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King's daughter, golden girl

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When Stella was five, she imagined that her bedroom at the very top of their white house in the middle of Dearborn was the tower room of a palace.

Her favorite season was winter. The snow would fall and she would sit curled into the window-seat, half-hidden by curtains, waiting for her father to come home. When he did, she would race downstairs and throw herself into his arms with a squeal. He would throw her up in the air. "How's my princess?" he would ask.

Stella would wrinkle her nose and say "Daddy, I'm not a princess!"

Her father would laugh and tug on her hair. "Well, my name's King, so you're a king's daughter, aren't you?"

Stella would laugh and tell him about her day and he would call her his golden girl. Mommy would smile and call them to dinner, and Stella would sit at the table between her mother and her father. The glasses would shine, and Daddy would talk and Mommy would laugh. Everything was shining.

"How was school, Stella?" Mommy would ask. Stella started to slip down from her chair, to get the picture she painted today when Daddy laughed.

"Daisy, she's five. It's not like it was important," said Daddy.

Stella looked at her Mommy and didn't move. Mommy looked tired for a second and said, "She's five, but school's important. Honey, why don't you go get your picture to show Daddy?"

Stella jumped down from her chair and went to her bag in the hall. She left the door slightly ajar behind her and could hear Mommy and Daddy, sounding muffled.

"... course I want her to be happy, but you think she needs to be a bookworm for that?" said Daddy.

Mommy's voice was soft "... love her, but I just want her to have options."

Stella got her picture from her backpack, and then ran back into the dining room to show Daddy.

"That's very good, golden girl! You're really talented!" Daddy said, gathering her onto his lap.

Mommy was smiling faintly as she reached across the table to take the picture. "It's beautiful, sweetheart. You did really well. I'm going to put this up on the fridge."

Stella sat in her father's lap, and watched her mother smile and felt happy.

After dinner, when she was tucked into bed, her father came up to tuck her in.

"What story do you want, Princess?" he said.

"Rapunzel!" said Stella

Daddy smiled, and kissed her forehead. "A story about a girl with golden hair for my golden-haired girl. I can do that."

Stella settled in to listen.

Stella came into the hall, and Mommy called from her office, "Please take your boots off before you track mud on the carpets."

Stella sat down to pull off her boots and hung her riding helmet on the hall stand before going into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of milk. There were cookies cooling on a rack on the counter. "Mommy, can I have a cookie?"

"Take two, honey, and come and talk to me," said Mommy.

Stella put the milk back in the fridge and grabbed her glass of milk and two cookies. She walked into the study and kissed her mother on the cheek.

"What're you doing?"

Mommy tapped her pen on the paper in front of her. "Oh, just some organization for the school fund-raiser next month. Seating charts. I need to make sure that the principal gets a chance to speak to the important people. Honey, take a seat, please."

Stella sat down and put her glass of milk down on the desk.

"Stella, honey. I got a call from Mr. Gilmore today, about your math. Apparently you haven't done so well on the latest tests. Are you finding the work too hard? Do you not understand things? We can hire a tutor."

Stella scowled and kicked at the leg of the desk. "Math is stupid. Why do I need it anyway?"

Mommy sighed and rubbed at her temples. "Math is important, honey. You need it as a grown up to be able to pay for things, and work out how much money you can spend."

Stella pressed a toe into the carpet and watched the different colours the pile looked. "It's, just... It's hard, and boring, and I don't want to."

Mommy looked cross. "It's also not optional, Stella. You have to take it, and you have to pass."

"I DON'T WANT TO," yelled Stella. Mommy wasn't listening to her, and she hated that.

"Stella Marie King, don't you talk back to me. No more horseback riding until you get your grade up. That's final!" said Mommy.

Stella burst into tears and ran out of the study. She ran into Daddy as he came in the door. "Hi, Princess," he said, steadying her with both hands on her shoulders. And then, "What's this?"

"Mommy won't let me ride Beauty!" Stella gasped out between sobs.

"What on earth?" said Daddy.

Mommy said "She's failing math, Richard. I just want her to concentrate a little more."

Daddy picked up Stella, and walked over to Mommy. He kissed Mommy on the cheek and Stella buried her head in his shoulder. "She's a child, honey. She's allowed to have fun, surely?"

"Sure, but not so much that she fails school!" said Mommy. "If she repeats, you'll have to deal with Mr. Gilmore for another year."

Daddy made a face. "It's not really that big a deal, Daisy."

"Richard," said Mommy.

"I just want my best girls to get along! Can't you just deal with this? I'm going to get a drink." Daddy put Stella down and went into the lounge. Stella hiccoughed and scrubbed her sleeve over her face. Mommy looked at her and sighed.

"Well, how about a compromise, then, Stella, honey. How about... you can still go riding, but only twice a week. And on weekends, you can only ride for two hours. If you get your grades up and pass the next test, you can ride three times a week."

Stella nodded miserably. "Uh huh."

Mommy bent down and hugged her. "I just want you to do well, sweetie."

Stella hugged her mother hard. Mommy rested her cheek on Stella's head for a moment and said "You have to make up a story for English, right? How about you make one up and tell it to me."

Stella sniffed. "About a princess and a tower and a dragon and the prince that rescues her?"

Her mother's mouth twisted strangely. "How about a girl who has adventures? She can have a pony."

"Can she have a dragon?" said Stella.

Mommy laughed. "Sure. Go and sit down at the table. I'll be there in a second."

When Stella was ten, her grandmother took her out for the afternoon for her birthday. Stella wasn't sure she liked her grandmother. She was old, and wore a fur coat, and smelled a little bit like Daddy's brandy and menthol.

They went to the park, and Stella threw bread to the ducks.

"How's school, dear?"

Stella shrugged. "Okay? I don't like math."

Grandma laughed. "You'll never need it, child. Your hair will do more for you than your brains ever will. Still, brains never did me a scrap of harm. Just keep them hidden."

Stella frowned. "You know Mom's going back to school? She says she wants to do something with her life."

Grandma coughed, wetly. "Brains never did your mother a damn bit of good. She's got my son and a daughter; that should be enough. Look at me—been married four times, widowed three. A man will come along for you and you won't need math, just you see."

That evening, Stella watched her mother work at her desk. "What are you doing, Mom?"

Mom looked up, and smiled. "I have homework too now, darling. Why don't you bring yours here and sit at the other side of the desk and we'll work together?"

Stella thought for a second and then went and got her workbooks. She opened her French book and began copying verbs.

"Mom. Why do you have to go back to school?" said Stella, conjugating. She darted a glance at her mother. Mom looked sad for a moment, and then put her pen down.

"I don't have to—I want to. I only did two years of my degree before I married your father. I just—miss it, I guess."

Stella swallowed. "Aren't Daddy and I enough?"

Her mother came round the table and put her arms around Stella. "Oh, sweetheart. Of course—that's not what this is about. I just want to finish things. And learning is fun!"

Stella made a face. "I still hate math."

Her mother laughed. "I always did too, honey. You know what made it more fun? Having an allowance. What do you say we open a bank account for you? We'll give you a dollar a week, and you can save up and buy something you want."

Stella leaned into her mother's body. Mom smelled of patchouli. "Anything?"

Mom tugged on her braided hair. "Mmm, almost anything. We'll discuss it later."

Daddy came in the front door then. Stella could hear him pause as he hung his coat and hat up on the coat rack. She ran out into the hallway and threw her arms around him.

"Daddy, daddy! Mom says I'm going to get an allowance! A whole dollar a week! And I can save up and buy anything I like!"

Mom came forward and kissed Daddy. "I didn't say 'anything', Stella Marie. Hi, sweetheart."

"Daisy, can I eat dinner really quickly? I've got to go back in to work," said Daddy.

Mom frowned. "Really? But you promised you'd be spending more time at home. I've got assignments due."

"I know, and I know that school is important to you, but if we meet these deadlines I'm a shoo-in for promotion." Daddy sounded a little impatient.

Mom thinned her mouth. "I'll serve dinner."

She walked out of the hallway. Daddy picked Stella up and started walking after Mom, and said "What's this I hear about an allowance, my golden girl?"

"Mommy said that to help me with math, you'll give me an allowance of a whole dollar a week! And I can buy a bike!" said Stella. They walked through the door to the lounge, where Mom was setting the dining table.

Daddy tightened his arms. "I think we can do a bit better than a dollar a week, don't you Princess?"

Mom took a deep breath and set the plate she was carrying down with a loud sound. "Stella, sweetie, can you get the gravy from the kitchen?"

Stella wriggled down from her Dad's arms and went through the swing door into the kitchen. The swing door flapped, releasing bursts of sound.

"—would thank you not to undermine me. You cannot leave all the discipline to me and then contradict me —"

"—good kid, Daisy. She's not going to get spoiled from a little more money."

"—trying to raise her consistently with no help from you—"

"Christ, I come home for dinner and this is what I get? What do I have to do to have a peaceful meal with my family?"

Stella took the gravy and went back out to the lounge. Daddy took a step back and then sat down at the head of the table. Mom went over to the sideboard and bent her head. "Just put it on the table, sweetie," she said. She turned around with napkins in her hand. Her face was red. "All together, isn't this nice?"

When Stella was eleven, her Mom and Dad were fighting downstairs. Stella rolled over and buried her face in her pillow, but she could still hear them.

"Your duty is with your family!" Dad's voice carried clearly.

"What about me? What about your duty to this family?" Mom was upset. Stella whined and jammed her toe against the bedpost.

"I have always provided for this family. When have you ever gone without?"

"Other than most of the week at dinner because you're too busy working?"

"Exactly, working! Who pays for this house? Who pays for that diamond necklace you're wearing?"

"It's not enough. That was never what I wanted" Mom sounded sad.

Their voices got quiet. Eventually, the front door opened and closed. Stella went down and found her father sitting at the dining table, staring blankly at his hands. He looked up, and half twitched a sad smile. "Hi, Princess."

Stella went and got a glass of milk from the kitchen and stood by her father for a second. She said "Are you and Mom breaking up?"

He took a deep breath and said "I don't know." His face crumpled and he gathered Stella into a hug. She could feel his shoulders shaking. "I don't know. I don't know what I was supposed to do. I don't know how—" he broke off, and drew back to wipe his sleeve over his eyes. "You know that Mom and I love you very much, don't you, my golden girl?"

Stella patted her father awkwardly on the shoulder. "I know, Dad. It'll be okay."

When Stella was twelve, her dad moved out of their white house on the middle of Dearborn. He rented an apartment on the West Side. Mom looked faintly horrified when Dad told them, but Stella was fascinated. She would visit on weekends, and go eat her way through Greektown with her dad.

Her evenings at home had changed too. Mom took a part-time job and started taking evening classes. They started eating later. She'd do her homework while her mom made a late dinner, and they'd talk. One night, Mom was standing at the stove cooking when she said to Stella, "Sweetie, you're happy, aren't you?"

Stella started a fresh page in her workbook. "Sure, Mom."

Mom was silent for a second, and then, "Why don't you call me Daisy, honey. It always feels strange when you call me Mom. I keep on looking around and expecting to see an old lady."

Stella could feel her throat close for a second, and then she said "Sure, Daisy." She only tripped over the word slightly.

Daisy smiled. "There's all of this new thought about raising kids. We were talking about it in my women's group. I don't think parents need to be so strict. You're a pretty good kid. You need more of a friend than a mother."

Stella scratched viciously at a mistake she'd made, and then said, "But you're still my mom, aren't you?"

Daisy danced over from the stove and dropped a kiss on Stella's hair. "Of course I am, honey. That'll never change."

"And then she told me to call her Daisy," said Stella, taking a bite out of her gyros.

Dad sighed and said, "Princess, there's something I wanted to talk to you about." Stella put down her gyros and deliberately wiped her hands on the napkin. "I know this would be a big change, but your mother's been offered a full-time job. It'd mean a lot of travel, though. We've discussed it, and we both think it would be best if you came to live with me for the next while. You'd still see her on weekends, and we both still love you very much. Is that okay?"

Stella heaved a sigh. "Oh, I thought it was something serious! I love the West Side, Dad."

Dad smiled, and began spearing his htapothi on his fork. "I know you do, sweetheart. So do I. We can keep you in the same school for now, but you should move to a local school for junior high next year. Do you want some of this?" He offered to move a piece onto her plate.

"What is is?" Stella inspected it curiously.

Dad shrugged. "Octopus?"

"Ewww." Stella wrinkled her nose

"You should try it. You never know if you don't like something until you've tried," said Dad. And then, "I think maybe your mother feels like she missed out by marrying and having you so young."

Stella looked at him. "Do you think she missed out?"

Dad shrugged. "Maybe a little? She never got to do what I did. And your mother is really smart, Stella."

Stella thought that it was weird the way her parents suddenly started talking to her like she wasn't a kid now they no longer had each other to talk to. "I'm sorry," she said.

"What? Oh, no!" Dad reached around the table and tugged her into a hug. "I think—I missed out, too. So now I'm getting a little more Stella time and your Mom's getting to work. Okay?"

Stella smiled. "Okay."

When she was twelve, Stella lost her purse, and in it was the key to her Dad's apartment. She retraced her steps back to school before she started crying. Dad wouldn't be home for at least an hour. Stella walked slowly back to her apartment block and sat on the doorstep.

"Why are you crying?" The voice came from a skinny boy standing at the bottom of the steps. He wore glasses.

Stella sniffed. "I lost my key and Dad's at work."

"Oh. That sucks." He jiggled his leg. "Hey, I know your Dad probably told you not to go home with strangers, but do you want to come back to my house until your Dad gets home? I'm only eight blocks from here. "

Stella looked at him for a second. He looked back, skinny and painfully honest. She took a deep breath. "Thank you. Just let me leave a note for my dad, okay?" She took a notebook out of her bag and got a pen. "Now, what's your address?" He rattled it off, and she folded the note and slipped it under the door. He walked down to the bottom of the steps and she called after him. "Hey, what's your name?"

"Ray," he said. "Call me Ray."

Stella smiled. "Thanks, Ray."

Ray's kitchen was warm. His mother took cookies from the oven and set the tray down on the stovetop and smiled at Stella. "Stella, is it? Of course you can stay until your Dad gets home. Do you want to call him?"

Stella shook her head. "No, Mrs. Kowalski. Him rushing home wouldn't change anything. What are you making?"

"Sugar cookies. Give them five minutes, they'll be cool enough to eat." Mrs Kowalski moved bowls into the sink, put the plug in and started running the water. Stella moved round into the kitchen and picked up a dish towel. "Oh, you don't have to do that, dear."

Stella smiled. "That's fine, Mrs. Kowalski. The least I can do is help."

"You're a good girl. I just need to clear the counter before I put the finishing touches on dinner. I can't stand cooking in a dirty kitchen."

The kitchen was warm and the sugar cookies smelt amazing. Drying the bowl and mixers was meditative. Ray came into the kitchen and started putting stacks of dishes away. "Bowls go here," he said. Stella smiled at him.

"Now, Stella. Why don't you go out in the backyard with Stanley and play until it's time for dinner. You're welcome to have dinner with us, if you want."

Stella hesitated. She was hungry, but she and Dad usually had dinner later. Ray looked at her, then turned red and looked down at his shoes. "You should stay," he said. "It's meatloaf tonight. It's really good."

"Okay, thank you. I will," she said. Mrs. Kowalski put some cutlery into Ray's hands.

"Set the table before you go outside, sweetie," said Mrs. Kowalski.

Ray put the cutlery down and started shifting papers off the table. Stella stacked a couple of exercise books and turned to Ray with the pile in her hands. "Where—?" she said.

"Oh, just—in my room, follow me," said Ray. He turned and walked down a hallway with threadbare green carpet, opening a door on the left with his elbow. "So, this is—yeah. My room."

Stella looked around in fascination. There was a poster of a baseball player on the wall. "Cubs?" she asked.

Ray put his books down on the end of his bed. "Just put the books here. Um, yeah. I mean, the Cubs suck, right? But you got to stick with your team." He moved next to Stella and stuck his thumbs in his belt-loops, rocking back and forth. "I'm a pretty decent baseball player myself. Batter."

"Oh," said Stella. "I don't know much about baseball." She turned to look at a poster of a man on a motorbike. "On Any Sunday. Is that good?"

Ray's eyes lit up. "Oh, that's Steve McQueen, it's amazing. He's the coolest! It's a documentary, about motorbikes. I'm gonna save up and get a bike when I'm older."

"Really? Cool. Hey, why does your mom call you Stanley?" said Stella.

Ray wrinkled his nose and smiled at her. "Stanley's my first name. Like the play, I guess. But Ray's cooler." He moved to the door of the room. "Want to go out in the back yard and toss a ball? I got a spare mitt."

"Uh, sure. I don't—I probably won't be very good," said Stella. "I've never played before. Mostly I go horseback riding."

Ray blinked at her. "Where do you go to school?"

"Over on the Gold Coast," said Stella. "But I'll be going to Junior High here next year."

"Where?" said Ray.

"Benjamin Middle School," said Stella.

"I'm going there too," said Ray. "You stick with me, I'll take care of you. Hey, how old are you?"

"I'm turning thirteen. How old are you?" said Stella.

"We're the same age," said Ray.

Stella smiled, and Mrs. Kowalski called from the kitchen. "Stella! Your father's here."

Stella ran out to the kitchen, and threw her arms around her father. "Dad!" she said, burying her face in his coat. "I lost my key and my purse. I wasn't sure what to do."

"Hey, Princess. Next time, call me. Ask to reverse the charges. But thank you for leaving a note, and I'm glad you're okay." Her father hugged her tightly, and then set her aside to reach a hand out to Mrs. Kowalski. "Thank you for looking after her, Mrs. Kowalski. I'll take her home now."

Mrs. Kowalski waved a hand. "Please, call me Barbara. And no problem at all, Stella's a delight. Would you like to stay for dinner?"

Dad looked dubious, and Stella tugged at his sleeve. "Please? Ray and I will be going to the same school next year."

Dad sighed. "Call me Richard, Barbara. We'd love to stay for dinner."

When Stella was thirteen, she walked into a bank. But you know that story.