At her mother’s insistence, Wendy took Laura to a holiday party, even though Wendy protested heavily that Laura would stand out. “God,” she said, “Do I have to?”
“Watch your language, young lady. And, yes, you must,” her mother said.
“What can I possibly tell people?” Wendy said, throwing up her hands, dramatically. “Look at how prissy she acts. It’ll be the end of me if I’m seen with her.”
For once, Laura agreed with her ‘sister.’ She preferred to stay home, and learn about English teenagers from the tellie, but Heather wouldn’t let her. “You’ll have to meet some humans, other than shopkeepers, soon. Why not now? Teenagers are so self-centered that they won’t bother much with you.”
Wendy planned to introduce Laura as an exchange student from Texas. That way everyone would excuse Laura’s blunders, because everyone knew that Texans didn’t have a clue. Laura knew that Wendy expected her to feel insulted, but she didn’t know enough about the modern world yet to feel anything except amusement.
Wendy needn’t have bothered concocting a story. Loud music prevented any conversation. She left Laura alone a few minutes after they walked in the door.
Laura wandered around until she located something to drink. Then she stood in a corner to watch the teenagers, who bopped up and down to the pulsing music. Her head began to ache, but she steadied herself. Heather had sent her to the party to learn, so she needed to pay attention.
She was shocked by their scanty clothing, but the ease with which they moved and interacted struck her more. That explained why Wendy thought her a ‘dork.’ It wasn’t her clothes, which were only a little more conservative than theirs; it was her body language. Part of her education was to adapt and blend in, so she slipped into the swaying mass, willing her hips and feet to move like theirs. At first, she felt conspicuous, but she gradually got the hang of it. When she bored of dancing, she discovered knots of kids hanging out in a kitchen, eating appetizers and talking. She filled a plate and slipped into the background. She felt okay doing that, because several other teens were doing the same. A few even said hello and chatted.
All of the kids seemed nice enough, but wrapped up in petty and rather selfish concerns. She wondered, a bit nastily, how they’d react if they suddenly found themselves living in her village, with one outfit to their name, and a day of working on an empty belly ahead of them.
She was relieved when Wendy’s father arrived to drive them home. Wendy, of course, protested: “Can’t I stay a little longer? This is the scene. All the popular kids are here. Plueeze, dad. You can take the clunker, I know she’s glad to get out of here, but I’ll catch a ride with someone.”
“No. It’s late,” George said, firmly.
Laura couldn’t imagine wanting to stay longer. Or standing up to an adult. Wendy was demanding in a way that was beaten out of children in Laura’s time. But then Wendy said something that surprised her: “We’re taking up a collection for one of the girls. Her mother just lost her job. I’m asking everyone I know to help. I can’t walk out now and leave it to the others.” Her face had turned serious. Her father nodded. “I’ll come back for you.”
Hearing that, Laura thought, made the whole party worthwhile. She’d not only seen a strong, thoughtful side of Wendy, but she’d seen that, if you had a good reason, you could stand up to authority and win. A few of the teens, she remarked to Heather later, smelled odd. She didn’t mean odd, as in they wore cheap perfume or had eaten something awful, but different in an unpleasant way. Those kids seemed the loudest and most domineering.
“Reptile blood, no doubt,” Heather said. “Or troll. You’ll learn to tell the difference.”
Laura puzzled over that one, like so many other things in this new world.
Christmas arrived. More presents than Laura could ever imagine clustered around the tree. The family took her and David to their first Anglican church service. It felt familiar yet strange, with the service in English rather than Latin, and the trappings not quite Catholic.
They returned home to the official opening of the presents. Laura was embarrassed by the pile of gifts. Even when her family had still owned the Manor, they each only received one gift. After a long lunch, they always visited poor families in their village, handing out meat and shoes for the children. Later, she had been one of those poor children, hoping for a little something to tide her and David through the cold, hungry, months of winter.
She looked over at her brother, buried in a pile of wrapping paper. Their hosts only meant to be kind, but it felt wrong. How could the earth supply everyone with so much stuff, without even any real labor on their part? David raced a truck around the living room, making the same vrooming sounds as his friend Titus, but she wondered if he wouldn’t be just as happy with a piece of wood.
Her own pile grew. New clothes, which Heather assured her she needed in order to blend in with other teens. Her own MP3 player, with a gift certificate to iTunes, so she could join the teen world and learn about their music.
“You can download lessons on almost anything,” Wendy pointed out, dismissively, fully returned to her usual snippy self.
“Fantastic,” Laura said. She had so much catching up to do that she wouldn’t be ready to join a classroom of her peers for a long time. Whatever she could learn on her own would free up Heather’s time.
Once they’d opened everything in the living room, they led her outside for the final gift: a bicycle.
“You need to learn to ride,” George said.
Wendy wrinkled her nose. “I wouldn’t be caught dead on a bike,” she said, sniffing.
“That’s cause you’re an idiot,” her brother said.
“It’s mom’s old bicycle,” Wendy said, and swept away back into the house.
Laura sure hoped that girl would grow into someone nicer during her months in Australia. She sat on the bike the way Heather showed, and tried to put both feet on the pedals while George steadied it. After a couple of tries, she rode a few wobbling feet. George assured her it would get easier. It would give her independence, so she could explore when Heather had things to do.
The family went to the children’s grandparents later in the day. Laura and David opted to stay home. With Wendy heading to Australia just after the New Year, her grandparents didn’t need strangers around.
David fell asleep in the middle of the living room. Laura carried him to his bed, then snuggled with him and drifted off, comforted by his familiar presence. So much had happened in the past two months that she almost hadn’t noticed the way she’d stopped taking care of him and let the Primroses take over. But, she realized, waking up to: “I’m hungry,” he was still her responsibility. This Christmas she had let Heather and George choose his gifts. Next year, she promised herself, she would do it.