Knaves over queens, p.47
Knaves Over Queens,
Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
Besides, her mother was watching. She could feel her eyes on her back. With her lungs burning from having held her breath too long, Kerry lurched forward, touching the woman’s back. For the briefest moment it felt warm and soft. Then it was cold, hardening before her eyes. The veil, the dress, the flowers, all turned to granite, taking on a new beauty of its own.
Her father tossed the sketchpad aside and rushed across the room to inspect the transformation. Kerry, fearing she was going to be sick, heading for the patio doors instead, needing the fresh evening air and to move away from her parents who were both heading for the new statue.
‘Oh my God,’ her father whispered.
‘It’s what she wanted,’ Mother said sternly, as if reminding him.
Kerry looked back at them, both touching the stone flowers of the crown, whispering to each other. She couldn’t see the woman’s face, obscured as it was by the thin layer of granite formed by the veil, only the hint of her cheekbones and the ridge of her nose. There was something so hauntingly beautiful about it and the way the delicate sweep of the granite dress described the curve of her hip.
She realized that she wasn’t looking at the statue as if it were a real person. Suddenly cold, Kerry pulled her sleeves down over her hands and wrapped her arms around herself, silently praying that Pygmalion was right.
Otherwise, she really was a monster.
The second statue was a man dressed like a Roman centurion complete with helm and spear. The third was another woman, painfully thin, dressed in a thick medieval gown and another veil. The fourth was a willowy, long-limbed woman who was dressed in a simple long white gown with angel wings on the back that her mother had made from real feathers and her hair brushed over her face like a strange sheet.
There was a gap of several months between them, long enough for the nightmares to subside between each one and the arguments to settle in the house. The first statue earned them enough money to pay off Uncle Cal’s most urgent debt repayment. By the time the payment came for the fourth, the farm was out of danger. Uncle Cal was his old self again and even cooked them a Sunday roast.
Kerry took down the old posters in her room to make way for a new corkboard. She pinned the postcards and notes she received from the statue people on it, just to remind herself every morning that she hadn’t done anything bad. Just like the kitten, Pygmalion had changed them back and asked them to write to her, reassuring the family that they were safe and well and very happy with their experience. He then forwarded on the mail. The postcard from the first lady showed Trafalgar Square and one of the huge stone lions. It was her favourite. She hadn’t received a note from the latest one, but she’d only been turned into stone a week before.
They never addressed the notes to her, but Kerry understood that both Pygmalion and her parents never mentioned her to the statue people by name. She’d learned from her mother that they didn’t even know where the studio was, having been brought there blindfolded as part of the agreement made with Pygmalion. They’d thought everything through, to keep her safe.
She wished she could write back to them though. Neither Pygmalion nor her parents agreed to it. She had so many questions. Did it hurt when they were changed back? Did they remember anything? Were they the same afterwards?
‘Mum,’ she said over dinner one evening, ‘if another person wants to be a statue, can we afford to buy a computer if we buy Plum’s statue back? Uncle Cal says his is broken.’
‘We don’t need one,’ she replied.
‘But I want to use the internet.’
‘Nothin’ on there for you,’ her father muttered.
‘But I could look things up. To teach myself. They’re always readin’ out website addresses at the end of TV shows. I’m missin’ out! I’m fifteen next week and it’s not fair!’
‘What’s not fair? Having a lovely home and a family who cares for you?’ Mum said, gathering up the plates. ‘Having an uncle who’s happy to teach you a livin’ and all the skills you need to—’
‘He said himself there’s no future in farmin’. And anyway, all I need to do to earn a livin’ is turn weirdos to stone. I bet Pygmalion has got a computer.’
‘What’s that got to do with anythin’?’ her father snorted.
‘I’m just sayin’ that—’
The phone rang and her mother answered it. ‘It’s Wetherby,’ she whispered with her hand over the mouthpiece after a brief conversation. ‘He wants to come over next week. Is there anything happening on Wednesday?’
As her father went to get the diary, Kerry left the table, angered by the way they kept trying to cocoon her. It was as if they didn’t want anything ever to change, expecting her to still be happy with the same things she had done when she was twelve. Wanting to drown out the sound of her parents’ voices, she put on the TV. With glee she realized she would actually catch the news, which was normally over by the time she was allowed to leave the table.
She’d missed the national news, so there was no chance of seeing Pygmalion or Captain Flint, but she kept it on anyway, just in case something really local came up in the regional segment.
There was something boring about some politician visiting Truro and she was about to change the channel when a picture of the lady she’d turned to stone the week before came onto the screen. ‘Detective Inspector Pat Trelawny of the Devon and Cornwall Police has announced that they are treating the disappearance of Melanie Barker as suspicious.’
‘Mum! Dad!’ Kerry called. ‘It’s the lady who came last week! She’s on the telly!’
They both ran in as the report continued. ‘Miss Barker, known to the authorities as a vulnerable person, was last seen sleeping rough in Penzance two weeks ago. If you have any information on her whereabouts, please call the information line displayed below.’
‘Quick, write it down!’ Kerry said, wishing for the millionth time that her parents would get one of those new clever TV boxes that meant you could pause live TV. When neither of them moved, she dashed over to the little table in the corner with one of the phone handsets on it, and the notepad that sat beside it. Just as she’d got a pencil ready, her mother turned the TV off.
‘Mum! We need to phone the police and tell them she’s in London, with Pygmalion.’
‘It wasn’t her.’
‘It was! She looked exactly the same!’
‘You never saw her face,’ Dad said quietly. ‘It was a different lady.’
‘It wasn’t her face, I noticed. It was her chin, it was really pointy, just like hers was.’ She pointed at the blank TV screen. ‘And her ear was the same. The left one had a tear where an earring must have been caught on something and split it. I remember wondering if the scar would come out in the granite and it didn’t and …’
It was as if someone had filled the room with ice and she shivered as she took in the expressions on her parents’ faces. Her father looked ashamed, unable to meet her eyes, while her mother looked panicked. ‘We have to tell her,’ he said.
‘It’s all just a misunderstandin’,’ her mother said. ‘They just looked alike, s’all. No need for any drama.’
‘I never liked it,’ Father muttered, shaking his head. ‘Never wanted to lie. Never wanted any of this!’
As his voice rose, Mother’s panicked expression mutated into one of anger. ‘Don’t you go makin’ out you’re some bloody victim in all this!’
‘Why wouldn’t you want to call the police about that lady?’ Kerry asked but her father wouldn’t even look at her. ‘Oh God,’ Kerry whispered as an answer occurred to her, staggering back until she bumped into the wall behind her.
Her mother turned to face her, trying to smooth out her features with a fake smile. ‘Now, Kerenza, there’s no need to get upset.’
‘Those people haven’t been changed back, have they? It was all a bloody lie!’ She clamped her hand over her mouth as her stomach heaved.
‘Kerry,’ her father began, but she ignored him, s
‘But … the kitten. I turned it to stone and you brought him back alive. It had to be Pygmalion. I remember it! I remember that kitten so well! His little white fur boots. How else could you have …?’
She looked at her father and took in the guilt on his face, the way he kept looking at her mother.
Kerry squeezed her eyes shut, unravelling the lies. ‘There were two kittens, weren’t there? That’s why you pointed out his boots! To make me think it was the same one! You never met Pygmalion at all! It was all … God, how could I have been so stupid! All those notes … you must have sent them all.’
It was so obvious! They’d made her think that Pygmalion was able to change them back when they had just really been sold as statues. That was why they wouldn’t let her on the internet! So she wouldn’t find anything about them being sold!
All of the nonsense about weird people who wanted to be statues and then changed back … it seemed so ridiculous now. She’d murdered them! That’s why she was never allowed to meet them beforehand and why she always had to creep up from behind. Otherwise the victims would have asked questions and the careful poses that her father had arranged would have been spoiled.
‘We needed the money!’ her father said. ‘And they were bad people, Kerry, people who did nothing good in the world.’
‘Did you even see Pygmalion?’ Kerry shouted at her mother. ‘Or was that all bullshit too?’
‘Don’t you use that language with me, young lady!’
‘What? You tricked me into murdering people and you’re upset about my bloody language? Answer the question!’
‘This is exactly what I told you would happen!’ her father shouted at her mother. ‘We should never have lied to her in the first place! We should have just lost the farm and made a new start!’
Then the tears came, violent in their assault, choking her throat as the full scale of her parents’ deception hit her. How they must have lured those people to their home, promising a payment in return for being an artist’s model, only to be murdered, turned into ‘art’ to be sold grotesquely as her father’s work.
Beneath it all was the deepest rage at herself and her stupidity. All those times she had doubted, all those times she’d felt it was wrong and she didn’t have the sense – no, the courage! – to stand up to her mother and say no.
She wiped her tears from her eyes, knowing she had to get away from them. She couldn’t live another moment with people who thought that deceiving their child into murdering innocent people was justified by needing the money.
Kerry bolted from the living room, the hallway seeming to stretch as she threw herself towards the front door. It was dark outside but she knew the way across to Uncle Cal’s so well she’d be able to find her way. There was enough time to form a route in her mind before a blinding pain at the back of her head snatched it all away and sent her tumbling into darkness.
It was dark when she woke up and she was lying on something hard with strange edges that were digging into her ribs. A terrible dull ache throbbed through her skull and when she put her fingertips to her hair there, she could feel a tender lump where there hadn’t been one before.
Her nose was blocked with mucus from the crying and her throat was scratchy and raw. She sat up and banged her head on a shelf, making something fall into her lap; an old plastic tennis bat from the set she’d played with as a small kid. She was in the cupboard under the stairs!
Kerry thought about the spiders she knew were in there. There was a light, somewhere, but then she remembered that the bulb had blown the week before. Hesitantly feeling her way, she made it to the door and pushed against it, only to find it wouldn’t open. There wasn’t a lock on it, not that she could recall anyway.
The realization that one of her parents had hit her, dragged her in there and barricaded the door dawned on her slowly, as if her thoughts were sticks being dragged through thick mud. She couldn’t quite believe it, even though there was no other explanation. How could they be normal one moment and then hurting her the next?
Had they ever really loved her?
They were scared of her and had been ever since Plum died. And she understood that. She was afraid herself, constantly terrified she would accidentally touch something and turn it to granite. And they’d never been able to soothe that fear with hugs or even just a squeeze of the hand. That was the hardest thing. She craved touch more than anything, and now she wondered if the lack of it had led to her parents forgetting they had once loved her. Because they couldn’t love her now, not really. This wasn’t something you could do to someone you loved.
At first all she could do was cry and shake violently. It wasn’t very heroic, not like in the countless TV shows she’d watched in which the hero immediately started fighting as soon as they realized they’d been captured. On the most basic level she couldn’t equate her parents to the villains, despite what they’d done.
What they’d made her do.
She had to fight the urge to be sick with long, deep breaths and her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She twitched at a tickling sensation on her leg, then realized that if a spider did start crawling on her, it would soon be turned to stone. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at that.
Kerry froze at the sound of a noise outside the door. A creak of the floorboard perhaps, or a chair?
‘Kerenza?’ It was her father’s voice, softly spoken through the tiny gap between the door and the frame. ‘Are you awake?’
At first she didn’t answer. There was nothing but rage and tears. Words seemed impossible.
‘I’m so sorry, my darlin’,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘I can hear you movin’ and you must be scared and hurtin’ and I should’ve … I should’ve stopped all of this happenin’. It’s my fault. I didn’t stand up to your mother when she suggested it. I was weak. I wanted to help Cal. And I wanted the farm to stay in the family, where it belongs. It was wrong, what we did.’
‘You made me kill people!’ she sobbed through the door. ‘I never would’ve done it if … if I wasn’t so stupid!’
‘Lyin’ to you were wrong, Kerry, it were wrong and I regret that, more than I can describe. But … those people being turned to stone, that’s not something I regret.’
‘What?’ She dragged her sleeve across her nose, shocked out of her tears.
‘I need to tell you about them, ’cos I think when you know what they were like, you’ll feel better. I’m not sayin’ the way we did this is right, not for a moment, but it’s not what you think. They weren’t innocent, good people, brought here and killed. They were awful, awful people, who did nothin’ but spread misery to everyone around them. That man I dressed as a Roman soldier? He beat his wife and kids. Put her in hospital and broke his son’s arm. The police told him to stay away but he kept harassin’ her. Terrorized them, he did. And that skinny woman we made into a medieval princess? She stole money from a charity. The first one, she got drunk and ran over a child but her daddy was so rich, he got a lawyer and she got off scot-free. And the one we made into an angel? She killed her baby. Drowned it in Penzance harbour when she was high on drugs.’
‘How do you know those things about them? Did Mum tell you? She could’ve made it all up to make you feel better.’
‘It was in the paper, love. On the internet. She read about them getting away with it. That man got off scot-free too. The woman takin’ from the charity got ten hours’ community service and she had her hand in the till at the shop she worked at an’ all. That woman who killed her baby was never even sent to court. They put her in an ’ospital for a while and she ran away and was livin’ rough on the street, stealin’, makin’ a nuisance of herself. None of those people did anythin’ good in the world, Kerry. So no, I don’t regret what happened to them, not one bit. Uncle Cal never harmed a soul in his life, works hard. A gentle man, you know that. And he was goin’ to
Kerry blew her nose into her jumper as she struggled to make it all fit in her head. ‘If it was such a good thing, why didn’t you tell me? Why did you trick me like that?’
‘That there is what I regret. Your mum and I didn’t think you was mature enough to see the good in it. We shouldn’t have tricked you, pickle, we should’ve told you the truth. And the kitten … that was low. I argued with your mother for days over that. But I can’t blame it all on her. We both done it.’
‘So I was right? About Pygmalion?’
A long sigh came through the gap. ‘You were. She never saw him. He don’t know about you or any of this. I don’t know how to say sorry about somethin’ this bad. I … I can see it from your point of view and I can understand how you feel, I really can. All I can say is don’t feel bad about those people. They were poisonous, makin’ everyone’s lives around them worse.’
‘Why did you hit me?’
‘Your mother panicked and threw that bookend at you, to make you stop. She didn’t mean to knock you out, she just wanted to stop you from runnin’ out in the dark in such a state. It’s not like we can just put ourselves in front of you, is it, eh?’
‘You locked me in here too!’
‘Because we didn’t know what you’d be like when you woke up, darlin’!’
‘You’re scared of me, aren’t you?’
A long pause. ‘Yes, my ’andsome, we are. And I hate to say that, but no more lies now. You can kill us so easily. And you were angry and upset – rightfully so! We wanted to have the chance to explain everythin’ safely. To talk it through with you, without havin’ to worry. Can you see that?’
It made sense. It always made sense, though, didn’t it? They’d been lying to her so long she didn’t know what to believe any more.
Knaves Over Queens by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes