04 – Weighing Options

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Morning had snuck in and slunk away by the time she woke.

A call down to the front desk had someone running out for sandwiches and soft drink – and as she was waiting for those to arrive, she downed three cups of coffee, which helped to somewhat rouse her to an almost functional state.

After food arrived, she sat on the overstuffed couch, the complimentary Applegate Court notepad and pen sitting on her knee, the blank page taunting her inability to do anything.

She had…a month, it wasn’t quite that, but it made sense to think of it as a month. A month to control her crazy, to stop drinking, and to go back to school with some kind of plan for the future.

And she’d already wasted half a day by sleeping in.

‘Stupid bitch,’ she muttered and tore into an egg salad sandwich.

It was impossible to do everything at once. It was impossible to do anything at all.

But giving up meant- Giving up would mean losing literally everything. She had no doubt James would follow through on his promise – he wasn’t the kind of person to state consequences, then relent later.

Once, she had misbehaved, so he’d sold her pony for glue.

She had screamed and cried and begged, but his decision had been final, and she’d never seen Buttercup again.

She’d lost the closest thing she’d had to a friend, but in a way, it was a lesson she’d never needed to learn again. It had been the last veil to be stripped from her eyes – he wasn’t a man who was just angry, who would turn around in the third act of the story and become a loving father. He was the man who saw a child sobbing her heart out, and told her to stop making a scene.

It had been hard, but learning the lesson so young had probably been a good thing. It had prevented more pain.

But the pain of losing Buttercup was still there, a dull background ache, and ignoring that pain was hard when most of the girls around her were still fully into their horse-girl phase, or who took their dressage and showjumping entirely too seriously.

It was just one more area where she had to wall up, one more place where she had to pretend she didn’t care, because to recognise that she cared would leave her vulnerable.

James had arranged for her horse to be murdered, and a horse had actual value – he could have sold Buttercup – and part of her truly wished that he had, even if various pants-shittingly-terrifying forays into his office had failed to turn up any bill of sale or transfer of papers.

He’d had a valuable thoroughbred put down to prove his power over a child; something that probably had gotten him dirty looks from the extended family. Getting rid of her, turning her over to the men with the white coats…that was just solving a problem, getting rid of a blight on the family’s radar, which surely had to be an easier decision than destroying a horse.

He would have her locked up if she didn’t behave.

And she had a month to make sure that didn’t happen.

She finished up her breakfast-lunch-food and went to the bathroom. All of the plasters she’d applied were either hanging loose or had fallen off altogether. With nearly a full day for the bruises to develop, they stood out starkly against her pale skin.

If she’d had anything approaching a healthy colour, they might have been able to hide a little, but as she was some light-avoidant Gollum, the patches of red, black and purple couldn’t be missed.

She dug through the vanity drawers, found a small first aid box, and replaced all the plasters.

Her face still looked awful.

‘God fucking dammit.’

She touched her cheek and still somehow felt the residual heat of the bonnet of James’ car.

‘God. Fucking. Dammit.’

She walked back through to the bedroom and pulled open the top row of drawers on the chest of drawers – unable to remember where she had put anything – underwear was mixed with a small soft case of DVDs, t-shirts that should have been in lower drawers covered the couple of singlets she had purchased.

At the bottom of the third drawer, she found the makeup case that tended to live in her Louis – she could never be bothered with it at school, but there were some events at the estate even she didn’t dare go to with a bare face.

She dragged her feet back to the bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub and looked at her supplies.

The kit was full of things she barely knew how to use. Her mother had loved to have Stephanie sit beside her as she had done her makeup, but had only ever barely kissed Stephanie’s face with a bit of powder or a little lipgloss. The mother/daughter time had been far more about the ritual and the “quality time” than it had been about actually insisting that her young daughter learn how to blend and bluff and…all the other words.

YouTube had been a saviour, as it had been so many times, so she knew how to apply basic stuff, enough to pass muster from ten feet away anyway.

She stood, laid out her supplies on the vanity like an action hero laying out the parts of a gun, and started to dab on foundation, trying to cover the bruises while trying to avoid anything that looked like a cut too small to bother covering with a plaster.

She failed, it hurt, and she swore as she patted powder over the foundation.

The bruises were still evident, but at least now it looked like she’d had a few days worth of healing, and the redness in her cheek looked like unevenly-applied blush.

At the bottom of the makeup case were dark jewel tone lipsticks, a Christmas present from the previous year, she selected a deep green, applied it inexpertly, then smeared on some black eyeshadow. With a little bit of styling gel, the overall effect was of…a lazy punk. Someone surviving on too much ramen and not enough sleep.

The one good thing was that the overall effect served to make her look a little older, with a squint someone who could pass as seventeen or eighteen, which was good – it was always awkward when someone talked to her like she was twelve.

Puberty was for other people.

She retrieved the tall bottle of vodka from the weekend bag, poured half of her usual dose into her coffee, downed it, then stared into nothingness for a while.

‘God fucking dammit,’ she said, completely resigned to the barrel of shit that were her current-and-future circumstances.

Another five minutes had her bag packed, and a black cab ordered.

After Keanan closed the door for her, she flashed her phone at the driver, showing the address of the closest chain electronics store. If she’d had time, brain, or will, she could have designed her own computer and had it delivered in a day or so – but this wasn’t about being completely optimal, this was about squeezing what resources she could out of her family before ruin or freedom befell her.

The store was bright and loud, but there was solace to be found behind her headphones, drowning the noise of people with Alain’s soothing voice.

But, even with large headphones on, several clerks tried to bother her. She stared at each one awkwardly until they left, their perfect-retail-faces breaking just a little.

She could be polite to retail staff, just like she could be polite the staff in service around the school and the estate, but she had very little time for people who were trying to initiate a conversation where none was wanted.

She wandered up and down the aisles of laptops – each with a little ticket stating its specs. Money was no object, but there was something stupid about just grabbing the most expensive item and hoping that it was, by some transitive principle of cash, the best.

Looking at the specifications was calming, figuring out which laptop was future-proof, at least for the next couple of years was…fulfilling in a way that nothing at school had been for a long time. School expected…so many things that she just wasn’t capable of, but it rarely if ever allowed her to actually look for an optimal solution.

Here, there were real, tangible rewards to putting her brain to work.

There, the thing she was most proud of was working out exactly how much vodka she needed to pour into her coffee in order to be quietly drunk for an entire school day.

She closed her eyes, turned in half circle, and let her eyes open. If her life had any narrative flow, any sort of justice to begin to make up for how miserable everything was, the music would have swelled, and the lights would have gone funny as she looked upon what was sure to be her new laptop.

Because real life sucked, she was staring at an utterly unremarkable and instantly dismissed mid-range machine.

In stories, magic jewellery shone and twinkled as you walked past a dusty old store whose turnover couldn’t afford the rent of its location; booksellers with magic merchandise encouraged you to take off with a beautiful, leather-bound volume; and the wand chose the witch.

You didn’t find magic and narrative truth in a high street chain store.

After another half hour, she chose a high-end computer with a tactile-y pleasing keyboard. After five more minutes, she took her headphones off and gave a vague wave towards the central desk.

A cute clerk, a girl with the stripes of the pride rainbow sprayed into her side cut, approached. ‘This one?’ she asked as she saw Stef’s hand on the keyboard.

Stef nodded.

‘Okay, I’ll go grab one from the back, the accessories and bags are on that wall if you want to take a look while I fetch it for you.’

Stef nodded again – she hadn’t even thought of accessories, but it made sense to get everything at once – the fewer transactions she had, the less scrutiny that was likely to come her way.

It was easy enough to pick out a leather shoulder bag and mouse. The USB dongles gave her pause – but it would be far easier to tether her phone for data when decent wifi wasn’t available than it would be to add another service.

The clerk returned, laptop box in hand, the small box for the free antivirus software sitting on top. ‘I can check you out if you’ve got everything.’

Half-formed thoughts swirled as the clerk scanned everything in. If – and it was a Saturn-sized if – she could keep on top herself and her craziness and escape her family, she was on borrowed time until her golden handshake, and therefore the amount of money she could wring out of them.

She hadn’t picked the most expensive laptop, most of her cousins would have, valuing price over actual value – so it wouldn’t hurt if- ‘Can you do cashback?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Add three hundred on for me,’ she said, ‘I- Um- Got a bill to pay. All this shit for school, you know?’

The clerk shrugged and rang through the purchase, putting the accessories into a bag, and turning the laptop box up to show the pre-punched handles. ‘That’s all done for you.’

Stef thanked the clerk, quickly stuffed the cash into her purse, and left the store.

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See you next time, Recruit.

03 - Semi-Precious Shadow
05 - What Never Came Next

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