I had to go to school, whether I was Finn and Benny’s real daughter or not. But the thought of going to a new place alone, full of people I didn’t know, made it hard to breathe.
I clutched a pillow to my chest, since my bear was all the way up in my room.
“Ah, to be that age again,” Benny said. He didn’t notice how upset I was.
“What’s wrong, Lani?” Finn asked. “Aren’t you excited to make new friends, learn new things?”
I didn’t need any new friends. I had Ellie. And maybe…maybe she could help me pretend. “I’m worried about Ellie,” I said sadly. “I don’t think she has many friends. I wonder if she’d like it if I went to her school…”
“That’s very sweet of you to worry about her,” Finn said, “but I don’t think you have to–”
I slid off the sofa and leaned against it, looking up at Finn. “It’s not easy for her to make new friends,” I insisted. “Because she’s different.” I didn’t have to pretend very hard to make tears fill my eyes. “And the other kids might be mean to her, but maybe they wouldn’t if she had a friend…”
“Lani…” Benny surprised me by following me off the couch, kneeling on the floor in front of me.
“Did I do something wrong?” Could he tell I was pretending? I thought Finn was better at that, not Benny. I was going to cry. I didn’t want to cry in front of Finn and Benny.
Benny shook his head. “Absolutely not,” he said. “You should be commended for putting your friend’s feelings first–you have the spirit of a Lyons butler. We’d be happy to send you to whatever overpriced private school old Hamlet Richardson thinks is good enough for his little girl, because she’s lucky to have a friend like you–and we’re lucky to have you for a daughter.”
A daughter. They kept using that word, like they meant it. “Thank you, Ben…Father.”
He stared at me–and then pulled me into a hug.
“No more mentioning money in front of our daughter, Benny. We’ve got plenty of it. And it’s not something you ever need to worry about–understand, Lani?”
Even if I’d pretended just so I could go to school with Ellie, it was the right choice, in the end. I couldn’t imagine making it through school without her, either then or now.
I knew it was a bad thought, one unsuitable for both a friend and a Lyons butler, but I never had to worry about anyone staring at me when I was with her. Their eyes always went to Ellie first, or her chair, or sometimes her curly red hair–if they didn’t look away and pretend she didn’t exist.
But how could they pretend she wasn’t there? Ellie commanded every room she was in–or the entire world, if she wasn’t in a room at all. The only times she was quiet was when she needed my help…
I learned to anticipate when she needed help without her ever having to ask. She had Good Days, when her legs were strong enough to hold her weight, and Bad Days, when they wobbled alarmingly. Days tended to be worst in the summer, when temperatures rose to scorching levels and she wilted under the sun’s rays.
But today was mild, for Starlight Shores.
“You totes can go skating with everybody else,” Ellie said. “No skin off my gapped teeth, swear to Nimbus.”
We were on a field trip for our science class, something to teach us about velocity and momentum, but Ellie swore it was just because the teacher was tired of being stuck inside during nice Starlight Shores weather.
“I don’t want to,” I said, pushing her again. I didn’t have to pretend–I’d rather stay close to Ellie than be around so many classmates I’d never even talked to before. “I always have fun with you, Ellie.”
“At least plant your pancake-y bum on the other swing and swing with me, Lala,” she said.
And so we learned about velocity and momentum together…
We were in a world of our own. The only world I wanted to live in.
Afterwards, we met at the Smiling Daisy Cafe, like we often did after school. It was wheelchair accessible–and run by my aunt and uncle, so my cousins Anders and Caspian were almost always with us.
Anders was a straight-A student, so I couldn’t understand why Ellie didn’t like it when he helped her with her homework…
“If you could just hurry it up, that’d be great, tyvm,” Ellie said. “Places to be and all, you know how it is.”
“I could escort you to these places, if you like,” Anders said.
“Nooo, we would def not like, would we, Lala?”
Anders was my cousin, so I couldn’t be too rude to him. “We have a lot of…girl things to talk about? Privately?”
“Damn skippy we do,” Ellie said. “Not like I wear out my shoes or nothin’–all the more reason to talk about ‘em, since they last forever like Mytheme farts.” (Ellie liked to make up Voidcritter lore and got into a lot of edit battles on their wikis…)
Ellie didn’t particularly care about shoes, not unless they were limited edition Voidcritter sneakers, but Anders didn’t seem to know that, even though he should’ve.
Or maybe he was like me, and pretended when he had to. He was always very polite. “Very well, Ellie. I’ll be certain to have your assignment finished before you leave.” He was disappointed, though–I could tell that much.
I knew he liked Ellie. Ellie knew he liked her too, so why was she so flippant around him? I was too afraid to ask her, in case it made her think less of me.
Anders often came over to Ellie’s house–hers was the only house with both a ramp and an elevator, so we almost never went to mine–and Caspian came too, when he wasn’t busy with butler training.
He was younger than Anders and had more to learn–and everyone agreed that Anders was brilliant and naturally talented, even Ellie.
I wished Caspian didn’t come over to my house so much, though… He especially liked claiming Father’s time and attention, probably because of the butler connection.
Father always looked delighted to see him…and Caspian too, even though he had a butler father of his own.
I knew Father had always wanted a son, even if he tried to hide it…
I’d learned in Biology that Caspian was genetically Father’s child too, since he and Uncle Leopold were identical twins.
Why did Caspian have to come over so much? And why did he and Father always disappear into rooms alone and shut the door behind them?
I asked Dad once, and only once. I knew I didn’t have a right to, but I couldn’t help myself.
He hesitated before answering, which made my heart hurt. “Caspian has a lot of questions that Benny is uniquely qualified to answer,” he said at last. “I can’t say any more than that, Lani. I’m sorry.”
“I understand,” I lied, because I knew that’s what Dad would want to hear. But couldn’t Caspian save his butler questions for Uncle Leopold instead?
At least Caspian and I were almost even, because I knew Aunt Daisy had always wanted a daughter.
“Oooh, are those boys giving you enough to eat?” Aunt Daisy asked. “Ohmigosh, you’re all skin and bones.” She was convinced I’d never gotten enough to eat at the orphanage, even though it was years ago now, and had tried to make it up to me ever since. She was also terrified I’d starve to death in my vampire fathers’ care.
“I’m naturally skinny, Aunt Daisy,” I reminded her.
“I don’t believe in naturally skinny, sweetie,” Aunt Daisy said. “We’ll put some meat on those bones, one of these days. Eat up, and I’ll bring you dessert in a bit.”
Only Aunt Daisy believed that dessert naturally came after a snack…
“Can you be a pal and finish before I chug my root beer float?” Ellie asked Anders.
I did my best to keep the peace between my best friend and my cousin…
And then it was just Ellie and me, alone in her room.
“Wouldn’t it be just the greatest if we were in lesbians with each other?” Ellie asked suddenly.
I couldn’t really imagine it, but if it would make Ellie happy… “It would be,” I agreed.
“Seriously, it would be so rad if I could be like, sorry duder, not interested, I am the lezziest of beans along with my gf Lala, look elsewhere, tyvm.”
“…Do you like girls?” I asked. It wasn’t a sensitive subject, not with our fathers being who they were, but I felt like I should’ve known already if she did.
“I mean, kind of? Like, I’m way more comfortable around girls–or you, anyway–but I mean, looking at hot chicks is kind of like seeing the desserts your Auntie Dazzles makes, like dang those look gooood and hey maybe I’ll try a little nibble but I don’t want to rub them all over my body?” She was obviously thinking about it. “And then with some duders I’m like, hey, I’d let him squeeze my Bubalus and make bacon outta my Suintor, if you know what I mean?”
…I didn’t know. “I think so…?”
“I’d totes make out with you if you wanted though, wink wink, suggestive finger guns.”
“R-right now?” I stammered. “Is that what you want? Because I don’t mind…”
She laughed. “Your face says otherwise, Lala. Seriously, I love you to bits–but I wish you didn’t feel like you had to go along with whatever I wanna do, you know? You’re my bestie. No matter what. I’m not gonna ship you back to the orphanage if you piss me off, I swear.”
“Hey, bad joke, bad joke. Let’s talk about how much Anders sucks. Or whoever you think sucks. Sometimes everybody sucks, am I right?”
“I’m glad it’s just us,” I admitted. “It feels like Anders and Caspian are always with us now.” I hesitated. “Do you think Caspian likes you too…? He’s over at your house even more than mine.” I couldn’t imagine having brothers compete over me, but Ellie would probably find it amusing.
She started laughing–and then stopped when I didn’t join in. “…Seriously, Lala? You’re not messing with me right now?”
“Why would I be?”
She snorted. “Aw man, you better keep sticking with me, kid. Sometimes I dunno what you’d do without me.”
She wouldn’t explain why she thought my question was so funny, but I didn’t mind. Did Caspian have a crush on me? Was that what he talked to Father about? It was too strange to think about, since I considered him my cousin.
And like Ellie, I didn’t know what I’d do without her either.