The Audacity Gambit: Chapter 2

The house had a heavy, after-midnight quiet, even though it was barely past eleven. Emily checked the kids again, but they were sprawled in the deep sleep only small children can achieve. Returning to her seat on the couch, Emily sat, an unread book in hand. She’d already been sitting there an hour or more, still processing everything Becky had told her. It was patently ridiculous information, wish fulfilment, but Emily couldn’t figure out a motive for such an elaborate lie. She’d never been so anxious for the kids’ parents to get home; they could give independent confirmation to everything Becky had said—or a denial.

A soft step on the porch outside alerted Emily. The homeowners found her standing in the middle of the raised living room, practically wringing her hands.

“I’m gonna guess Becky had a talk with you.” Terracotta brown and balding, with the easy carriage of someone who fixes things for a living, Mr. Terrin was an ultimately soothing presence. His wife gave Emily a smile and went to peek in at the children.

“So, it’s really for real? Oh, the kids were great, by the way; they’re all so much better behaved when they’ve got company. It helps that you guys use that sparkly gel toothpaste. Everybody really thinks that’s awesome.” Emily fiddled with the wiry ends of her braid and looked at Mr. Terrin from the corner of her eye, trying to place someone so terribly mortal in the sphere of the Sidhe. His wife slipped in from the hall, resting her hand on his arm.

“Thank you so much for watching them, Emily.” She held out folded bills, smiling. “There’s something extra in there, since I know you had quite an evening.”

Emily took the money, brow furrowing. Mrs. Terrin suddenly enveloped her in a hug, pinning Emily’s arms.

“Oh kiddo, you can’t even realise how grateful we are. You’ve been such a boon.” She gripped Emily’s shoulders and held her at arm’s length, bending her head down to meet her eyes. “It’s a lot to take in at once, I know. It’s late, you’re tired, and that makes it all the more unreal. I know this gambit is a cliché” —she gave Emily a slight shake— “but you’re our cliché.”

A pat on the shoulder from Mr. Terrin and another crushing hug from his wife found Emily outside in the warm summer night. It was real.

On the porch of her aunt’s trailer, Emily fell into a hammock and lit one last cigarette. Her throat would be sore the next day as a consequence of seeking comfort and subconsciously matching Becky’s pack-a-day habit, but she liked the time for reflection. Behind her, the trailer lay dark, her aunt probably asleep for hours.

Eighteen was an age that looked super exciting until it happened and you realised the only benefits were voting, lottery tickets, and being able to buy your own smokes instead of sneaking or caging them from disapproving adults. For the month between graduation and her birthday, Emily kept waiting for the other shoe to drop while normal life churned on. Though she never could have admitted it, she’d been waiting for something like this to happen, to have direction and purpose for an adult life fall into her lap.

Becky was right: Emily had no goals beyond a vague idea of saving money and maybe going to a trade school. It wasn’t that she lacked a sense of motivation. Emily had just never found an end point to work for. She’d had a sneaking worry that getting promoted to manager at the grocery would be the high point of her life.

Not that she had to worry about that now. What she’d done up to that point—running lights for the theatre club, reading, saving up money for CDs and bicycling to the next town where there was a decent record store—seemed even smaller and more unconnected to her ever-present, aimless desire for more. A part of her continued qualifying everything with “if it’s true.” If it was true, there had been nothing but a nagging feeling hinting at the future reveal. Which was all part of the gambit, probably.

Emily made a mental list of magical chosen child stories, deciding to read them through again to try and figure things out. She reminded herself that the stories were just fiction, modern fairy tales, and that she shouldn’t take any advice in them seriously. Startled, she realised that the entire situation she found herself in had no more grounding in science and fact than a fairy tale. With a snort of laughter, she crushed out her cigarette and turned in.

Kitchen noise and falsetto disco woke Emily after the sun had been pouring in her bedroom window for hours. Making a disgusted noise, she slid the window shut and dropped the blinds, darkening the room.

“Closing the barn after the horses,” she muttered. Her aunt’s trailer worked like a solar oven, heating steadily throughout the day. A neutral state that one could sleep in was only possible if the entire place was closed like a tomb as soon as the sun appeared, then opened up to night air and bugs the moment outside temperatures dropped. Emily hoped that she hadn’t doomed herself to over-warm tossing and turning that night by sleeping in.

She coughed up something gross in the bathroom. Splashing herself with cold water, Emily peered at her tawny-olive face, dripping wet and framed by an insistent halo of curls escaped from her braid. Deciding that she was more or less acceptable, she shuffled into the kitchen.

Her aunt was half-dancing at the sink to a worn-out mixtape a long-forgotten boyfriend had given her years ago. Tall, still prone to wearing the short-shorts that had both made her popular with local bar bands and mortified Emily in grade school, Janice was a perfect aunt and a woman who would have never been a mother, given a choice. Emily remembered one of her favourite stories from when her aunt was still in high school and had decided to skip a week to go follow some sort of festival—

With a sharp intake of breath, Emily leaned against the dark wood-panelled wall. Her aunt had never gone to high school. She’d spent her young life in some sort of court in the Sidhe, living in a way that couldn’t be imagined while standing in a decades-old double-wide trailer listening to New Wave and feeling like somebody had punched you in the gut.

As Emily made the realisation, her aunt turned and met her eyes, frozen mid-dance move. The two women sized each other up, resetting assumptions built up over nearly two decades of living together. Emily noticed for the first time that her aunt’s dark hair had threads of grey shot through it.

“Is it awful, growing old? Being mortal, I guess.” Embarrassed, Emily looked down, scrubbing her toes against the worn carpet.

Biting her lip, Janice shook her head. “Being as you’ve known nothing but mortality, I’m assuming you mean in comparison?” Emily nodded. Her aunt picked at the flaking edge of the countertop before answering. “It can be pretty terrible when I think that twenty years ago I had maybe a century before my hair showed silver. It’s like living on fast-forward, the body deteriorating at a manic rate. There’ve been definite high points though, raising you.”

“That’s an aunt answer, not a Janice answer.” Emily sniffled and tried to roll her eyes.

“True. But nobody deserves to hear the Janice answer before breakfast. I want you to get some dang food in, and tea—then we can be all chatty about life and love and coups in the Sidhe.”

Emily dutifully tried to focus on breakfast and her regular morning crossword, but kept finding herself staring into the middle distance, cereal spoon raised halfway to her mouth. When Janice swapped out the tea for coffee, Emily noticed that the bowl was empty and she’d solved only seven clues even though she’d picked an easy crossword at the front of the book.

Her aunt smiled. “Go take a shower and we’ll go for a drive.”

Emily picked up the mug, bringing it with her to the trailer’s full bath. Janice called after her, “Magical chosen kid or not, you’re still a heathen for drinking coffee in the shower!”

This post is part of The Audacity Gambit – Serialised. Learn more about when the book was first published here, see the archive and overall content warnings here, and find more of my writing here. I’m over on both Comradery and Patreon, if you feel like supporting my creative endeavours. If you’d like to subscribe to this story, here’s a handy email box for you:

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