At his eleventh birthday party, Warlock sees Nanny.
She looks different, dressed in a crisp white jacket with the other serving staff, red hair cut short and swept up from her face, and maybe the rest of the staff doesn’t recognize her, maybe mom doesn’t recognize her, but Warlock knows it’s Nanny.
And right on the heels of the surprise and wonder and slow, creeping delight, the next first thing Warlock feels is acute, dramatic shame at his bad behavior. He waffles for a moment, feeling half his age with a ruined shirt and cake in his hair. He tries to rub some of the frosting off his sleeve and only smears it in.
But then Nanny is moving as if she’s going to leave, and Warlock surges forward without another thought. He dodges around a cluster of angry adults, pushes through some of the other kids, and latches onto her hand before she makes it more than three steps out of the party tent.
She turns with a start, and she looks different but she’s so familiar that Warlock feels a surge of something hot and watery in his stomach and his throat and behind his eyes.
He outgrew her when he turned ten, or so his dad said (over Skype, because he was in Washington for another month and couldn’t be bothered to ruin Warlock’s life in person). Mom’s stupid socialite friends thought it was a good idea to get Warlock a private tutor instead, to get him on the fast-track to a good university.
Warlock fought it long and hard, screamed and shouted and kicked and cried and clung to Nanny so hard his knuckles turned white, but they wouldn’t be budged. Four days later, Nanny was gone.
(The gardener left with her; the same day, even. The cook said she saw them drive off together. She stopped gossiping when she saw Warlock was listening from his seat at the otherwise empty dinner table, hanging on her every word. She looked slightly guilty about it and gave him an extra biscuit with dessert.)
“You are everything you need,” Nanny had said before she left, a hand on his hair. Then, secret, soft enough that mom couldn’t hear, “What do you do when they push?”
It was their familiar back and forth, from as early as his nursery school days, when the other children would make fun of his name or his accent. When he would come home with bruises or skinned knees and Nanny would make everything better with a frown and a snap of her fingers. What do you do when they push? she would ask.
Standing there in the foyer with his arms wrapped around the only person who loved him, weeping into her shirt, Warlock knew what she was waiting to hear:
And so for the last year, he’s been terrible. As terrible as he could be, at every turn. Loud and rude and mean, tracking mud into the house and breaking the fragile, pretty things mom put up for decoration and making unholy amounts of noise every time dad was on a business call. He slouched during social dinners and buttoned his shirts up wrong when he knew important guests were coming over. He was messy, and awful, and no child to be proud of.
Push back, he thought, when he threw his baseball through a window. Push back, he thought, when his mom had to miss an afternoon tea with her friends to pick him up from an after-school detention. Push back, push back, push back.
Now, after a whole year of pushing and spending most of his time grounded and letting his grades slip just so dad has another thing to be embarrassed about, Nanny is here, at his eleventh birthday party. She’s as still as if his sudden appearance has frozen her right to the ground. There is shock and something else in her face, her slack mouth and upwards-escaping eyebrows. She must have planned to slip away before Warlock saw her; he thinks she’s probably not supposed to be here.
But she is. And he clings to her, because he’s half-convinced she’s going to pull her hand away and leave again, and he knows it’s going to hurt as much as it did the first time. That hot, watery feeling inside him is spilling over, and he’s crying even though he’s too old to cry anymore, messy and awful and no child to be proud of.
He wants her to hold him the way she always did when he was small. He wants her to snap her fingers and make everything better. He wants her to stop staring at him like he’s an unfamiliar creature and be his Nanny.
“I pushed back,” Warlock says lamely, and it’s the absolute stupidest thing, it’s not what he meant to say at all.
But somehow, it’s exactly right. It breaks the strange stillness they’ve been stuck in.
Nanny kneels, and she doesn’t seem to care about the sticky evidence of the food-fight clinging to Warlock’s hair and clothes. Her hand tightens around his, and her mouth lifts in that tiny, crooked smile that always meant more to him than any praise his parents ever managed to cough up, and even though she’s different she’s still so much the same.
“I bet you gave them Hell,” she says. "Well done."