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You are six when you meet Carla for the first time.

Your mother has just died, and you miss the first week of school because of the funeral.  She’d died earlier than that, but the funeral had been postponed while your father tried to find her parents.  You’ve spent the entire week trying not to cry, curling up in bed until you’re as small as can be, knees tucked to your chest and dress pulled down over them, arms wrapped around, head tucked down so that your long black hair hides your face.  (Your mother had always said how she loved it, and you’d spent night after night brushing it out the same way she did but it isn’t the same.  You miss her.  You miss her so much it is a constant ache growling in your chest like a hungry tiger; you think sometimes it will devour you.)

Carla is waiting for you when you get back to school, sitting in the back of the class right next to your corner seat.  You know it is your seat because your name is printed on a label on top of the desk, and you know before she says it that the redheaded girl sitting next to you is named Carla.  Her blue eyes are brighter than her red hair, and she turns to you with an equally bright smile.

My name’s Carla you must be Luisa right I’ve been waiting over a week to meet you where have you been why haven’t you been here were you sick I’ve been sick before but I don’t know if my mom would let me miss a whole week of school just for being sick wait why are you crying what did I say what did I--

And your head is in your hands again because she said mom and you’re thinking about your mother and how fierce she was and how she would read stories to you when you were scared, how she would hold you in her arms and croon sweet lullabies while you buried your head in her chest, how she was always, always, always there for you and now she wasn’t.  You hadn’t even seen her.  Your dad said it was too distressing for a girl like you, that you shouldn’t see your mother like that, that you should remember how she was, not how she is.

The teacher doesn’t look at Carla when she places her hand on your back.  She kneels down to meet your eyes, asks if you are okay, and when you shake your head, unable to croak out even the barest no, no I’m not, I miss my mom, I want my mom, I want my mom, she lets you call your dad to pick you up.

It’s another week before you get back, and this time Carla stares at you, blinks when you turn to her, and mumbles, I’m sorry, before biting on her lower lip.  You can see the freckles dotting her pale white face and you nod an acknowledgement.  When she asks if you want to sit with her at lunch, your dark eyes roam the room of other kids ignoring you before meeting hers and you nod again.

You don’t know it then, but Carla will become your new best friend.

You ask your father if you can bring your new friend over, and although the new woman he’s been seeing doesn’t really seem interested, he whispers something in her ear before giving his ascent.  Carla comes home with you the next day, and many, many days after that.  That woman gives your dad a strange look when you introduce Carla to her, but he just makes a waving gesture and says something like, My Luisa has the wildest imagination!  You don’t know why he says it, but you think it has something to do with the story you’re rambling about before introducing her.

Your father marries his new female friend shortly before Thanksgiving, and Carla wants to hear all about the wedding. (He’d said she couldn’t come, even though you’d begged.  By now, it feels like even your father doesn’t really like her, which is weird because your dad loves everyone.)  You tell her everything, including how much you don’t like your new stepmother and how surprised you are that your dad married her in the first place.  Carla giggles and whispers maybe you’ll get a new baby brother or sister! and that makes you feel better.  You’d always wanted a little brother.  Or sister.  Mostly a brother.  You could play pirates together!

Much to your surprise, Carla is right, and on summer break, your little brother is born.  They name him Rafael, and you can’t wait to get back from Italy and tell Carla.  (As much as you’d pleaded, your father refused to let you take your best friend with you on your first global travel.  But you wrote her letters every day and had your father mail them.  You’re certain he did.  Unlike your stepmother, who hates whenever you mention her.  Maybe she’s never had a best friend?)

But when you get back from Italy, Carla is nowhere to be seen.  You go to school, and it’s like she never existed.  You ask about her, and all you get is this blank stare and Who is Carla? and you think the other kids are just playing a cruel joke on you.  When your father asks you what’s wrong, you tell him Carla disappeared without saying a word, and he tells you that maybe she just transferred to a new school or her family moved away.  You’re still hurt because she didn’t say anything about it and she hadn’t answered any of your letters.  It’s not like she doesn’t know where you live; you hadn’t moved.  Your father says that sometimes things like that just happen, and you think that at least it’s better, that she’s at least alive somewhere.  It still hurts; it still hurts.

You think she’ll send you a letter.  Someday.  Eventually.

But the letter never comes.

Chapter Text

Clara does not remember the first time she met her cousin. Half of the time she can't even remember her real name - as early as she can remember, she has always called the freckled, pudgier girl Charlie.  Carla is too close to her own name; it's a joke of her father's, that she, three-and-a-half years younger, should have a name so close to her cousin's, just with one letter moved somewhere else.  By all rights, Carla should have kept her name, and Clara should have been given a nickname, but even at three years old, Clara is far more intimidating than her cousin will ever be.  Not that she remembers it.

She knows, later, that her cousin and her family have recently moved over from the states.  Her earliest memory isn't spending time with her father or even the mixed strawberry-lavender scent of her mother (although that is close to it) but of pestering her cousin Charlie for stories of America, of what it's like in a different country, in a broken mixture of English and German.  At the time, Charlie didn't know German and so couldn't make out what Clara is saying enough to be able to reply, but sometimes, while their families lived together, while Charlie's looked for a place of their own, she would creep into Clara's room in the middle of the night and tell stories of warmth, palm trees, and swimming in the ocean.

At first, Clara doesn't quite believe in the ocean; it's so much more water than she's ever seen in one place!  And palm trees?  Those can't be real!  How could a tree grow that tall and thin without tons of branches?  (Remember, this is a time before the internet.  She couldn't just look these things up like you or I can.)  But as she scours through Charlie's pictures, bright, inquisitive blue eyes taking in every black-and-white image, she slowly comes to understand that somewhere, in another part of the world, things like this do exist, and this mixes with the fairy tales her mother reads to her to calm her enough to sleep, so that it's all one very true belief.  The ocean, palm trees, coconuts, true love, and happy endings.  It's all real!

Clara sticks to Charlie like peanut butter sticks to the roof of her mouth, and when she loses her mother on the day she loses the first of her two front teeth, it's with an expected regularity.  Her mother always calls an hour before she arrives, around one or two in the afternoon, because it takes an hour to drive from work to pick her up from her cousin's house.  She dances forward to her aunt, who cradles the phone to her ear behind these gorgeous curls of auburn hair (Charlie's will be like that one day, maybe, but Clara's is too bright red and frizzy to be that beautiful, and she wouldn't want it that way anyway, that sort of fake perfection), and she holds her lost tooth high in the sky, chattering brightly, tell mom, tell mom! and her aunt gives her this look, like the sort the teachers at school give the new kid when he crawls into class and sits next to her, when they know that she'll be poking him with her pencil behind their back and sticking gum on his chair so that it glues itself to the seat of his pants and rips them like a sheet of paper from a spiral notebook, that same satisfying sound--

She sticks her hands where her pockets would be on any other day during the funeral.  Her somber black dress doesn't have pockets like her cut-off shorts do.  All day her scattered relatives tell her she looks like death warmed over, all white skin and stark freckles and violently vibrant hair against all that black, and in the middle of her chest, she feels that way.  After a while, she quits talking to them, just whistles an idle tune through the gap in her teeth and finds a good tree with branches to climb and hide in.

Charlie finds her but she doesn't know how to cry and instead begs for a story of the princesses in America.  They aren't princesses, Charlie corrects, but she pulls out an old picture of a dark-haired girl worn thin from so much exposure and creased from where she's been carrying it hidden in her back pocket, and hands it over.

Clara's eyes grow wide at first then narrow.  You haven't shown me this one before! she exclaims, frustrated with the secret her cousin has been keeping from her.  Who's she?  Her mouth pulls into a pout as she points at the tiny girl standing next to her equally tiny cousin.

My best friend.  Charlie smiles a little bit, and her freckle-covered face seems to shine.  She's actually just like you.

Really?  Clara shakes her head.  I don't believe you.

It's then that Charlie smirks in a way that Clara quickly learns but takes years mastering until it becomes a fine art.  Oh, yeah?  Lemme tell ya about her.

 

Chapter Text

You don’t see Carla again until you are twelve, and for the first few weeks, you pretend to ignore her.  Your younger brother is five years old now, and he no longer cries for his mother at night.  She left him just as abruptly as Carla left you, but you think it’s worse for him because a mother should never leave her child alone.  You have already forgiven your own mother for this, if you even held it against her in the first place.  Your father decides you are too young to watch out for yourself and your brother alone, so he hires babysitters in his stead while he entertains another woman – Cynthia, a blonde, vapid sort of thing, the first of what you and your brother will eventually call the Cotton Belles.

Carla sits next to you at lunch on the first day of middle school, just sits there and breathes a sigh of relief over her shiny wax-covered school lunch apple as if she’s found some sort of safe haven.  When you were younger, you hadn’t really thought of her as overweight, and you don’t now, not really, but you’re barely average yourself and the thin, blonde girls with their vicious eyes and their bony thighs call you all sorts of names, so it’s hardly any wonder to think they do the same to Carla.

You may not talk to Carla, but sometimes silence can be golden.  That’s in a book somewhere.  You read it once.  You don’t particularly believe it because you’ve always been Papa’s little chatterbox, but you know it’s a thing people say.

One of your babysitters picks up on your gloom and doom mood and asks you what’s wrong.  He’s been watching you and your brother off and on for almost a year now, the most regular of all the babysitters your father has hired, and you trust him as much as you trust anyone – completely.  You ramble off your story about Carla, and to his credit, he listens, although his expression does shift when you mention her name.  He tells you that sounds like a rough ride and pulls out a little silver box from his back pocket.  He twists a cap off the top and hands it to you.  You’re unsure what to do with it, until he laughs and tells you to take a sip.

You do.  You don’t like it, make a face, and he just laughs again.  You think this is a cruel prank, but you take another drink, try to prove that you’re just as tough as he is, you can be an adult, and it goes down a little smoother this time.  You’re tiny, so you’re drunk in no time, even though you don’t know that’s what this is, and you’ve passed out by the time your father comes home.  He presses a kiss to your forehead, but when he smells the alcohol on your breath, he thinks it is just his own echoed back to him.

When you wake up, you vaguely remember another sitter giving you a taste of something like this a very long time ago.  You think it must have been when your mom died.  But you don’t like thinking about that.

After weeks of this – Carla hiding with you and your friends at lunch, Carla sitting in the back of your shared classes only a few seats away, Carla occasionally exclaiming something in harsh German loud enough for you to hear but not enough for other people to give her the same frightened stare – you confront her.

“Where were you?”

Carla gives you a confused look.  “I…I was in line.  I was getting my food.  I have to eat, Lu.”

You hate that she uses the nickname she gave you when you were younger, hate that it’s the same nickname Rafael has picked up for you, rolling it on his tongue over and over, an incessant lululululululululululu, a sound that you mimic when you say, “No, no, no, no, no – where did you go?  When you left, where did you go?  It’s been five years; where did you go?

Switzerland.

Like you’ll believe her.  You ask her what the chocolate is like, and she grins shyly and pulls a bar wrapped in what you guess is Swiss (but later find out is actually German) out of her backpack.  She’s been hoping you’d ask.

On the way home, you ask her questions about Switzerland.  You haven’t been there yet, but you’re certain that you can convince your father to take you sometime.  He loves to travel across the whole world, so why wouldn’t he be okay with this?  (When you are twenty-five years old, you will finally make your first trip to Switzerland, though the circumstances will not be near as rosy as you imagined.  Ever after, you will black the event out of your mind, almost as though it didn’t even happen.)

Carla tells you about her rambunctious little cousin, who has stolen the only picture she’d kept of the two of you like one of those monkeys in the cartoon shows the two of you used to watch, and she finally apologizes for her abrupt disappearance.  Her mother is part of the military.  They move around a lot.  You understand this.  Your father owns hotels.  You move around a lot, too.

And just like that, you forgive her.  She joins your little group of nerds – you aren’t old enough for misfits just yet, although in the late eighties, nerds might be considered that.  You’re brilliant (or, at least, your father says that you are), and like minds band together.  Sometimes Carla speaks to you in hushed German, when you’re in private, forgetting, sometimes, that you don’t understand it.  Sometimes it’s intentional.  She doesn’t want you to know what she means.  But you understand that.  You do the same thing with Italian (some of the other kids could pick up if you used Spanish, and your father has expected you to learn his tongue as well as your mother’s).  Every now and again, the two of you sit in your room and pretend that you can understand each other’s languages and carry on conversations in a mix of them.  Your father pokes his head in and asks what you’re doing, and when you say you’re just chatting with Carla, he gives the both of you a clearly perturbed look, shakes his head, and walks away.

Rafael does not like Carla.  You don’t know why.  You can’t imagine someone not liking her.


 

You are thirteen when you notice Allison for the first time.

She joins the group of bone-thin blonde girls, adds a couple of her own, and suddenly they’re this mottled group of diversity like televisions won’t know to pick up on until it becomes suddenly marketable.  Most of the group are athletes of some sort: cheerleaders, volleyball players, runners.  Allison is a runner.  She’s a year younger than you, and while she does play volleyball, track is her sport.  She takes home medals.

You think she’s cute.

Carla teases you about this.  You don’t know what to say, don’t know what this feeling is.  You’ve never really liked anyone before.  Not like this.  Carla says she likes you, but well, of course she does.  She’s your best friend.  You like her, too.  It’s not the same thing.  You try to explain to her, despite her multiple proclamations, that it’s not the same thing.  She just crosses her arms and pouts.

But Carla somehow talks you into setting up a meeting.  You aren’t an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but your father owns a hotel with a nice beach view.  You could have a beach party.  There are volleyball nets.  Allison looks at you like you’re – not crazy, you aren’t crazy, already you hate the word – but she looks at you as if she doesn’t believe you’re talking to her at first.  The more you talk, the more you ramble, Papa’s little chatterbox, and when you mention the beach, she perks right up.  Of course, she says, of course, they’ll come.

Something in the back of your mind tells you that you should have discussed this with your papa first, but you know he’ll be fine with it.  It’s…what is his phrase?  Free publicity?  You don’t think that’s necessarily what that phrase really means, but you think it’d be nice.  You know it would be nice.  You give Allison a date (you think maybe this weekend?) and she grins and something in your heart goes twing.

You walk home alone with a skip in your step, and you’re grinning, split from ear to ear, when you run into your father.  He’s got papers in his hands and a worried look on his face, and for the first time in your life, you are afraid.  Not of him, because your daddy would never hurt you, but what the look means, what the papers mean.  You glance from him to the papers and back again, face dropping, and ask, voice quiet, “Is something wrong?”

“We have to go.”

“Go?  Go where?”

He doesn’t say, just shakes his head, and points a finger at you.  “Pack.  And help your brother.  I have to take care of this.”

There are no babysitters to hand you a drink as you pack, but you take hairpins out of your little plastic bag of hair supplies and pick the lock to your father’s liquor cabinet.  You don’t drink much, just enough to calm you down, and you replace the bottle and relock the cabinet.

Your father doesn’t notice then, and he won’t notice when you begin doing it again, more regularly, after you move.

Chapter Text

Charlie’s family moved away just when Clara needed her most, not that she would ever suggest it.

For months before they did (or it could have been a year, she lost track of the time), her father spent his days working, trying to distract himself from missing her mother, and at home, he would lock himself up in his room, drinking and crying himself to sleep.  Charlie’s father – Clara’s uncle – stopped by to make sure the house still ran: made food for the two of them, cleaned up the house, threw out the old beer bottles.  But he couldn’t stay forever.  He needed to go home to take care of his own family, as well.

And when he was gone, Clara would pick the lock to her father’s room and try to curl up in her parents’ great big bed so that her father wouldn’t have to feel so alone.

Try is the key word here: her father would often roughly push her out of the bed or, in his drunk, grieving state, kick her to the floor because he wanted nothing to do with her or anything else that reminded him of her mother.  When Clara’s Uncle Claude noticed the bruises much too dark on her freckled skin and the deep purple color surrounding her right eye, he yelled at her for getting into fights because couldn’t she see that her father was hurting?

Of course she knew.  But how could she explain that to an adult who was bigger than she was, who could – and did – pick up her scrawny little body by the collars of her shirts so many times that they became threadbare under the weight of a world they weren’t meant to handle?

So Clara began avoiding home.

At first, she ran to Charlie’s house after school, but then Uncle Claude found her still there late after he’d left her house.  He spanked her good and proper for that one, telling her she wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week, so for the next week, whenever he came to visit, she made a point of sitting the entire time.  Even if he didn’t notice what she was doing, she knew.

It made her feel brave.

Strong.

Powerful.

Eventually, Clara found better places to hide.  She began pick-pocketing from farmers’ stalls, a fruit here or there, an ear of corn, something she could sink her teeth into when no one was looking.  Drinks were harder to steal, so she’d take her prizes down to the riverbanks and ate and drank from the river itself.  Her hair grew wild and tangled; her bare feet thick and calloused from thorns, briers, and hot cobblestones; her freckles scattering more prominently across her skin.  Her clothes grew holey, tattered, and stained, and she pricked her fingers with stolen needles as she taught herself how to patch them up, a skill that would serve her far later after fights, using the same basic idea to try and stitch up her own bleeding.

Clara didn’t know when her father first began to move about the house again since she was away from it so often, but by the time she was nine years old, he seemed alive again, although not quite the same.

Neither was she anymore.  Not really.

The last thing her Uncle Claude did before he, Charlie, and her aunt moved back to the states was set her father up on a blind date with a woman he believed to be well worth his time.

Unfortunately, this was a mistake that would later get his daughter killed.


 

Elena di Nola smelled like the kind of cash money that passed through too many dirty hands, like copper coins so old they’d turned blue and lost their faces, like the smoky fog of the big cities like London, where the only thing she could see was hazy smoke – not that Clara had every actually been there, but Charlie’d told her about it, and she imagined it must be kind of like when a car zoomed past her when she was sitting on the curb with a stick of meat, gnawing on the flesh while exhaust flew out so thick that it turned her face black and gave her a coughing fit.  She didn’t think London smelled that bad because most of the English people she met seemed too clean for that sort of thing, but she could taste that same disgust whenever Elena so much as talked.

And her father worshipped her, praised the very ground she walked on.

Maybe it had been too long since her mother died and he’d forgotten what a real good woman could really be like, or maybe that stench of cash money and copper coins was what called to him.  All his life, Henri had been poor and penniless, trying desperately to make ends meet, unlike his brother, who seemed blessed with whatever his hands did, and all of a sudden, here was this woman – rich, but not so blatantly so – who not only seemed to enjoy his company but was also prepared to mother his poor daughter.  He was hoodwinked!  Quite by accident, but still true nevertheless.

For her part, Elena did not hate little Clara.  No.  One day, she arrived at Clara’s school to make sure she returned home safely because she and Clara’s father were worried about her.  Clara had scowled the entire way home and yowled like a stray cat when Elena plopped her in a steaming hot bath, scrubbing at what felt like years’ worth of dirt and grime until the little girl was clean, clean and with a matted tangle of curly red hair she couldn’t get a brush through.

This made Clara feel triumphant!  Finally, something that old hag of a witch couldn’t take away from her!

But her victory was short-lived.  The very next day, Elena took her to the closest barbershop and paid them in coins she couldn’t read or understand to chop all of her hair off.

That was the first time Clara considered really truly running away.

She wrote as much to Charlie in their mixed German-English in her next letter.  But the more she realized that Elena could read the English but couldn’t speak German, not properly anyway, the more Clara used it, much to her father’s chagrin.  It was her own little form of payback – to him, for abandoning her when she’d needed him and choosing this woman over her, and to Elena, for interfering with her way of life and chopping off all of her hair.

The kids at school told her she looked like a boy, and a part of her decided she might as well be one; she preferred them and their games to girls and their houses and dolls anyway.  But even the boys wouldn’t play with her.  She was too wild, they said, too uncontrollable.  So she scuffed her feet and returned to pick-pocketing, stealing food and running down to the river banks with her bare feet, swimming in the cold stream.

Then Elena announced she was pregnant, and her father stooped low enough to marry her, and into the frantic mess of all this, little Derek was born.

Chapter Text

You hate Italy.

You are thirteen years old and your brother is six and your father takes you to art museums and fashion shows and any other child would be thrilled, but you were supposed to be having a weekend beach party with Allison and you didn’t even get to say goodbye to Carla – again – and you want to go back.  You could even stand living at the hotel again; you’re living at hotels now, jumping from one to the other, barely staying at any of them longer than a week, as though your father doesn’t know where he wants to land yet.  But that smart-assed remark doesn’t change anyone’s mind.

The one benefit of this is that your father left his newest wife behind in Miami.  Something to do with the police.  She gets a divorce and a chunk of money from it; your father mentions something about using that money to get herself out of jail.  There’s a lot of screaming on the other end.  You ignore it.

Already you crave that juice your babysitter gave you and the easy way it made you feel.  It’s not juice.  You see glimmers of it in a locked cabinet in your father’s hotel room, and when he’s gone, you perfect your lock-picking skills.  You don’t drink enough for him to notice, but it makes you feel better about being here, in Italy, instead of back where you want to be, in Miami.  You make sure to only take some when he isn’t around, when you’re supposed to be home-schooling yourself with workbooks and thick textbooks about whatever it is a child is supposed to be learning during the classes he has robbed you of, and you definitely don’t take any when you sit down with Rafael and try to explain the finer points of math and science to him, switching between the Italian he is still struggling to learn but that you learned when you were small, when your mother and father spoke back and forth in the language of love, and the English that he’d depended on during kickball, softball, sports that he didn’t take part in here.

Sometimes, instead of Italian, he switches into Spanish, and you giggle before gently correcting him.  Rafael hates this.  He thinks you’re laughing at him, and when he says as much, you ruffle his long dark hair and press a quick peck to his cheek.  No, no, you aren’t making fun of him.  You think he’s cute.  Rafael is six years old and already he knows he doesn’t want to be cute.

When your father finally picks a spot to settle down, a hotel where you stay for far longer than a week, he enrolls the two of you into school.  You fit in much more seamlessly here than you ever did in America, and your growing, changing body draws the attention of the boys and their posturing and their attempt at smooth talking.  All of this makes you laugh, too, although it’s not because you think they’re cute.  They aren’t.  But they remind you too much of your father when he picks up his next wife and you can’t take any of them seriously.  Besides, you don’t know what they want from you.  It’s not like you want anything from them.

Your father’s new wife, an Italian woman by the name of Maria, drives you and Rafael to school.  She cuts Rafael’s long hair but leaves yours, brushing it out again and again, a hundred, a thousand counted strokes to make it glossy and smooth.  Rafael, she says, is destined to be a little lady killer, but you?  Mmmmm, she is not sure about you.  On the way to school, she blasts pop music from when your mother was alive, and one of them stands out to you while she drives you to the hotel, alone, while Raf stays behind for soccer – football – practice.  You learn the words by heart and sing along with it, humming it to yourself while you work on your homework (none of which is challenging in the slightest).  Eventually, your newest stepmother asks, “But you want to be Jessie’s girl, don’t you, Luisa?”  You don’t know how to tell her that no, you don’t, that the lyrics are right the way they are.  So you lie to her and steal harder liquor than wine from your father’s liquor cabinet and curl up in bed with a warm feeling in your chest.

Your father begins to allow you and your brother to have a small glass of wine after dinner, and while it’s something Raf initially despises, it isn’t hard for you to grow accustomed to the new change.  You like wine.  You like the pretentious way your father drinks it, holding it up, swirling it, smelling it, knocking his glass against yours when you mimic the actions before tasting it.  Sometimes, he asks you your thoughts on it, and you make something up using the words he always does when he gives his opinion.  He smiles at you, turns his head, and nods to Maria, and when he turns back with a sparkle in his eyes, you wonder if he’s proud of you or if he’s just amused.

You are a teenager in the beautiful world of Italy and all you want is to be back in Miami.  You write letters to Carla daily, but after a month or so of handing them off to your father expecting him to send them and getting no replies in return, you begin to creep out of school for moments at a time and mail them off yourself.  School doesn’t seem to mind that you’re gone; you always catch up on the work before there’s any real cause to be worried.  The teachers like you.  Everyone likes you.

Sometimes, Carla sends you letters back.  Raf finds the box you’ve kept them in, along with little mementos from your friendship and from school, and he seems confused.  He asks what all of it is, but you just take the box, shut it tight, and shove it back under your bed.  It’s none of his business.  He’s not old enough to understand.  He should just go play football with his new friends.  Raf shrugs and scampers outside to run around the streets of Italy, and you pull the box back out, take out her letters, and read through them again and again.  They smell like cinnamon and oranges; you think she must have stolen some of Allison’s perfume.

The girls you have become friends with grow tired of the boys within months of your arrival.  They complain about them frequently, and for a little while, you join in the complaints because you don’t really like them either.  But they stare at you, incredulous, when you suggest that maybe, if they hate the boys so much, it might be worth considering a girl instead.  It garners you weird looks at school after that, huddled whispers, but you’re beautiful, and the boys still follow you because despite all of your pretentious finery, you aren’t a snob and you play football with them like anyone else does (you practice with Raf and steal his skills while he learns to be a smooth talker with the other boys in his class).

When you are fifteen, you learn that being blunt is far more attractive to your classmates than to be smooth.  One of the girls who you had considered a friend admits that she had often wondered the same thing you had.  She doesn’t look like Carla or even like Allison, but the two of you form a bond.  When the other girls begin to spread rumors about the two of you, you squash them.  Rumors are malicious.  The truth is much better.

Rafael begins to get in fights at school.  These are your fault.  He wants to defend your honor.  How can you tell him there is no honor in you to defend?  You want to be a bee charmer like you saw in the movie, but you aren’t that wild, and even if you were, there are no riverside bars to hide out in.  Not here.  Not in Italy.  Everything here is old and refined; you feel like anything but.

Carla’s last letter mentions that her parents are getting a divorce.  Her father wants to steal her away to Switzerland, so maybe she can come visit!  You look at your brother’s bloody nose and your father’s new arguments with Maria and you write to her that maybe that’s not such a great idea.  But your letter is returned to you unopened, and when nothing new comes from your best friend, you think maybe it’s not that bad either.  Maybe it’s good to be lost.

You take a bottle of your father’s liquor to school and you pass it to your new best friend and when the drink passes her lips she gives you the same look the other girls had when you suggested that girls were a viable option.  But you grin and laugh it off and she laughs with you.  She doesn’t seem happy, but that’s okay.  You aren’t either.

Chapter Text

By the time Clara saw her cousin again, her father was dead.  She’d forgotten.  Stories of princesses and great romances do have wicked stepmothers, it’s true.  But she forgot that the wicked stepmother convinced the father to her side.  She forgot that in some fairy tales, the father doesn’t survive, and that sometimes he isn’t mentioned at all.  The only fathers who were tended to be royalty, and her father was nothing of the sort.  No, the longer her mother was gone, the more useless he became, and in the end it seemed not even Elena and their newborn son was enough to save him.  He slowly slipped back into drinking until he was more liquor than human, and now?  More corpse than either of the above, buried in the cold, hard ground right next to her mother.

Not that Clara ever visited him.

On the day of his funeral, she stood with a bouquet of roses in front of her mother’s grave and traced her finger along the letters carved into her tombstone, newly grown nails picking at the flaking black paint.  Her hair had grown back enough for tight little curls to hang just past her equally newly pierced ears.  Little golden studs made her lobes feel itchy, but she knew better than to scratch at them again.  There was still a fleck of blood stack on the back of her left ear from the last time she’d scratched, hidden behind her hair.

Elena had left her there to say good-bye, but all Clara wanted was to know if her mother was a skeleton now, or if the flour that always peppered her hair now turned the soil around her a ghostly white.

Derek grew and loved his wild older sister with all his heart in the same way that Elena, her wicked stepmother, did not.  Always he was clinging to her ankles or crawling up into her lap with his huge brown eyes and the tightly wound curly hair Clara’d thought she inherited from her mother but apparently had not.  Sometimes she tried to kick him off, but she’d learned very quickly not to do so when Elena was around.  Her stepmother would glare daggers at her if other people were around, which wasn’t so bad, but she was a master of harming her in ways that she couldn’t be marked, couldn’t be scarred – not because Elena cared about child protective services or someone finding out how she treated her stepdaughter, but more because she needed her for something…else.  Clara didn’t know what.

Elena, of course, was scheming.  She was a wicked stepmother.  Of course she was scheming.  And it didn’t matter that Clara was growing or that her mind was expanding or that she knew fairy tales and great romantic love stories weren’t true and life wasn’t like that, no matter how much she saw her life shaping into one.  Elena was, and would always be, her wicked stepmother.

As her hair had grown, Elena taught – forced – her to style it in gorgeous waves instead of her rambunctious corkscrews.

As she’d been kept from the riverbank and her nails had been kept from chipping, Elena taught – forced – her to shape them, to paint them in shades of pale pink and opal white and gaudy red.

As her body changed, Elena taught – forced – her to dress in ways that she thought most flattered her – shape, hair, eyes.

Elena pierced her ears, and she screamed in pain.

Clara hated all of it, hated being this person that her wicked stepmother wanted her to be.  When she saw her cousin again, Charlie didn’t even recognize her beneath the mask Elena had constructed for her, the one she forced her to wear – her eyes and lips painted like a clown’s only without the honking nose.  (Elena said she’d be thankful someday, when she was older, but Clara didn’t believe her.  She felt just like her stepmother’s doll – something to dress and mold however she wanted – and she felt used.  For all the neglect of her father, it’d been better to run to the riverbank and terrorize the town than to be…whatever this was.)

Charlie might not have recognized her, but Clara knew her cousin the exact instinct she saw her.  She tore away from her stepmother’s vice grip and ran through the crowd across the street to find her.  They started talking as though Charlie never left, and when Elena finally made her way to them with young Derek in tow, Charlie knew from Clara’s change in mannerisms and the shadow that flickered across her eyes that she had to do something now or else she might never see her cousin again.

It was so easy that Clara didn’t even realize it as a manipulation, although Charlie later told her it was.

She introduced Elena to her own, newly single, mother, the military woman, and while Clara’s aunt went off on just how nice it was to meet another single mother who understood just how hard it was to take care of a child hitting puberty and suddenly boy crazy (hah!) and just how much it might help for the two of them to be friends so that their family could spend more time together, Clara and Charlie took off to the outdoor market, happy just to be together again.

Clara pulled out the faded picture of the little girl Charlie had once called a princess and asked if she knew more of the story, and Charlie shoved her hands in her pockets and looked at the cobblestones and gave a half-hearted smile and said, Yeah, I do, but it’s not happy but then her face brightened all of a sudden and she grabbed Clara’s hands so quick and so hard that Clara almost dropped the picture entirely, and her bright blue eyes searched her cousin’s freckles face only to have her heart skip a beat when she said, She’s in Italy.  You could meet her!  We just have to get her family to come here!

And that was how Clara found herself writing a letter in her little scrawl, crumpling the lined paper up, then ripping a sheet from the stationary Elena bought for her because it was fancy and feminine and what she should be (and this was the first time she was actually grateful to Elena for doing any of that, although she buried the thought down deep) and wrote in the equally fancy cursive script that Elena taught her (with another hint of gratitude that she buried down equally deep) and read through it what felt like a thousand times before folding it carefully and sealing it with a drip of wax like Elena showed her (she wasn’t supposed to play with fire, but this was different!) and passing it off to her cousin (with a bright beam because she’d used wax and hadn’t burnt the paper!) to be sent together with her letter to the princess she’d first heard about when her mother died.

Chapter Text

You don’t know when your father first started keeping your letters from you, but you find them hidden deep in a box in his cabinet during one of your parties when someone asks you for harder liquor.  You’re buzzed enough to go for his special store, the one you know is hidden not in the specific liquor cabinet or in the wine cellar downstairs but locked in a secret compartment in his wardrobe.  It is there that you find letters addressed to you from Carla in envelopes opened with his letter opener – you know it was the subtle knife from the smooth, consistent break across the top.  The party continues, loud, too loud, as you take the box of letters back to your room, kicking out some girl you’d found with another girl (your bedroom was strictly off-limits for men, something they’d found out during your first party, when you’d grabbed the guy by his balls and dragged him out by his dick) and curling up cross-legged on your bed, unsure which letter to start with first.

They’re all old by this point, back from the years you’d spent in Italy, just after Carla’s mention that she was returning to Switzerland, just after her decision for to come see you and your family, the invitation you’d denied after seeing everything your father and your brother and your now ex-stepmother had going on – the one that had been returned to you unopened right as all the letters abruptly stopped.  You’d almost forgotten about Carla in the intervening years, chalking her up to a flighty nobody who couldn’t keep track of your address as she moved across the globe, even though you’d remembered hers.

(You know that you are the flighty one and that you wouldn’t have remembered Carla’s address if you hadn’t written it down on the back of an envelope and then realized that her address was the return address on her envelopes.  You’d kept her letters so that you could read through them again, and even now, you still had them, collecting dust in a box in the back of your closet, just behind your shoes, the same way that your father kept this box of letters locked up behind his best liquor.  You wonder what compelled him to keep them, to open them and read them instead of just throwing them away or burning them, but it isn’t in you to confront him and ask.  By the time he returns from his latest hotel owner business trip, you’ll have forgotten your anger and come up with a thousand and one reasons why he hid them from you, even if you can’t be certain you’re right.  You love your father.  You will forgive him.)

You find the envelope with the earliest date stamped into it and pull out not one but two letters, one that you can tell is written in Carla’s looping script even through the folds and one that is written in a tight little fancy script, not on lined paper like Carla’s was, with what looks like the remnants of a rose-marked crimson wax seal broken in half on either edge.  This one confuses you, even as it draws your wide, not yet bloodshot eyes, and your finger brushes along the cold, broken wax before you place it to one side, on top of its shared envelope, and pull out Carla’s letter instead.

The rhythm of Marty’s bass shakes the house around you, and as you unfold the first letter, you pad barefoot to your bedroom door and lock it, not wanting to be disturbed by any girls who have decided your bed is the one to share, then you return to your perch in the center of your bed, just next to the envelope with the letter with the wax seal lying atop it.

(Rafael is not here, instead sleeping over with one of his friends at their new school back in Miami, and you’ve barricaded his room so that no one can get inside.  With your father gone, it is your permission for which he asks, and with your father gone, you grant it.  He might not want you to mingle too closely with the riff-raff, but you think your brother deserves a good friend or two.  He’s better off here in Miami than he was in Italy, but he remembers the smooth way he’d picked up in elementary school there.  Already, the girls fawn over him, and you’re frightened of what will happen when you leave for college and he is alone in the grips of whomever it is your father has decided to marry for the year.  You’ve already decided to go to a university nearby, ready and willing to return if you are needed – not that your father or his wives would mention it.)

Luisa, the letter begins—

Luisa,

I may have made a poor decision and told my baby cousin a fantasy story about you when we were kids.  I didn’t know we’d ever see each other again and you weren’t writing and her mom had just died so I wanted her to know that she could live through it.  I told her you were a princess and spun a story kind of like the newer Disney ones where you were a heroine and your stepmother was evil and then she stole the picture of the two of us I had and now that I’m seeing her again, I had completely forgot about it, you have to believe me, but she didn’t and now she wants me to tell her all about you and the new developments in the Miami Princess’s life and I might have mentioned that you could come visit us so please help a girl out and come see us.

Oh, yeah, that other letter is from her.  I don’t know what the wax seal is for or how she got one of those (her stepmother is kind of a little bit odd.  I don’t know what it is but she gives me the creeps!) but apparently she has one and she used it and I think she’s trying to appear all fancy because she still thinks you’re a princess so if you come visit, you have to be nice to her.  She’s super cute and precious, so it shouldn’t be too hard, but—

You stop reading the first letter there, your eyes wandering over to the one with the broken seal, and you think if your father had been reading the other letters Carla sent, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but if he was randomly seizing your mail and the first letter he came across was one with a wax seal where the person inside was calling you princess, then he maybe had a right to be worried and you aren’t going to hold that against him.

But if he read the letter where Carla explained what was going on, you could hold that against him.

(You will hold nothing against him.)

On an impulse, you put down the letter from Carla, pressing it down against the mattress so that it stays open, and you take the one with the broken red wax seal, unfolding it, and your eyes skim the writing, trying to make sense of the words, until you can finally begin to almost decipher it.

Dear Princess Luisa,

I know my cousin says you’re a princess but there aren’t any princesses in America so you can’t be the Princess of Florida so can you tell me one way or the other if you are so that I can tell her to cut her bullshit?

You snort, covering your lips with the back of one hand as you laugh.  Carla’s rarely mentioned her father’s side of the family, and you don’t think she’s ever mentioned this cousin before, but you already know that you like her, even if she does come off as a bit of an ass.  You find yourself wondering how young she is – was – is?

Maybe it’s good you didn’t read this letter when you were fifteen.  You might have been offended at how she talked about Carla.  But now you are three years removed – again because you remember this happened right after you met, when you were six, but it had seemed like such a much bigger deal then that it does now – and as much as you might still be fond of the girl with the curly red hair and the spattering of freckles who’d been your best friend for a while, it’s not the same sort of familial love you’d had for her before.  Joking at her expense is easier, now.

Intrigued by this cousin of Carla’s, you continue to read.

I like her stories and I like her telling me about you but it all seems so fake, you know?  Like if you aren’t really a princess then she’s probably making the rest of it up, too.  But if she’s not making it up, if you really are like me, then I want the truth.  It means more.  I deal with enough lies from my wicked stepmother; I don’t want to be fed them from my cousin, too.  Families are so shitty.

Do you remember your mom?

The question is abrupt, and it hits you square in the center of your chest and you’re a little too drunk to deal with thinking about your mom right now.  You hold the letter in your hand until the words stop swimming and then you carefully place it down in the box with the others.  Once you’ve put Carla’s letter in there, too, you shut them up tight in the box and hide them under your bed.  Your father won’t be home for a while – his business trips always seem to take so long – so you don’t have to put them away just yet.  You’re not even sure he’d notice them missing.

You rub your hand under your eyes as you unlock and open the door, and one of your friends says your eyes look bloodshot and ask if you’ve been drinking too much again.  You haven’t yet, but you aim to fix that.


 

You wake up with a headache the next morning, pounding with the weight of remembering your mother, and you don’t forget about the box with the letters but you choose to leave it for now.


 

Three weeks pass before you return to the box.

Your father comes back and kisses Rafael on his forehead and tousles your straight brown hair and is gone again before the week is out.  Back to back meetings, he says, but I wanted to see you.  The words are directed more towards you than to your brother, and both of you feel it.  Rafael is eleven and he deserves a father who loves him.  You don’t know any other way to express this.

Sometimes, while your father is staying with you instead of on one of his trips, your brother climbs into bed with you, shaking with sobs and cries of a nightmare.  It’s the same one almost every time – your father “being honest” about how disappointed he was with his son.  He is eleven years old, and you curl around him to keep him warm and protected, and you tell him that your father loves him just as much as he loves you, he just doesn’t know how to show it.  Your brother falls asleep in your arms and you wonder if your mother would have done this better.

You start thinking about your mother again.  It’s not something you do very often because thinking about your mother makes your chest ache but it’s almost unprompted in its regularity now.  You wonder if she would be proud of you.  You wonder if she would have liked Rafael.  You wonder if she really loved you.

This train of thought helps no one.

You pull out the box of letters and you stare at the frank words of Carla’s cousin and you keep reading.

Do you remember your mom?

I have a really hard time remembering mine.  She had bright red hair, like me!  And she was a baker and she made the best doughnuts in the world!  And we made snow angels in flour!  Once.  Dad was really upset.  She used to sing me to sleep, but I can only remember a little bit of it, just the…the tune.  I can’t remember the words.  I asked my dad about it once and hummed it for him but he couldn’t remember it either.  I whistle it now sometimes, when I’m lonely or afraid.  It makes me feel better.

Carla says that if I ask real nice you’ll maybe come visit us, but I think—

And here something has been scratched through so hard that you can’t make it out.

Don’t come visit us.  Don’t write me back.  Princesses might not be real, but wicked stepmothers are.  I know.  I’ve got one.  She wouldn’t like me writing to you, and she wouldn’t like you visiting.  I don’t think it’d be good so don’t come.

But if you take my cousin back again, will you take me, too?  I’d much rather be with whatever you are than where I am now.

I don’t know how to end this.

Just.

Don’t come.

The name is signed in a script so fancy and so looping that you can’t make it out, and although you skim Carla’s letter, she doesn’t mention her cousin’s name once.  There are no other letters with red wax seals – broken or not – and Carla’s letters read much the same as they always did, although now she keeps wondering why you haven’t written her back.  At one point, there’s a bit of dismay that you didn’t at least write Clara back – and this is how you find out her cousin’s name, by deductive reasoning!  Detective Luisa, back at it again!

You wonder if the address is still good.  It’s been three years.  The last letter is dated shortly before you left Italy.  So not exactly three years.

If you’re actually a princess, like Carla says you are, then this will work.  You pull out a blank piece of paper, tap the end of your pencil against your chin a few times, and then begin to write.

Chapter Text

Dear Clara,

I’m not a princess.  Carla is full of such bs.  Good for you!  Catching her at it!  That’s great!

Whatever else she told you was probably true?  I don’t know what she told you.  It’s not like she checked this through me first because if she had I totally would have told her you don’t fuck with a kid’s head like that by making a real person princess unless you’re making them a princess because when I was a kid I wanted to be a princess but that’s different from someone else being a princess and I’m rambling again.  Sorry.  I get a little bit carried away.  Normally someone stops me, but I guess the only person who can do that in letters is me, huh?  Yeah.  Just me.

I do remember my mom!  Not very well, though.  She was beautiful!  I remember she was beautiful.  She was very loud, like me!  I don’t know if you can tell in a letter if someone’s loud or not, but trust me, I’m really loud.  Carla probably didn’t tell you that, but you know what, here’s this – if I’m a princess, then princesses can be loud!  And excited!  And not a bit formal or frou-frou or all that politeness crap.  Really, if you see your cousin, punch her for me.  Me, a princess?!  I can’t believe she did that!

And yeah, I know, this is three years too late and you told me not to answer you in the first place and three years ago I probably would’ve torn you a new one for shitting on your cousin but you know what I’m trying to reply anyway even though you distinctly told me not to and I hope that whatever’s happening is not near as bad as you thought it was.

My dad stole all of your cousin’s letters.  This one is not my fault.  Tell her that for me!  I didn’t know!

Ok, so, there was one thing about my childhood that was maybe slightly princessey, and that’s a story my mother used to tell me about this lake she used to go to with fish that would light up like Christmas lights or those glow in the dark stars – do you even have those over there?  That’s so weird!  I used to have a bunch of them all over my ceiling back in Italy!  You could’ve seen them, if you’d come to visit, if I’d even known to ask, I can’t believe he hid my letters from me either!

It’s like everyone’s family is shitty or something like that.  I don’t know.

Carla didn’t mention my brother, did she?  She better not have.  I don’t want him roped into some fantasy story of our lives.  That’s just so weird.

Well, if you get this, write me back!  Even though you told me not to write so the odds of you writing back aren’t that high, I’m not that stupid, and the likelihood that you’ll even get this is so low in the first place, but you know what, I’m trying anyway, and I hope you get this, and I hope you answer, and if you don’t answer, I’ll still hope that you got it because you know what sometimes it’s nice to get a random letter from a mostly stranger.

Oh!  And here’s a picture of me and my family!  Since Carla said you stole the one she had of the two of us like a real creeper but I guess you were a kid so I’ll forgive you for that but this time you know what you’ll have your own so don’t steal any of hers.  If you haven’t already.

It’s been three years, you’ve probably already stolen one, and I’m probably too late, oh well, you can just add this one to your collection!

Love always,

Luisa Alver!

P.S.  I know I’m wearing a crown in the picture but it’s just a prom tiara from like a year ago.  Don’t start thinking that means I’m a real princess when you and I both know I’m not.

Chapter Text

Clara’s fingers brushed along the crinkled paper in her hands.  She’d been surprised when she saw the envelope and was even more shocked upon reading the letter.  It’d taken a lot of work to get it in the first place – it’d been years since Elena moved her and Derek from the residence this letter had been sent to, more years since they’d had mail sent to them from the address, and yet here was this one, suddenly, randomly, as if from nothing.  Her eyes skimmed the letter again, taking in the words, and she felt as though she could breathe.

She’d made it to the mail before Elena had, which was the only reason she’d been able to have the letter in the first place.  When the other girl mentioned that her father had been keeping her letters hidden, she could feel her heart freeze in her chest, then that freeze replaced with a huge burning sensation not quite unlike what her stepmother called indigestion but which Clara knew wasn’t.

After reading through the letter one more time, she folded it back up, hiding it beneath her pillow.  For later, she told herself.  For later.

 

Weeks passed and when she could, when Elena wasn’t there, Clara pulled the letter out and reread it.  She didn’t know why she did so.  It wasn’t a particularly good letter, nor was it particularly enticing.  Whoever this girl was, she didn’t at all seem like the one that her cousin Charlie told her about so many years ago.  And yet, there was something nice about how she told her to call Charlie out on her bullshit, something nice about the energy she could feel pouring out of the page.

Yes, she was loud.  Yes, that could be felt just from her letter.

At some point, Clara might as well have memorized the other girl’s words, the way she read the letter as often as she could and began to run it through her head during the day.  A princess could be loud.

A princess could be loud.

Elena would certainly say nothing of the sort.  Elena would honestly refuse to believe that princesses outside of true ruling royals actually existed and would think Clara foolish for continuing to believe in those sorts of things.  But for too long, she’d thought herself like one of the kind in fairy tales – not a real princess, necessarily, but someone who could be like them – one who went on a grand adventure, who killed those who deserved to be killed, and who was able to take part in a great love story.  Hers, she was certain, would be the greatest, because while all those tales were just fairy tales, hers would be true.

Not a princess in title.  Just like Elena wasn’t a wicked stepmother.  Except that she was both a stepmother and wicked.  So maybe the title worked better for her.

Clara started working up a response to the girl, even though she knew she wouldn’t send it.

She wanted to ask about her brother.  No, she wanted to say, Charlie never mentioned him.  If you aren’t a princess, does that mean he isn’t a prince?  What’s his name?  Is he your mother’s son, too?  Have you had a stepmother?  Is she as wicked as mine is?

She wanted to tell her, No.  Everything is just as bad as I told you it was, and worse.

Then she went back to her brother.  She wanted to tell her that she had a little brother, too, and he was six years old, which wasn’t bad, but he was nine years younger than she was with big dark curly hair and bright eyes and he watches her all the time and it creeped her out and did her brother ever look at her that way?  Was her brother younger?  Was he older?  If he was older, what was that like?  Was he super protective of his older? younger? sister?

And then, of course, there was the picture.  This Clara carried with her, afraid of Elena or her brother finding it, more so than she was of the letter, which she could lie and say she wrote herself.  (She could also lie and say she stole this picture from Charlie, but it had been so many months she had seen her cousin that this lie would be easily found out.)

The other girl was right; she had stolen one of her cousin Charlie’s pictures, one of the more recent ones, and stared at the other girl as though trying to see what it was that made Charlie like her so much.  Maybe it was this loudness that the girl had mentioned but that Charlie never did.  Maybe it was in the way that she talked; was it at all like the way she wrote?

Clara added this photo to the other two in her collection.  The first was worn out so much that she could barely make out the two girls in it except from having seen it so many times that it was almost emblazed in her memory.  The second was newer, much more vivid, but nothing like this one, with the tiara, from prom?  She knew about prom, but she’d never intended to go.  (She knew Elena wanted her to go.  She didn’t want to go.  She wasn’t that sort of princess.)

She was beautiful.

Well.

Clara thought she was beautiful.

But she wouldn’t say that out loud, and she certainly wouldn’t be writing it in a letter.  Some stranger related to your best friend suddenly seeing a recent picture of you and calling you beautiful?  That was creepy.

Clara wondered if she should send a picture back, when she wrote the letter, when she sent it, which she was certain she wouldn’t.  (Elena would catch her.)

She wasn’t sure she even had a good picture.  She didn’t think she did.  Elena would have it, if she had any, and she didn’t want to think about potentially taking one of those.  Then she would be caught, and Elena’d want to know why she was taking one of her pictures and it wouldn’t go very well at all.

So – no picture.  But she could tell her what she looked like.  Bright red hair, like her cousin Charlie.  Freckles everywhere, like her cousin Charlie, but not as many on her face.  Big blue eyes!  Definitely not like Charlie, whose eyes were a deep chocolate brown.  Or maybe she’d ask, first, see if the princess even wanted to know what she looked like.  Definitely she would thank her for the picture.  Definitely she would lie and say she hadn’t stolen one from Charlie.

She’d let her know how long it had been since she saw her cousin and tell her how much she missed her.  Maybe tell her that Charlie was planning on going to the states for college, that maybe Charlie was looking to find her again.  She’d tell her how disappointed Charlie was when there wasn’t an answer to their letter, how excited she’d been for them to all be together.  She’d write that Charlie and her mother were still where they’d been, that their address hadn’t changed, that only hers had, when her wicked stepmother made them move.

Clara’d tell her about Elena because it was nice to vent to someone who didn’t know.  She’d say that her stepmother taught her what it meant to be a woman.  She wore make-up now, and it didn’t feel as thick and caked on as it had when she was younger.  Boys kept looking at her like her brother did, and it didn’t make her any more comfortable.  Girls looked at her, and she liked that.  She liked being better than the boys at what it meant to chase after a girl.  Elena hated her for this.  Elena hated her for a lot of things.

She’d say that her stepmother was turning her into a lot of things that she didn’t know that she wanted to be.  She’d say that she was afraid, and then she’d erase that and say she wasn’t afraid because princesses aren’t ever afraid and if Leia was able to stand up to Darth Vader when he was torturing her for information about the message she sent Obi-Wan, then she could live through this!

Even at fifteen, Clara still had some of the same spunk she had as a child.  She always would, even if the idea of princesses and fairy tales would, eventually, be lost.  Her wicked stepmother needed to shake her awake, and one day, maybe, she would.  She just hadn’t figured out how yet.

Clara didn’t write the letter.  She thought about it over and over but never did.  Having one letter was enough.  One letter and three pictures.  They were comforting when Elena was cruel.  They gave her hope.

Chapter Text

You cannot read a letter you are never sent, and so you do not know that Carla is planning to return to America for college.  Because you never get a return letter, you chalk it up to one or the other of them moving, which isn’t anyone’s fault, except your father’s, but you won’t confront him, and in the manner of time passing, you would forget.

Except you go to your freshman orientation and somehow, in your random grouping, you run into Carla!

It’s as though the two of you have never been apart!  You see each other and, wow, it’s been…it’s been years since you’ve even seen each other!  You were in middle school, hankering after Allison, and setting up that beach party when your father ripped you away, and then you may have exchanged letters, but wow, you’ve both grown up.

And, uh, you do mean wow.

Carla looks different than you remember her.  Someone taught her how to do her make-up right.  You’re not going to lie, but yours has always been on point.  You were always great at make-up.  If you saw the picture Carla’s cousin stole from her and looked it over, you would be confronted with your own hubris, but since you can’t and you don’t, you can continue on considering yourself always good at make-up.  And regardless, you were always better than Carla was.  Point of fact, the idea was that when you went to the school dance, you would do her make-up.  It never happened, because your father ripped you away to Europe – which, admittedly, you loved because how can you hate Europe? – but the point still stands.

Someone taught Carla how to do make-up.

Hm.

Well.

Carla catches your eye and gives this odd little smile and asks you if you’re flirting with her.

You’re not!  You certainly aren’t!  it’s just been a while!  You haven’t seen her!  She should give you a bit to catch up!  And, really, Carla, if you were flirting with her, it would be a lot different.  You’d be a lot more subtle about it, thank you very much.

You wouldn’t.  You aren’t subtle.  At all.  But Carla doesn’t know that, so who cares?

 Carla smiles and says that, well, then, maybe one day you could show her.  And then she walks off!

--and you wonder if, maybe, Carla is flirting with you.

No.  Of course not.  She was your best friend.  She wouldn’t.


 

SHE WOULD.

She was.

She did!

And you have an IQ of 152, so of course you pick up on it.  Eventually.  Okay, so it takes a few months of being in the same class and studying together and she brings you coffee and pastries and you snack on them and study and then your roommate points out that you’ve been spending a lot of time not in the room but it’s not a big deal, you’re studying

Your roommate asks if you’re seeing anyone.

You aren’t seeing anyone!

You’re studying!

C’mon, Karen, you’ll be the first one to know!

Okay, not really, Carla would be the first one to know because you spend so much time together.  But after Carla!  The first one!  The very first!

But after your freshman year, Karen doesn’t talk to you for whatever reason (probably something to do with all that drinking, even if you had gotten better during second semester), so she doesn’t get to know.  If she doesn’t care about you, then why should you care about her?

(You do care.  You feel bad.  You were a really awful, horrible roommate.  You know that you are.  It’s not a fun feeling.)

Your sophomore year, you room with Carla.  She’s your best friend.  You’ve known her almost your entire life.  It seemed like a great idea.  It’s a little less of a great idea the way she watches when you bring people back to the room and makes sure to make a point of being out of the room when she knows you’ll bring someone back and she won’t talk to you about it, and you think it has something to do with the flirting and you don’t really know what to do about that.  Carla’s your best friend.  You know she was flirting with you.  You know.  You just…don’t know how to address it.

You can’t lose her again.  This feels like it would be…much more permanent.  You don’t want to ruin a great friendship for…that.

You think she’ll just get hurt.

You’re certain you will.


 

There’s a place you like to go with your other friends.  Carla doesn’t like them.  She refuses to spend time with you when they’re around.  Something about how much they drink and how much you drink with them.  But the place in and of itself isn’t bad.  Sometimes it’s covered with empty beer cans and bottles and sometimes shards of glass because holding onto your bottle when you’re drunk isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but that’s not the point.  The point is that your group is always very clear about when they’re planning to go there, so you go – sober! you’re sober! – on a day you know they won’t be there, and you clean up – which is a pain, all that glass, and if you didn’t know how to take care of yourself, you’d probably have gotten your fingers or hands cut, and no one wants that – and you make it look slightly more presentable, and when it gets dark, you take Carla out with you.

And it’s just the two of you!  And it’s really nice.

You’re still a little uncomfortable.  Not about the taking Carla out, although that makes your stomach a little squeamish, but it’s—

The thing is, your group likes to hang out on a bridge overlooking train tracks.  One set goes one way, and one set goes the other.  It’s out in the middle of nowhere, with fields on one side and a house farther off where you’re certain a farmer and his family live (and sometimes you wonder if they’re ever annoyed with how loud your group can get, but you never ask).  You can look up and see the stars and the moon overhead, and Carla can pick out constellations because she’s gotten into stars and space while she was gone.  Maybe it’s being part of the Star Wars generation.  She says it’s not, but you don’t really believe her.

But you stand or sit or lay down on the bridge and wait for trains to arrive.  Then, when you see their lights in the distance, you creep to one edge of the bridge, hiding so that they can’t see you (because they have to slow down if they see someone on the bridge because they’re afraid that you’ll—), and then stand up! just before they go under the bridge! and there’s this huge rush of air and it feels almost like you’re flying!  You love that feeling.

Sometimes you wonder if your mother felt like that when she jumped.

So you take Carla and it’s just the two of you, alone, on this bridge, laying down on tons of blankets (because you may have cleaned the bridge, but you didn’t clean it that well) and looking up at the stars while you wait for a train to arrive, and you reach over and take her hand and give it a squeeze.  She squeezes your hand back, and you smile, and you feel…safe, maybe, for the first time in what feels like forever.

You turn toward her and you kiss her, right before the train horn sounds, and you see the blush scarletting her cheeks as you pull her over to the edge of the bridge, and when you stand again, just at the rush from the train passing beneath you, Carla kisses you back and you feel…alive.

She tells you, later, that she’s liked you ever since middle school, and you’re shocked by this.  Maybe you were a little dense.  You run back over what you remember and, yeah, okay, IQ of 152 doesn’t mean you pick up on stuff like that.  But you’re both glad you have now.


 

You and Carla continue to live together.  You love her.  It’s weird.  It’s…different.  She wants you to stop drinking, and you don’t.  Not entirely.  You just get better at hiding it.  You drink less, but you don’t stop.  You don’t know if she knows, but if she does, she seems to be okay with less.  She tries to spend time with your med student friends, but they don’t get along very well.  Maybe it’s the drinking thing.  Maybe it’s got nothing to do with personality.

There’s a lot of uncertainties in dating Carla.

None of that matters, though, because you love her and she loves you and that’s enough.  Other than the drinking and the friends you have that she thinks are clearly toxic but you think are just good fun, the two of you…don’t fight.  You know each other too well.  The letters and the time together and knowing each other for so long, you know how to avoid those pitfalls.  Sometimes you fight, but it’s over stupid stuff when you’re stressed or she is.  You make up afterwards.

You learn that make up sex is great.

You also learn that she can tell when you’re trying to start a fight just for make up sex.

She calls you a troll.  You stick your tongue out whenever she does.  Then she kisses you.  Or you kiss her.  It’s cute.  It’s safe.

You take her with you for a little bit over the summer.  She can’t stay long because she has to go back to Switzerland to spend time with her family, but she comes to stay with you.  Your father isn’t there.  Rafael told you last year that he isn’t around very often at all anymore, and although you went back most weekends your freshman year, you’ve been going back less and less.  You like spending time with your girlfriend over the weekend.  Your brother needs you – needs someone – and he resents Carla.  You can tell.  So can she.

After Carla leaves, you ask him what he thinks of her.  He shrugs.  Sometimes she doesn’t seem all here, he says, and when you tell him about how well your relationship is going, he frowns and says, She doesn’t seem real.

You think he’s right.  It doesn’t seem real.  Especially after the example of relationships your father has set for you.  But you assure him that it is very much real and that relationships can work that way.  He doesn’t believe you.  He goes back to pretending to be part of a boy band – they’re big these days, and sometimes you miss punk girl bands and the eighties music of when you were in middle school.

Mostly your brother really, really can’t sing.  But you teach him to lip sync and then teach him some cool dance moves and it feels like everything’s okay.

It’s not, but it feels like it is, and that’s the really important thing, isn’t it?

Chapter Text

You don’t know who you are anymore.

….

I don’t know who I am anymore.

….

Clara—
Clara?
Clara??

She didn’t know who she was anymore.

She was fifteen when her stepmother (wicked?  wicked.  evil.  all stepmothers are) ripped her away from where they lived (again) and moved them somewhere else.  Her younger brother retained his name.  Her stepmother did not.

Neither did she.

As soon as they arrived at the new house, she was referred to as Claire.  She’d been confused.  The name was close, but it wasn’t her name.  She was Clara.  She knew her name.  But whenever she corrected her stepmother, the woman – Helen, she’d been Helen, then, but she’d been Elena before, but it didn’t matter because Clara Claire? Clara? she didn’t refer to her by name anyway, so who cares what her name was—

Her stepmother laughed at her.  She must have been hearing wrong or remembering wrong.  Her name was Claire.

She fought with her.  She did.  But her little brother took her stepmother’s lead.  Her name was Claire.

Her name was Claire.

Not Clara.

Claire.

She was Claire.

Months of this.

Claire was more feminine than…whoever it was she remembered being.  She remembered Clara but that was wrong.  She was Claire.  She didn’t know who Clara was.  She liked make up.  She liked the art of becoming someone else.  She liked putting it on like armor.  And what did it matter if she was being referred to by a different name?  She was still her.

They moved again.

Her stepmother began calling her Clarice.  She’d never heard of a Claire.  Or a Clara.  Her stepdaughter had always been Clarice.  Maybe she’d been hearing her wrong.  Maybe she should get her brain checked?  This was worrisome, Clarice.

The girl pressed her lips together.  She’d been Clara all of her life.  She was Claire for a little while.  Now she was Clarice.  But they all sounded similar.  Maybe she was remembering wrong.

But she had a stash of letters from her cousin Charlie.

Her cousin always called her Clara.

…but she always called her Charlie and that wasn’t her name so maybe—

What was her real name?

Her stepmother ran her fingers through her hair and along her forehead, searching for bumps or bruises and finding nothing.  Her dark eyes searched Clara? Claire? Clarice’s own.  She looked afraid.  Worried.  Concerned.  The way a mother should be if her daughter suddenly started remembering her name wrong.

And acting wrong.  Clarice remembered playing in rivers and pickpocketing and eating a lot of stolen apples, but her stepmother said she’d never done any of that.  They must be dreams she was remembering from when she was a kid.  Or her cousin, Carla called Charlie.  Her stepmother said Charlie used to get her into all kinds of trouble.  That’s part of why she’d wanted to move, so that Charlie couldn’t keep corrupting her sweet little girl anymore.

She hated her stepmother.  She didn’t really believe her.  But it was far easier to act the way she wanted than to deal with those looks of shame and fear and despair whenever she acted completely different from whoever it was that the woman thought she was.

It became a pattern.

They moved a lot.

Her name changed a lot.

One of her high school classes read something of some really famous English author (who she really didn’t like, but her stepmother made her read and read and read classics, even out of the class, so some lines she picked up and remembered and memorized – apparently these were things Clarice liked to do.  Or Claire.  Not Clara.  Certainly not Charlie.  And it was something she liked to do more each time they moved, and eventually, some part of her did like it.  Maybe she was just told too often that she did.  Maybe she just liked having a quote ready to throw in someone’s face and show her superiority.  Her stepmother called her a narcissist and maybe she was right about that.  Whoever she was, she was better) and it stuck in her mind.  Any other name.  Doesn’t change the smell.  Something like that.

But Rose was her mother’s name.  The one she didn’t use.  She’d hated being Rose.

If her mother even existed.

Her stepmother never tried to rewrite that.  She left her parents, her real parents, well enough alone.

When she graduated from high school, she was given two names.  Rose, for college, for the school year.  Rose was a scholar.  Rose wanted a law degree.  Rose was smart and brilliant and didn’t care about anyone who she couldn’t use.  She was dedicated to her studies because she knew what she wanted.  She wore a lot of floral patterns, a lot of pink (even though pink clashed with her bright red hair), and always made sure to do her hair in waves.  Always.  Rose never left her apartment without looking perfect.  She was intimidating in speech, in beauty, in everything.  She approached first because no one wanted to approach her.  She touched, subtle.

She was the exact opposite of Denise.  For the summer.  For her job.  Denise worked in a winery, in the fields.  She chose the grapes.  Her hair was black and pulled back out of her face and she didn’t wear a lick of make up at all.  Eye shadow, sometimes, when she would go out in the world.  She slept on hard beds with thin mattresses and even thinner pillows.  One blanket because it was too swelteringly hot to even one that but the blanket gave her some degree of comfort.  She was quiet.  There weren’t a lot of people too talk to out in the vineyard.  Sometimes her nails would pierce the grapes and she would eat them instead of taking them back to the winery.  She spent her free time going to the local bar, watching the yodeling competitions.

Someone, somewhere inside her – maybe it was Clara? – liked the yodeling.  It calmed her.  Sometimes that person swung from the vines in the recesses of her mind and yelled through gap-toothed teeth with a smile so big and menacing that she couldn’t help but hear.  But she wasn’t real.  Not really.  Denise was real.  Rose was real.

Or they weren’t.

Give it time, and she’d be told they were fake, too.

That she’d only ever been…someone else.

Whoever she was, she was tired.  She was tired.  She was so tired.

Chapter Text

You have never been more excited and more nervous in your life.

You and Carla have been together for what feels like forever (but it’s really only been a few years – years – you’re about to graduate and you’re still together and you didn’t know people could be in relationships this long because your father never has.  Except for Rafael’s mother.  And yours), and there’s nothing to suggest that it should ever end.  You are what some people would call a good match.  But you hate that phrase.  Like the two of you are a pair of socks or shoes or a suit jacket with a pair of jeans or two mismatched earrings that just happen to still go really well together.  Like you’re an object and not people.

You still drink sometimes with the other pre-med students, but you never come back wasted anymore.  Hangovers suck.  And your life….  Your life feels good.  Drinking doesn’t make you feel better anymore because life doesn’t need to be that kind of better.  There’s no edge for it to take off.  Life is good.

Summer is the hardest part because Carla still takes trips back to Switzerland, so you don’t get to see her.  You could go with her, but she doesn’t invite you.  She says her family kind of sucks – and you understand that – and she doesn’t want you to deal with how much they’d hate you.

That doesn’t sit so well.

Carla’s family isn’t so great about her wanting to be with girls.  She hasn’t really told them.  Her mom knows, and her mom doesn’t care, but it’s the extended family that’s the problem.  And she’s still searching for her cousin – the one who sent you the letter!  She’d lost contact with her years ago, but she’s still trying to find her.  She says she was the only member of her family who she thinks actually got it.  She suspects she would go through the same thing, too, or worse, because her stepmother had seemed even less accepting of it than the rest of the family.  But her cousin was fierce and fire and wouldn’t put up with that shit.

That wasn’t really why she was worried.


 

After the last of your finals senior year, you take Carla back to the train bridge.  It’s a beautiful night.  Stars overhead shining bright and a huge, full moon with the little halo around it that you’d only seen a few times.  Carla had started bringing a telescope with her so that the two of you could look at the stars and the galaxies while waiting for the train, a train, any train, and the rush of air still made you feel like you were flying.

Your stomach tightens into little knots when you take Carla away from the telescope and there’s a ring in your hands and her brown eyes widen and they look from you to the ring then back to you then back to the ring and there’s this smile that grows on her face and you know – you know – that people like the two of you can’t get married right now (unless you wanted to travel all the way to another state) but who cares what the fuck the government thinks, you can still get married without a piece of paper saying it’s real because you know that it’s real no matter what they say.

She says yes.

She says yes!!

You have never felt so giddy and happy and alive in your entire life and honestly?  This is so much better than anything drinking has ever done for you.


 

The two of you buy a house together.  It’s small and shabby and you have the money to buy a bigger one and you could probably get your father to spring for a bigger one but Carla likes the small one.  It’s homey.  There’s a lot that needs to be fixed up, but you do it together.  You try to be a plumber once and the water gets everywhere and you’re soaked and Carla laughs at you until you pull her close to kiss her and then she makes a face because ew all of that nasty water all over her and she kisses you back because you taste better than the nasty water does.

She doesn’t go to Switzerland that summer.

She stays with you.

But she doesn’t give up on finding her cousin.  There’s a thread there, there’s something she can see, and she’s close, she can feel it, but it’s not anything she can’t deal with here instead of there.  For now, anyway.

You think she’s afraid of the questions they’ll ask when she goes back with an engagement ring.  You think she might be ashamed of you.  She’s not.  She’s not ashamed.  She can’t be, she couldn’t be, she loves you.  But she wants Clara there when she brings you to meet everyone.  So it gets put off.

It bothers you, just a little bit, because she’s met your brother—

Okay, so she still hasn’t seen your father since whenever it was when you were six and you introduced them, but he’s been busy and it seems like every time they could meet, one or the other them has something they have to do.  It happens, right?

Of course it does.

But you show him pictures – the ones you keep in your wallet because they’re better than phones which really don’t take good pictures yet, if they take them it at all – and he looks and he nods and he seems to not be paying that much attention.

Sometimes he says her eyes are blue.

You know they’re brown.


 

Carla decides to take some time off between her bachelor’s and grad school.  You jump right into med. school.  Not all of your pre-med. friends join you, but that’s okay.  You make new friends.  Everyone loves you because you’re so bubbly and warm and happy.

Carla works.  She doesn’t get to meet your new friends just because she is so busy so much of the time.  You hate this, too, but you can’t do anything about it.  She doesn’t want you to take a job yet.  Not while you’re in med. school.  You have too much studying to do!

You start drinking again.  Not as much as you used to.  But sometimes you feel really lonely.  You don’t get drunk.  And you’re really good about school, even though it seems easy to you.  Really, really easy.  All of it just. makes sense.  You can’t explain why it does, but it does!  Carla says you’re lucky.

Every time she does, you grin.  You have the most beautiful wife in the world.  No one could be as lucky as you.


 

The year you turn twenty-four, Carla decides to take a trip back to Europe.  She wants to see her family, but mostly she thinks she’s finally found her cousin.  The name is different, and she acts different, but she’s seen pictures, and she’s fairly certain.  She plans a trip for the month of August.  She thinks a month will be enough time, but she isn’t certain.  She tells her work she wants an extended absence, and they are understanding enough to allow it.

She doesn’t take you with her.  You’re starting your second year of med. school, and you can’t miss the first few weeks – or longer, if she needs longer.  She thinks it’s more important that you stay behind.  She’s right.  So you do.

Carla calls you frequently.  As the end of August draws near, she says she needs more time.  Apparently the woman she’s found – someone named Denise? – is only around during the summer.  She’s trying to track down where she is the rest of the year.  She thinks another month will be fine.  Someone has to keep in contact.

They don’t.

You aren’t worried.  One more month?  That’s fine.  Why wouldn’t it be fine?  It’s fine!

And bring your cousin back with you when you find her!


 

It’s a Tuesday morning when it happens.

You’ve stayed on campus to study between classes.  You like being around people, and the house feels so empty without Carla there.  Someone runs into the room, skids on the floor, and is shocked the tv isn’t on.  You’re studying, just like most of the other people in the mostly not crowded room.  Why would the tv be on?

You have to see this.  You have to—

He turns the tv on despite large, loud objections, and everyone grows silent.

You can’t believe what you are seeing.

You’re gone.


 

Rafael is seventeen years old and he doesn’t need his older sister checking in on him anymore and maybe if you’d called you’d have known that he doesn’t need you right now but his school has been closed for the day and they’ve been sent to their houses, somewhere, anywhere, and maybe he doesn’t need you but you need to be with family right now.

You don’t know where your father is.

Carla is safe.  She answers when you call.  She is safe.

Rafael doesn’t know where your father is either.  He’s on a business trip.  He’s always on a business trip.

He doesn’t even call to let you know that he’s okay, but he returns as soon as the airports are open again.

You don’t need to go back to med. school.  Not yet.  You’re brilliant.  You have an IQ of 152 and it all seems easy anyway and you are scared and you stay with your brother and when your father returns you stay with both of them you cannot be in that empty house right now.


 

You tell Carla to stay where she is.

Carla fights with you.  She wants to come back.  To be with you.

You’re afraid.  You’re afraid.

You remember your father watching your mother jump off the bridge and you remember she saw things and you know you aren’t seeing things but you can’t imagine how you would react if something happened to Carla please stay there, please stay there, find your cousin and stay there.

Carla wants to know when you want her back.

You want her back now but not—

She understands.

She understands.

You tell her to find her cousin.  However long that takes.  And when she finds her, then fly back.  Don’t tell you when it happens.  You’ll just sit and be a little ball of fear and be inconsolable.  Don’t tell you.  Just come back.  Find her cousin and come back.

Carla says okay.


 

Carla stays in Europe.

Chapter Text

She wore Rose like a second skin, like another armor as thin as make up but much more impenetrable.  Each morning she replaced her face, sculpted her hair with irons and heat, chose clothes that she couldn’t remember if she actually liked but knew that Rose did.

Denise was the same.  Stripped down, but the same.  Everything carefully chosen, crafted for the person that she was here and now.  No hint of Rose.  She wasn’t Rose here.  Only Denise.  Only Denise.

For years, this continued.

Four years, this continued.

She did not recognize her cousin when she saw her again.  Rose did not know Charlie.  Clara, Claire, Clarice did.  Rose didn’t.  And when she heard someone yelling for Clara in a voice she almost remembered, she didn’t respond.  She wasn’t Clara.  She was Rose.

The hand grabbed her shoulder and turned her around and she was face to face with someone who liked like her cousin might have once and I don’t know who you are.  Blue eyes peering into dark brown ones.

She still had the letters.  She kept them with her wherever she moved.  She still had the photos, too.  They stayed on her person.  They were so faded.  Sometimes she thought that whoever she thought she saw wasn’t really how they looked because she couldn’t really make out people in the images anymore.

Except for the princess in her crown.

Princesses could be loud.

Princesses could be loud.

When the woman who looked like the person who might once have been her cousin Charlie turned away, she grabbed her wrist.  Stay, she said.  Stay.

Tell me about your cousin.

Tell me about the princess in Miami.

Does her story have a happy ending?

Charlie grabbed her and she crumpled but she didn’t know who she was.

She was Rose.

She was Rose.


 

a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.  deny thy name—


 

Charlie told her stories.

She told her first about the princess because she told her that she always wanted to know about her, she always wanted to know more about her story.  Rose pulled out the pictures she kept in her pockets and showed them to Charlie.  This is them.  She pointed to faded outlines and parties and the girl with the crown.  This is the princess.

Where did you get that photo?

She sent it to me.

She sent it to Clara.  It meant something to Clara.  It still meant something to Rose.  Something forgotten, something hidden in the recesses of her mind that she wanted to connect with.  She remembered but it wasn’t her.

Clara was Claire was Clarice was Denise was Rose.

Was her.

Something of her.

She was so tired.


 

Charlie wanted to take her out of college.  She wanted to take her away to meet the princess in Miami.  Rose couldn’t go.  She was in college!  She was studying!  She couldn’t just leave college and go wherever she wanted.  That was improper.  Besides, it was senior year and her credits might not transfer and she was not going to lose almost four years of work and effort just because her cousin Charlie wanted her to leave.  No.

She wondered if her stepmother was right.  Maybe she wasn’t the wicked one.  Maybe Charlie was a bad influence.  No.  That couldn’t be.  It couldn’t—

Charlie held her hands tight and said, Okay but I’m staying here with you.

She was afraid of something.

Rose didn’t know what.

Rose didn’t care what.


 

Rose graduated and there was no family other than Charlie to see her.  No half-brother.  No stepmother.  No aunts or uncles.  No anyone.  Just Charlie.

Charlie had helped her apply to colleges in Florida, to law schools, because Rose wanted to go into law.  But then she could transfer.  She could be in America with Charlie and the princess Luisa who wasn’t really a princess at all but wanted to marry her cousin Charlie.  She could live with them while she got out of whatever this was.

But before flying back, they went to Switzerland.  Rose became Denise.  Charlie wanted to see her father again before she left.  She hadn’t seen him in years, but she could see him and Rose-no Denise-no Clara-no Denise could visit her parents’ graves.  Denise could visit the winery where she’d worked for four summers.  It’d look like she was actually really there, like she was supposed to be, until one day—

One day she wouldn’t be.

She hadn’t seen her stepmother at all throughout all of this, but she woke up one morning with a gun on her bedside table.  She pocketed it before Charlie could see it.  The protection seemed like it might be a good idea.


 

Charlie took her to her parents’ graves.

She didn’t know what she was supposed to feel.  Staring at the stone header for the man who was once her father, she felt nothing.  Anger.  Like wanting to kill him, maybe, if he were still alive to kill.  But the feeling was buried deep, like the beginnings of heartburn or the aura of a migraine – a reminder but not the full painful thing itself.

Charlie had given her two bouquets of roses and sunflowers and she left them both on her mother’s grave.  She bent down and traced her fingers along the letterings – Rose Marie Ruvelle – and she remembered that her mother hated the name she now sometimes wore.  Clara’s middle name was Denise.  Rose’s last name was Clement.

Her mother—

Something in her hurt, and the little gap-toothed imp stopped yelling, stopped pointing.

She left the flowers behind before she could think over what it all meant.


 

She went with Charlie to visit her uncle, Charlie’s father.

She remembered him.

The little gap-toothed imp remembered being carried by the scruff of her neck, by the collars of her shirt that were too thin from how many times he did it and she couldn’t breathe.

She could breathe now.

It took too long – she stopped listening and started looking around the house for bits and pieces of something else she could remember and she remembered her father accidentally kicking her face when she crawled into bed with him, remembered the stench in her uncle’s house with the stench that poured from her father’s every pore—

She remembered him calling her—

Clara, Clara, Clara—

Charlie was explaining something to him when Clara came to, and the more she explained to him, the more his face got red.

She knew what that meant.

She knew what it meant when her father’s face was red, knew what it meant when her uncle’s face was red, knew what it meant to try and explain that the bruises and cuts and aches weren’t from fights at school but from her father’s drunkenness, knew what it meant to not explain anything to him because he wouldn’t listen, knew what it meant to be picked up by her neck and choked and not able to breathe but she was too big for that now, they were too big for that now—

The gun was on her.

For protection.

When he backhanded Charlie, she shot him.

The sound was muffled.  She didn’t know why, only that it was.

Charlie was scared.

Charlie was panicking.

Charlie was a bad influence.

Hush.

Was she speaking to Charlie, groveling, pleading before her?  Was she speaking to the voice of her stepmother who could never get her name right?  Was she speaking to the child who kept repeating her name, over and over—

Clara, Clara, Clara, you are Clara

Charlie hushed.

Her mind quieted.

Charlie watched her, wide-eyed.

Clara.

That wasn’t—

I have a wife.

A princess.

I have someone waiting for me.

The princess.

Clara—

Her name wasn’t Clara.

Her name wasn’t—

What was her name?

Her head tilted, and her eyes grew dark.  She was trying to think.  She was remembering things.  It wasn’t okay for him to hurt you.

That doesn’t mean he deserves to get shot.

Why?

Why?  Why was it okay to treat other people like that?

It wasn’t, it wasn’t, it wasn’t.

Charlie stepped forward.

Charlie hadn’t ever treated her like that.  She hadn’t done anything like that.  Charlie had always tried to help.

Like trying to get her into law school in America.

She didn’t really want to go to America.

Not for school.

She wanted to meet the princess who was not a princess who was engaged to her cousin.

Married. to her cousin.

She didn’t know if she wanted to live there.

Charlie stepped forward with both hands out and her head shot up.

Charlie’s hands were out like peace.  She said…she said that name again.  That wasn’t her name, but she thought that her hands might mean comfort.  She could use comfort right now.

Charlie tried to take the gun.

Charlie didn’t mean comfort.

Charlie tried to take the gun and without hesitation—

It was a reflex it was a reflex it was a reflex—

Chapter Text

They call it a murder-suicide.

At least, that’s what they say it is when they tell you.

It doesn’t make sense.  Your wife wouldn’t kill anyone.

She wouldn’t.

She didn’t.

They had to have done something wrong.

They’re wrong.

They’re wrong.

That’s all there is to it.

They’re wrong.

They have to be.

They have to be.


 

The first time you go to Switzerland is for your wife’s funeral.

They refuse to acknowledge that she is your wife, but they will at least acknowledge that you were engaged.  You stand next to her mother dressed all in black.  You don’t wear a lot of black, but you had a dress that Carla liked, so you wear that one.  It has some lace.  It looks nice.  You almost smile in the mirror, imagining your wife with you, just behind you, you can almost see her.  She kisses your cheek and plays with your hair.  It’s straight, just the way you know she liked it, just the way your stepmothers liked it, just the way your mother liked it.

Thousands of strokes.

Thousands and thousands and thousands and—

You stand in front of the coffin.  They’ve covered the wound.  They’ve fixed her as much as they can, but she still looks dead.  Not sleeping.  Of course she looks dead not sleeping because she is actually dead not sleeping and you tear up and you cry and your mascara runs and you try not to cry because this is the last time you will ever see her and you don’t want that to be blurry, you want to see your wife—

You take off the gaudy engagement ring and you put it in her coffin.  The two of them look so perfect together.  You can’t breathe.

You aren’t looking when it gets taken out, and you don’t notice that hers is gone before they close the casket.

Carla must never have found her cousin.  She must have been mistaken.  If she had truly found her cousin, surely Clara would be here.  Surely she would come see her.  Surely she would have prevented this.  You wouldn’t know her if you saw her.  The only pictures Carla had of her were from when she was a teenager.  You wouldn’t know what she looked like now.  But Clara would know what she looked like.  Carla would have told her.  Carla would have updated her.  Carla would have had at least one picture of you with her.  Clara would have known to come see you, if she still wanted to meet the princess who wasn’t a princess from her stories and she doesn’t.  So Carla can’t have found her.  That has to have been a lie.

You meet a lot of people at Carla’s funeral.  There’s a redhead with piercing blue eyes and a lot of freckles.  You won’t remember her later.


 

You return to the states and you drink.

You drink a lot.

You know that Carla wouldn’t like it and you don’t want to be in your house so you go back to the old train bridge and it hurts to be there, too, but at least you’re used to drinking there and when your drunk it hurts a little less or maybe you’re just telling yourself that because if you’re honest with yourself, really, truly honest with yourself, everything always hurts anymore.

You finally meet the farmer!

He doesn’t want you drunk kids on his bridge anymore.

You ask him how much he wants for it.

He says a million dollars, and he’ll throw in his old barn, too.

You come back within hours with your lawyers and have the contract written up.  You pay him all in cash and you own the bridge and the barn by the end of the day.  You don’t really care about the barn.

You…don’t really care about any of it.

You don’t really care about a lot of things anymore.


 

You spend a lot of time at that bridge.

It’s easier to be there than it is to be at the house.

Actually, you’ve been thinking about selling the house, but you don’t know how you would get rid of any of Carla’s stuff.  You can’t.  It’s too hard.  Almost harder than being there at all.

Your father thinks you are better.  He’s out of the country.

Your brother has just started college.  You don’t want to bury his freshman year with your problems.

Somehow you are doing better in med. school than you ever have before.  You don’t know how that really works out but if it does, then it does.  You guess that’s one good thing.

You’re not sure if being drunk all the time counts as a good thing.

You know Carla wouldn’t think it was.

You don’t want to think about Carla.


 

You sit on the edge of the bridge and you think you’d jump off if a train came.

You sit on the edge of the bridge, drunk, and you wait for a train to come.

You’ll have to hide if one arrives or they’ll slow down and then if they hit you you’ll probably still die but it’s possible you’ll only just be seriously impaired and if this is what happens then you don’t want to be seriously impaired because you already feel like you are.

You want to die.

You sit on the edge of the bridge and you wait for a train to come and it doesn’t matter where it’s left or where it’s going as long as it gets here soon.

You sit on the edge of the bridge because if you stand you might not be able to stay standing you are that drunk.

Carla calls to you.  She calls out your name and you think you’re imagining things but there she is, calling your name again, and you keep looking for the light in front of you that means there’s a train, you aren’t paying attention to voices in your head, and she calls your name again, much more insistently, and you turn to her, and you expect there not to be anything because it’s just your mind playing with you again—

You see her on the other end of the bridge and you don’t know where she came from or how she got there but she tells you to get down, she has been looking everywhere for you, and you have been drinking again, and you could die, don’t you realize you could die if you fell from there at just the right wrong moment?  She is so upset with you.

You blink.

You’re dead.

You say that.  It’s very clear.  You know you say that.

Carla gives you this look.  Confused.  Head tilted to one side, red curls falling about her face.  Who said I was dead?

She doesn’t call you puppy.

That’s a line from a book you read once.

Or a book that comes out later.

Show that comes out later.

She has never called you puppy and she won’t start now even though that’s really what you are, isn’t it?

Carla convinces you to get off the bridge, and she drives you back to your house, and it doesn’t feel as horrible as it did before, and she stays with you, curled up right next to you like she always was, and she brushes her hand through your hair (thousands and thousands and thousands of strokes), and she makes sure you drink a lot of water, and she’s picked up all the alcohol bottles and thrown them away, and you….

You are confused, but you don’t know how you got so lucky.

You ask her if she found her cousin.

She says she did.  Says she’s somewhere in the states, going to law school.  Maybe the two of you will meet someday.

You tell her you’d like that.  Besides, she was supposed to bring her back with her so that you two could meet since she spent years looking for her.  Does she at least have a picture?  You’d like to know what this scamp of a cousin looks like.  Is she cute now?  Did she grow up to be super hot?  Is that why she doesn’t have a picture?

Carla scowls at you.  Talking about how hot your wife’s cousin is is definitely not an a-okay thing, Luisa.

You stick your tongue out at her and then kiss her cheek and cuddle up next to her and tell her that you’re glad she’s still alive and that all of that other stuff was just a bad dream.  You don’t know what you’d do if that all turned out to be true.

Be dead, most likely.

Chapter Text

She doesn’t remember.

The princess.

She doesn’t remember.

By the time Clara Denise Rose meets the princess, really meets the princess, she’s gained another new name and another new identity, one that underlies the rest of them and ties them together.  Multiple others have come and gone, but Sin Rostro, The Faceless, The (Wo)Man Without A Face – that one has stuck.

Finally, a name that sticks.


 

She’s better at killing now, too.

Much better.

She doesn’t tell the princess that.

Why would she tell her that?


 

Rose knows who Luisa Alver is the moment she sees her at the bar.

Her cousin’s wife.

Widow.

That’s the word they use, isn’t it?

Widow.

She knows she shouldn’t get involved.  There are other women in the bar.  Any one of them would be happy to leave with her – or will be happy to leave with her, once she talks to them.  Someone alone, waiting for some clandestine meeting that she will provide for a short amount of bliss before leaving them again.

But that can wait until after she meets the princess.

She wants to see how she’s doing.  If she’s doing okay.  If she’s recovered.  Carla would have wanted them to meet, would have wanted her to check up on her, even if she can’t say who she is.

…she’s not checking on her for Carla.  She knows that as soon as they begin talking, as soon as she sees the way her eyes light up when they meet hers.  She can feel it in the pit of her chest.

The greatest love story ever told.

And afterwards?  She knows how well the princess has recovered.


 

Emilio never once mentions Carla.  He never mentions that his daughter sometimes hallucinates.  There are words and silences and layers and lines to be read between and mental illness is a sore topic in this family, but no one ever mentions that Luisa was engaged or married.  It’s Rafael who finally tells her the story of Luisa’s psychotic break, Rafael who finally mentions Carla, shortly after his wife’s miscarriage, just after he is diagnosed with cancer, just as his sister begins rehab again.  He tells her how scared they are when Luisa drinks.  He doesn’t dare suggest that Carla might once have been real.

Rose – no, Clara – hates them all for this, for acting as though Charlie was only a figment of Luisa’s imagination.  She hates that they have erased her so completely.  Most of all, she hates that she, too, has to keep up the façade because to do otherwise might break Luisa again.

She is Luisa’s sponsor when she finally joins AA.  She feels she owes it to her for that.


 

She wears their rings.

Luisa doesn’t notice, or if she does, she doesn’t say anything.


 

When Susanna Barnett sees Luisa find out that Rose’s true name is Clara Ruvelle, she watches.  There is no flicker of recognition, no widening of her eyes, no anything to suggest that she understands or makes the connection.

This is good.  She tries to tell herself that this is good.

It doesn’t feel like it’s good.

(She, herself, had been shocked to hear her real name after so long.  She hadn’t forgotten it, but most of the time she tried to blur it out.  Clara was too painful a person to wear.)

Luisa recognizes Joey.

Luisa does not remember the name Ruvelle.


 

When Luisa asks for her kill sheet, everything on it is perfect and complete.

At least, it appears to be.

In truth?

She leaves one name off.