The banner over the nursery doorway read "Welcome home, baby Emily!"
"She's perfect, Dan," the woman said as she bent over to lower the blanket-wrapped baby into the crib. The swaddled infant looked up at her, green eyes bright, the wisp of black hair atop her head hidden by the soft knitted cap. The woman smiled at her husband and he took her into his arms.
"Worth it?" he murmured to her, planting a kiss on her cheek.
"Every second. The paperwork...the money...the countless interviews...the time at court..." she sighed. "After the doctors told us I'd never be able to have children naturally, I thought I'd die. But...you were right."
"Adoption was definitely the way to go," Dan said, smiling down at his new daughter. "After the IVF failed..."
The woman shuddered and turned in his arms to bury her face against his shoulder. "I don't want to talk about it," she muttered, shaking her head.
"Okay, Annie," he soothed her, one hand rubbing her back in circles. He looked around at the new nursery. The walls were painted a soft shade of pink; the white lace curtains on the windows looked as clean as new clouds. The changing table stood at the end of the wooden crib, and there was a deep shelf on one wall with a line of teddy bears on it, identical except for their colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. A rocking chair sat in one corner with an enormous plush cat seated in it, a pink parasol in its soft, stuffed paws. Across the room from the crib, next to the doorway, a small night-light in the shape of a yellow lightning bug was plugged in near the base of the wall, casting a soft golden glow.
The baby in the crib yawned, her eyes fluttering shut, and Annie laughed softly. "All tuckered out from the ride home from the orphanage," she whispered, not wanting to wake the child.
"That makes two of us," Dan laughed. "Are you hungry? We sort of skipped dinner. Come on into the kitchen and I'll grill those steaks and we can open up that bottle of wine I got."
"Anything you say, Doctor Dan," Annie chuckled softly. She took one last, lingering look at her new daughter. "It's been such a wonderful day." She tilted her head up to look at her husband. "I love you so much. And I love her more than just about anything."
He smiled and the two of them turned, shutting off the light as they stepped out of the room.
"Have...have you noticed she never cries? Never?"
Daniel Drake looked up from the pan of sausages he was frying and turned toward his wife, sitting at the kitchen table. A faint frown marred his brow; there were dark shadows under her eyes, and the hand holding her coffee cup trembled slightly.
"I did notice she's quieter than other babies, hon," he tried to reassure her. A smile curved his lips. "Heck, most women would be overjoyed not to be woken up every two hours at night by a baby's wails."
"I just..." she set the coffee cup down and shook her head, looking up at him. "I worry there's something wrong with her. I can't sleep. I wake up in the middle of the night because it's too quiet and go in to check on her. Sometimes she's laying awake in there, just staring up at the ceiling. It's...weird."
He turned off the flame under the pan and went to sit down at the table across from her. "Now, hon...every baby develops at their own pace--"
"Yes, I know, you said," she said impatiently, "and you've checked her out a dozen times...but Dan...she didn't even cry when she got her first immunizations. Or when the light bulb blew out in her bedroom while she was in the crib. The broken glass cut her cheek, but she still didn't cry."
He shook his head helplessly. "We can take her to a different pediatrician if you think I'm missing something, sweetheart--"
"I don't," she said, looking bewildered. "You're the best doctor we know. You're so good with her, and, I don't know, I just--" Annie bit her lower lip. "It's just...not normal."
He sighed and drew her into his arms. "She's a little ahead of the development curve on every other indication, hon. Almost ready to crawl. Already on baby food. Einstein didn't even talk until he was four years old...maybe we've just..." He resisted the urge to make a face. "I'll take her with me to the office tomorrow morning and run a few tests."
"I found her sitting by the bookshelf in your office," Annie muttered, her eyes downcast. "She'd pulled this year's copy of the Physician's Desk Reference off the top shelf. It was too heavy for her to hold and fell. Her arm was broken. But--" She looked up defiantly, worry in her eyes. "She wasn't crying. She didn't say anything. She was..." She wetted her lips, aware that what she was about to say was bizarre. "She had the book open in her lap, Dan. Turning the pages. She was...I think she was reading it."
Dan looked at his wife, one brow raising. "Annie...she's barely two and a half years old."
"I know!" she spat. "You talk about Einstein not reading until he was four. I'm talking about prodigies like Mozart, who was writing music when he was four."
"Sweetheart," Dan said patiently. "Even if she could read this early -- and without either of us trying to teach her yet -- I can't imagine she'd be reading my PDR, with its listing of medication formularies, effects, and contraindications. More like Doctor Seuss."
The little girl watched them from her booster seat at the kitchen table, her left forearm swathed in a tiny pink cast. The plate of flower-shaped chicken nuggets and cut-up cooked carrot coins sat undisturbed in front of her...but she dipped one tiny finger in the small dollop of ketchup for dipping the chicken nuggets in, and with her tongue caught at an angle between her teeth as she concentrated, she slowly began to write.
I glared up at the librarian, barely able to see her over the stack of books in my arms.
"I'm sorry, little girl, but if you're under 12, you can only check out two books at a time. And they have to be from the children's library." I could see her frowning down at the top volume of the stack: John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays". I was reading my way through the Dewey Decimal System and hadn't yet got further than class 100, which was philosophy. It was difficult to get Mother to bring me here, unless Father had made arrangements in advance, and unless Mother was sufficiently medicated to ignore me for eight hours while I went through the stacks.
I set the pile of books down at my feet and rummaged in my pocket for my library card and the notarized letter from the Director of the New York Library System Father had acquired for me. He tried hard and he meant well, but he couldn't keep up with me any more than Mother could; twelve books was the most he had been able to bargain for, and I would be done with these twelve by this time tomorrow. Given that I probably couldn't convince Mother to bring me back so soon, I wouldn't be able to return for at least a week, which meant a frustrating six days of searching for educational material on the Internet -- a laughable proposition, at best. Father's clunky old desktop computer ran like a sea slug on Thorazine, although I had figured out how to disable the child-safety protocols that censured three-quarters of the really interesting sites within two weeks of learning how to use the machine.
I handed the note and card up to the librarian, who had to be new; I didn't recognize her, and all the other librarians knew me by now. Well enough to stay out of my way. I watched as she read the letter, brows rising in consternation. She looked around, almost certainly thinking she was being tricked; when she couldn't see anyone watching her, or any cameras, she looked back down at me. "I'll have to go check to make sure this is...authorized..." Her voice trailed off, no doubt at the impatient look on my face.
One day, I would be old enough to dispense with this nonsense. One day, I would find my passion.
Until then, everything else was just data collection.
"Is that the new Holly Black novel?"
I turned toward the girlish voice at my left, frowning. The backpack across my shoulders was full of books and heavy, threatening to drag me backward, but the other pile of books I carried in my arms helped balance me out as I turned.
The girl who had spoken looked about my own age, as did the four other girls with her. She wore the school uniform of St. Jonathan's, which was distinguished from the uniform of St. Martin's -- its closest competitor -- by the slightly darker golden hue in the yellow-and-blue tie they wore with the navy blazer and skirt and white blouses. Of course, given the rabid antagonism between the two schools, they wouldn't appreciate the idea that there was no difference between them but two shades on a Pantone scale.
"No," I answered reluctantly, dipping the pile to better show off the cover. I already knew which way this encounter was going to go. Humans! So parochial. So aggressive. So afraid of anything that was different from them. "It's Pico Della Mirandola's 'Oration on the Dignity of Man'." I had made it to the section on Religion in the library, classification 200-300 in the Dewey Decimal System.
She crinkled her nose in confusion. "What?"
I sighed. "It's the masterwork of an Italian Renaissance philosopher, a prodigy who wrote this at the age of 23, defending 900 theses on religion, philosophy, and magic against any who would argue with him. It's considered the Manifesto of the Renaissance, the key to the Hermetic Revolution."
"What?" Her brow was crunched up in puzzlement, and the other girls with her were shifting from foot to foot. Most looked uneasy. The one with the hockey stick in the athletic bag across her shoulder was starting to look eager, a dark glint in her eyes.
"Pico della Mirandola spoke in front of hostile clerics of the dignity of the liberal arts and about the dignity and glory of angels. Of these angels he spoke of three divisions in particular: the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones. These are the top three choirs in the angel hierarchy; each one embodying a different virtue. The Seraphim represent charity, and in order to obtain the status of Seraphim Mirandola declares that one must "burn with love for the Creator." The Cherubim represent intelligence. This status is obtained through contemplation and meditation. Finally, Thrones represent justice, and this is obtained by being just in ruling over 'inferior things.' Of these three, the Thrones is the lowest, Cherubim the middle, and Seraphim the highest. In this speech, Mirandola emphasizes the Cherubim and that by embodying the values of the Cherub, one can be equally prepared for "the fire of the Seraphim and the judgment of the Thrones." This deviation into the hierarchy of angels makes sense when Pico della Mirandola made his point that a philosopher "is a creature of Heaven and not of earth" because they are capable of obtaining any one of the statuses."
She gaped. I envied the Thrones, because I had no patience in dealing with inferior things. Like this lump of animate carbon.
"In the Oration, Pico justified the importance of the human quest for knowledge within a Neoplatonic framework. He writes that after God had created all creatures, he conceived of the desire for another, sentient being who would appreciate all his works, but there was no longer any room in the chain of being; all the possible slots from angels to worms had been filled. So, God created man such that he had no specific slot in the chain. Instead, men were capable of learning from and imitating any existing creature. When man philosophizes, he ascends the chain of being towards the angels, and communion with God. When he fails to exercise his intellect, he vegetates. Pico did not fail to notice that this system made philosophers like himself among the most dignified human creatures. The idea that men could ascend the chain of being through the exercise of their intellectual capacities was a profound endorsement of the dignity of human existence in this earthly life. The root of this dignity lay in his assertion that only human beings could change themselves through their own free will, whereas all other changes in nature were the result of some outside force acting on whatever it is that undergoes change. He observed from history that philosophies and institutions were always in change, making man's capacity for self-transformation the only constant. Coupled with his belief that all of creation constitutes a symbolic reflection of the divinity of God, Pico's philosophies had a profound influence on the arts, helping to elevate writers and painters from their medieval role as mere artisans to the Renaissance ideal of the artist as genius."
Their eyes were glazing over.
"It's..." I shook my head. "It's not the new Holly Black book."
"You're weird," the girl snorted, looking disdainful.
"Yes," I agreed patiently. "I have been assured of this before."
"I don't like weird," she whined petulantly. The girl with the hockey stick grinned, sliding the athletic bag off her shoulder.
"Why does this not surprise me?" I asked rhetorically. I glanced over at the other girls. One had wrapped the strap of her purse around her fist, and it swung heavily side to side. Another had pulled the chopsticks out of her hair. "Are we really going to engage in a round of undistilled and overt aggression here in public, on the library stairs?"
"...what?" the girl mumbled again.
I pulled out my cell phone and held it up for them to see. "I have the police on speed dial," I told them.
A couple of the girls looked nervous at that, but the one with the hockey stick -- which was being slid out of her athletic bag -- only grinned. "I love a challenge," she growled.
I blew out the ten candles on the cake. "Now can I go back to my room?" I asked, eager to get back to the book I had smuggled out of the library's rare book room. One of the librarians had left a display case carelessly unlocked, and RFID tracking tags were never inserted into anything as valuable as the 1521 edition of Le Dragon Rouge; the adhesive was sure to damage the book. The Grand Grimoire was worth too much to count, and was not planning to return it once I had finished it. Books like that one weren't meant to be kept under glass and gather dust; they needed to be read. I resented being torn away from the section on necromancy for something as superfluous as cake and ice cream. It'd taken me an entire week to learn French just so I could read it.
"Not yet, Emily," Mother said hollowly. "Don't you want to open your presents first?"
I looked at her blankly and she dipped her head. She wasn't doing very well lately; I knew she had thought that things would 'get better' once I got into school. Kindergarten had disabused her of that notion, and then there had been the parade of private tutors, until by the time I turned eight, Father had arranged for me to be homeschooled. Although that was really a misnomer; if anything, I was doing the schooling myself. The endless avalanche of books had been leavened with the occasional attempt at other forms of education: the ballet classes, the karate classes, art and music classes. I could play the violin and flute with moderate skill but no real passion, had quit the martial arts classes when I realized that I could find the pressure points to disable any bullies in my Father's medical texts...and then there had been the unfortunate incident with the Exacto knives for woodcarving class. They didn't really work well as scalpels, and Mother had needed to be sedated when she found the rat I had dissected.
So books it was.
There was just one wrapped package: rectangular, flat, mildly heavy. I carefully unfolded the wrapping paper to find a top-of-the-line laptop with all the bells and whistles, and the grin that crept over my lips made Mother blink and pull her chair back a bit.
"Thank you both!" I said politely. "This will be very useful. I...I love it." I managed not to wince at the unfamiliar word, and they both looked slightly shocked I had used it. But it was not, quite, a lie; not given that I had a long list of sites that sold rare books, and another long list of hacked credit card numbers.
Best. Gift. Ever.
A coin clinked into the open, empty coffee cup that sat down by my crossed knees.
I looked up, but the man who had tossed it in was already hurrying away, briefcase swinging, just another faceless member of the masses hurrying back and forth in front of the library on their way to the next part of their lives. I stuck a finger in between the pages of "Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation" by Velma Maia Thomas. I had made it to 326 in the Dewey Decimal System. It was taking longer than I had anticipated to read through the library's 53 million books.
I peered back at the man as he paused at a newsstand to buy a paper. Expensive suit. Black hair and mustache and goatee. Early 40s, I judged. It took less than a second to recognize him as Tony Stark.
I fished the coin out of the cup. It was a quarter, now damp with the dregs of my coffee, and I realized that, sitting in front of the library with my bag of books and empty cup, my jeans stained from last night's experiments with the chemistry set Father had gotten me for Christmas, he must have thought I was homeless.
"Really?" I murmured. A theoretically homeless twelve-year-old girl was worth exactly a quarter to the multibillionaire.
A theoretically homeless twelve-year-old girl was worth exactly a quarter to Iron Man. "Really?"
I turned my head and spat. Worthless scum. My respect for most of the human race got lower every day.
I looked up at the sound of my father's voice. He had pulled the car up in front of the library. There was almost no brown left in his hair, and the salt there strongly outweighed the pepper. Mother wasn't with him, of course; she hadn't been out of the mental health facility in almost five months, since she had found the stash of my books behind the baseboard in my closet. Between the 1589 edition of Leonardo Vairo's 'De Fascino Libri Tres' -- one of the Renaissance's major works on demonology -- and Johannes Weirus' 'Histoires, Disputes et Discours des Illusions et Impostures des Diables' (I'd needed to learn Latin and German to follow the multileveled discourse), the unstable walls of her mind had finally collapsed. From what Father told me after his twice-weekly visits, she was doing well with finger-painting therapy these days.
"Coming," I told him flatly and gathered up my book-bag, tossing the empty coffee cup -- along with the quarter it contained -- into the trash can on the street corner before climbing into the car.
I was 15 when I came back from the library and found all my books gone.
That was when I knew I had to leave home.
Father refused to tell me where he had taken them, or whether he had destroyed them -- almost a million dollars' worth of stolen occult texts, gone.
I was not to blame for the curse that escaped my lips. I am human, and as prone to anger as anyone. Perhaps more; the psychiatrist I saw between the ages of four and seven claimed I was autistic, with OCD and anger issues. The testing they did could not properly measure my IQ, and even at the age of four I knew I had perfect photographic memory without any of their evaluations.
He locked me in my bedroom -- a futile gesture, really, given that one of the first spells I had actually discovered that really worked was one to open any lock (vastly useful at the library's rare book collection vault) -- and gone out without saying where.
My computer was gone, and he had taken my cell phone.
So I had stuffed some clothing into my backpack, along with the three or four personal journals I had hidden up above the drop ceiling panels in my bedroom. I packed my hairbrush, my toothbrush, a blanket and my pillow, a bar of soap and a washcloth, a handful of pens and pencils, some other personal hygiene products, and muttered three words in a language that was not commonly known to humans that would unlock my door.
Now I live at the library. I have ceased to read my way through the Dewey Decimal System, and concentrate mostly on those subject matters that will allow me to live my life as I please, without interference with my freedom. Chemistry. Computers. Languages. History.
There are simple charms to bring money to me, to disable security cameras and alarms, to keep people from looking too closely at me, or for me.
My father lost his medical license a year after I left home. He reported my disappearance to the police, but they found nothing. No doubt they thought he had killed me -- perhaps even molested me, now that my Mother was not home to deal with his needs -- but they could find no proof. He began to drink, and the resultant decline in his professional behavior was enough, after awhile, for the AMA to censure him. I have no idea where he is these days.
The world has changed greatly in the last few years. Iron Men. Hulks. Even -- supposedly -- gods, walking the earth. None of that matters, although some of it is intriguing.
I simply want to be left alone to my studies in peace.
I will be left alone to study in peace...or those that interfere will pay the price.