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The Next Best Thing

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They pack her clothes for her but she packs her own books, into the hard shiney holiday suitcase with wheels. They don’t all fit, the rest are stacked in piles in crumpled plastic bags that she sneaks from the kitchen.

 

(Is it her kitchen now that her parents are gone? She knows she can’t stay there by herself- she’s seven, not stupid- but when she is told the house will be sold, she feels an empty hole open in her chest. She’d imagined it would be left, preserved and intact, for her to return to when she’d grown up. Instead, it’s divided up into pieces and seeing the once familiar pieces of furniture out of their usual surroundings makes them different, as if they’re not really the same anymore. Her own bed, the big squashy armchair for reading bedtime stories, when set outside on the curb for the van, become just pieces of furniture. Their familiar safe feeling has leaked out.)

 

They tell her off for packing her books in her good suitcase- apparently the suitcase is meant to be for clothes- but she doesn’t care. When they suggest she just pick out one or two books to take with her and leave the rest since she’s read them all already anyway, she’s suddenly afraid- it’s like they’ve suggested she choose a finger or toe to leave behind and the fact that they’re looking at her as if they’ve what they’ve suggested makes sense is scary. 

 

She offers to leave her clothes behind instead, and they laugh like she’s joking.

 

When she won’t choose, they choose for her and the rest of the books are left with the furniture. Parents, home and now her most special things have been peeled away from her and she feels smaller as she slides resignedly into the car and buckles the seatbelt.

 

She tells herself she won’t cry but she does.

 

*

 

Her godmother has been Catalina for as long as she can remember, never anything else, not in birthday cards or Christmas and Easter cards, and not in person during rare family get-togethers, during which she would peek around corners at the imposing woman with the suitcases and the heavy accent and the stories about somewhere called Castille, waiting for Catalina to notice her, to beckon her forward and ask what she has been reading.

 

(Her godmother would listen seriously to her answer as if it mattered and ask her serious questions about characters and plot and although it was strange, the absence of the faux-bright ‘talking-to-children’ tone that some of her other relatives adopted, she quite liked it.)

 

Her godmother has always been Catalina but they refer to her as ‘Aunty Cathy’ all the way to her house in the bright, florid tones one uses with children and pets.

 

She considers telling them that Catalina is her godmother, not her aunt, but she doesn’t.

She considers telling them that Catalina never goes by Cathy, that she’s seen herself how firmly she corrects the unwitting, foolish few who try to angelecise her name but she doesn’t.

 

She doesn’t say anything at all and she can tell that it makes them uncomfortable, embarrassed, when she stays musical-statue-still at their repeated requests to ‘say hello nicely’ and ‘give your aunty a hug’.

 

Catalina doesn’t seem particularly discomforted though- her smile is sad but as warm as ever, and she brushes off their apologies for her uncooperative ‘niece’.

 

‘It’s quite alright. And actually, she’s not my niece.’

 

It doesn’t make Cathy happy (she can’t imagine that she’ll ever feel happy again, she can’t imagine smiling ever again) but she does look up from her shoes.

 

(They’re her best shoes- birthday-parties-only shoes- but the tired-looking social worker hadn’t known that she was getting ready. Maybe the rule doesn’t exist now anyway since there’s no one to enforce it. It occurs to her that maybe she can wear special clothes all the time now and the thought makes her want to cry.)

 

‘She’s my goddaughter.’

 

Catalin catches her eye and smiles.

 

She nearly responds.

 

***

 

She should be sad about her parents- and she is, she is- but she’s sad about her books too. 

Not having them makes her feel smaller, untethered, like she’s not quite real.

 

Everything makes her feel not quite real. Her things (what’s left of them) have been added to Catalina’s small flat, the spare room bed is now hers. Catalina buys things at the supermarket that she’s sure she never used to buy before- rice krispies and chocolate spread and ribena- and a lower coat peg has been added to the hall cupboard for her coat...but she still feels as if she could disappear and not be noticed.

 

Catalina finds her curled up and crying under her bedspread one afternoon and scoops her out worriedly, asking if she is hurt, if she has pain. Her palm feels cool against her hot, damp cheek, her long fingers brushing away tears.

 

‘Talk to me, querida.’

 

It’s not the first time she has called Cathy this but it’s the first time since the moving-in four days ago. She’s the only one who has ever called Cathy that and so it doesn’t hurt like it does when other adults unthinkingly use names her parents once did- ‘Sweetheart’ ‘Darling’ ‘Honey’.

 

‘Tell me.’

 

She doesn’t want to- she doesn’t want to admit that she’s crying for things, for her old bedroom, for fear that it makes her seem heartless, selfish, unloving.

 

She should be crying about her parents, but that would require thinking about them and that’s something she only lets herself do in short bursts. She isn’t sure why but it makes her think of the time she sprained her wrist last summer (in a badly misjudged attempt at jumping from tree to trampoline during a game of Explorers)- after the initial chaos of noise and screaming (Anne, who had been playing the part of co-explorer at the time) and crying (her mother, who had argued against the trampoline in the first place), the pain had subsided into a dull, threatening throb, and she’d known instinctively that even to lightly brush against it would result in the sort of white-hot agonies that would make injections and scraped knees seem like nothing.

 

She doesn’t think too much about her parents but she is afraid to tell Catalina the truth in case it horrifies her, in case it makes her pull away and not want to have Cathy live with her anymore, because where would she go then?

 

So she whispers ‘Mum and Dad’ instead, and feels Catalina’s arms go around her tightly. 

 

She feels sick with herself for the lie.