When I came in the others were already at table. Mother greeted me with her strange, forced cheeriness but I could tell that she was at the end of her tolerance. The smell of orange stung my sensitized nostrils. I watched her intently.
We ate in silence.
The celebration dinner was heavy, like eating clay, and my stomach rebelled against it. I pushed food about on my plate until I was sure she was looking elsewhere, then transferred it into my apron pocket for later disposal. I need not have worried. In the state she was in, I don’t think she would have noticed if I’d thrown it against the wall.
“I smell oranges.” Her voice was brittle with desperation. “Has any of you brought oranges into the house?”
Silence. We looked at her blankly, expectant.
“Well? Have you? Brought oranges?” Voice rising now, a plea, an accusation.
Reine looked at me suddenly, guilty.
“Of course not.” I made my voice flat and sullen. “Where would we get oranges?”
“I don’t know.” Her eyes were narrow with suspicion. “The Germans, perhaps. How should I know what you do all day?”
This was so close to the truth that for a moment I was startled, but I didn’t let it show. I gave a shrug, very conscious of Reinette watching me. I shot her a warning look.
Give the game away, would you?
Reinette turned back to her cake. I kept on watching my mother. Staring her out. She was better at it than Cassis, her eyes expressionless as sloes. Then she stood up abruptly, almost knocking over her plate and half-dragging the tablecloth with her.
“What are you staring at now?” she cried at me, stabbing at the air with her hands. “What are you staring at, damn you? What is there to see?”
I gave another shrug. “Nothing.”
“That isn’t true.” Voice like a bird’s, sharp and precise as a woodpecker’s beak. “You’re always staring at me. Staring. What at? Thinking what, you little bitch?”
I could smell her distress and fear, and my heart swelled with victory. Her eyes dropped from mine. I did it, I thought. I did it. I won.
She knew it too. She looked at me for another few seconds, but the battle was lost. I gave a tiny smile, which only she could see. Her hand crept to her temple in the old gesture of helplessness.
“I have a headache,” she said with difficulty. “I’m going to lie down.”
“Good idea,” I said tonelessly.
“Don’t forget to wash the plates,” she said, but it was only noise. She knew she’d lost. “No putting them away still wet. No leaving-” Then she broke off, silent, staring into space for half a minute. A statue frozen midmovement, mouth half open. The rest of the sentence hung between us for an uneasy half-minute.
“Plates on the draining board all night,” she finished at last, and stumbled off down the passageway, pausing once to check the bathroom, where there were no more pills.
We-Cassis, Reinette and I-looked at one another.
“Tomas said to meet him at La Mauvaise R'eputation tonight,” I told the others. “He said there might be some fun.”
Cassis looked at me. “How did you do that?” he said.
“Do what?” I echoed.
“You know.” His voice was low and urgent, almost fearful. In that moment he seemed to have lost all authority over us. I was the leader now, the one to whom the rest would look for guidance. The strange thing was that though I realized this at once, I felt scarcely any satisfaction. There were other things on my mind.
I ignored his question. “We’ll wait until she’s asleep,” I decided. “An hour, maybe two at most. Then we’ll make our way across the fields. No one will see us. We can hide out in the alley and watch out for him.”
Reinette’s eyes lit up, but Cassis looked skeptical. “What for?” he asked at last. “What are we going to do when we get there? We’ve got nothing to tell him, and he already left the film magazines-”
I glared at him. “Magazines,” I snapped. “Is that all you ever think about?”
Cassis looked sullen. “He said something interesting might happen,” I said. “Aren’t you curious?”
“Not really. It mightn’t be safe. You know what Mother-”
“You’re just chicken,” I said fiercely.
“I’m not!” He was, though. I could see it in his eyes.
“I just don’t see the point in-”
“Dare you,” I said.
Silence. Cassis gave a sudden pleading look at Reine. I began to stare him out. He held my gaze for a second or two, then turned away.
“Baby stuff,” he said with mock indifference.
“Double dare you.”
Cassis made a furious gesture of helplessness and defeat. “Oh, all right, but I tell you, it’s going to be a pointless waste of time-”
I laughed in triumph.