Part Five: You Missed A Spot
Asher’s stepsisters like to talk. They’re constantly talking, to their mother or to each other or to themselves. They even talk to him when he’s in the room, as if something is better than nothing at all, as if their conversations with their mirrors palls enough after a while that even Asher’s presence is desirable. Their preference is to double-team him, to play off of each other’s spiky witticisms and jabs. Asher puts up with this because a) the satisfaction of mouthing off to them just isn’t worth it, and b) sometimes he actually learns something worth learning. He’s been in this place for a week, and it’s slowly but surely driving him crazy. Asher doesn’t really know what this place is or why the fuck he’s here, but if time is passing the same way for Ty that it is for him then he knows the kid is going crazy. They fight, it’s an inescapable part of basically living in each other’s pockets, but he’s never just run away like this. It’s the longest stretch of time they’ve been apart since Asher found Ty three years ago, and it feels like he’s missing a limb.
The jerkface part of Asher kind of wonders how much Ty is missing him. Like, is he heaving a few sighs in the morning before getting on with his day, studying and watching TV and going about his life with just a slightly more hang-dog expression, or is he breaking down? Is he lying on Asher’s half of the bed and breathing into his pillow and crying big girly tears and fucking losing it? Does he miss Asher so much that he isn’t eating, isn’t making it to class, can’t even look at all the pretty, hopeful college girls who want to date him because he’s so sunk in remorse he can barely move? Asher thinks it’s probably the latter, and he kind of likes that.
Then he kind of hates himself for feeling that way, because this is Ty, and no matter how much he wants to be that important to the kid, he doesn’t want him to hurt like that. In fact, at this point nothing would make Asher happier than for him to show up again and for no time to have passed, for Ty to be asleep or studying or still mad at him or anything, just not missing him. Ty has missed enough people in his life; Asher doesn’t need to be adding to the list.
This is what he’s thinking about as he cleans out Pinky’s fireplace. Pinky has a name, he just doesn’t care to use it, and besides it’s something that sounds French and has an accent on the second syllable that he just knows he’s going to fuck up, even if it’s just in his head. Pinky usually wears pink, so it works for her, plus he likes the fact that she has her own theme song in his mind, the one from the cartoon “Pinky and the Brain.” She seems about as bright as the lanky animated mouse, but not as funny.
His other stepsister he calls Envy, not just because green is the color of jealousy and she wears it a lot, but because she really is a jealous person. She’s smarter than Pinky, thinks she’s smarter than everyone, and has a dark word and a searching look for absolutely everything. She followed Asher from her room into Pinky’s today, and Asher can feel her eyes boring into him as he works, making sure that Pinky’s fireplace isn’t going to get any cleaner than hers. No one can have more than Envy.
“You work so slowly,” Pinky pouts from where she’s spread on a divan, splitting her time in looking out the window and commenting on everything Asher does. “Honestly, I’ve seen mud-grubbing little village urchins work faster than you do on your best day.”
“There’s very little difference between the two,” Envy points out dulcetly. “You missed the back corner, little cinder boy. You should do it again.”
Asher doesn’t say anything, just scrapes the bundle of sticks that passes for a brush over the back of the fireplace. Again. He’s filthy and his back hurts from being bent over all morning and he hasn’t even gotten to his stepmother’s room yet, and that’s a whole new level of being looked down upon, but at least she’s mature enough to prefer ignoring him to talking at him.
They chat about nonsense, fashions that Asher can’t picture and beauty remedies that involve egg whites and a lot of patience. He finishes with the fireplace and gets up, lifts his ever-present bucket and prepares to get out while the getting’s good. He’s not fast enough.
“Just a moment.” Pinky stares at him and wrinkles her perfect nose. “Lord, just looking at you makes my skin crawl. I think I need a bath after the experience. Go and heat me some water, piglet. But clean your hands before you carry it to my tub. I don’t want any of your ash falling in and fouling the water.”
“What an excellent thought, sister,” Envy says, her eyes narrowing in a way that Asher knows means she wishes she had thought of having a bath first. “I think I’ll have one as well. Go and cut some fresh lavender sprigs to steep in it. Only put them in once the water is hot, mind.”
The cauldron in the kitchen takes four buckets of water to fill. It takes three cauldrons of water to fill one bathtub, and each sister has her own, behind a painted screen in her room. Their rooms are on the second floor. Not to mention, Cook is undoubtedly working on lunch at the moment, and the last thing she wants to do is give up the fireplace for bathwater, so he’ll get to fight with her about that. Asher glares at the women and wishes, for about the hundredth time, that this place had running water. Life was so much easier when you could just turn a tap and…
Asher found Cassie in the bathtub. He hadn’t walked home with her that day; he had been kept late after school for detention, so she had made her way home alone. It wasn’t the first time Cassie had done that, so Asher hadn’t been too worried. His brothers were there, and so was his dad, not that the man was doing anything other than sleeping, probably. He worked an early shift and usually only saw his kids at the occasional dinner when they were all in the same place at the same time.
Detention was longer than usual, because Asher called the teacher watching him a dick when the man wouldn’t let him use his Gameboy. So he spent two hours in a stuffy classroom instead of one, and another half an hour getting back home. It was a Monday, so when he got in he walked to the living room and fully expected to see Cassie in her red and blue swimsuit watching The Little Mermaid with the fishbowl sitting on the table.
The movie was playing, but it was the very end, where a gigantic Ursula was flinging lightning bolts around and about to be run through with a ship. Asher knew this was his sister’s least favorite part of the movie, it always made her a little scared. Maybe that was why she wasn’t here for it. “Cassie?” he called out, putting his backpack on the floor. “Cassie?” No answer. He walked down the hall and checked her bedroom. Her school clothes were in a heap on the floor, but there was no Cassie.
Howard and Kyle were in the rec room, leaning against the couch and playing Grand Theft Auto 2. They didn’t even look over when he came in. “Where’s Cassie?”
“No clue,” Kyle said distractedly, running over a prostitute with his car.
“But she didn’t leave or anything, right?”
“Dude, I don’t fucking know, you’re her babysitter. Get the gun, get the gun!” he yelled at Howard. Asher turned and left them alone, going back to the living room with a strange, heavy feeling in his chest. He looked around. There were a few wet spots on the carpet, a little darker than the other stains, so probably fresh. Cassie couldn’t carry the fishbowl very well, it was still a little big for her, but it wasn’t in its usual place so she must have taken it with her, sloshing all the way. Asher followed the splashes to the bathroom door.
“Cassie?” he said, knocking on the closed door. “Are you in here?” There was no answer. “Cassie, c’mon.” He turned the handle and went inside. A few feet into the room, Asher froze. He knew it was the wrong thing to do, knew he should be moving, but he couldn’t help it.
The fishbowl was sitting on the toilet seat, half-empty. The gravel and miniature castle were all lumped on one side, like the bowl had been tilted. Poured out. The bathtub was full to the brim, with a ring of water spread across the tile almost as far as the sink. The water was pink, not clear. Pink. Cassie was there, in her red and blue bathing suit, face down in the water. Her head was bleeding. The cut was as long as Asher’s index finger, but she was bleeding very slowly.
Asher broke out of his paralysis and ran to the tub. He must have made some kind of noise, something loud, because by the time he had pulled Cassie out of the water his brothers were there, and his dad was right behind them, rubbing at his sleep-crusted eyes and shoving past the boys. Kyle turned pale and puked on the carpet and Howard looked like he wanted to do the same, but Asher didn’t care. He was holding onto Cassie and she wasn’t moving, her eyes were open but she wasn’t moving, she wasn’t breathing…
His father shoved him back. “Call 911!” he yelled at Asher, pulling Cassie into his own arms. Taking her away from Asher. Asher reached for her again, but then his dad hit him across the face, hard. The shock of it made tears spring to his eyes. His father had never hit him before that day. “Go get the goddamn phone and call 911!” he snarled.
Asher had gotten to his feet, moved past his useless brothers, even more useless and frozen than he was, and went and called 911.
“Are you utterly useless?”
The shrill voice breaks through the memory, pulling Asher out of that other place and back to where he is now, which is to say, in the company of two shrieking harpies.
“Can’t you even follow the simplest instructions?” Envy demands. “Or is the task we’ve given you too complex for a little piglet? I told you—”
“A royal carriage!” Pinky breaks in, sitting up abruptly and leaning out the window. Envy turns at once to her sister and Asher takes a second to get his head right. Baths. Right. No running water, no problem. He should be leaving, but the way his stepsisters are acting is totally out of characteristic for them. That is to say, they’re flustered as hell.
“Is it coming this way?” Envy asks, brushing a few strands of hair back from her face.
“No,” Pinky reports with disappointment. “It’s going on—wait! A rider is breaking off! He bears the prince’s standard! Sister, we must get downstairs at once!”
Asher presses back against the wall as the two tumble past him in a frenzy, checking each other for assurance of their beauty even as they rush towards the stairs. He puts his bucket down and goes over to the window, watching as the rider draws close. The horse moves like the wind, as idyllically far from normal as everything seems to be here, but the rider has no problem staying on the thing’s back. He’s carrying some sort of flag, quartered with fleur-de-lis and stylized dolphins opposite each other. Asher has no idea what that means, but this is the most interesting thing that’s happened here since he arrived and he craves a distraction, anything to reroute his brain after thinking about Cassie. He grabs up his stuff and heads downstairs, ready to find out more about what’s going on.