by Michelle Ann King
My little girl, my Rosie, died on a clear, cool day in April. She was three years old. We'd spent the afternoon at my brother's house, where he'd just put in a fish pond full of Koi carp. Beautiful things, with bright speckled colours and flowing fins.
I think that's why she went outside - to see the fish. To get closer to them.
Sean and I were in the kitchen, drinking coffee. I didn't even know Rosie was gone. I thought she was still wrapped up in her Winnie the Pooh blanket on the sofa, in thrall to a Disney DVD.
She was so cold, when I found her. So pale.
When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics took over the CPR. They were efficient and professional, but I could see from their faces what they thought.
I remember screaming the word no over and over. Because this wasn't supposed to happen. This wasn't how it worked.
One of the paramedics started to say, 'I'm sorry,' but then Rosie vomited up a gush of grey water and started crying.
They took her to hospital and treated her for a couple of cracked ribs, courtesy of the chest compressions, but otherwise she was fine. In the back of the ambulance, she asked for ice cream.
Everybody said it was a miracle.
I didn't disagree.
My twin, my Sean, disappeared a month after I got Rosie back. He was twenty-five.
We'd been to a family birthday party, which was something we did a lot - I have fifteen aunts and uncles, and a hundred and thirty cousins. Jason, my husband, used to laugh about it. Was everyone in my family trying to produce their own football team? I told him it was surplus thinking - if you have more than you need, then you don't miss what you lose. Then I laughed, and tried to pretend I was joking as well. It was a bad joke.
A bad strategy, too. It doesn't work.
When the party ended, Sean and I shared a cab home. We had coffee at my kitchen table, and he left about midnight. He walked across the road, his head bowed against the wind, then turned around and waved.
Emily, his girlfriend, was waiting up for him. At one o'clock, she called his mobile. At three, she called me. At six, she called the police.
The Initial Investigating Officer recorded details of Sean's friends, the places he frequented, his medical and financial details. He asked Emily if they'd argued recently, if the relationship had been under any strain, if Sean had been depressed. Emily took offence, and said no on all counts.
He spoke to me, and I explained that my brother was irresponsible and impulsive, prone to taking off and going travelling. I told him Sean wasn't serious about Emily, and that he'd borrowed about £2,000 in cash from me a few days ago. I said yes, he'd done this before and no, I didn't see any reason to be worried about him.
The Initial Investigating Officer thanked me for my time and co-operation, and promised to keep us advised of any developments.
Emily went back to the station and told them I was lying. That nothing I'd said was true, not a single word. That I was clearly covering something up.
They thanked her for the information and promised they'd look into it further.
I didn't hear from them again.
Was it because of me? Because of Rosie? Did they take Sean away because they'd given her back?
My mother says no. She says that's not how it works. She says they choose at random, with no design or intent. Sometimes they take the elderly, sometimes the young. It's pure chance. Luck of the draw. And that's the one time, of course, when our fabled good fortune doesn't work.
But she doesn't know that for sure. None of us do. The details of the arrangement were agreed by ancestors who've been dead for centuries.
So I still wonder.
Did I keep my child at the cost of my brother? Was that the price?
Rosie doesn't know what's happened, of course. She doesn't understand why Uncle Sean had to go away and I can't explain, not yet. She's too young.
She knows there's magic in the world, that wishes come true and guardian angels watch over her. That she was blessed at birth, just like the rest of her family. For a while longer, I'd like to let her believe that's a good thing.
Guardian angels. Fairy godmothers. Fae. Sidhe. Old Ones. Earth Spirits. Demons. Devils.
Question: Which is the odd one out?
Answer: None of them. There's no difference.
When Sean was still here, I used to love it that he lived close by. Now that he's gone, and it's just Emily, that doesn't seem like such a good thing.
She sits at the kitchen table while I make her a mug of coffee I know she won't drink, and glares at me with red, swollen eyes. She wears her grief openly and purposefully. I envy her that.
Jason strokes her hair while she sobs. He's very patient with her, very compassionate. He's a good man. A perfect husband. I'm very lucky to have him.
'He didn't leave me,' Emily says. 'He wouldn't do that to me.'
'No, no, of course not,' Jason says. 'Nobody thinks that.'
He's lying, of course. Everybody thinks that. Between Jason's circle of friends and mine, there isn't a single couple that haven't broken up at some point.
Apart from us, of course. Jason will never leave me. Not unless I want him to.
'I'm worried,' Emily says. 'The police aren't taking this seriously. Nobody is.' Emphasis on nobody, with a venomous glance in my direction.
'Come on, Em,' Jason says. ' He's bound to be okay. 'You know what they're like, these two. When does anything bad ever happen? Born under a lucky star, the pair of them. Hell, the whole family was. Isn't that right, Isla?'
'Yes,' I say. It comes out strangled, but recognisable. 'Of course. Emily, Sean's fine. He called me earlier, to say he's staying at our mother's house in Dorset.'
Jason looks surprised, no doubt thinking he didn't hear the phone, but he doesn't say anything.
I tell Emily that Sean never meant to hurt her, that he's sorry things didn't work out between them, and that he thinks it's best if they make a clean break. That he hopes she'll move on, and be happy.
Emily stands up and stares at me for a long time. I wonder what she's looking for, in my eyes. And whether she finds it.
'I don't believe you,' she says.
I call my mother, who confirms what I've said. Emily asks to speak to Sean herself, but my mother says he's already left for a backpacking trip. Tibet, probably. Yes, he seemed all right. No, he didn't say when he was coming back.
'These things happen,' my mother says. 'Let it go.'
Mum is a smart woman, although even the most perfect advice can be hard to take.
I end the call before Emily can hear her start to cry.
My mother sends Emily a photograph of Sean outside her house, a considerable sum of money and a note that says Try not to think too badly of him.
The photo is three years old, but it's blurry and taken from a distance, and you can't really tell. Emily rips it up, then pieces it back together with sticky tape.
'Keep the money, too,' I say. 'She won't miss it.'
My mother is a highly successful businesswoman and investor, and is extremely rich. Everybody says she's got a nose for profit; the Midas touch. The luck of the devil.
'This party you went to,' Emily says, grabbing my arm. 'There had to have been some arguments, right? I mean, big family get-togethers, it's inevitable. So if Sean had a row with someone, maybe?'
She's still suspicious, still looking for a clue. For an answer. She still thinks I have one.
'No,' I tell her. 'Nobody argues in our family.'
That's true, in its way. What would be the point, when no negotiation of terms is possible? When there's no opt-out clause?
So there are no arguments. There are also no funerals. No bodies. There are just great-aunts who retire to private convalescent homes, cousins who emigrate to remote countries, nephews who enter closed religious orders. Brothers who go travelling.
Emily snarls at me, her lips curling back from her teeth. It makes her look feral. 'There's something wrong with you,' she says. 'All of you. The whole fucking family.'
I don't argue.
The police take Sean off the Missing Persons list. No, his mobile phone, his credit cards and his bank account haven't been used, but if his family say they know where he is, how can he be lost?
Emily protests. Politely at first, then vigorously, and finally violently. She gets arrested, and I pay her bail. She doesn't thank me.
At three in the morning, I get up and phone my mother.
'Where do they go?' I say. 'What happens to them? Is it bad? Do they suffer?'
I'm crying so hard, it's possible she can't understand what I'm asking. And I very much doubt that she knows the answers.
But I hang up before she can speak, just in case.
My mother has her share portfolios, her yachts and her string of lovely young companions. I have my artistic talent, my beautiful home, my loving husband. And Rosie. Against all the odds, I still have my little girl.
Is that a fair trade? Is it enough?
It's supposed to be. It has to be.
But it's not.
I miss my brother. I want him back. And aren't I supposed to get what I want? Isn't that how it works?
I go out into the garden and scream it at the sky. Isn't that how it works?
'Have you seen Emily lately?' Jason says. He's doing the washing up, his hands encased in bright yellow rubber gloves. He flicks a splodge of lemony foam at me.
I dodge it and shake my head.
'I ran into her at Sainsbury's this morning. She didn't say anything, but it looked to me like she might be pregnant.' He snorts. 'And after all that fuss she made about Sean leaving her. Didn't take her long to get over it, eh?'
'Right,' I say, but I wonder. I watch Rosie, playing with her trucks on the floor. She has Jason's smile, but my eyes. Sean's eyes.
I think Emily's going to leave me on the doorstep, at first. Not that I don't deserve it. But after an hour, she relents and lets me in.
She rests her hands on the gentle swell of her stomach. 'It's Sean's,' she says, lifting her chin and staring at me defiantly.
She waits, as if giving me a chance to contradict her. Because he's been gone for over seven months, and she's clearly not that far along.
'I don't know how,' she goes on, when I don't say anything. 'But it is. It has to be, because I haven't been seeing anyone else. I know it's impossible, but-'
'It's all right,' I tell her. 'I believe you.'
'You do?' She looks almost comically surprised.
'Of course. It's all going to be all right, now. The baby will be perfect. You can call him Sean.'
She blinks at me. 'Isla.'
'He'll be beautiful, and healthy, and strong. He'll have everything he needs, everything he could ever want. Just like me.' I smile at her. 'Born under a lucky star.'
She starts to back away, but I enfold her in a hug. I pull her close, and try not to notice how she flinches. Because she's family, now, and she's going to be blessed.
So very blessed.
Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex. She loves zombies, Las Vegas and good Scotch whisky, not necessarily in that order. Her short stories are being collected in the Transient Tales series, available in all ebook formats. See www.transientcactus.co.uk
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