“Don’t we make a good pair?” she demands, slamming the door. “Snow and Blood. Real pretty.”
“Striking,” I agree, though I haven’t the slightest idea who she is or why she just stormed into my office.
She appears disinclined to explain, and instead strides around the room, inspecting my diplomas (real) and the plants (fake), then deliberately and with slow precision pressing a bloodied thumbprint onto the spine of each of my books.
She looks eight years old. I do not believe she is eight years old.
I lean back, hands folded on the desk, and let her work in silence.
“Do you even care what I’m doing?” she demands after a moment.
“Of course,” I say.
“Then why haven’t you stopped me?” she says, triumphant.
“Should I?” I say, breaking my rule of avoiding yes/no binary questions.
“You should,” she says, low. “I’m marking for deletion.” She smears her thumbprint across three books. “Eradicating the system. Working outside the lines.”
My tone is innocent. “By harming the printed word?”
She hisses at me. “Say goodbye to your books!”
“Goodbye, books,” I say, consciously neutral.
“Don’t mock me!” she cries, and runs out the door.
I let her go.
Thirty seconds after she’s gone, my books begin to crack ominously, and a white, spitting mist emanates from them.
I deem it wise to leave.
In the end, the fire department puts it all down to a malfunction of the fire suppression system, though I hardly see how that could cause ice to climb the walls and crack the paint and shatter my books like delicate glass.
Jagged pieces of spine melt by my feet, authors’ names bifurcated, titles lost.
She will come back. I doubt I gave her what she wants, and whatever it is, she needs it badly.
Insurance will replace the books. Eventually. What a bother.
Her second appearance comes one month after her first, and she arrives wearing the same simple gray sheath dress as before. Her gray stockings have acquired numerous holes, and she shows no sign of minding the colder weather.
“You didn’t come after me,” she says.
“I try not to chase women down the street as a rule,” I reply, trusting my instinct that she is older than she seems.
“What do you want, a medal?” she sneers, confirming it.
“Not particularly,” I reply.
I now see she wears a makeshift purse—a worn cloth bag that rests against her hip, held up by a dirty string slung across her slim body. I wonder what she carries there.
The young woman walks toward me and places her thumb against my forehead. “I could kill you, you know,” she says.
“I believe you,” I say, because I do.
She stares at me.
Only my breath moves in this room, tickling her palm. I meet her gaze, calm. Simply present.
Her face twitches.
This time, when she flees, she slams the door so hard she knocks a few of my re-ordered diplomas askew.
I admit taking a moment to check my forehead, but there is no bloody mark. She did not harm me.
That does not mean I am safe.
Another month passes. Rumors of her appear in the news—mostly gossip rags and paranoid internet sites, because who can credit tales of a pale little girl with dirt under her nails and in the creases of her neck, freezing things with a single, bloodied touch?
Of course, the internet believes she is a ghost. She is not a ghost. And she will be back.
When she comes to me the third time, bruises shade her eyes, and her sheath dress is dirty and torn.
Apart from a polite HAPPY HOLIDAYS draped on the front of my desk—and my tuxedo, donned for a party I now doubt I will attend—my office has not changed. “Welcome back,” I say.
She bares her teeth and places her hand against the wall. Fizzing white mist spits out from around her fingers, and the wall cracks with the suddenness of a dying iceberg.
She wishes for a reaction, obviously. Here is the moment of lottery: I must guess at which reaction will keep her here.
I raise my eyebrow. “Was it the insurance company?”
She recoils. “What?”
“The insurance company. The one responsible for repairing this building. I presume they were the ones who wronged you.”
“Don’t be stupid!”
“Perhaps the interior designer, then?”
“Stop it!” she steps forward. “Stop making fun of me!”
“I am not making fun of you,” I say. “I am guessing wildly, as you have given no reason for your actions and apparently want me to guess. Tea?”
She looks away, breathing hard, which I choose to interpret as maybe.
She is bound inside, terrified or furious, and could explode at any moment. I must tread this conversation with utmost precision.
I drape my white scarf over the back of my chair, then plug in the hot pot. I keep gallons of water in here—never mind why—so it is a work of a moment to start some boiling.
She watches me for a moment before venturing to speak again. “Tea? Really?”
“Why not? Honey?”
“I’m afraid I have no milk.”
“Milk in tea is gross.”
“If you say so.” I place the mug at the edge of my desk, then back away from it.
She eyes it. Studies me, wary as a wounded beast, then reaches into her little leather purse to remove white leather gloves that have seen better days. She dons them quickly, takes three decisive strides to snatch her mug from the desk, then scurries back against the wall.
At her touch, her little purse froze white and stiff, and has yet to melt. However, the mug—protected by her gloves—still steams.
She sips. Winces.
“It is quite hot,” I say, deadpan, and silently admit I deserve the dry glare she gives me for it.
“Why tea?” she finally says.
“Because it is hospitable, and I am not your enemy.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do. I cannot say whether you are my enemy, but I know that I am not yours.”
“I. Blew up. Your office,” she says with slow exaggeration.
“If I became an enemy merely because of property damage, I would be in the wrong line of work.”
She considers this for a long moment while steam rises between us like a veil.
“I’m everyone’s enemy,” she finally says.
“That sounds like a heavy curse to bear.”
Curse was the right word, and she responds, exhales, slumps in a deflation of self that rids her of tension and intended violence. We spend a moment like that, each in silent thought, and when she looks up, her eyes have filled with tears.
Do I draw attention to this, or not? A gamble: “Tissues?”
She wavers between anger and gratitude, but practicality wins, and she crosses the room to take the box.
Now she has a mug in one hand and a tissue box in the other, which leaves her, after a fashion, helpless.
I must preclude panic. “If you wish to use the desk in lieu of an extra hand,” I say, “I will not approach you. I will not intrude upon your space. I will stay here, in my seat, unmoving.”
“How did you—” She bites that sentence off. “Thanks.” And she sits. Her tea is finally cool enough to sip.
I can smell her body odor from here.
She does not look as though she’s bathed more than a handful of times since we last met. The dirt under her nails is old and hardened, and the right strap of her undershirt is held together with a paper clip, metal loops pulling the ragged cloth taut.
“Do you read minds?” she says.
“No. I merely observe.”
“That’s dumb,” she says, and shifts to the edge of her seat.
“Then allow me to prove myself,” I say. “For example, I see that your fingers do not drip. While you can and do mark things with what seems to be blood, it appears that your body produces a set amount on each finger and your palm, almost like a protective layer, which replaces itself when wiped off. Am I correct?”
She stares at me.
“I also guess that you have little control over it,” I say. “While it seems leather does not explode at your touch, and in fact protects other objects from your power, I will hazard a guess that you cannot easily turn your abilities off. I suspect you did not kill me before only because, by choice, you had already used your thumb’s layer on something else first. Am I correct?”
Her eyes fill again. “How did you know?”
“This is not my first meeting with a powerful individual who has merely become lost,” I say gently. “I cannot yet know why you came to me, but I can tell you what I offer: a partnership of knowledge. Nothing that would ever threaten your autonomy.”
She focuses on her tea. Her feet dangle; she is wearing pink Mary Janes so dirty they resemble cooked flesh.
“If you wish me to help you, I will.”
“I can’t pay.”
“You do not have to. One of the reasons I take non-magical clients is so I can help the magical without distraction.”
She will not look at me now. “You can’t help me. I’m different. I’m a monster.”
She expects me to react to that last word, and so I do not.
Silence has power, and she cannot withstand it. “I am!” she cries. “I just destroy things! Get it? That’s my magic power. My Final Solution thumbs. That’s what I called them when I was young. Real funny, huh?”
“Actually, I think it is quite clever.”
“No you don’t,” she says.
I do, but arguing is pointless. “Why have you come?”
She hesitates. “They said you could help me.”
“They? Perhaps former clients?”
She glances at me and away again. “Yeah. I found them online. Look . . . ”
I will have to track down this angle later; it seems unsafe. “May I ask your name? You may call me Ranier, or Dr. Blood, or anything that feels comfortable to you.”
She sniffs. “Call me Snow. It was Rose, but I don’t use that. Never use that.”
And the pieces fall into place.
Rose. Rose Red, daughter of a certain conservative senator, hidden away as if she did not exist, never photographed, never appearing in any school due to . . . rumors.
I heard that her nursery walls cracking with frost and her ceiling snowing until the carpet was soaked.
I heard that her baby bottles filled with ice and exploded.
I heard that she leaked blood from her hands like a strange fingerprint stigmata.
I did not forget.
Senator Arlington Red, a wildly conservative man, may never be ready to admit he has a magical daughter—and now, he will not have to. Snow should be around fifteen years old, and capable of surviving on her own while looking half that age. I must make my offer carefully, or she will think she can already do what I teach.
“Thank you, Snow. Let us get the basics out of the way. First: If you do not want to return to your family, you do not need to.”
She stares. “You’re not sending me back?”
“Not if you don’t want to go.”
“I’m a minor.”
“Immaterial. You have magic, and that means you are not subject to human laws.”
She exhales as though the thought of returning was burning her, and I wait, letting her restart the conversation. “I don’t . . . I still don’t know if you can help me.”
“I can try,” I say, soft. “I cannot and will not force anything, but if you’re willing to work with me, I can help you learn to control your powers. I can help you to create and maintain a new life in which you will need no help and never need fear human law enforcement. That is what I do, Snow. Are you willing to trust me?”
A crucial wording. Not whether she trusts me, but that she is willing to work toward that trust.
She stares at me, swallowing repeatedly. Looks down at her white-gloved hands, then back at me. And then she says my favorite words: “So how do we do this?”
This is why I do what I do.
I will make a space for her, digging it out of reality.
I will help her control her powers and determine why she has not aged.
I will make her into force of unstoppable reckoning, and she will someday be a queen among men.
It is time to begin.