Septemus 45

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Dear Sept,

I’m grateful we have a project to work on together.

You’re getting older and more independent. You’re even heading out alone to visit some of your siblings: Panda in Forgotten Hollow and Manny in Oasis Springs.

When we talked about it, and I volunteered to go with you, I’ve got to admit, if I’m being perfectly honest, that I hoped you’d say you wanted me to come along.

I wonder if you knew I felt this way. Probably. You looked a little uncomfortable when you said that it was something you felt you had to do alone.

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I understand. Or at least I imagine that I do. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to imagine what it must be like to be telepathic. It means what I feel, imagine, and think is right there for you to feel, imagine, think.

It seems kind of noisy, to me.

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So when you go to see your siblings–especially for the first time–I can imagine you might need to reduce some of that noise. Maybe you don’t want to be tracking my thoughts and feelings while you’re tuning in to your siblings initially.

I mean, I know that you’re always connected with your siblings. But it’s different when you’re in physical proximity, isn’t it?

That’s how I imagine it, at least.

At any rate, you told me thanks. That you appreciated it.

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You’ve grown into a young man, son.

I know I have to let you go. A few years, and you’ll finish high school. Then what?

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College? Career?

You are free to do what you want. We don’t have much money, but then neither did Nonny and Poppy when I went to university and grad school. We’ll qualify for grants. You’ll get scholarships. Student loans won’t kill a person, though I’ve got to admit I’ll be relieved when mine are finally paid off five years from now.

You’ve developed good habits. I’m proud that you’ve taken it upon yourself to clean up the park.

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I even find you out there at night, mopping up the spilled paint and graffiti.

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You’ve got a good work ethic, too, son. Not a day has passed when you don’t do your homework.

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I’ll tell you one thing: We couldn’t build this rocket without you.

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Of course, if it weren’t for you, we probably wouldn’t have a cause to build it, since it was your people who gave it to us, after all.

I’ve asked you many times what you think it’s for. You reply is always the same: “Just in case.”

But “just in case” of what, I don’t even want to imagine. I shudder to think of any situation where a rocket might play a part in the contingency plan.

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I try to not even think about there being a rocket in our backyard. A rocket. In our backyard.

It doesn’t phase you, though. You’re reaching the age of independence, and there’s a rocket in our backyard, and you look as if the entire universe were your turf.

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And I am trying not to worry.

Maybe if I give you enough independence, you’ll have no reason to ever leave, and you’ll stay.

Do you think?

You’ll always be my boy.

–Your pops

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Vampire Code: The Road Leads Out

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Sylvia stayed late after school to tutor a friend in math. By the time she arrived home, her ma was helping Zap with his homework.

“I’ll be down in a bit,” she said. She felt tired and grungy. She’d stayed up all night before. But this time, she was so tired.

She fell asleep in the bath.

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It was night when she woke. The water had cooled and her toes were chilly prunes.

“Where’s Zap?” she said when she came downstairs.

“In bed already, dear,” replied Miranda. “It’s past his bedtime. And how are you? Home safe and sound after your adventures?”

“Oh, Ma!”

Miranda wrapped Sylvia in a hug. “Don’t think we don’t know when you’re out all night,” she whispered.

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“I know, Ma,” Sylvia said. “Nothing escapes you and Papa .”

She felt her stomach sink in a premonition of guilt.

“You are right about that,” her mother said. “For example, we know you didn’t make it to your lesson last night.”

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The guilt crashed down.

“I was going to,” Sylvia began.

“No,” replied her mother, “it’s not good enough.”

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And then came the litany of all the reasons why Sylvia should count herself lucky. Why, that the Count would even agree to see her, without her having gone to finishing school, or coming with five letters of introduction, or having to move through the progressions of supplication, was practically a miracle, and due, in no small part, to a certain standing of the family along the maternal line…

“I would think you would consider yourself fortunate, Sylvie,” her ma said, “that he would deign to accept you as a student. And now, you’re throwing the opportunity away.”

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Sylvia swallowed. Why was her throat so tight all of a sudden?

“It’s not that I don’t want to learn,” she said. “And it’s not that I’m not grateful. I’m grateful I can learn… I like some of it. It’s just–I know you went out of your way so I could study with him, and I know that’s why we moved here and all of that. It’s just–”

Her mother waited for her to continue.

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“Just that you’re a very fortunate young lady,” her mother said.

“Not really,” Sylvia muttered.

“What’s that?”

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“You think I’m lucky,” Sylvia said. “You think I should be grateful that I can learn–and I am–but not with him. And not…”

“Not what, dear?” her mother asked, in that slow way she had of showing how patient and understanding she was. It was a trick that Sylvia knew well.

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“I never asked for this,” Sylvia said at last.

“Don’t be silly,” said her mother. “Do any of us ask for our positions? Why, when I was young, I wanted to be a ballerina! Can you imagine?”

“But you are a dancer,” Sylvia said. “And you fell in love with Papa. Nobody made you you choose him. And you–you take to it all. You like your life.”

“As will you,” said Miranda. “We come from a long line, Sylvia. We have always done what was expected. We’ve always answered the pulse of our lineage. Just wait. Your papa and I have been receiving many inquiries from the finest of families. You haven’t gone unnoticed, dearest. Soon, with a little more polishing, we can put your graces on display, and once you see the line of suitors, my dear! All of this will be worthwhile!”

But it wouldn’t.

This was what she’d suspected it was all heading for.

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It was one thing to be trained in the old ways.

It was another thing to be groomed to take one’s position in the noble line.

But it was quite another to be trumped before the sons of other members of court, like merchandise–like a pawn in a play for alliances! She could never make her mother understand.

“I’ve got homework,” Sylvia said, walking towards the hall.

“Can I tell the Count you’ll make your next lesson?” her mother asked.

“Tell him whatever you like,” Sylvia said.

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She didn’t head upstairs to the garret.

She walked through the kitchen and out the side door. The night air felt crisp after the stuffiness of the parlor.

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She wasn’t a pawn. She wasn’t a piece of property to be traded. She couldn’t be made to study with that creepy old man who gave her the creeps and called her names and made fun of her clothes and her background and her way of talking.

She wouldn’t do it.

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She wouldn’t keep this going, this tradition that was nothing more than forced servitude. She wouldn’t get married to the guy her parents chose. She wouldn’t align herself with old ways that forced her into this life that she had no taste for.

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She wouldn’t marry. Not ever. She wouldn’t drink. Never. She couldn’t be forced against her will.

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There had to be a way out.

There was a way out.

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“Do you think that everyone in my life has always approved of everything I’ve done?”

That’s what Aylin had asked.

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“It’s not being a rebel that’s the important thing. It’s following your own interests, not the interests that others think up for you.”

Some things were more important.

Calculus was more important than lineage. Being a mathematician was more important than being a Contessa.

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When the time for her next lesson came, she’d be gone.

When the line of suitors formed, she’d be long gone.

When her mother stopped to wonder what would drive away her daughter, she’d be so far gone that not even the slightest sinking feeling of guilt could reach her.

She’d be with Aylin then, learning what it was she’d always wanted to learn: how to be her own person.

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The road led out, and Sylvia took it, past the forests, past the mountains, beyond the clouds, where the empty plain waited and the horizon was so far that all one could see was possibility.

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Wonder 32

Charlie

3201

When I met Miranda at the Blue Velvet, she seemed distant. Wistful.

We’d decided to ditch class after algebra. It was our next-to-last day of school. I finally ran out of sick days, vacation days, and excuse days, so I went to class. I was enjoying the morning lectures. Then after algebra, Miranda stopped me in the hall.

“Let’s take off,” she said.

“I’m all out of excuses!” I replied.

“Does it matter?” she asked. We talked it over. My grades were cinched–A’s in every class. Miranda was pulling A’s, too.

“Besides,” she continued, “you aren’t coming to school tomorrow, are you?”

I wasn’t. It was my birthday and my day of graduating from the program. I was planning to stay home, finish up a few projects, help out around the house, and get ready for the party. Miranda was invited.

“It’s our last chance to ditch,” she pleaded.”Let’s do it!”

So we did. I was glad. But when I saw how thoughtful and sad she looked, I started to think maybe she was having second thoughts.

“Glad we came?” I asked her. “It beats The Vast and Endless Tiresome History of Policies and Politicians, doesn’t it?”

She giggled. We had crazy names for all our classes, but our name for world history was the best.

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“Remember when we first met?” I asked her.

“I do,” she said. Was she blushing?

“That was so fun!” I said. “Me and Jake the Gardener were playing chess and you came right up and pointed out that it was mate in five.”

“I didn’t want you to fall into the trap,” she said.

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“I knew then you’d be one of my best friends for life!” I said. I thought it would make her happy to hear that. I mean, here we are, getting ready to graduate, and I wanted her to know that our friendship would outlast that. It started before we were in school, and it would continue after.

But when she heard me say that, her smile froze, and she took a few steps back, stretching the distance between us.

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I thought we had a great time. We never made it into the Blue Velvet. We stood out front and talked all afternoon.

While I was painting that evening, I contemplated friendship. My friends are diverse: Jake the Gardener, Hugo Villareal, Yuki, Max V. Next to my family, Miranda’s probably my best friend. She has a lot of qualities that I like–she loves sports, she’s cheerful. I can talk to her about all my ideas, and she really listens. She never talks about herself much, but I guess some people are like that.

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I’ve always enjoyed having friends, but at the same time, I don’t really feel like I need them. If I need to talk to somebody, I’ll talk to somebody, and it doesn’t matter to me so much if it’s the barista at the neighborhood espresso house or if it’s Max or my tia. Everybody is interesting. Everybody is fun to talk to.

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My whole life, I’ve been encouraged to be friendly with everybody and depend on nobody–except myself.

That’s the example that Tia Berry and Mãe set. They depend on each other, sure, but it’s almost like they’re two halves of one person–a sister team. I always felt it was the two sisters and me. They gave me so much independence growing up that now that I’m at a place where I can take care of myself, I feel that I’m a unit of one, complete and whole in me.

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Tomorrow, I’ll grow up for good. I’ll graduate from school, I’ll finish the program, I’ll take this independence out into the world and see what I can do with it. I wonder who I’ll take with me.

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Wonder 6

Mae

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“So? I was right?” asked Ulrike when I ran into her in the park.

“You were,” I told her. “We have a little boy.”

“A son for Paolo!” she laughed. “Will you raise him to be the artist or the player of futebol?”

I chuckled. “We will raise him to be Charlie Rocca Cups!”

Something in me has shifted, after Charlie’s birth. All my future-thought, planning facilities feel like they aren’t accessible. I can’t think about schools or colleges or child-rearing philosophies or anything like that.

All I can do is enjoy the sandwiches that Berry makes for me.

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All I can think about is cleaning dishes.

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All I can feel is this wash inside of colors I don’t even know how to describe. Yeah, I guess I’m still in love and drowning in oxytocin.

This biochemical cocktail of love is great for writing, though! I finished that book about our dad, and now I’m writing a book about bunnies. What? Oh, heavens. It’s true. I am drunk on the mommy-hormones of love.

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Fortunately, Berry’s got herself together. She’s still taking over any projects that require concentration.

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“What would I do without you?” I asked her the other day, when both the bathroom sink and the toilet broke.

“Marry Paolo, most likely,” she replied.

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The whole time we’ve been here, Berry’s been painting every day. Her work’s masterful. She’s been painting a lot of landscapes. The scenes look like they’re from the Pacific Northwest, where our dad grew up, and where we spent most of our summers as kids, roaming around through mountains and along the coast with Frank and Sylvia, our dad’s parents.

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I’ve spent a long time looking at her most recent painting.

I can’t really express what I see in it. Three trees in the foreground, and there’s something about the way that smaller of them inclines away from the other two that tugs at me.

It feels like family in some way, that dynamic of love, dependence, and individuation.

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“Berry,” I said to her. “Thanks for being here with me while I’m this big puddle of emotion. I don’t feel like myself. I feel good, but I feel weird. Thanks for being here to keep everything going.”

She wrapped her arms around me and didn’t say anything, except she hummed this funny little song that our mom used to sing.

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I heard her later that night singing the song to Charlie.

Mares eat oats
And does eat oats
And little lambs eat ivy,

A kid’ll eat ivy, too,
Wouldn’t you?

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It’s just an old nonsense song that was popular when Mom and Dad were kids, but when I hear her sing it, all these marrow-deep memories come alive.

When I found out I was pregnant, I was so happy–so fiercely happy. It was a power beyond me–like in my genes. And I thought of Frank and Sylvia, Nonny and Papa, Mom and Dad. I thought of all this continuation of a gesture, a voice, an arch of an eyebrow.

I didn’t think about a song, and how one day, maybe little Charlie Rocca will sing this same song to a little baby in his arms.

But somehow Berry knew.

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Somehow, Berry’s got this all figured out, this complicated dance of ties and love and independence.

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