to get Mare to take her seriously. It was even harder when she was-
‘An owl!’ Lizzie said, as she waved away the green fog. ‘Oh, dear. Are you a screech owl?’
‘I’m a pissed-off big sister owl,’ Dee said, but it came out in screeches and chirps only her sisters could understand. She wasn’t sitting at the table anymore, she was on top of it, clad in cinnamon feathers and perched on a set of talons, frantically scrabbling for purchase in the nest of her collapsed clothing.
‘You sound like a screech owl.’ Mare stood up and shoved her chair under the table. ‘Not that you don’t most of the time anyway.’ She looked down at Dee, perplexed, as if she were ready to continue the fight but wasn’t sure how. ‘Listen, I think I’ll just go ahead and do my morning run now. You have a nice, uh, flight.’
She did not always screech.
‘You’re not going anywhere until I return to form,’ Dee screeched.
Mare bent down, so that they were eye to eye, which made Dee blink. ‘You look very Disney, all ruffled up like that. You should have a perky little musical number with the other forest creatures coming right up. Call me if the urge to sing sweeps over you.’
‘Go on and run like the dog you are,’ Dee said. ‘But I’ll be here when you-’
The doorbell rang.
For a second, they froze, looking at each other. ‘I’ll get the bunnies,’ Lizzie said. ‘I’ll check the window,’ Dee said.
‘I’ll get your clothes,’ Mare said and scooped up the nest out from under her.
Lizzie shoved the bunnies into the kitchen. Mare tossed Dee’s clothes into her room. Dee focused on the view out the front window, which revealed nothing more than the jungle of flowers that was their front yard and the picket fence that contained it.
‘One person at the door,’ she said. ‘No official vehicles at the gate.’
Lizzie sat back down and tried to look calm. Dee tried to look as normal as an owl could under the circumstances. They all nodded to each other, and Mare opened the door.
‘Good morning,’ a baritone voice said. ‘You must be Moira Mariposa Fortune.’
‘What’s it to you?’ Mare snapped, but Dee’s beak dropped open. That man. The one she’d just seen posing for her in Montmartre, there in the swirling dust: she swore it was him. Tall, lithe, and dark, his sable hair just a little too long, his leather jacket a little too worn, and his battered jeans a little too tight. In short, as wicked as sin. Especially when he smiled. When he smiled he was Dennis Quaid in Daniel Day-Lewis’s body. And in her fantasy he’d been smiling at her.