3956 words (15 minute read)

Chapter I

One of the following sentences given below means approximately the same as the proverb: “Father’s debt, son to give back.” Choose the one:

  • A father may go into debt for his son, but the son should pay him back.
  • A new generation can put right the mistakes of the old
  • A son should pay back his father’s debts if he is able
  • Fathers can go into debt as long as they teach their sons to give back to the community

The late afternoon soaked the whole house in a humid summer heat. Though Father made sure to set up a tiny table fan nearby to keep the heat under control, it didn’t do much more than stir the air around. I could hear Father’s voice floating through the archway separating the dining room from the kitchen. He wanted Pennyworth to make him some lemonade.

I licked my lips. I wanted some lemonade too, but until Father decided Rilei and I were finished taking this stupid test we wouldn’t be getting anything. My fingers inched up to brush a few wisps of my black hair out of my face and at the same time wiped away the few beads of sweat collecting along my hairline.

A nap would be wonderful. I could just imagine myself in the library, the sunlight streaming in through the tall windows, listening to the gramophone as my mind wandered into the land of dreams. If Father left, I might’ve even been able to shed my heavy black-and-white striped gown and lay about in my underwear. It was indecent for sure, but drastic times calls for drastic measures. I could have Pennyworth pour me a glass of that lemonade before I went up for my nap, then maybe—

No, I needed to focus.

I ran my fingers along the small section of hair pulled back away from my face, drawing away from the braids and following the part of my hair allowed to remain loose and curled around my shoulders until I reached the tips. Then I twirled and wrapped them around each of my fingers in an attempt to keep my mind both from becoming terminally bored.

Didn’t Father know it was much too hot to be forcing us to do proverbs? It couldn’t possibly have made much of a difference if we took the day off to lounge around and fight the overwhelming exhaustion threatening to turn my brain into a fine stew.

But Rilei had it harder. I glanced over at her from across our polished dark wood table and caught her biting down on her tongue lightly as she turned her silver mechanical pen around and around and around in her fingers. Rilei was thirteen and looked every bit her age, if not younger. A few wispy black hairs came free from the long braid drawing down the length of her slender neck, and she kept pulling at the lace on the collar of her blue dress as if she wanted to rip off the entire line of white material.

For a few moments I sat watching her as an ornithologist might watch birds—which is to say meticulously. I loved my sister, loved her with the gentle affection of a mother. Not once in either of our lives have Rilei and I ever spoken to another person besides Father, though we knew they existed, and as a result we became each other’s entire world. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted everything for her, and as far as I knew she had everything she could ever want.

Still, I couldn’t help the feeling of something heavy and dark hanging over her head. Some sort of silent misery which she tried to hide behind her usual boisterous laughter and wide grins and snarky comments. The harder she tried to be her usual self the more obvious she made it that something was amiss. She should’ve known better than to try and hide her emotions from me. I could see right through her as if she were made of glass.

But what was it? I spent the better part of the day trying to figure it out. As we sat with Father in the library playing chess I found myself watching her face more than the game; when Father lectured us on our history lesson, I snuck secret glances in her direction to see if I might be able to find some kind of hint; and now, as we muddled through a test Father gave us a little bit after lunch, I held onto the fleeting hope that something in her expression might finally give me the answer I sought so desperately.

Truthfully, though, she looked more annoyed than anything else. Which, in turn, annoyed me.

Not that I showed a hint of it, of course. A lady should never let her true feelings show unless they’re joyful—and even then we should mute them in order to stay polite. I swallowed back the urge to frown or anything else as obvious and kept my face blank.

So instead of continuing to stare, making myself more and more agitated at not being able to figure out the problem in front of me, I instead opted to let my eyes glance around the room and to try thinking of other things.

When did Rilei become so spoiled? Yes we had a lot of possessions but I thought I taught her better than to take it for granted. She knew the stories Father told us of the outside. She read about people in our books that suffered so much more than either of us would ever know thanks to the sacrifices Father made for us. What on earth made her think it was okay to—

She glanced up at me, having maybe felt my eyes on her, and when she smiled my heart melted. All the anger evaporated into a fine mist and left behind nothing but the sweet unconditional love and devotion I had for her. I swear that girl had me wrapped around her little finger.

A quick glance towards the archway leading into the kitchen proceeded a dark, impish look settling across her doll-like features. She turned her attention back on me and tapped her pen against her paper four times.

Our secret code. Four taps from her meant she needed help on the fourth question from the top. I glanced down at my paper and, after I took note of the answer I wrote down, tapped my own pen on my paper twice. Meaning second answer from the top.

The smile on her small mouth with its cupids bow lips grew wider as she hurried to mark the answer down.

We continued on this way for a time. More than once I caught my heart racing a mile a minute when I thought I heard the one of the chairs around the small table in the kitchen scrape against the floor, which would’ve meant Father was no longer entertained by his book and wanted to check on us. The constant humming of our robot butler’s steam propulsion jets made it difficult to be certain. Once I heard the metallic warbling of Pennyworth’s voice strike up a conversation with Father, I knew we were safe. For the moment at least.

No matter how careful I tried to be in keeping our cheating a secret we still found ourselves hurrying to cover up our deceitfulness by dropping our eyes back to the paper, acting as if they’d been there all along, when Father strolled in from the kitchen. He still kept his little paperback book clutched firmly in his large hands.

“All right girls, times up.”

In every way Father maintained a sort of cultured dignity. It could be seen in the age drawn in the lines around his eyes and the shallow folds dipping down around his mouth from his nose. In the way he carried himself—shoulders back, never slouching or walking with anything less than absolute determined grace—it shined with unrestricted brilliance. Even the way he set his mercurial eyes on us, capable of bestowing great happiness or misery through their ever-watchful vigil, were never anything less than distinguished.

When he smiled at us, I couldn’t help but smile back. I didn’t speak but instead watched as he tapped his fingers on the edge of the table. “Put your papers here and I’ll look over them while you go practice your music.”

Rilei hesitated, waiting for me to get up before pushing her chair back and hopping down. I placed my test down on the table where I was told and Father’s eyes glittered.

“How do you think you did?”

“Pretty well, I think.” I tried to sound humble without letting any hint that, in truth, I had no idea how I did and was half frightened of the results.

He patted me on the arm. “I bet you’re right.”

As Rilei put her test down on top of mine Father asked her the same question, and she was a bit more honest about her answer than me. She didn’t have a lot of confidence in it. Father’s smile took on an apologetic edge as he tucked a strand of hair, which fell loose from her braids, behind her ear.

“Don’t worry. We can always work on the ones you missed. Remember Shiloh? You used to be the same way when you were her age.”

I nodded. “It’s true, and I’m still having trouble with our math lessons—which we both know you have me beat at!”

“So you see? No reason to worry sweetheart.” He placed a kiss on the top of her head. “Now go on. I’ll come to you when I finish looking these over.”

Together we left the dining room. Rilei followed behind me like a little shadow, her footsteps matching mine with perfect rhythm. The ruffles along the edge of her little blue dress brushed against her white stocking covered knees as she walked and I imagined she had her hands folded in front of her just the way she was taught to do. Father might have had a natural dignity that he carried with him every second of every day, but we had to work at it. It came easier to me than to my boyish sister. Then again I had more time to commit it to memory than she. Time would ease her out of her little phase of play pants and pretend sword fights, and when it did she would fall into her womanly propriety just as I did.

And it not . . . well, it wasn’t as if Father lived with us. Personally I didn’t care one tiny bit if she stayed a tomboy for the rest of her life as long as she never stopped smiling.

Once we were out of Father’s sight, our good manners disappeared and we raced each other up the stairs. Rilei dove in front of me and threw herself up three steps at once without so much as tottering on the tiny heel of her polished black shoes with the strap stretching across her ankles.

“Hey! Get back here you little cheater!” The words fell out of my mouth, almost unintelligible from the twitter of laughter.

Rilei, having landed on the tiny section of flat floor at the top of the first set of stairs, spun around and stuck her tongue out at me. The sunlight shining in through the three windows following the curve of the stairway wall illuminated a sort of halo around her head as she placed her hands on her hips.

“It’s not my fault you’re so slow! Maybe you’re getting too old to race!”

Oh that girl’s pride would be her downfall! I let her keep talking, let her spin around on her polished shoes, let her mock me all she wanted. Every second she spent wallowing in her premature glory was one I used to look for an opening. After all, pride comes before the fall.

More than anything I was just glad to see her mood improved. Maybe she’d just been worried about the test all along, and now that it was over and done with she had no reason to keep fretting. I think that’s the thing that made me smile big enough for my cheeks to ache. Whether I won or lost our silly little race didn’t matter nearly as much as just knowing she was happy again.

But of course that didn’t mean I was going to let her win!

So while she kept gloating, saying she hoped she didn’t slow down nearly as much as I did when she turned twenty-six, I made a mad dash up the steps and skirted around her to begin my ascent up the second set of stairs while she stood behind me dumbfounded by surprise.

I had only a few seconds before she came after me, calling cheater, laughing all the while. I might even have beaten her if one of the heels on my black satin boots—which, by the way, was much higher than Rilei’s and I feel as though that should’ve been taken into consideration at the start of the race and given me some sort of edge—hadn’t missed one of the steps and almost sent me falling backwards. Rilei hesitated only long enough to make sure I’d grabbed the railing to steady myself before taking those final steps to the top.

Then she spun around and sprinted up the remaining steps and down the stretch of hallway which led to our music room, as well as several other rooms which we had no interest in at the moment.

She swung open the door at the end of the hall, releasing the sunlight in the music room, and stepped one foot inside.

“I win,” she said from behind a smile so wide it showed off each of her perfect little teeth.

With nothing left to win or lose, I slowed to a casual walk. “You’re right. I concede to you, my sweet little sister.”

She bowed, and I laughed.

The games ended the moment Rilei and I, now side-by-side again, entered the music room.

In the first half of the room an enormous table with vines designed into the wood and a small white marble angel statue stood with her little hands pressed together in silent prayer and feathery wings outstretched as far as they would go. On the other side of the half-wall was Rilei’s gleaming black piano and my little violin made from pale wood.

My violin might have been the one thing that I enjoyed more than anything else. When I held the bow in my hand and my fingers flew across the strings to catch the notes, it was as if sweet bursts of electricity travelled across my veins and ignited my blood. It was much too easy to get lost in the current of rhythmic whines and pizzicato.

“So what should we play today?” I asked as I made my way to the wall of shelves. I ran my finger along the spines of the sheet music booklets as Rilei made her way past the half wall to her piano, reading the names of each piece of sheet music before me. “Bit of Schubert? Rossini? Chopin? Oh! Perhaps some Tchaikovsky? You know how I love Tchaikovsky.”

“You choose.”

The sudden change in her tone drew my attention away from the sheet music. Less than a minute ago we both laughed and smiled and had a wonderful time together—and now, as if from nowhere at all, the joy evaporated from my sister’s face. I guess I was wrong when I thought it was the test that upset her.

Despite being two separate people with an entire lifetime of years separating us, and despite all the ways my sister and I differed, we might as well have had one heart. I felt her misery and her happiness almost as strongly as she did. The instinct to sprint across the room and hold her tight, to quell her pain in any way I knew how, was so strong I almost couldn’t fight it. But I knew if I did I would only succeed in irritating her.

So instead I kept the topic of composers firmly in place.

“I think we ought to do Beethoven today. Perhaps . . .” I plucked a piece of sheet music from the Beethoven section. I turned it over so I could read the title, smiled when I realized it was the one I wanted, and lifted the music to show her. “The Spring Sonata? I know that’s one of your favorites—”

“Shi . . . what’s it like out there?”

I froze. So there it was. The reason for her dark mood.

“Out where?” I knew what she meant, but decided it was good form to ask anyway. I went in search of the other collection of sheet music for the Spring Sonata. Whenever Father brought us music he always made sure to bring a copy for both of us. He also tried to bring as many as he could that featured a violin and piano only, but such limiting parameters didn’t always yield much. We made due, though.

“Out there. Outside.” She gestured towards the windows. Beyond the glass stretched a field leading into a sea of wide-branched trees. As I turned to look I caught sight of a flock of birds flying over the forest. “Father said you lived out there before Mother died. Is it really as bad as he says?”

“I don’t know. If you remember, Father also said I was a baby at the time. If I did I wouldn’t remember anything.” I brought her a copy of the music and, after she took it out of my hand, I set to work setting up my stand.

Father told us stories of the outside—of a world filled with nothing but death and starvation and terrible savages. According to him we were safer inside. Did I believe him? Sometimes I wasn’t so sure. Not that it mattered. We couldn’t leave even if we wanted to.

After a brief moment of silence, long enough for me to finish setting up the thin wire stand meant to hold my sheet music open, Rilei sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“What brought all of this up?” I attempted to remain nonchalance about the whole thing. I couldn’t rightfully blame her when, right around her age, I went through a time when I could think of little else.

She shrugged. “I’ve just been thinking about it for the last couple of days. It’s just . . . is this really it? Is this our lives?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean—you’ve read the books in the library, Shiloh! You’ve read about all these people going out and doing all these incredible things! I don’t want to spend my life trapped in this fishbowl of a house.”

“I thought the same things.” Her attention snapped up at me and I gave her a soft half-smile. “I even tried to run away. These windows? They’re not real. They’re just screens projecting the image of outside.”

“I know that.”

“You do?”

“I’ve tried opening my window before. To . . .”

I smiled to let her know whatever her truth was, she could tell me. “Run away? Like I tried to?”

She nodded without uttering a word. I sighed, went to sit by her on the piano bench, and put my arm around her shoulders. I pulled her into a side-hug, breathing a little laugh into the top of her head. “You always were braver than me.”

“But you tried to run away too—”

“Yeah, but you tried three years before me. My brave little sister.” I kissed the top of her head. A bottomless pit opened up in my stomach and my mind worked itself to death trying to fill it. “I’m sorry you’re trapped here.”

For the longest time we sat there together. Her head lay nestled into the crook of my neck and my fingers played across her locks black of hair. Sooner or later her ache for freedom would wane. Not disappear all-together but dull into nothing more than a phantom limb.

“What if we talk to Father? He—”

“I tried, it won’t work.”

“But you’re older now! Maybe he’ll say yes, and if he does you can take me with you!”

“Rilei, no.”

But the desire stayed written on her face. No matter what I said, she still wanted to try asking Father if we could leave. I’ll admit, part of me wondered what he’d say. I was older. An adult, even. Old enough to decide for myself if I wanted to stay in the house or go out into the world and see first-hand if all the stories he told us were true. But part of me was too afraid to.

I placed another kiss on the top of her head and got up to retrieve my violin. “Come on, let’s practice.”

Next Chapter: Chapter II