Disclaimer: Names, characters, places, and incidents from Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer belong to J. K. Rowling and Joss Whedon, respectively. “Absolutely every way that a world could possibly be is a way that some world is.”—David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds
The world dropped away as our plane took off from the runway. Clouds whited out the view from my window. Mom was sitting to my left and Dad to her left. It still catches me off-guard, sometimes, my parents. In my mind I’d grown so used to their absence that it seemed to me they’d always been gone, so that every now and then I had to do a double take just to make sure they were really there. As if reading my thoughts, Mom squeezed my hand. Her smile was brilliant. Dad flashed me a grin as he thumbed through the duty-free merchandise ads in the airline magazine, the pages crisp, snapping as they were flipped. I felt weightlessness in my stomach that had nothing to do with the angle of the plane’s ascent. Blue now, the sky. The sun stayed on our tail the entire flight, lighting the way.
Our new house was a large square two-story identical to every other house on the street. I took a look around while Mom and Dad sealed the deal with the landlady, thank you’s and congratulatory handshakes all over the place. The landlady was kind enough to leave us most of her furniture, which had an Old World charm—although they probably don’t call it that over here. Do they call English muffins English muffins, I wonder. Two fireplaces, one in the kitchen and one in the living room. A door from the kitchen leading to the backyard. Four rooms upstairs. The backyard fenced in by neatly trimmed hedges of some kind of evergreen. Flowerbeds bordering the house and trees with big broad green canopies in the yard, some bottom branches low enough to climb.
It was midday and the sky was a cloudy gray-blue. The air astringent from a man in his white undershirt mowing his lawn three houses down the street. In the backyard I kicked off my flip flops and lay on my back under a tree and watched the leaves hanging overhead quiver in the breeze. The blades of grass were springy against my toes. Mom saw me through the kitchen window and came out. She plopped down on the grass beside me, knees drawn to her chest and head resting on them. We listened to the breeze whistle quietly through the trees.
“I can see why Dad liked it here,” I said.
Mom sighed, a content sigh. “Everything’s so beautiful.” Sunlight shining through gaps in the canopy spilled over her. Where it fell on her hair the individual strands gleamed rainbow colors. I’d never seen her more beautiful than in that moment. She smiled and said, “I think I can fall in love with this place.”
Before long the movers arrived with our shipment of personal effects. Over the weekend we threw ourselves into the formidable task of making the house our home. The house filled up with bookends, Kokopelli, stacks of family videos, framed pictures of me grinning chipmunk-cheeked and in varying stages of toothlessness. The trashcan overflowed with cardboard boxes and bubble wrap. Dad was on the phone all day with the electric, water, and whatever other company. Mom devoted hours to arranging and rearranging tchotchkes on the mantelplaces. I tacked paper butterflies to one side of my bedroom wall in phalanx formation and tried to forget the way Angel traced his fingers along the tips of the butterflies’ wings the night he slept on my bedroom floor.
The day I came home we said nothing on the drive back, strangers to each other after the six odd months apart. I sat on my hands in the backseat and gazed out of the window. The bright morning sun cast everything in an overexposed hard glare, as if I were viewing the world through a camera lens. The colorful summer clothes people wore seemed as gaudy as clown costumes. Dad glanced at me in the rearview mirror every time he braked at a light or stop sign. By the time we arrived at the house my hands were numb. Mom turned in the front passenger seat to look back at me. “Well, this is us,” she said. Her smile had a tight-lipped awkwardness about it.
The front door it seemed to swing back on its hinges in slow motion as Dad opened it. The curved glass of the peephole caught the sun and flared. Hot pinprick sensations shot through my hands. I stopped in the entrance astounded by the sheer volume of stuff the house held—a small weave basket for keys sitting on a stand by the door, half-used candles on the coffee table, potted plants on the windowsill—homey things. “Welcome home, honey,” said my Dad. He gave my shoulder a squeeze and went upstairs with my suitcase.
Mom wrapped her arm around the back of my waist. “Do you want to take a look around? Everything’s the same as before. But I thought you might want to.” Her face was so close I could make out the fine pores on the side of her nose. She met my gaze and kissed me on the forehead. I couldn’t believe she was standing there, next to me.
I nodded and followed her around downstairs and then up to my room. Dad was sitting on the bed, straightening up the stuffed animals. I picked up Mr. Gordo and hugged it to my chest. Then I stood in front of the dresser and studied the pictures that were tucked into the frame of the mirror. The girl in the mirror, like the one in all the pictures, was unrecognizable to me—soft-cheeked and curvy, bright-eyed, blond hair down to her waist. I watched my parents watching me in the mirror. Finally Dad said, “How are you feeling, pumpkin?”
“Fine.” I turned around. “You guys cleaned my room.”
Mom shrugged, her gaze sweeping absentmindedly around the room.
Dad looked from me to her. He folded his hands in his lap.
I sniffed the air and grimaced. “I still smell like Lysol. I think I’ll take a bath.”
Dad sprang from the bed in a blur of movement. “I’ll get you a set of towels,” he said, already halfway down the hall.
Mom stepped toward me and reached for Mr. Gordo. She held it up to her face, nuzzled it, and then handed it back to me. She said she’d kept it on her nightstand the whole time I was gone. My throat swelled up and I moved clumsily to embrace her. It felt like homecoming.
In the bathroom I found that Dad had already drawn a bubble bath. I stripped out of my clothes and scrutinized myself in the mirror, trying to get used to what I saw. How could I only be fifteen years old? I felt jaded and ancient—like one who returned from the dead. I heard knocking on the door and then Mom’s voice asking me what I wanted for lunch. I said it didn’t matter. The water in the tub was cold by the time I stepped in.
For lunch we drove to my favorite Japanese restaurant downtown. As we unshelled edamamae and sipped our miso soups Dad leaned forward in his chair and told me about his recent trip to London, the new firm he’d be working in, the charming house he’d found for us in the burbs. While he was talking he wouldn’t stop beaming, as if his excitement was too much for him to contain. Mom held his hand and said she couldn’t wait to visit a grocery list of museums and galleries there. I sat and listened and thought about Giles, Angel, Wesley, Gwendolyn Post, and Spike. Then I pinched with my chopsticks a dime-sized dollop of wasabi and placed it underneath my tongue.
When we started on the green tea ice cream Dad turned to me and asked if I was really okay with moving to another country so soon—two weeks is barely enough time for you to get resituated here, Mom added—and having to adjust to a new life there. While he said this he twisted a corner of the tablecloth into a little ring around his finger.
“Why wouldn’t I be okay with it,” I said. “I’m already adjusting to a new life.”
By the uncertain looks on their faces I realized either of them knew what to make of this. So I grinned and said, “Besides, I’ll have a better chance of running into Gavin Rosendale there.”
Mom rolled her eyes and stole a spoonful of my ice cream. “Look out London, our single white female daughter’s on the prowl.”
Back at the house Dad turned on the TV in the living room and settled in for some quality sports entertainment. Mom pulled on gloves and went into the backyard to weed the garden. They were either making an effort not to crowd me or making an effort to avoid me. I stood in the middle of my bedroom with my hands on my hips. For a panic-stricken moment I worried I’d never be able to think of anything to say to them or to know where to look or how to act. I stared at the digital alarm clock on my nightstand and watched the numbers change. When it was five o’clock I went downstairs.
Mom was in the kitchen making dinner. I hopped onto the counter and watched her rinse leaves of lettuce under the faucet, the water hissing as it hit the sink. She transferred the lettuce to a strainer and sliced half a head of onion and then a tomato, the knife clinking rhythmically against the glass cutting board. The lively rapid-fire voices of the sports commentators streamed in from the living room. “Honey, can you grab the shredded cheese and dressing from the fridge?”
I hopped off the counter, opened the refrigerator door, and looked inside. “Which kind do you want?”
I’d forgotten that this was what normal people do. They weren’t forced to eat salads with ranch and yellow cheddar every time. For three months when Dawn was thirteen she’d drench everything she ate in ranch dressing—mashed potatoes, string beans, cake. I must’ve stood with the refrigerator door open for a long time because Mom cleared her throat. I took out the balsamic vinaigrette and the bottle of parmesan cheese. I realized then, that from this day on I would have to banish Dawn and every trace of Sunnydale from memory, knowing I’d miss them something awful. I already did. But to be able to hear Mom puttering in the kitchen, to be able to look in on Dad yelling at the TV in the living room—what I wouldn’t give.
The following week Dad started his new job, taking the car with him. After breakfast Mom and I went down to the basement and stared at the stacks of unopened boxes piled on the floor. She put her hands on her hips and said, “They’ll still be here tomorrow.” We rode the bus into town with the window down. She let me sit by it, though she’d never gone sightseeing in England either. I notice these things now, the little concessions a mother makes for her child out of love. Rows of houses flew by. Then the street widened into multiple lanes and we were in the city. Mom and I made the requisite tourist rounds—Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey—and bought fish and chips from a street vendor for lunch. We had so much fun that we were back in the London the next day, and the next, and the next.
Thursday we were in the British Museum. Mom had gone off to ogle the pottery and tapestries. She’s always favored the more tactile art forms, if I remembered correctly. I browsed through a collection of paintings on loan from Madrid, all having to do with heaven and hell, when one stopped me dead in my tracks. It was an oil painting of a burning countryside the size of our big-screen TV. A hunting dog gnawing on the face of a small child. A skeleton on horseback chasing down a crowd of fleeing people with a scythe in its outstretched hand. Men lashed to cartwheels mounted on poles. A skeleton wearing a rucksack crouching over a prone man, slitting his throat. People fallen into the river, drowning. Ships sinking in the harbor. The sky blackened by the smoke of distant burning cities. And everywhere, death.
I glanced at the placard below the painting—The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder—and just had to laugh. A few people standing nearby gave me the evil eye so I quieted down. Dr. Michelson’s voice, as clear and close as the day he spoke this, floated through my head. It’s not just you, you know. Every single one of us starts out thinking we’re some special breed of human. No one wants to let go of the fantasies, the grand dreams from childhood, the belief that the world revolves around me and me only. But at some point you have to. It’s a part of growing up. I remembered him smiling conspiratorially at me. Then he said something like, you’re just taking a while, which is perfectly understandable, considering that profligate imagination of yours. He’s right, of course, and I moved on.
When Mom found me in the museum gift shop her whole face was lit up. She joined me at the jewelry counter and eyed the display of Italian blown-glass pendants I’d been looking through. I could tell that she wasn’t really looking at them. “See anything you like?” she said.
“What’s got you looking like the cat that ate the canary?”
“Nothing.” She picked up a blue and gold pendant from the display and draped it on her hand to admire the way the glass caught the light.
I raised my eyebrows. “Really? You don’t have a ‘nothing’ face.”
She put the pendant back on its hook on the rack and turned to me. “Okay, not really nothing. But I don’t want to get my hopes up, that’s all. I was over at the Ming dynasty exhibit looking at the collection of vases when I noticed that two or three of the placards seemed to be mismatched given the shapes and firings of the pieces. I made a remark about it the woman next to me and she seemed taken aback so I explained why I said what I said. She walked up right against the glass case and scrutinized the pieces in question for a couple of moments. Then she turned to me and introduced herself. And it turns out that she’s the associate director of this museum. How about that?”
Mom nodded, her grin spanning the width of her face. “So she hands me her business card and tells me to call if I’m ever interested in working here, she could always use someone with such a discriminating eye for art.”
It was selfish, but already I was thinking of how much I’d miss her company when she started working.
“I can’t believe it.” She enveloped me in a hug. “I just can’t believe it.”
“Wow,” I said again.
The following day Mom had an interview scheduled with the associate director. All throughout breakfast Mom beamed, adjusting the utensils by her plate, the scarf tied around her neck. She was so happy that I couldn’t help but be happy for her. After my parents left I cleared the kitchen table and piled the dishes into the sink and ran water over them. A little later I found myself standing in front of the door to the basement, my hand frozen on the door handle. Pathetic, but I was afraid to go down there alone. I washed the dishes instead.
Over dinner Mom announced that she’d been hired to an acquisitions position, with a promise from the associate director of “advancement as soon as the old codgers start retiring.” Dad was supportive and seemed pleased about the prospect of additional income. She told us all about her interview and her new coworkers and the work and the museum before she noticed that I hadn’t said anything.
“Honey, do you think I should take the job?”
Dad paused and looked at me, too.
“Of course you should! It’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but.” Mom frowned.
“No buts,” I said, firmly. “I want you to take it, Mom. I really do.”
Mom’s first day on the job I woke up early and decided to take a stroll to explore the neighborhood. As I rounded a corner I saw a brown owl with what looked like a roll of paper tied to its leg fly into someone’s open first-floor window. I did a double take, but whatever I had seen was gone. On Magnolia Road I discovered a park with railings and a gate that opened to the street. The sun had just risen and the park was empty. I entered through the park gate and crossed the field to the play area that was equipped with a swing set, a merry-go-round (no dead children lying on this one), seesaws, a sandbox, and a slide. All the swings were broken except one. I gave it a try. The chains holding the rubber seat were rusty, creaking on the upswing and downswing, and every once in a while I got a whiff of their sour metal smell. With the wind whooshing in my ears the world rushed forward, paused for a moment, retreated back, and again and again. I stayed on the swing until other people came.
On my way back I spotted an old lady trudging down the other side of the street. She was favoring the arm she was using to carry a bulging knit bag whose contents clanked with each step. I crossed the street and caught up to her.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Would you like some help with that?” I gestured at her bag.
She turned around and squinted at me, creasing the skin around her eyes in deep lines, to see me under the already glaring sun.
I took the time to inspect her as well. Up close her appearance was weird—a hairnet covered her grizzly gray hair that was falling out of its bun and short strands of some kind of animal hair clung in clumps to her tartan housecoat. She had on matching tartan house slippers over stockings.
A second or two later she nodded and handed me her bag. “That’s right kind of you, miss. Not many kids these days would offer to help an old lady with her shopping bag.”
“I thought the British were supposed to be all prim and proper?” I fell into step with her. Her bag was heavier than I’d expected. I looked at it and saw through the knitted-netting that it was full of tins of cat food.
She gave me an incredulous sidelong look. “Sorry to disappoint but most of them are hooligans, if you ask me. Especially that Dursley boy and his gang.”
Unseen dogs barked in the living rooms and backyards of houses we passed.
“Who’re they? Not a real gang, I hope.”
She scoffed. “No. Just your average neighborhood hoodlums. You must not be from around here. They’d never let a pretty thing like you get away that easy.”
“Actually, I am from around here. My family and I just moved into the neighborhood.”
“Hang on”—she studied me with renewed interest—“you must be them new Americans over on Azalea Drive.”
“One of them anyway.” How did she even know about us? “How do you know about us?”
“The whole neighborhood knows, silly girl. It’s not every day we have new colonials living in our midst.”
We reached Wisteria Walk and turned left.
“This is my street,” she stopped and said to me. “You don’t have to walk me the whole way.”
She reached for her bag but I held on to it.
“I’ll take you to your door.” I grinned. “Just in case one of those neighborhood hoodlums is lying in wait to egg your house or something. What if you can’t fend them off by yourself?”
“Ha! Now you’re just taking the mickey.” But she smiled as she said this and let me keep carrying the bag as we started walking again.
“You realize that I have no idea what you just said, right?”
“Oh, right, I forgot.” She laughed kindly. “It means you’re having a laugh.”
I wasn’t sure I understood. “Oh.”
She led me up the foot path. When we got to her doorstep she took the knit bag in her wizened hands. “Well, if you ever need vernacular lessons, you know where I live.”
“No, thank you, miss—Good lord, where are my manners? I didn’t even ask you your name yet.” She switched the bag into her left hand and extended the right to me. “I’m Mrs. Arabella Figg. Pleased to meet you.”
I shook it. Her hand was small and boney, the skin as thin and slack as rice paper. “Buffy Summers. Pleased to meet you, too.”
Mrs. Figg grimaced. “Buffy—what kind of a name is that?”
“Mine. What kind of a name is Arabella?”
She chuckled. “You’ve got a point there, Ms. Summers.”
As I set off down her foot path she called, “Hang on! Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, don’t just stand there! Come in and eat with me.” She stepped forward and took me by the elbow with her free hand. “I want you to meet my cats.”
“Um, I don’t want to impose.”
“I wouldn’t be asking you if you were.” She tugged on my elbow. “Come on. Let’s not wait for the grass to grow.”
Too much solitude is dangerous for you, said Dr. Michelson. Social interaction goes a long way, keep that in mind.
I let her pull me back to her doorstep and through the door.
A lethal combination of cabbage and cat smell hit me smack in the face as soon as we were inside. I feared she’d feed me stewed cabbage for breakfast. Mrs. Figg sat me down at her kitchen table and poured me a cup of tea from the kettle on the stove. I could only assume that the circular piece of crocheted fabric covering the kettle was a tea cozy, though the cat ears on it threw me off for a second. I added milk and sugar to my cup, the brown liquid marbling with white before turning into a camel color, and took a sip, relieved that it didn’t taste like cabbage. As I leaned back in my chair a fuzzy streak leaped into my lap. I glanced down and saw that it was a small cat with dark gray fur on its back that lightened to a spotted brown down its sides and belly. It meowed and nuzzled my face. Its slight weight warm and comfortable on my lap. I told the cat it was a pretty kitty and rubbed the fur on its neck and back.
That’s Mr. Tibbles, said Mrs. Figg as she tipped the tins of cat food from her bag onto the kitchen counter. She left four tins on the counter and stacked the rest in a cupboard. Then she pulled out a can opener from a drawer and began opening the tins. As soon she lifted the top off the first tin Mr. Tibbles bounded out of my lap and three other cats dashed into the kitchen.
“Hello, my darlings,” Mrs. Figg cooed as she put out four dishes of the wet cat food, the porcelain clinking against the tile floor.
At this, all the cats raised their heads to regard her. It was a little creepy.
“That one there is Mr. Snowy,” she said, pointing to the white Persian. “That one’s Tufty”—she pointed to the calico with its fur sticking up in tufts. “And that one’s Mr. Paws,” she said, pointing to the cat that was all black except for its four white paws.
“You’re very systematic in naming your cats,” I said.
Mrs. Figg, her back turned to me, was busy frying something on the stove. “That I am,” she said and waved her spatula in response.
I watched the cats eat, admiring the way their shoulder blades moved underneath the skin on their backs, like water over pebbles in a stream.
Later, Mrs. Figg set down a plate in front of me. Two eggs, an English muffin, and three strips of bacon.
By the shrewd look that passed over Mrs. Figg’s face I realized I didn’t hide my relief very well.
“Okay, this’ll probably sound stupid but do you guys call this an English muffin or just a muffin?” I pointed with my fork at the muffin in question.
Mrs. Figg raised her eyebrows. “Do you call American cheese American cheese?” She made a gagging noise at the back of her throat. “Horrid stuff, by the way. What sorry excuse for dairy product.”
Giles used to say that word, horrid.
The front door swung violently back as I was pulling out the key from my pocket. Mom stood on the other side. Her face livid. Her stance rigid. She sucked in a big breath. I held mine.
“WHERE the hell have you been, young lady?” The WHERE barked and snapped.
“I-I went walking.” I glanced at my wristwatch. It was twenty-five past eight.
Mom kept her eyes trained on my face. “Well! You should have said something! If you didn’t come back in half an hour I was going to call the police! How was I supposed to know you weren’t running away?”
Dad came up behind her in his work clothes. He laid on her shoulder a hand that she tried to shrug off. “Joyce, if you keep yelling at her like that she just might run away.” He backed her out of the doorway so I could pass through. Then he shut the door behind me and put both hands on Mom’s shoulders and massaged them, which only seemed to irritate her.
I adopted a sheepish expression. “Mom, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wig you out. I just wanted to get out there before it got hot.”
“See?” Dad said to Mom, his mouth close to her ear. “What did I tell you? Nothing to worry about.”
Mom looked from him to me, not convinced. Finally she said, “I heard you go out around six thirty. You expect me to believe that you’ve been walking around for the past two hours?”
“No. I helped an old lady carry her groceries home and then she made me have breakfast with her.”
She opened her mouth to say something but did not. “Oh,” she said, after a pause. I got the impression that neither of them believed me.
Dad winked at me and dropped his hands from her shoulders. He checked his watch. “Oh shoot, we gotta go,” he said as he grabbed his briefcase and keys.
Mom stared at me. Then she sighed, her whole face seeming to sag with it, making her look older than she was. “You should’ve left us a note, at least. I just wish that you’d think of others before yourself once in a while.”
My cheeks burned as though she’d slapped me across the face. I bit my lip and said nothing. I walked them to the door and watched them get into the car. Mom rolled down her window and called, “Lunch is in the fridge.” Dad waved, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. The gravel crunched underneath the tires as the car pulled out of the driveway. I stood at the door as the car receded from sight, listening to the rumble of the engine fade. Somewhere down the street a lawnmower sputtered to life. Family, they always know just where it hurts.
In the next days life settled into a routine, more or less. Every morning I woke up when the dark and silence was still so thick it felt like a heavy velvet stage curtain over the world. I’d let myself out into the backyard and wait for the sky to lighten. If my parents noticed this they haven’t mentioned it to me. The good thing about institutionalization is that everything you do after getting out seemed sane. The bad thing about institutionalization is that everything you do after getting out seemed insane. Besides, I wouldn’t stop even if they did notice. Because each morning when the light flooded and everything around me turned radiant all at once my heart swelled to be in the presence of something so lovely, her namesake.
I’ve taken up other habits, too, to fill the time when my parents are away. It amazes me how much time there is in a day when you don’t have school or friends or other commitments. There is time, and time, and time, especially when you wake up before dawn and have trouble falling asleep until one or two past midnight. A couple of days ago I walked to the local library and registered for an account. When Dad saw the stack of books in my room he laughed and said, “Who would’ve ever thought that you’d pick up a book willingly?” He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at me. “Are you really my daughter? Or are you a pod person?” I shrugged and said in my best robot voice, “Yes, lowly earthling. Beneath this valley girl exterior beats the heart of a true bookworm…pod.” That just made him laugh harder.
I walk a lot these days, everywhere, for hours on end. At first I stuck close to the neighborhood—the park on Magnolia Road, the corner convenience store, the rows of identical houses with dogs barking whenever you were within a half-block radius and people watching you from their lawns and from behind their windows. But I’ve been venturing farther and farther lately. Some days I walked by Stonewall High where school was still in session. Occasionally I’d pass just as the bell rings, an urgent endless clanging that seemed to emanate from the boxy brick building itself. Other days I walked past the cluster of shops some miles away, past the local (ten-pin, as they call it) bowling alley, past the grocery store, past the beauty salon where I had my hair chopped off, past the post office, past the country club Dad is thinking of joining. Sometimes I’d pick a street and walk down it as far as it went. Other times I’d count the number of small birds roosting on the wires running between telephone poles and walk the same number of blocks and then repeat in a different direction.
Occasionally I heard Dr. Michelson asking me why I walked so much. He said once that questioning one’s motives is an excellent step toward self-awareness. What are you looking for? Dr. Michelson’s voice said. Yourself? Even in my head he could be such a smartass. In the mirror my arms and legs were leaner, my hair no longer long and Barbie-like. People got used to seeing me on the road (on the wrong side the days I forgot I was no longer living in L.A.). At any rate the dogs had stopped barking so loud.
Saturday, after a long drive we were at the beach, which was rocky with little sand and not very beach-like. The sky a pearly expanse, the sun high and a dull diffuse yellow through it. A wind was blowing, whipping and snapping my hair. It was warm but the water cold. That didn’t stop Dad though. He’d changed into his swimming trunks and was easing his way, timidly, into the churning surf. A wave came and splashed his thighs, the white foam leaping. “Crud, it’s cold!” he shouted as he rubbed the palms of his hands together. The soaked bottoms of his trunks stuck to his legs, making his swimming trunks look more like bloomers. Mom laughed and shot me a here-we-go look. She was sitting on a beach chair beside me, a bestseller open in her lap with the bottle of sunscreen as a makeshift paperweight on the left page. The ocean crinkled like a navy sheet. The air had a sharp saltiness to it I could almost taste. She turned away from me to check up on Dad. By now all we could see of him was the round back of his head, hair plastered like a slick brown swim cap, bobbing in the water. The idea of Mom and Dad being apart was such an inviolable constant in my memory that I can’t seem to wrap my head around their togetherness, that Mom and Dad were Mom-and-Dad. I love these weekend trips we’ve been going on, the three of us.
Another Monday. I walked past the school in the afternoon. The windows of the brick building were unlit and the cement play yard empty. School was out for summer. On my way back for dinner I decided to stop by the park on Magnolia Road. I climbed over the railing and sat with my back against it at the edge of the park. Nearest to me was the play area where a bunch of toddlers were playing in the sandbox with bright-colored plastic shovels that they wielded with the jerky movements little kids whose muscles have yet to learn control and grace always seem to have. Their mothers or nannies sat on the bench nearby and looked on, alternately smiling at their toddlers’ goo-goo gaga voices and frowning at the dirt smudges on their baby clothes.
Out in the field a group of middle-school-age kids were playing hide-and-seek. A boy with his legs sticking out of his shorts like toothpicks was it. He covered his eyes with both hands. Even though he was about thirty yards away I could hear him counting and make out the screen-print Mortal Kombat t-shirt he was wearing. Have my eyesight and hearing always been this good? It boggles my mind that I can remember six years’ of stuff that had never happened but so little about stuff that had happened just six months ago. I watched the other kids scamper away alone or in twos and threes in search for good hiding spots. Two of them crouched behind a clomp of bushes. Another disappeared through the park gate. The rest ran through the play area into the knot of trees by the railing. I shook my head. No future secret agents here.
It boy was standing in the middle of the field, hands over eyes, counting. It was late in the afternoon and the sun fell warm on my skin. The air carried an earthy fragrance and the sparkling laughter of the toddlers in the sandbox in waves like the soundtrack of summer. At the count of forty, five juvenile-delinquent-type teenage boys raced through the park gate on their bikes. They set their bikes down on the grass and their sights on it boy, who was making his way to fifty, completely oblivious. Immediately, I felt a shift in the mothers and nannies sitting on the benches. They jumped out of their seats and started snatching up their things and throwing them into their oversized totes before snatching up their toddlers and securing them into their strollers. The toddlers protested the sudden rude removal with high-pitched squeals, which the grownups ignored. Seconds later the play area was deserted. What an odd thing to be reminded of, the common cruelty of children, when for so long my head had been swimming in much bigger and badder matters.
Some of the kids in hiding came out from their hiding places at the commotion but shrank back so fast when they saw the juvie gang it was as if they’d never left at all. When I turned back to it boy he had finally uncovered his eyes. But it was too late. The juvies had him surrounded, the five of them closing in on him in a circle. It boy’s face twisted in horror—his eyes red and bugging out, his mouth gone slack. The circle shrank. In desperation it boy tried to sprint through a gap, franticly, the way a moth trapped inside a streetlamp zigzags around trying to find a way out. But one of the juvies—the fattest one with a tuft of wavy blond hair on top of his head and a middle shaped like a big wine barrel, but with the broad shoulders of a future linebacker—caught him by the back of his shirt and knocked him to the ground, hard.
It boy didn’t get up. His yellow Mortal Kombat shirt rumpled and stained where he had fallen on the grass. His rusty brown hair rustier than ever with the added dirt. Tears streaked down his face. He wiped at his eyes with the backs of his balled-up hands. I was surprised that he didn’t try to fight back. As he cried his boney shoulders rattled. I stood up and walked toward them. Dr. Michelson said time after time that I suffered from an overextended hero complex. He was obviously a sage among men. “Come on! Get up, you little tit! What? Are you gonna throw a wobbler all day, you lily-livered pansy?” taunted the fat one as I approached them. I could practically see the spit spraying from his mouth. The other four whooped in laughter as they prodded it boy with little snap kicks. They were so busy bullying that none of them saw me until I was right up beside them.
I stepped between two of the juvies. “Come on, your mom wants you home for dinner,” I said this loud and pulled it boy to his feet.
He was so frazzled that he let me pull him along in the direction of the park gate. The juvies, too, so surprised that they just stood there gawking as we walked away. It didn’t last, of course. In about two seconds they caught up to us. It boy’s hand, slippery with tears, flinched in mine.
“Who the bloody hell are you?” asked the fat one, and apparent ringleader.
I pulled it boy along, walking in long quick strides. His crying had been replaced by erratic hiccupping. “I’m his third cousin fives times removed.” I squeezed it boy’s hand as I said this. He caught the drift and kept his mouth shut. I glared at blondie the bully, who on top of having a wine barrel chest had a face like a cantaloupe, but meatier.
This seemed to stump blondie because he halted his step, his mouth open but no sound coming out. Naturally all of his posse stopped as well. Sheep mentality, got to love it.
Once we reached the gate I let go of it boy’s hand and risked a backward glance. The juvies hadn’t bothered to catch up to us again.
It boy whispered to me between hiccups, “You just made that up, right? I don’t think third cousin fives times removed is possible.” He scratched his head with his free hand but hit a tender spot and whimpered. He was a cute kid, with big cow eyes like wet marbles from the crying and tiny freckles all over his face—they were even on his eyelids when he blinked.
“Yep, don’t kill yourself thinking about it.” I patted his back, gently. “So, which way do we go? I might as well walk you home.”
He pointed left. “Thanks, by the way.” He hiccupped through his smile.
“Don’t mention it,” I said, “literally. Don’t mention it.”
He gave me a look but shrugged. “All right.”
“Just”—I affected a cough—“remember next time that it’s okay to peek.”
On it boy’s shirt Liu Kang’s chest bulged like the underside of a lobster. Dr. Michelson said that he advised a lot of his other patients with hero-complexes to find release in video games or role-playing. When I laughed Dr. Michelson did, too. But, he said, I wouldn’t want to wish more dungeons and dragons on you.
After walking it boy home, I went home myself. In the afternoon I climbed up the oak tree in my backyard with a book, and sat with my feet dangling off the branch. The bark was rough against my skin and the leaves hung over me like a giant rustling green umbrella. After a while I saw over the book a black cat skip into the yard, its white feet barely touching the grass, its tail sticking straight upward with the tip curved like a question mark. Hello, Mr. Paws, I said. It came to the foot of the oak and stared up at me with its ears cocked back and its tail lowered and still. Then with a sudden lunge it scaled the tree, its paws, claws extended, hugging the trunk. If you’ve never see a cat climb a tree, it’s pretty spectacular. “Hi Mr. Paws,” I said as it jumped into my lap and butted its head against my chest. I petted it, feeling its eyebrows twitch under my hand, the delicate bones of its head, the soft warmth of its coat. There was a roll of parchment the size of a cigarette stub tied to its collar with a rubber band. I detached the parchment and unrolled it. Afternoon tea at three tomorrow, please come if you can, was written in Mrs. Figg’s left-leaning loopy script. I tucked the note in my pocket and returned to my book, Mr. Paws sprawled across my lap, its tail now and then curling and uncurling languidly.
I still wonder whether Mrs. Figg sent out all of her kitties with messages tied to their collars with the hope that one of them would at some point find me at my house or whether she sent only one each time and somehow, inexplicably, it knew where to go and what to do. I never got around to asking the first time it happened. Now I’m glad I didn’t. It would’ve spoiled the mystery.
The next morning I woke up with the pressure of Spike’s mouth against the hollow of my throat, the skin of his palms on my breasts callused like sandpaper. The feel of him moving inside me, heat and pain in between my legs. I pressed in my eyelids with the heels of my palms until I saw stars pop underneath. My heart turned over in my chest. I lay in bed and stared at the window until I heard my parents leave. Slate-colored clouds rolled across the sky like a gigantic bloated sodden blanket, leaching the color out of the world below. Then I got up and rummaged through my closet and found my rubber boots.
Outside the air had taken on an oppressive presence—all heaviness and static electricity. I walked along the road with no raincoat and no umbrella, watching the sky. Halfway to the bowling alley my vision brightened for a split second as if thousands of light bulbs had flashed all at once. Then a booming crack like a canon shot through the heavens. Lightning streaked across the sky, white and violet and spidery. Thunder caromed off the clouds. Then the rain falling in sheets, soaking my clothes instantaneously. Droplets collected on my eyelashes like runoff along the eaves.
The rain was relentless, deafening. Everything drooped and smelled different—the trees, the grass, the dirt, the asphalt. I walked on, my skin numb from the onslaught. Some car driving by pulled over, a window rolled down, and some stranger’s face asked if I needed a ride. I shook my head no, I’m fine, thank you. I could walk forever in this, I didn’t say. The bowling alley loomed like a forsaken block of concrete, I passed it and walked on. I walked farther than I’d ever walked before. I looked at my wristwatch and had to hold the face up to my eyes to make out the numbers, but the screen was blank.
On the walk home a sheet of moving water glazed the sidewalks. My boots made rude squelchy noises that made me laugh. There was a message on the answering machine. Mom had called to tell me about the severe thunderstorm warning in effect. Don’t leave the house if you don’t have to, she said. I peeled off my drowned clothes and wrung the water out of them before throwing them in the washer, scarfed down the leftovers from the fridge, and then showered. By the time I dried my hair and picked out something to wear it was almost three. I grabbed an umbrella out of the coat closet by the door and pulled my rubber boots back on.
Rain had collected in a dip in the road, two feet high. Some of it sloshed over the rim of my boots as I waded through. Almost to Mrs. Figg’s doorstep my umbrella flipped inside-out. The door opened as I was straightening out the umbrella. Inside the door, Mrs. Figg with a teacup and saucer one in hand, Mr. Paws standing between her feet. Her face registered surprise even as she was pulling me by the elbow through the doorway. Her voice high and urgent. “You poor thing! Come in, come in!” She set her tea down and took the umbrella from my hand, propped it against the wall, and straightened to take in my appearance. “It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” She frowned at the rain before closing the door. “I thought you weren’t coming. I was going to phone but then I realized I never got your number.” She finished saying this with a shake of her head.
Rain droplets down my arms like clear beads, I wiped them off, leaving goose bumps in their place.
Mr. Paws circled me and paused to sniff my boots.
I picked it up and held it in my arms.
“Yeah, I noticed,” I said to Mrs. Figg. “I’ll remember to leave you my number this time.” Rainwater inside my boots. I wiggled my toes. “Can I take these shoes off?”
Her eyes dropped to my bright yellow rubber boots with little duck designs. She looked up with a smile. “Nice wellies.” She pointed to the doormat and told me to leave them there.
I toed them off.
Remarkably, her house didn’t smell like cabbage. I told her this without thinking and her smile widened.
“That’s because we have company today,” she explained.
She picked up her teacup and saucer and led me not into the kitchen where we’d always sat but to the dining room, where tea and snacks were laid out on the formal dining table and where two strangers, a man and a teenage boy, were sitting.
The other three cats came running as Mrs. Figg and I entered the room. The man and the boy stood up, their chairs pushed back. The moment felt rife with ceremony, so I put Mr. Paws on the floor and greeted the other cats that were rubbing against my calves. Mrs. Figg took the seat next to the man, leaving me the chair next to the teenage boy on the opposite side of the table. He pulled out the chair for me.
“Well,” said Mrs. Figg, smiling, “that’s all of us. This here is Buffy Summers, new American to the neighborhood. Fifteen years-old and already a friend to old ladies with heavy cat-food laden bags everywhere.” She inclined her head toward the man beside her, “This is Remus Lupin,”
“Hello, pleasure to meet you.” Remus smiled and extended his hand across the table. We shook. His light brown hair was damp, its ends darker and dripping onto the frayed collar of his checkered blue dress shirt. He looked pale and exhausted but the smile stayed in his eyes long after it left his mouth.
“Hi, nice to meet you,” I said.
Mrs. Figg turned toward the boy next to me—“and that’s Harry Potter—he’s fifteen also. Lives on Privet Drive.”
At least someone had a normal name around here. I was beginning to suspect all Brits had kooky names like Arabella and Remus. I said this aloud and Harry grinned widely. At once he seemed to loosen up.
As we shook hands he raised his eyebrows—“Nice day, isn’t it.”
His straight black hair stuck up in the back as if he’d just rolled out of bed. A lightning-shaped scar near the center of his forehead. Behind his glasses his eyes were an incredible shade of emerald green, brilliant and clear like the ones in colored contacts commercials. Eyes you could swim in.
I glanced sidelong at our host. “The best. Mrs. Figg sure knows how to pick ‘em.”
She covered her eyes with one hand, irritation in the gesture. “A momentary lapse in judgment. Honestly, it could happen to anyone.” She shot Harry and me an exasperated glare. “You two smart-alecks sit down…and stop picking on this old lady who was kind enough to invite you into her home and serve you the best from her pantry.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Harry said, smirking.
Finally we sat down.
Mrs. Figg poured me a cup of tea on a saucer from her cat-eared teapot. The steam rose in a mushroom-shaped white puff that quickly lost its form. The kitties swarmed around my feet. I reached down and petted them.
“So, Miss Summers, what part of the country do you hail from?” said Remus.
“Sunny—California. L.A.” I almost didn’t catch myself. I sipped my tea. It was burning hot and left my tongue stinging. “Call me Buffy. Only my principal called me Miss Summers. And no good ever came of that.”
Remus tilted his head to one side, his thin mustache curling upward. “Really? I didn’t imagine you for a troublemaker.” He selected a scone from the porcelain tray and nibbled it. “So, why did you forsake Sunny L.A. for the glooms of London?”
“Family relocation. My Dad got a job offer he couldn’t refuse, and Mom and I were more than happy to give the expatriate lifestyle a try.” Dr. Michelson said a change of setting might prove beneficial for my condition.
“I lived in New York myself until three years ago,” said Remus. He told me that after he finished school he had trouble finding work, so he had traveled doing odd jobs—waiting tables in Ireland, manning highway tollbooths in Germany. His voice was hoarse but at the same time calm and even. By Mrs. Figg’s and Harry’s surprised expressions, I gathered that they were also hearing this for the first time. Remus cradled his teacup on both hands, rotating the cup with a faraway look over his face. He said shuttled from this place to that, country to country, language to language. It had been terribly exciting, seeing new places and learning how differently people lived. But then he was in his thirties and getting too old for that life.
A mentor of his suggested he go to America—land of opportunity—so he went. There he settled in New York, rented a dingy studio in the basement of an apartment complex in the Bronx, and signed with a cab company. I’ve never seen people as barmy as they drive in New York, he laughed. “Sometimes in my dreams I still hear the din of cars horns and the beeping of cars in reverse. And see a sea of yellow-tops, and the steam rising from the sewer covers in the winter, and hot dogs sweating grease on the stands.” He shook his head, smiling. The people he drove, so many others like him, strangers in a strange land, some not even able to speak the language. Soon he had the idea that he’d be able to make a living by teaching foreign languages, there was such a demand. So he started moonlighting, tutoring a few tenants in his building at first. Word got around and more people came. It didn’t pay very well, but it was rewarding work. Eventually he put in his two weeks’ notice and took up teaching full-time. “But the west coast, I never had the chance to visit,” he said, pouring himself more tea.
I leaned back in my chair. Seeing the opening, Tufty jumped into my lap and poked its nose into my cup. Then it spotted the tray of scones and made to lunge across the table, paws outstretched. I caught it around the belly, encircling it in my arms so it couldn’t move. “Stop that,” I said to it. It gazed up at me, its eyes patiently furious, its tail twitching, its neck straining forward like a giraffe’s.
“Tufty!” cried Mrs. Figg, “You know better than that!”
Immediately Tufty plunked down on my lap, head down on its paws.
“You know,” I said, “Sometimes I think the cats understand you.”
A look passed between Mrs. Figg and Remus.
She smiled. “The cats and I have an understanding.”
“When did you move in?” Harry asked.
“Beginning of this month.” I looked down at my watch for the date but realized again that it was broken.
“Have you any plans for the summer holiday?” Remus said over the rim of his teacup.
I shrugged. “No. Exploring the lay of the land is all.”
At this Harry turned to me and sighed. SMELTINGS was printed in block letters across the front of his t-shirt. It was a sad faded shade of gray that I guessed at one time had been black. “Well, there’s not much to explore in Little Whinging besides the play park and the corner store, speaking from experience.”
Harry turned to me, one elbow on the table. “I forgot to ask you earlier, but do you happen to be Mark Evans’s third cousin five times removed?”
“I just thought—you fit his description so well.”
“Dudley's, my cousin—blond hair, not much neck, vast as ever.” He scowled. “He stomped home the other day asking his mum what it meant to be someone’s third cousin five times removed. Had a bit of a fit when she informed him that it meant the person would be great-great-grandparent’s age and started muttered about some blond tart with an American accent who cheeked him at the play park. He wouldn’t shut up about it for the rest of the day.”
My mouth fell open. “That juvenile delinquent is your cousin?”
He sighed. “Tragic, isn’t it.” He lowered his voice like he was sharing a secret. “And what’s worse, I think he fancies you. This morning he even asked me if I’d seen you around.”
I let this sink in. It seemed both ridiculous and plausible now that Dudley would offer me booze while he was hanging out with his gang at that street corner last night. No wonder he looked so offended when I asked him if he’d put a roofie in the beer. On second thought, I wouldn’t put that past him. For one brief horrible moment Dudley’s pink bloated face with lips puckered flickered in my mind. I shuddered. Note to self: avoid all possible paths leading to meaty cantaloupe face.
“My condolences,” said Harry. I couldn’t decide whether he was teasing or being serious, probably both.
We observed a moment of silence, a particularly loud thunder clap followed by a flickering of the lights. Then Mrs. Figg steered the conversation to less unseemly topics.
After tea I helped Mrs. Figg clear the table and take everything into the kitchen. The cats, seeing the food depart, took their leave of the dining room and climbed on the couch in the living to watch the rain outside the bay window. I leaned against the counter as she loaded the used cups and saucers into the dishwasher.
“They seem nice.”
“That’s because they are nice.” She put the uneaten scones into the Siamese cat-shaped cookie jar and turned to face me, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “That Harry’s a fine boy. It would do you well to meet people your own age.”
He’s not my age, I started to say before I remembered he was. I had a sudden, obvious thought. “You’re not trying to set us up, are you?”
She stared at me for a moment and then smiled in a knowing way that was kind of annoying. “I wouldn’t,” she said.
I looked out the kitchen window, the rain outside as fierce as ever, lashing against the panes. Mrs. Figg invited me to stay a little longer to wait out the rain. The time on her kitchen wall clock was ten to five. I told her I had to go.
Back in the dining room Remus and Harry were talking quietly together.
“It was nice meeting you,” I said. “I’m gonna head home now before my parents get home and start to worry.”
Remus frowned. “Won’t they worry about your walking home in the thunderstorm?”
“Probably. But not if they don’t find out.”
At that Harry sniggered.
Remus stood. “Let us walk you back. Just as well, it’s high time Harry and I should be going.”
Mrs. Figg came into the room and agreed with him. Security in numbers, she said, and sent us away with plastic-wrapped scones leftover from the afternoon tucked under our arms, the rain falling around us in silvery ropes from dark clouds so close to the ground it seemed as though the sky was falling in.