The Waters and Wild of Winter Street by Jessi Cole Jackson
Welcome to 222 Winter Street, home to loving parents Matt and Geoffrey, and their two adopted daughters. Moira and Mystique Brighton-Briggs may identical be twins, but the girls couldn’t be more different. One is all softness and light, the other sharp corners and magic.
Yet despite their fights, and despite their differences, Matt, Geoffrey, Moira, and Mystique are family. And family stays together. No matter what the cost.
If only Geoffrey and Matt had known, way back when. If they’d tuned into the clues that one of their precious baby girls was something other, something more, than the average baby girl. They might have done things differently, had they known. But they didn’t know. They didn’t know in the slightest.
Geoffrey and Matt’s caseworker plopped two identical baby girls down on the gleaming hardwood floor of the foyer at 222 Winter Street. One slept sound and sweet, snug in her carrier. The other stared with black, unblinking eyes.
“The sleeping darling is Moira,” the caseworker said. “And this is Mystique.”
Matt rubbed his bearded chin and laughed his delighted laugh. “You’ve brought us a future geneticist and a morally complex comic book villain?”
Geoffrey rolled his eyes at his nerdy husband, who was practically bouncing with excitement.
The caseworker raised a thick eyebrow. “This is your first placement.”
The couple nodded, hands clasped together, smiles bright.
“Believe me, it could be worse.”
Geoffrey unzipped, unclipped, unhooked the sleeping Moira. He inhaled her baby scent, pressed his lips against her head of teeny brown curls. The couple had waited thirteen months for their first chance at parenthood, wading through mountains of applications, endless home visits, and a string of almost-placements.
Matt reached for Mystique, who wore a red onesie with black pitchforks dotting it.
“Her first foster mother’s idea of a joke,” the caseworker said, gesturing at Mystique’s outfit.
“Strange joke, eh?” Matt bounced Mystique in his arms, waggling his chin at the child.
The baby cooed, then yanked out several hairs from his beard.
He cursed, then looked worriedly at the caseworker.
The caseworker smiled her first real smile of the day, and headed back out into the cold November morning.
Mystique giggled and waved goodbye with a pudgy handful of her new father’s facial hair.
When the girls were ten months old, Matt and Geoffrey had the Emms over for dinner. Over chicken piccata and steamed vegetables, Emmaline and Emmett moaned about how their daughter, Betsy, ran them ragged. Emmaline whined about Mommy & Me yoga, while Matt cut the twins’ chicken into tiny bites.
“Honey, you’re not supposed to cut up the chicken,” Geoffrey said as Emmaline ranted about story time at the local independent bookstore.
Matt threw his husband a look. “I’m afraid they’ll choke,” he whispered.
Emmett went off on the cost of backyard play sets.
“They won’t, that’s the whole point of this baby-led weaning stuff. Remember? You’re the one who wanted to do this in the first place,” Geoffrey hissed. The Emms shared a look as Matt pushed the tiny bits of chicken and veggies to Moira and Mystique.
Betsy squeezed her organic pouch of spinach, apple and rutabaga puree straight onto the dining table, smearing it into the grain of the oak, squishing and slapping the mush under her chubby hand.
Moira watched, fascinated with the destruction.
Emmett held up his chardonnay in a toast. “Can’t wait till they’re self-sufficient and mobile, eh?”
Matt wanted to say that wishing away sixteen years of his daughters’ lives was not something he was quite ready to do despite the difficulties of parenting twins, but Emmett was Geoffrey’s boss, so he held up his glass with the others.
Emmaline drank deep. “Little Betsy Boop is crawling now, can you imagine?”
Geoffrey, who loved bragging about their girls, wasn’t about to be one-upped by Emmaline. “Our Moira is crawling too.”
Moira grabbed an overcooked carrot from her plate and squished it into her soft brown cheek. She giggled.
Betsy giggled with her, smashing her own cheek with overpriced puree.
“Is the other one not up and about then?” Emmett asked, looking down his nose at the bottom of his empty glass. “What was her name again?”
Matt refilled Emmett’s wine. “Her name is Mystique.”
Emmaline laughed at inhuman decibels. “Right. Mystique. It’s easy to remember, darling: they’re superhero themed.”
“How do you tell them apart?” Emmett asked. “They look exactly the same to me.”
Matt ground his teeth before answering the all-too-familiar question. “They’re very different,” he said. His pride, emboldened by wine, took hold. “For instance, Moira is crawling, while Mystique is walking.”
Geoffrey kicked Matt under the table.
Emmaline peered at Moira with genuine surprise. “Aw, she’s taken her first steps?”
Matt tucked his feet under his chair, out of his husband’s reach. “No, she’s walking.”
“While holding the furniture, surely,” Emmett said, looking between the two men and Moira.
Mystique, unnoticed, had slipped free from her chair and was pulling on the straps that held Betsy in her highchair. She froze as the adults talked about her, checked no one was looking, and unclipped one. Betsy tilted forward.
Emmett sniffed. “That seems extremely advanced. I thought children in the foster care system generally had deficiencies. Disabilities. You know.”
Geoffrey clutched his fork and knife while Matt poured himself more wine. A lot more wine.
“All that damage during development, you know.” Emmeline added.
“Mystique’s talking!” Geoffrey blurted out.
Matt gaped at his husband. They had agreed not to tell anyone but the caseworker about Mystique’s unusual advancements.
Moira gurgled and clapped, squishing a piece of zucchini between her hands.
“Surely not,” Emmett said.
“Surely so.” Mystique carefully pronounced each word.
All four adult heads whipped around to see the small, solemn child standing, unassisted, by Betsy’s highchair.
Moira, never one to be left out of a conversation, squealed and replied to her sister in typical ten-month-old gurgles and giggles.
“A new word! She’s never said ‘surely’ before.” Matt left the table to put a star sticker on the chart in the kitchen. When he came back he bent and kissed her cheek. “I’m so proud of you, honey!”
Mystique scowled and pushed Betsy out of her highchair.
On the first day of kindergarten, Geoffrey walked his daughters up to their classroom and introduced them to their teacher. “I’m Miss Baumgardner, but you two can call me Miss B. I’m sure we’re going to be great friends.”
“Teachers are not friends,” Mystique said. Despite never having had a teacher before, she knew this much. “And my name is Ms. Mystique Nessie Brighton-Briggs.”
Miss B smiled and blinked. “May I call you Mystique? Most of the children go by their first names.”
Mystique assessed Miss B. “You may.”
She pointed to her sister. “This is Moira Tiana Brighton-Briggs, and she probably won’t speak to you for at least two-point-five-four hours. She’s shy.”
Moira, whose face was buried in Geoffrey’s hip, did not refute her sister.
Miss B blinked at Geoffrey. “Your daughters have quite unusual names, Mr. Brighton-Briggs.”
“Ah, it’s just Briggs, actually. Geoffrey Briggs. My husband is the Brighton. Matthew Brighton. I’m sure you’ll meet him soon.”
“We chose our middle names,” Moira said from behind Geoffrey’s leg, two-point-four-nine hours ahead of schedule. Her voice was proud and defiant. She wrinkled her nose at Mystique.
“How unusual,” Miss B said.
Mystique spoke slowly, as if speaking to a small child. “When our adoption was finalized our fathers announced that we could choose our middle names. Since our birth mother gave us our first names, and they were giving us their last names, you know.”
“Tiana’s a princess!”
“Some of us are very into Disney,” Geoffrey said with a wink.
Miss B flushed and smiled at Moira. “Tiana’s a lovely choice. And who is Nessie?”
“The diminutive form of Ness.” Mystique sighed. “As in Loch Ness, the water monster just outside of Inverness.”
Miss B blinked. She did rather a lot of blinking when she wasn’t smiling.
“I’m not certain if she’s real, my fathers haven’t taken me to Scotland yet to meet her. They also wouldn’t let me use her full name, but made me go with Nessie. The fae believe names have power, you know.” Mystique cocked her head, thought for a moment, then spun in a circle, withershins. “I shouldn’t have told you our full names. That was a very foolish, elementary mistake.”
Geoffrey smoothed back Mystique’s curls. “It’s on your school entrance forms anyway. Along with your date of birth, and our address—”
“222 Winter Street!” Moira peeked out of her hands. She’d just recently learned her address, and was very proud to know it.
“Well done, honey,” Geoffrey said.
“What is a fae?” Miss B asked.
“Fairies!” Moira said. She dropped her hands and beamed. She knew so much today, and she hadn’t even officially begun kindergarten yet.
“Ah, fairies,” Miss B said, her happy face back again. “I love fairies! I believe I have some books on Tinkerbell. Let’s go look, shall we?” She took the girls’ hands and led them to a reading area full of plump, colorful pillows and low, easy-to-reach bookshelves.
Several hours later, Geoffrey swung by the classroom to pick up the girls. He was a wee bit early, but he hoped Miss B wouldn’t mind. He’d been filling out job applications all morning and wanted to gauge his own eyes out. Also, he missed his princesses.
When he walked into the classroom, he froze. Twenty kids and at least three adults were on the floor, folded into child’s pose. Geoffrey knew for certain they weren’t practicing yoga. This was bowing, and the focal point of their adoration was Mystique, perched on the edge of an overstuffed chair in the reading area.
Moira ran between the bent people, tapping their backs and yelling, “Duck! Duck! Duck! Duck!” and then finally, “Goose!” She screeched and ran away from an imaginary foe, but her goose stayed immobile on the floor.
Geoffrey snapped his fingers. “Mystique! Get over here, now.”
“Oops.” Mystique scooted off the chair.
Moira continued her pretend duck-duck-goose, as Mystique tip-toed through the people. Geoffrey heard her tiny sandal heel crunch on a kid’s pinkie, but the boy didn’t even flinch.
She tied a small knot in the boy’s red hair. “You won’t remember what happened,” she whispered in his ear.
“What are these people doing?” Geoffrey asked when she had finally reached his side.
“Praying to Allah?” she tried.
It was the wrong choice.
Geoffrey turned redder. “Mecca is that way,” he said, pointing behind him, towards the northeast. “And we do not appropriate other cultures religious beliefs to use as our excuses!”
“Yes, father,” she said. She struggled to look contrite.
“You are not a god,” Geoffrey said, “You are a five-year-old. And today was your first day of school! This is not what we do to our new friends and teachers on our first day of school.”
Mystique glowered. Looking contrite was too hard. “They aren’t my friends! They’re mean. Someone said something mean about Moira’s hair being poofy, and everyone laughed. Even Moira! She didn’t even know they were being mean to her. And then someone else called you and Dad a really inappropriate word that you would wash my mouth out with soap if I used. Also, they’re not all teachers.” She pointed to the backside of one of the adults. “That’s Jenna’s mom.”
“Mystique!” Geoffrey exclaimed, unsure whether to punish his daughter or to hug her for so fiercely defending her family. His eyes grew a bit wet, but he kept his frown firmly in place.
She snapped her small fingers and the people slowly woke up from their stupor. Stewart, the red-head whose finger Mystique had crushed, started bawling.
When Mystique and Moira were thirteen, they attended their first dance.
Mystique wore a sleek black minidress, which showed off every new curve the young teen possessed, and far too much bare leg. She wore her short hair unadorned, but her ears were threaded with long spikes, which drew attention to her long neck. She tottered gracefully on four-inch heels.
Geoffrey squeaked when he saw her descend the stairs, but Matt elbowed him into silence.
“You look beautiful, darling,” Matt said.
“Mmhmm,” Geoffrey said. “Very… mature.”
Mystique quirked plum-stained lips.
Moira flounced down the stairs behind her sister.
The two girls, who were both inseparable and identical through their early childhoods, could not be, or look, more different now.
“That’s how a thirteen-year-old girl should be dressing,” Geoffrey said, unable to stop himself.
Moira wore a poofy yellow dress with white fabric daisies sprinkled across the bodice. A simple pink headband pushed her a halo of brown curls away from her adorable face. On her feet she wore short, sparkly heels, and her lips were thickly coated in glitter gloss. But it was more than just her style that differentiated her from her sister. Where Mystique was long and lean and somewhat spiked, Moira was petite and curved, all softness.
Geoffrey pulled Moira in for a hug. “You look darling, darling.”
“You’re both lovely,” Matt said throwing a look at Geoffrey. He hugged Mystique, who did not return the embrace.
“Tomas isn’t here?” Moira looked around her family and into the living room.
Mystique cocked her head and looked at her bare wrist. “He’s late. Come with me instead.” She wasn’t wearing a watch.
“Dad’s walking you over.”
“So, I’m Tomas’s girlfriend and I’m going with Tomas. Besides, it’s totally stupid to show up at a school dance with your parents. On foot.”
Matt made a goofy face. “Parents who walk are totally banal.”
Mystique rolled her eyes. There had been much eye-rolling in the house since the twins hit middle school. “You know Tomas can’t drive, right?” she said, “He’s thirteen. So his parents will be dropping you off four blocks away.”
“He’s fourteen and that’s different.”
“I also fell for an older man,” Geoffrey said to Matt with a wink.
Both girls grimaced.
The doorbell rang and Moira shrieked. “I want to make a grand entrance!” she called over her shoulder while clomping back up the stairs.
Mystique opened the door.
Tomas walked in, mouth wide open. “Uh, hi,” he said, clearly ogling Mystique.
Matt came up behind Mystique and gently placed a pashmina over her shoulders. It was plum and matched her lipstick perfectly. It did nothing to detract the teenage boy’s stare.
“Moira’s upstairs,” Mystique said, taking the wrap from Matt.
“Hi Tomas!” Moira called from the top of the stairs. She waved enthusiastically, practically bending in half over the banister.
Tomas didn’t turn. Moira took two thudding steps down.
Mystique pulled the pashmina tighter around her shoulders. She turned away from Tomas, so her back was to him, but it did nothing to deter his stare.
“Tommy?” Moira tromped down a couple more stairs. Tomas still didn’t turn to face his date. He barely moved or breathed.
“Hello?!” Moira’s voice was rising. She ran down the rest of the stairs and shook Tomas’s shoulders.
He blinked, turned to her, and smiled. “Oh, hey Ra.” He kissed her on the cheek, and held out a plastic box with a wilted yellow carnation wrist corsage.
Matt and Geoffrey exchanged a look, while Moira gushed and ripped the flowers free.
Mystique tied the end of the pashmina into a complicated knot and moved to stand closer to her fathers.
And then, there were pictures. Many pictures. First, of Tomas and Moira. On the stairs, then in the living room on the worn leather couch. Since there was still some light left in the early fall sky, there were shots outback in the garden. In the picture under the arch, Tomas got brave and wrapped his arm around Moira.
And then the process was repeated, but with Moira and Mystique standing stiffly beside one another.
When Tomas casually brought up taking a few shots of the three of them, Mystique made an excuse to use bathroom. When she finally came back out of the house, her lips were bare of any color, her earrings were gone, and she had on simple black flats.
Soon after, Matt walked Mystique over to the school. They left ten minutes after Tomas, Moira, and Tomas’ mom so that they would not all arrive at the same time and be totally uncool.
“Do you want to talk about what happened, little witchy?” he asked.
“Not really,” she said and Matt didn’t press, respecting his daughter’s privacy.
Three hours later, as Matt was walking back to the school to collect Mystique, he met her and Moira walking home. Moira’s once-poofy yellow dress hung limp, stained and dripping with something pink.
Matt jogged the last few steps to the girls. “What’s happened?”
“Let’s just go home,” Mystique said. The individual fringe of her pashmina was all tied into tiny, intricate knots. “She’s hysterical. She won’t be able to speak properly for approximately seventeen minutes and those people are staring at us out their window.”
She pointed to a nearby house, where a curtain was indeed pushed aside.
“Moira?” Matt asked.
A fat tear rolled down Moira’s cheek. Mystique cleared her throat and looked pointedly at her father.
“Okay, let’s go.” Matt fell into step beside Moira as Mystique led them home.
When they finally reached the house, Geoffrey dropped the tupperware he was washing in alarm at his daughters’ distress. “What happened?!” he asked.
No one spoke. Moira fumed silently, tears streaming down her face, while Mystique looked away, inspecting a minuscule chip in the paint of the foyer’s wall.
Geoffrey looked at Matt. “Well?!”
Matt shrugged. “No idea. They were like this when I found them. Halfway home.”
Mystique looked at her wrist. “It’s been sixteen minutes and twenty-four seconds. She should blow soon.”
Moira clenched her fists, vibrating with rage. Her dress dripped tiny pink puddles on the foyer’s floor. She pointed one perfect nail at Mystique.
“She dumped punch on me.”
Mystique’s voice was even and calm. “I absolutely did not.”
Moira started screaming. “She dumped punch on me! She did! Don’t believe that she didn’t! You know what she does! She got jealous of me and Tomas, and so she tranced him or whatever she does and made him pick up the entire bowl of punch and then she made him dump it on me! I hate her! I hate her!”
Geoffrey pulled Moira close, crumpling her wet dress further. “Oh honey.” He kissed the top of her head, brushed sticky curls out of her face. He wiped away smudged mascara. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m sure it was an accident. Don’t say that. It’s okay. Of course you don’t hate your sister.”
“Mystique?” Matt said. He wanted to go to her, to hold her, but he could tell by the way she stood—back ramrod straight, fists clenched so tight they turned almost white—his affections would not be tolerated, let alone welcomed.
“You believe her?” Mystique’s voice cracked.
Everyone turned and stared at her. Moira’s mouth fell open. They’d never heard Mystique’s voice crack. Mystique’s voice was thick and dark and smooth as honey. It did not waver, let alone break.
“Let’s move into the living room. We’ll all sit down,” Matt said and they all went to sit.
Geoffrey fetched a towel for Moira, who refused to go and change because she didn’t want to “miss the lies of her sister.”
Matt gestured to Mystique. “Honey, if you have another version of the story, we would like to hear it.”
Mystique crossed her ankles. “You and Dad might, but she doesn’t,” Mystique said. She threw a glance at Moira, who stared daggers at her.
“She does. Of course she does. We all just want the truth.” Geoffrey rubbed Moira’s back.
Mystique bit her lip, looking young and fragile for the first time that evening. “I wasn’t trying to get Tomas to pour punch on her,” Mystique said. “If I wanted to pour punch on her, I’d just do it myself. I was trying to get him to pour it on himself. She interfered.”
“Sure, that’s what she says now,” Moira said, but the family knew Mystique didn’t lie. Mystique skirted the truth, she avoided the conversation, she changed the topic, but she did not tell lies.
“Why would you want Tomas to throw punch on himself?” Matt asked.
Mystique looked at her sister. “I don’t want to say.”
“WELL YOU HAVE TO SAY,” Moira screamed. “YOU HAVE TO.”
Geoffrey agreed. “I think we should know why you would attack this boy, Mystique.”
Mystique ground her teeth, but set her shoulders in resolve. “I wanted him to pour punch on himself because when Moira went to bathroom, he came over to dance with me. At first I didn’t think it was much of a big deal, but he…” Mystique faltered, but carried on. “He ground his hips into my butt, and…”
“Stop. It’s okay.” Matt pulled Mystique across the couch and into a hug that was more for him, than for her. Moira was crying against Geoffrey’s chest on the loveseat and Mystique sat there in Matt’s arms, stiff and stuttering.
Finally Mystique said, “I’m sorry, Moira. I never meant to ruin your pretty dress.”
Moira pulled away from Geoffrey, stood, and slapped Mystique. “Did you mean to ruin my life? Because you have!”
“We do not hit!” Matt said, at the same time Geoffrey said, “Moira!”
But she was already clomping up the stairs and into their room. The door slammed and they all flinched.
Mystique followed her sister up the stairs and sat down with her back against the door to their room.
“I really am sorry, Moira,” she said. “You looked so nice tonight. And you were having so much fun. You’re a really good dancer. And I know you really like Tomas. I swear I didn’t want….”
Moira swung open the door, but Mystique remained sitting straight.
“You wore that dress. You wanted him to like you more.”
Mystique looked down at her dress. It was small and tight and very different than what the other girls had worn to the dance. But she liked how she looked in it. It had made her feel powerful and grown up when she’d tried it on. She hadn’t chosen it to catch the eye of some smelly eighth grader.
She stood up.
“You’re better than him,” Mystique said. “You deserve better than him.”
Moira was quiet for a long moment and then her lower lip began to quiver once again. “I deserve better than you,” she said quietly and shut the door. The lock slid into place with a soft snick.
Mystique thudded down the stairs. “Guess I’ll sleep on the pullout in the basement tonight,” she said to her dads, who were still sitting together on the couch.
“Honey, you know she doesn’t mean it,” Matt said.
“Doesn’t she?” Mystique asked.
Unlike his sharp, stoic daughter, Matt sometimes lied. “Of course not.”
Geoffrey reached for his husband’s hand and squeezed. Without speaking, he knew they both hoped that would be true, in time, and their two girls would find their way back to one another once they were passed the difficult social, hormonal, and emotional trials of junior high.
If only they’d known.
On the twins’ eighteenth birthday there was cake and a special dinner, just for the family.
A party had been discussed, but Mystique refused to participate, stating that in four months she would graduate and never see any of her schoolmates again, so why bother fraternizing with them now.
Moira sulked. She quite enjoyed fraternizing.
So, Matt and Geoffrey made the most fantastic dinner instead. Sugar snap pea and mushroom stir-fry for Moira and the finest steak, barely seared, for Mystique. Both girls had requested carrot cake for dessert.
But before they could even cut into the cake topped with miniature fondant carrots, there was a knock at the door.
Mystique looked at her wrist. “8:02,” she said, “perfectly on time.”
“What are you talking about?” Moira said, “And will you stop looking at your wrist to tell the time?! Everyone knows you don’t wear a watch. You’re just some freak who counts every second of every day because you have nothing better to do.”
“Moira,” Geoffrey said, a warning note in his voice.
Matt stood to open the door, but before he could even set his linen napkin next to his plate, the door unlocked itself, creaked open and admitted a creature.
At least six feet tall with skin the deep midnight blue of a late winter sky, she stood in the foyer as if she owned the house. Her sharp bones and strange seaweed hair made her beauty monstrous and when she walked toward them, she clip-clopped on the wood floor, as if her long skirt hid hooves instead of feet.
Something about her seemed strangely familiar.
The family wasn’t frightened, though something niggled at them that said they ought to be.
“Hello, mother,” Mystique said and sliced through the cream cheese frosting, crusted with nuts. “Would you like a piece of birthday cake? Geoffrey made it.”
“Is it made from his flesh?” the creature hissed.
Mystique shook her head. “It’s carrot, but you don’t taste the vegetables. They just make the cake moist.”
Geoffrey, Matt, and Moira stared back and forth between Mystique and the creature.
“That is not our mother,” Moira said.
Mystique plated a slice of cake and tried to pass it to Matt. He failed to reach for it, so she placed it gently in front of Geoffrey with a shrug. “You’re right, Moira. She’s not our mother at all. She is my mother. And she’s here to collect me. Which is a matter needing discussion. Have a seat, mother. You really ought to have some cake. Matt, would you get a chair?”
When Matt didn’t move, the creature snapped her fingers. He jumped and went into the basement to fetch the extra dining chair, which he squeezed next to Mystique’s at the table. As he gathered another set of silverware and wrapped them in a coral napkin, Mystique cut another slice of cake and set it in front of the new place setting.
“Sit now, mother. They won’t bite.”
“But I might.”
Moira, who had watched Matt gather the chair and silverware and napkin with wide, dark eyes, finally lost it. “What are you talking about?! We can’t have different mothers. We’re twins, hello?!”
Mystique cocked her head and looked at Moira. “Are we?” she asked, and her voice was neither particularly curious nor especially pointed.
Identical in their early years, the two girls now barely registered as siblings, let alone twins. As they’d grown up and grown apart, they’d become less and less like the other.
Mystique shifted into all sharp edges—prominent cheekbones, thin lips, narrow brow. Moira was soft. Her lips were full, her nose and cheeks round.
The differences that were noticeable at thirteen were now striking, five years later. Where Mystique had defined muscular arms and square shoulders, Moira was all gentle curves.
Even their skin tones had departed. Moira was warm browns with sunshine and roses glowing beneath. Mystique’s complexion had become deeper and cooler, with an almost blueish tone. Almost, they thought, like the creature whom she called mother. Only the girls’ eyes were alike—both as dark as the deepest corner of a shadow.
The creature sneered at Mystique. “You didn’t maintain your glamour well,” she said. “When you were younger, you did much better.”
Mystique shrugged, cutting the air with her sharp shoulders. “She stopped spending time with me over the years and it became harder. I wasn’t always a very good human.”
Matt squeaked. “Human?”
Moira snorted. “You aren’t a very good sister, that’s for sure.”
The creature waved a hand. Her nails were long and pointed on the ends. “Thank you, human men, for raising my issue along with your child.” She took Mystique’s arm, pulling the girl out of her seat. “Let’s go, daughter.”
“Mother, please sit,” Mystique said, wiggling out of the creature’s grasp and back into her chair. She took a bite of cake. “We have things to discuss about my departure. I would like to make a deal. And besides, the cake’s delicious. Not worth missing.”
The creature perched on the edge of the chair, her skirts almost hiding the way her knees bent backward. At the mention of a deal, her face alighted with mischief. She liked deals. She could almost always twist them in her favor.
“A bargain?” she asked and steepled her long fingers.
“I would like four years and four months more amongst the humans,” Mystique said. One must always remember to be specific when making deals. She did not elaborate. She did not explain that the time would allow her to graduate high school and attend college. Her mother could use that kind of extraneous information against Mystique. So bare bones only. “Four years and four months.”
“Four years and four months is a significant amount of time. It demands a steep price.” The creature’s smile revealed sharp, algae covered teeth. “And do they want you, now that they know what you are?”
“We’ve always known what she is,” Matt interjected, his chest puffed out and proud. “Since the moment she came to us, she’s been our daughter.”
The creature surveyed the family. Moira mostly gaped, her shiny glossed lips a small, round “o.” Matt fumed, his cheeks flaming red, and Geoffrey fidgeted with his butter knife, grasping and ungrasping it.
“Your daughter?” Her laughter sounded like rusted nails dragged across glass. Moira covered her ears. “They are so ignorant. You have done well, after all.” The creature clapped long, scaled hands.”As a gift, I will give you the four months for your long years of deception. So you may finish high school, I suppose.”
Mystique’s face remained mostly blank. Only Matt recognized the small curl at the corner of her mouth, that meant his daughter was ecstatic. She leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. “And the remaining four years?”
“Let us be sure they want you, shall we?”
The creature stood and paced. She paused behind Moira, leaning over her to talk, as though sharing a secret, and breathed down the neck of the teen’s sparkly dress. “We can make it a game. For every correct answer, I’ll give you a year. But don’t lie, humans. I know your lies. And lies are punished.” She bit off the last words, savoring their flavor. “You, girl, what do you think she may be?”
Moira shivered at the creature’s attention. “I don’t know,” she said.
The creature breathed in Moira’s ear. “Moira Tiana Brighton-Briggs, I demand a guess.”
Moira shivered again, more violently this time. She looked at her plate, full of her favorite food, untouched. She looked at her sister, cold and hard across the table. She looked at her fathers—Geoffrey with his worried brow, Matt hot with rage.
“Tell me,” the creature hissed.
“She’s a freak!” Moira burst out in panic, tears sliding down her face. “That’s all I know!”
Mystique ate a bite of carrot cake, keeping her back straight and her face neutral. Moira wasn’t even going to try, and Mystique nearly felt the extra years in the human world being pulled away from her.
“But… she’s also my twin sister.” Moira sobbed uncertainly.
The creature cackled. “You still call her sister. Look at her. Does she look like you? Or perhaps, doesn’t she look a bit more like me.”
Mystique slumped a bit in her chair, her usual sharp edged confidence whittled away, so that her uncertainty began to peak out.
The witch continued gleefully, “She is not, nor never was, your sister. Not truly. More like, your shadow. An excellent mimic. Or at least, she had been.” The creature considered, smiling her terrible smile, regarding the family. “She guessed wrong, but she believed her answers with all of her heart. For your successful deceits, I’ll give you two years, daughter mine. Another gift. You are neither freak, nor a human girl’s sister.”
Mystique sat a little straighter, a small smirk playing at the corner of her lips. At least she got what she wanted.
She looked at Moira, sobbing uncontrollably over her untouched birthday meal.
Well, Mystique was sort of getting what she wanted.
“And Matthew Moore Brighton, do you have a guess?” the creature asked with a tilt of her head.
“She’s my daughter.”
The creature slammed her fist on the table. Stemware clattered and shook. “She’s MY daughter!”
But Matt had never been one to back down from temper tantrums. He responded in a voice that was low and sure. “I raised her,” he said, “I don’t know who bore her. Possibly you. Possibly the poor addict whose name is on her original birth certificate. But as far as the courts go, she’s legally been my daughter since she was two years old. And as far as my heart goes, she’s been my daughter since I met her when she was four months old. And she will always be my daughter.”
The creature laughed. “As if a piece of paper from a human court means anything to me. As if the hearts of men can sway me.”
She paced around the room more. Looping, looping, always clockwise.
She turned to Geoffrey. “Alright red-faced man. Enough guessing. If she’s yours, surely you’d be willing to make a deal?”
Mystique sat forward. “No,” she said, “I make my own deals. For the last two years, I will give you–.”
“Nothing.” Geoffrey stood on shaky legs, clutching his butter knife.
Geoffrey was not the brave one of the couple, but Geoffrey was stubborn. And when Geoffrey put his foot down, it was down. There was no wheedling for more allowance or pushing back a bedtime if Geoffrey’s mind had been made.
Mystique and Moira and Matt all knew this.
The creature did not.
“There are no deals and no games,” he pronounced. He pointed his butter knife at the creature. “Whatever you are, you’re not welcome in my house. Get out. Now.”
The creature cocked her head, the seaweed-like tendrils of hair falling over her shoulder. “She doesn’t love you, you know. If that’s what you hope. She’s not capable of love like humans expect it. She’s another kind entirely. She came to learn your human ways, so she can blend into your world, to better hunt. In two years and four months, she and I will feast upon you, then I will take her home.”
Geoffrey looked at Mystique, and then at his Moira.
Matt reached over and took Geoffrey’s free hand.
“Mystique loves us,” Geoffrey said. He continued while the creature paced, looking at his daughter, “but even if she didn’t, we didn’t sign up for parenthood so that we could be loved. We signed up because we had love to give. And Mystique has my love, whether she returns it now or ever. She has had my love from the first moment she was plopped in her carrier and her fathomless black eyes took in my heart. She will have it when she leaves my house, whenever that may be. But as I understand it, she has no wish to leave tonight. And there are no deals for her freedom.” Geoffrey moved in front of the creature, blocking her path. He pointed to the door with his butter knife. “Now, get out of my house.”
The creature cackled wildly, long and loud. When she finally stopped laughing, she wiped away the black sludge that fell from her eyes. “Alright, brave little man, I will leave my daughter in your human realm for four more years—”
“—And four months,” Mystique interrupted.
The creature inclined her head, “Four years and four months. But we did make a deal, brave Geoffrey. You entertained me, and you’ve earned the final two years for my amusement.”
As soon as the creature left, her click-clacking hooves fading down the front sidewalk, Moira was on her sister. Hugging her, and kissing her cheeks, sobbing and exclaiming silly words of love and friendship and devotion. And then their fathers joined them, and they hugged all together, all circled round the dark, sharp girl who sat still and motionless in her chair.
Until she reached out one arm and hugged Moira closer. She reached with another and took Geoffrey’s hand. And she ducked forward, until her forehead connected with Matt’s lips.
“She was wrong,” Mystique whispered. “I am capable of human emotions. I know I am, because I love you. I love you.”
And they knew it was true, because Mystique didn’t lie.
And when they were done hugging, and crying, and laughing, they ate cake.
If only Geoffrey and Matt had known, way back when. If they’d tuned into the clues that one of their precious baby girls was something other, something more, than the average baby girl. They might have done more to protect her or more to include her. They might have snuggled her more despite her protests, and teased her more mercilessly, or insisted she attend prom, or try out for softball, or join the Girl Scouts.
But when two little girls were plopped on their foyer floor seventeen years earlier, Matt and Geoffrey hadn’t noticed that they were anything less than identical. Or anything less than perfect.
Perhaps they would have done more.
But what more could they have done, than love their two perfectly imperfect daughters with their whole, human hearts?
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