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2. In Protective Custody

Emily Windlace looked at her wristwatch. It was eight o’clock. “Time for bed, Mary Jane,” she said.

The little girl who had come into her home three days ago from Family & Children Services looked up from the coloring book. “All right.”

She put the crayons away in their box. Emily knew without looking that they would be arranged in order by color, like a rainbow, with the browns sorted below the reds and the black above the violet, like a spectrum. Mary Jane closed the book, flattened the binding with the heel of her hand, squared it with the edge of the coffee table, and stood up. She picked up the paperweight which was her only possession, the only thing she seemed to care about. It was a sphere of cloudy, layered glass, mottled greenish-gray with flecks of gold, about as big as a softball. Emily’s first impression on seeing the sphere—she never did get a chance to examine it up close, because the girl carried it everywhere, setting it carefully beside her when she sat down, keeping it always in sight—had been that the thing was not pretty enough to be a paperweight. Mary Jane now slid it into the pocket of her corduroy jumper and patted the cloth over the heavy bulge.

“Good night, ma’am,” she said with a nod to Emily, like a little adult. She turned to Emily’s husband Bill. “Good night, sir.”

He barely looked up from his magazine. “Night.”

Mary Jane turned and walked down the hall to the guest bedroom.

In her ten years of taking care of foster children, Emily Windlace had never seen anything like this girl. It was like having a maiden aunt in the house.

As soon as the bedroom door closed, Bill got up from his chair and knelt by the coffee table.

“Don’t—” Emily started to say, then shut up.

Bill opened the coloring book. Emily could see, even from where she sat, that each page had been meticulously filled in. The colors were bright and glossy, like enamels, with no gaps or scribbles. Emily had watched Mary Jane working the end of each crayon, twisting it in her fingertips to sharpen and soften the wax, so that the colors flowed like paint onto the page. She even added smudges of white to make highlights, undertones of black to make shadows. When Mary Jane was done with them, the line drawings—it was a book full of Disney characters—were beautiful, like a medieval monk’s illuminated manuscript.

“Obsessive,” Emily said quietly.

“She’s had a tough time,” Bill offered.

“Do we really know that?”

“Well, the cancer …”

It hadn’t taken them long to discover that Mary Jane’s golden curls were a wig. It was a good one, too, probably made with real hair. But underneath, she was totally bald. She also lacked any trace of body hair; so Emily had to use her makeup kit to fill in the girl’s eyebrows and supply her with a set of false eyelashes. Being nine years old, according to the best estimate from the report forwarded by the Human Services Agency of San Francisco, Mary Jane wouldn’t have to worry about growing hair anywhere else just yet.

The girl’s medical condition was still a mystery. She had been found in the street after the explosion of a gas main leveled the toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz, the previous month in San Francisco. Mary Jane had been slightly injured, mostly scrapes and bruises, a mild concussion, but apparently left amnesic, with no recollection of her former life. Even her name, Mary Jane Doe, was just what the nurses at San Francisco General had put on the admitting paperwork. Because the girl fought when they tried to take blood or tissue samples, no one had been able to give her more than a cursory checkup.

Cancer was suspected only because hair loss was the commonest reaction to chemotherapy, but in all other respects Mary Jane seemed healthy—remarkably so. Almost supernaturally so, because she never complained of a sniffle, an ache, or any of the minor ills to which neglected children were usually subject. The doctors theorized her hair loss might be alopecia totalis, an autoimmune disorder possibly caused by stress, which foster parents sometimes saw in the children that came their way—although few arrived with their own high-class wigs. But Mary Jane was the calmest, most reserved and self-contained child the Windlaces had ever taken on. Still, Emily was rooting for the stress thing because, without diagnosis or treatment that the girl would sit still for, a cancer would remain undiagnosed and progress silently to take her before her tenth birthday, whenever that might be.

“Are you sure she’s even a little girl?” Bill asked now. “I mean … you’ve undressed her?”

“She’s one hundred percent female,” Emily said.

“But weird. Have you talked about women things?”

“She’s very well informed. Maybe too much so.”

The possibility that Mary Jane had been abused, used for child prostitution or worse, was something they routinely discussed with the agency about all their charges. This girl’s physical person, reactions, and temperament indicated no such history. In fact, she seemed to have no history at all. She had been found with no identification, no clothing tags, no latch-key stuff. No jewelry, except for a plain metal locket with no pictures or engraving inside—not even an “inside” that anyone in Family & Children Services could discover after much tweezing and prying. And no one had shown up to claim her. Mary Jane seemed to be the little girl who dropped out of the sky.

“Strange child,” Bill said, shaking his head.

“Not the worst we’ve had,” Emily said.

“Count our blessings, I suppose.”

*   *   *

In the guest bedroom, the girl known as “Mary Jane,” whose real name was Merola, took off her clothes and laid them out on the bed. She fished the glass sphere out of the jumper pocket and set it on the nightstand. Then she hung the outer coverings, which were still in Emily’s category of “not yet dirty enough to wash,” inside the closet room and patted them smooth. She folded her other garments, which were of the category “need to be washed now,” by halves and halves again, into neat square packages. She put these inside the rounded box made of dried and woven vegetable fiber, which Emily called a “hamper.” That was the designated place for clothing of the latter category.

Life was strange among these people. They made distinctions where none were necessary. Take clothes, for example. The pieces in the hamper were what Emily called “underwear.” But the pieces on the hangers could not be called “overwear” or “outerwear,” which was reserved for a separate category associated with rain and storms. They actually had weather here!

Underwear was vaguely nasty and had to be cleaned incessantly. The other garments were publicly acceptable and so could be worn with accumulated dirt … even though they were more exposed and so likely to need cleaning more often. Everything else in this culture was the same. Taboos and covenants to the right and left of her.

Standing naked beside the bed again, Merola took off her wig and set it on the bureau. Emily had apologized for not having a proper “wig stand.” Instead, she had provided a “cookie jar,” which was supposed to keep the scalp net’s shape. Merola never mentioned how much the wig had been crushed in transit when she came to this city.

She peeled the false lashes from her eyelids and rubbed Emily’s paint off her brow ridges. Merola had used better cosmetics when she first came here, but they were gone now. She rubbed her palms over the dome of her skull and sighed.

Left to her own preferences, Merola would just curl up and sleep, but there were more conventions to be observed. She reached under the pillows and took out the sleeping garments Emily had called “peejays.” Storing them among the bedclothes—an entirely new category of clothing—seemed logical enough. However, the garments themselves, sometimes also called “pajamas,” were strange lumpy coverings secured with stitched bands of rubberized material and buttoned tabs that tangled, tugged at her skin, and itched. They wholly impeded Merola’s sleep habits.

So did the layers of cloth she was supposed to pile on herself after lying down on the bed. This was so much more complicated than simply adjusting the room’s climate to begin with. Emily and Bill’s house systems were designed to maintain an ambient temperature, of course, but it was fifteen degrees below Merola’s normal body temperature. The sheets, blanket, and bedspread were a throwback to living in a cold, damp cave. And the musty construction of springs and fabric called a “mattress” was a throwback to a bunch of dried grasses wadded on the floor of that cave. Merola longed for a pair of field plates, but that was beyond hope.

Seven thousand years of so-called civilization had taught these people nothing.

Once she was installed under the coverings, Merola took the glass sphere from the nightstand and into the bed with her, clutching it under her chin. She had let everyone imagine that the sphere was no more than an ornament, a toy. Children of Merola’s assumed age and distressed situation were supposed to fixate on such irrelevant possessions. But the sphere, whose real name was Berzher, was hardly irrelevant. He was her companion in distress, her first officer, her technical assistant, her oldest friend—and her only means of getting home.

They would have to figure out a way to do that, and soon. Of course, Berzher himself was immutable in his current state. Merola could bury him in the yard outside and he would eventually find his way home, by one path or another, with all of his memories intact. Merola herself was relatively immutable, too—and that was the problem.

Emily had already enrolled Merola in the local “grammar school” in a na├»ve attempt at socializing what Emily half-believed to be a “runaway”—not an actual Flüchtling, but a feral child. Clearly, Emily liked Merola and harbored fantasies of raising her as a daughter. How ironic! Merola had the advantage of thirty years on this woman. Probably more than that.

This house was a good place to hide, to wait for rescue, if any was coming at this late date. But this refuge would not serve for long. In time—one year? two years?—the children in Merola’s school class would begin to change around her. These “fourth-graders” would go through puberty, grow breasts and body hair, gain inches in height, and become what Emily would call young women.

But not Merola. Not ever.

So she had to get out of this absurd situation. She must escape this overly protective society, in which she was not even a legal person, much less a citizen. But where could she go, that they would not recover her and return her to this place, or worse?

Merola knew she had made mistakes on this mission. Berzher would catalog them for her, if he could. As she drifted off to sleep, Merola recounted those mistakes … in order to plan her next move …

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Framed