“She’s just there,” Miles told her, “through the pines.”
Her gentleman acquaintance of three months gave Althea’s elbow a reassuring squeeze. Althea was old money, but she knew he liked her for more than that. Though she was a little past spring, her auburn hair was in a flapper bob. Her lips were full, as were her cheeks, and charitable souls called her pretty. Worry crossed her sunny, plump face that day, and a single tooth gnawed at her bottom lip.
“Are you sure,” she said, “darling are you sure? I’m just so frightened she’ll hate me.”
“Of course she won’t!” Miles said almost automatically. “You’ll see. She’s a very self-contained girl. You’ll love her.”
Althea doubted that. As a proud aunt and annual donator to the Orphans of war fund, she was only fond of children at a distance. But Miles was such a man, such a sweet man that his good qualities surely outweighed any pettishness from his daughter.
Miles kissed her in the corner of her mouth, skewing his hat to one side to hide it from the driver. She found the gesture rakish, and delighted upon it.
Her good mood did not last through her climb. Her heels sank in sand and pulled her back, but propriety dictated she couldn’t take them off. She reached the apex sweating and out of breath.
The girl was before her.
Oddly, Althea had not seen her on first reaching the summit. She gave a little cry.
“Oh! I’m Althea, dear, and your daddy’s told me so much about you.” Althea had assumed the sugar-sweet coaxing tone that she used with children.
The girl viewed her remotely through dark eyes. She could have been nine. Her outfit was a nouveau riche parody of a girl’s school uniform, accentuated with bows and buttons that would never have passed muster. The girl’s shoes were shiny hard leather. Althea made a mental note about possible spoiling.
Althea realized she was staring and made a little curtsey. The girl put her hand out as if to shake.
Althea laughed—“no, no dear!”—and waved the hand away. She didn’t relish the idea of touching the girl.
“You must be anxious,” she told the girl.
“I’m a demon,” the girl said.
Althea’s smile faltered. “That’s quite…what an imagination you must have.”
The girl did not fidget, gave no outward sign she was having fun with Althea.
“Your daddy must be quite used to your little games by now,” Althea said impishly, “but I am not. I have a lovely fur here for a little girl named Irma, not any little demon.” The fox, in its tissue wrapping, crinkled behind her back.
The girl said again, unsmiling, “I’m a demon. You have been sent here as a sacrifice.”
Althea felt herself redden. If Miles wasn’t so sweet, so disarming, she would have given him a talking-to later over his parental skills.
“Really,” she said, playing along, “and what does a little demon like yourself do?”
“I grant wishes,” the girl said, “for a price.”
Althea smiled knowingly. “But then why am I being sacrificed? I haven’t wished for anything have I?”
“No, you’re being sacrificed in someone’s stead. Miles’. He sent you here to test if you were suitable.”
The girl’s voice was cool and dark, with a flatness that pricked something in Althea’s breast.
“Such a naughty girl,” Althea cried, “saying such things about her nice daddy!”
“He isn’t my father,” the girl said, “and he isn’t a good man. He’s been courting you this whole time, raising you up like a lamb for the slaughter. He has done things in the past that would get another man arrested.”
Althea’s patience wore out. “Stop this nonsense now! Your father has been nothing but the perfect gentleman—”
“He doesn’t touch you,” the girl said.
Althea huffed. “I beg your—”
“He kisses you, when it’s expected of him. And he lets you take his hand because manners dictate it. But he does not relish touching you. You are not his type. He humors you and makes presents to you to distract you from the fact that he has not once said he loved you.”
Althea felt her stomach curdle. Why, not touching was just a gentleman’s manners, and Miles was a gentleman of the old school. And love confessions were so old hat, really. Althea was a modern woman, and it was silly to let the girl get under her skin. The world swam in front of her eyes.
Back at the car, Miles only saw a glimpse of her face before she dove into the back seat.
“Home!” she cried, “home and bed, I’ve never been so…” she covered her eyes with her hands. She had given in and divested of her shoes, and now there were holes in her stockings.
Miles soothed her on the journey back.
“Irma’s mother died in childbirth, the girl has never had another. She is simply lashing out, wants daddy all to herself.”
Althea looked at Miles, his sharp chin, his snub nose. Her friends said he looked like an accountant, she’d found him simply divine. Now though, she searched his face for…what?
“She’s said such things, I can’t even…” she gestured weakly.
Miles smiled, seeming to inflate with assurance. “And that is why you must persist my dear. You are strong, you can’t even find precedence for what she says.” He grasped her right hand firmly in both of his, looking her straight in the eyes. “I am exceptionally fond of you, Althea Green.”
Althea smiled, though the twisted thread of the girl’s words came back to tug at her mouth The rest of the car ride home, they inhabited opposite corners of the car.
“I’m not his really daughter,” the girl said the next day.
Althea nodded, rapt, as she devoured the bonbons that had ostensibly been purchased as a peace offering. The girl gave no signs of wanting one.
“His real daughter is dead. Along with his wife. “
On another day, it would’ve inspired pity. Now she just felt sick.
“When his wife found out about what he was doing to their only daughter, she threatened to take the girl away and turn him in. That’s where I came from.”
“Of course,” Althea sighed.
“He summoned me to kill his wife and daughter, so the secret would never get out. One of the conditions of our agreement was that I should stay here for a set amount of time, in this form. He prefers it.”
Althea nodded, mascara smudged and running. Her heels sat beside her.
“At the end of the time he agreed to give up his soul, with one condition. If he can get someone to go in his place, he would be spared.”
“Yes?” Althea whispered.
“That is where you come in. He hopes you will substitute yourself for him, giving your soul to save his. This is why he waited three months to introduce you to me. To be sure you were right.”
Althea laughed; a thin, high, desperate sound. “Is that all? Is that it?”
The girl nodded.
Althea stood. “Do you know what I think?”
“No,” the girl said tonelessly.
“I think you’re a wretched child and I think you want your father to be miserable and I think you’re a beast for saying such things about such a sweet man!”
The girl didn’t flinch.
Althea began to struggle into her shoes. “I’m going to tell him just what kind of a girl you are, recommend a few schools that would straighten you out. None of this backchat and skylarking!”
“So you don’t believe it?” the girl asked.
Althea forced another laugh. “You must really think I was born yesterday!”
“And you think you love him?”
Althea paused. “Yes! Yes I love such a sweet man, who must only be reluctant to say ‘I love you’ because he’s got a beast for a child!”
“Well then,” the girl said, “I guess that’s that.” And she began walking backwards.
Immediately, Althea dropped the left heel, which she’d still been fighting. “Oh no, Irma, sweetheart, there’s a drop behind you—”
The girl said nothing; she watched Althea and walked steadily backwards, confidently, showing no signs of stopping or tripping.
“Oh dear,” Althea croaked, rushing awkwardly forward, “dear, darling, precious—stop that now!”
The girl hit the edge and kept going. Althea dove and suddenly there was nothing beneath her but rocks and salt spray, thirty feet down. She was treated to a last sight of the girl still watching her, standing quite casually in mid-air.
Miles had already read the sport’s section three times over. He looked up as he heard footsteps approaching and saw it was only the girl. With a sinking heart, he held his arms out to her. She marched, businesslike, into them.
“Has she…” he let the question dangle.
The girl looked up at him. “She has failed the test.”
Miles let a breath out. He’d been so hopeful with this one. Almost unconsciously, he squeezed the girl to him.
“Never mind all that,” he said brightly, “no sense crying over spilled milk. I’ve still got time, haven’t i?”
“Time,” the girl said.
“And in the meantime,” he said, “in the meantime, what shall we do, hmm? Shall we ride down to the wharf?”
The girl stared at him impassively.
Miles had sweat on his brow. He looked at the girl with nervous longing.
“Shall we go and ride the merry-go-round, hmm? And get some cotton candy and shop for some new clothes?”
The girl inclined her head slightly. With the lightness of that reprieve, Miles bustled her urgently into the back of the car.