On Monday morning, getting ready for school, I could not find my yellow high-tops. I had other shoes, but Mondays were hideous enough without my favorites. I finally spotted one under the dresser. I pulled it out, and my head came up level with my chair, where my sister Margaret’s puppet theater rested. There was bossy little Mom, front and center, four inches high with a felt-tip frown.
I picked up the paper doll. That wasn’t Mom. This little figure was chubby, with a striped miniskirt and lace-up boots. The short hair was streaked with pink.
It was me.
I ran a fingertip over the lentil-sized heart drawn in orange pencil on her T-shirt. The last time I saw Margaret, I’d had a mass of frizzy dark hair that I mostly kept tied back in a gigantic ponytail. Not a hot look for a seventeen-year-old girl, but I was a size twenty. The only way to survive high school was not to be seen, in spite of my bulk. Or so I’d always thought, until my best friend Neil sat me down for a style makeover before senior year started and made me promise to stop wearing men’s button-downs to school. He’d even gotten me to throw on one of my own Frankengowns to wear to a show at Fern’s Bleedingheart Lounge last week—the first time I’d worn one anyplace other than babysitting his sisters. Next came the swingy skirts and the trip to Sephora. Last week was the latest installment in the transformation of Josy Grant, when he’d put pink streaks in my now bobbed hair.
Margaret had died almost six months ago. There was no way she could have known I’d have pink hair.
I had found the puppet theater last night, looking for batteries in the garage. A big box with MARGARET written on it in Sharpie had been peeking out from a top shelf—a box I’d never seen before. In it was a fat envelope of photos, her blue graduation cap, and a child’s softball mitt that filled my throat with tears when I touched it. And the puppet theater.
Now, in my room, I picked up the little cardboard structure and turned it all the way around. Silver stars drifted out of the velvet curtain and disappeared into the carpet. The construction was not complicated or especially sturdy. Balsa wood beams provided the bones. The cardboard floor was painted with scratched brown tempera paint. Nothing on the back but faded blue construction paper stapled to the old detergent box that formed the frame. The paper Mom doll that had been on the stage last night, with her swirl of silver hair and stern mouth, was gone.
I examined the trinkets that hung from the wire across the top of the theater. Miniature plastic soldiers maneuvered along a knotted string, aiming their rifles at a beer-mug keychain. Maybe the soldiers were my brother Robert and the mug was Dad. An airplane was suspended from fishing line at the other end. That could be Mom. Hooked over the curtain wire was a tiny piano: the universal symbol for my sister Laura, older than me by one year, but not what you’d call wiser. In my opinion.
There was an object dangling from that wire for everyone in the family. I looked for mine, but all I saw was paper Josy, with a devious red smile, ten times prettier than real life.
Laura had to be messing with the puppet theater. I hadn’t shown it to her last night, but she could have snooped. I tried to recall whether I’d heard a break in the piano scales while I was in the shower. That would have been her opportunity to breach security in my room.
I pulled my school gear together and went out to the living room to ask her why the practical joke, but I should have known by the silence that she’d already left for class. If my sister was home, she was practicing. She got married to that instrument way before I could remember. Laura playing was like there being oxygen in the air, or ground-up painkillers in Mom’s tea. That was the Grant family home.
Except that Mom had boarded a plane for India yesterday, return date TBD.
I double-checked the dead bolt before leaping down the steps to run for the bus. The sun was already hot at eight in the morning. The air was full of cut grass and the sound of garbage trucks. September is the summeriest month in Oakland. I hated spending it locked up in McLean High, but this was the last year I would have to.
At lunch, I lay on a picnic table and watched the black birds lined up on the school’s Spanish tile roof. The wide egg-shaped lawn was broken up by a few tables and one gigantic oak. The grass was covered with kids lying with their shirts hiked up for the last hurrah of summer sun. If it weren’t for the dress code, and if you didn’t know about the metal detectors inside the double doors, you could just about imagine you were free to do anything you wanted.
A freedom example: seniors had open campus at lunch. Neil and I had tried it for the first couple of weeks, but today we chose the novelty of being the only seniors on the lawn.
“So your mom got on the plane okay?” Neil asked. He looked like one of those saints painted on wood: black hair, sleepy eyelids, sorrowful mouth in a long face.
“Yep, off on the vision quest.” Most people would hesitate to leave two teenage daughters home alone, especially after what happened to Margaret. But Neil knew that in our house, at least for the past six months, I was the one who took care of Mom.
“I hope she finds what she’s looking for. I feel bad for her. I mean”—he caught my eye and looked down—“it sucks for all you guys.”
I nodded. We’d had this conversation a thousand times.
“Where’s your extra-Cs?” Neil was shuffling through my schedule. He palmed the papers down to stop them from lifting into the breeze. “I only see curricular activities here. You need some extra. It’s, like, deep into the semester already.”
“It’s week three. And why would I do after-school stuff at school? Besides, I have to keep the house together.” I dug into the bottom of the little paper box for the last crispy fry.
“And I don’t have to babysit Thing One and Thing Two while my mom is at work?” That shut me up. “Do Recycle Or Die with me. We’re gonna make Christmas ornaments out of crack pipes we find at the marina.” He sighted me down the barrel of his straw.
“I suck at crafts.” I thought about Margaret’s puppet theater. She’d made those paper dolls really look like the Grant family somehow, with just a few strokes of a colored pencil. One more talent destroyed forever. In the last six months, I’d asked myself a lot of questions. Like: why did someone so gifted and driven have to get killed while plain old me was still kicking?
“No you don’t.You just don’t think you need to learn a new one since you’re going to be an Etsy success story before you can vote.”
“I could never sell my babies.” I was good at deconstructing vintage T-shirts to turn into dresses, but I only did it for fun. I couldn’t picture myself following directions from some perky home ec teacher.
A dark-haired boy in a retro polo shirt sauntered in our direction from the double doors. I didn’t know him, but there was a whole crop of new kids this year. Neil sat up and shaded his eyes with a bony hand, then slid back down into a slouch. “Yours.”
Plaid polo was almost to our table now. A stack of hot-pink flyers was gripped in a hand whose wrist was circled with a slender twist of tattooed thorns. The black-and-gray shirt was tight enough that I could see this was not a boy. “How do you do that?” I muttered to Neil.
“Hi, are you guys seniors?” The girl’s voice was throaty. Chocolatey. Round brown eyes flicked over Neil and rested on me.
“Yes we are. I’m Neil Hernandez, and this is Josy Grant. What’s the cause?” Neil sounded too bright. I gave him the do-not-matchmake eye, but he was, on purpose, not looking at me.
“My name’s Nicky. We’re looking for some refurbishing for the theater this fall. Paint and stuff. It’s great if you still need something for senior service.”
“I was just telling her she needed to flesh out her resume! Wasn’t I?” Neil’s hand drew an Etch A Sketch line between me and Nicky.
“I seriously suck at art,” I told Nicky.
“It’s more like sanding down the dressing room doors so they actually close. It’d be really cool if you could sign up. We need some new talent bad.” Her smile made her whole face turn up. Short curly hair, plump lips, round cheeks the color of tea with cream. If a little kid drew her face, it would be all circles.
I folded the flyer she handed me into a tiny square and watched her jaunty walk as she threaded her way through the sunbathers. “Did you hear that? She needs you bad. And Mom would, like, give me a prize if I got you to go out with a Mexican girl,” Neil said.
“Out of my league.” The bell rang, and I zipped up my bag. “Fern’s tonight?” I wanted to talk to him about Margaret and the puppet theater. I’d put it off all through lunch, and now I was out of time.
“Little girls tonight. Mac and cheese tonight. Mom has a church meeting. I’m not letting this go. That girl was obviously hot for you.”
“Uh-huh. Love you.” I pitched the remnants of my lunch into the metal trash can chained to the guard rail and then hesitated with the pink flyer in my hand. Girls who looked like that were never hot for me. But I still slipped the flyer into my pocket before heading to American Government.
At home that afternoon, the house was sweltering. Laura was playing arpeggios, which meant she’d been home for at least twenty minutes. It went scales, then arpeggios, then regular music. There was a quart mason jar of ice water on the floor next to her tote bag.
I twisted my own ice from the half-full blue tray in the freezer and crunched on a chunk while I walked to my room to shove my overheated feet into sandals. Shoes were not subject to McLean regulation. The school insisted that the dress code made the rich and poor kids equal, but all it really did was hone your awareness of who went back-to-school shopping at Bloomingdale’s and who went to Target. The Grants were a Target family.
I kicked my yellow high-tops back under the dresser. There was Margaret’s puppet theater, glinting where the sun hit the little metal pieces. The background was painted with soft blue mountains, and silver lightning was glued to the sky.
And next to the Josy puppet was a horse, made of stiff blue-green paper with tiny silver charms in its mane. That had definitely not been there this morning.
I kept Margaret’s old Camp Golden Eagle T-shirt rolled up at the back of my bottom drawer. I shook it out now. It was thin with hundreds of washes, just how I liked my shirts. This one was a perfect candidate to be recycled into a Frankengown, but I would never cut it. It was a men’s XL—its first owner had been another counselor she’d dated at camp—so it fit me the way it was already. I hugged myself hard and pretended the fabric was her.
Margaret had left for Afghanistan right after college. The idea was to spend a year doing volunteer work, then come back and go to medical school. She’d had her eye on Doctors Without Borders from the beginning. She must have been planning to get posted to someplace dangerous because she started preparing Mom and Dad right away. It turned out she’d even been taking language classes: Dari, Arabic, and Russian, so that, according to her, she could read the old signs from the last foreign occupation.
The long-distance fights were epic, but Dad took her side. Margaret was his princess, way more than me or Laura. “If that’s your dream, honey, you go do it,” he’d said on his annual four-hour visit. Dad had that brick-wall build that made people think of football, but Mom was the one who dominated the room. She’d stomped out, yelling over her shoulder, “I’m not risking two of you! One is too many!”
She’d meant my brother Robert, but he had survived his tour of duty in Helmand Province, outpost of the Taliban, and now the biggest danger he faced was slipping in salmon guts on the deck of the fishing boat he worked on and drowning in the Gulf of Alaska. Margaret—the wrong sibling—was the one who’d died in Afghanistan, doing high-risk activities like trying to get pregnant women to take vitamins. She was twenty-three.
I was tickled that Laura was going to all the trouble of arranging these weird little scenes on the puppet theater stage. Maybe she felt guilty about being gone so much now that she was in college. We weren’t the best-friend kind of sisters, but we weren’t enemies either. Once in a while, she’d make some kind of weird arty gesture to show she tolerated me.
I picked up my bag and shook it for change. It didn’t sound plentiful. A lake of silver lay in my top dresser drawer under all the crumpled receipts and hair clips and candy. I stuffed three dollars in dimes into my bag and made my way past the overloaded kitchen table, behind Laura at the piano, to the doorway where I knew she could see me. She was doing jerky arm moves to a thumpy Beethoven piece. A dress strap was slipping down one thin shoulder, and her glossy pompadour bounced on every beat. “Lor!” I yelled.
“Shit! I’m right in the zone.” She lifted her hands from the keys to her hair and twisted to look at me. Her pale face was blotchy, and her protruding eyes blinked fast. She had the glazed look of someone who’d been staring at the computer for too long.
“Sorry. I’m going to Fern’s.” Part of the deal with Mom: tell each other where we were going. It wouldn’t do any good, but I’d promised.
“Very funny about the puppet theater, by the way.”
“What?” She was already facing the keys again.
“You know, Margaret’s puppet theater in my room. Don’t you keep moving the little people?”
“No clue what you’re talking about.” She was telling the truth. I could always tell when she was lying. Her cheeks would go blotchy, and her voice would squeak out about an octave higher than usual. Now she was talking in her normal walnutty alto, the voice that startled people who expected waiflike Laura to have a high-pitched lisp, plus her skin was normal. Mom called it her “white-peach complexion.” Mine was “olive.” At least I didn’t blush that fast.
“Come look,” I pleaded. And she actually unglued her butt from the piano bench to follow me into my room.
The puppet theater looked small and childish now that I was seeing it through someone else’s eyes. A line of shiny trim wobbled at one edge where the glue was coming loose.
“Margaret left this? She made this?” Laura touched the velvet curtain. She turned her round face to look at me. “I wish….”
“I mean, I wish Mom could see it too.” Her eyes flicked across mine.
“I know.” We didn’t talk about Margaret most of the time, not directly. Mom came apart whenever anyone said her name. I could relate, even though I didn’t dose myself like Mom to keep it together. My feelings about Margaret were like a raw egg with no shell, just that fragile membrane.I didn’t want anything to burst out and make a mess. It had to be even worse for Mom. I held my breath whenever the subject of my oldest sister came up. As far as I could tell, so did Laura.
Laura peered at the wire strung above the stage. “Stars and moons, so cute.” I had to wait until she stood up straight again to get a good view of the wire. A cluster of stars hung from one end, and a model solar system made of varnished Trix cereal bobbed at the other. But the Grant family charms were not there.
“There was other stuff here, like not even a minute ago. People. And a horse.” A deep shiver started in my belly.
Laura shrugged and stepped around my bag into the bathroom.
I stared at the wire. So she wasn’t the one moving stuff around on the stage. I felt my whole mental landscape shift and rearrange itself.
As I walked the six blocks to Fern’s, I thought about how different the house felt with Mom gone. She normally sat at the kitchen table for hours every night, shaping pots on her wheel or pounding clay, always falling into the rhythm of whatever Laura was practicing. Or she used to until the last six months, when the great battle for Mom’s soul had started to tilt in favor of Valium versus artistic expression.
I wondered about Robert too, but he hadn’t been a real part of the family for so long, he was a ghost. My brother was Christmas cards with just a signature, ones Mom hid at the back of the counter display. Two photos, one where he was eleven and one where he was sixteen. That was the year he moved to Idaho with Dad. It was like there were two different Grant families: the one with Mom and Dad and Robert, and the one with Mom and three daughters.
I ordered a café au lait and settled in at a rickety table next to the palm tree on the patio. The place to sit at Fern’s Bleedingheart Lounge, café by day, bar by night, was out back. You could watch the outfits coming in the door, and the passion vine-covered chain-link fence kept out the wind. I breathed in sweet steam and stacked my homework in dessert order, English last.
“Josephine Grant.” I looked up. Leaning against my palm tree, in a David Bowie T-shirt and carpenter pants cut off at the knees, was Nicky. The girl from school. She had a halo. I looked more carefully and realized there were white Christmas lights in the tree behind her, making her curly brown hair glow.
“Guilty. Hi again.”
“Hi. Cool hair, by the way.”
I’d forgotten about my hair. I touched it to remind myself what was different. Pink, that was it. “Thanks, it’s, uh, actually my natural color. I’m letting it grow in.”
“So do I get you?” Her dark eyes crinkled.
“Huh?” She can’t be hitting on me.
She pointed a silver-ringed finger at my bag, where the drama club flyer was sticking out. “For senior service at the theater. Don’t tell me you got all beguiled by tutoring or something worthy since lunch.” She hooked the other chair with her foot and dropped into it.
“Oh right. I actually am a tutor, but yeah.” I unfolded the pink flyer over my knees and discovered the paper horse from the puppet theater tucked into it. I must have put it in my bag when I left the house. Weird. I didn’t remember that.
Nicky snatched the horse out of my lap with a gasp like she’d been stabbed with a safety pin. “So you know.” Her voice didn’t rise, but it rang out. A couple at the next table jerked their heads up from their laptops.
“Know what?” I didn’t like how she’d just grabbed it like that. My hands went toward hers, but I stopped before I touched her. Could she tell? About me? That I liked girls?
It didn’t matter. Out of my league. I swallowed and hoped my face wasn’t as red as it felt.
She turned the horse over, tracing the little strip of gold tape on the base. “Pretty Peg,” she murmured. Her features were drawn inward, like she’d forgotten I was there. A ripple went through the horse’s metallic ribbon mane, and its legs stirred. I thought it was the wind, and I slapped my hand down on my papers on the cool metal table, but the air was still and heavy with the smell from the fire pit next door at Vulcan.
She seemed to shake herself back to reality. She met my eyes. “So you know all about it. We only have a few days.” Her voice was firm, matter-of-fact.
She must be off her meds or something. “Uh, I found this puppet theater last night in my garage. My sister made it. That’s where that horse came from. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Not the first.” She said it to her hands, still stroking the horse’s blue spine. Then to me, in a clear voice: “You really don’t? Know about the toy theater?”
“Okay. This is so not graceful. Let me start at the top. You see, I already know you. Your family. I knew your sister Margaret.”
I just stared at her. You know my whole family? Something about the calm in her voice stirred me into a panic. I dropped my hands into my lap, one hot from my coffee, one cold. I looked at her, her face pleading, dense eyebrows drawn together over brown eyes that looked bronze in the sun. Her T-shirt collar was ragged against the smooth V where her collarbones met. The skin there was darker. I averted my eyes so I couldn’t get caught staring.
Nicky sat up straight then, nodded with her eyes locked on mine, balanced the horse upright on her palm. Blew out air through her plump lips. David Bowie rose and fell. “I barely know you, not really. I know you don’t know me. But I have to tell you something. You’re not going to believe it, but you have to believe it.”
Margaret was in the CIA. She’s still alive in a cave somewhere in Pakistan. She was really a man.
“Okay.” I slurped my drink and made a go-on gesture with my free hand. “Talk.”
She began, “What you know about your sister’s life and her death, that’s not the full story. There is a—it’s hard to explain. Another world beside the one you know. There are creatures you can’t imagine, tastes that can haunt you until you’re hungry forever.” Her voice drifted off, and her long fingers drew restless circles in a patch of spilled sugar.
“Margaret was killed in Afghanistan while she was working with Doctors Without Borders. In the spring.” Saying “in the spring” made it easier on whoever I talked to. If I said “on March 20, 2012, five months and six days ago, on the road near her office, after curfew.” I usually got a follow-up lecture about prescription medication or the five stages of grief. I was doing fine on my own. I missed Margaret, but I had my hands full taking care of Mom.
Besides, I didn’t want to start getting deep into my own feelings. That raw egg could break at any time.
Nicky shifted in her chair and met my eyes. She clasped her hands together on the table and said, “I’m really sorry to take you by surprise with this. Your sister was loved, you can’t imagine. But that’s not exactly what happened to her.”
“So she was up in some kind of rave scene? Like drugs?” My heroic sister was a drug addict. It made a twisted kind of sense: look at Mom’s deep and abiding relationship with prescription painkillers.
Nicky was laughing. “Oh, there are folk who would not be flattered by that. No.” She drew in a long breath through her wide nostrils. “Did Pretty Peg—did Margaret ever talk to you about magic?”
“Magic. Nope.” I was annoyed. This conversation was going in a sales-pitch direction that didn’t make me comfortable. I hoped she wasn’t going to ask me to go to the Wiccan bookstore or accept Jesus into my heart.
“Your sister was—hurt when she was a child. By someone close to her.” She looked at me for confirmation, and I nodded. I was pretty clear on what she was talking about. It was the big family deal, the other subject we didn’t discuss because it made Mom cry. When he was sixteen and she was twelve, Robert molested Margaret. That was why he and my dad moved out. Mom and Dad decided it was best to isolate him from the rest of us instead of putting him into the system. They weren’t technically divorced, but you couldn’t deny that our family was broken.
Nicky went on: “She escaped into a kind of magical place—well, the whole world has magic. She escaped to our world. And the Fair Folk came to love her. Oh, I knew this would be hard to explain.”
“Fair folk? You mean like carnies?” My mind showed me a movie of Margaret with a trucker’s hat and a smoker’s cough, selling tickets to a rickety roller coaster. No way.
She kept talking as if I hadn’t interrupted. “And she loved them too, but she got caught up in some trouble she never should have been part of.” Now she met my eyes with her wide round ones. “And she died.”
I was getting angry. “Look, Margaret got killed by some random guy. He hasn’t been caught. They did think it could be an insurgent, but it could just as easily have been some psycho. They have those everywhere. A lot of people are willing to believe something like that could only happen in a place like Kabul, but there’ve been close to a hundred murders so far this year in Oakland alone, not to mention all the—”
She cut me off. “She was killed by the Woodcutter. An enemy of the Summer Folk.” She passed a silver-ringed hand across her mouth when she looked at the confusion that must have been on my face. “My people. You would call them fairies.”
Oh. She’s messing with me. That’s what this is. Furious tears blurred my eyes, and I tilted my head back so she wouldn’t see. I said to the palm leaves over my head, “Okay. I’m going home.” When I was sure I wasn’t going to really cry, I started pulling my books together, not looking at Nicky. I added, “So that whole drama club thing was fake?”
“I confess I thought if I could get you to the theater, I wouldn’t have quite so much to explain. I shouldn’t have pretended. Please. Listen. I came here to help.” She held down my spiral notebook as I tried to slide it toward me.
“Yeah, I really don’t need help.”
“You actually do, and you don’t know you do, and that makes it worse and more dangerous. Just let me explain.” The steely note in her voice made me stop moving and watch her face.
“I’ll buy that you knew my sister, or you know something about her, or whatever, but she’s gone. Leave her alone.” I stood up.
“Meet me at the theater after school tomorrow, and I can show you what I’m talking about.” She held my gaze with brown dog eyes, liquid and too beautiful to be wasted on a mean crazy person.
I looked away. “Oh, too bad. Tuesday’s actually my support group for people who believe in unicorns.”
“You think the dolls in the toy theater are being moved by Pretty Peg.”
My mind went swimmy as I worked that out. I hadn’t told anyone besides Laura about the puppet theater.
But yes, that was what I secretly half suspected, even though I knew it was impossible. That my dead sister was somehow talking to me.
“How do you know about that?” I asked.
“Just come tomorrow. Come and I’ll show you. You do need our help.” Her voice was pleading. She stepped in closer, and I smelled cinnamon.
“No, you’re not. But we can protect you.”
“Protect me from what exactly?” I slung my bag across my chest.
She took a breath and pierced me with a look. “Not just you. You were right about one thing. The Woodcutter was never caught. He’s looking for you and your sister Laura.”