Sylvia’s father strode home just as she came down the hill and around the bend.
“Papa,” Sylvia said, “where’ve you been?”
“Out,” he replied.
She shrank from his glassy gaze.
“Out where?” she asked, but she didn’t really want to know.
“Out and about,” he said with a chuckle.
She followed him inside.
She didn’t know how her ma could tolerate Papa when he was like this.
“Ah, my bon bon!” her mother said.
Sylvia left them in the kitchen, and she turned up the stereo to mask her parents’ kissing sounds.
“Our parents are weird,” she told Zap.
“You’re weird,” Zap replied.
“Now children, children,” said their mother, joining them in the parlor. “How was your first lesson, my dear?”
“It was,” Sylvia thought for a moment, “not what I expected.”
“Did he scold you?” Her mother asked.
“Of course. I don’t dress proper.”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
“Yes. But I’m not changing. He taught me anyway.”
She bore her mother’s gaze. She thought, perhaps, she looked different. Maybe she glowed.
“Take your dish into the kitchen, dear,” Ma told Zap.
When they were alone, she looked again at Sylvia.
“I suppose it’s too soon,” she said at last.
“For your dark form to emerge.”
“Oh, gross, Ma. I don’t want a dark form.”
“Of course you do, dear. It’s becoming. Why, look at your father.”
Sylvia shook her head. Her mother’s dark form didn’t give her shivers the way her father’s did. But still, the thought of veins standing out on her forehead, of her eyes rolling back to show the sclera, it turned her stomach.
“Did he talk to you about, you know, your first drink?” Sylvia’s mother asked.
“No, silly. Your teacher. The count.”
“Ew, no, Ma. Gross.”
“It isn’t,” her mother said. “Not really. It’s rather… enchanting.”
Sylvia made a face. “Did you ever?” she asked.
“Why, yes,” replied her mother. “I thought you knew.”
Sylvia hadn’t even wanted to think about it.
“It was long ago,” continued her mother, “before I met your dad. It was sweet.”
“For you,” said Sylvia. “But how about for the other?”
“He said it was ‘bliss,'” said Ma. She smiled.
“I have math homework,” Sylvia said.
She went upstairs to her room. She felt foolish and giggly. It was all so sordid! To think of her mother in that way! Sylvia would be a vegetarian forever.
She opened her textbook to Hannah Fry’s chapter and continued reading about the mathematics of love:
“…actually, having people think that you’re ugly can work to your advantage.”
A mental image of her dark father flashed before her eyes. Of course. She could plot out the algorithm of attraction between her mother and her father. The mornings they withdrew to spend the day in the cellar together did seem to correlate with his dark nights.
She shifted awkwardly and tossed aside the math book.
Her mother’s old textbook was better.
Zap joined her with his primer.
“Did you know alligators eat their prey raw?” Zap asked.
“Well, they can’t cook, can they?” Sylvia replied.
They fell silent, each lost in wonder. While Zap read about the predators of the swamps, Sylvia learned about matters closer to home.
No direct correlation has been found between personal power and transformation. Melanation derives more from the activation of specific glands in the neocortal area that are stimulated during hyperactivity in nocturnal roamings than it does through the harnessing of energy through bidirectional breathing.
So she could learn and even develop without having to undergo transformation!
“I’m sleepy,” said Zap. “Will you ask Ma to tuck me in?”
“Sure, bug,” Sylvia said. “Ma?” she called.
She heard faint music coming from the garret.
“Ma? Zap’s ready for bed?”
“Just a minute, darling,” their mother called back.
Sylvia climbed the stairs, and the music grew louder, a gypsy violin playing a wild, mournful tune.
Her mother danced in a shaft of moonlight. Eyes closed, she tilted back her head.
Sylvia watched a moment, and then, while the veins on her mother’s cheek slowly darkened and swelled, she turned and retreated downstairs to tuck in her little brother herself.
The books lay scattered in the study. She picked up her mother’s old text, the leather cover feeling warm and worn in her hands. On the mantle, a cheerful teddy bear sat, holding a plush red velvet heart. Her father had bought that for her mother three Valentine’s Days ago.
Sylvia still remembered how her mother blushed when he handed it to her.
“Oh, Zolty,” her mother had said. “You remembered!”
“Of course, my darling,” her father had whispered, but not softly enough to prevent the children from hearing, “I could never forget what you called me when you first gave me your heart.”
“My bear,” her mother had sighed.
Sylvia smiled now, in spite of herself. It was foolish and embarrassing and awkward. But it was also a little bit sweet.