Young Sophie Learns the Game
The Thing Under the Bed
Sophie Fischer was four years old when she lost her mother. Some claimed it was suicide, others claimed she fell in with the wrong crowd, others still asserted that it was that damn devil magic. Regardless of what their pet theories were, they all had the commonality of letting them cluck their tongues about the demise of the irresponsible single mother who left behind a four-year-old daughter.
Then there were those who knew, those that were there when it happened. Ed Danvers was there. When asked about what happened to Laurel Fischer his eyes went blank, he finished his drink and walked out without a word. Ed had arranged for Laurel’s daughter to be taken in by his old partner, Charles Ellers and his family; his wife Clare and his own four-year-old daughter Cheryl.
Laurel had left behind a will that only had one stipulation, that her daughter was to take possession of the only worldly belonging that mattered to her; an antique tome dating back to the 15th century known as the Principia Arcana. The arcana was penned by distant relatives of hers; Cletus Wensleydale, an alchemist, and his granddaughter Abigayle Rosenkreutz. The book was passed down through the generations from mother to daughter and it was Laurel’s wish that the chain continued down to Sophie. Clare Ellers had other thoughts. She didn’t cotton to the idea of this poor child falling down the same dark hole her forbearers did. They had all seem to have met some mysterious dark end. Her great-grandmother Sylvia Winthrop was killed in an explosion which appeared to be arcane in origin. Her grandmother Shelby Herveaux disappeared into the shadows and never emerged again. And now Laurel was gone due to a similar mysterious and unexplainable cause. Clare wasn’t going to let that happen to Sophie. She was entrusted to her care and she took that approached that duty with deadly seriousness. She hid the Principia away.
She was sheltering toward Sophie to an extent. She showed a protectiveness toward her that she didn’t seem to extend to her natural daughter Cheryl. She seemed to tolerate her wild child proclivities, while at the same time wrapping Sophie’s world in bubble wrap. Sophie wasn’t even allowed to ride a bike until she was 12.
Sophie sat in last period math class watching the clock with sweaty palms. She had to make her break for home before Bridget Patterson and her cadre of sycophants caught sight of her. Sophie swung her feet as she counted down the seconds, every other swing came in contact with the chair in front of her. By virtue of alphabetical order, that chair belonged to Cheryl.
“Damn it, Soph,” Cheryl spun around and smacked her hands down on Sophie’s desk, “Would you stop kicking my chair.”
“Sorry,” Sophie said with her head bent.
“Are you worried about Bridget and her teeny bopper squad? Why don’t you just punch her in her cute little button nose and get it over with?”
Sophie sighed and fixed her eyes on the clock.
“Such a mess,” Cheryl turned back to face the front before she got in trouble with Mr. Blake again, “Hey,” she whispered, “Maybe Santa will get you a backbone for Christmas.”
“Not funny, Cher,” Sophie looked near tears.
The bell rang. Sophie scrambled to dump her books in her bag and made a run for it. She ran across the football field behind the school to the bridge that cut over the creek and emptied out into her neighborhood. She just had to make to the bridge and she’d be home free. And then she heard a baleful voice.
“Hey, Soapy,” the voice called.
“That makes no sense, Bridget,” Sophie said turning toward the voice, “What does it even allude to?”
“Are you mouthing off, adopted girl?” Bridget said and grabbed her by the ponytail, “Time for a trim.”
Bridget pulled out a pair of battered scissors that she had stolen from art class for this purpose. She clipped them in the air in front of Sophie’s face. Her eyes welled up.
“No, C'mon, please not again,” Sophie cried.
Her tears seemed to harden Bridget’s resolve. She took the scissors at snipped off Sophie’s ponytail as close to her head as she can get it. It took a few squeezes of the dull clippers, but she finally cut through. She pulled Sophie to the ground and threw her severed hair at her. Sophie sat with her face in her hands weeping, as Bridget and her minions taunted her.
“Excuse me, Miss Piggy?” Sophie heard the voice of her sister.
Cheryl tapped Bridget on the shoulder. Bridget spun around and Cheryl gave her a kiss on her upturned nose, then drove her fist straight into it. Bridget’s nose exploded into a crimson river streaming down her face.
“Fucking dike,” Bridget screamed.
One of Bridget’s followers was frozen with shock, the other one darted to assist her. Cheryl pulled back for another strike and her elbow socked Bridget’s friend square in the eye, making the girl question her course of action. Cheryl delivered another blow to the already bloodied nose of Bridget.
“Two for one,” Cheryl said.
“Fuck you, muff diving cunt,” Bridget cried.
Cheryl pinched Bridget’s nose and squeezed, “Either you can shut up and run home crying or I can keep doing this. I recommend the former, but prefer the latter.”
Bridget’s face was twisted in anger and pain. She breathed in for another insult, but Cheryl twisted her nose. Overwhelmed with tears and thunderous pain, Bridget ran off leaving her friends behind, mouths agape. Cheryl walked toward one of them with the nonchalance of someone turning on a light switch and slapped her across the face. After the brief spell of shock wore off and Cheryl wound up for another dose of punishment, the girls ran off in the respective directions of their homes. Cheryl helped Sophie to her feet.
“That’s all you have to do,” Cheryl said, “Fuck up a pretty face and they’ll think twice.”
Sophie remained quiet, head bent low and shuddering with sobs. Cheryl put her arm around her and walked her home.
“I know this isn’t going to help,” Clare said, sitting on the couch, holding Sophie, “But your hair grows pretty fast. In the meantime, we can fix it up into a cute little pixie cut.”
Sophie gave a wistful grunt, that approximated a laugh and buried her face into her mother’s shoulder.
“She needs to learn how to kick some ass,” Cheryl said.
“Language,” Clare replied.
“My daughter isn’t going to be fighting anyone.”
“But it’s okay for me, right?”
“You're different. Sophie’s...”
“Delicate? Ever think she’s that way because you’ve nerfed her world?”
“She’s always needed special attention.”
“She needs the attention or do you need to give it?”
“She’s had a hard life.”
“She’s lived here for 11 of her 15 years. The only hard life she’s had was the one in your imagination.”
“I’m not arguing with you right now.”
“Whatever, it’s rush hour, I’m going to go bungee jumping off an interstate bridge. Don’t wait up,” Cheryl smacked the handle of the screen door and trotted from the house with a bang.
“Such a little Miss Smarty Pants,” Clare shook her head.
Sophie laughed and smiled for the first time that afternoon.
“That’s more like it,” Clare said, “Any room is that much brighter when you smile,” she kissed her on the forehead, “Your father is going to be home late and I have to run some errands. You’ll be fine on your own for a few hours?”
“Yeah, mom, I’m 15, I’ll be fine,” Sophie said and giggled, “I won’t let the monsters get me.”
“Oh you’re going to be Smarty Pants like your sister, are you? Barney is in the yard, I’m sure he’ll bark to come in sooner or later. I’ve left his food out. You can give it to him around six, okay?”
As, Sophie flipped through the channels the sunlight that was streaming through the windows began to fade and be replaced by a gray, almost blue hue. She could hear thick, swollen drops begin battering against the windows and the wooden deck out back. Barney the Boston terrier began to unleash a barrage of frantic barks.
“Oh, poor thing,” Sophie said, letting him through the sliding glass door, “You’re getting soaked.”
Barney did a brief song and dance of appreciation, while Sophie scratched his ears. The celebration was cut short by an explosion of lightning and thunder that sound like it was in the room with them. Barney bolted up the stairs and inserted himself under Charles and Clare’s bed.
“Barney,” Sophie called, “It’s time to eat.”
Another crash came and windows shook so hard Sophie wasn’t sure how they hadn’t broken. She ascended the stairs and another crash rang out. This time the power failed. It was dark, save for the dying light of the stormy evening. She called into the rooms of the upper floor, to rouse her apoplectic dog. As she passed her parents room, she could hear his mournful whimpering coming from under the bed.
Her parents' room felt like a strange room in another house. While she was never explicitly forbidden to enter, she always felt like it was a sort of no-fly zone for her. She crouched down and peeked under the bed and there she found Barney, shaking and crying.
“Are you going to stay under there forever?” Sophie said, holding her hand out, “Do you live under here now?”
Barney crawled closer and gave Sophie’s hand a lick and wagged his tail. The joyous reunion was interrupted by the sound of the sky being torn in two. Barney scooted backward in a frantic attempt to find the absolute center of his impromptu shelter; the place of maximum hiding. He knocked over a stack of her father's archery magazines.
When she had first arrived, she was shy and had difficulty connecting with her new family. Each of them had found a different way to break the ice, but introducing her to an activity they could do together. Clare introduced her to astronomy. They would spend hours looking through her telescope. Sophie became enraptured with the moon. Cheryl shared her comic books with her and they’d even try to write and draw their own. Charles introduced her to archery, much to Clare's chagrin. Sophie took to it like a duck to water and it proved successful in developing a strong bond with her father, so Clare tolerated it.
As the magazines fell, it became they revealed a curious thing. A large and tattered book. It looked ancient. Its leather binding was peeling in over most of the cover, but the embossed title could still be read; Principia Arcana. She regarded it for a long moment. She knew she shouldn’t be taking things from her parent's room. Especially, something that looked as though they had put some thought into concealing, but she felt a pull. She reached for it and lightning slashed the sky, followed by a deep, rolling peel of thunder. She pulled back and felt her breath quicken. She reached for it again and slipped it toward her along the carpet. She sat up and opened it.
The early pages were written in a strange, old variety of English, but was still comprehensible. As she leafed through the encountered weird diagrams, recipes for things she couldn’t imagine the purpose of, and procedures for what appeared to be magical rituals.
“Why do my parents have this?” she said to Barney.
On the last few pages was a list of names. Cletus Wensleydale, followed by Abigayle Rosenkreuz, Jane of Wexford, Caroline Bradford. She leafed forward. Sylvia Winthrop, Shelby Herveaux, Laurel Fischer.
“Was this my mom’s?” she asked the dog.
The rest of the pages were empty, but between the final page and the back cover, a handwritten note was wedged.
You might not remember me. I had to leave you too soon. Please, know that I never wanted to leave you to grow up in the world alone, but if I hadn’t, there likely wouldn’t have been a world for you to grow up in. Maybe it won’t come to that and maybe I wrote this letter for nothing, but if it does turn out that way, I want you to know that I love you more than anything in this world. You were always my shining, little light. Like a big full moon even in the darkest night. Whatever happens, I’ll always be watching over you. To make sure of that, I’m leaving you with the only material thing in this world that matters to me. I’m giving you this book as it was given to me by my mother as she was given it by hers. Mr. Danvers will make sure your taken care of and you make sure you never lose your light.
Sophie was startled by the sound of the front door closing.
“Criminy,” she heard her mom bellowing, “It’s coming down buckets out there.”
Sophie shoved the book back under the bed and straightened out the magazine pile.
“C’mon, Barney,” she said and ran downstairs.
“Boy, oh, boy,” Clare said, “It’s terrible. How have you been.”
“Fine,” Sophie gave a quiet, pat response.
“Barney didn’t eat yet?” Clare gestured toward his food.
“He was hiding from the thunder.”
For the next few days, Sophie could think of little else other than the book under the bed. She wondered why her parents had withheld the only thing left of her mother. The thing her mother wanted her to have upon a death she seemed to know was coming. She needed answers, but the only person she could think to ask was Mr. Danvers, but the family had lost touch with him after they moved to Philadelphia. Her father seemed certain he either shot himself or let the bottle do all the work. He would talk about how he was haunted by his time in New Orleans and would drown himself in liquor. That had only gotten worse after he came to LA and fell in with Simon Vicks and Laurel Fischer.
“I know this is going to be difficult to hear,” her mother prefaced her bombshells by telling Sophie she knew the strength of the blast she was about to receive, “Your mother was a troubled person.”
That’s the only adjective Clare would apply to Laurel; troubled. Sophie didn’t know what that was a euphemism for, Clare refused to elaborate. It felt like everyone was making a concerted effort to get Sophie to forget all about her mother. She almost had. Then Barney crawled under the bed. Now Sophie couldn’t get the book or her mother out of her head.