To be honest, she didn't remember exactly how or when she'd arrived at the orphanage. But she was getting very tired of sitting next to her rabbit on the bus. "Since I can't remember where I'm coming from," the little girl muttered to the stuffed rabbit, "Wherever I'm headed is bound to better. Or at least more interesting." The bus rumbled under the hard seats, jiggling the weird smells and exhaust into a nauseating concoction around her dark head. She felt sick, nervous as she clutched at her armrest. "Just don't tell stories and everything'll be fine. Leave the nonsense alone and it won't mess with you either." She remembered promising someone she'd stop telling stories. But that place faded from her memory, erased by the bumps and cracks in the asphalt. The blue note pinned to her worn shirt crinkled. The rabbit and the weight of her suitcase's dusty handle became the only reality she had left. Surely, it couldn't hurt to talk to a stuffed rabbit. That wasn't exactly cheating, right?
The bus rolled to a creaking stop and her stomach settled down. The girl hopped off the bus stairs, shoelaces trailing. No one met her at the station, so she walked. The hulking bus careened away behind her, like someone late for an appointment.
Sucking in crisp spring air, she wondered how it could stay so fresh with so many people breathing all over the world. Her suitcase bumped her leg and yanked her out of her fantasy. None of that, she thought, stop with the stories. They'll leak out. Pushing her short hair behind her ear, she ignored the call of curiosity and the ache in her feet.
But the nonsense caught up with her. Hundreds of leftover Easter Eggs blooming in a huge oak tree of a strange house with made her jaw drop. Plastic eggs swayed from branches, tied with faded pieces of yarn. A large wooden painting of a bunny sat staked crookedly, nestled between the oak tree's snaky roots. "Well, you're a bit late for Easter, aren't you?"
The numbers on the mailbox matched the blue post-it note pinned to her shirt.
"Here, huh?" She blinked up at the house, ordinary but not. Like her. The front door was yellow like someone peed all over it. Her nose crinkled at the thought. But she liked the windows; the glass all rippled like someone turned them to water. Above the upper branches of the oak tree, the roof spouted a round turret, like on a fairy tale castle. A peeling metal gate boxed everything in, a perfect square trying to keep order, a red brick bastion on each side. The broken toys scattered in the grass like and the Easter eggs in the tree ruined that illusion. She thought, this house is only pretending to be normal. Like me.
The weight of eyes knotted up the space under her ribs. The attic curtain flapped in the wind, saluting her. She saw a shadow. Then the leaves of the oak tree rustled.
I could just go, she thought. Maybe no one will notice. How am I supposed to be normal in a place like this?
The gate creaked. A tiny girl, no taller than her hip glared from under a mop of blond hair. Like a dandelion, a strong wind could blow this one away. She stared back, "Uh, hi?"
The little girl kicked her in the shin and darted to the front porch. The yellow door slammed open, slammed shut.
The dull ache rode up to her knee while she lugged her suitcase to the steps in pursuit. What on earth? Just goes to show you can't even trust other kids. She almost tripped over a pile of un-color, dusty shoes, laces untied and tangled next to the stoop. She rubbed her bruised shin, debating if she should take her shoes off too. The door creaked open. The girl's foot arched back just in case it was the dandelion girl again.
Mrs. Rouge, widowed and withered met her at the door. "So, here you are." She frowned. Something squished her in her middle, the girl thought. Everything either rode up to her chest or plunged down to her hips and thighs under her dark red dress. Spidery wisps of hair mingled with tired wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and pinched mouth.
"Here I am." She didn't know what else to say.
The woman sniffed. "Well, you're late." She turned and disappeared into the house. Her voice came back through the empty door. "Come in then."
The girl didn't know if she should be offended or miffed she'd missed her chance to escape. The mantra thundered through her, stitching up any ideas of misbehaving. Three things, she thought, just three simple rules. Keep quiet, keep your head down, and don't tell stories!
The woman wasn't waiting. So the girl traded the fog of her past for the gaping dark hole of the yellow doorway. She kicked off her shoes and stepped through. The inside of the house was skewed, tilted a little too far to one side. Every picture frame on the walls reveled in the crookedness, half of them empty. The striped wallpaper peeled at the edges, bearing teeth of yellowed whitewall underneath. Their footsteps echoed through the dimness. She coughed, hoping to break the silence. She felt so nervous it felt like falling.
Mrs. Rouge looked back over her sharp shoulder, "Dinner is at half past five, breakfast is at seven thirty. Lunch is at noon. Questions?" The girl shook her head. Mrs. Rouge pattered on, her small feet tap-tap-taping on the dark floor of the main hallway. "Right now there are five other children here not counting you. Wait, no, Patrick makes six. He returned yesterday on a trial basis. Leave him be." She waved her hand, dismissing the conversation about the Patrick person, "My daughter, Lorina, and I also live here at Joy House." Mrs. Rouge traced her forehead with a painted fingernail. "Ah, but we'll be taking in two more children at the end of the month. Things are quite tight here, Alice, quite tight."
"What?" The woman snapped around.
"Licey, ma'am. My name's Licey."
"Lee-C?" Mrs. Rouge seemed to puff up to twice her size. "What sort of nonsense is that?"
Uh-oh. Licey and nonsense suffered a long, complicated relationship. She replied so fast she almost chipped a tooth, "No nonsense, just my name. I'm Licey."
"Are you being smart with me, child?" The woman demanded, knobby hands clenching her teeny tiny waist.
"No, ma'am! I'm not that smart to begin with." Licey chirped. "I can't really follow directions if someone's calling out 'Alice, Alice' and I'm Licey, Licey. How would I know if someone's trying to get my attention? That is unless you already have a Licey. If you do, I can just keep going on down the road. Maybe we made a mistake! Yep, that must be it! You're looking for an Alice and I'm only a Licey. It's close, but I'm definitely not an Alice."
Mrs. Rouge blinked and deflated. "Good to know you haven't changed. Come along then, Licey-for-now. Dinner's being served."
They went by a large kitchen with strange smells wafting from the swinging door. An Asian man with a towel wrapped around his forehead glanced back as they passed. At his feet was a black dog with a curly tail. Something flashed where his right hand should have been. Licey tried to see more, but Mrs. Rouge pulled her on. "Our cook, Hukku-san." She explained, "He is from Japan and prefers to be called Hukku-san instead of Mr. Hukku. His English is quite poor. Leave him alone too." Maybe she shouldn't have worried about having to be social. So far, she had two people to leave alone. Sounded just fine to Licey. "Come along. The others are having to wait because of you." Her voice pitched higher as they came to the dining room.
Licey clutched the doorframe. The dandelion girl swung her feet back and forth, a tiny menace in her seat at the long table. Six sets of eyes pinned Licey to the spot. A stained tablecloth spread out between six sets of hands all shapes, sizes and colors. Mismatched cups and saucers chimed as nervous fingers sat drinks down before Mrs. Rouge noticed.
At the head of the table sat a teenaged boy. Uh-oh, I wonder if I'm really seeing this, she thought. The boy's shaggy black hair was crowned by a huge top hat with a price tag tucked in the band. His dark eyes glanced at her, shifted away. Smirking he crossed his long legs. He sipped his drink without a care as the others sat and stared at Licey.
Mrs. Rouge glared at the teenager then clapped her hands. "Everyone, this is A-, ahem, Licey. She'll be joining us here at Joy House for the time being. Please treat her kindly until she gets settled."
Licey looked sideways at the woman. Just until I get settled, huh?
A round, younger version of Mrs. Rouge stood, her chair scraping. At least she smiled. "Hello, Licey! How are you?"
Mrs. Rouge looked down. "My daughter, Lorina." She explained.
Lorina's brown eyes turned sympathetic. She skirted the table and grabbed Licey's hands. "Your name's so cute now! You can call me Lori if you'd like! If there's anything you need, just tell me! I'll be happy to help!"
"'I'll be happy to help!'" someone mimicked behind her.
Lorina blushed and Licey slid her hands away. "Anyway, I'm in the room off the stairs, should you need me." Her smiled slipped a little as the voice behind her echoed again, 'should you need me, should you need me.'
"Thanks." Licey tried to smile back but it felt fake. Lori sat down, put her napkin in her lap and didn't look up again.
"I believe you've already met Bella." Mrs. Rouge waved at the tiny girl with the fluffy hair. "She's three." And to be feared, Licey thought.
"I have work to do. The rest of you can introduce yourselves, correct?" They all nodded, the picture of innocence. "Liza, our maid, will show you to your room after you've cleaned your plate." She shoved Licey to the wolves and vanished into the house.
The teen at the head of the table raised an eyebrow as Licey tried to sit down. He laughed as the rest of the kids stood, slid down and took different seats. Licey tried for another chair. But the others did the same thing again, like some strange game of musical chairs with music she couldn't hear. Licey looked to Lori but the girl only stared at her lap. The boy snickered, "No room, little girl. Move down."
"And you are?" Licey gave up and took up her spot by the door again.
"Patrick." The boy grinned, tipping his strange hat. "You can call me 'Hat-Trick.'" His dark hair fell into his eyes as he leaned forward. "Anything you need, you let me know. Lorina can't do anything, can you, Lorina?" He smirked when Lori shook her head.
Next to Hat-Trick's seat, another teenage girl, thin as a piece of paper turned sideways, sat draped across her chair. "Ah, you made Lori cry, Hat. That's what she gets for thinking she's better than us just because she goes to school in town, gets fancy clothes all the time and has her own room." The girl's green eyes slipped over to Licey, taking in every inch of her. She flipped her long tails of hair. It looked like a rainbow shattered over her head. Half warm yellows and oranges, the other side full of blues and purples. Her full lips were painted a shade of red so dark it matched the bruise on Licey's shin. "I'm Marsha Lapereau. I'm sixteen and Hat-Trick's seventeen, one year away from freedom. Lorina's only fourteen. And you're all of what, ten?"
"Whatever. Stay out of our way, and we'll stay out of yours, 'kay?"
Licey nodded, not exactly scared of Marsha or Hat-Trick, but wary. Very, very wary.
Marsha flicked her nail at the other end of the table. "That one down there," A boy with skin the color of coffee rested his head on the tabletop, his hair braided in tight rows. He barely opened his eyes enough for Licey to realize they were talking about him. "That's Matty Mouse. He's nine. If you want on the computer at night, you're gonna have to fight him for it. Next to him is Bella. Guess you've met. She can't talk much. And she bites."
Licey glared back. Useful information, she thought.
"Ahem, aren't you forgetting someone?" The boy at the foot of the table asked.
Hat-Trick laughed. "Nah, Pete's out flying again." Marsha laughed with him, but her eyes fell on Hat's face, nervous.
The last boy grimaced. He stood, lanky body dressed to the nines in clothes that hadn't fit in at least two years. Licey could see his socks end before his pants began. His suit coat strained at the shoulders, three brass buttons hanging by threads. "William Ofston the Third," he stuck his hand out to shake. Licey saw a small straight scar in the middle of the boy's palm.
The rest of the group, save Lori, sang off-key, "Slightly off! Just slightly off! Often slightly off!"
"They all call me Slightly." He frowned.
"'Cause he's slightly off." Hat-Trick laughed. "He's still waiting for his 'family' to come and pick him up."
"Please call me William." Slightly huffed. The boy took his hand back when he noticed Licey looking at the scar and bowed at the waist instead. "I'm thirteen, so I'm second man in charge after Hat-Trick and Hukku-san. I'll be honored to be of any assistance to you." His face turned red as the others howled. Slightly sat down in a snit.
"Hey, Licey girl, you want to see a trick?" Hat asked, leaning closer over the dingy tablecloth. "It's just about the neatest thing you'll ever see."
Ah, hello again curiosity, she thought. Licey moved forward before she even realized it. Her toes touched Hat-Trick's by the time she could stop herself. She was so close she could read the price tag on the hat, $36.69. Keep quiet, keep your head down, don't tell stories, she whispered in her head. This didn't really fall into any of those categories, right? So what could it hurt? No telling how long I'll be here with these people, might as well play nice.
"Don't." Slightly whispered.
Grinning, Hat snatched Licey's hand and placed it between two cracked plates. His hand was strangely cold, but his fingertips burned when they covered Licey's splayed fingers. Hat-Trick grabbed a butter knife. "Hold real still now, Licey girl." His dark eyes grew wide, until she could see the whites all around. "This is a great trick."
The light outside caught the edge of the blade as Hat-Trick carved an arc in the air. His hand slid off Licey's so fast it really was like magic. It crashed down on Licey like a tidal wave what happened to Slightly's hand. He's going to stab me, Licey realized, furious. I've been here all of ten minutes and this jerk's gonna stab me! Of all the ridiculous-
Then a warmer, smaller hand squeezed her other wrist. She almost tumbled to the floor when someone yanked her back. But again, whoever held her wrist caught her and tugged her back up before she fell. Had Slightly saved her? No, this boy was too small and his hair was a mass of messy light curls, not straight and red.
Whoever it was, he still had his hand around her wrist. The anger flushed her cheeks red. I've had just about enough of being jerked around for one day. "Excuse me! Do you mind?"
"No-o-pe." The boy chirped, drawing out the word.
The knife stood straight up, stuck an inch deep into the wood of the table. Hat-Trick looked up, disappointed. "Ah, you spoiled my fun, Pete."
Hey." Licey stared at the knife. Huh, she thought, wonder how far he could have stuck in a knife that was actually sharp? The boy said nothing as Hat-Trick grumbled and sat back. Hat looked like someone opened all of his birthday presents. She did her best not to shudder. "Um, you can let go now." The room held its breath, all eyes on the newest child. His shirt was torn under a black hooded jacket. Strings from his faded camouflage shorts dangled past his scraped knees. His hair was a tangle of curls with flecks of spring leaves and small twigs sticking out here and there. Licey tugged on her wrist, but his fingers stayed around her hand. "Uh, hello?"
"So, are you one of them?"
"I said," He turned and stared her down with blue eyes the color of summer skies, "are you one of them or one of us?"
"Peter…" Lori said.
"It's Pete! Not Peter." He said, eyes never wavering from Licey's face. "And I wasn't talkin' to you. I'm talkin' to her. Now, which is it, stupid girl?"
"Stupid girl?" Licey tore her wrist away. The bright wave of anger dashed the fear that threatened to freeze her. "What do you mean, stupid girl?"
"Do you know who I am?" Pete asked.
Licey puffed up even though she was a little taller than the boy. "No idea what so ever!"
"Then you're stupid." He grinned flashing perfect little teeth. "Every person with half a brain knows who I am. And the only stupid people here are grown-ups, so you must be one of them."
Okay, she thought, almost having my hand skewered to the table was not the smoothest move ever, but this is another matter all together! This boy threatened to suck the air out of the room, he looked so proud of himself. And didn't anyone have a normal name that didn't involve some clever interpretation? She put her hands on her hips. "So just because I don't know who you are, oh great, what was it again? Peter-"
"Exactly. That's what I said, stupid girl." He jumped up onto the table, vaulting cups, a plate of fried chicken, and an enormous bowl of mashed potatoes. "So you must be one of them!" He thrust an accusing finger at Hat-Trick and Marsha then waved to the hall where Mrs. Rouge had disappeared. "A lousy, boring grown-up." He spit in the gravy tureen as if the word was too awful to keep in his mouth.
"Honestly!" Slightly cringed. "I was looking forward to that gravy, Pete."
"Shut it, Slightly." Pete crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
Lorina picked up the gravy and walked out of the room. Matty Mouse blinked bloodshot eyes then retreated under the table. Hat and Marsha lounged against each other amused by Pete's antics. To Licey's astonishment, Bella clambered up onto the table too and stood by Pete, copying him down to the condescending look on her face.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Licey shook her head. "I'm not one of them and I'm definitely not one of you. I'm just one of me!"
"Nope, don't work that way." Pete shook his head, Bella following suit. "You're one or the other."
"Then I'm neither!"
"I thought you were Licey."
"Oh, well, I thought I was just a stupid girl!"
"You said it, not me. Must be true then, stupid girl!"
Oh, the stories she could have made up about this piece of work! But Licey bit her lips and sat down instead. No one moved chairs this time. Don't give them the satisfaction, she thought, there'd be no point. They're just picking on the new girl. Ignoring the cold that tried to seep into her, she grabbed a roll. Licey muttered, "Please pass the butter."
"Need a knife?" Hat-Trick asked.
She snatched up her own cutlery in her fist and stared at the teenager. "No, thank you. I have one of my own, see?" Without looking down, Licey drove the knife into the soft roll and twisted. Maybe it was something in her eyes, but Hat-Trick looked away first. Marsha raised an eyebrow and elbowed him. He shooed her away and began to eat his own dinner.
Lorina came back with a new bowl of gravy, "Pardon me, Pete." She sat it down next to his ankle. "Bella, hop down." She pulled her down and arranged the growling child back into her seat. Bella fidgeted, but didn't rejoin Pete on the tabletop.
Matty Mouse clambered back into his seat too and shoveled food in his mouth between yawns.
Pete's blue eyes all but glowed as they ignored him. "Hey."
No one said a word. Only the hollow clatter of silverware answered him. They passed the food around the boy's legs.
"I'm talking to you, stupid girl."
Licey counted how many times she chewed her mouthful of roll and pretended the boy was invisible.
That was a bad move. But at that point she didn't know any better.
No one ever ignored Pete.
He hefted up the huge bowl of mashed potatoes, wrenching it from Slightly's hands. The other children froze. All eyes were glued to him now, all except for Licey's. She looked up and down again, bored. A mouthful of carrots perched half chewed in Matty's gaping mouth. Bella giggled into her plastic cup. Lorina shook her head, trying for authority and failing. Hat-Trick smirked. Marsha chewed on the end of her colorful ponytail. Licey took another bite of her roll.
Chew, swallow, another bite. Chew, chew.
Chew, chew, swallow.
Pete dumped the bowl of mashed potatoes on her head.
Thick globs slid past her ears and the smell of butter and starch filled her nose. Her short hair didn't hold the goop for long. Mashed potatoes plopped onto her shoulders, seeping through her tee-shirt sleeves. Flecks of it got stuck in her eyelashes. Licey blinked, clearing most of the mess out of her eyes, but she didn't wipe it away. She just kept eating.
Her body might have been still but her mind was cranked into a fury of images strung together into a snarl of electric thoughts. I've been quiet, she howled inside, I've kept my head down and I've not told any stories! This is worse, my stories slid out from under me. I didn't siphon them off and now they're going as crazy as these nut jobs! And this wild kid kneeling and grinning at me from the middle of the table just upended ten servings of warm mashed potatoes on top of my head. She took a breath. Hm, well at least it's warm. And it probably won't stain. I only had three shirts after all.
Around her, a flurry of things happened at once.
Another adult, dressed in an old house coat, carried in a tray of fried chicken. She took one look at Licey and promptly dropped it to the table with a shout. "Good grief, she's barely been here ten minutes!" She snapped.
Yep, Licey grumbled in her head, that's what I thought too. The lady fumbled for a napkin, her narrow face pale under her messy bun of hair. She was barely older than Marsha, but Licey figured she was probably Liza. Maybe I'll get to go to my room now so I can change? Surely the mashed potatoes dripping down my face don't count as not cleaning my plate.
Lorina hopped up and left again.
Hat-Trick doubled over laughing as Liza gave up fighting the ever shifting drifts of potatoes and moved on to trying to pull Pete from the table. Pete hopped from one end to the other, upending the gravy all over Slightly. The lima beans flew over Matty Mouse's cornrows and Marsha dodged as the first plate of chicken rolled past her. Bella heaved herself back on the table and ran shrieking after Pete, kicking whatever food he'd missed at the walls. Her blond hair streaked with ketchup.
Pete dodged Liza, slid his fingers through the gravy and painted lines over his cheeks and Bella's. He jumped again and started a whooping war dance across the defeated table cloth.
Licey ate her roll. She was so frozen at that point, she couldn't even wiggle as the potatoes slid down the small of her back to investigate the waistband of her jeans.
Slightly got caught up in Pete's stomping war shuffle and climbed to the table to follow the boy and tiny Bella. He grabbed handfuls of the thickening gravy from his blazer and smeared half his face brown. Pete high fived him, leapt from one side to the other, squishing carrots and peas in between his toes. He swung Bella around, tossing her up so high she looked like she was some sort of fluttering pixie. The cracks in the ceiling framed her back like huge dragonfly wings as she laughed and squealed.
Next they'll all fly out the window, Licey thought, almost jealous at the idea they could escape. The laughter and Liza's shrill demands set her teeth on edge.
A glob of mashed potatoes hit her bare foot and Licey jumped when a wet tongue licked it off. Pulling up the edge of the sad table cloth, Licey came nose to nose with the black dog she'd seen in the kitchen. She jumped when the dog licked her cheek. "Oh, hello there. At least you welcomed me in a normal way. Well, normal for a dog, I guess." The dog panted, almost like she was smiling as her curly tail thumped the scarred wood floor.
A deep voice, raspy like worn gravel, said, "Sumi, here."
The dog wiggled her dark behind and scooted out from under the table. Her petite feet and claws clicked as she sat down next to the man who'd been cooking. "Pii-ta! Bera! Get down. Now." His glare pinned Pete to the spot. Pete had one foot halfway in the air from throwing Bella. To Pete's credit, the boy caught her on the way down without even having to look.
"Look who it is now." Hat-Trick whispered. "Hukku-san saves the day yet again from young Pete's mischief. How's that sitting with you, Pete?"
"I'm standing." Pete muttered.
"On table." Hukku-san said. "Off table, now." The man strode forward, pulling a small towel from his sleeve and offering it to Licey.
"Thank you." Licey reached for the towel as Hukku-san reached for Pete with his other hand. The edge fluttered from her grasp as her eyes fell on the man's right hand. The towel hit the floor with a soft hiss. Instead of fingers grasping at Pete's shirt, a long set of silver hooks snapped closed over the edge of Pete's jacket. Licey gasped before she could help it. Hukku-san's right hand was gone. He had a claw instead.
Ideas burst in her like balloons too full of air. Where'd his hand go to? Is it in a hole somewhere or a jar? Did Hukku-san loose a fight with a hairy beast or a scaly creature? She imaged a maw closing, bright red in the blue water, tiny white wave caps like the points of teeth. Did some sort of dragon from his home country gnaw it off, or sever it with one bite? A dragon, yeah, it definitely had to be a dragon! Green with yellow eyes like a cat, long like a snake with claws like Hukku-san had now! How fantastic…dragon claws.
Hukku-san, however, mistook her gasp for horror and quickly pulled away, yanking Pete roughly from the table. With a sickening tear, Pete's jacket ripped and slid off his shoulder. The man's long hooks entangled in the strips, Pete found his footing and pulled away. Bella howled and kicked. Hukku-san caught her with his good hand before she tumbled from the table. "Liza! Take her." His rough voice demanded.
Pete glared, hatred burning in his blue eyes, "Oh, now you've done it." Growling, he slid out of the torn jacket and threw it on the floor with the small towel.
The maid hurried over and tucked Bella under one arm. "Hukku-san, should I get Mrs. Rouge?" The young woman fidgeted, nervous with her hands full of angry child.
"No." He took Pete by the arm, deep eyes narrowed. "I will take care of this." He pointed with the hooks, "Take girls to rooms. Boys with me." Slightly and Matty stood without a word and shuffled out, dripping vegetables as they went. Hukku-san didn't look at Hat-Trick, but the teen tipped his hat and followed.
"All right, I'm coming too, old man." Hat-Trick smirked as he walked by Licey. He tousled her hair, rubbing the mashed potatoes into her scalp. "See you later, Licey girl."
Pete smacked Hat's hand away and strained against Hukku-san's grip. Sumi growled. Pete ran his hand over her cheek, brushing a dribble away from her eyes. Licey fought not to throttle the boy, amazed her anger didn't set the chair on fire.
"Pii-ta, go." Hukku-san said. "No more trouble tonight."
"It's Pete, stupid-" he started.
The man's posture changed and Pete fled the room. With his back ramrod straight, Hukku-san looked again to Licey. "I'm very sorry to scare you."
She looked up at him with eyes almost as dark. "I'm not scared of you." Licey said. "Not at all. I've seen lots stranger than you."
"Nn." Hukku-san nodded at the girl and then followed the boys out without another word. Sumi panted and looked over her shoulder as she followed her master.
Liza handed Bella off to a scowling, colorful Marsha. "Give her a bath." Liza sighed. "I'll make sure this one gets taken care of." She patted Licey's shoulder, sighing. "Come on then."
Marsha huffed, hoisting the filthy Bella to her hip, "Don't bring her up to our room. We've already got that other girl coming in. We've only have three beds and it's not fair if she's not staying there, right Bella?"
The little girl nodded, pretty rounded face contorted like a goblin. "Shoo, go away, silly ass!"
"Bella! Oh, for heaven's sake," The maid threw up her hands, "Fine, I'll figure something out, just go and get Bella cleaned up." Under her breath she said, "And wash the pipsqueak's mouth out while you're at it."
"Only 'cause I want to go to town later." Marsha turned her nose up and plodded away, her tight jeans smeared with carrots.
"You can take that up with Mrs. Rouge. I just want to go home." Liza muttered, "Now then, you, let's see what we can do about this mess."
Licey stood, a puddle of potatoes at her feet. Embarrassment sunk deeper than the greasy butter. "I only have one pair of pants." She mumbled, not sure if she should brush the rest of the potatoes onto the floor or if that'd make more mess for someone to clean up later. She bent down and picked up Hukku-san's towel and Pete's torn jacket.
Liza's face softened. "Oh, don't worry, I'm sure we can find something for you to wear. My name's Liza. Let's get you settled somewhere." The maid stopped in the hallway and sighed. Shoulders slumping she asked, "This wouldn't happen to be your suitcase would it?"
Licey took a deep breath and nodded. Of course it'd be hers; she didn't even have to look. She could see the edge of her one nice shirt piled against the scuffed runner. Her cheeks burned as she caught sight of a pair of her underwear stretched over one side of the banister.
Lorina and Mrs. Rouge rounded the corner. "Mother you have to see this, you won't believe-"
"What on earth!" Mrs. Rouge shrieked when she saw the scattered contents of Licey's suitcase and then Licey herself. The woman stomped up two of the stairs, her hand jerking back when she saw the panties sagging down like a sail. She screeched up to the second floor, "All of you, off to your beds!"
A number of groans floated back down.
Licey wished she could sink through the floor. Down to the center of the earth and then further still.
"Oh, oh Licey. You poor thing." Lorina whispered, stooping to try and put the clothes back where they came from. "Y-you can stay with me. I have my own room and you can just stay with me. You don't deserve this!" She looked up at her mother, "That's okay, right Mom?"
Licey stepped forward, "No." She pushed Lorina's hands off her clothing and stuffed it all back into the suitcase, snapping the locks shut.
"I don't need your help." Just another meddler, she thought, bitter. "I don't want to stay with you either. I don't want to stay with any of them." She looked up at Mrs. Rouge. The woman had a strange, wistful look on her face. "Surely there's somewhere else I can go."
"No, child. There is nowhere else left for you." Mrs. Rouge whispered, "If you like, you may have the room in the cellar."
"Mother!" Lorina said.
"The cellar?" Licey nodded. "Yeah, that sounds good." Maybe I can't disappear, but underground is fine…better than a room where I'd be kicked to death in my sleep.
Liza sighed, "Guess I'm not going home yet then. That room hasn't been used in years."
"I'll take care of it." Licey said, clutching her suitcase. "I can clean." Just let me go, let me be alone, let me get clean and clean my own place, please, she prayed.
Without too much serious contesting, Mrs. Rouge and Liza led Licey to a tiny door off the side of the kitchen. "The door locks on its own. So once you're down there, you're down there until someone lets you out." Mrs. Rouge sniffed and looked up. "We can, yes, here we go…" She grabbed a long string attached to one of the ceiling lights. "You can knock or use this." she yanked and the bare bulb flickered on, "Hukku-san starts working in the kitchen around half past four in the morning, so should you need anything, he can let you out. There's a small toilet and tap down there as well, so you should be fine."
Licey let out a long, slow sigh and sealed her fate. "That's great."