The Renaissance Faire wrecks my birthday every year. A month before the actors and merchants arrive to transform Hopewell Falls Park into a sixteenth-century towne—yes, with an “e”—Mom stops taking her lithium. Within forty-eight hours she’s higher than a prom queen accepting her crown. As the best seamstress east of the Appalachian Trail, she thinks it’s her duty to stay awake for days, surviving on double espressos and cigarettes, to make the royal court’s costumes. She says mania makes her more productive, but all it does is turn her into a raging beast that puts Sauron, the Basilisk, and the Kraken all to shame.
Her internet business, Devans’s Dazzling Dresses, caters to the Renaissance crowd and occupies her all year long, but our local faire gives her the most sales.
“These orders came in months ago. Why wait until the last minute to finish them?” I hover near the doorway to the living room—a.k.a. Mom’s studio—and try not to choke on the stagnant air. A wheeze plays at my lungs. I finger the inhaler that I always carry in case I have to take a puff.
The room has the best natural lighting in the whole house. A large bay window, stretching from floor to ceiling, is the envy of every do-it-yourself crafter on the block. I dream about curling up on the seat cushion with a book and a cup of hot chocolate, but Mom never lets anybody in there. No. Matter. What.
I’d need to wear a gas mask, anyway, to prevent an asthma attack.
Heavy-metal music throttles my eardrums. I resist the urge to clap my palms over my ears. Mom says she can draw energy from the sound waves. She thinks the bands create their music specifically for her. No amount of lithium makes that go away.
“What else am I supposed to do? This is how I create.” Her blue eyes spark with fury as she takes a drag on her cigarette. Two inches of ash hang on the end. It’s beyond me how it doesn’t fall off and burn the fabric she’s working on. At least the dry cleaner can erase the smoky stench from her masterpiece after it’s done. She throws a pincushion at me and returns to her ironing. “Now get out of here. Don’t you have finals to study for or something?”
“But Mary’s and my birthday is coming up and I wanted to talk to you—” My voice squeaks and tears burn at my eyes.
Her head snaps up, sending wild-colored curls swaying with agitation. “I’m. Working.”
I can’t even get two sentences out and she’s in attack mode. My stomach twists on itself as instinct claws at my chest, begging for clean air. Ask quickly and get out. That’s the plan. I lick my dry lips. “We’re turning sixteen. It’s important.”
She plucks the cigarette from her mouth and pulverizes it in a nearby ashtray. Her nicotine-stained fingers shake, fumbling to light another one. It takes two flicks for the lighter to ignite. Her cheeks hollow out as she sucks in along drag. She holds it in for a few seconds, eyes closed in fleeting bliss, and blows it out. The lines of her face—webbing crows’ feet, jagged wrinkles across her forehead, arcs from her nose to the corners of her lips—deepen. Pale gray fog surrounds her like she’s a smoldering dragon working up to the big explosion of fire.
“Everything’s about you and your sister, isn’t it? Well, did it ever occur to you that the work I do helps pay the bills around here? I don’t see you bringing in a paycheck.”
“Whatever.” Like a defenseless knight who’s lost his courage, I retreat. I storm upstairs, my ever-ready puffer in one hand while I wave away the haze of smoke with the other. The whole house smells like stale nicotine and my asthma is flaring like Jenny Johnson’s face that time she farted in gym class. I slam the door behind me.
“You interrupted Mom, didn’t you?” My ever-perceptive twin, Mary, guesses right. She removes her earbuds and sets aside her biology textbook.
“No.” I take a hit from my inhaler and flop on my paisley bedspread. Doesn’t matter that I stare at the ceiling. Her accusation crashes over me like a tsunami. I roll on my side to face her. “Yes.”
She runs her hands through her curly espresso-colored hair and glares at me with her jade eyes. “Why?”
“Why not? We’ve never had a real, disaster-free birthday party because of the Renaissance Faire. Isn’t it about time?” I refuse to surrender to her disapproval. She’d never challenge Mom. At least I try. My Papillon dog, Castor, leaps on the bed. The fringe of his sable ears flutter like streamers as he licks my cheeks.
Mary averts her gaze and picks up his brother, Pollux. It was Mom’s idea to name them after the Gemini twins. She called it “kitschy.” Pfft. Amazing she didn’t name us after them.
“Well?” I sit up. Castor’s and Pollux’s dark eyes stare at me with sympathy. The cozy bedroom is their safe haven as much as it is ours.
“The more you bother her, the less likely it is we’ll get a party. I bet she won’t bake a cake this year, either.” She presses her chin against Pollux’s head.
“So it’s my fault we won’t get a party?”
She winces. “I didn’t say that.”
Regret presses on my shoulders and slides down my spine to nestle in my gut like a snake. It coils in my stomach, tail rattling with agitation. “I don’t mean to make things worse.”
“I know,” she barely whispers.
I take a deep breath and imagine the regret snake spontaneously combusting and evaporating into nothingness. Better than having it strike and lodge its fangs into my liver. “What kind of cake would you want?”
“It would be cool to have a tiered one, with piping and flowers. Maybe even edible pearl candies or something.”
The corner of her mouth hitches up.
Mary likes pretty things. I prefer edgy. “What about one with a knight beheading a dragon on top? Blood-red icing can trail down the sides and pool around the base.”
She scrunches her nose and scratches behind Pollux’s ear. “Gross. Maybe we can get a Papillon cake. It’d be so cute.”
It’s not a bad idea.
Her half-smile fades. “Doesn’t matter. Mom won’t go for any of it.”
“It’s so unfair.” Amped on the pain of injustice, I launch myself to my feet and pace our bedroom, from our window overlooking the wooded park across the street, to the desk we share on the other side. The braided rug between our twin beds massages my bare feet.
“Yeah, and what are you going to do about it? Nothing, that’s what.” Mary cradles Pollux in her arms and carries him to his doggie bed. After gently lowering him to the round cushion, she stares at her closet, gaze scanning every inch, and taps her chin. Sucking on her bottom lip, she falls into an OCD trance, and I’ve lost any chance at wrangling her back into the conversation about Mom.