Predatory, issues of consent, depression.
“Rise and shine, sleepyhead!” April called, mimicking how Broof had woken her most days. Melinda didn’t budge an inch. Goodness, if April wasn’t so sure that Melinda couldn’t die in her sleep, the complete stillness of her would be terrifying.
“Come on, Mel!” April tried again, then threw her head back and crowed like a cockerel. “Time to get up and seize the day!”
Melinda groaned and covered her face with her hand. “You go ahead and seize it for me, April.”
April pouted, but was feeling far too chipper to argue. “Fine, but you’re missing out!” she sang, getting nothing but a lacklustre ‘eh’ in response. She turned on her heel and bounced from the room.
Melinda was probably the nicest person April had ever met but boy, she could be so glum sometimes. They were safely hidden from the world that was hunting them, in a house that not only had all the mod-cons and smelled nice, but was also full of magic! How could she not want to get up and explore?
April hoped Broof was still here. She had never really given much thought to his life outside the mansion. She knew that he was divorced and that he had a daughter who had passed away as a little girl, so she assumed that when he wasn’t in his quarters, he didn’t really have anything to do. She could never have imagined that he had a whole secret life and that it was so exciting!
He probably wouldn’t be her butler anymore if she couldn’t afford to pay him, but she hoped he would still be her friend. Maybe he’d teach her how to fold clothes and how dishwashers worked, if she asked him to. Although, maybe she would ask someone else to teach her to cook. April had always wanted a grandmother and now she had one, she really wanted to be able to do something nice for her, but cooking her Broof’s speciality of rubbery toast probably was not it.
“I thought you’d never come out.”
April tried to scream, but the hand was over her mouth before she’d opened it. She relaxed when she realised who had a hold of her. “Caleb!” she gasped when he took his hand away. “You frightened me! Were you standing here all night, waiting for me?”
“Not all of it.” He sighed, stroking her waist. “I missed you. Did you miss me?”
“Not really,” she answered honestly. “I was sleeping. I was dreaming about magic, unsurprisingly. It was strange though; I haven’t dreamed for days, even when I was passed out. But last night, it was like my brain was catching up and I had all these vivid and colourful dreams. At one point I was naked and dancing around a bonfire. Outdoors! Where people could see me!”
He chuckled in the throaty way he did when his laugh surprised him. She could feel his hands moving from her waist to her hips and she balked. “Wh-what did you last dream about?” she stammered.
“Also naked dancing,” he murmured against her neck, tracing the waistband of her skirt with his thumb.
She pushed his hand down, but he took this an invitation to lift the hem of her skirt. Oh, bugger. She should tell him to stop, but… did she want him to stop? She jumped at the tickly feel of his fingers on her thigh. It felt sort of icky but, at the same time, it did feel quite nice.
She whimpered; protest or encouragement, she really wasn’t sure, but Caleb was. He pressed himself firmer against her; his thing digging into her bottom. His touch had almost reached that place and she was so torn; part of her desperately wanting him to continue and the other part dying for him to leave her be.
Frozen on the spot, unable to decipher let alone verbalise what exactly she was feeling, she clutched at the only straw she had. “We’ll get in trouble,” she whispered. “Sage told us not to.”
Caleb let her go and stepped back abruptly. At first, April thought her little reminder had worked but perhaps more likely, he had registered the newest occupant of the room before she had. She coyly tugged her skirt into place, shame burning her to the core as she turned to face her grandmother.
Stupid girl! Disrespectful!
Sage looked very cross and she had every right to be; she had kindly taken April in and April had broken one of the very few house rules she had been given, like a common harlot. What would Sage do? Would she throw them out? Refuse to help them? Hand them over to the police?
“I’m so very sorry,” April began, her uncontrollable shaking causing her words to tremble. “It was my fault. I won’t do it again.”
“I see,” Sage muttered, her steely gaze never leaving Caleb’s face. “Caleb, the store opens in seven minutes. Your laundered shirt is in Wyatt’s room. Head on upstairs and begin on today’s checklist. I will be along to check on you shortly.”
“You want me to work?”
“You are still my employee. Six minutes. Chop chop! Those plants don’t water themselves, no matter how many charms I place on them.”
Caleb reluctantly turned to leave. His fingertips brushed April’s. “I’ll be OK,” she whispered. He glared at Sage before disappearing in a blur.
“It was your fault?” Sage asked softly as the door swung closed behind them.
April gulped and nodded. Perhaps, as it was her first disobedience, if Sage could see that April was truly very sorry, she’d simply be given a beating, or confined to her room with no supper. Or whatever the magical and vampirical equivalents of those punishments were.
“I’m really sorry. I was telling him about my dream and then he was holding me and I pushed his hand and he thought—”
Sage waved her hand, a signal April recognised; it meant I’ve heard enough. She pressed her lips together, hung her head and awaited the verdict.
“None of this your fault, April,” Sage said sternly. “Not a single part of it, do you understand?”
April almost dared herself to look up, but Mother had pulled this trick before, the false sense of security. April remained mute, trying not to flinch as Sage stepped closer.
“I mean it, sweetheart,” Sage said, her voice softening. “You’re not in any trouble.”
“No, but you and I need to have a little talk later, all right? A very important one. Melinda, too.”
Oh no. It was the delayed punishment tactic. April hated this one the most. Waiting all day, sometime multiple days, wondering when the hammer would fall. “Are you going to kick us out?” April asked in a small voice. “Please don’t! None of this is Melinda’s fault, Sage! She doesn’t deserve to be punished because I… because I can’t control myself.”
Sage’s face was very hard to read, somehow disgusted, angry and heartbroken all at the same time. “I’m not kicking anyone out,” she replied, her sentence hanging in the air, like it was unfinished. “I have already said that you are not in trouble and I’m not going to punish you because you have done nothing wrong. Now, where is that bonny little witch who woke me with her rooster impression?” Sage laughed.
“I’m sorry for being noisy—” April murmured.
“My sweet girl, do you know any other words?” Sage joked. “Chin up, darling. Hey now, I’ve an idea. Why don’t you head into the cauldron room and give Wyatt a hand? Don’t be fooled by his casual persona; he’s a very skilled alchemist and very knowledgeable about botany. If you get chatting to him, I’m sure you’ll both learn a lot.”
April looked up, meeting Sage’s eyes for the first time. They were warm, twinkly and the most beautiful shade of green April had ever seen. April lost herself; she wished her eyes were that pretty.
“Run along now, there’s a good girl.”
Sage watched April hesitate a little, before she finally left the room. Sage paused, just to be sure that Caleb hadn’t been waiting for her on the other side of the door but, satisfied at the continuous fade of April’s footsteps, she turned her attentions back to the guest room.
From Broof’s descriptions, she had expected April to be downtrodden and sheltered, but she had not expected her to be quite so naïve about the facts of life or, more crucially, boundaries and consent. That would be an interesting conversation to have over her afternoon tea, but one thing at a time.
Sage had been wanting to talk alone with Melinda since she had arrived at the house. Lilith had forewarned her that Melinda was a sensitive little soul, very much in tune with those around her, and suffering with the knowledge that she must prey on others to survive. That was not a thing that Sage could yet rectify, but Lilith had mentioned something else, too, that had given Sage an idea. She rapped her knuckles lightly on the bedroom door.
“Melinda, may I come in?”
Sage was fluent in the ancient language of Adolescent so knew that the sound she received translated as ‘reluctant affirmative’. She pushed open the door to find the wisp of a girl seated on the bed with the weight of the world on her tiny shoulders.
“How are you, my dear?”
“I’m fine,” Melinda mumbled, scrunching the bedsheets in her fist.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
Melinda stared at Sage, her chocolate button eyes scanning like lasers. “No,” she replied, getting to her feet. “I’m fine.”
Sage nodded in sympathetic fashion, trying to place herself into the boots of this conflicted little vampire. “It must be very difficult for you,” she began, watching the girl pace. “The upheaval, for starters. Learning that the world as you knew it is no more, that the people you knew are changed and the path you were walking has vanished.”
Melinda stopped in her tracks and paused, listening.
Sage smoothed her skirt. “I can’t even begin to understand how it must feel to have to choose between your morals and your survival. And to lose your love and your best friend on top of that—”
“Don’t patronise me, Sage,” Melinda said. Her tone was not angry, but the challenge in her voice was sure. “I know what you want me to tell you. But the truth is, I don’t know where Faith has gone and perhaps if I’m really honest, I don’t care.”
Sage had not, in fact, been angling for information with this conversation, but could see why the girl would think that. Still, to hear that put so bluntly was rather a kick in the posterior, for many reasons. “You don’t mean that— “
“No, I think I do,” Melinda replied. “Do you know how many times in our lives I have been there for Faith only for it to be thrown back in my face? Lots,” she said. “Lots of times. Countless times. And I kept telling myself that she appreciated it, someone sticking by her when no one else did. That she appreciated me, even when she couldn’t show it because she was so damn stubborn. I always thought that should I ever need her, she’d do the same for me, she’d be there for me.”
“But when I needed her, Sage, when I was struggling and not myself and I really just needed her to listen or to care, she… left.” Melinda swiped at her face, but no tears were falling. “And I feel like a complete potato for saying this but if she cares so little and is so determined to be broken then… then… let her. Perhaps the problem is me. Perhaps I should just stop fussing and let her go. Let them both go.”
“You should never stop caring—”
“Caring for them hasn’t helped them. All caring for those two has ever done is hurt me. Maybe it’s time I started caring about me.” She paced the room, growing more and more agitated. “I should have realised this weeks ago, months ago. I am eternally stuck. Stuck here, watching April being pawed by that… that… fopdoodle. Ugh! And I’m so fricking mad. Like, she’s getting this whole fresh start, with family and hope and I am happy for her, I am, but I’m also so, so mad at her for not… for not getting it. She led me to believe… I led myself to believe…” She swiped her dry cheeks again. “There were so many times when she’d say that she also didn’t like boys; when she’d kiss me or hold my hand or compliment me. I thought she wanted me, Sage. I thought they both did.”
Sage had encountered, and mentored, many young people in her time and knew that for those like Melinda, who were introspective and perceptive, letting her arrange her own thoughts would yield a better outcome. So she pursed her green lips, and waited.
“Why am I not good enough?” Melinda asked eventually, filling the silence that hung in the air with a voice that betrayed her age and insecurity. “I always try to do things right. I try really, really hard, Sage. It’s not easy to be the good one when everyone around you is so… so…” She folded her arms around herself, holding herself tightly. “Is that why no one wants me? Am I too good? Am I boring? Or am I… am I…” she rocked on her heels, shaking like a leaf. “Am I just unlovable?”
Sage could be silent no more. “Oh my darling, no.” She rose to her feet to sweep the shivering girl into her embrace, but Melinda stepped back before she could stand.
“Please don’t touch me,” she whispered.
Sage respected this and kept her distance, waiting until Melinda’s doe eyes stopped following the curve of her neck and rolled back up to meet her own. The control this girl displayed was astonishing, and Sage didn’t just mean in regards to her thirst.
“Melinda, last night I was speaking with Chuck—”
“You spoke to dad?” She sniffed. “Is he OK?”
Sage clicked her tongue. She hated being interrupted but this time, she would let it slide. “He is. Oh my sweet girl, the beautiful things he said about you. There’s at least one in this world who wants you and I’ll be damned if there aren’t a merry band more.”
Melinda rolled her eyes. “Dad has to say that stuff; but he only wants me because Mum and him couldn’t have their own child.”
“Now, we both know that’s not true,” Sage said sternly. “Don’t overlook blessings when you have them, Melinda; didn’t you just now accuse your friends of doing that very thing?”
“I guess. Dad’s the type of person who just loves everyone, though.”
“Ah, we’re in hard mode, I see,” Sage joked. “Then let’s talk about your other biggest fan. Someone who usually hates just about everyone but who loves you. Trust me when I say that Lilith does not speak highly of, well, anyone. You have earned her respect, something even I haven’t done.” She laughed, but the girl didn’t even crack a smile.
“Great. The parasite is only liked by other parasites. I’m nothing but a monster.”
“You are far from a monster, Melinda.”
“But I am a parasite. You, your son, Broof and Dad, I’m guessing, if you’ve called him, you’re all giving us yourselves and I can’t give you anything back. No wonder no one wants me. I’m useless, I’m draining. What’s the point even carrying on? What purpose do I have?”
She said this so blandly, so devoid of anything akin to emotion that it rocked Sage more than tears or rage would. Faced with this confession, her offering to the girl seemed trivial. Inane.
But having a small purpose was surely better than having nothing?
“Come with me,” Sage requested. She heard Melinda sigh and mutter behind her, sensed her shrugging, but then heard her drag her feet to follow.
“Sage, I appreciate your efforts but I’d rather just stay in the room and be as little bother as possible – oh. What is this place?”
“This is my studio, dear,” Sage explained as the girl wandered the bright, fresh space. This was where all the creative magic happened and was off-limits to most. She allowed Melinda a few minutes to run her curious fingers over the rainbow of delicate blooms that adorned every surface, to marvel at the boxes of craft supplies, half of which Sage had never even opened, eventually ushering her to a seat at the only desk.
“This room is really impressive,” Melinda smiled a little, the first genuine hint of emotion Sage had seen on her.
“Oh, good,” Sage said. “I’m glad you like it, because it’s yours now.”
Melinda blinked a few times and then her face fell. “Excuse me?”
“I hear you’re a skilled artist and a keen crafter and that is just what this room deserves.”
“No, Sage. I know you’re trying to cheer me up, but I can’t take even more from you—”
“You’re not taking it, you’re earning it.”
“You would be doing me a huge favour. Since my life-long friend, Ma, passed away, this aspect of the business has been rather neglected. I am a florist, Melinda. I can arrange exquisite displays of flowers but I don’t even know how to hold a paintbrush. My efforts are rudimentary, at best. Magic helps a little, but it can’t salvage everything. I mean, look at that pot on the desk; the average child could’ve painted better.”
“His eyes are a little uneven,” Melinda admitted, that little smile growing bigger as she studied Sage’s work. “Are you offering me a job, Sage?”
“I am. And it need not be limited to painting pots. You can knit, cross-stitch, draw, whittle… anything you wish.”
The girl was quiet for so long, staring at that poorly-painted pot, that Sage began to wonder if this was a bad idea.
But Melinda’s smile, when it finally arrived, was everything Sage could’ve hoped for. “Thank you.”