For those of you who are curious about Magic Lessons for Margo, the follow-up novel to The Adventures of Miss Vulpe, written in the voice of Ana’s sister, here’s the beginning of the current draft. It might still need a little polish here and there, but I figured a sneak peek would be fun at this point.
Magic Lessons for Margo – Chapter 1
My sister dunks her churro into her hot chocolate. I behold her like a miracle. My sister is showing me all her favorite places in Madrid. Ever since my breakdown in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, after I’d flown across the world to be with her and found myself in the company of a stranger who didn’t want me, my sister has been all kindness. It’s like she’s watching out for me, like she wants to make it up to me for all the years we didn’t like each other growing up, and then the years we’ve been apart.
I look at her and I’m afraid something might happen. That she might crack. Or disappear. Like a unicorn or any other creature of magic. I have a lot of irrational fears, having grown up the way I did, but my fears about Ana are not unfounded. Something happened to my little sister that I know nothing of. Something bad. Something that changed her. See, I know all about that process of anger fading into waves of sorrow. It’s part of grief. It’s natural. Even good. It softens you, and in a way, it shows you that life has not broken you, that you’ve not become mean or bitter, that your heart can go on as a human heart with all its frailties, not as a rock. But for me this was something that happened gradually. I slowly, meticulously, went through the stages of grief. It took long enough where, had I kept a diary of the process it would have been endless and boring. Whole notebooks stacked by my bed in a pile ready to collapse like the leaning tower of Pisa. My sister, on the other hand, seems to have made a sudden turn from a rebellious teenager to this, the girl who insisted I sleep in her giant bed next to her and her big dog, who braided my hair and kinked it, who gave me some of her best clothes and makeup, and who hugs me at night. I don’t know what happened to her, but something did. Something drastic. Daddy won’t tell me, and I’ve learned to be indulgent with Daddy’s silences. Daddy is haunted by his own ghosts.
My sister and I, we have a lot to talk about, but we don’t reminisce about the past. Do you remember that first time our mother almost died of an overdose? No, that’s not something for us to talk about during our pajama parties with the big black dog called Captain. Nor can I ask, “How’d you stop hating Daddy and suddenly agreed to live with him and to behave after you kept making his life hell and getting kicked out of boarding schools?”
It wouldn’t be a fair question anyway. It would sound judgmental and I don’t mean to judge. You don’t stop hating people overnight, even the people you hate unfairly. I should know that. I used to hate my sister. I used to hate her with that cruelty that children develop when they’re denied love and a safe home. I used to hate her because the mother who failed to be my mother seemed to love her and not me. It took me years of therapy to figure out our mother loved neither of us, not the way children need to be loved. Addicts can’t give you love. I used to hate her too because of Daddy, but I didn’t figure that out until later. When I was growing up all I wanted was for Daddy to come and take me away. I dreamt of it at night, wished for it on a star, asked it of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny, prayed for it to the little angel our grandmother taught us to pray to. Daddy would come to see me. He’d visit with me. He’d bring gifts and he’d tell me stories. But he got sad when I asked him to take me away. Later I realized he needed me to be his link to my mother, who’d expulsed him out of her life. That made me angry at him, though Daddy is the one person in all of this where anger never completely drowned out my love. Then later when I was eighteen Daddy told me that Ana was his daughter too. He told me he couldn’t take me away and risk losing her in the process, that things with her had always been more complicated. It’s then that I realized how powerful a thing the subconscious of a child can be. My childhood jealousy of my sister had been more complex than I’d ever realized. On some level, as a child, I must have felt it, that I had to share them both with her, the unfit mother, and the father I loved. Of course, by the time I was eighteen I was already plagued with regret. I was no longer angry. I was sad. And a great chunk of my sadness seemed tied by an invisible thread to that other child of my childhood, the other little girl sharing the loneliness and misery and secrets of the way we grew up, the girl I hadn’t known how to love when I was little. What I regretted most was never realizing that she suffered the same way I did, perhaps more. She was younger. Maybe she saw less. Maybe she understood less. Who knows? After all, our grandmother protected us from seeing our mother’s addiction. She wasn’t warm or loving, our grandmother. I grew up fearing her. But she did the right thing in her own way. She didn’t let us see the whole ugliness of our ugly childhoods. And when our mother died together with her second husband, who was a royal creep, when they were buried together, and we stood there looking at them dazed, like they were something out of a horror movie, it was our grandmother who told us the lie we’d both spend years wondering about. She told us that my mother and her husband had killed themselves.
Of all the things that went on in that house of secrets we grew up in, what Ana remembers must be less than what I do – and I don’t remember many clues that could have tipped me off to the truth. Did knowing less haunt her even more? And how did she do it? How did she get Daddy to tell her the truth before she turned eighteen?
My sister has a secret. My sister has done something. Something powerful enough to jolt her from anger to sadness, something powerful enough to shock Daddy into telling her the whole awful story. Something strong enough to bring the two of them together.
In this family we don’t talk. My sister and I stay up late each night. She braids my hair and tells me what we’ll do the next day. Madrid is our favorite topic of conversation, and Madrid is fascinating. We talk about school too. We talk about books. Movies. There are so many movies my sister hasn’t seen, and so many good books I haven’t read. We share these things with each other. We share our musical tastes and she shares tips on fashion and makeup. My sister has really good taste and Daddy is as generous with her allowance as he is with mine. My sister loves her dog and tends to rebel against the poor housekeeper’s helpful suggestions. My sister likes late nights and Spanish hot chocolate, and she only has one friend at school. My sister calls our Daddy Rogers instead of Daddy, taunts the housekeeper by running around the apartment barefoot, writes a blog about the city, and hopes to one day write novels that are empowering to women. She hates arugula, loves the color beige, thinks bras are stupid because they’re uncomfortable, and secretly prays to the Virgin Mary on occasion. But what do I really know about her? My sister keeps a man’s watch in the drawer of her nightstand. It’s a Rolex, a real one, worth God knows how much. Where did she get that? Why can’t I ask? That’s not something Daddy would buy for her, and I don’t think she stole it. Our mother stole things. It embarrassed me and it made me angry. Our mother did not need to steal, she did it for kicks. My sister, though, she says that stealing is bad karma, and my instincts tell me she means it. So who gave my sister a men’s Rolex watch?
We don’t talk about love. Or desire, curiosity, whatever you wish to call it. I’m embarrassed to talk about these things, and so is she. Despite the therapy, we’re not normal girls of our respective ages. A normal twenty-year-old would date. So would a normal sixteen-year-old, I guess. My therapist and I talk about why it’s hard for me to trust people. I would assume it’s hard for my sister too. Maybe harder?
“What are you thinking of?” my sister asks. “Or rather, who are you thinking of?”
I can feel myself blush. The fact that there’s no one to think of hangs between us like a black cloud. She smiles and straightens my hair.
“Or are you thinking of the red dress you are too shy to try on?”
I give her a conspiratorial look. I’m happy to return to safer ground. The red dress is outrageous. It’s short and too red and probably too expensive. It beckoned to my sister from the window of a shop that seems to me to be addressed to an older demographic and one much more comfortable with seduction. Not California college girls, geeky ones at that, but my sister insists I try it on. I find that prospect intimidating. But not as intimidating as talking about love.
“We can’t go in there,” I say. “They’ll kick us out.”
“Of course we can go in there, silly. And that dress… You need to wear that tonight. Let’s get Rogers to take us somewhere fancy!”
This is a side of hers I like, but which I am a bit intimidated by. My sister is not yet twenty-one, not even eighteen, but she guzzles bubbly like nobody’s business and Daddy lets her. He buys her lavish meals in restaurants that stay open late. In fact, the restaurants won’t even seat us until after my normal bedtime in California. She likes to dress up and act like she’s older than her seventeen years. She knows what to order too, knows how to flirt with the waiters, and knows, above all, how to get maximum enjoyment out of watching the other diners. Sometimes, while we eat, she entertains Daddy and me by telling us stories she makes up about the people at the other tables. She has imagination. Me, I’m different. If I have the same gift, I don’t know it. I don’t want to know it. I like precision, numbers, science. Things that won’t fail you. Things that are not open to interpretation. Things that only encourage the mind to wander on safe and highly rigorous paths.
“We should have a picture, too. Of the three of us,” she says. This is one of her obsessions. Family pictures. Me, her, and Daddy. Sometimes I wonder what happened to all the pictures from before. But then again, I don’t want to know. They’re probably all still in the house. And the house is not something I ever want to think of.
“We have about a million pictures by now,” I point out.
“Not with you in the red dress. This will be the one to have framed. I’ll wear black, you wear red. We’ll seat Rogers in the middle. He’ll love it.”
I smile. They have a strange relationship, those two. But any inkling of affection from my sister to Daddy fills my heart with joy.
So after breakfast, we do enter the store I deemed too fancy and too grown-up for us. Again, my little sister knows just how to do this. She knows how to talk to the shop attendants. In Spanish, no less. Before I know it, I am behind a velvet curtain, in front of a floor to ceiling mirror, the red dress hanging on a hook on the wall. I strip carefully down to my bra and panties. I try not to look at myself. I know there’s nothing wrong with my body, except I’m probably too pale. But being naked, or even this close to naked, in a store, in the center of Madrid, with my sister waiting anxiously outside embarrasses me. I grab the red dress off its hanger and slip it over my head. Its hemline falls lower than I feared. It actually covers me well enough and the color warms my features. I smile. Then I realize I can’t zip myself up, and there’s no easy way out of that.
“Can I see yet?” my sister asks.
“I’m almost… I can’t get the zipper.”
She pulls the curtain open.
“I’ll help you, silly.”
I don’t object. I wish I could be as free as she is. My sister owns her body. She can be skittish, like a cat, but she is comfortable in her skin in ways that I’m not. She pulls the zipper up and I try to focus on the image reflected in the mirror. Someone who used to be me but is now wearing a red dress, next to my beautiful sister in her dark jeans and beige cashmere sweater.
“Wow,” she says. “I hope you can see what I see.”
I nod. She raises her eyebrows, as if waiting for more of a reaction. Despite myself, my face erupts into a big smile.
“Say you love it,” she says.
“I love it.”
“I’ll pay for it,” she says. “It’ll be the Christmas gift I never got you.”
And though our money comes from the same source, I smile and decide to accept the gesture.
After shopping we go to the park. It’s a warm day, sunny and clear, but we still get cold. My sister talks about the soup we’ll have for lunch, thick chicken soup, yellow and rich, the kind of soup that would cure you if you were sick. The food here has a very stick-to-your-bones quality to it and I find it to be a source of comfort. I’m no longer used to winter. And this coming together with the other little girl of my childhood, it’s stirring up enough feelings for me to want to eat all the warm soup and thick garbanzo stews Madrid has to offer.
Lunch is a late afternoon-affair, satiating and lazy. Lunch is something you wait for, almost starving, and yet it’s my favorite moment of our days here. Or maybe my favorite are the naps my sister insists we take after these three-course late-afternoon lunches, naps when I sometimes drift off into a dream world that is no longer as sad and scary as it was a mere two weeks ago, before I came here and reconnected with her. Sometimes she sleeps and I wake up and I look at her face, soft with sleep, and more childish than during waking hours. I look at her and try to read her secrets in her features, but that never works. Later, in California, it all becomes blurry, her face even, though now I see it on Facetime at least once a day, time difference be damned. Our days together become blurry too, my jetlagged Christmas vacation. But for some reason I remember clearly that morning, the morning of us buying the red dress, the dress I can’t wear in my regular life in California, but which is hanging in my closet, smelling still of my sister’s fragrance, and maybe, just faintly, of the restaurant Daddy took us to that night in Madrid. I probably should have the dress dry cleaned, but the semester gets busy and I keep putting it off.
This concludes our little teaser excerpt. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read The Adventures of Miss Vulpe, the first book in this series.