8850/50,000, counting some stuff I'm not posting right now. I can see that election night is going to wreak havoc with my attempt to hit word count tonight.
Update: I realize that the prologue was really just the beginning of Chapter 1 of Part 1, which makes this the beginning of Chapter 2
Mealtime with the family had been a peaceful affair while the younger Spencers were away. Richard Spencer was often absorbed in papers and reports and business news, breaking his silence every now and then to read off a news item to his wife. Cheryl Spencer would nod solemnly and make a comment about one of her dogs. To her great relief, Melly was not expected to say anything. Mr Spencer was as happy as she was to sit quietly of an evening, and Mrs Spencer was happy to find a respectful listener for her placid canine monologues.
If a family house is ever quiet, it means most of the family is not in residence. Melly had taken up her rooms in April; suddenly in May, the Spencer progeny descended en masse to their ancestral home. They were, in general, a cheerful, confident lot, bursting with good health, good humor, good looks, and the easy confidence that exudes from those who have never had to exert themselves to succeed. Melly, who knew herself to possess none of these qualities in great measure, was overwhelmed by the sheer press of personality and often sought retreat in her room, the one place she could feel free from scrutiny or surprise.
The first ones to arrive home were Olivia and Sophia. They rode home together from Baton Rouge — Sophia, after completing her freshman year at Tulane, had stayed with friends in Baton Rouge until Olivia’s boarding school let out for the summer. Melly met them over breakfast, the least propitious meal of the day for introductions. She was at the dining room table with her milk and the newspaper when a tousled girl in pajamas stalked in, tossed a bowl of cereal on the table, and groaned as she hitched her chair up to the table.
“Hi,” she said, poking listlessy at the bran flakes in her bowl. “You’re Melly, right?”
“Yes,” said Melly. She suddenly felt conspicuous and alien as the girl slurped milk from her spoon. In the short time that she’d been in the house, she’d grown used to the quiet mornings at the big table with Cheryl, who preferred eating in the spacious dining room when there was any company in the house. Melly had almost begun to feel as if she had the right to sit unchallenged in the dining room, but the irritable presence across the table suddenly reminded her that not only was none of this was hers, but that her presence was somehow out of place in the house.
“I’m Olivia,” said the late riser, pushing her hair out of her face. “I am not a morning person, so sorry if I’m being a jerk. I always feel like if I sleep in at home, my pig brothers will steal all the biscuits before I can even get downstairs. You have brothers, don’t you? No, that’s right, your brother’s on the Fellowship, isn’t he?”
“Yes, that’s Rene,” said Melly, lighting up. “Did you meet him?”
“No, sorry, I only saw him at last year’s ball. Isn’t he really smart or something?”
“Yes. He’s going to be a philosopher. He’s so smart, he writes just like the words come into his head, and each word is the right one…”
“That’s awesome,” yawned Olivia. “I wish I could do that. I’m going into History, though, and if you get one little thing wrong, people jump down your throat. Maybe I should take up Philosophy instead. I’m all over anything that won’t have morning classes.”
The swinging door from the kitchen wing creaked as Sophia, balancing bowls of fruit and cottage cheese and a coffee mug, pushed it open with a thrust of her hip. It had to be Sophia; there was no mistaking the relationship of the sisters, but where Olivia was curved, Sophia was sleek; where Olivia’s hair fell and tangled over her face, Sophia’s was swept back and up; where Olivia’s t-shirt and shorts were comfortably loose, Sophia’s minimalist pajamas did nothing to hide her figure. The effect was not lost on her sister, and it did nothing to improve her mood.
“God, Sophia, put some clothes on. Can’t you see we have children in the house?”
Sophia glanced at Melly. “Hi,” she said. “Sorry, didn’t know you’d be in here. I thought you were supposed to be sick in bed.”
Melly looked down. “The doctors want me to walk around more.”
Olivia was abashed, noticing for the first time Melly’s walker parked beside her chair. “I’m such an idiot. I didn’t even ask you how you’re feeling. Are you getting better here?”
“I… I think so. I like Stillwater very much.”
“Does Aunt Esther take care of you here?” asked Sophia.
“I don’t see her much,” said Melly, confused. “She’s very busy. But everything has been very nice.”
“What do you do all day?” Sophia settled her dishes and mug on the table and curled her legs up under her on the chair.
“I go to the library and read, or I sit on the balcony, or I walk outside as much as I can.”
“Are you looking at this?” Sophia reached over for the Entertainment section of the Advocate and shook it open. Olivia, however, still turned toward Melly as if she expected further reply, so Melly grasped for more detail to offer her.
“The air here is good; it makes me want to walk more.”
“That’s nice,” said Sophia absently. Olivia began working resolutely through the bran flakes. Melly twisted in the awkwardness of the extended moment of silence.
“I want to go up sometime to the attics.” she offered in a feeble attempt to restart conversation.
“It’s so hot in the attic,” murmured Sophia, flipping pages. “Why would you want to go up there?”
“To see the ball gowns. My mom sewed a few of them, and I helped with the hems.”
“Mm, do you sew? I wish I could do useful stuff like that.” Sophia shifted the strap of her tank top back onto her shoulder. “Well, you ought to go up, then,”
“I’m not supposed to yet.”
“Esther won’t let you go up?” asked Olivia, with indignation. “That’s so mean. We went up there all the time as kids.” She shook her head. “I’ll take you up, if you want.”
Melly flushed. “I can’t. The elevator doesn’t go up that high.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” Again the silence stretched as the sisters engaged in their respective activities of eating and perusing. Melly’s presence in the room seemed of no import to anyone, so she rose to go. At that moment, Sophia tossed the Entertainment page aside, stretched sinuously, and decided to exert herself in conversation.
“So, did you have a good time here in school?” She seemed to feel that she’d been neglecting to make Melly feel more at home, or at least that Melly needed to be drawn out, but her tone made Melly feel like an idiot child.
“I couldn’t go much this year. If I get stronger over the summer I’ll go to the high school next year.”
“High school?” Sophia and Olivia stared at her, and Olivia held her spoon suspended halfway between bowl and mouth. The full dynamic force of their attention was turned on Melly for the first time, trapping her awkwardly as she fumbled with her walker. Olivia asked, “How old are you?”
“Fifteen—?” The sisters glanced quickly at one another.
“I didn’t realize you were that old,” said Sophia, more cautiously. “I’m sorry, I thought…” She paused, and finally offered, as a partial explanation, “You’re drinking milk.”
“I’m not supposed to drink coffee,” said Melly miserably. Again the sisters shared a glance, and Melly was sure she could see suppressed smiles. Thoroughly embarrassed, she retreated toward her room, but her progress was still slow enough that she could hear Olivia say, “Wow, Sophia, way to make a good impression.”
“I guess I’m not supposed to be the nice one,” came Sophia’s languid voice.
Model of Apostolic Courage
14 minutes ago