My garden was my safe haven. It was the one place that really felt mine at the palace.
But I always liked the times Finn and Benny joined me despite the sunlight.
I was slowly getting to know them better. Benny was easier to read–his face changed so much while he was talking. He really liked butlers and butler accessories.
I could tell that Finn was more like me, even though he wasn’t my real father. He was quiet, like he was always thinking, and always tried to make Benny and me happy.
I didn’t tell them that I didn’t really want to watch the princess shows they always put on for me, so I just pretended to like the princesses who were always dressing up for balls and falling in love with princes. I was just happy Finn and Benny wanted to sit next to me and talk.
And I liked how even though they loved each other, they still made room for me.
I felt safe with them…
But I always felt safest in my garden. Whenever Finn and Benny asked if I wanted to go somewhere, I said I was happy in my garden instead. They made this place for me, and it was all I needed.
Benny’s voice carried on the wind as I watered the flowers. He and Finn must’ve walked out onto the deck. “I’m concerned, Finn,” he said. “She doesn’t seem to want to leave the house. Shouldn’t she meet children her own age?”
“She’s still adjusting,” said Finn. “I think it’s normal. We don’t want to push her too hard before she starts school in the fall.”
Had I made a mistake by choosing the garden over trips to the park or the mall? But those places had so many people, so many strangers who’d know with just one look that I wasn’t really their daughter…
And then all of a sudden it started pouring–but it wasn’t a sunshower, not with the darkened skies and thunder in the distance. I was protected by the overhang over my garden, but the cold made me shiver.
I should probably go inside before they worried–worried even more. I hadn’t meant to become a burden.
So when Finn and Benny asked if I wanted to go with them to work, I said yes.
I never expected their work to be so strange…
My new uncle–Leopold–was there, and so was was my cousin Caspian. My cousin came up to Benny right away and wouldn’t stop talking to him…
You have your own father, I wanted to say, but I knew I didn’t have a right to feel like that. A real uncle counted more than a pretend father, didn’t it?
Was I supposed to say hello to my uncle? Even when he was smiling, he seemed kind of scary, no matter how much he looked like Benny…
Finn was talking to a man in what Benny had quickly taught me was a “butler uniform.” There was something strange in the air between them, but I couldn’t say what.
I didn’t think it was possible for Finn to dislike someone, or for someone to dislike him, but the man (who looked like the villain in a movie) didn’t seem to like him much.
There were too many people in this room, so I quickly made my escape into another. Maybe there was a garden I could hide in.
But I wasn’t alone. There was a girl, sitting in a wheelchair. She’d have a hard time getting adopted, I thought immediately. A part of the orphanage would never leave me, no matter how much I wanted to forget.
My second thought was how pretty her voice was–she was singing to herself, a song I didn’t know. And then I realized my other cousin, Anders, was in the room too.
He was watching her. Or maybe listening to her sing.
The girl stopped singing. “‘Sup,” she said.
Was she talking to me? Maybe she was talking to Anders… She had no reason to talk to me.
“Yo, I know you noticed my sweet ride.” She smirked at me. “Don’t worry, not gonna run you over–no reason to be scared, I swear.”
“I’m not scared.” I was, a little. “You have a pretty voice. What were you singing?”
Her eyes widened. “You’ve never heard the Voidcritter theme song? What, you been living under a–oh. You’re Lani, right? Benny and Finn’s new kid?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “I’m Ellie, daughter of the once-famous Hamlet Richardson,” she said dramatically. “You may remember him from little-known films like Baguettes in Summer or the one-season wonder Blood and Bishops–but probably not. Otherwise, he’s the duder in the red butler threads.”
“The one who looks like a villain?” I blurted.
“That’s the one,” she said cheerfully. “I keep telling him to get one of them cushy superhero villain gigs and just ham it up for the camera and make us millions, but does he listen, Lani? No, no he does not. Oh, he’s super gay, bee-tee-dubs.” What? “I popped out of a special egg, like a Voidcritter, so just the one dad for me. How do you like having two? They were majorly excited to get you, like seriously.”
I hadn’t known that. I think I managed to mumble something about liking them a lot, but my head was still spinning. She talked so fast, and used so many words I didn’t understand.
“Anyway, since you obvs don’t know what a Voidcritter is, I’ll show you. I consider it my solemn duty as your new bestie.” She pulled out a book from under the seat of her wheelchair. “This is Arcticorn on the cover, my personal fave. My dad named me Ellie after one of the characters on the TV show, but her main ‘Critter is Meduso.”
I could only stand and watch and try to absorb the many, many names, “types,” and “moves” she rattled off…
Someone cleared their throat behind us. “Good day, cousin Lani,” Anders said. “Ellie, would you care for a refreshing beverage?”
“If I did, I’d get it myself, tyvm.” Tee-why-vee-em?
“I’ll just…drink it myself,” he said. “Over here.”
“You do that, duder.”
She waited until we were alone again–mostly–to keep talking. “Is having two dads, like, super suffocating sometimes?” she asked me. “I had to force mine to do this show, otherwise he’d never leave me alone. You need to work, Dad–I don’t care if your kid has ‘special needs’ or whatevs. Tough skittles.”
“Finn and Benny gave me my own room,” I said, “and my own garden. They don’t push me to do anything I don’t want to do.” I did it anyway, to make them happy.
“You call them by their first names, huh? I get it–having two strangers pop up outta nowhere and be like, hey, we’re your dads now, Lani, just call us Daddy, eyebrow waggle, totes not weird at all.” She shrugged. “It was easier for me, since Dad had me since I was just an egg. He’s paying all this money to try to find the lady he got my egg from–he’s got questions, okay–but I’ll never think of her as my mom, you know?”
I didn’t know, but I knew something else–that I liked her. I hadn’t had friends at the orphanage–none of us had, really, when there wasn’t any point. We all had to survive on our own, and if we were lucky, we wouldn’t be there for long.
But maybe now…maybe. It would make Finn and Benny happy, to see me make friends with “kids my own age.”
“I’ll text you, bestie,” she said when it was time for me to leave. “You can come over for a sleepover. Don’t worry, my dad may be a washed-up actor, but we totes ain’t living in squalor or nothin’, promise.”
“I’ll come over soon,” I promised, surprised by my own excitement.
But my excitement didn’t last long after overhearing Finn and Benny’s conversation…
“Is it too uncomfortable?” Benny asked. “Working with my former boyfriend? I know he’s very grateful for the opportunity, after the unfortunate trajectory of his career…”
“It’s fine, Benny,” Finn said. “I think Hamlet will make a good host this season–he has natural charisma. And he looks good in a butler uniform.”
“…You’ll understand if I refrain from agreeing with you on the latter point.”
Finn laughed. “I appreciate it.”
So Ellie’s father and Benny had been together before Benny and Finn? And now Finn had to work with Hamlet almost every day…
Ellie’s house was so close to Finn and Benny’s (she told me it was the one with the big ramp right across from theirs), but now…now I knew I had to stay away.
Was I not supposed to talk to her? I hadn’t known whose daughter she was. Well, she’d told me, but I hadn’t known who Hamlet Richardson was…
Finn and Benny had given me a phone, so they’d be able to talk to me no matter where I was, and they even taught me how to use it. I was sad to have to use it now…
I don’t want to be your friend, I wrote in my message to Ellie. Even if it wasn’t true.
It started to rain.
Was Ellie watching the rain now too? Was she hoping to spend time with someone other than her father?
It was suddenly hard to breathe. It felt like I was choking on the air, each breath more like a gasp.
My garden. I had to get to my garden.
But I didn’t make it very far before the thunder scared me…
I would never have any friends. Why hadn’t it bothered me before now? Did Ellie hate me? I didn’t want anyone to hate me.
“Lani.” Finn’s soft voice competed with the howling wind. “It’s dangerous out here.”
“I-I’m sorry.” My teeth chattered.
“We just got a call from Ellie’s dad,” he said. “Benny and I won’t force you to be friends with someone if you don’t want to, but…is there a reason you don’t want to be friends with Ellie? She seemed to think you two hit it off.”
“Hamlet,” I croaked. “He…and Benny…” My cheeks were wet, but maybe it was only the rain. “I don’t want to be her friend if I’m not supposed to. You and Benny are so nice to me…”
“We’re your parents,” he said. “We love you, Lani, and I’m not just saying that–we want our daughter to be happy. You don’t have to worry about Hamlet Richardson, and especially not me. I trust Benny–and our marriage–completely.”
He scooped me up and held me against his chest, carrying me through the rain and not flinching at the sound of thunder. He was like a real father, like Ellie had.
I couldn’t hear his words over the roar of the storm, but I knew they were comforting.
He set me down in the bed he and Benny had given me. They’d given me so much…
His hand was cool against my head. “Please don’t ever feel like you have to do something just for our sakes, okay? Not when it makes you sad.” He smoothed my hair. “It’ll all be okay, Lani.”
I believed him.
When I went to Ellie’s house the next day, it was sunny. Her dad watched her speed down the ramp–and right toward me.
“Hello,” I said. Should I move out of the way…?
“Cool beans, I didn’t mow you down.” Ellie must’ve known what I was thinking. “Would make for a sucky sleepover, am I right? My dad usually waits at the bottom so I don’t get hit by a bus or whatevs, but my arms are super strong.”
Her father was still watching–and he still looked like a villain. I didn’t like him, I decided.
I hoped he wouldn’t talk to me on the way inside, but he did. “You kids have fun,” he said. “Tell me if you need anything–or if Ellie needs anything.”
“Told you we’re not a bunch of dirty poors,” Ellie said once we were inside, pointing at a pool. “We can’t go in without my dad though, in case I drown–note the safety gates.” She rolled her eyes. “I know what you’re thinking–yeah, I can totes swim, but mostly using my arms. So basically I’m like Kampos”–she nodded at the yellow seahorse sticker on the glass–“who doesn’t use his tail to swim either.”
She really did know what I was thinking. Could she read my mind? “It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t know how to swim.”
“Just stick with me, kid.” She turned her head and scowled. “Dad, stop lurking.”
“I’ll be here if you need me, sweetie.”
We had to take an elevator to get to her bedroom. The only other time I’d used an elevator was at the airport, but it was less scary here. I didn’t know that some people had one in their own homes.
“He wanted to move,” Ellie said when I told her. “After my legs started crapping out and all that. But this is my home, you know? I don’t need someplace more ‘wheelchair accessible.’ So we got an elevator and a ramp instead.”
Her room didn’t surprise me at all.
She showed me where to get a sleeping bag and talked about the Voidcritters all over her room, and then we took the elevator down so we could play the “latest shameless cash-grab Voidcritter spinoff fighting game.” Her dad helped her onto the couch, and then she ordered him out of the room.
I wasn’t very good at the game…
But she didn’t seem to mind, and I stopped worrying and started having fun.
I liked how she snorted when she giggled, and how her freckles seemed to move every time she smiled.
And I liked having my very first sleepover.
But most of all, I liked having a friend.