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Chapter III

Rilei never impressed me so much with her self-control as she did during what remained of dinner. As sweet as I might’ve known she was, it was no secret that my sister could be bull-headed when it came to her position in an argument or her urge to storm away from a fight when all seemed lost. Though after Father’s angry dismissal of her at dinner, she remained in her seat picking at her meal without uttering a single sound. I caught Father glancing at her as if he hoped to see a change in her mood as we discussed the Allegory of the Cave. He never got what he wanted, not even as he said goodbye to us with a customary hug and kiss on the top of the head.

“I won’t be back for a while,” he said as he tucked a lock of my hair over the curve of my ear. He reached down and put a hand on Rilei’s shoulder. “At least a month. I need to go check on my hospitals.”

We promised we would miss him, though Rilei didn’t sound as if she entirely meant it. She said the words he expected to hear and he took them with as much good nature as could be expected from any father who knew, perhaps not so deep down, that his daughter might hate him at the moment. The feeling would pass. She might even love him again before he returned from his trip. But at the time he couldn’t have been righter.

Once Father left Rilei bounded upstairs to her room and I tried my best to follow, calling out her name.

“Wait! Wait!” I stumbled on the stairs as I tried to catch up but caught myself with the railing. “Rilei!”

“Go away!” she screamed as she came to a stop in the middle of the second set of stairs. “Leave me alone!”

“Just talk to me! Please!”

“I don’t want to!”

Please! I’m not Father! I’ll listen to you and you know it!”

But it didn’t do any good. As I drew close enough to reach out for her hand, she raced up what remained of the stairs and dashed into her room. The force with which she slammed her door shook the three holographic portraits of our dear mother—delicate faced, pale skin, large eyes which lost their color in the shimmering blue data particles and followed one about no matter where they went in the room—enough to leave them askew.

“Rilei!” I raced to her door and hammered my fist against the wood. “Come on, let me in!”

“I said go away!”

I tried once more to get her to change her mind, but I knew a fruitless effort when I saw one. With a heavy sigh, I shrugged.

“Fine. Then I suppose I’ll just sit out here until you do let me in. I hope I don’t have to use the bathroom anytime soon or Pennyworth won’t be happy.”

No response, but then again I didn’t exactly expect one.

I stayed true to my threat, but I decided to fix the pictures before I sat by her door.

All our lives we had these eyes—these ghostly eyes devoid of any color but the shimmering blue particles of data which seemed to follow us about no matter where we were in the room—always on us. Always watching.

Not long after I finished righting the portraits and sat back down by her door, Rilei opened her door in a series of slow and deliberate motions. It almost seemed as if she hoped I wouldn’t still be waiting outside.

I smiled, despite how seeing the red puffiness of her eyes left a painful quaking in my body. “Are you read to talk now?”

Her only answer was a shrug. She pushed her door open a little more in silent invitation and disappeared back inside. I went in after her.

Rilei’s bedroom was the antithesis to who she was as a person. Too much pink. Too many frills. Too many flower designs embroidered on pillows and quilts and printed across her table lamp. If we didn’t think Father would be furious, Rilei and I might’ve tried to decorate the walls and show a bit more of her personality.

As I closed the door behind me I observed her laying curled up on her bed, her face buried in a white pillow overstuffed with goose feathers. I sighed and went to sit with her.

“I’m sorry about Father.”

She shrugged. “Whatever.”

“Really, I am. He could’ve just said no. He didn’t have to . . .” but I didn’t know how to end the sentence. Not that it mattered even if I did. We both knew what happened.

For what felt like a long time I watched my sister in the tawny light shining through the off white material of her table lamp. She didn’t move for so long that I’d begun to think maybe she’d fallen asleep. But just before I leaned in to listen for the slow, rhythmic breathing of sleep she rolled over onto her back and stared up at the dark wood ceiling.

“I thought of something. I thought of it during dinner and can’t get it out of my head.”

“What is it?”

“What if there’s no outside at all?”

The question struck me like a smack in the face. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said!” she sprang up into a sitting position. “What if Father keeps saying no because the outside doesn’t exist? What if he’s telling us all these terrible stories just so we won’t want to go out into nothing?”

“Then where does Father go when he leaves?”

What a silly question. Of course there’s an outside. How could there not be? That’s simply not how things are. There is an outside and it’s so painfully terrible that we’re better off staying inside where we were safe. I kept telling myself this over and over again because, as much as I wanted to believe such things were impossible, I couldn’t help but think seriously about Rilei’s point.

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Did part of me believe her suggestion? Or did I simply want to see her smile again? Either way I couldn’t help but push a grin onto my lips. “Maybe it’s magic! Maybe Father appears and disappears through some kind of wizardry!”

Rilei loved stories of magic and long-bearded wizards and gallant knights upon white steeds all woven together into a grand tale of adventure. I thought maybe drawing on that love might make her happy again.

She nodded, a bit of her agony wiped away.

“Yeah, maybe.” She laid back down.

Once she found a comfortable spot to lay, I placed my palm against her round cheek and brushed her soft skin with my thumb. I didn’t speak, for what could I have said? I couldn’t make her truly happy. Only permission to leave the house could’ve done that and the best I would’ve been able to offer were placating words that did little good.

“Father loves us, you know.” The words fell out of my mouth before I could stop them.

“I know.”

“Whenever he’s cruel like he was tonight, he doesn’t mean it. He just wants us to be safe. I can understand his perspective. I want you to be safe too.” I touched my forehead to her’s. “But more than anything I want you to be happy. I can’t do anything about taking you outside . . . but is there anything I can do to make you smile again?”

She seemed to think on this a moment. Her little mechanical sparrow twittered in its lovely cage made of thin strips of gold, filling the silence with a high pitched cheeping. The corner of her mouth quirked upwards as I reached up and tried to smooth out the tangles in her hair.

“Could we . . . have some more of that cheesecake Pennyworth made for dinner?”

A breath of laughter fell from my throat. “Of course.”

Together we went downstairs to the kitchen where Pennyworth busied himself with washing the dishes and putting away what we might’ve had left over. When we told him about wanting the cheesecake, he clapped his metallic hands together and happily agreed to get us a slice.

Days came and went in a slow processions of seconds, minutes, and hours. We managed to turn the events of our last night with Father into nothing. I had a fair amount of skill pretending things didn’t happen when I don’t want them to and because Rilei didn’t see any point in talking about it anymore the whole thing fell away into obscurity.

We studied like we were supposed to, but because Father promised to be gone for so long we didn’t do it nearly as much as we would’ve otherwise. We worked on our embroidery, our music. I sang while Rilei played her piano. I liked singing much more than she did. Probably because she didn’t think she was very good at it. She had a lovely voice that would be even lovelier if she would just put in the time to practice, but I wasn’t about to force her when her present skill was good enough for Father.

But when we didn’t spend our time being dutiful daughters we played in the playroom. Our playroom, a wide upstairs chamber with high ceilings and wide windows, had been transformed from simply a place to store toys and games from our childhood into an actual oasis. When Rilei was a little kid I often spent a lot of my time entertaining her by having her cut out flowers, vague animals, bugs, birds, and grass out of construction paper so we could paste them onto the wall and give the illusion of outside as defined by the projections outside our windows. She seemed to enjoy it. It kept her busy, exercised her imagination, and whiled away our long hours alone. Father brought us mechanical hot air balloons and zeppelin models which floated around the room, Pennyworth helped us hang cotton balls on strings from the ceiling to make clouds—the playroom became a group effort, and when it was finished we were allowed to pretend as if it were a garden instead of another stuffy room in our house.

I sat in my large-backed chair next to the window, half glancing out at the simulated meadow of flowers “growing outside” our house. Bursts of pink and yellow and white blanketed the pale green grass, seeping between the trees. The vents at the bottom of the windows allowed a lovely floral scent to seep in and give more sensory life to the flowers.

Over at the large table occupying the right side of the room Rilei sat with a spray of playing cards out in front of her and a small deck stacked on the side. Solitaire. It wasn’t Rilei’s favorite game by any means but when there is little else to do even the most unappealing games will work.

As I watched her I tried to think of something else for her to do. We had mountains of toys and games stored away in our play room and yet none of them seemed worth the effort of getting them out. The large brass-and-silver mechanical horse hadn’t been played with since Rilei was a toddler. Several of the games had missing pieces we could never hope to find. We already played chess four times this week, and though I enjoy the game it certainly loses its charm after a while. We could play more music, I supposed, but somehow I couldn’t see myself being able to get out of the chair long enough to do it.

“I know what we can do.” I shut my book. Rilei looked up at me, obviously surprised to hear my voice all of a sudden.


I hoisted myself out of the chair, leaving my book sitting in my place, and crossed the room. I felt my sister’s eyes following me as I dug through the piles of toys to find what I wanted.

As I said before, we wanted for nothing. As I searched for the one thing that might keep us entertained for the rest of the afternoon I came across little pieces of evidence which served to remind me of this fact. I found my old circus—complete with two elephants pulling the large calliope box, the ringmaster in his red suit sitting atop the box, a strong man whose arms raised and lowered as long as the windup key embedded in his back moved, two acrobats and the structure on which they were supposed to be suspended, dancing wind-up clowns, and a clown that hit a little drum—and old collection of porcelain dolls with curly hair before I at last found the thing I was searching for.

Rilei smiled as I placed the enormous fold-out theatre onto the table and set to work prying apart the two sides. The whole thing opened up into a grande gold-and-red auditorium complete with little red fold-up tabs at the bottom to serve as floor seating and shallow grooves in the sides for the box seats. The stage concaved a bit in the center where we could pull apart the curtains and perform our little plays with the cardboard actors.

“I haven’t seen that in years!” Card game completely forgotten, Rilei jumped out of her seat and came to stand on the other side of the theatre. “Why did you think of this all of a sudden?’

“I just thought it might be fun to play again.”

Not that it took much to convince her. “What play should we do?”

“You pick,” I said with a grin.

My sister thought about it for a second, and only a second, because after all the years of not putting on any performances for the paper people forever affixed to the floor seats and the boxes there was only one they could possibly want to see.

Which just happened to be her favorite.


“Sounds good to me. You pick the actors and I’ll find the backdrops we’ll need.”

To be honest I didn’t expect to find many of the pieces. Still, Rilei managed to conjure up the character we always used for the leading lady, the prince, the king and queen, the witch, and the twin children. Most of our background players were only used in the beginning and would be discarded later, so we didn’t worry about not finding a lot of them.

All the way through the play took no longer than an hour, including the short intermissions we took to change the scenes and arrange our painted cardboard actors so they would be ready when the curtain rose again.

Then, once we finished with Rapunzel, we decided to do Hamlet.

Next Chapter: Chapter IV