Here Among Us by Maggie Harryman (Excerpt 2)

Posted on Thursday, May 23, 2013

Chapter Two

Flynn rang the bell and then waited while snow tumbled down through the glaring beam of the overhead light. Footsteps started and stopped on the other side of the imposing mahogany doors and she imagined her sister primping one last time before the hall mirror until Maeve opened the door and the light from the hall’s extravagant crystal chandelier spilled over them. When their eyes met, Flynn was sure she saw her sister’s mouth twitch the way it had when they were children and she was forced to do something she dreaded, then her lips parted to reveal a brilliant, artificially-whitened smile.

“Welcome,” she said, encircling Didi in her arms. “You must be exhausted. Come in.”

Didi let out a howl of delight, forgetting her grief and exhaustion. “Aunt Maeve you look wonderful,” she said, leaving her duffel on the step for Flynn to drag in.

Although Flynn had been hoping Maeve had let herself go in the ensuing three years, become lumpy and misshapen, finally suffering the relentless tug of gravity that would have savaged the perfect tip of her nose into a droopy ball, puffed her hollowed cheeks, caved and circled her wide set eyes with dark shadows, even she had to admit her daughter was right. Maeve hadn’t changed one iota, not aged a day, in years.

Standing in the soft hall light, she was more beautiful, more regal at forty-seven then she had been at thirty. Certainly, she was more self-possessed. No, Maeve’s looks hadn’t faltered with time, appeared concrete and intractable in fact, and once again Flynn was forced to recognize one of life’s most annoying truths—by some freak accident of birth, Maeve had inherited every possible genetic marker for beauty available to the human race and been stunning since just about the day she was born. Reaching 5’9” sometime in her mid-teens and never weighing more than 130 pounds, she had thick honey blonde hair, streaked with shades of red and brown, lime green eyes, their mother’s high cheekbones and perfect aquiline nose and their father’s strong jaw. Maeve’s beauty had eclipsed any woman she ever stood next to and as her plainer sister, Flynn had disappeared into her shadow. The way families do, roles were divinely parsed out; Maeve was the beauty and Osheen, the athlete. With few choices left and a natural affinity, Flynn had carved her own niche in their family as the smart one, even while absorbing two of life’s most facile lessons early on; the sort of exquisite beauty with which Maeve had been blessed was the ultimate prize and gifts allotted at birth were in no way fair. By the time Flynn had reached high school, she’d given up wondering how it was that her parents had created the most talked about beauty for miles around and only four years later produced another daughter who was described by those same Maeve admirers as “pleasant to look at.” Long before high school Flynn had already learned the valuable lesson that in life, fair was rarely part of the equation.

While the entire world bowed to Queen Maeve, there were only two people Flynn had ever known who were unimpressed—Osheen and their mother. Osheen never noticed his older sister was any different from any other girl. As to Oona, whenever someone commented about Maeve’s looks she either remained stubbornly mute, denied them altogether or said, “I suppose God gives us the gifts we need most to get through this awful life.” What the hell did she mean, Flynn often wondered, that Maeve needed her beauty because, God help her, a life of comfort and leisure awaited her?

But then, she’d done the same thing to Flynn, downplaying how easy is was for her to excel in school. Even when Flynn had gotten a near perfect score on her SATs, Oona had asked her high school guidance counselor how a test offered to anyone who could pay the fee to take it could be all that difficult. It wasn’t until years later when Flynn realized this reshaping of reality was Oona’s way of never playing favorites, ensuring, she thought, neither girl would suffer the jealousy that tore sisters apart. It hadn’t worked. For most of their lives, there had been something solid and razor sharp wedged between them that had nothing to do with beauty or intellect. If Maeve had been as plain as a doorknob and Flynn as dumb as a post, they still wouldn’t have gotten along.

But Maeve adored Didi.

“Deirdre, you’ve grown a foot since I saw you last. You’re gorgeous!” Maeve turned her around to face the hall mirror and stood behind her, gently pulling back her shoulders just as their mother had. Flynn wondered if Maeve dared comment on the pierced brow.

“I think…no I know, you’re going to be far prettier than I ever was.”

Flynn watched as Didi tried to smooth the thick mane she generally refused to brush. “Really Aunt Maeve?” she said, still gazing ahead.

“Yes, really. And look at your figure. Do you work out? Tell me you do or I’ll die of jealousy. I have to see you in clothes.”

Flynn watched the smile on her daughter’s face fade. No mention of the nose piercing but a dig at her clothes? This could get interesting. One wrong word about her clothes and enlightened Deirdre would hand Maeve her head.

“Clothes? What’s wrong with my clothes?”

“Absolutely nothing. I love your look. In fact there’s a shop in the Village called Zap that has the most delightful…”

“You know ZAP?” she said. And then, looking to her aunt with a degree of admiration Flynn didn’t think her daughter capable of she asked, “Do you shop there?”

Flynn almost laughed aloud. ZAP sold a mixture of new and used clothing, the more ripped, frayed and generally trashed the better. They didn’t carry cashmere sweater sets.

“I think it’s a little young for me but I can’t wait to take you there. It’s the least I can do to reward you for your brilliance. Your grandmother tells me you’re at the top of your class.”

Didi smiled sweetly, “Oh yeah, I am. In fact, I’m ahead so this year I’m doing independent study. Gives me options,” she said.

Maeve smiled into the mirror. “One can never have enough of those.”

Flynn had finally had enough and interrupted. “We may not have time,” she said, and Didi shot her a look as though surprised she had been followed from the airport.

“Really, mom? We have five days.”

Maeve slid her arm around Didi’s shoulder. “You’re mother’s thinking about work, honey. But don’t worry. You and I can go without her,” she said. “Now go on upstairs to your room and relax. I got you a new flat screen tv and there’s a stocked refrigerator in the ante room leading into the bath. I’ll speak to Flynn about our plans. And say hello to Declan. He’s in his room working on a model airplane.” Without the slightest hesitation, Didi kissed Maeve’s cheek, picked up her bag and bounded up the stairs.

And there they were.

Maeve turned her gaze on Flynn, looking over her creased and rumpled clothes. She looked sad and sympathetic the way people do when they stay at a fancy resort in the third world and stumble onto the homeless outside the perimeter. Her eyes traveled down to Flynn’s feet and her face clouded. This time she made no attempt to hide her disgust and the twitch revealed itself again. Flynn had committed what her sister considered a cardinal sin of fashion. She was wearing Birkenstocks.

“Where’s your bag?” she asked, peering around the hallway and then leaning in to give Flynn a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Thanks to the gross incompetence of the airlines, lost somewhere between here and San Francisco. I should have it in twenty-four hours, if I’m lucky.”

“Or maybe if you’re lucky you won’t,” Maeve laughed, taking Flynn’s coat. “Hmmm,” she said, sizing Flynn up, “Don’t worry. I have closets full of clothes. Something has to work with your style.”

Heading for the hall closet, Maeve stopped dead and sniffed Flynn’s coat. “What in God’s name?” she said, wrinkling her nose and then dropping the Mac in a heap on the floor. “Never mind, I have one of these upstairs you can have. This one smells like dog.”

Flynn looked at Maeve, one hand on her hip, eyes just slightly narrowed, feet planted, waiting to be challenged and she was reminded, in the way cooking smells or old family photos or brogues spouting worn expressions always reminded her of things she’d rather have left forgotten, of a night just after her father died when she had awakened from a bad dream. She remembered jumping out of her bed desperate to see her mother, and being blocked at the door to her bedroom by Maeve.

“You can’t go in there, Flynn. Oona’s too tired. She needs her sleep.”

At seven, Flynn was no match for her sister, either in size or ability to intimidate. But she was desperate. “Please let me in. I need to see Mommy.”

“Flynn, go back to bed or else.”

She might have given up then had she not noticed that Maeve’s face was covered in foundation and blush, her eyes set in liner and finished with thick, black mascara, and her lips cast in a deep luscious red, all strictly forbidden until she was at least fifteen. Flynn realized in a flash her sister was protecting herself. Suddenly Flynn was more overcome with anger than fear.

“I’m warning you, Maeve, let me pass.”

Maeve said nothing, but instead smiled, raised her arms and hooked them across her chest. Flynn turned and began walking back to her room and then, without thinking, turned back again and ran toward her sister, hunkering down in an attempt to protect herself and, just at the point of impact, flew at her, sending Maeve crashing backwards into the door which immediately burst open. Maeve landed with a loud thud at her mother’s feet.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Oona hissed through clamped teeth, her eyes swollen with exhaustion. “They’ll think we’re killin’ each other up here and how is that for business?” Then turning to Maeve, “What in God’s name is all over your face? You look like the whore of Babylon.”

Before Maeve could defend herself or explain that the problem was Flynn, she was dismissed. “Don’t dare argue with me, Maeve. Get it off now, before I take it off for you.”

And then, as Maeve walked down the hall toward the bathroom, Oona spoke to her in a voice Flynn still remembered because it was the first time she’d ever heard defeat. “Couldn’t you have just let her in?”

“She’s a spoiled brat,” Maeve hissed back.

Her mother had let out a deep sigh. “She’s only a small child, Maeve.”

Flynn remembered her sister’s face, black tears running down her cheeks, and the hatred in her eyes as their mother took Flynn’s hand and closed the door behind them.

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Genre – Literary Fiction

Rating – R (Strong language, adult themes)

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