Saturday Morning Short story: The Eighth Year

September 1, 2012
Welcome back to Saturday Morning stories. I’ve had friends and family visiting and surgeries for myself and two of my family members and taken a few trips in between, so stories have been spotty. I’ve been working hard on my novel and it’s hard to root Essie and Little Jack out of my mind long enough to tell the other stories that wait in the sidelines.
 I think you’ll like “The Eighth Year.” I am pleased with it.

                                                  The Eighth Year

The scent and heat of Queeny’s body curled against her woke Shanequa early on August 1. She laid her arm over her little sister so she wouldn’t roll off the side of the twin bed. Queeny always crawled into Shanequa’s bed for the first few weeks in a new foster home. The rules said they had to have separate beds, but when the door closed, they crawled close enough to  close enough to touch each other, in case someone tried to take one of them away in the night.

The sweep of the eight-year-old’s long, curling eyelashes on the pillow woke six-year-old Queeny. She smiled at Shanequa. “Today’s the day! Do you feel different?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“You better put it on now, Shaney, so the magic can start.”

Both sisters rose, stepping on the case of pop-top soup their new foster mother kept between their beds. Each morning, for the week they had been at the Wilcoxs’, Shaney wondered if she loved Mrs. Wilcox. The other foster mothers had scolded her when she tucked food into the hidden corners of her bedroom. They threw it in the garbage or stuffed it into the fridge so it could mold and be thrown away from there. Their second foster family had given them back to Social Services when they found a mouse nest full of food from her hidden supply. But once awakened, the instinct to gather food against the days of hunger that had come so often with Mama, was hard to lull back to sleep. Mrs. Wilcox understood. She had given them canned food with lids they could open themselves without a can opener, to keep beside their bed.

Shaney lifted the pink tutu from her bottom drawer. Mama had said that it was magic and turned the girl who wore it into the most beautiful princess in the world. So Shaney didn’t wear it often. She didn’t want to wear out the magic.

 Queeny’s eyes shone as she watched her pull it over clean panties. “I can see the magic!” she breathed. Shaney knew that she meant the silver glitter sprinkled over the pink tulle skirt. But she could feelthe magic, too. She was long and lithe with graceful arms and legs. The pink leotard neutralized gravity so she could float like dandelion fluff without visibly moving her feet.

Shanequa brushed her bushy hair into her hand, pressing and pulling it flat on her head. She held it with an elastic band while she twisted the black, fuzzy mass into a sedate bun and pinned it tight.

“You’re so beautiful!” Queeny’s eyes were wide, as though Shanequa had been transformed before her into a good fairy.

The year before, the girls had been in their third foster home about a month and when Shaney had  gone to breakfast in her tutu The family had laughed and the foster dad made her go back and put on her usual summer attire of a stained tee shirt and faded shorts. Shaney had obeyed, telling herself that it was better to save the tutu’s magic for another year than to risk it being ruined by a spanking. And later that day, she heard the foster mom talking to the case worker on the phone saying that she shouldn’t have to spend money on a foster kid she’d taken in an emergency, even if it was her birthday.

The pink float-on-the-breeze tutu was Shanequa’s birthday magic. Her grandmother had given it to her when she turned six. It had been too big then, but now it fit and the magic was in full force.

Queeny’s hand trembled as Shanequa clutched it on the way to breakfast. Even if Mrs. Wilcox made her put on her usual clothes, she couldn’t take back the year she gained on August 1st.  Yesterday she was seven and today she was eight, and nothing and nobody could change that.

“Oh my!” Mr. Wilcox said. “Somebody whooshed away the old Shaney and left a fairy princess in her bed. But how beautiful she is!”

Shanequa smiled faintly. Too much glee might shake off the magic.

Mrs. Wilcox saw the girls standing tentatively by the door. “Come and eat!” she smiled. “No Walt, she’s not a fairy princess. That’s a ballerina if ever I saw one. And ballerinas need lots of energy to dance their best, so you two better come and eat. I made French toast. I hope you like it!”

The girls had never heard of ‘French toast’ before, and they cast furtive glances toward Mary and Melissa who were already eating. The twins were ten and often showed them what was expected. That was one thing about the Wilcoxs that Shaney liked. Nobody made you feel dumb when you didn’t know about something. She picked up her knife and fork and cut Queeny’s food into bites. Mary passed her the syrup. “Here. Squirt some of that over it and it’s really good.”

The French toast tasted more like dessert than any breakfast Shaney had ever eaten. But what did she expect on a magical day?

“I like your tutu,” Melissa murmured. But she wasn’t being mean. In fact, when Shaney glanced at her, secret excitement sparkled in her eyes. Melissa turned to her mother. “When are we going to do it? Can we do it before Dad goes to work?”

Her father looked at his watch and then at Shanequa. “We’ve got plenty of time to do it now.”

Everything seemed in slow motion to Shaney. She heard what they said and she felt their glances and the magic was so strange and different than she expected that she thought she might cry. Queeny felt it too and squeezed her hand for security.  She tried another bite of French toast but it was hard to swallow with the magic in your throat.

Mrs. Wilcox brought in a large flat box wrapped in paper with pink balloons on it. The twins carried in a smaller box wrapped in the same paper and Mr. Wilcox tapped his suit pocket where a pink envelope peeked over the edge. Queeny clung even closer lest the tide of magic sweep her sister away where she could not reach her.

Mrs. Wilcox pushed her plate back on the table and placed the large flat box in front of her. “Happy Birthday, Shaney.”

Shanequa stared at the box like Pandora, wondering what mysteries it held and whether it was better to open it and find out or save it as it was in case the magic was dangerous.  But Mrs. Wilcox nudged her. “Open it up, Honey.”

Mrs. Wilcox was full of powerful magic too, and she dared not disobey. Her fingers trembled as she tried to untie the shiny purple ribbon.

 Mary produced some scissors from thin air. “Cut the ribbon. You’ll never get it untied.” But  the ends curled in ringlets and she’d never had a box tied with ribbon before. But she knew the twins understood this sort of magic and perhaps cutting the ribbon was necessary to weaken the magic so it didn’t overwhelm you.

She cut the ribbon and untapped the ends of the paper without tearing it. Mr. Wilcox laughed and said perhaps he didn’t have plenty of time. But she folded the pink balloon paper neatly, wondering whether she would use it to make something beautiful or just save it like it was. 

The white box under the paper was also taped and Mary told her to use the point of the scissors to slice it. She had heard of story of a dragon slayer who used a magic sword to kill the dragon and she looked closely at the scissors. This was a new and different world where scissors might not be as they seemed.

Tissue paper printed with pink and green butterflies lined the box and Shanequa thought that she had always loved delicate tissue paper and this was the prettiest she’d ever seen. She thanked Mrs. Wilcox with moist eyes and Mrs. Wilcox laughed. “It’s inside the tissue paper.”

So she touched the paper with her bare hands and inside was a white dance leotard with silver sequins in the shape of a butterfly on the chest. Shanequa gazed at it, held in the spell of the sparkling garment.
Mrs. Wilcox lifted it gently from its treasury. A diaphanous silk skirt wafted from the waist.

“Ooooh!” Queeny half wailed.

Shaney replaced the lid, hoping that it would be easier for her to breath with the potent glitter covered.

“Here. This is from Melissa and me.” The influence of strong magic subdued Mary’s tone, too.

Shaney denatured the ribbon with the scissors and unfolded the paper. The tissue paper was delicate white.

Satin slippers nestled inside, sleeping like newborn kittens.

Silently, Shaney covered the slippers and raised huge liquid eyes to Mrs. Wilcox.

“It’s a lot to think about. But your eight now. Eight-year-olds have a special powe that helps them get used to all the new things in their life.”

Was it true? Shaney felt herself all over inside and she did seem different. Her lungs were tighter against her skin and head felt lighter.

Melissa’s smile shone with empathy, as though she remembered when the magic first came to her. “Wait till you wear those slippers. You’ll dance like a butterfly.”

Mr. Wilcox glanced at his watch. “I need to get to work, Birthday Girl. But I want to give you one more thing.” He handed her the pink envelope from his jacket.

The foster child opened the envelope and gazed uncertainly at the contents. It was a contract.  Her eyes wandered lost over the lines.

“It’s a membership in the dance studio where the Twins go.  Tomorrow you’ll have your first lesson.”

Though eight-year-olds have powers to withstand strong magic around them, Shanequa’s self-conscienceness dampened her new powers and tears welled up in her eyes and she didn’t know where to look or what to say. Fairies in stories always seemed very self-assured and she wondered if perhaps she shouldn’t have worn her tutu on an already magical day.

Mrs. Wilcox put her strong, steady hands on Shaney’s shoulders. “It’s a lot to absorb, even for an eight-year-old. Shaney, tell them ‘thank-you’ so Mr. Wilcox can go to work.”

She did and they all exchanged secret smiles and wished her a happy birthday. And she was left in the room with Queeny and the magical boxes that bore the burden of an eight-year-old.

Mrs. Wilcox showed her a chocolate cake, glittering with sugar sprinkles, with eight guardian candles circling the top. She said it was for dinner that night. She said they would have ice cream, too.

Shaney grabbed Queeny’s hand and fled to her bedroom where she buried her head in the familiar, common, unmagical scent of her pillow and cried.


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