A Friend In Need - Chapter 1
Clarice St. Clair was not having a good day.
Then again, Clarice's birthdays were notoriously hexed. Over the past few years, especially, it had become a running gag throughout her family--a source of much amusement for her perfect younger sister, Sophia, and Sophia's equally perfect husband-to-be. No matter what occurred, Clarice remained the black sheep of the family. The constant punch line. Whenever something went well for Sophia, something horrific inevitably happened to Clarice.
Honestly, there were times Clarice wondered if she and Sophia had separate fathers ... or parents altogether. Sophia was tall, leggy, and had a river of sparkling, wavy blonde hair that could likely get a job of its own as a sales-rep for Pantene Pro-V. On the other hand, Clarice was short, flat-chested, narrow through the hips and waist--(“Men like a woman with birthing hips,” tsked Mother. “Oh, Claire-Claire, how will you ever get a man with those legs?”)--and had, in Mother's words, plain, bland, and downright ugly mud-colored hair. She also wore what her family called “Harry Potter glasses,” and somehow she didn't think they were so-named because of how prettily they framed her face.
Likewise, whenever Sophia had an event or threw a party, it was a smashing success.
For Clarice, even mundane triumphs, like surviving another year unscathed, didn't come without expense. And this birthday was no different. Right out of the gate, Clarice knew fortune wouldn't be on her side. Between fielding complaints from three university students with overdue books and lengthy excuses--the wildest of which involving larceny and the Russian mafia--a shopping trip with her mother she'd already postponed seven times, and her sister's upcoming nuptials (for which Clarice received daily “Save the Date!” reminders), the universe seemed permanently set against her. Throw in a morning stop from Professor Weston Ryans--during which he caught her with her pantyhose around her ankles--and the safer bet seemed burrowing herself in her apartment and sleeping until her birthday was over.
Not likely. Her mother had other ideas. And they involved dragging Clarice to all her least-favorite shops, talking about her least-favorite topics, and had currently landed her in her least-favorite café.
The woman didn't notice her daughter's discomfort, of course.
“This is a big birthday for you,” Mother insisted over a toasted bagel. “Do you feel any different?”
Clarice worried her brow. Her mother was, on her best days, only neurotic and mildly insulting. Today she was downright weird. “You know you ask me this every year, right?”
“Well, it seems especially important this year.”
“Why in the world would it seem especially important this year?”
Mother fidgeted and gingerly applied a napkin to her mouth. “No reason.”
In momspeak, that meant, “Big damn reason, but I'll let you figure out why.” Which was just fine with Clarice. Honestly, she failed to see the hype.
“Clarice, what have I told you about slouching?”
Instinct kicked in and she immediately straightened her spine. “Girls who slouch will marry a grouch.” It held less appeal than Mother's favorite saying, the more popular adage concerning the lack of passes boys made at speckled females.
“And you don't want to end up like your Great Aunt Betsy.”
“I don't think slouching is what landed her in an asylum, Mother.”
“Yes, well, I suppose we'll never know, will we?” Mother took a dainty sip of her sweet tea and batted her eyelashes. “So tell me, any romantic prospects on the horizon?”
This was precisely the reason Clarice went to great lengths to avoid these visits. The outing inevitably concluded on her lack of a love life, what she was doing to drive men away, and how she could avoid becoming an old maid if she just took some of dear Mother's advice. Said advice was, after all, how Miss Perfect Sophia had found Prince Charming (whose name was Vaughn Derfil, which no one aside from Clarice found amusing). When it came to men, work, and life in general, everything was a game of Mother Knows Best, and Mother was always there to say “I told you so” whenever things didn't go as planned.
Clarice had avoided business school in pursuit of an English degree, and now worked at her alma mater's library with no advancement in sight ( “I told you so” ).
Clarice hadn't signed up for that matchmaking service her childhood neighbor, Mr. Jefferies, had established for local lonely singles, and as a direct result hadn't had a date in six months ( “I told you so” ).
Clarice hadn't worn the blouse Aunt Marie had sent her for Christmas, therefore missing the chance to talk with that charming young salesclerk from the department store regarding the difference between red and fuchsia (“I told you so” ). Honestly, with as much as Mother enjoyed being right, Clarice dreaded the day when things didn't go as she predicted.
“No, Mother,” she said at last. It seemed infinitely wiser to get these things out in the open now rather than drag them out.
“Well.” Mother huffed in her self-important way. “Is there any wonder? Honestly, Claire-Claire, with the way you dress and the awful way you do your hair, what man is going to take notice of you?”
Clarice rolled her eyes. “I don't know how many times we have to have this conversation--”
“Neither do I, to be quite frank.”
“I am not interested in attracting men.” That wasn't entirely true; Weston Ryans was one tall drink of whisky she wouldn't mind sampling. But Weston hardly fit the bill of realistic romantic ambitions, or even better, the sort of man Mother would approve of. And if she were honest with herself, Clarice wasn't sure if her attraction wasn't amplified by the latter admission.
“Well, you're certainly not interested in attracting women, are you?”
A smirk tickled her mouth. “Not for lack of trying.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means whatever shuts you up.”
“That is no way to speak to your mother.”
“It's a pity there aren't more rules about how to speak to children.” Clarice sighed and reached behind her head to tighten her ponytail. “Somehow I don't think you go fifteen rounds on what Sophia's doing wrong in her life.”
Mother's nostrils flared the way they always did when Princess Sophia was referenced in any way that might hint upon anything less than praise. “Your sister--”
“Is marrying Mr. Wonderful, I know.” Literally. Vaughn Derfil. Mr. Von Der Ful. Seriously, how did no one else hear that?
“Your sister,” Mother continued, “has time that you do not.”
“My biological clock is only wound three years ahead of hers. Somehow if I haven't been proposed to by the end of the year, I think I'll survive.”
Mother looked stricken at that, and then did something not even Clarice could have anticipated.
She burst into tears.
While some moms were prone to natural theatrics--and Francis St. Clair was no exception--there were displays too personal, too unseemly, to resort to while in the company of others. Though Mother certainly didn't consider herself above snide remarks, passive-aggressive observations, and long looks that no one needed translated, screaming and crying were on her big list of public no-nos. And to that point, Clarice wasn't sure if she'd ever seen Mother shed a tear, even when the woman's beloved baby brother, Maurice, collapsed dead of a heart attack at age thirty-eight.
Thus to be in a café--a café Mother frequented enough to have “a usual”--and watch the woman collapse into a mess of loud, guffawing sobs, was at once extraordinarily alarming and morbidly hilarious. Thankfully, the warring reactions cancelled each other out, leaving Clarice with nothing to do but stare in stunned silence.
“Oh, Clarice,” Mother finally sputtered, blowing her nose loudly into her napkin.
“Can you ever forgive me?”
“Ummm ... sure.” It seemed a no-brainer. The novelty phase had begun wearing off, leaving her with the awareness that everyone in the proximity suddenly found them interesting. Bizarre or not, once-in-a-lifetime experience or not, Clarice preferred not to be a spectacle for the entire café.
“No,” Mother insisted noisily. Fat tears squeezed out of her eyelids and skated down her cheeks. “You can't.”
“I don't see how you could.”
Clarice leaned forward, bracing her palms on the table. “Are you okay? Do I need to ... call Dr. Nelson?”
The blubbering escalated tenfold. “Such compassion! I don't deserve you.”
“Well, I've always thought so--”
“Dear, you have to listen to me.”
I think the whole state is listening to you. Clarice managed to bite back the words, aiming a glare at the gawking, not-at-all-subtle looks the roomful of patrons cast their way. “What's the matter?” she spat. “Haven't you ever seen a nervous breakdown before?”
A few gazes broke away, chased by guilty blushes. The rest unapologetically stared on.
Somehow, the entire exchange completely escaped Mother. “Dear,” she said, reaching across the table. Clarice managed to evade the hand still clutching the mucous-filled napkin. “Twenty-five years, nine months ago, your father and I--”
“I so don't need to hear this.”
“We couldn't conceive children.”
“Yes, I know. I know I was your little miracle.” Clarice heard this story every year on her birthday ... only it typically came sans the blubbering and snot bubbles. “Both because I was born, and because I was the only recorded virginal birth since Christ.”
Mother looked at her askance, the sniveling coming to a halt. “Oh, dear, no. I was no virgin. Your father used to--”
Clarice dropped her mother's hand and immediately closed her ears. “I--really--don't--want--to--know--this!”
Mother kept talking, which was customary. She didn't look as upset anymore, either. Perhaps the number twenty-five simply had her feeling more nostalgic than usual. It didn't make sense, but not much of what Mother did made any sort of sense to Clarice. A point emphasized the next moment, when at last Clarice felt it was safe to drop her hands.
“--so your father and I made a deal with a demon.”
Clarice blinked at her. At some point, the bustling around the café had resumed, the customers apparently no longer finding their conversation interesting. She was left staring at Mother, who did not elaborate, rather stared right back.
Mother sighed and shook her head, at once a visage of her normal self. How someone could go from sobbing and rending their garments to perfectly composed and somewhat condescending was an art of its own, and Francis St. Clair was a master.
“Honestly, Claire-Claire, why do I feel like you never listen to me?”
“A demon? A...” She frowned. Mother never really had enjoyed what normal people called a sense of humor. “I don't get it.”
“Don't get what, dear?”
Clarice scowled. “The joke you just told me!”
Mother looked offended. “This is no joke, Clarice! Why on earth would I joke about such things?”
“This is exactly what I'm trying to figure out.”
“I am perfectly serious. Your father and I desperately wanted children, and we went to the local occultist when the traditional methods didn't pan out.” Her tone was so damn conversational, she almost sounded bored. “He gave us a book of spells and incantations, and after we decided upon the right demon to approach, we had a deal in place.”
Clarice's jaw couldn't seem to decide between the floor or locked tight. “Okay, now I really don't get it.”
“The demon's name was Asmodeus.”
A twinge of something not related to shock or confusion itched through Clarice's body. She knew that name. Weston had mentioned it half a dozen times in his last open-campus lecture, raving on about the demons who represented the cardinal sins. Asmodeus, if memory served, was supposed to be lust.
This meant two things: either Mother had researched her demons before pulling this elaborate prank, or she actually believed the words she spoke. Mother would sooner pluck out her eyeballs for an afternoon snack than research hell demons ... which made either possibility quite terrifying.
“Mother,” Clarice said slowly. “Why are you looking up demon names?”
Mother shot her a scandalized look. “I am doing nothing of the sort! I haven't touched a ... a ... demon book since before you were born!”
She sat back, her hands coming up. “Don't get all pissy with me; you're the one who brought up the D-word.”
“Would you please just tell me what the hell you're talking about so we can get back to our regularly scheduled episode of What's Wrong with My Daughter?”
“I will not sit here and let my own daughter blaspheme in front of me!”
“And yet in this twisted reality, consorting with demons is fair game.” Clarice shook her head and rested her elbows on the table. “Are you going to elaborate or do we get to play a round of twenty questions?”
Mother stared at her a long moment before her lip began quivering. “Oh, Claire-Claire...”
“Don't you freak out on me again.”
Surprisingly, the woman didn't leap to the defensive. She instead straightened her shoulders, stole a last sip of sweet tea, then bowed her head as though facing the gallows. “I mean what I said. Your father and I brokered a deal with a demon so we could conceive.”
The pesky niggling of fear began creeping up Clarice's spine again. This simply wasn't the tone one associated with jokes, even bad ones. While Mother might be famously bad at pulling someone's leg, she typically wore a goofy grin and jabbed her elbow to emphasize the ludicrous aspects of her story. She wasn't one to sit stone-faced and dance between a mixture of remorse and grief.
At this rate, it seemed best to go along with the joke and hope the punch line followed quickly. “Okay,” Clarice said slowly. “You ... brokered with a demon?”
“And what exactly did you broker?”
Mother wet her lips and fidgeted. “That's just it, dear,” she said. “You were the bargaining chip.”
Clarice blinked dumbly. “I was.”
“Before I was born...”
“The terms of the agreement were as follows.” Mother cleared her throat. “The firstborn child shall be raised five and twenty years until such a time when she is physically and mentally capable of ... submitting to Lord Asmodeus.”
Clarice's jaw again wrestled with gravity. Mother never referred to anyone aside from the baby Jesus as “Lord.” Never. There were no “lords of the house,” no one ever “lorded anything” over anyone else, and as far as she was concerned, William Golding had never written a book dealing with lords or flies. Mother wasn't a specific type of religious; she just was religious as surely as she was female, and she took her bible seriously.
“Lord Asmodeus?” Clarice echoed. “Mother, are you sure we don't need to call Dr. Nelson?”
Mother drew herself up. “Of course, dear, I am perfectly fine.”
“Yes, it is perfectly fine to discuss demons.”
“Don't take that tone with me.”
Clarice moaned and let her face fall into her waiting hands. Whatever in the world Francis St. Clair had up her sleeve was anyone's guess, but she supposed wading through the waters toward whatever endgame was her only option. After all, none of her conversations with Mother could ever be classified as normal, therefore splitting hairs now, while the instinctive thing to do, would only worsen her headache in the long run. “Okay,” she said. “You made a deal with ... Lord Asmodeus.”
Mother gave a tight nod. “Yes.”
“To submit me when I turn...”
“Twenty-five.” She paused, then leaned inward, a conspiratorial glint in her eye.
“That's this birthday, dear.”
“Yes,” Clarice deadpanned. “I do know how old I am.”
Mother quirked her head. “I don't understand.”
“Believe me, neither do I.”
“Apparently you haven't grasped the severity of this situation.”
“No, I haven't grasped the severity of your stroke. Does your face feel numb?”
Mother waved a hand and ignored her. “If memory serves,” she said, “a demon will visit you at precisely 7:19 this evening to discuss the next step.”
“The step of submitting me to this Lord Asmodeus guy.”
Another nod. “That's correct.”
“And what exactly does this submission shiiiii--stuff entail?”
“Lord Asmodeus is the ward over the Sin of Lust.” The way Mother spoke, one could hear the proper nouns. “He is a filthy, filthy creature ... but it was the only way to have you.”
“To have me. And give me up.” Even in her parents' delusions, Clarice was an unwanted child. She supposed it was all right so long as Princess Sophia remained virginally intact.
The other woman shook her head. “We didn't have a choice. We didn't--”
“All right.” Clarice heaved a breath and pushed her chair away from the table, doing her best not to wince at the loud whine it drew across the floor. “I think it's time to go.”
“Don't you want to go and watch me try on clothes you hate? Won't that make you feel better?”
“Lord Asmodeus is going to claim you as his bride.”
“I'm sure he is.”
“I am perfectly serious!”
“Yeah,” Clarice agreed slowly. “At least I'll have a date to Sophia's wedding. And you won't have to worry about me dying an old maid.”
This prospect did not lighten Mother's suddenly grim mood. Instead, she frowned, but moved to follow Clarice out the café door. “I don't know if Lord Asmodeus will permit you to attend your sister's wedding.”
An excited, wicked little rush hurried through her body. “Oh, even better. I'll have a good excuse to ditch.”
“Clarice St. Clair, what a horrid thing to say!”
Her inner cashiers began calculating what this outing would cost her in guilt and therapy; thus far, she was well under budget. Therefore, Clarice felt no remorse in responding with a clipped, “No more horrid than selling me to a demon.”
Even if the notion was ridiculous, she figured the phrase “it's the thought that counts” ran both ways.
“This was before we knew you, dear.”
“At least it wasn't Sophia.”
Clarice didn't know whether to be glad when there was no rejoinder, or offended at the implication that Mother agreed with her.
In the end, she decided silence was better.
Find out what happens to Clarice, and what her former professor, Weston Ryans, might already know, on April 30. A Friend in Need, coming soon from Liquid Silver Books.