Richard Spencer Jr bore down upon Stillwater in a whirlwind of noise and raunchy good humor. He was a tumultuous presence in every way— despite having only been out of college for two years, he’d worked at three different start-ups, and was currently between ventures. Still, his generosity was not hampered by his employment, or lack thereof: he came home and bestowed LSU swag on all, including a big stuffed tiger for Melly. She was touched, and thanked him earnestly, if shyly.
“Aw, it’s nothing,” he said. “I bought it because my old one got destroyed. My old roommate hurled all over it one night when we were shit-faced. But then I heard that we had a new kid here, and I thought I’d better make sure you had some good LSU decor before Sophia tries to do up your room with ugly Tulane crap.” He lobbed a purple and gold t-shirt at Sophia. “Here, sis. Make yourself decent.”
“Be respectful, Dick,” drawled Sophia, batting away the shirt without looking up from the pages of Vogue. “Melly’s not a kid. She’s fifteen.”
“No way!” Dick eyed Melly with surprise. “You don’t look anything like the fifteen-year-olds I know.” He winked at her, and she sat up straighter and looked at her hands.
“Shut up, Dick,” said Olivia severely. “No one wants to hear about your friends except the police.”
That, perhaps, was not quite the case, but it was a fact that Dick had been drunk more often than was good for him, or his legal affairs. As it was, his license was this close to being suspended, and, not content with one source of chaos in his life, he had made some rather unwise investments in his most recent late start-up that seemed to have rather unpleasant legal ramifications. Richard Spencer and his son spent many hours closeted in Richard’s office, in tense and sometimes loud conversation. Melly could hear them as she waited for the elevator in the hall outside Richard’s office, and it was her constant dread that one of them would burst out at a moment when she happened to be passing through.
The issue was that Dick was deeply and dangerously in debt, and that Richard had agreed to clear his name, using money that had been intended for his younger son Malcolm, who had just been accepted to spend a summer term studying at a prestigious, and prestigiously expensive, academy in Rome. The point of contention in the father’s talks with the son was not Richard’s reluctance to help Dick, whose troubles needed immediate resolution, but that Dick could not seem to understand why his actions should be seen as wronging Malcolm now. Richard had presented the matter from every angle to little avail, and it gave him pain to see how callous his oldest son was.
“Well, Malcolm’s going to be a priest, so he better start getting used to disappointment now,” Melly heard Dick tell his sisters one evening after his father had gone gravely upstairs. “Anyway, he can pray just as well here as in Rome.
“You could be as much of a selfish asshole just as well in jail as here,” said Sophia.
“Hey, I’m really doing him a favor. Offer it up, right?”
“Sure, Malcolm can offer up his trip, and you can offer up being an selfish asshole,” said Olivia.
“Oh, someone’s going to have to sacrifice a lot more than a trip to Rome to fix me,” replied Dick cheerfully.
And so Malcolm Spencer came home for the summer, under his own private cloud. He had accepted with good grace, as he had thought, the deprivation of his trip. He could bear up under this hardship; hadn’t the saints dealt with far worse? He could be starving; he could be facing horrific tortures, he could be graciously offering forgiveness to Dick as he suffered agonies of remorse on his deathbed… No, that was the most unrealistic option; it would be a cold day in Hell before Dick ever felt any remorse over inconveniencing anyone else.
Malcolm knew he was angry, but he might have come home believing that he had gained mastery over his feelings if it had not been for an incident on his last day of classes at St Joseph’s Seminary College. The rector, Fr Williams, had called him into his office, and after making a few remarks about the quality of Malcolm’s work and his upcoming senior year, had come to the point.
“I know how hard it was for you to give up your plans to study in Rome this summer, and your advisor has spoken highly of the way in which you immediately contacted Fr Duprez at St. John the Baptist and arranged for summer work. Of course we count on our seminarians to help out at their home parishes whenever they’re in town, but you’re to be commended for putting aside your disappointment and diving in right away.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now,” and Fr Williams beamed at him in anticipation, “Fr LaCroix and I have talked to a few people and been able to pull a few strings, and we’ve been able to raise most of the funding you would need to be able to go to Rome after all. You would only need to come up with a small portion of the costs; I know it’s last minute, but perhaps your father can manage it. What do you say?”
Malcolm’s first response bubbled up within him, a consuming, overwhelming, almost blinding rage. Had he not already accepted his humiliation? Was that deep and agonizing struggle now to be thrown out because someone felt sorry for him? Was he supposed to go beg his father for the money over and above the portion that had already been handed over to Dick? No, if his family could not be bothered to cover the costs, Malcolm saw no point in snatching charitable funds from the poor and hungry or whomever who truly needed assistance. He was offended that the offer had even been made.
“No, sir,” he said, trying to speak in a light and easy tone. “I’ve already promised Fr Duprez that I would be back to help this summer, and he’s counting on me now. I wouldn’t want him to think that I didn’t keep my word. I’m sure there are plenty of far better causes that would be delighted to receive that money. I couldn’t possibly accept.”
The rector looked closely at him, and Malcolm met his eye steadily.
“Humility is the essence of the Christian life, Mr Spencer.”
“Yes, sir,” said Malcolm. “Thank you, sir. Am I free to go?”
“You may go,” said Fr Williams. Malcolm sensed the disappointment in his tone, and his spine stiffened defensively. As he reached the door, Father called to him.
“Remember, also, that the essence of the Christian life is joy.”
“I’ll remember that, sir,” said Malcolm, heading out the door.
Though he was living at home over the summer, most of his days were spent on parish duties. Processing paperwork, making sick calls, answering the phones, and sitting in interminable committee meetings — Malcolm was prepared to grit his teeth and take whatever mind-numbing drudgery was handed to him. However, when Fr Duprez pressed him into teaching religious education classes, Malcolm found that he had a talent for instruction. The challenge of cracking through his students’ veneer of boredom and weariness and kindling intellectual fires from sparks of knowledge began to hone the edge of his own spiritual dullness.
One day, after he had been home a week, he had a day off from his duties at the church. He had spent late hours at the church and had not seen much of anyone, and it didn’t look as if today would be much different. He spent some time wandering the grounds of Stillwater — of the siblings, he was the only one who loved Stillwater as estate, not just home, and now he lingered among the vast and aged oaks before the house, strolled out to the front gates and crossed River Road to sit out on the levee and watch the Mississippi, and stopped on his way back to the house to pray at the small family cemetery. The peace of the eternally resting Spencers seemed to pervade his soul — Dick, Sophia, and Olivia were all out on their own business, and the house was blessedly quiet.
Pausing at the top of the main spiral staircase on his way back to his room, he heard a small strange sound, like the mewling of a kitten. Puzzled, he opened doors and peered into the various second-floor rooms, searching for the source of the muffled noise. Opening the door of the dusty corridor that led from the main upstairs hall to the wing with the elevator, he heard it more clearly. Along the corridor was a large storage room and the curving stairs to the attic, and at the foot of the stairs stood an abandoned walker.
Concerned, Malcolm dashed up the steps. He had to pull up short charging around the blind curve to avoid crashing into a small figure who sat sobbing, curled with her head and arms resting on a stair. It was the Arceneaux girl. As she lifted her head up in alarm, her face streaked with tears and dust, Malcolm thought he had rarely seen a more convincing picture of despair.
“Did you fall? Are you hurt?” he asked, fearing that she’d tumbled trying to get down the stairs.
“No,” the girl said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand and trying to stanch her flow of tears.
“Could you not get down from the attic?”
“I never got up,” she said, and started crying more piteously than before. Malcolm sat down beside her and patted her shoulder.
“It’s okay,” he said awkwardly. “Don’t cry. It’s going to be okay.” He felt ridiculous, reassuring the girl that things were going to be fine when he didn’t even know what the problem was. She did not seem to be convinced by his words. She leaned her head on her knees and continued to cry, her black hair tumbling all around her arms.
“Well, you didn’t fall, so that’s good,” he said comfortingly. “Is something else wrong?”
“No.” She choked out the syllable.
“Why did you want to go into the attic?”
“I wanted to see the dresses.”
‘The ball gowns. In the attic.”
“Oh, yes.” Now Malcolm remembered. “Didn’t your mother make some of those for Sophia and Olivia?”
The sobbing increased to full-blown wailing. Now was the time to be pastoral, Malcolm thought. What did you do when you found a crying child who wouldn’t say what the matter was? Malcolm’s blood suddenly ran cold; Dick was home, he’d been drinking again, and though it was entirely unlike his brother, Malcolm was horrified to realize that he couldn’t be 100% sure… He fished desperately for her name. Melanie? Melpomene? Melusine, that was it.
“You seem very unhappy, Melusine,” he said slowly and clearly. “Has anyone done anything to hurt you, at all?” The girl looked up at him with uncomprehending eyes, and he felt a surge of sick relief as he dismissed the possibility of harm, and a surge of guilt that he could have even thought such a thing of his brother. What now? He had attended workshops on counseling the grieving, and though this didn’t seem like a bereavement situation, he couldn’t know if maybe she’d had bad news from home.
“You must miss your family,” he essayed. “What have you heard from them lately? How are they doing?”
And here he had found the key, and the verbal floodgates were unlocked and thrown open. Broken words, distorted by sobs and snuffing, poured from her. She was so lonely here; she missed them at home even though Stillwater was so much nicer than her family’s house; no one had been mean to her but it wasn’t the same as being somewhere she really belonged. Malcolm felt a surge of sympathy.
“And,” she finished with difficulty, having reached the hiccuping stage, “I.. I told Rene that I would send him email, and I never did.”
“Well, that’s easily solved,” said Malcolm heartily. “We’ll go down right now and get on the computer, and you can send him something right away.”
“I don’t have a computer.”
“That’s no problem. You can use the one in my dad’s office. He won’t mind.”
“Are you sure?” She looked apprehensive. “Miss Davis said I wasn’t supposed to…”
“Miss Davis doesn’t have anything to do with it,” said Malcolm firmly. “I’ll sit with you, so no one will give you any trouble over it.”
“Thank you.” She offered him a half-smile, and began to struggle to her feet.
“Let me help you, “ he said, first pulling her up and then bracing her as she clung to the rail and worked her way down. “You don’t seem like you’re ready for the stairs yet. Maybe you should start on something easier, like climbing the levee.”
Melusine laughed for the first time since her arrival at Stillwater.