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The Fault of Rousseau

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Azelma had botched things again and now their father was angry. Well, let him be angry. Azelma was a silly brat but didn't he know that already? Azelma was scared. Azelma was always scared and would botch things out of fear unless she feared their father more than she feared the cops, and sometimes she did, but sometimes the cops were there and their father wasn’t.

Éponine wasn't scared, because there was everything to be scared of and so it made no matter anyhow, and so when their father's hand swung at Azelma's face this time, Éponine stepped between them and caught her father’s wrist. Then she ducked as he swung at her again, danced away from his foot as he kicked out at her and, laughing ferociously, ran out the door and into the night.

The sky gaped open before her like a pit, like a grave, like a toothless foul-breathed mouth parting its lips for a scolding or a shout. Éponine had no shoes and she’d had no time to grab her old mantle before rushing out, but she ran fast and that kept the cold at bay. She cut her foot on a jagged shard of glass and slid in a puddle of half-melted snow but she caught herself and kept running.

She slowed to a walk after a few streets, gulping harsh, weary breaths, alive with the false warmth of her earlier speed. The shadows of the buildings clutched at her, and she liked it. The city was softer at night, scarier but softer, and it was easier to hide, to be invisible, to drown. The shadows were waves. It was like being in the river. Or like being in a cemetery, like the buildings were tombstones. Sometimes Éponine thought there might be ghosts on the streets. The ghosts would watch and wait and lurk and linger and then—and then what? Éponine didn’t know, exactly, what a ghost would do. Something unpleasant, no doubt. Were there kind ghosts? Éponine didn’t know that either. If there were kind people then there must be kind ghosts because ghosts came from people.

Or maybe she was the ghost. Éponine liked that. Maybe she would lie in wait in the shadows till she became a shadow herself, gray and untouchable, and her hands could ensnare people and bring them in with her and she could do what she liked with them. Shadows had no mouths that needed feeding, no bodies that needed warming, and they could never be lonely because there were always more shadows. Everything had a shadow. She could be a ghost, she would like that. It made her smile.

She heard a sharp sound behind her and whirled round to see nothing. She slipped into a narrow nook between two buildings, silent and fleet, barely drawing breath, listening hard. She felt real once more, real and gnawing and flailing and wanting, and she wanted to be a ghost again.

The wind sang. She couldn’t hear if there were steps coming to her. A cloud must have snuffed out the white sliver of moon because the world outside her nook grew darker. She couldn’t see if anyone was there. It could be anyone. It could be a ghost, a real one. It could be a person with knives and teeth and boots. Éponine could kick if it came to that. She pressed up against the wall and waited for whoever it was.

The wind went quiet all of a sudden. In the calm Éponine heard a soft, high whistle amid light footsteps. They came closer, closer, and as the person came upon her hiding place Éponine jumped out and shoved him, hard.

There was no resistance. It was only a small boy. “Oh!” she said, and then, peering closer, added, “Oh, it’s you, Gavroche!”

“Now that’s a fine welcome, sister!” Gavroche sprang to his feet like he hadn’t felt the shove, or the slap of the paving stones against his body. Éponine felt sorry for a second but plainly her push and his fall had done Gavroche no harm. “I have not seen you in weeks, and this is how you greet me? You’re our father’s daughter, there can be no doubt of that! Well, what brings you here?”

“Our father!” Éponine said, laughing with him. They laughed together often when they met, Éponine and Gavroche, often for no reason but what did that matter? “He got angry with Azelma and I got angry with him and blocked him when he hit her, and then I ran away.”

“You shouldn’t be out alone at night,” said Gavroche very seriously, “it isn’t safe.”

“What! You silly child, you’re smaller than me, and you are out here, so why lecture your elders?”

“S’different for girls. I would say you should go inside, except our father and mother are inside, so perhaps it’s better to brave the streets.”

“You talk like a grandfather,” retorted Éponine, making a face at him. “I won’t be scolded by a cheeky gamin.”

Gavroche promptly made a worse face back at her, sticking his tongue out and crossing his eyes and waggling his ears. Éponine cuffed him lightly on the head, grinning broadly. There had been ghosts and shadows before but now there was Gavroche. Gavroche had sprouted from the streets like a mushroom, unbidden but grand.

“I have tickets to the theater, sister,” he said after a moment. “For tomorrow. Come with me. Bring Azelma too, she’ll want cheering up if our father is angry at her.”

“Bah!” said Éponine. “The last time we went to the theater that man with bloodstains on his waistcoat shoved me against the wall and tried to make me kiss him.”

“I’ll look out for you this time, and kick anyone who comes near,” Gavroche said. Éponine snorted at the thought of being looked after by Gavroche. “It’s a good play. I’m friends with the actors. You’ll like it.”

“I didn’t like the last one. It was dull! Too dull, and tiresome, with ugly people, and no one happy in love. This one will be no better, I’d wager.”

“You are a pessimist, Éponine,” Gavroche said, pronouncing the word proudly. “Pessimist is a new word I learned today.”

“Oh, I see, you are a professor now!”

“My poet friend taught me the word,” Gavroche said, ignoring her jibe. “It means one who only sees the bad. You should be an optimist and see the good, because people are good.”

“People are good!” Éponine repeated. “Has that poet friend been feeding you absinthe?”

“Deep down, people are good,” Gavroche said. “If they are not led astray.”

Éponine said nothing. After a few moments, Gavroche spoke again. “So! Is there any news at home? Have father’s tales of woe gotten any better? That Spanish captain trick will never fool anyone, not even the worst duffer in all of France. He should give it up.”

“Nothing is new! The same tricks, the same cops, the same people. No, wait, that’s not so. One thing is new. We have a new neighbor. A young fellow. His name is Monsieur Marius.”

Monsieur Marius,” Gavroche sing-songed, and Éponine hit his shoulder.

“Do not tease! There is nothing to tease me for, anyway. It is his name, what of it?”

Gavroche laughed, but kindly said nothing further.

“He paid our rent,” Éponine said, after a moment. “He paid our rent even though he is poor, or else he wouldn’t be living there, and he is handsome.”

She wished she hadn’t said that, for now Gavroche surely had cause to tease, but he just gave her a naughty smirk and kept quiet. Éponine didn’t know he knew how to keep quiet.

“Come to the theater tomorrow,” Gavroche said. “You’ll have fun. We all will, you and me and Azelma.”

“All right, I will,” Éponine said. She wasn’t a shadow anymore but somehow that was not so bad right now. “I’ll tell Azelma and we’ll slip away in the evening, before our father can send us off on an errand.”

“That is good!” Gavroche grinned, and bounced on his heels. “I must be off now, my children await me.”

“Your children! What can you mean?” But Gavroche had already skipped off, his little form dissolving into the dark.

Éponine smiled, and shrugged, and turned back homeward. Her father would be asleep by now, and she could sneak back quietly and rest. And tomorrow, before the theater, she could watch Monsieur Marius some more during the day, and maybe this time she would speak to him.