It was with considerable reluctance that Julia Phipps agreed to take on her goddaughter for the summer. If the child had not belonged to her favorite niece, Meg, and if Meg had not sounded so utterly desperate, she might never have acquiesced. But Meg had gone on and on, long distance, her words rattling together like marbles in a teacup. Julia never did absorb all Meg said, but she grasped the essentials: the assignment to Pakistan, the collapse of child care arrangements, the career at stake.
There was a good deal that Meg did not say; one of the virtues of having money, Julia had long ago determined, was that the prospect of inheritance kept everyone’s honesty at bay. But Julia knew what Meg was thinking, and recognized the truth in it as well; privileged and unencumbered as she was, only overweening selfishness could prompt her to refuse. And finally, nipped by guilt, Julia had agreed.
“This is without doubt the greatest mistake of my life,” she told her friend Lillian acidly. “I know nothing about children. How will I keep the creature entertained?”
“Think back to your own childhood. What sort of thing did you enjoy?” Lillian was genuinely curious. She could not begin to imagine her friend as a child. Julia seemed to have been born in a steel corset and mid-heeled Ballys.
Julia struggled to remember her youth. Vague memories floated, veiled by distance and time. There were images of the English countryside, not too useful to her in post-millennial Pasadena. There was a sense of having been outshone by a perfect pink-and-white sister—also not useful. But beyond that, nothing—not a single worthwhile shard of memory. “I’m drawing a blank,” she admitted at last. “However, I do remember spending afternoons with my niece Meg when she was small.”
“That’s a start,” encouraged Lillian. “What did you do together?”
“My main memories,” Julia sighed, “involve tedious children’s films, ruined clothing, and stilted ice cream parlor conversations. Do they still have ice cream parlors? Somehow it seems unlikely.”
“Chains, mostly,” said Lillian, who had a grandson.
Julia shuddered visibly at the thought. “Oh, this is going to be wonderful,” she groaned.
Despite her dread, however, the visit began auspiciously. The child that arrived at her doorstep was beautifully dressed, carefully coached, and, as advertised, remarkably well behaved. Julia had not realized that children came that way anymore. At a dinner party she gave a few days later, Julia was overwhelmed with compliments on her new companion. Surprised, she glanced over at the child, who was at that moment passing a plate of hors d’oeuvres around the room. And Julia had to admit that in her mauve dress, her gravely focused face framed by black curls, little Nina was quite an ornament.
But although Julia’s senses warmed to the child, her emotions did not. Nina was quiet enough, Julia supposed, but she had a way of seeking out Julia’s company and perching nearby, expectantly, as if she wanted something. “Run along and play,” Julia would suggest forcefully, after a few uncomfortable minutes, and the girl would obey. But before long she would be back again, watchful, gently waiting. Julia felt unbecomingly relieved during the hours Nina spent in the summer program run by a nearby school. And with increasing frequency, she found reasons for her couple, Candida and Luis, to care for the child when she was at home.
In the end, however, it was Nina’s absences, not her presence, that caused her godmother the greatest distress. The child had not been with her for more than two weeks when Julia called her friend Lillian and announced dramatically, “This visit is a disaster.”
Lillian, who was used to such calls, settled herself in for a lengthy consolation. Julia’s disasters seldom amounted to much, but they were rarely disposed of easily. “What’s the matter?” she asked calmly. “Has the perfect child turned into a monster?”
“Oh, she’s pleasant enough as children go,” sighed Julia. “The problem is that other children have been inviting her to their homes.”
“That’s as it should be. Nina is a delightful little girl.”
“But, Lillian, I’ll be expected to invite them back. “Julia’s voice rose i n distress. “I’ve seen a great deal of children recently, and they’re ghastly little things. Oh, not your grandson Richard,” she lied hastily,” but most of them. They run endlessly, poking into everything. They have no manners. Worse still, they have no conversation. Yet one is expected to be charmed by them, to listen to every word as if it were a pearl of great worth.”
Lillian listened idly as her friend rattled on. Julia, she reflected, would have been condemned as an eccentric if she had not been so very, very generous. As it was, people spoke admiringly of her character. She had held to the old ways. She invited friends to tea. She left calling cards. Her accent and vocabulary remained the same decades after she had emigrated from England. Lillian suspected her of reading Wodehouse and Waugh, purely to keep up the form.
Yet America, thought Lillian, had been very good to Julia. She had come to California in the early ‘50’s and had simply stayed. Taking a hard look at the American psyche of the time, she had invested the bit of money she’d inherited in aerospace. It had been a good move.
And it was not only her financial prospects that had improved. Her bony frame, her dark hair and rather sallow skin had not been successful in the Kentish countryside where she’d grown up. But under the Pasadena sun her skin had turned an interesting bronze, and suddenly her looks were considered striking.
She had gravitated eventually to an attractive older executive who had done her the honor of marrying her and the favor of dying early. Armed with his money, in addition to her own, she had been content to lapse into a rather detached philanthropy. The Huntington was grateful for her existence.
The familiar rhythms of her friend’s speech told her that Julia was winding down, and Lillian focused more intently on her monologue. The subject was still the odiousness of children. When Julia ground to a halt at last, Lillian told her, “My dear, you are a misopedist, pure and simple.”
Julia bristled slightly. “I don’t believe I’m familiar with the term.”
“I think I may have just invented it. But if there are misanthropes and misogynists, there must be a word for the wholehearted dislike of children. And that, my friend, is what you seem to suffer from.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Julia admitted. “All the worse, then, to know that the house will be crawling with the little creatures for the rest of the summer.”
“Why don’t you invite them all over at once? Have a party. A few hours of hell and your social obligations will be fully discharged.”
Elements of relief crept into Julia’s voice. “That’s an excellent idea, Yes, the more I think about it the better it sounds. But how shall I entertain them?”
“It doesn’t matter. Everyone knows you; the parents will be delighted to have their children invited. Let them run around a while, feed them something sugary, and send them home.”
“Lillian, you’re a wonder,” said Julia happily. “Talking to you is always so settling.”
But no sooner had she hung up the phone than she began to realize that hosting a children’s party would not be that simple. Her eyes drifted over a long expanse of Aubusson, caressed the lines of a Hepplewhite grouping, and came to rest on a particularly nice collection of Lalique. She saw the potential for great disaster. Nor could she imagine setting the children free outside in the gardens. Surely they would trample the flower beds planted with such precision by Luis and designed with such care by herself.
If she had thought of it, she could certainly have hired an entertainer to occupy the children—a magician or a clown, an entire troupe of puppeteers—but the thought never crossed her mind. She was too far from childhood to remember that such persons existed.
No, she would have to contain the children in one area, one where they could do minimal damage. More and more her thoughts turned to the koi pond at the far end of her property. That afternoon, she wrote out invitations to a swim party.
The day of the party was blessedly warm and bright, but Julia viewed it darkly, squinting at the clear skies as if they were piled with thunderheads set to rain specifically on her. Little Nina frisked impatiently, asking over and over when her friends would be there. At last they began to arrive, dressed in their best and bearing swimsuits rolled in towels. Julia sent them off with her couple to change—the girls with Candida and the boys with Luis. They returned laughing and chattering, each encased in a bright orange life vest purchased by Julia. She led them singing down to the koi pond.
When they got there, however, they became silent, gazing dubiously into the dark waters. “Where’s the pool?” one boy asked.
“There isn’t one,” Julia answered lightly. “Do you see the big red and gold fish there just beneath the surface? I thought it would be fun for you to swim with them.” She sounded highly unconvincing, even to herself.
But one girl, evidently fond of animals, gave a cry of delight and dipped her foot in the water. She withdrew it immediately. “E-w-w-w-w,” she whined, “it’s slimy.”
“Nonsense.” Julia picked up the child and plunked her unceremoniously into the pond. “See how good the mud feels between your toes,” she commanded. The child stood stock still, uncertain whether to swim or cry. Then inspiration struck Julia. She plunged her hand, with its weighty pearl ring and fine pearl bracelet, unhesitatingly into the muck, bringing up a handful. She cast it far into the pond, where it landed with a satisfying plop. “See how lovely it is to throw.”
That was all the children needed. Boys and girls both scrambled into the water and began pelting each other with mud. Having launched them, Julia rinsed her hands and retired to a lawn chair. Candida and Luis could count heads and settle altercations. She gazed at the pond for an hour, lost in awe at the savagery of the little beasts. They never tired of throwing and splashing, of drizzling mud over each other’s heads.
One child in particular interested her, a quick, wild, bony little thing named Liz. She had a near feral instinct, it seemed to Julia. She appeared to know when a shot was coming her way, ducking with an easy agility. Her own throws were well judged and true. She burst into a small dance of triumph with every direct hit, scrawny arms flashing. Julia could see that she had not a shred of empathy for her victims, and found herself grinning at the creature despite herself.
It was difficult, when the time came, to lure the children out of the water, but at last Candida and Luis were successful in leading them to the lawn, where they sprayed away the muck and slime with the garden hose. The children ran, screaming, in the arc of water, apparently enjoying themselves as much as they had in the pond.
When their parents came to retrieve them they were dressed again, eating cake and ice cream decorously on the patio. Only three koi were found belly-up the next morning, and Julia considered the party a success.
But it was not, alas, to be her final one. Nina’s social stock rose even more after her wonderful party, and she was invited out so often that Julia rarely saw her. It became clear that another social event would soon be in order.
Julia did not panic this time. She was not any fonder of children than she had been at the outset, but at least they now interested her. She found their warlike propensities intriguing, and saw this as a chance to explore them further. Gazing out her bedroom window at the stately trees that ringed her lawn, she felt an idea begin to warm itself in her mind.
It took a bit of doing, but by the morning of her second party a wire line stretched from one tree to another across her broad lawn, higher at one end than the other. Near the low end a dummy hung, wearing a fearsome scowl painted on by Luis, and a hat emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. The children gathered around her eagerly, expecting fun.
“Today,” she announced, “we are going to play pirate. See that pirate over there?” She pointed to the dummy. “He is Captain Blood, a wicked, murderous man. Your job is to fight him to the death. So put on your pirate outfits, and destroy him. Demolish him, if you can.”
Thriftily, Julia had recycled the life jackets from her swimming party; she’d had Luis stencil a skull and crossbones on each. She gave all of the children sturdy foam swords. Really, she decided, she had thought it all out quite well. The children formed a line at one end of the yard, where Candida helped them up a ladder and attached them to the wire by a strong clip she’d sewn onto each life jacket. Then, one by one, they sailed through the air across the lawn, gathering momentum as they approached Captain Blood and attempted to skewer him with their swords. “En garde!” Julia taught them to shout, having no idea how pirates might address one another. Their fierce cries rang out in the summer air.
She watched curiously to see what little Liz would do when her turn came around. Standing in line, the child shifted restlessly from foot to bony foot, her dark head drooping, her sword swiping at the grass. But once she got to the ladder, she was all attention. Her eyes never left Captain Blood as Candida clipped her to the wire, and as soon as she felt secure she launched herself forward.
“A-a-a-a-a-a-h!” Liz’s piercing war cry shot unmuted across the green grass; her body had only one possible destination. Her sword hit Captain Blood in the heart. Liz stabbed a few more times for good measure, then allowed Luis to detach her from the wire. She skipped back across the lawn to the tail end of the line while Julia watched, quite weak with admiration.
She had thought the game would last less than an hour, but instead she found it hard to induce the children to stop. Only the assurance that they had conquered Captain Blood and could now split up his treasure lured them back towards the house. Indeed, by now the dummy was tattered and forlorn; it could not have withstood much more punishment.
As she led the children to her patio, a small girl tugged at her skirt for attention. “I’m Laurie,” she announced. “I’m Nina’s best friend. Can I call you Aunt Julia the way she does?”
Julia could not think how to refuse gracefully, though the only one of them she might have wanted to claim kinship with was little Liz. But much to her dismay, by the time they reached the patio she had become Aunt Julia to them all. Like hounds attracted to the one skittish person in the room, they seemed to have developed an affection for her.
“Look!” she exclaimed, in an attempt to divert their attention, “Captain Blood’s treasure chest.” It was an old leather-bound trunk she’d had brought down from the attic and packed with sodas and candy and little cellophane-wrapped cakes that Lillian assured her children adored. “Make sure you buy only one kind of everything for the treasure chest— one flavor of soda, one land of candy, one type of cake,” Lillian had warned, but Julia had blithely ignored her advice. Now, watching the children push and elbow for the preferred brands of snack, she understood the reason for it. Even Candida and Luis, who were quick and skilled with children, had a hard time preventing injury. Then and there Julia decided to host a third party. It would be more than interesting to explore the children’s cupidity.
Lillian, of course, phoned the moment she learned that her grandson had been invited. “I can’t believe you’re giving another party,” she said teasingly. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were becoming fond of the children.”
“Nothing of the sort. I merely find them an intriguing sociological study.”
“What are you doing with them over there, anyway?” Lillian asked. “Richard regales us with confused tales of mud wars and dead pirates. No one can make head nor tail of it. But he comes home every time wild with joy. All the kids do; they’re all in love with their neighborhood misopedist.”
Julia snorted, casting off the comment. “In any case, this will be the last of the parties—Nina leaves in a week. I think it’s one the children will remember.”
“Aunt Julia! Aunt Julia! What are we going to do today?” the children clamored, swarming around her on the morning of the final party. Even little Nina was in the dark; Julia had wanted her to be as surprised as the others.
“Go with Candida and Luis and change into your bathing things,” Julia answered mysteriously. “Then we’ll go out to the garden and see.”
Soon 15 small people in swimsuits were trouping after her. What they saw puzzled them. A huge plastic tarp covered the lawn; at the far end was a large, shining heap of toys. There were toys of every variety, none of them expensive, but all of them ornate and luridly colored. Candida had chosen them, since her eye for objects that attracted children was, Julia readily admitted, far superior to her own.
“Are they for us?” the children asked excitedly.
“Yes,” Julia answered. “But first you must get them. And that won’t be easy. The tarp has been greased, and it’s very, very slippery.”
“Can we go now?” they demanded, undaunted by the problem that had been set for them.
“Whenever you like.”
They did not waste time getting onto the tarp. Some of them stepped forward boldly, others were more timid, but no matter how much care they exercised, not one of them could stay upright for more than one or two steps. Down they fell with surprised squeals; then they struggled comically to right themselves on the slick surface. Julia laughed in wicked delight. Oh, this was going to be wonderful.
They surprised her, though. They gave up trying to walk almost immediately, and propelled by their lust for the gleaming toys, struggled forward on their hands and knees. They made remarkably good time. Soon the most agile of the children reached the pile and began rummaging through it for the most enticing items. Then the slower children arrived, and the area around the toys devolved into a boiling mass.
There was one moment, though, that quite puzzled Julia, one moment when the clamor and movement stopped and the children paused to consult about something. Liz seemed to be the instigator in this. She crouched on her haunches, higher than the others, and her sly, feral face kept referring to Julia as she spoke. Julia strained to hear what she was saying, but the children were too far away. Then, with awful suddenness, the mad struggle began again.
When the toys had been fought over and won, the children began to crawl their way back towards the patio. Julia had asked Candida to buy large toys, in the hope of extending the fun by forcing the children to cross the tarp more than once to claim their prizes. But their avidity made them ingenious, and they pushed the toys along ahead of them, loosely encircling them with their arms and butting them forward with their heads. Their faces, as they worked their way along the greased plastic, were horribly intense.
Then they were crowding around her, calling her name, showing her the treasures they had claimed.
“Now it’s your turn, Aunt Julia,” Nina said at last. “See? We saved you something. It’s the best one.”
They pointed across the lawn to where a single but impressively garish toy, a doll, remained on the tarp.
“Oh, no. I have absolutely no intention. . .” Julia was unable to finish her sentence. The children, their own prizes abandoned, surrounded her, propelling her forward. “Now, children, I don’t want. . . .”
Her foot made contact with the slick plastic and she felt herself slipping, falling forward through the air. An unaccustomed sense of helplessness overwhelmed her; then she was down.
The children had broken her fall. They giggled beneath her, beside her, on top of her. She tested her limbs as best she could and found everything functioning. Then she lifted herself up on one hip, and a surge of children unearthed themselves from under her. She tried to turn back to the patio but they would not let her. Liz especially seemed to be everywhere, blocking her path back to familiar ground. They pushed her forward, herding her as if she were a wayward sheep. “Come on, Aunt Julia! Go get it!”
“It’s your prize, your prize, yours!” chanted Liz.
The noon sun pressed down on Julia. It seemed to have laid a heavy weight on her. She found that she was unable to rise, unable to assert herself against this clamor of children. A memory came to her: in a garden she had hunted sweets once with her sister, her little sister, Cora, the perfect one. Their aunts had hidden the sweets for them and stood in their kitchen doorway, watching and encouraging. And Cora, with the good child’s sure instinct, had skipped from hiding place to hiding place, filling her basket, while Julia, dark shadow of a child that she was, had blundered stupidly among the bushes, a few sweets rattling around the bottom of hers.
Julia, forcing her way back with effort into the present, felt sickened, hot, confused. “Your prize, your prize,” Liz still chanted. Then, to her astonishment, Julia found that she was crawling toward the toy. Her own will had deserted her; it was as if the children’s voices were moving her forward despite herself. She watched one gnarled, veiny arm stretch forward as if detached. Then the other followed, braceleted with pearls, and ringed.
The toy seemed very far away. She recognized it now, a huge, gaudy kewpie with turquoise hair and a shiny magenta skirt. A suitable choice, she thought wryly, for a lady of her age and station. She crawled slowly, painfully, rediscovering muscles she had not used for years.
She was aware of how her receding figure must look to the children, her high rump in the air, her legs, rather nice, she felt, when they were vertical, now knotted and shoeless. She plowed on, anyway.
Ahead of her the toy shimmered, totemic. Whether it was the heat, the exertion, the unorthodox circumstance, or some twist of the psyche Julia would rather have died than explore, she found herself wanting the doll. No, not wanting, but desiring it, with the awful completeness of a six-year-old. Her bony knees worked the slippery plastic urgently, and she cursed the grease for slowing her progress.
Onward she crawled. The children’s cries reached her as if from far away. Her body ached, but this she sensed only dimly as the distance between her and the doll lessened. Two feet, then one; her hand closed over the glittering prize.
Then darkness fell.
It was like a gift that was given and then withdrawn, over and over again. First came a warmth that gladdened her cheek, and then its absence, and with that absence a chill bleakness that went straight to the bone. Then, amazingly, warmth again. With great effort, Julia opened her eyes.
A small, perfect face stared back at her, inches from her own, its breath coming and going on her cheek. The eyes widened; the breath was sucked in. “Oh, Aunt Julia, good. You’re alive,” Nina exclaimed with genuine pleasure.
Alive? Why should there be any question that she would be alive? Julia slowly took in her surroundings, using fact to fight back a panic she had not felt for years. She saw that she was in her own bed, in her own room. “What am I doing in bed in the middle of the day?” she asked wildly, the words pushing through what felt like a mouthful of wool.
“You fell asleep at your party and you wouldn’t wake up. Then everybody had to go home. Candida and I have been very worried,” Nina added, in a voice that bore just a little reproach.
Julia contemplated this information. She remembered now how the earth had taken to spinning as she seized her doll on the greased tarp. The kewpie lounged in a corner of her room, confirming the memory, its colors clashing painfully with her Fortuny drapes. Had she collapsed there on the tarp, doll in arms, legs askew? What a dignified picture that must have made.
But Nina did not give much thought to dignity. She brought her arms up to hug Julia, and kissed her very gently on the nose. Then she dropped lightly to the floor, where a half-circle of stuffed animals had been keeping watch with her. “She’s okay,” Nina told them gravely. “She’s alive.”
Julia did not feel inclined to move. She tested her limbs one by one to assure herself that the problem was not physical, but even as she did so the dark weight of memory descended on her, and she began to know that this was where her trouble lay. It was a memory of emotion, of the raw need she had felt as she crawled on the tarp just hours ago.
And then, to Julia’s horror, memory became emotion, and she felt the need again in all its power, the humiliating completeness of it, the lack of control.
She lay there breathing shallowly, waiting for the feeling to pass, wondering dimly whether this marked the onset of senility, or even death.
After a time she became aware that she could breathe more deeply; emotion was receding. She began again to register her surroundings. On the floor by her bed Nina played, unaware that anything was wrong. Talk of illness must have inspired her; she was playing a game of hospital. She had laid the stuffed animals on their backs in a row and bandaged them with copious amounts of bathroom tissue. Now she cooed to them, encouraged them, tenderly fed them spoonfuls of water that dripped, unheeded by Julia, onto her good parquet floor.
Julia wondered at the child’s gentle voice, at the way her arms came softly out of her summer dress. How was it, she wondered, that she had never been pleased by this before? She lay there unmoving, watching, while the panic continued to recede. She watched until Candida arrived and, seeing Julia conscious again, began loudly and unaccountably to weep with joy.
But the need had not left Julia, nor had the panic it inspired. Over the next few days it seized her at odd moments, never when she expected it, always when she was alone. Each time it overwhelmed her; vast and unquenchable, it shook her like a rabbit in a dog’s mouth. She wept at her inability to control it, and wept again, when, having tired of playing with her, it chose its own moment to depart.
Julia welcomed the refuge of every person who entered her room—Candida, of course, and Dr. Eddings, and the friends who arrived so lightly, bearing gifts and gossip. But during this time her greatest pleasure lay in watching Nina.
She found that she waited anxiously for the child’s arrival, anticipating the hug and kiss with which Nina always greeted her. Bit by bit, Nina made inroads on her physical space. First she climbed up on the bed for a game of Go Fish; then she discovered that Julia’s angular midriff made a perfect tea table for her animals. Finally, she approached Julia with a favorite book, and crawled under the covers with her while Julia read it aloud. The little body warmed Julia as nothing ever had before. And slowly, her panic and her need subsided, until at last they were gone.
Several days after Julia’s collapse, an entire morning passed without any sign of Nina. With every sound in the hallway Julia tensed herself in anticipation of pleasure, but it was never the little girl. She pushed the covers off her legs then pulled them on again, growing increasingly querulous. “Where is she, Candida? Endonde esta Nina?” But Candida ducked her eyes and shrugged in a shameless charade of incomprehension. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be the one to say.
In the early afternoon there were quick footsteps outside, and Julia set her face to glow in welcome. But it was Lillian, bearing an utterly useless topiary dog as a gift. Nevertheless, Julia greeted her warmly, in the knowledge that Lillian would tell her what was going on. When a suitable interval had passed, Julia asked the question.
“Nina?” Lillian repeated gently. “Well, my dear, she’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“Gone home. Your niece picked her up early this morning. Candida said that they waited nearly two hours for you to wake up. They wanted to wake you themselves—your niece wanted to thank you, and Nina was terribly upset that she couldn’t say goodbye. But Candida told them Dr. Eddings had forbidden anyone to interrupt your sleep. And then they had a plane to catch.” Lillian’s voice became deliberately casual as she asked, “Had you forgotten that Nina was leaving today?”
Julia had indeed forgotten, had forgotten altogether that Nina would ever return to her own home. And no one had thought to remind her.
By late autumn Julia was quite herself again, the summer a jumble of peculiar memories involving illness, pirates, toys, and mud. It had taken her rather a long time to recover, and Dr. Eddings had been concerned, particularly when he could not pinpoint the source of the problem. But being Julia, she had finally rallied. Now she seldom thought of the events of the summer. She thought of Nina even less.
She was, therefore, surprised one day to receive a call from Mrs. Dutton, the director of the little school Nina had attended while she was in Pasadena. Why Mrs. Dutton wanted to see her, Julia could not imagine, though a plea for funds was always a safe guess.
The woman arrived promptly at the appointed hour. She was a tiny redhead, much younger than her tremulous telephone voice had led Julia to believe. She seemed nervous, and Julia sensed that she was one of those women infinitely more at ease with children than adults. It was not a type she had empathy for, and she sat stiff and unsmiling at her desk, disinclined to help Mrs. Dutton in any way.
The woman smiled at her wanly. “It’s so good to finally meet you,” she attempted. “We’ve been hearing about you since last summer, when your sweet Nina was with us. You made such an impression on all of the children—especially one, Liz McKuen. She talks about you constantly.”
Julia sorted among her memories, and pulled out an image of a dark, fierce, reckless child. She nearly grinned, recalling Liz. Then she remembered that she was being forbidding. “Yes?” she prompted coolly.
Mrs. Dutton was clearly flustered. “This is a little awkward— probably you won’t have time—but we were wondering if you might enjoy coming in once a week or so, to read to the class. They would love it, I’m sure.”
To Julia’s surprise, the idea rather appealed to her. She was well rid of the children, of course, yet in some ways she did miss their carelessness, their energy. The image of Liz rose again in her mind. Liz, mud-streaked but gleaming, dancing her koi-pond victory dance. Liz, thrusting her sword deep into the bowels of Captain Blood. Liz, bounding recklessly through life, unburdened by affection or sympathy. Yes, thought Julia, it might do her good to spend time among the children.
But Mrs. Dutton mistook her deliberation for doubt, and hastened to encourage her. “Little Liz would benefit more than anyone, I think. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but her parents are going through a pretty nasty divorce right now. I’m sure you saw the effects of it in her behavior last summer—the aggression, the hostility. But under it all she’s a very vulnerable little girl. And so fond of you—I feel sure that your presence would be very stabilizing.”
Julia sucked in her breath, pulling it into herself as if she would never exhale again. So that was the source of Liz’s fierceness—a wound, a need. With great suddenness Julia remembered the need and pain that had washed her raw after her collapse just a few months earlier. She remembered well how it had nearly done her in. And she sensed that she was dangerously close to feeling, once again, the devastating completeness of it.
How useful to know that Liz was not free at all, but was caught in it, too.
A delicate shudder traveled through Julia, and she adjusted herself at her desk. Forcing a smile across her teeth, she murmured something about the honor the school was showing her, something else about age and ill health forcing her to decline.
Holding the smile with enormous effort, she reached for her checkbook.