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The Chosen and the Beautiful

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The Chosen and the Beautiful

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Author: Nghi Vo
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing, 2021
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Historical Fantasy
Magical Realism
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Synopsis

Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.

Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society - she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She's also queer and Asian, a Vietnamese adoptee treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.

But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

The wind came into the house from the Sound, and it blew Daisy and me around her East Egg mansion like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam, like a pair of young women in white dresses who had no cares to weigh them down.

It was only June, but summer already lay heavy on the ground, threatening to press us softly and heavily towards the parquet floors. We could not stand to go down to the water where the salt air was heavier still, and a long drive into the city felt like an offensive impossibility.

Instead, Daisy cracked open a small charm that she purchased on a whim in Cannes a few short years ago. The charm was made of baked clay in the shape of a woman, and when Daisy broke it to crumbling bits in her fingers, it released the basement smell of fresh kaolin clay mixed with something dark green and herbal. There was a gust of wind of a different kind, and then we were airborne, moving with languid grace along the high ceilings of her house and exclaiming at the strangeness and the secrets we found there. A single flick of our hands or feet sent us skimming through the air, at first adrift and then with surges of speed as we pushed away from the mantels and the columns.

We discovered a rather shocking miniature tableau of Leda and the swan above the bookshelves in the library, and we were so quiet over the heads of a pair of maids that we could flick back their starched white caps before they saw us and shrieked. In the nursery, while Pammy slept, we floated above her like slightly rumpled guardian angels. Daisy reached down to touch her daughter's face with a gentle finger, but when the little girl stirred, Daisy fled, dragging me out of the room with her.

The summer rendered the manor mute that day, and we haunted its silence, moving from place to place before finding ourselves in one of the guest rooms close to the one I was using. The pale green damask wallpaper gave the room a forested look, absorbing everything but the pleasure of being so weightless. I floated on my back, running my fingers along the peak of the window casement and gazing at the bay beyond the glass. It was impossible to imagine how cold the water might be, but I tried, half-napping with my legs dangling down at the knee and one hand resting lightly on my chest. I was half asleep when Daisy spoke up.

"Oh look, Jordan. Do you think it's my color?"

She plucked an enamel pot the size of a Liberty half-dollar from the top of the wardrobe. Lazily curious, I floated closer.

"Who did that belong to?" I wondered out loud.

"What does it matter?" she responded gaily, and she was right, because she and Tom had bought the whole of the manor--from the sprawling grounds down to the beach, the stables, the ghosts, and the history--all for their own.

She opened the enameled pot to reveal a mixture of wax and pigment, a dusty dark no-color until she warmed it with a few hard rubs of her thumb. She spread some of it neatly on first her lower lip and then her upper, and then she hovered upside down over the vanity's mirror to examine her reflection. When I drifted nearer to see the deep rose on her lips, she drew me close and did mine as well.

"Look, we match," she said, tugging me down to gaze at my own face in the mirror, but of course we didn't. She had been a Louisville Fay, with a lineage as close to royalty as the United States would allow, and it showed in her dark blue eyes, her sleek black hair, and the generous width of her smiling mouth. For my part, I was nominally a Louisville Baker, a name with its own distinguished history, but it had always hung oddly on me, adopted from distant Tonkin and with a face that people variously guessed was Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Venezuelan, or even Persian.

The lipstick looked old-fashioned on her, giving her an antique air, but it brought out the red in my skin, roses instead of tomato, more lively than not. Daisy murmured with pleasure over the difference, and she stuffed the little pot into my pocket, saying of course it was meant to be mine.

She paused with her hand on my hip, both of us hanging upside down in front of the mirror. It was one of Daisy's moments of intense stillness, rare when she was a girl and growing rarer. It gave her pretty face a slackness and an odd hollowness that suggested that anything might have come in to nest behind her eyes.

"I am glad you came when I called you," she said with a slight hiccup. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't."

"Been prostrate with grief and pined for me, I imagine," I said lightly, and she smiled with relief.

We both looked up when we heard the distant slam of the front door, and then, louder and more insistent, the boom of Tom's voice. There was a briefly startled look on Daisy's face, as if she had forgotten any world where we did not merely drift along the ceiling of her enormous house, and then she took my arm.

"Of course, that's right," she said, pulling me towards the door. "We've arranged to have my cousin to dinner tonight. Come along, my darling, I promise you will find him utterly delightful."

"Well, if you say so, I'm sure he is."

It was Daisy's avocation, setting up her friends and making connections between the members of the right set. She was somewhat famous for it, leaving plenty of variously happy couples and namesake babies in her wake. I had always been a bit of a failure for her, something that I decided was more amusing than anything else. I did well enough for myself, after all, back in Louisville and now in the years since I had come to New York.

We came back in the tall sun porch where we had started, settling on the enormous couch at the center of the room. We tamed our ruffled hair and smoothed down our dresses just moments before Tom appeared in the doorway. He was followed, with a touch of reluctance, by a rangy young man in shirtsleeves, his jacket thrown over his arm and his quick dark eyes taking in everything around him with interest.

He entered with an easy smile and a certain dislike for Tom, which made me like him right away. He gave me a second look, but didn't stare, and he came to kneel next to Daisy's end of the couch, paying her the court she liked best. They spoke of the time they'd passed in Chicago while I was allowed to do what I liked best, which was to watch from a cool distance before I had to chance an engagement. Tom hovered close by, finally trampling their conversation with a question of Daisy's cousin's occupation and by coincidence giving me his name: Nick Carraway of the St. Paul Carraways, only son, war hero, and apparently at loose ends after coming back from overseas.

I remembered vaguely that I had heard of some kind of trouble between him and a girl from St. Paul, a Morgan or a Tulley, something dishonorable, but you wouldn't know it by the way he sat as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. He looked like a polite man, though of course you can never tell.

I wondered that Tom couldn't seem to recognize the barbs in Nick's words to him, barbs that made Daisy's eyes glint a little. Acid under the good manners, and I liked that quite well. More interesting by far than the war hero was someone with some bite to him, and I thought that rather a lot of people might not know that about Nick.

When he scored another point off Tom, making Daisy's husband snort and declaim, I sat up with a laugh.

"Absolutely!" I said in agreement, giving Nick permission to look at me fully. I smiled at him, levering myself off of the couch and letting him see a little more. I was in my low gray suede heels, giving me a soldier's jaunty carriage; when I rolled my shoulders back to ease the cramp that was forming there, I saw him lower his eyes briefly with a slight smile.

The butler entered with four tall glasses filled with something delicious, and at a murmured word from Daisy, he added two garnet red drops to each tumbler from a rock crystal vial.

"I'm in training," I said with a regretful sigh, but I took my glass anyway, sipping appreciatively. The cocktail was a good one--the Buchanans hadn't ever been ones to stint where it truly counted, and it was no different when it came to the demoniac. The ban on demon's blood had come down just four months before the one on alcohol, and now two years later the good vintages were disappearing from even the better clubs in Manhattan.

Daisy licked her lips like a pleased cat, and even Tom sipped his drink with a kind of somber respect for its quality. Nick drank more cautiously, and I remembered that the Middle West had crashed into Prohibition faster and more readily than the rest of us had. The demoniac was older and richer than what even Aunt Justine kept carefully locked away in the Park Avenue apartment we shared. It stung my lips and warmed my throat until I imagined myself breathing out flickers of candle flame. Legend said it could make tyrants from good men, but it only made me a little mean.

"Drink up," I told Nick. "This isn't St. Paul. You're in New York now, even if you do live in West Egg."

He blinked at me slowly, that slight smile still on his face.

"I do, though I hardly know anyone there."

"I do," I said. "And you must. You must know Gatsby."

"Gatsby? What Gatsby?" asked Daisy, blinking at me. Her eyes were dilated almost black and she had bitten some of the lipstick off of her lower lip. I was about to tease her for being no better with demon's blood than Nick was when dinner was announced.

Daisy came to take my arm, cutting me off from Nick and Tom as neatly as a sheepdog would, and when she leaned against me, I could smell the bitter almond and candied lemon scent of the demoniac on her breath.

"I need to talk to Nick. Alone, do you understand?" she said, her words hurried and slurred, and I stared at her. She sounded nearly drunk, slightly unsteady on her feet. She never drank to drunkenness that I knew of, save once. The darkness in her eyes and the slight unsteadiness in her step was for something else, and I hastily agreed.

Daisy was a fluttering nervy thing at dinner, snuffing out the candles distractedly as we ate only for the servants to relight them when she wasn't looking. Tom ignored her, but I could see Nick growing more uneasy, his eyes darting between Daisy and me as if thinking there was surely an explanation. There wasn't, any more than there was for anything else, and it was almost a relief when Nick made an innocent comment about civilization that sent Tom barking after one of his particular hobby horses. He shook his head hard, blowing air through his nostrils like one of his own prize polo ponies.

"Civilization's going to pieces," he told us all angrily. "Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empiresby this man Goddard? It's a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don't look out, the white race will be--will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved."

"Tom's getting very profound," said Daisy solemnly. "He reads deep books with long words in them."

Nick looked back and forth between them as if he wasn't sure what to make of this, but he relaxed when I winked at him across the table, on the side Tom couldn't see.

"This fellow has worked out the whole thing," Tom said, stabbing a finger into the white tablecloth. "It's up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things."

"You've got to beat us down, of course," I said dryly, and Nick covered a laugh with his napkin.

Tom arched his neck, glaring at me suspiciously as if unsure what I might mean, and next to me Daisy giggled, just a little hysterical, though this was hardly anything new to us.

"The thing is, Jordan, we Nordics, we've produced all the things that go to make civilization--oh, science and art, and all that. That's what the Manchester Act wants to protect. Do you see?"

There were a dozen things I could have said to that, ranging in order from least cutting to downright murderous, but then the phone rang and the butler came to fetch Tom from the table. Tom went with a kind of confused irritation, and Daisy's mouth opened, and closed again.

Then she dammed up the coming disaster by turning the full force of her Fay blue eyes on Nick. I was used to them after years of acquaintance, but he certainly wasn't. He got a slightly dazed look as she leaned in closer to him. Her voice spiraled higher than it usually went, just a hair shy of shrill, shyer yet of sensible.

"I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a--of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn't he?" Daisy turned to me with a flourishing hand gesture, a magician pulling a rose out of a soldier. "An absolute rose?"

He looked nothing like a rose, but I nodded anyway, watching Daisy warily. Her small hand was clenched into a fist next to her half-eaten fish, and I could see the little bruise on the knuckle, the one Tom had given her by grabbing her hand too hard just a day ago.

"Daisy..." I said, but she threw her napkin on the table and stalked after Tom without a single excuse, leaving Nick and me alone.

"So you mentioned my neighbor Gatsby," Nick started, but I held up my hand.

"Shush."

My spine and shoulders felt as stiff as wood, my ear strained like piano wire as I listened for something from the next room where the telephone was kept.

"What in the world is happening?" Nick asked, apparently bewildered. Perhaps things were not done like this in St. Paul, or perhaps he was better at playing the innocent than any debutante I had ever met. I didn't much care.

"What happens when a man's girlfriend calls for him while he's at dinner with his wife," I said shortly. "He might have the decency to keep from answering her at mealtimes, don't you think?"

Nick shut up.

Tom and Daisy returned, Tom like a storm cloud and Daisy with her hands fluttering like trapped songbirds. I studied her carefully as she came in. Her color was too high, but her hair hadn't been pulled out of its careful style, and there was no handprint on her face.

"Oh, it couldn't be helped," she cried, her eyes glossy and her cheeks pink. "And I looked outdoors for a minute, and it's very romantic outdoors. There's a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on the Cunard or White Star Line. He's singing away... It's romantic, isn't it, Tom?"

Tom muttered something in agreement and then something about his damned horses, and then the phone rang again. This time he stayed in the wreckage of dinner, face brick red and Daisy as bright and brittle as glass. I--and to his credit, Nick--tried to fill the rest of dinner with chatter about the people we both knew (many), and the things we had in common (fairly few).

The phone rang once more as we finished dessert, but then it was silent as we stood from the table. As Tom pointed Nick towards the stable, Daisy took my cool hand in her hot one.

"Remember," she hissed like an oracle from a Gothic, and I nodded.

"Have you seen that new piece from Edgar Wallace that was meant to be in the Post today, Tom?" I asked. "I've not yet, and I was hoping to get to it before I need to sleep tonight."

He hadn't, of course, and we made our way to the library while Nick and Daisy went around to the wide front porch. He looked after them for a moment, and you could almost feel sorry for the baffled look on his face. One got the idea that at some point, something in his marriage had gotten away from him, but damned if he could say what, or if he should miss it, or if he missed it at all.

We settled down on either end of the long couch in the dim ruby light of the library lamps. We had done this a time or two. Daisy couldn't abide the short stories that Tom and I favored, and even the radio gave her a headache. Tom slumped on his end of the couch, and I sat up straight at mine, the Saturday Evening Post spread crisply on my lap. I had a good voice for reading out loud. My first tutors at the Willow Street house believed in recitation, and though my voice was higher and softer than Daisy's, it was steady.

I was through one story, and halfway through the next when Tom sighed.

"You're a good girl, Jordan. I'm glad Daisy has you. It's hard for her, with women, you know. She doesn't get on with them. You're different."

"I think she gets along with women just fine," I said, straight-faced.

"She thinks the world of you. So do I. And Nick, well. Dull sort, a bit, but that's a good thing in these irregular days. He's good-looking enough, isn't he?"

I allowed that he was, and Tom nodded as if the matter was decided.

"We'll see you settled before the end of the summer, see if we don't. You know, you're already older than Daisy when she and I tied the knot. Don't know what a pretty girl like you is waiting for, but I'm not a petty tyrant. You can afford to wait for a decent man, with your prospects. Daisy worries, but I know better. You're only waiting for a good match, the best, and what's the matter with that?"

I tried to keep myself from being touched, because it was easy sometimes, when it came to Tom. Brief moments of sympathy and absent-minded kindness did not make a good man, but Tom was also good-looking in a blocky, vital kind of way. Sometimes he forgot that I wasn't a Nordic like he was, and in that forgetting, he could be kind and thoughtful. There are women who will forgive a great deal for a moment of kindness from a handsome man, but Daisy and the other older girls who had taken me under their wings had taught me not to be one of them.

Nick and Daisy came in just as I was finished reading, and I stood as they did.

"Ten o'clock," I said. "Time for this good girl to go to bed."

"Jordan's going to play in the tournament tomorrow," explained Daisy, "over at Westchester."

Nick looked startled, and the penny finally dropped.

"Oh--you're Jordan Baker."

I smiled, because I was. He knew my face from the photographs and the sporting magazines. If he was in contact with his gossip-prone Louisville cousins (or more likely, if his mother or aunts were), he might know more than that. Well, I didn't care. It was up to him to decide what he might make of it.

"Wake me at eight, won't you?" I asked, squeezing Daisy's shoulder as I went by.

"If you'll get up," she said with a smile. She looked more normal, less desperate, and I nodded at Nick.

"I will. Good night, Mr. Carraway. See you anon."

"Of course you will," came Daisy's voice, following me up the stairs. "In fact I think I'll arrange a marriage. Come over often, Nick, and I'll sort of--oh--fling you together. You know--lock you up accidentally in linen closets and push you out to sea in a boat, and all that sort of thing."

"Good night," I called back, rolling my eyes. "I haven't heard a word."

As if I needed Daisy's help getting into the closet with a man who looked at me like Nick did. My history in closets was well established from Louisville, and in New York, with its wealth of cars, breakfast nooks, private balconies, and boathouses, I scarcely had to rely on them at all.

I fell asleep immediately, and didn't dream. Daisy woke me up two hours later. She climbed into bed with me as we used to do, and as I rolled over to make room, she curled against my side. The moonlight streamed into my room, silvering her hair and shadowing her eyes.

"Tom's asleep?" I asked groggily.

"Gone," she replied, but there was nothing in her voice that cared for him in the least. Gone, and unlooked for, she might have said. She was still, except for her fingers playing restlessly with the ribbon on my camisole.

"Well?" I asked finally, and her face crumpled.

"I couldn't," she said, her voice small. "Oh Jordan, I couldn't say anything at all, I couldn't make myself say it--"

She sobbed just once, utterly miserable in the way that only a person who is capable of being utterly happy can be, but it had been a long time since she could be utterly happy.

The thought of her happiness struck a chord, and now I remembered Jay Gatsby.

CHAPTER TWO

One lazy summer evening in 1910, Daisy Fay sneaked up the stairs during a dinner party to find me. She made it past the extra servants Mrs. Baker hired for the occasion, the squeaking floorboards, and the insubstantial ghost of Anabeth Baker in the hallway, and she didn't stop until she opened the door to my bedroom.

The house on Willow Street sold when I was thirty, and I went back one more time to see it. My room was untouched from the time I was a child, possibly from the time Eliza Baker, fatal fragile zealot, had slept under the lacy pink canopy and pored over her atlas of foreign places. The bed was always too large, soft like a peppermint marshmallow, and the furniture had a kind of bone-like dullness to it that the polished brass chasings could not alleviate. I was not sorry to see it all sold off in one job lot, destined for some other child to dread.

Mrs. Baker had gotten rid of Eliza's atlases before I arrived, so all I had to entertain me were edifying texts about good girls and boys, eating apples, playing in creeks, and obeying their parents. I found, however, that the paper in these books was satisfactorily thick, just begging for sharp scissor blades to sink into the beige card stock. Since no one but me ever looked in the books, I could cut them up as I pleased, starting from the back to make my vandalism less noticeable. Some pages I cut into tiny triangles to hide in the winter boots that sat at the back of my closet, and some I fringed like the dress of a cowgirl from the Old West show I had been taken to see just the year before.

Tonight I was cutting a careful halo around the head of the industrious little girl with the sewing basket when the door creaked open and Daisy peered in. I froze on my bed, scissors guiltily still, and she slipped in like water through a grate, shutting the door behind her.

"Well!" she said in her oddly husky voice. "So you're the heathen!"

I shoved the paper and scissors under my pillow, sitting up so my bare legs dangled over the edge of the bed. I wore a ribboned lawn nightgown, but Daisy was well turned out in a short dress of rustling mauve silk. Her neat black boots and dark stockings made me think of the fox kit I had seen in the backyard just a few nights before. Like the fox kit, she was utterly fearless, coming into my room, taking in it and me with an innocent avarice in her large blue eyes. That night she was ten years old, two years older than the age Eliza Baker had guessed I was, just my own age in truth, though it would be a long time before I found that out.

"I was hoping I might see you tonight," she continued. "Mother said that you were no different from the ones who wash our clothes, but you are different, aren't you? I can tell, you're not like them at all--you're something else..."

I wanted to put my hands over my ears to fend off her flood of words. Mrs. Baker was parsimonious with her speech, the judge even more so. I took my education at home with a tutor, and so I had never heard anything like Daisy's chatter before. More to stem her words than from any eagerness on my part, I answered her.

"I was saved from Tonkin," I told her. "Miss Eliza saved me. When I was little."

Her eyes went as large and round as saucers. I saw the white all around them and I thought of a horse running mad. She crossed the small space between us as familiarly as if it were her own room, snatching up my hand in hers. Her hand was hot and soft. She smelled just faintly of citrus, pepper, pine, and musk, her mother's Blenheim Bouquet dabbed modestly behind her well-formed ears. The scent made me pause before pushing her away, but in my imagination, it clung to me.

"Oh darling, you must tell me all about Tonkin! I was born in boring old Louisville, and I have never been anywhere at all! I've heard of Tonkin. Papa knows men who trade there, when the French let them, and it sounds so much more beautiful and elegant and fine than China. Tell me about it, please!"

"I was very young..." I said, but as the excitement drained from her eyes, I felt a surge of desperation, unformed and wordless but no less powerful. I clung more tightly to her hand. I did not want to be alone.

I remembered what Miss Eliza had said about Heaven, where there would be gold in the streets, but no one would care. She was unable to rise from her bed by then, but she whispered about Heaven as if she could see it just beyond the canopy of her bed, touch it if only she could sit up.

"It's gold," I blurted out. "The roofs and the walls and even the roads. At noon, we had to sleep because the sun made it shine so bright it might have blinded us."

"A city of gold?"

If there had been any doubt or animosity in her voice, I would have cried at having been caught in such a lie. I didn't remember Tonkin at all, or at least, I told myself I didn't, but I knew that it had certainly not been leafed with gold.

Instead, there was nothing but pure credulous excitement in her eyes, and she leaned in closer, coming to sit with me on the bed.

"Tell me more," she commanded, and so I did.

Despite being given nothing more than virtuous books to read, I was a child of ferocious imagination. As I told Daisy about flying men who chopped the heads off of screaming maidens, women who rode elephants, and two moons that rose up in the sky, I felt what dry earth must feel when it finally rains. She sat next to me, holding my hand absently and sometimes running her nails over the creases in my palm.

I finally ran out of breath when I told her about the great dancing lions, the ones the priests cut out of thick red paper, so intricate that as the scraps of paper fell away, you could make out round bulging eyes, gaping mouths, and every tight curl on the heavy mane. I paused long enough for Daisy to consider, and she reached under my pillow, drawing out my scissors and my mutilated picture book.

"Show me," she said, and I don't know why I didn't come up with an excuse. I didn't tell her that making a dancing lion was the province of priests, or that I was too tired, too small, or too young to do so.

Instead, I continued my lie, living moment by moment as her blue eyes settled their demanding weight on my hands. Soon, I would have to give it all up, but not yet, not while there existed a fragile bridge of pure trust and wonder between us.

I flipped to a fresh page in the middle of the book, where George and Jane caught fireflies for their sealed jar, and I started to cut. I knew that it would all be over soon, even at that age. I would pull a flimsy, unattractive lion from the paper, and Daisy would know me for the fraud I was.

Only somehow, that didn't happen.

Instead, as I roughed out the lion from the ingratiating smiles of George and Jane, my hands grew more sure, not less, and it seemed as if the light from my little reading lamp grew dimmer. I had seen a lion just once in my life, and it was a toothless and malevolent thing brought to town by a bedraggled circus. Two towns after the Louisville stop, it killed a child acrobat who had wandered too close, and I was deeply unsurprised. In my mind's eye, I saw manes that curled like wisps of steam and at the same time I saw a rufous shock of fur, bitten and half-bald. What I cut from the thick nubby paper was somewhere between the two, as were the four paws delicately tipped with sharp nails, the tail that curved over the beast's back, and the sinuous muscles of the lion's flanks and shoulders.

I was aware of Daisy's breath close to my ear, of the delicate ticking of the ormolu clock on the shelf, the distant chatter of the dinner party below. It all belonged to another country, because as I snipped around the lion's jaws, I could feel its hot breath against my hands. It was weighted with a kind of feline impatience and I cut faster, my cuts growing careless and at the same time more smooth. The blades slid through the paper, parting along some curve that I couldn't see but only felt instead. Once I was certain I had ruined it, but a long scrap curl fell from the figure, and the lion held its shape.

"Oh, how beautiful," Daisy cooed when I held the lion up for her approval.

If it was only that, it would have been enough. But of course, it wasn't.

Pinched between my thin fingers, the paper lion started to shiver as if in a breeze. It wiggled, it danced, and soon enough the four cut paws started to pedal in the air, churning for purchase before arching its rear legs up to scrape at my wrist. It was only paper and smaller than a kitten. It couldn't have hurt me, but the way it moved made me flinch back, certain I would turn my arm and see four thin scrapes all in a row.
Daisy uttered a surprised cry while I bit down on my tongue. We watched as the lion fluttered to the ground, landing with more weight than paper should have had. It hesitated for a moment as if confounded by life in paper as we were, and then it gathered its four paws underneath it, turning several times. Something shifted, and it was more than just card stock and a child's desperate urge to be adored. It was a memory of a murderous lion and a land far away, it was breath and resentment and longing. The hollows I had cut out so quickly were filling up with muscle and hair, and we watched with wonder until we saw that it was also growing.

"Jordan!" Daisy cried, clasping on to my arm. Her sharp nails dug hard into my bare shoulder, but I didn't know what to do any more than she did. We stared at the twisting thing uncoiling beneath our feet, and we could both feel its hot and rancid breath in our face, smell the blood of an acrobat child who had flown over the heads of thousands of people but never slept in a proper bed.

In a panic, I threw my scissors down onto it, and when that did nothing, I slammed the book it came from flat on top of it. That had an effect: it burst into greedy flames, a roar of denial and rage whooshing up from the ground, causing us both to shriek in surprise.

We were perched on my bed now, and I was hanging on to Daisy as if this weren't a mess entirely of my own making. I almost started crying but then Daisy reached over to my bedside table, where Thomasina left me a tall glass of water every night. She picked up the glass and to my eyes, she spilled the water almost by accident over the flames. The orange flames ebbed back down with a high and angry hiss, and dirty gray steam came up in pillowy clouds. Daisy and I had ended up holding hands tightly, our heads bent within inches of each other as we stared down at the smoldering mess that had been a walking, living paper lion.

"Sorry," I muttered, half-tearful, but she gave me a game grin.

"It's all right, it was just fabulous--"

Then the door burst open, Mrs. Baker and Daisy's mother in front with a half-dozen well-dressed adults behind. I reached for something, anything that might have made them believe it wasn't my fault, but Daisy was faster than I was.

She burst into loud shrieking tears, going from silent to a pained and tragic howl in less than a moment. Shoulder to shoulder, I could feel her shaking, and I realized with a kind of silent surprise that she was not faking at all.

There was a roar in the background, and then Mr. Fay was busting into my sugary-pink, smoky room like a bear into a beehive. He caught Daisy up in his arms, and she clung to him as tightly as he grabbed on to her. They murmured back and forth in a language I later learned was entirely their own, a cipher of shared blood and beauty, a remnant of some Victorian magery Mr. Fay had learned at Yale.

He bore the quaking Daisy from my room while Mrs. Baker bent down, putting fingers gingerly against the sodden mess of what had been my lion. My terror pulled back to reveal a surprising kind of grief--it had lived and now it was gone.

Mrs. Baker rose, wiping her fingers on one of my handkerchiefs lying by and giving me an impatient angry look. As I said before, she was a woman of few and stingy words. Those words would be thrown like sharp rocks at me in the morning, but for now, she only turned to her guests, shepherding them back to the relief of the sitting rooms and the good port.

Before she left, she turned off my bedside lamp with a hard click, and closed the door after, leaving me in a darkness that purred with fury, that smelled like soggy cotton and burned paper.

Copyright © 2021 by Nghi Vo


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