A/N: This idea is one I had about a year ago. I did write a story on it then, but the version here is pretty much completely rewritten. However, I didn't change much of the plot, so it's not as developed as my other stories. Anyway, I hope you enjoy!
"Cassie, what's the Pith-a-go-reen Theo-rem?" I ask, looking over her shoulder.
"My name is Cassandra, Natalie—don't call me Cassie. It's the Pythagorean Theorem, not Pith-a whatever-you-said." My teenage sister barely looks up from her SAT workbook. Along with ditching her nickname in favor of her more sophisticated full name, she's decided she wants to be top of her class when school starts again in the fall. "A squared plus b squared equals c squared—oh, why do I bother? Nine-year-olds don't need to know it, much less understand it." But I do, so shut up and let me focus is the clear implication.
We're sitting at adjacent desks in the bedroom we share. (It's hard to say who's more annoyed about this fact, since we're complete opposites.) I'm filling out some forms—Coach and both school teams agree that I'm good enough to play on the boys' sports teams, so of course I'm applying to the boys' Little League baseball team instead of the girls' (I do this every summer; the paperwork is more of a formality than anything else). Cassandra's hard at work completing the aforementioned SAT workbook—it has over five hundred pages (I kid you not) of language arts, social studies, math, and every other subject under the sun.
Retying my long ponytail, I reach for my navy-blue baseball cap as I persist, just to be annoying, "Well, what is the Pie-tha-go-re-en The-o-rum?" I draw out the syllables, pronouncing it the way she did.
As expected, Cassandra gives up on learning with me in the room. "Shoo, Natalie. Go bother Megan instead."
Even as she says the words, the door closes behind me. I expected her to say something along those lines, and it's really not smart to wait until she starts throwing things at me. (Believe me, I learned that the hard way.)
Sliding down the banisters the way I can when Mom's not home, I leap off lightly when I reach the bottom landing. "Hey, Meg—"
Patiently Margaret sets aside her novel. "What's up, Nat?" (Unlike Cassandra, my eldest sister has no problems with nicknames.)
"Can I go to the park?" Although Meg's not as ashamed of being related to me as my other sister is, my antics in public places can be highly embarrassing to witness—and after she ended up having to tell me off in front of her crush, even good-natured Margaret stopped insisting on chaperoning me to the park.
She seemed to consider the advisability of allowing me to go without Mom's explicit permission, then thought better of it. (Our unspoken agreement is that what Mom doesn't know won't hurt her—so Meg can go out with her boyfriend on weeknights, and I can go places without supervision.) "All right."
Sitting on the monkey bars, I aim pieces of tan bark at little kids. My friends—somehow we always end up in the park at the same time—and I snicker every time I throw, regardless of whether or not the projectile hit its target. (Most of them do—tan bark is really hard to aim, but we've had lots of practice.)
Anthony jumps off, landing lightly on his feet. "Wanna play catch?"
Out the corner of my eye, I can see a clean white baseball partially hidden by the long grass of the field. "You guys go ahead—I'll catch up."
The boys race off to the equipment rentals. Cautiously—I don't want anyone else to get there first—I sneak over and picked up the prize. Wow—
Suddenly someone else's will is imposed over mine. Without my real consent, my legs carry me into the woods bordering the park.
A man—suspiciously dressed in loose, all-black clothing—wordlessly comes over to meet me. I soon lose track of him when he freezes—he blends into the shadows so completely.
I feel a dull blow to what my friends have told me is a pressure point. My body is paralyzed and I lose consciousness.
Chapter 1: Mama
As I open my eyes, I wonder where I am. Remembering the baseball, I check my hands. Empty. The relief I feel—doubtless that's how I ended up in the woods—is indescribable.
Sitting up slowly to avoid lightheadness, I look around the room.
There are three hard iron beds in the room, with different-colored blankets. I'm sitting on one of them—it's my favorite color, navy blue. Across the room, a cute little girl with brown pigtails is rubbing her eyes, lying on a wild-rose pink quilt. Against the third wall, opposite the door, a pretty blonde is sitting on a lavender cover. Soon all three of us are looking around the plain little room—whitewashed walls and lack of furniture.
"Hello," the tall blonde begins warily. "I'm Bridgette."
"My name's Natalie—Nat for short."
"I'm Madison and I'm four but you can call me Maddie!" the little girl announces, all in one breath.
"It's nice to meet you, whatever the strange circumstances." Smiling warmly at us, Bridgette gets up, her long pale-yellow skirt swishing around her legs as she walks to the door. She tries the handle, then informs us, surprised, "It's locked—from the outside."
We compare stories—specifically, what happened right before we got here—and discover that we had eerily similar experiences. After that subject is exhausted, we move on to our personal interests, hobbies, etc. It turns out that perfect-looking Bridgette hates school because "it's so boring," but she knows a lot about clothes (what goes with what) and hair (how there's a perfect style for everyone) and nail polish (what colors go with what outfits) and so on and so forth. Maddie loves school—she gushes about her preschool's science curriculum. I list off all my favorite sports: "Baseball's the best for sure, but field hockey's awesome too; basketball, soccer, tennis, and volleyball are fun as well, and I like track and swimming also."
Now the doorknob turns, and a middle-aged woman, average height with brown hair and eyes, walks in gracefully. "Hello, girls. My name is Henrietta Walker, but I'll be Mama to you girls." There's something a little off about her winning smile. "Bridgette, Natalie, and Madison, right? They're lovely names—but they don't suit you at all. From now on, you can call yourselves Savannah, Brandilyn, and Elizabeth Walker." She looks at each of us as she renames us: Bridgette, me, Maddie. "Now, tomorrow we're going to take a plane flight to California, where I live. I'm sure you'll like your new home much better than this room—really, Ralph did quite well, considering he had such short notice. He had to fly out here and back to take care of things—Ralph is quite the model servant. Anyway, we'll move into the new house and get you girls new clothes once we get home. Come on downstairs; I'll show you around the house, since we'll be back next summer."
"Um, excuse me, Miss—Mrs.?—Walker?" I'm certain she's a lunatic, but really—what can I do about it? It's probably best to play along for now.
She shakes her head patiently. "I told you girls already, you will call me Mama."
"Why?" Maddie demands. "You're not my mommy!"
"Why are we here?" I ask, trying to stay polite.
At last we get some semblance of an explanation as Henrietta Walker tells us, "I'm sorry to adopt such extreme measures, but I had to have Ralph—well, for lack of a better word—kidnap you three since I absolutely had to adopt you. You're orphans anyway, aren't you? Now hurry up, we haven't got all day."
She walks out of the room and down the hall. I exchange a glance with Bridgette before the two of us follow. Maddie's already left.
"Your room is at the end of the hall. Here's the bathroom—just ring the bell and I'll send a servant to escort you." Downstairs we're shown the servants' quarters, her rooms (yes, plural), the kitchen, dining room, her two sons' rooms (are they adopted too?), and a million other doors that she doesn't explain beyond warning us that they're off-limits. Then it's back upstairs, down to the basement, up to the attic... (What's wrong with going in order from floor to floor?!)
Finally we return to "our" room. It's early evening—judging by the color of the sky as I saw it through the kitchen window—and we collapse on our beds, even though they're stone-hard. The house is huge, and we walked all over it. "Here you go, girls. You will live by these rules while you remain under my roof. I sincerely hope I won't have to punish you, but of course I will have no choice if you do not respect the few limits I have set." Handing us each a half-inch binder (they're the same colors as our blankets), she leaves, locking the door behind her.
For lack of something better to do, I open the binder. The rules are extremely strange, and hardly few in number and demand.
1) Be quiet between nine p.m. and eight a.m.
2) Obey Mama immediately at all times.
3) Don't say "yeah"; say "Yes, Mama."
4) Be a good student.
5) Be polite to everyone.
6) Be an exemplary model of a dutiful daughter.
7) Go to bed no later than 9:30 p.m. on any given night.
And the list goes on and on.
After skimming the rest of the pages, we compare pages and discover the only difference is that Maddie's bedtime is 8:30.
Early the next morning, Henrietta Walker sends a servant to wake us up.
"Who are you?" Maddie asks groggily.
"I'm Sarah, and I'll be looking after you in particular, Elizabeth." The girl, who looks about the same age as Cassandra—I remember my sisters with a pang—takes Maddie's hand and leads her downstairs. Wordlessly Bridgette and I follow.
In the dining room we silently eat fancy breakfasts—buttered toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, orange juice, pancakes, etc., etc.—as "Mama" explains her plan for the day: "We're leaving to catch our plane in about an hour. Ralph will be waiting for us with the car. You'll find suitcases under your beds—pack your sheets, pillows, quilts, and binders carefully. Why, what's the matter, Elizabeth?"
Tears streak down Maddie's round face. "I want my mommy."
Sarah hurries to wipe away the tears and comfort the little girl.
"Your mommy doesn't remember you, Elizabeth. I'm your mama now—you had better remember that. In fact," she turns to Bridgette and me, "neither of your families will remember you. I've had you wiped from their memories. If you need convincing, that can be arranged too."
"Really?" I blurt. Here's my chance!
I sit on the monkey bars, waiting. Surely Meg will come?
A young woman walks into the park, looking around. When she spots me, she comes over. "Are you Natalie?"
It's Meg! My sister's here! "Yeah. Did you get my text?"
Her brow furrows as she looks at me. "Do I know you? How did you get my cell phone number?"
My heart sinks. She really doesn't remember me. "Oops—wrong number. Sorry."