It's not that I'm a bad liar, it's just that I'm so good at being honest that people notice when I stop.
"I'm sixteen," I insisted. I'm five and a half. But still, there was no reason I shouldn't be believed. If I'd gotten him to guess my age he'd have said sixteen or at least something close to it. I knew I looked it. But he'd had to corner me into actually stating it, and it wasn't true.
I might have been able to get away with it if I hadn't been dumb enough to say true things to him first. Like I said - I'm not a bad liar. But when I'm telling the truth, I can make myself understood and believed really well. I can't even turn it off until I start lying. Then whoever I'm talking to is all she had such an honest air about her a minute ago and now it's gone, so she's got to be pulling my leg.
He regarded me with skepticism. "No ID, nothing doing."
"My wallet's with Izzy," I told Kora apologetically. That one came out believable, just barely. I own a wallet, and Mama had it, and "Izzy" is on the very short list of names I could use for her without losing the compelling power of truthfulness.
"It's okay, Beth," said Kora. "We can go somewhere else." I hadn't needed to claim to be named "Beth". I'd told Kora "you can call me Beth", which was true. She could. It's close enough to my real name that I can react normally to it, at least.
"Fine," I sighed, abandoning the attempt to enter the community pool and following Kora away. "Ugh. Why exactly do children under sixteen have to be accompanied by an adult over twenty, anyway?" If it'd been cloudy I would have asked Mama to come help me get in. She's a fantastic liar, and she could have charmed that guy into believing she was old enough to supervise me and Kora even though she looks barely older than me. (She's actually twenty-three, but she doesn't have ID either.) Or she could have just convinced him that I was sixteen. But it was sunny, and she was sitting in the library where I'd met Kora, waiting for me. She wouldn't leave until dusk.
"I'm sorry, I would've suggested something else if I knew you left your wallet with your sister," Kora said. "Do you want to go back and get it?"
I shook my head. The wallet exists, but it doesn't have anything in it. Mama holds onto it only so I can make the claim I'd just made. "If I tell her about this she'll just lecture me. She barely let me go with you in the first place."
"Stop me if I'm out of line, but - she's just your sister, why do you have to do what she says?" asked Kora.
I have a very, very carefully chosen web of out-of-context truths prepared to answer this question. "Izzy is very protective of me," I said. "I lived with Grandma and Grandpa right after Daddy died, because Izzy didn't think she would be able to take care of me. Since that changed, she tries really hard to make sure that she does a good job. I don't want to mess anything up for us."
Mama has gotten slightly less paranoid over the years. When she first picked me up, we traveled constantly. I didn't sleep in an actual bed for a year and a half after leaving Grandma and Grandpa. I'd go to sleep in Mama's arms and wake up in a town a hundred miles away. Or not in a town at all. She'd gotten scared a few times and steered clear of civilization for months at a stretch. Once we'd gone down the entire Rocky Mountain range without seeing a soul. Lately we would sometimes stay in a town for as long as a month, if things went well, and she'd let me spend time with people I met like Kora.
Kora nodded. "We could just go to my house," she offered.
"That would be great!" I said. "Unless - do you think your family will mind?" I'd met Kora only that morning, when we'd reached for the same book, and we'd been hanging out for only a couple of hours. It didn't surprise me anymore when people like her invited me over. In making myself understood, I tend to make people feel like they've known me longer than they really have. But if I act like I'm not surprised, people think I'm taking them for granted. Fortunately, I can always ask questions as long as they don't imply things that aren't true.
"They won't care," scoffed Kora. "But my mom is so going to want to braid your hair."
Mama won't let me cut my hair. She'll trim the ends when it gets floor length - and it does, it grows like bamboo - but she won't really cut it. I have the most ridiculous head of hair in the world. Waves and waves and waves of fine bronze growing so thick that my scalp's almost invisible.
It's really inconvenient. I once tried to convince Mama to let me keep my hair at least just waist-length by pointing out how memorable it made me, but if there's anything that can effectively beat Mama's paranoia, it's her neuroses. She's got lots. I think most of them are because of Daddy's death, but since that happened when I was a week old, I don't really know for sure. The hair one definitely is. I've got exactly his hair. Since he didn't wear it down to his ankles, I'm not sure why I have to, but that's Mama's rule. Meanwhile her hair is as short as any boy's. (She used to have it longer but it burnt off and it grows very slowly.)
"It's fine with me if she wants to braid it," I said. "She's a hairdresser or something?"
Kora talked about her family, and herself, and the town, and how glad she was that school was out, and every other topic under the sun while we walked to the house. A perk of people feeling like they know me really well after I talk to them for a bit is that they feel like they have to reciprocate. It feels like it's not balanced, or something, until they tell me all about themselves and what interests them. The less talking I do, the fewer lies I have to attempt: The airline lost our luggage. We're in town staying with friends for the month. I don't need to be in school, I'm homeschooled. It was destroyed in a house fire. I'm sixteen. This is my sister, Izzy, Ysabeau, Marie, Isobel, Billie. My name is Beth, Lizzie, Elsa, Ilse, Anna, Rose... Any name close enough to our real ones, first or middle, that I could say it with conviction.
I went to Kora's house, and we played Monopoly with her brothers Lyle and Andrew, and I let her mom braid my hair and pin it to my head, and I stayed for dinner and ate enough that Lyle teased me about my appetite, and then Andrew asked me out.
And it would have been nice to say, Sure, I'll go get some ice cream with you. It would have been nice to let a boy buy me dessert and maybe kiss me. Even if I could only be in town for a month, even if I couldn't tell him anything much, even if I was really five and a half years old. But Mama would have had a fit. I was just glad she hadn't seen him ask. She can be very scary when she wants.
"I have to go meet up with Izzy," I said instead. "She worries."
Kora said she'd meet me in the library again the next day, and Andrew hinted that he might be there too and winked at me. I was going to have to tell Mama about him. She'd be upset if he showed up the next day and I hadn't let her know. She'd tell my lies for me and send him away. Beth is too sweet to tell you this, but she has a boyfriend back home in Santa Barbara, or something. Maybe Beth is shy about it, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't let it go any further or bring it up with her, but she's gay.
You'd think I'd be worried about how good a liar Mama is. I'm not. My witch power is to make myself understood, and I can do that by touching people and showing them what I mean or how I feel, or by just letting my power pick my words for me so they get across how I need them to. But I can use it indirectly to learn things about other people, too. It says something about a person, that they'll understand this explanation and not that one. That this analogy will make sense to them, or that this word should only appear if I mean that idea. If I have a lot of time, I can learn a lot about somebody without having to actually speak to them at all.
Here's what I know about Mama. She's honest with me. She trusts me to keep our secrets to myself. And she loves me, a lot. I've never met somebody where I could have honestly said to them, "You love that other person as much as my mama loves me."
But she loved my daddy more, and she's never going to be able to find somebody else to be my stepfather, ever. She says that's normal for vampires, but I didn't learn to do this with my power until after my first birthday, so I don't know directly if it applies to Grandma Esme and Grandpa Carlisle, or Aunt Rosalie and Uncle Emmett. I've only met vampires besides them and Mama when I was less than a month old, and I can remember them, but not a lot about them except what Mama tells me. (People don't really introduce themselves to small babies.) But I believe Mama.
She's not sure if I'll have the same thing, one day, by meeting the right person.
If I'm going to, though, it would be nice if I could let somebody like Andrew buy me ice cream first.
Mama was waiting outside the library when I got there. It had just closed, but after sunset, so that was all right. "Did you and Kora have a good time?" she asked. We started walking towards the motel where we were staying. Back when Mama was still making all our money by shoveling snow in the winter and mowing lawns on cloudy summer days, we usually camped out if we stopped moving at all. That was fine even in extreme weather because neither of us gets overheated or bothered by cold. But when I was two she found data entry work online. She saved up for her own computer, and uses wi-fi in public places to do the job, and gets paid via Western Union so she can buy everything in cash. Since then I usually sleep in inexpensive hotels.
"Yes," I said. "I couldn't get into the pool, because the attendant didn't believe I'm sixteen and we didn't have someone twenty or over with us, so we went to her house and played Monopoly." I hesitated before finishing. "She has two brothers. The older one, Andrew, asked me out, and I said I needed to come meet you. He might come to the library tomorrow with Kora."
"Hmm," said Mama. She switched to a higher pitch, just within the range of my hearing and outside humans'. She can go too high for me to hear, but there wouldn't be any point. "If he does, I'll just tell him you've got a boyfriend. I think it's safe to reuse the one we came up with when we were in Beulah, except this time he'll need to live in Santa Barbara like we're pretending to."
"Okay," I sighed, emulating the same pitch.
"Is something wrong, Elspeth?" Mama asked.
"Well... would it be so bad if I went out with him? Andrew seems nice. I don't mean I'd see him seriously, of course I can't do that because I have to pretend I'm human and that wouldn't be fair, but he could've taken me out for ice cream, couldn't he?"
"You know my reasons," Mama said.
These are Mama's reasons: One, I'm chronologically five and a half. Looking and feeling like a teenager doesn't change that - or at least Mama doesn't think so. I've met human five-year-olds, and I agree that they aren't nearly mature enough to be dating anybody, but I'm not a human, only half. In less than two years I'll be as grown up as I'll ever get.
Two, a date is more likely than a friend to notice the little giveaways that make me seem non-human, especially my temperature and the near-vampiric solidity of my skin. It'd be even worse if I ever fell asleep around a human. I control the flashier uses of my power fine when I'm awake, but anybody who touches my hands when I'm sleeping will see my dreams whether I would have invited them to do that or not. That's why I can't have sleepovers with any friends I make, and why I can't even think about having more than ice cream with a human boy, or be out among humans when I'm tired. This reason I mostly agree with, but it doesn't mean anything about dates that are entirely during the daytime while I'm quite awake.
Three, Mama doesn't know if half-vampires have mates the same way vampires do or not, and she thinks that if we do I'll be glad I waited when I find mine. I'm not so sure she's right about that. She's adamant that she doesn't regret Daddy having been the first and last person she was ever with, and that's fine. But I might not be a sort of creature with one true mate in all the world. I don't feel like I'm that sort of creature. I don't think I should have to wait forever to even have ice cream with a boy just in case I am and in case I'm the same as Mama about how I'll feel when I find whoever it is.
I already told her all of this, though. The problem with my power is that I can't just keep rehearsing the same arguments over and over and hope to get somewhere. My mama understands me - she just doesn't agree with me.
"Mama," I said, thinking of something I hadn't expressed before, "you think it's all right for humans to date each other, don't you?"
"Of course, Elspeth."
"But you were a human when you met Daddy." Mama's face did the thing it always does when I mention Daddy: she looks very sad for a moment and bites her lip, but then closes her eyes and breathes a little and has whatever expression she had before. She's never asked me to stop mentioning him, though, so I do, whenever it makes sense. "If you'd dated humans before that, it would have been okay, since you were one too. Any human could be a vampire's mate. So it isn't reasonable to say that just because I might have a mate out there one day, I have to wait for that. Andrew might meet a vampire lady next year and she could turn him and they could be mates, but it would be fine if he dated some human now - why shouldn't he go out with me instead?"
We arrived at the motel. Mama was thinking about what I'd said. While I unpinned my hair so it would be comfortable to sleep on, she said, "Elspeth, there are many, many humans and comparatively few vampires. Most vampires meet their mates when they've both already turned. It's possible for a human to be a vampire's mate, but not at all likely. On the other hand, apart from you, I'm only aware of five other half-vampires, one of whom is only a little older than you. That's a tiny number, and the fact that none of them - so far as I know - have found mates doesn't mean that they won't, or that you won't."
"Mama, I know all this," I said. There's me and Cody Clearwater, and Joham's children Nahuel and Allirea and Noemi and Iseul, and that's it. And Mama never even met the last three, she just heard about them from their brother, so we can only guess about regularities of half-vampires as a species. "But I'm not saying that I'm sure I won't find a mate. I'm saying that even if I was sure that I was definitely going to find one in 2035 or something, I don't necessarily want to never go on any dates before that. I know I can't be serious with a human, but why does it have to be serious?"
Mama pursed her lips. "I confess I don't see the appeal of things not serious... but then there are the Denali sisters." I remember only a little about Kate and Tanya. Their other sister, Irina, wasn't in Denali while I was there; we don't know where she is. Mama's told me about them the way she's told me everything else about her life and the people in it. I had to look up "succubus" myself, though. "Their habits indicate that even ordinary vampires... hm."
"I only want to go for ice cream and things like that," I wheedled. "I'm not going to marry Andrew. I'm not going to try to stay up until three in the morning talking to him and risk falling asleep. I'm not going to tell him any secrets. I'm not going to try to keep in touch with him after we leave. I might not even actually like him after we have an actual conversation." I yawned. It's very hard for me to stay up late. Mama shooed me to bed; I climbed in under the covers with one hand sticking out. She likes watching my dreams and I don't mind. That way she can tell me what I dreamed about, in the morning when I can't remember anymore.
"I'll think about it overnight and tell you what I've decided in the morning," Mama said.
"Okay," I said, yawning again, and I fell asleep.
"No boys until you are at least seven," Mama said when I woke up.
"What'd I dream about?" I asked, extricating my hand.
"Boys," said Mama, wrinkling her nose. "You're five years old, Elspeth."
"And a half."
"You are young enough to think that the "and a half" is worth mentioning," she said. "Maybe no boys until you're actually sixteen."
"Mama," I pleaded.
She shook her head. "If Andrew is at the library today, I'll tell him you have a boyfriend; if you're asked about it, use the story we came up with in Beulah." We'd been in Beulah for a week when I was four and looked fourteen. I thought making up an imaginary boyfriend was fun, then. I named him "Otto Perkins" because I liked the sound, and invented all kinds of silly quirks so he'd sound like a real person if people asked questions. Mama turned Otto into a burdensome fiction standing between me and ice cream. I don't even like ice cream, really, not the taste of it. I like blood. But it's the principle of the thing.
"Yes, Mama," I sighed.
I'm a morning person. I'm usually awake before sunrise. Mama doesn't sleep at all, of course. I hunt first thing every morning, and usually get a few smaller animals because they're easier to find close to or in towns. Squirrels and pigeons in particular aren't hard to come by, no matter where I go. A bunch of those is enough to keep me from being too hungry the rest of the day, and if I don't find enough I just eat the meat as well as the blood. Humans don't seem to like raw meat except for fish, but there's nothing obviously special about fish that I can see. When things happen like Kora inviting me over for dinner, I'll eat more. It doesn't seem to matter much, what I eat or how often; my body just burns up everything I put into it like I'm a furnace. I guess I turn it all into hair.
Mama and I went to the library as soon as I was done with my hunt, and since there were no clouds, she waited in the spot that the building would shade when the sun rose. That way she'd be able to get in without anyone seeing her in the sunlight, which makes her sparkle. I just sort of glow. Once a person asked me if I was radioactive, but I'm pretty sure he was joking. Generally humans seem to think that I have a really nice complexion and that's all it is.
The library didn't open until an hour later. Mama told me stories, at the safe, high pitch. She reads a lot faster than I do, reads all the new releases in every library we visit, and sometimes recites books to me when we have spare time like this. I had already heard everything about her and our family that she knew by the time I turned four. Before that it was more autobiographical.
When a librarian let us in, I picked a book to read while I waited for Kora. Mama set up her laptop and started working. She can type a hundred times faster than she does when she's working - she only goes slowly because people might see her and she's paid by the hour.
Kora and Andrew showed up at about ten, after I'd finished my first book and started another one. Mama got up, tapped the boy on the shoulder, and quietly put him off. Kora said she wanted to go see her friend's band play, and invited me along, but it was at half past eight: too late for me to be out.
"I can't," I said. "I have a sleep disorder." This was close enough to being true that it wouldn't come out wrong. "So I have to be in bed really early every day."
"Oh," said Kora, disappointed. "That must suck. Well, let's at least go to the park and feed the ducks. I brought some bread from home." We started towards the pond.
Her brother caught up to us. "Beth, your sister is seriously terrifying," he said. He sounded scared enough that I wondered if Mama had actually threatened him.
"She can get like that," I said. "But she won't hurt you."
"Are you sure?" he said.
"Yes, I'm sure. Why? Did she say she was going to?" I didn't think she'd go that far, but she could make it seem like she had. If she leans in and makes the air around whoever she's talking to get cold, and lets a little hiss into her voice, and doesn't blink... yeah, Mama can be scary.
"Well... no," he admitted. He didn't mention my imaginary boyfriend. She probably asked him not to. "But... wow. She raised you?"
"For the last five years," I said. And then, though I knew I shouldn't, I said, "Are you coming with us to the park?"
"No... I think I'm going to go home," Andrew said, still a little shaken despite my reassurances. "Bye, Beth, sis." He popped a salute and managed a half-smile before turning down a cross-street.
"She didn't seem that scary to me," said Kora skeptically.
"She's usually not trying."
We fed the ducks, and Kora told me about how she was going to get a kitten from her cousin who bred cats, and how she was signed up for soccer camp and it would start in three weeks, and how she was learning to drive but she was scared to go above twenty miles an hour and her father had gotten frustrated with her and she wouldn't get another lesson until Tuesday, and how she missed her best friend who'd gone to Cape Cod for the summer, and how she thought she might be developing an allergy to tree nuts but her family couldn't afford to send her to an allergist and make sure so she was just avoiding almonds for the time being.
I listened, and made the right noises in the right places, and wished I could ask her if she wanted to trade places.
I love my mama. I don't regret the day she found me - or I found her, depending on how you look at it. And I know that once I saw her she had to take me away or risk her life, because my grandparents and my aunt and uncle have to think she's dead so the Volturi will think she's dead. They tried to kill her; they'd try again and do it more carefully if they knew they hadn't succeeded.
It's not like there's anything seriously wrong with Mama's parenting. She's paranoid and neurotic and perpetually grieving and won't let me go out with boys, but she loves me and takes care of me and everything she does is oriented around making sure I'm safe and comfortable. It's not like I fetishize "normalcy" or "humanity", either. Kora's life sounded appealing when she talked about it, but in sixty or seventy years Kora will be dead. Sooner if she's unlucky or reckless. My daddy's death was a tragedy, and he was a hundred and four.
But Kora gets to go home to an entire family, and if something happened to her dad, her mom might eventually remarry and be happy again. I guess what I wanted wasn't so much Kora's life, as the life I had until I was four days old and my parents had to leave and one of them had to die. I don't especially want a stepfather; I can't imagine Mama being happy with one. But I would like a father.
I couldn't have been normal, exactly. I grow too fast, and later I'll stop growing entirely. But Daddy's family is rich, and that goes a long way towards covering for being strange. Mama can accumulate cash, and we haven't exactly hurt for money since she got her data entry job. But she has to stay off the grid and she daren't risk using any of the family contacts for things like forged documents. So we can't get too enmeshed in anything. I can't go to soccer camp with Kora because I have no address, no ID, no immunization records, and no way to get any of them doctored up for the purpose.
Kora and I got lunch. I had enough pocket money to pay for a burger. After that, we went back to her house, and she got out her soccer ball and taught me how to play. I kept myself in check, deliberately tripping and missing the ball more often than she did and making sure not to kick it completely out of her yard. Eventually the younger brother, Lyle, brought a friend out and we played boys-against-girls for the rest of the afternoon. I was invited over for dinner again, and stayed and ate and excused myself once it was dark and went to the library.
Mama found me before I got there; I was six blocks away. She already had all of our stuff that we'd been keeping in the motel room, packed up into her backpack and ready to go. She was frowning, and kept looking around like she expected something to drop out of the sky and attack us. "We need to leave earlier than planned, Elspeth," she said.