Very proud to release the first new Diana Comet story in 2 years! It’s the story of a teenage girl who wants Diana Comet’s help in “fixing” her baby brother, who likes to dress in women’s clothing. I hope you enjoy reading it. I had a lot of fun writing it, and thank you to Alex and Abby for their help in proofreading.
This story is (c) 2012 by Sandra McDonald. Please feel free to share, but do not remix, tweak, build upon, take credit for, or use it in any commercial or non-commerical way.
This is also available as a free download on Smashwords.
Happy holidays to all!
DIANA COMET AND THE CHRISTMAS QUILT
by Sandra McDonald
My brother Aaron is young enough to still believe in Father Christmas but too old to be wearing frilly dresses. So says Mom and Dad and our grandparents. I’m definitely too old to believe in imaginary old men but I’m iffy on the whole dress-like-a-girl thing. Who cares if my kid brother puts on lip gloss or clomps around in Mom’s shoes?
It doesn’t hurt anyone. He’s been doing it since he was old enough to drag clothes out of drawers. And it makes him happy.
Still, it’s kind of weird.
On the other hand, I can think of worse things. That bald guy from apartment 5G does dirty stuff in the elevator. The lady from 2E gets drunk every weekend and doesn’t clean her vomit from the hallway. Mom says both of them have city sickness, which comes from living too close to other people. I think she made that up because she grew up on a farm and believes fresh air is the cure for everything. Anyway, city sick or country healthy, people would be better off worrying about wars or disease and not about whether Aaron has painted his toenails red again.
The problem is school, of course. That grim brick fortress at the end of our street, with its chain-link fences and big dusty windows and the radiators that clank all winter long. When I was very little, I thought it was a prison. This impression hasn’t diminished much over time. Obviously, Aaron isn’t allowed to wear anything girlish to school. The first time he tried, back in kindergarten, some bigger boys led by Bobby Figueroa punched him in the nose.
“Where were you, Rachel?” my parents demanded, as if I’m in charge of him twenty-four hours a day.
Besides, I’m just a girl. Bobby Figueroa’s never going to listen to me, unless I magically grow twice his size and use my fists.
The kids at school aren’t the only ones who disapprove of Aaron. Mrs. Landon, the meanest English teacher, once found a lipstick vial in his desk and made him write “I WILL NOT STEAL” on the blackboard fifty times. Mrs. Ford, who teaches math and gym, saw lace underwear poking up from gym shorts and made him run laps while the other kids played games. My mom and dad have been to see the principal at least six times, and each time Mom threatens to yank us out of school.
To our everlasting disappointment, she can’t. She and Dad both work two jobs. They don’t have time to teach us at home and there’s no way we could afford private school. Besides, I don’t think there’s a school in all the boroughs of Massasoit that would let Aaron wear what he’s twirling around in right now.
“Mom’s going to kill you if you rip her favorite black dress,” I warn, barely looking up from my algebra. I love algebra the way Aaron loves glitter and sparkles.
It’s Sunday night, snowing outside. Dad’s driving a taxi in all that bad weather. He always complains about rude passengers and he especially complains when he has to drive on ice and slush. Mom’s on a home visit with one of her old people. She goes to make sure they’ve taken the right pills, or haven’t fallen down in the bathroom, or haven’t let diabetes turn their feet gangrenous. That black dress is for funerals when her favorite clients die.
“I could sew it if I rip it.” Aaron poses in front of a mirror with one hip thrust out. “I pay attention in Home Ec, unlike some other people.”
He arches an eyebrow at me. I ignore it. Our school still teaches sewing, even though the old machines constantly break down. Our sewing teacher utterly lacks imagination. If I have to make one more fringed pocketbook out of blue jeans I’m going to stick a needle in my eye. If you really hate sewing, you can go to woodworking class instead. I don’t approve of any class where Bobby Figueroa can get his hands on dangerous power tools.
“I need pearls,” Aaron announces, and traipses off to go rummage in Mom’s jewelry box.
Some people get normal little brothers. I got a beauty queen in training.
“Don’t snoop in the closets!” I call after him. Mom will kill me if he finds the presents she’s been stashing on the highest shelves.
The next morning, Mom bundles Aaron and me out the door after breakfast and neither of us notices he’s wearing Mom’s jewelry under his sweatshirt. In third period Social Studies he gets caught. He always gets caught. You’d think a smarter kid would stop trying. Anyway, the principal calls Mom and Dad in again, yammers on about how Aaron’s “predilections” are bad for the entire third grade, and threatens to suspend him. Mom says she thinks P.S. 174 can withstand the onslaught of one little boy in pearls and takes Aaron home for the day. Dad says nothing, which is normal.
Aaron throws himself into bed and pulls the cover over his head.
He’ll get over it.
But he doesn’t. That night, he sneaks into Mom’s medicine cabinet and swallows all of her thyroid pills. Dad calls 911. The paramedics come and take Aaron away so they can pump his stomach. Mom rides in the ambulance, crying. I’m so afraid that I throw up in the back of Dad’s cab as we follow behind.
“Stupid, stupid kid,” Dad mutters as he drives.
There’s only one thing to do.
I’m going to find Diana Comet and ask her to fix my brother.
Here’s the difference between Father Christmas and Diana Comet. One’s a myth with absolutely no biographical evidence. The other one was definitely real. She was born a long time ago, when people still rode around on horses and spoke fancy English like movie actors. You can read about her in books. The famous poet Whit Waltman wrote a two hundred line poem about her. He’s long dead, and obviously she should be, too, but that’s where things get strange.
Every now and then a woman claiming to be Diana Comet shows up in an unexpected place, does an unusual thing, and then disappears again. Just two years ago, for instance, she rescued a hundred schoolchildren from an escaped lion at the circus, and then campaigned to free the poor animal from the clutches of the cruel circus owners. That was in all the newspapers. The year before that, she took charge of a runaway zeppelin when the flight crew got food poisoning from bad chicken salad. She single-handedly saved the lives of two hundred passengers. They tried to give her a medal for that, but couldn’t find her to hold a ceremony. At gift shops across the city, you can buy Diana Comet charms to hang on your keychain or backpack. They’re supposed to give you good luck, or help you win the lottery, or mend your broken heart.
They say she wasn’t always a girl, so she’ll know what Aaron’s going through. She can talk some sense into him. Make him understand there’s a big difference between what you can do safely at home and what you shouldn’t do in public.
But Diana Comet doesn’t have a telephone, or even an address. Supposedly she lives in a castle in the clouds and rides the winds on a magic carpet. Which is all craziness, but it’s fun to imagine.
Lucy Anderson is my best friend. Her mother knows a woman who knows someone else who once met Diana Comet in a fortune teller’s tent at the World Exposition. With calliope music in the air and the white lights of the Ferris Wheel whirling overhead, Miss Comet told the woman where to find the pirate treasure chest buried in her back yard. The next Exposition isn’t scheduled until next summer. But Lucy says all fortune tellers know each other, one big secret organization of prognosticators, so we decide to go ask The Amazing Esmeralda.
Anyone who ever goes to the Sunday Market knows who she is. “As pale as snow and as old as dirt,” they say. She’s got a black wig and rouged cheeks and lipstick so thick you want to scrape it off with a putty knife. Her magic stall is located at the very center of the old ferry building, right beneath the frosted skylights and iron girders. Pregnant women pay her to tell them about their unborn children. Suspicious wives pay her to tell them if their husbands are having affairs. Her crystal ball is as big as my head, full of shimmery blue and gold.
“Diana Comet,” she murmurs, peering into its depths. “What would girls like you want with an old hag like that?”
“She’s not a hag,” Lucy says fiercely.
“She’s a hag and a charlatan,” The Amazing Esmeralda replies scornfully. “She’ll trick you and run away laughing.”
There’s a reason her nickname is Amazing and not Kind. I wipe my cold sweaty palms on my pants and take a deep breath.
“I need her help for my brother,” I tell her. “He’s confused.”
The Amazing Esmeralda lights a long black cigarette in an ivory holder. She looks straight into my eyes. “Everyone’s confused. Why should your brother be any different?”
I’m not supposed to talk about it.
Then again, Aaron’s not supposed to try and kill himself.
“He’s eight years old and he wants to be a girl,” I say.
A pause. Outside the stall, the crowds roam noisily through the market and jam food into their mouths—hot pretzels, cold ice cream, peanuts freshly fried. Lucy taps her foot impatiently. My heart is beating fast from betraying family secrets. The Amazing Esmeralda drags deeply on her cigarette, leaving a dark red lipstick ring on the holder.
“I wanted to be a rabbit,” she finally says. “A big fluffy white one, living in the woods with my rabbit siblings, eating carrots and grass all day long.”
Lucy frowns. She frowns a lot, which is why I like her. People who smile too much are obviously faking it.
“Are you going to help or not?” Lucy asks. “We paid our five dollars.”
The Amazing Esmeralda laughs.
“Oh yes, you’ll get your money’s worth.” She’s using that tone of voice adults use when they’re humoring you. “Write your address in that book, girl, and I’ll see that the old crone receives it. She may help or she may not; the powerful are very fickle.”
Two days later, a brown envelope appears in our lobby mailbox. It’s addressed to me. Mom’s working and Dad’s napping, so I can open it privately. Inside is a beige card, heavy. You know the paper is expensive when it’s heavy. The handwriting is old fashioned swirly and the ink smells like licorice.
Rachel and Aaron Cohen
are cordially invited to
Tea and Sweets
Bailey’s Candy and Toy Emporium
Saturday one p.m.
Don’t be late
Aaron reads the note over my shoulder. “Bailey’s!” he shouts. “We’re going to Bailey’s!”
I pinch him. “Shush or you’ll wake up Dad.”
He flops down on the sofa and clutches a pillow over his face. From underneath comes another muffled shout. “Bailey’s!”
You can’t be a kid in this city and not know about Bailey’s. It’s like not knowing about Father Christmas himself. I’ve only seen it once, driving by with Dad, my face pressed up to the dirty cab window while I stared at the dazzling colors and lights. Lucy’s actually been there. She says they have miniature trains that run along the ceilings and pneumatic tubes that shunt chocolate bars from one room to the other. They sell a thousand different kinds of candy there, and children routinely try to hide away at closing time to spend the night in gluttony and delight.
This invitation’s not signed. It’s not even stamped. It could be a scam or bad joke, or a dangerous trap set by that dirty man from apartment 5G.
But maybe it’s really from Diana Comet herself.
“How are we going to get there?” Aaron asks when he calms down.
Excellent question. I can’t risk asking Dad to take us in his cab, and it’s too far to walk, and we’re not allowed to take the Elevated Railway by ourselves.
“The train’s perfectly safe,” Lucy says when I ask her. “I’ll show you.”
The invitation didn’t include Lucy, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings by saying she can’t come.
On Saturday morning Dad goes off to his second job as a clerk at The Strand, which is a five-story building jammed with every kind of book there is. Usually I’d go with him, to spend the day in the Mathematics aisle. But I tell him I have homework to do and he believes me. Mom goes off to change adult diapers and stick thermometers in uncomfortable places. At exactly noon, Aaron and I meet Lucy at the railway turnstiles. Ice crunches under our boots as tiny gray snowflakes fall out of the sky.
Lucy’s wearing her best green coat, the one that used to be her sister’s. Her dark hair is braided and she borrowed her mother’s tiny gold earrings. She’s even put on mascara, which she’s not allowed to do.
“I already bought our tokens.” She pushes the silver discs into our mittened hands. “Hurry, I hear it coming.”
We insert the tokens, race up the metal staircase, and reach the platform in time to watch a silver train rattle around the bend. I’m worried that we might see one of our teachers amid the crowd of waiting passengers. Mean Mrs. Landon would probably call the police, and Mrs. Ford would make us do pushups. But everyone’s a stranger, most of them shivering under their coats and hats just like we are. When the train doors open, warm air blasts out at us. Aaron races inside to grab a window seat.
“If you get lost, I’m not going to look for you,” I say to him, annoyed.
He bounces up and down on the velvet cushion. His brown hair sticks out from under his wool hat and his nose is bright red. “Of course you will.”
Lucy sits across from me, our knees touching. She’s almost as excited about this as Aaron is, even though she wasn’t invited.
“Any special plans when we get there?” I ask her carefully.
“Oh, you know.” She smiles. “See everything and get as many free samples as possible.”
The train shakes and shudders and screeches. It carries us uptown past Canal and Grand and Fulton. I think about how much all this steel weighs, and how the rails power the motors, and that the formula for distance is speed multiplied by time. The conductor’s voice over the loudspeaker is mostly incomprehensible, but Lucy keeps an eye on the map and we get off at Broadway. The snow is heavier now. The huge crowds don’t seem to mind.
Aaron looks overwhelmed by so many people and cars and stores. I am, too, but I grab his hand and tell him, “It’s only a few blocks away.”
Lucy cocks her head. “Hear that? It’s the George Bailey Orchestra.”
The bright music draws us to a square where a thousand people stand listening to the Christmas program and admiring the largest tree in the city. Even with my head tilted all the way back, I can’t see the gold angel that’s supposed to adorn the top. Ice skaters with bright scarves loop around a rink right in front of the tree. Men with rough faces push along wooden carts that sell hot apple cider, roasted nuts, and fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon. Aaron and I ate cold sandwiches for lunch but I hear his stomach rumbling anyway.
“I want a pretzel,” Aaron says. “And some chestnuts. And some cider.”
“We don’t have enough money if we’re going to buy candy, too,” I tell him. Plus, I’m not sure if Diana Comet expects us to pay for our tea. I have all the coins from my piggybank, but it’s not a lot.
Lucy pulls us toward the store itself. “Save it. You’ll be glad.”
To properly admire each of Bailey’s enormous windows, you have to stand in a long snaking line cordoned by gold ropes. Aaron can’t see much because he’s so short but I glimpse stern nutcrackers marching in place, floppy puppets popping out of silk-wrapped packages, and intricate model ships rocking up and down on painted waves. The surging crowd carries us toward the enormous bronze archway. Three revolving doors transport people in and out, around and around. We crowd in together to transition from the winter outside into the warm, golden lobby.
The first thing I really see are dozens of towering Christmas trees, each decorated differently: the red candy cane tree, the purple gumdrop tree, the gold licorice tree. Some are wrapped in glittering ribbon, or are covered with books, or with ornaments of cats or dogs or birds. Each tree is protected by small white fences and guarded by clerks dressed as elves. When a bell rings in the top reaches of a tree, the attendant elf tosses candy to the cheering crowd. Dangling over the trees are hundreds of twirling white snowflakes wired to the domed ceiling five stories above. Kids and adults peer down at us from the balconies and mezzanines, their laughter and conversation like the waves of a happy ocean.
The air is full of sugar and chocolate and peppermint and vanilla, of cake frosting that melts on your tongue, of cherry pie and baked apples topped with ice cream.
Aaron’s mouth is hanging open in astonishment. I use one finger to lift his chin.
“The elevators are this way,” Lucy says. “The tea room is on the fifth floor.”
Back home, the elevator is always grimy and often broken. You only take it if you really have to, because it smells like the man from 5G. These elevators are all clean glass and shining steel. The next available car is staffed by a dark-skinned man in a black uniform. He waits until fifteen people are onboard before he closes the metal gate and turns the lever. The car glides up the wall of the lobby. The operator’s voice is deep, like a radio announcer.
“Second floor! Jellybeans, gummy drops, sour squirms! Third floor! Sugared fruit and gingerbread houses!”
Aaron’s wedged behind me, against the glass wall, watching the decorated trees grow smaller. My stomach twists as we rise. We’re about to meet Diana Comet. If she can really do what they say she can do, if she truly agrees to help, then everything will change for the better. Aaron won’t try on Mom’s bras or stocking, won’t cut out his favorite dresses from magazines, and won’t get into trouble anymore.
I guess that’s all for the best.
Lucy leans close and says, “You look kind of green. Are you okay?”
I nod but keep my mouth shut. It’s too late to turn around, to forget this whole thing. Too late to not ask.
“Fifth floor!” The elevator operator retracts the gate and tips his cap. “Restrooms, tea shop, and layaway!”
It’s quieter up here, with dark paneled ceilings and intricate green tile on the floor. The tea room is directly across from the elevator. A pale old man in a dark suit stands guard at the front podium. The podium has its own little lamp. The man’s round eyeglasses reflect the light back at us, little shining disks of silver.
“Names?” he asks, and then checks the large reservation book in front of him. He doesn’t smile. Maybe he doesn’t like children. “Miss Cohen and Mr. Cohen. Very well. You, young lady, can wait on that bench over there.”
Lucy goes pale. I think this is the first moment she’s actually realized she won’t be meeting Diana Comet.
“Excuse me,” I say nervously. “I’d like for her to join us. She’s our friend.”
The man sniffs ever so slightly. “Her name is not on the reservation.”
Mom always says that where there’s a rule, there’s also a way to bend it. That works for her as a philosophy, but I always seem to run up against rules that won’t bend at all.
“You could add her in,” I plead. “Please.”
Aaron bumps against my arm. “Rachel, stop.”
“You two may proceed or turn back,” the man insists. “Your friend may wait on that bench.”
Lucy’s not pale any longer. Her cheeks are red. For a moment, I’m afraid she’s going to lose her temper and snap at him the way she does when the boys at school tease her. Instead, and worse, I see that her eyes are getting watery. She never cries, never, not since her father died. He was a fireman who got burned alive saving a family from a chimney fire. He always called her, “my tough little lady.”
Watery eyes or not, her voice is still fierce. Lucy announces, “I’m going downstairs. I’ll meet you at the gingerbread houses.”
She rushes off before I can stop her. I’m torn between following her or following the man, who has picked up two small menus and is leading Aaron into the tea room. Go after my best friend, or stay and meet Diana Comet?
I follow Aaron.
We pass a dozen small tables, each laden with white tablecloths and fine silverware and floral bouquets that almost make me sneeze. The customers are mostly women in fine clothing and fancy hats. The only kids in the room are dressed a lot nicer than Aaron and I are. In the corner, a woman with a red bow in her hair plays holiday music on a large golden harp. Waiters in white uniforms carry tea trays and push dessert carts.
Finally we reach a table near the grand piano. The woman sitting there is tall and thin, with light brown skin and hair as white as winter geese. She has a dark green scarf wrapped around her neck and small brown eyes. Her posture is impeccable and her gaze sharp.
There must be some mistake. She looks nothing like a man dressed like a woman. Maybe the real Diana Comet got sick and sent a friend instead.
“Miss Comet,” says the man. “Your guests.”
She nods imperiously. “Their coats, Armand.”
We slide out of our coats and mittens and hats. Armand takes them all away. We stand before her in our Sunday best, which isn’t very best at all. Miss Comet tilts her head slightly.
“Rachel and Aaron,” she says, as if testing the appropriateness of our names. “You’re shorter than I expected.”
“Ma’am,” I say. Maybe I should curtsey the way rich people do. I try, but think it looks more clumsy than polite. I nudged Aaron so that he’ll bow, but he just curtseys, too.
My face turns red. We must look like idiots from Idiotville. Miss Comet, however, raises a gloved hand toward the empty seats across the table. Her gloves are flawless green velvet, rising to the cuffs of her green brocaded jacket. A square diamond glitters outside the glove, secure on her fourth finger. Dad could work for a hundred years as a cab driver and never afford that diamond.
“Please sit down before you fall down,” she says.
The chairs have hard cushions. They’re so high that Aaron’s feet don’t even touch the floor. Miss Comet asks, “Do you know why you’re here, Aaron?”
“For tea,” he says. “I don’t like tea much. Can I have hot chocolate?”
“No, they only have tea.” Miss Comet’s eyes crinkle slightly at the edges. “What name do you call yourself in your dreams, or when no one else can hear?”
That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard an adult ask. But Aaron cocks his head in a way that means he knows exactly what she’s talking about. Before he can say anything, a waiter steps over to pour dark tea into our cups. The liquid smells like blueberry. The waiter leaves and the harpist starts a new song in her corner. Aaron reaches for his cup but I pinch him under the table.
“Ouch!” he says. He doesn’t know what it means to be discreet.
“Stop,” I whisper. “She has to drink first or it’s rude.”
Miss Comet says, “By all means, drink away.”
We sip the hot tea. It reminds me of warm blueberry pie, a special treat from the corner bakery.
“Amelia,” Aaron announces. There’s a hopeful look on his face, or maybe it’s relief. “That’s the name.”
This is the first time I’ve ever heard him say anything like that. He calls himself Amelia in his dreams? Miss Comet nods thoughtfully and asks, “What do the other boys call you?”
His expression closes up.
“Sissy,” he says.
Bobby Figueroa calls him that. And Bobby’s friends, who are like little hyenas. And our landlord, who was fixing the sink one Saturday morning when Aaron came to breakfast in one of my old nightgowns. And the woman from 2E, who hates everyone ever since her husband ran away with another man.
I hate that word, but not as much as Aaron does.
Miss Comet says nothing. She and Aaron stare at each other as if sending secret messages with their minds. I’m an outsider to this secret communication. The waiter returns, pushing a cart full of pies, cakes, cookies, brownies, and eclairs. He explains each delicacy, but I’m the only person paying attention.
Finally Miss Comet turns her head to him. “Nothing for me. Children?”
Aaron picks out chocolate pie. I choose three lemon cookies and eat carefully over the plate so that the white powder doesn’t drift down on my sweater. They taste perfectly like lemons, airy and light like clouds. Glancing at Miss Comet, I see that something has shifted in her expression. I don’t know exactly what. The waiter rolls his cart away.
“I’ve known very short men trapped in very tall bodies, and fat men trapped in thin ones,” Miss Comet says, musing over her teacup. “I knew an opera singer stuck inside a seamstress, and a dentist who could not break free of his exterior hog butcher. People get born into the wrong bodies all the time. If our world were a fair and just place, there’s be a way to file a complaint and seek redress.”
“What’s a redress?” Aaron asks, his pie forgotten as he stars raptly at our host.
Miss Comet replies, “Compensation for a wrong. You’ve been wronged, Aaron, by forces or fates unseen. Don’t you agree, Rachel?”
“I don’t know,” I say, doubtful. “How can anyone be trapped in anyone else? Do you mean their souls?”
Miss Comet sips more of her tea. Her gaze drifts to the harpist, whose nimble fingers pluck out notes like silver chimes. “Theology is not my concern. Biology, on the other hand, is of utmost interest. Aaron, while you are a child you may find it extremely hard to reconcile matters of outer appearance and inner truth. One day, however, you’ll be able to fully take charge of your own destiny. You must nourish and protect Amelia until she can fully emerge.”
I’m not so sure about this. It’s one thing for Aaron to steal my training bra and put it on with socks stuffed inside, but something else if he actually thinks he’s a girl inside. A girl named Amelia. Still, I like that she’s telling him to wait.
“So when he grows up he can do whatever he wants, but right now he can’t,” I summarize.
Miss Comet looks disappointed in me. “Nourish and protect does not mean cower in fear or shame, Rachel.”
“But he’s going to get beaten up at school,” I protest.
Aaron stabs his pie with his fork. “I’m not ashamed. I want to be a girl right now, not when I grow up.”
Now she looks disappointed in him, instead. “The world doesn’t care what we want. Some would say it actively engages against our dreams in a most hostile way. Every day for the rest of your life, you will be in charge of surviving whatever cow manure this world throws at you. Smelly, putrid, foul manure. For no crime other than the fact you’re trapped in the wrong body. But you can still hold your head up high, Aaron. You can still teach the cows a thing or two.”
I think those are harsh words for a little kid. For any kid. It’s easy for her in her rich clothes and fancy tea rooms. Nobody throws anything at you when you wear diamonds over your velvet gloves.
Aaron’s mouth quirks in annoyance. “Why does the world have to be that way?”
“Ask why the sun rises. Ask why the moon makes women bleed.” Miss Comet leans forward slightly. “Ask me why I want to help you.”
“Okay, why?” Aaron asks.
“Because someone once helped me,” she replies, with a slight uptick at the corner of her mouth. “You have potential, Aaron. You’re a caterpillar who could become a dazzling butterfly one day. If you dare to.”
Again they stare at each other, and I might as well be invisible.
“Yes, please,” Aaron whispers.
Miss Comet leans back and nods. The harpist, who has finished her music and gone silent, picks up a large silver bag from behind a fern and brings it to us.
“That was beautiful music, Maria,” Miss Comet says.
“Thank you,” says Maria, her voice as deep as my Dad’s.
My gaze snaps up to her face. Like Miss Comet, she’s wearing a scarf around her neck. This close, I can see that her hair is a wig and her nose rather large. If she cares that I’m staring, she doesn’t show it. She simply hands the bag to Aaron, nods at us, and leaves the tea room.
Aaron starts to open the big but Miss Comet says, sternly, “No! You can’t open it until you’re at home in your own bed. It’s much safer that way.”
“Safer?” I ask. That doesn’t sound good. I take the bag from Aaron and look inside. There’s a large white box in there. “What is it?”
“To tell would ruin the surprise,” Miss Comet says loftily. “And now I must go. Finish your tea and treats, be sure to return home in time so that your parents harbor no suspicions, and take care of each other in this cold, cruel world.”
She walks away from our table, a wooden cane balancing a heavy limp. She’s older than I thought. She’s not what I expected.
She might not even be the real Diana Comet.
But whoever she is, I don’t think she’s fixed anything.
Lucy’s waiting in the Gingerbread House department, as promised. She’s not upset anymore.
“An elf was handing out raffle tickets and I won!” Lucy holds up a red gift bag filled to the brim with foil-wrapped chocolates. “Have one.”
I shake my head. The lemon cookies and blueberry tea aren’t mixing well in my stomach. Aaron plucks a chocolate from Lucy’s bag and holds up his gift from Diana Comet.
“She gave me this,” he says.
Lucy eyes it enviously. “What’s inside?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I say. “We should go. We have to be home before my parents get off work.”
From the clock on the wall I can see we have plenty of time. Hours and hours. But maybe I’m annoyed they both have gifts and I don’t, or that Miss Comet didn’t tell Aaron what I hoped she would.
“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Lucy takes my arm and tugs me forward. “Let me show you the Buttercream River.”
The river flows between gingerbread houses that are as big as my bedroom. It leads to the Soda Depot, where bartenders in fairy wings fill requests for flavors like peach and lime and orange vanilla. Aaron gets lost for several minutes in the Forest of Fudge & Pralines. We finally find him sitting on a rug watching a pantomime on a stage. After that, both Aaron and Lucy insist on visiting the other floors, every nook and corner of Bailey’s. Aaron gets his greedy little hands on whatever samples he can. He’s going to have such a stomachache later. I buy caramel bullseyes, which are Mom’s favorite candy.
Finally we have to leave or risk the wrath of Mom and Dad. Outside, the orchestra has put away their instruments and the crowds are heading home under the darkening sky. More snow is drifting down on the freshly shoveled sidewalks. Three crowded express trains zip by our platform before a local stops for passengers. We get the last seats in the car, jammed together in a space meant for two adults.
It’s hot in here, my feet ache, and when Aaron tries to sneak a peak at his present I swat his hand.
“She said to wait until we get home,” I remind him.
Lucy hasn’t mentioned a word about Diana Comet since she was turned away at the tea room. By the way she’s biting her lower lip, I can see she wants to ask more. But she won’t. And I don’t want to talk about her.
Aaron says, “One little peek won’t hurt.”
Lucy turns her head to the window and the buildings passing outside.
“Don’t cry to me if it turns out badly,” I say.
Aaron takes this as permission and wedges open the corner of the long white box. Fabric pokes out. It’s a small quilt of blue and purple, covered with swirls and curls in white stitching. I touch it. Soft but sturdy, good for long winter nights, but otherwise unremarkable.
“You can’t sleep with it,” I tell him. “Mom and Dad will want to know where it came from.”
Aaron rubs his fingers on it. “We can tell them the truth.”
“That we snuck into the city without them?” I ask.
Lucy eyes the quilt with a sideways glance. “You can hide it at my house.”
“No,” Aaron clutches the gift closer to his chest. “It’s mine.”
We ride the rest of the way home in silence. At our platform, three or four adults quickly disperse down the stairs into the wind and flurries. We hurry past the homeless people gathered around a fire in a barrel and walk to the corner where Lucy has to turn to go to her apartment.
“I want you to have some of these,” she says, teeth chattering in the cold. She pulls out a bag with the Bailey’s logo printed on the side and scoops handfuls of her chocolates into it.
“Thanks,” I say. “And thank you for coming with us. I’m sorry you didn’t meet her, but it wasn’t that special.”
Lucy tilts her head. Her face is golden in the light of the street light.
“Tell me all about it on Monday,” she says. “Happy Christmas, Rachel.”
She leans and kisses my cheek. Her lips are cold and smell like peppermint. Lucy steps back, blushing, searching for something in my face.
Nobody but relatives have ever kissed me. I put my hand to my face and smile. “Happy Christmas, Lucy.”
She backs away, waves, and hurries off.
I can’t stop grinning.
Aaron has already walked ahead, but I don’t see him in the rapidly swirling snow. “Hey, squirt!” I call out, and hear a thump in the alley right before our building.
“Give it back!” Aaron yells at someone.
I rush ahead on the slippery snow and ice. Aaron’s in the alley, fists balled, glaring at a bigger boy who’s ripped the gift bag out of this hands. Lights shine down out of windows above us, striped by the metal fire escape, but no one’s watching.
“What’s yours is mine, sissy,” says Bobby Figueroa with a smirk. He sees me and the smirk gets wider. “Whatcha got there, Rachel? Hand it over.”
I clutch the chocolates tighter. “No. Not unless you give that back to him.”
“You don’t know how this works.” Bobby steps toward me. “I’m not asking.”
He snatches the Bailey’s bag from my hands. Aaron launches himself at Bobby’s back, fists flailing, but Bobby swats him aside with one of his big arms and Aaron falls into the snow with a whoosh. The bag of chocolates spills out of Bobby’s hand, sending a dozen to the ground.
“Pick ’em up!” Bobby orders, grabbing me by the neck and pushing me down.
Pain cracks through my knees as I land hard. I hate him. I want to kick him and punch him, to hurt him the way he hurts other people. Tears blur my eyes as I reach for the candy. From the snow, Aaron says, “You’re a big jerk!” and Bobby laughs.
“Who cares what you think?” Bobby asks, and rips open Diana Comet’s white box. He yanks the quilt out and holds it out at arm’s length. “What’s this crap for?”
Aaron lunges for him. “Give it back!”
Bobby pushes Aaron away again.
And then something strange happens.
Diana Comet’s quilt ripples in Bobby’s arms, though there’s no wind in the alley. It grows larger and flexes like a man with muscles to show off. Goose bumps ripple down my neck and arms.
“You better listen to him,” I say.
“No,” Bobby snarls.
The quilt lunges out of Bobby’s hand, plasters against his chest and face, and rams him up against the side of the our building.
“Ummph!” Bobby yells from underneath, clawing at it with his big gloved hands. “Aumph!”
Aaron scrambles to his feet. I lurch up as well, sure that I’m dreaming or hit my head somehow. Quilts don’t magically become alive. They don’t defend kids like us against bullies like Bobby Figueroa.
Except for this one, apparently.
Bobby flails. His arms go limp and his knees sag. I think he’s going to be smothered to death. As much as I like seeing him made victim for a change, I don’t think murder is a good idea.
“Call it off,” I tell Aaron.
Aaron looks surprised. “It’s not a dog.”
He takes a step forward. “Come here, quilt.”
Bobby gives out one last oomph and falls sideways into the snow. Only then does the quilt unwind from him, float back to the ripped white box, and tuck itself neatly inside. I check to see if Bobby’s dead. He’s not moving. When I nudge him with the tip of my boot, he gasps and starts breathing again.
Aaron picks up the box and tucks it under his arm.
“If you ever bother me again I’m going to send this over to strangle you,” he says, and kicks Bobby in the side.
By the time Mom and Dad come home, the quilt is tucked safely under Aaron’s bed and we’re both in our pajamas, eating cereal and milk for dinner.
Well, I’m in pajamas. Aaron’s wearing my old white nightgown and a pair of fluffy socks, with a ribbon in his hair.
Bobby Figueroa never bothers us again.
That winter is the winter that Lucy and I start to be more than best friends. It’s the last time Aaron takes Mom’s pills. It’s when Dad gets a full-time job at the bookstore and quits driving his cab, and when Mom wakes to a Christmas stocking full of caramel bullseyes.
“Thanks, honey,” she tells Dad, and he’s too pleased by her kiss to admit the truth.
Of course, Mom eventually finds the Christmas quilt. We come from school and her expression is not happy.
“Where did you get this?” she asks, holding it above the kitchen table.
I’ve prepared for this moment.
“A friend of The Amazing Esmeralda gave it to us,” I say. Which is technically true.
“The Amazing Esmeralda at the market?” Mom looks perplexed. “Why?”
Aaron speaks up. “Because I like sewing.”
Mom gazes at the quilt, and then to us, and then back to the quilt. She’s clearly not convinced.
“And I have potential,” Aaron adds, which makes her smile.
“Of course you do.” She folds the quilt up and gives it back to him. To my surprise, she kisses both of us. “Both my kids have potential. But you’re pretty amazing right now, too.”
After that, Aaron sleeps every night with the quilt atop his bed. Spring, summer, winter and fall. It turns threadbare and worn. Over the years he outgrows it, his long skinny legs stretching out from underneath, but he never discards it. If it ever does anything magical again, he doesn’t tell me. I begin to doubt my memories of the alley–surely that was just a dream. No matter how pretty, a quilt is simply cloth and batting, thread and binding.
But then one summer night many years later, when it’s too hot to sleep inside and we drag our mattresses out to the fire escape, I dream that Aaron’s quilt transforms into a magic carpet. It carries him up to Diana Comet’s castle in the sky, where wispy clouds surround the golden spires. In rooms full of flowers, Aaron and Miss Comet drink blueberry tea and converse about the world. They apply their makeup together. Aaron slips into a shimmering yellow ball gown and becomes my sister Amelia, whose smile is as bright as the sun outside the castle ramparts.
When I wake it’s nearly sunrise, and Aaron is asleep on the mattress beside me. The quilt is gathered at his feet, rumpled and wrinkled and utterly unlike a magic carpet.
Silly heat dreams. Fluffy nonsense.
When I roll over, three lemon cookies are stacked neatly on a plate beside my pillow.
1. Many readers have speculated that The Amazing Esmeralda and Diana Comet are the same woman, but this is clearly ridiculous. The Amazing Esmeralda is much taller.
2. Did you recognize the name of the orchestra?
3. The Strand is a very real bookstore, and Miss Comet highly encourages you to shop there.
Read more stories about Diana Comet in Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, the award-winning collection now available on Smashwords.