Louise Gaucher, whom everyone calls Zette, works in intensive care. When she can, she dozes off at the bedside of patients deep in coma and travels in the "world of dreams" so that she can accompany them in their choice between life and death. In order to enter, she visualises a yellow brick road... from the Wizard of Oz.
When she isn't working, Zette goes home to Chais, a huge family mansion where discretion and mistrust of the outside world are the rule - indispensible considering their success in the pharmaceutical industry.
One night in January, while she is travelling in the mind of a child deep in a coma, Zette finds herself face to face with an evil creature, the Sandman. A few days later, a child that disappeared while under the protection of the social services is found in the Chais gardens.
Captain Simon Larcher, dismissed from the investigation under pressure from the Gaucher family, finds himself with his back to the wall when his nephew also disappears: should he persuade Saul, the son of the Gaucher family, who has also "disappeared", to come out of the shadows...?
© L'Atalante, Nantes, 2011
Adrienne dropped the velvet curtain, masking the volumes of water that autumn was delivering to the sleeping earth. In this month of November 1917, equal volumes of tears would be flowing, in the East, where the horror of war was tearing bellies apart each day, spreading their entrails in the trenches.
And at Winehouse, in her comfortable home, there would also be screaming and tears, as new life tore apart a woman's loins.
The old woman Adrienne de Meur hated childbirths. She had suffered martyrdoms giving birth, all four times, with never a hope of receiving sainthood for her travail. Thanks to God, or the Devil (who knows?) she had now been long incapable of conceiving children. The last one had taken away her womb, no doubt, and the sudden sterility had allowed her to breathe freely again, cloistered night after night in her room. No man, no conjugal duty. Finished was the fear, month after month, of having to carry a child in her belly, feeling it shift and stir, and then splitting herself in two to bring into the world a being who would die at birth or, worse, just a few days later. The maternal longing had disappeared, as had those dead children who kept her from thinking about what was important: to expand, to make things grow, to prosper. She had the one heir to whom to give her fields, factories and orders. That was enough.
A cough pulled her from her morbid thoughts. Her daughter, the one child who had survived, her face reddened by the cold or some task, was watching her anxiously, as she had always done.
"You called for me, Mama?"
"Imbecile!" hissed the old woman between clenched teeth.
Her daughter gave a start, absorbing the invisible blow. Instinctively, her hands went to her abdomen.
"You thought I would see nothing? You thought you could hide such a thing, because I am old and infirm? I'm not blind. I'm not stupid, Cecilia."
Cecilia stood in front of her, petrified. The old woman grimaced more than she smiled.
"Slut. You're shocked? Slut! Get used to it. That's what everyone will say about you, everywhere, if that child has the misfortune to survive. And it will live, of course. Your children always live."
She knew what she was talking about. Cecilia had had no problems giving birth to her two legitimate children. They were now grown up, in good health and full of strength.
"You'll be called all the most despicable names. How will you bear it, you who are so sensitive?"
The young woman raised her head at this attack. Arching her back and revealing her round belly under her mourning dress, she defied her mother's eyes. With a slightly hoarse voice, she asked, "Since when do you care about the villagers' opinions, Mama?"
"The villagers? I don't care. But the people of our own class, yes. Your husband's family. People who invest in our factories. The pharmacists and physicians we work with. You may be able to hide the child here during its early years. But later on? Will you have him go live in the woods? What about an education? And in twenty years? Will you explain to him that he can never go beyond the gates of this house?"
"Have I had the right, myself, to pass these gates? Have I wanted to?"
"Yes. You could have gone out, to make your entry into the world and choose a successor to your father."
"Choose," grumbled Cecilia.
"Yes, choose. Did we force you to marry Paul?"
Cecilia gestured vaguely. Frowning, her lips pursed, she now avoided her mother's cold gaze.
"When I married your father," the old woman continued, "I loved him for what he was: intelligent, ambitious and flexible. He married me because I was strong. I sometimes feel that you've inherited nothing from us, not our hearts nor our shoulders...nor our backbones!"
The old lady smiled without warmth.
"Money is the key to many things," she said. "Money can even make some things be forgotten. But not this disgrace, not to relatives in mourning. Not this, after the death of their only son."
Her tone had become so determined that Cecilia was forced to raise her eyes toward the dry, wrinkled face of her mother. The old woman continued, "I should have been on my guard. You didn't cry very long for him, your husband. You pretended for as long as one mass, and it took you only a few months to put another man in your bed. And for what? A child. A child without a father."
"He does too have ̵-" Cecilia started to cry out indignantly, but her mother's hand cut her off.
"Don't think about bringing him here. No men here, not two lines under the same roof. I know who he is. A good-for-nothing and a drunkard, even if he is a pretty boy. The handsome ones are the worst. They take what they want, and they get it faster than the others. It's a matter of habit. Yours took and he gave back even faster. With any luck, your child will resemble him. That will help it."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that at the orphanage, an attractive child will be adopted quicker."
Cecilia's face grew pale behind her clasped hands. Her mother rose with a forced ease, too proud to show her frailty. Leaning on a cane, she approached her daughter, then roughly clamped a hand on her shoulders to make her look up.
"Do you like Amelia and Jean? Yes? They are your real children. In a few years, Amelia will find a husband and Jean will enter a career."
Adrienne briefly closed her eyes. She had long known that only Amelia would survive to adulthood. Above the head of her sturdy little blond grandson hovered the twisted shadows of a drama ̵- a vision she had kept to herself.
Why share it? Nothing would prevent the child from dying. Nothing ever stopped death. She believed this ever more profoundly as she felt her own death approaching.
"Are you going to jeopardize their futures for a man like that? Because of you, your whole lineage will be dirtied. You give weapons to the bastards. Believe me, when this war is over, there will be no favors being passed out. I saw how it was after the last war. When the men return ̵- ours and our neighbors' ̵- the only thing they have left is their honor. They start moralizing and talking about duty once more, to make us women forget that we held the power for a while. They will lock us back into their prejudices, then go seek forgetfulness between some other woman's legs. The horror they'll have gone through gives them all rights, including that of pissing on the principles they defended, with slaps or smacks. Is that what you want for your daughter? A husband who will despise her because he was so magnanimous as to marry her, the daughter of a whore..."
"My daughter will be free."
"My poor silly little girl. Free like you? In your black dress! You think you're free because a handsome moron knocked you up? Because you read somewhere that it was love, because it's forbidden? You'll be free when you've married your daughter off and her own daughter is born. You'll be free when you're at the head of an empire. For now, you're not free to do anything, not even to speak.
"You could have been, if you'd come to me sooner. I would have found a way for you to do it, to rid yourself of this child." She read a response in the wild eyes of her daughter. "Ah, that shocks you. Imbecile."
Adrienne de Meur suddenly felt short of breath, and had to sit down. She'd just celebrated her sixty-fourth year. Quietly, though, because nobody had ever thought to record her birthday, not even in the church register. She knew she was actually much older. She belonged to that period of time when destitute girls had no identity before God. Just prior to her wedding, she'd picked a day at random, a cold autumn day, as she liked the idea of being born at the moment when other things were dying. Then she'd swiftly forgotten the date. She'd always loved secrets, after all.
"Imbecile," she repeated once again. "When the child is born, you shall call a woman I know. We still have allies outside."
She spoke like an old general under siege. Cecilia felt an outburst of revolt tighten across her chest. Her mother had always lived as a recluse at Winehouse, to the point she'd bought a house in town to host people her husband did business with ̵- that way, she would never have to open her home to others. The outside world had always seemed hostile to her.
The old woman's peremptory voice called her thoughts back.
"Listen. The day the baby is born, you will send for this woman. She will know what to do."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then you will lose everything. I will put you out. I will put your children out."
"You wouldn't dare."
"Have I ever promised to do something and then not done it, Cecilia? One thing?"
Cecilia bowed her head again. Nothing. Ever. Adrienne did everything she announced she would do, wonderful or painful things, down to the slightest detail. Whatever the consequences for others. Mrs. de Meur followed her own logic and imposed it on all her household. Cecilia had always obeyed and knew she would obey once again, even if it meant suffering for the rest of her life in a hell of her own making.
"You know there's no other choice," Adrienne said. "No one must suspect the existence of this child. Do you hear me?"
"I hear you, Mama," said Cecilia.
This time, not a hint of rebellion in her voice.
"Good. And you will never see this man again, nor any other."
"Would you have me live like a nun, at my age? Bury me alive?"
"Do you want to fend for yourself? Outside?"
Cecilia shuddered with horror. To live outside of her home, surrounded by that miasma of emotions, in fear of everybody and everything. The old woman followed these terrifying thoughts on her daughter's pretty, tortured face.
"No woman of our blood can live outside Winehouse, my daughter," she repeated. "So we agree, then. Give me your word. You'll do what I say."
"I give it to you, Mama. For Amelia and Jean."
"Will you listen to me in everything?"
"I always have."
She could not hold back a tear at these words. Turning her head away, she said, "If you had let me live somewhere else, I could have been different. I wouldn't have been so afraid."
"What good would that have done? On the outside, you're not less scared, just the opposite. You never had much talent for subterfuge. But you know how to make good decisions. Marrying Paul was one. Your daughter Amelia will become a great woman. She will perpetuate our lineage. Well, well...so that child will go to the orphanage, where it belongs, if it is a male."
"What are you saying?"
"Nothing you don't know already. Don't act stupider than you are. You can surely guess."
"If it's a girl... Mama? If it's a girl?"
The old woman's mouth trembled slightly. She also knew how to make hard choices, but that did not make them any less painful. Cecilia was asking a question she already knew the answer to. No doubt the poor girl needed to hear the truth spoken aloud. It would be easier to accept afterwards.
Because what choice did she have? She could not take such a risk. A female of her line would have the Gift, as had her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother. The child would grow up unaware of her power, and living far from the calming benevolence of the place that had witnessed her birth, she would not be able to control it. She would be dangerous.
"She will not suffer."
The midwife would pour down her throat an herbal tea that her grandmother would provide. The child would fall asleep.
Cecilia gave an anguished cry, which she stifled with a folded hand. Her other hand, over her belly, twisted into a fist on the black crepe of her belt.
"Is that your solution, Mama? Death or misery? Is that to be the fate of your own flesh and blood? But why?"
"It's a little late to think about the consequences of your acts, my girl," snapped the old lady in a voice devoid of pity, as she turned away toward the window.
She motioned that the conversation was over. She had her own worries and sorrows. Her old heart was beginning to balk at the task. After all, it was her own flesh and blood, as her daughter had said. But to sacrifice that for which she had fought so hard and made so many painful choices - her lineage - was not an easy task.
Contrary to what her daughter thought of her, she did have a heart.
The proof: because of beating so furiously, it was tired out. Adrienne suddenly felt weary. She touched the curtain again. The velvet under her fingers gave her a little strength. She had always loved velvet. A substance that was resistant, soft and rich. A substance so unlike herself. She turned her hard, bleak face to her daughter.
"You've given your word. Do what you must do, from now on, and don't speak to me about it again. Go back to your flowers, your plants, your herbs, enjoy yourself in your garden. And forget."
Cecilia rose, without a word or a tear.
Adrienne lifted the curtain and peered into the gray sky, wrapped in a silence that had nothing peaceful about it. The cold air and white light of this fatal autumn flooded into the room.
She and her husband had not worked so hard and long just so that an error, a weakness, could obliterate all their efforts. She smiled, thinking of the things the world was capable of doing... A single act, a brief love affair, could destroy the biggest dreams and grandest plans. A word, dropped in the right place, and all the genius she had deployed would be lost forever, dragging down with it her home and her ancestry.
Swept away, the innovative ideas, the staff dressed in the house colors, the displays offered in the pharmacies, the advertising brochures, the testimonials of patients who had tried their products... The stocks would be lost, the acacia gum and licorice powder that had supplanted the sugar and flour in the manufacture of drugs during shortages caused by this endless war... The patents ripped up and forgotten... The deals with the United States and Germany revealed... The factory smokestacks cold, the fires extinguished.
All of it had been possible thanks to her courage and willpower. Plus a few strings pulled here and there - an ability one had to know how to put to use.
But Adrienne was still subject to the power of fickle Society, which could accept or reject at will.
She scanned the sky for a moment. The clouds were starting to lift. In the grounds, under the rain, the almond tree's leaves had already taken on a lighter shade.
Cecilia didn't have a choice. Adrienne would see to the matter. In fact, she should see to it now, before the arrival, stealthy but certain, of her own death.
In a smooth motion, she tapped her cane on the floor and reached up to ring for the maid.
The baby was crying softly and trying to suckle. Cecilia bent over its tiny body, her hair still wet with sweat and dark circles under her eyes. She hesitated a moment and then held it out to the woman waiting beside the bed.
"It's a..." the old woman began to say.
"No, don't say anything!" Cecilia said. "If it's a girl, I will have regrets."
"It is beautiful," she added in a whisper. "Isn't it?"
"It is quite pretty, yes. It won't stay even a few nights at the orphanage. The people I know will come for it as soon as they read the message. They are honest, and they'll come."
Cecilia did not want to hear more. The midwife had assured her that her child would be raised properly and not lack anything. She did not even want to know if they were honest or not, especially when, at that moment, the wrinkled face of her infant reminded her of her own crime. When the midwife turned away with the child in her arms, Cecilia caught her by the forearm. The woman halted for a second. Cecilia's nails sank into her skin, rough and red from soap and hot water.
"If you talk, I will know."
Her look had something terrible about it. The midwife was no fool. Old Mrs. de Meur's death had occurred at the right moment. The doctor had been there long enough to suspect the truth about Cecilia's condition, and had mentioned it to his nurse, who had seconded his opinion...until a little visit to the daughter of the deceased had abruptly quieted them.
Cecilia opened the drawer of her bedside table.
"Here is what I promised."
She handed her a cloth pouch. The midwife weighed it with her free hand and seemed satisfied.
Cecilia leaned over to look at the bundled infant, one last time. Despite her own feelings, her mother's words had swayed her. She would not endanger Amelia and Jean's futures for a man whose state, the last time she had seen him, had disgusted her.
She covered the baby's face with a corner of the blanket, using a firm gesture that made the midwife think of old Mrs. de Meur, and then turned toward the wall to sleep.
In the morning, the pain reminded her that she had given birth for the third time. She asked her maid to bring hot water, pretending she had a cold, and made a tea that she alone knew the secret of. The poppy seeds took away the physical pain but failed to make her forget her terrible night.
However, she forced herself to smile when her daughter Amelia, the only person in the world whose face she wanted to see right now, rubbed her blond curls on her shoulder.
"I heard a baby crying and I woke up," whispered the girl.
"It was a dream," said Cecilia, stroking her hair. Amelia nodded. Yet, having awakened abruptly, the child had crept down the stairs, and seen a fat woman in an apron carrying a bundle out the kitchen door.
For many years, Amelia continued to think that it had been a dream. Up until the night, almost sixty years later, a night of horror, that kept her awake on those same stairs, clutching a cold body she had rescued from death.
Her grandmother Adrienne had often said, "You can wait a long time to get revenge, if it's worth the trouble."
Revenge was a family tradition.
Ti forced the car door open with his knee. His old jalopy wasn't going to hold up much longer. He had bought it some years before the end of the last millennium, which made it a rather outdated car to say the least. Fifteen years of good and loyal service... Not to mention the number of times he'd saved the price of a hotel room by sleeping in it. He would regret its passing.
The car radio was still playing. The dull, impersonal voice of a regional journalist resonated in the empty car.
"A man was found on the roof of his house. He had managed to open a skylight, clamber over the rain gutters and climb along the roof to the chimney. Sixty-five years old, the man could not even walk around the block due to advanced osteoarthritis. It seems to have been a case of acute somnambulism..."
Ti bent down to turn it off.
"Fascinating," he growled.
But as he stood back up, he realized that he should have slept a bit longer himself. He felt like he'd driven here in a state of somnambulism. The night before, he'd promised himself to go to bed early. But then his ex-wife kept calling him (she was depressed) and he'd finally picked up the phone on her third attempt. He knew from the instant it started ringing that he would answer, dress and head over to her place, all the while saying how stupid it was, and then immediately change his mind about that and take off his clothes.
He also knew that it would not help fight anyone's depression, only make it
worse afterwards. At dawn, he always left like a thief.
Strangely, he loved mournful lovemaking, especially when the season lent itself to the occasion.
Just like how he got a certain comfort from the whole Christmas nostalgia thing.
Every day at work, he saw kids with no emotional attachments, leaning against the walls, with tough exteriors but inside, only anguish. He was no different, down deep. To avoid butting heads with them, or going crazy, he needed his rituals and hideouts.
For this reason, he liked to feel his roots were at Winehouse, even though being just the son of its guardians offered him only a part of its past, of its memories, things he knew he wouldn't be able to pass on to his heirs.
The property had been in the Gaucher family for more than a century. The Gauchers came from a long line of industrialists who had made their fortune in pharmaceuticals, and then acquired two clinics and several laboratories.
Farsighted, the men of the family had added to the legacy through wise investments, often highly innovative, in the image of Adrienne de Meur, the founder of their line, and her husband Peter. Their prudence was matched only by their business acumen.
Because of this, the inhabitants of Winehouse attracted suspicion among people in the neighborhood.
They often asked Ti's father Rene Bricard, guardian at Winehouse, for details about the strange Gaucher family. He would always bang his fist down on the table, though, and say, "That's all that interests you? You don't get enough of the crap you read about movie stars' private lives, so you want the dirt on the neighbors, eh? Well, leave ‘em in peace, otherwise they may end up taking a serious interest in you."
The old man didn't scare anyone. That was his nature. He was truly a sweet old man. Ti had known it since he was a boy but never tried to exploit it, despite all the opportunities that paternal impotence had provided. In fact being Rene's son had taught him a lesson: if you can't get people to fear you, try to get them to like you. In this, he resembled his father. He knew how to make others like him.
Even Mrs. Gaucher welcomed him as if he belonged to the household. Well, not quite... She let him in as she would let in her hunting dogs, that ran all around the property, never seeing any game, and then calmly proceeded to dirty all the floors in the house. So when Ti came home to visit his parents, she allowed him to muddy the floor of her kitchen and even hang around a bit.
He liked that. Winehouse would never belong to him but he belonged (somewhat) to it. He didn't know the origin of the property's name; no one had ever stored bottles there and the region was not known for wine. It was a hunting domain actually, and high walls encircled its small, wooded hill and park. However, since Henry Gaucher's death, no one hunted there, though Rene Bricard laid traps from time to time, with the tacit agreement of Mrs. Gaucher.
The house itself must have been built in the late nineteenth century. It lacked elegance, despite its three floors and mansard roof, its blue tiles faded by time and rain, its double front staircase and service entrance. Before the arrival of Rene and Cathy Bricard, members of the house staff had been living in the gatehouse since before anyone could remember. He'd found vestiges of domestic life in their small attic: almanacs, coarse garments gnawed by moisture, engravings cut out of yellowed newspapers.
Rene Bricard took care of the property, helped at times by a young gardener nicknamed
Tof, who tended to botch jobs. Rene thought he was slightly retarded but Ti saw in him the results of alcohol abuse and a difficult childhood. Tof had spent time in Social Services before being taken back in by his parents, alcoholics themselves and violent. In many ways, from the perspective of the young Special Ed teacher, Tof could have come out of it worse than he had.
The park and woods had been a playground for Ti and the Gaucher children. Adolescence and the social distinctions, more pronounced back then, had caused them to draw apart. Finally, Ti had left to finish his studies in another region. As he got older, when he visited home, he had developed certain little habits, rituals even.
When he arrived at the gate, he would honk. His father would stroll out and open the gate for him. He'd park his car in front of the building his father called the Guardian's Cottage and then embrace his parents. Then he would walk down to the Gaucher's house.
He always travelled by night, to have the pleasure of arriving in the morning and surprising the girls.
That morning, he had surpassed himself, going all out on the highway. He who spent his time repeating to the kids in the Home not to drive like maniacs on their buddies' motorbikes!
"Old fool," he said to himself, while hugging his father. "You've become exactly what you hold up as a bad example to others."
Her father hugged him just as distractedly. Ti then folded his mother in his arms, without a word, and handed her a paper bag stained with grease.
With a smile, Cathy Bricard replied, "We've always hated them, you know."
"I know, Mama. It's a matter of principle."
"Don't use words you don't know the meaning of, and go comb your hair. If the girls see you come in like that, they'll think you're a burglar. I only have one son, I want to keep him."
"Oh, I've survived this long."
"Thanks to me alone," she said, with another smile that made new wrinkles appear around her eyes. She stood a moment admiring her son. Thibaud had become a man. His face was a bit hard and his hair a bit too long, but beyond the thin lips and the crooked nose, broken several times without her daring to ask by whom, she recognized the gaze of her little boy.
The boy who would never let her out of sight. Until one Christmas day, Claude Gaucher, her employer, had worked a miracle: Ti had accepted to leave his mother for a few hours to help decorate the fir tree reigning in the manor's great room. Since that day, every Christmas morning he went to their house, where he'd slide onto a large wooden bench at the kitchen table and visit with the girls.
Cathy vaguely smoothed down his curls with her fingertips. Even with his disheveled hair, her son was handsome, in the Bricard way.
Not that Claude Gaucher cared if his hair was combed or not. Despite her wealth, no woman in the world paid so little attention to details like that.
Ti smiled at his mother and grabbed the bag of croissants.
"I'll be back, okay?"
"I'll be waiting."
Years before, that Christmas morning that had announced her boy's independence, Cathy Bricard had used the same expression, and that too had become a little ritual between them.
She watched her son sprint down the road leading to the manor, until he disappeared behind the cedars.
Ti felt a bit silly to be running like this, but he couldn't resist the pleasure of being there before the girls awoke, to enjoy their kisses and hugs and their exaggerated cries of surprise, to see Zette fly toward him and throw herself into his arms and have Diane tousle his hair.
He knocked on the kitchen door discreetly, then entered. Claude Gaucher was in her spot in front of the stove, watching over a pot, just like every morning of the year. She smiled, then went back to staring with a frown at the tiny dark specks rising up from the milk.
She wore corduroy pants of indefinite age and a supple turtleneck sweater that fit closely to her thin torso. Her pretty gray hair was cut short, a fitting style for this practical-minded mistress of her home, not coquettish but classy, and conscious of her social status. She had probably never been considered a beautiful woman but her stature and her green eyes attracted attention and charmed others. Plus, she cultivated the detachment of wealthy women that one associated with refinement, when in fact it was often nothing but indifference to the world. Summer and winter, she wore necklace and earrings, regardless of the occasion. Only her nails, perfectly manicured but short, indicated that she spent her retirement in manual activities ̵- cooking and gardening. Throughout his childhood, Ti had seen her in boots and apron, cultivating her vegetable garden with the same elegance as when she was sitting on the Voltaire chair in her grand reception room.
"Is that cinnamon I smell?" said the young man, kissing Mrs. Gaucher on the cheek, rapidly, as he had done with his own mother.
"I added cloves," Claude said, sighing with a resigned air.
"It smells like cloves of cinnamon, then. But...cloves? In milk?"
"It's a new recipe."
"I'll just have a coffee."
He headed for the coffeepot, still the same one, it seemed to him, and took off the lid.
"Is everything going well for you, Thibaud?" Claude asked abruptly, her green eyes darting over to the young man.
Ti shrugged and opened the coffee tin. He never answered directly to this type of question. Nothing was ever going so good that his answer could be enthusiastic or, on the other hand, so bad that he could be casual. It was the first time that Claude Gaucher had ever directly interested herself in his life and it unnerved him, he didn't know why. To his relief, the sounds of hurried footsteps prevented them from continuing. Max and Lucy, Claude's grandchildren, arrived from the garden, shouting.
When Max saw Ti, he leaped up and hugged him. Max had his own special way of burrowing into his arms. Ti, who was used to small children, thought that Max acted with an abandon troubling for a child of seven. The outside world relished such a trusting nature, eating it up bite after bite until destroying it completely.
Ti drove these thoughts away and happily embraced the boy and then his sister, who, three years older and a bit more distant, claimed her share but more delicately, in silence.
They sat down at the table. Ti stood watching them and wondering how he would feel if these children were his. He would have been used to seeing them, no doubt.
Long and delectable minutes passed, Claude in front of her stove, adding improbable spices to the milk, the kids noisily munching their cereal, and Ti, his cup of coffee in hand, standing against the tall, antique bread cupboard.
Finally, the door leading to the hallway opened.
Zette gave a wild cry at the sight of Ti, breathed in deep and threw herself against him, just like Max had. Ti caught her without wavering, even when the young woman's forehead struck his jaw. He took the opportunity to pull back and gaze at her.
She had her hair cut squarely, a little too short for her round face, but the light-brown color was just the same. She had aged a year.
A small frown wrinkle had formed between her eyes, which were the same green as those of Claude Gaucher.
Ti still felt a twinge of desire, furtive, when Zette clung to him and he felt her breasts on his chest. But immediately the guilt made him relax. It was an old reflex from adolescence, a time when he could hardly dream of one of the Gaucher sisters without feeling incestuous, or in the case of Zette, like a pedophile, even though she was only four years younger than he.
He kissed Zette then held her away from him, and shot a look of mock disapproval at her too-short T-shirt, which revealed her hips. Then he smiled at Diana, who had just come in.
Diane certainly looked like Zette's big sister, with her ash-blond hair, her more-developed bust and wider hips. The hips and her less-velvety skin more than proved her five years of seniority.
But if a stranger were to look closely at the two Gaucher sisters, he would notice Diana's warm depth, and the humor in her clear gaze. They were both equally pretty, but with a subtle and effective difference that made Zette an envious little sister. This was also part of family tradition. Diane had earned the plumpness of her hips by giving birth to the two heirs of the family, while Zette's firm thighs were due to the fact that she ran faster than the men who chased her.
"Coffee, good idea," said Diane, stroking Ti's cheek.
"But croissants? You don't show much taste, bringing those," Zette said as she gestured with her chin at the bag forgotten on the counter.
"Well, we have to stick with tradition. And I love them," Ti responded. "But I forgot the bread."
"Mama has a bread machine now."
"And what has she made?"
"And, once a kugelhopf."
Behind them, Claude sighed. Ti looked at her, and they shared a smile. "I always love what you make, Mrs. Gaucher, except perhaps milk with cloves."
"You're sweet, Thibaud. What a shame you didn't come up with the idea of marrying one of my girls! You would have been a charming son-in-law."
"The little favorite even," added Diana.
"Favorite perhaps," said Ti, "but I would have known how to spoil you."
"You?" Zette said with a smile.
"Well, between two little half-pints like you, that would make ̵- "
"Beast!" Diane laughed and kicked his shin with her bare foot. "Always a beast!"
"In any case," Claude Gaucher interrupted, "it's no longer a question. You didn't go into the field we'd been planned for you."
This made Ti feel slightly uncomfortable. Mrs. Gaucher had spoken in her usual soft voice but her tone was final. He wasn't really sure if she was joking or whether she had actually envisioned him marrying one of her daughters. He knew she could be absentminded, sometimes out of touch with reality, but he also knew how hard she was. Ms. Gaucher knew how to impose limits, without ever raising her voice. When Ti was little, she often got what she wanted just by staring at him. And one single frowning look at him could serve as a punishment that might linger for days.
Diane looked at her childhood friend and shrugged. She tried to relax the atmosphere with a smile, but it was unnecessary; the cloud of menace had already faded away. They had only to act like nothing had been said.
Max and Lucie asked permission to leave, in a vague way, which was granted, and they immediately disappeared. Ti knew they had received their gifts the day before. Nobody at Winehouse had ever believed in Santa Claus or encouraged their children to believe.
Henry Gaucher, Diane and Zette's father, had always opposed the myth. It was he who had revealed the truth to Ti, and at an early age.
"I shouldn't tell you, but your parents will undoubtedly agree with me. Don't believe in this crap, Thibaud. Father Christmas was invented as a publicity stunt. You'll figure it out - it's the only plausible explanation to the whole story. It's purely a product of capitalism. That's why only the rich receive the expensive gifts on Christmas Day."
Then he'd pulled out his leather wallet and given him some money.
"What's new with your little delinquents?" asked Diane.
"Nothing special. How about you, what's new?"
"Zette's making overtime because there aren't enough nurses around."
Ti kidded her, saying "Nobody wants to do that ungrateful job? This world sure is amazing...
He continued, "Any word from the miser?"
"Ti, don't start..."
"Sorry. Any news from the guy who left you hanging with two kids?"
"It's up to me to hate him, not you."
"I have the right to - "
"To nothing," she interrupted. "It's not you he dumped, with two kids. And the two kids, you've never had to get up at night for them, or wipe their butts or to die of anxiety because they had a fever or teach them to balance on their rollerblades. It's your problem you never liked Fabian, not mine."
"That said, it was pretty stupid," Zette said.
"Somewhat, yes," said Diane with a hint of a smile. "But you really don't need to keep reminding me I got dumped, and by a jerk, what's more."
Ti looked at Zette and read in her eyes that they should drop the subject.
There was a long silence, as sometimes happens with family. The girls kept their noses in their bowls. Ti thought about the past, almost without emotion, about their games but also about their arguments and his frustration, his childish anger when he felt the ascendency Diane had on him.
Diane always won, against everyone, as long as she stayed in the cocoon of Winehouse. Elsewhere, it was a different story. She shrank somehow, and became another Diane, exposed and fragile, while Zette let fall her well-established role of browbeat little sister and became comfortable and assertive. Their brother Saul would sink even further into his habitual silence. Ti sometimes wondered if he had simply made up his childhood playmate Saul, who had become a mute teenager and whose shadow still seemed to haunt certain paths around the Winehouse once night had fallen.
He would have liked to talk about Saul. He wondered what strange material the Gaucher women were made of, to be able to mutely accept this missing brother and son whom he, Ti, had often envied. He did not understand it. His world was that of words. Cries of hate, anger, love. Everyone around him shouted, from the kids he took care of, to the teachers he shared his life with. When he left Winehouse, he'd realized that he'd been suffocated by silence and even, he dared to think, by coldness. He went no further and was ashamed of having these disturbing thoughts right in front of Claude. She was Saul's mother after all.
If she preferred to remain silent, everyone would remain silent.
The girls sat closer together on the bench, as if to de-emphasize the void left by those absent. Saul, of course, but also Henry Gaucher, who no longer had anything to do with their existence, it seemed. Ti had been in his office only once, and that was to hear that Father Christmas did not exist. His heart had failed him one morning. Ti was still astonished by that. One did not easily fail Henry Gaucher. His son-in-law, Diane's husband, had failed him by refusing to continue working for the family, and he'd paid the price: one year of unemployment, for one of the most brilliant biologists. That was no coincidence.
Claude's mother had hardly ever come into the kitchen, yet her presence was missed. Mamia, the prickly old grandmother, belonged to an age when the kitchen was reserved for servants. It took Claude turning seventy, with its false relaxation, and her taste for the country, before they started having their breakfast and afternoon snack there.
Ti remembered Mamia very well. How could he forget her? She was already old when he was just a boy, and her gray hair and hawk's eyes had always made him feel like a butterfly pinned to a wall.
How could he forget the night of her death, a night of awful thunder and lightning? Rene had woken him up and made him dress. How old was he - eleven, twelve? Maybe a little older... That night, whose date was not, to his knowledge, marked on any tombstone, Diane, Saul, Zette and he had been taken away from Winehouse, on a road beaten by rain, to the house in town that served as Henry Gaucher's guesthouse.
The four children had played all the next day in that strange place, trying not to break anything in the large principal room, all in white, or in the kitchen, where the pots and pans were perfectly aligned, or in the guest rooms, as bland as good taste allowed.
Ti remembered playing hide and seek, sniffing all the tiny soaps found in a large wooden box, and that Rene had let them watch television until late at night. He also remembered the hunted look in Saul's eyes, and how he'd held his little sister Zette's hand for two days. Doubtless the sensitive, secretive boy had understood what was playing out at Winehouse. The next morning, Claude had come and announced Mamia's death and treated them to breakfast in town, in a café, to console them. None of the children had cried, except Zette, who wanted to sit on the bench with her older sister. Ti was proud to be seen in town with Claude Gaucher, and sat next to her facing her children. This, his first encounter with death, had left him with an aftertaste of macaroons, of liberty and of shame.
Diane squirmed in her chair. Ti realized she was staring at him.
"Disagreeable thoughts this morning?"
He hated when she did that.
"This is the time of year that weighs down the spirits," Zette contributes. "I always get the blues around Christmas."
"I know what you mean," Ti replied. "We'd like to believe in magic but in the end, everything is rational and banal.»
Zette could not answer, her nose in her bowl of coffee. Diane seemed to reflect for a moment.
"In the civilized countries I believe there are no witches left, nor wizards, nor sorceresses, nor magicians."
Zette looked at her sister.
"The Wizard of Oz."
"That comes from the Wizard of Oz."
The two sisters exchanged a reproachful look, as if they both realized the other had committed an impropriety.
"It's time," Claude Gaucher said abruptly.
Nobody knew what she was talking about, but Ti understood the message.
"I'll get going now," he said. "My mother's waiting for me. Bye, girls. See you later today?"
Zette and Diane nodded, but all three of them knew they were lying. Zette would watch over things, and Diane would go back to bed for the rest of the day. Ti would hang around his parents house long enough to be obliged to take the highway and head back in the direction he'd come from.
The girls embraced Ti, standing on the doorstep. Watching the door close softly, he felt that he as soon as it clicked shut behind him, he, Thibaud Bricard, disappeared from their lives.
He remembered why he came over only at Christmas now. Once breakfast was over, the house closed back up on itself, leaving him alone out in the cold, facing a closed door whose curtains hid a world that, no matter what he did, he would never be a part of.
The thing following the child was not really a predator. Quentin knew exactly what a predator was. He had seen every conceivable documentary about the animals of Africa. His grandmother naively thought he was interested in wildlife.
She dreamed of him becoming a veterinarian and, with him at her side, she probably imagined lisping "My grandson, who is a veterinarian," to all the old goats in the building. She played at being respectable. Maybe that would wash her of what she called her "shame," a drunkard son who'd finished up in a wrecked jalopy, and a daughter-in-law who'd abandoned their boy to chase after another drunkard.
Sometimes, Quentin hated the things she'd say so much that he wanted to hit her. Sometimes she was nice and he felt like being good, obedient and loving.
But for that to become a habit, she would have to stop saying things like "Your slut of a mother," or "that bitch who skipped out on you."
And stop believing he watched the documentaries because he loved to learn things. In fact, what he loved most in animal documentaries was the moment when the lion or other beast jumped at the throat of the gazelle. It would always struggle and try desperately to get back on its long, slender legs.
"Elegant animals," the commentators would say.
Quentin hated commentators.
What's the point of having legs like that if you don't have fangs, the boy thought as he watched, galvanized, the lion gently planting its teeth into the gazelle's throbbing throat.
That was what surprised him the most. Predators did not rip apart their victims. They took the time to eat them alive, still jerking, stretched out in pools of their blood, a kind of delectable gourmet feast.
That was what made Quentin think that the thing following him was not a predator. It moved fast, in spurts. He felt its presence at his back. A predator was much slower and virtually invisible throughout the hunt.
He was a bit frightened, though, so he stuck out his chest as he walked down the deserted alley. He didn't dare to turn and face whatever it was. And he didn't know where to go. For the first time, he wished he weren't alone.
He did not really understand how he'd arrived in this strange city, with its long buildings, their windows without any glass, and its streets that endlessly wound and crossed each other.
Somehow the city looked like it was made of stage scenery, made of paper but paper strongerthan stone, concealing only emptiness behind the fronts and sides of its buildings.
Yet all that surrounded him seemed familiar and dramatically real. It had doubtless been standing for a long time.
Quentin came to a crossroads.
He wondered which way he should go. Right or left?
He suddenly shivered. The thing had leaped toward him again. He heard a dull thud, like feet landing heavily on the hard ground of the sidewalk.
Straight? Right, left, straight?
He hesitated an instant then turned left. He had always liked left. And his favorite number was six, he remembered incongruously.
This street resembled all the others. The tapping of his heels ricocheted off the pavement. He came out on a long esplanade, of the same luminous beige color. The sun came out, casting such brilliant white light he could see only black shapes moving around him, making noises. He heard an echoing, monotonous humming of cars a bit farther off.
As the boy's eyes adjusted to the light, the shapes became silhouettes. Details appeared: children playing with a ball, while determined, anonymous passers-by avoided them. On the steps leading to a government building, brighter than the other buildings, women were watching over the children as they played.
On the other side was the street, a long street with several lanes, like you see in big cities. The cars were passing so fast that Quentin could not distinguish their brands. And yet, he knew them all.
He sighed with relief. At least the thing wouldn't dare get too close to him here in a big city square. Plus, the square resembled the one where he liked to meet with his buddies, especially the older ones, which lent him a feeling of importance even if they heckled him a bit.
There was a band of guys on this square, too.
Every city has a square and every square has its band.
There were four or five older teenagers, almost adults. They all wore brand-name jeans that let their boxers show, and gray or navy blue sweatshirts. They weren't doing anything in particular. They were a gang.
Quentin moved over to them slowly. One of the young men turned and looked at him, and smiled without saying a word.
Quentin did not like that smile. Like his mother used to say, that was a smile that stinks, a smile that promises the royal palace but brings you only as far as the toilet.
Nevertheless, he went up to the group of young guys.
The biggest was always the leader. The others held no interest. The leader had shoulder-length blond hair and was leaning on a stone bench in the most relaxed posture possible. His clothes were the color of dirty chalk. He was holding a girl against his chest whose face Quentin could not see. Her fingernails were painted blood red.
Something about all this is weird, said Quentin to himself.
The leader looked out of date, like the head of an old time gang. At home, no kid looked that awkward and fusty. Even his clothes, they just weren't right.
Something really weird was going on.
This city did not exist. It wasn't real.
It was a dream. Quentin smiled. He remembered suddenly haven fallen asleep in a white bed and waking up in this city that was not really a city.
And if it wasn't a real city, then that wasn't a real gang, which meant that anything was permitted, including one thing he'd always dreamed of doing.
"Hey, you pathetic losers!" he yelled with delight.
The four characters turned around, while their leader continued to look elsewhere, turning his back on him.
"Did you say that, microbe?" replied one of the guys, who was short and fat, wearing a baseball cap that was too big for his head.
"Yeah. Your city stinks and so do you."
These guys didn't exist. He had invented them. He could destroy them just as easily.
"Get out of here."
The gangsters began to get restless, throwing uneasy glances all around. When they started to edge away from the bench, their leader turned his head slowly back. Quentin saw only the edge of his profile. He was no young man. He was a man whose age was impossible to determine.
"I don't think we'll move," said the man.
He had only murmured but Quentin had clearly understood his words. His voice snaked through the air, wheezing and creaking around the curves. The girl hanging on his neck laughed.
Quentin clenched his lips.
The man turned all the way around. The girl slipped around his body and hid behind him, hooking her fingers with their blood-red nails across his chest.
The man looked at Quentin. The boy froze.
A look from him would paralyze anybody, even someone bigger and older than Quentin. His bony, angular face, his hooked nose and thin lips went perfectly with his black, shining eyes.
"Okay, Quentin," the man said softly. "You want to play with the big boys. You come here, you tell my guys to split. You make fun of them. And me, how am I supposed to feel after all that? "
His tone was the one his math teacher used when he wanted to show he could be generous but firm, though he was obviously holding himself back from nailing some kid to the wall.
"That's right," said the man. "I'm generous but firm, Quentin."
Quentin jumped. Had he said that out loud? He wasn't sure.
"You read minds? That's - "
"Don't change the subject, Quentin," the man said in response. "I don't like the way you talk. I don't like how you lack respect for a woman, Quentin."
"But I haven't done - "
The man silenced him with a gesture. Quentin noticed for the first time the man's hands, which were long and bony, with thick, sharp nails.
Behind the man's back, the girl broke into hysterical laughter. Quentin shuddered. He knew that laugh. In fact, he knew that laugh very well.
"Mama?" The man just smiled and stepped aside to let his girlfriend come forward. "You know this kid?" he said, without departing from his smile, sarcastic now.
"Never seen him," the woman snarled. Quentin stifled an exclamation. Of course, she'd seen him! She was his mother, most certainly his mother, with her purple-streaked bangs, her dark hair cut to stick out everywhere, the carefully-applied makeup matching her blue top and short black skirt. Quentin also recognized the silver bracelet with a heart-shaped pendant she always wore on her left wrist.
"Mama!" he said with a painful grimace. "It's me, it's Quentin."
"I don't know him," replied the woman, calmly. "If I had a kid, you think it would be as ugly as that?"
The man laughed, a sound that froze Quentin's blood.
"This is only a dream. I don't risk anything."
The man raised an eyebrow.
"You think so, kid? A dream, nothing but a dream? Are you mocking me, is that it? You think you're better than me?"
He grabbed Quentin by the neck. His gang crowded in as well, all of them jeering. The man dragged Quentin across the square, the boy's feet scraping the ground. Then he really began to struggle.
"Sorry, kid," said the man. "Next time you'll learn to shut your mouth."
In the blink of an eye, they were right up next to the road. The cars were speeding by at the same frenetic pace and Quentin heard the noise of their motors as a continuous roar. There was no crosswalk or stoplight. One car after another, streaming past. Even this close up, it was impossible to distinguish their makes or models. Even less their occupants.
The man lifted him up from the sidewalk, so close to the road that Quentin felt the cars were brushing against his cheeks.
"Bye bye, runt."
Then he let go.
Quentin tried to scream. But the cry remained stuck in his throat, and at the same instant he felt like he was being strangled.
Someone had caught the collar of his pajamas and was pulling him backwards.
He struggled weakly. In front of him, the cars kept spinning by, but without a hint of their passing - no whoosh of air on his skin. It was not quite a real street. It was just the menace of a street.
Two large hands gripped Quentin's shoulders and pivoted him around. In the movement, one of the hands grazed his neck, where the skin is particularly sensitive. He shivered. The hand was dry and rough, but still, the touch offered him a gleam of comfort.
When he dared to raise his head and look at his savior, he saw an extremely ugly woman. She had broad shoulders, squeezed into a voluminous, greasy coat the color of fog, and she peered down at the boy with round eyes. Her mouth was round too, which at first glance gave her a bewildered look, until he realized that her lips simply couldn't quite close over her crooked yellow teeth. Her hair lay flattened on her head and it was badly parted. Yet behind all this ugliness, there was something very sweet about her.
She took his hand with a firm grip, and dragged him through the crowd of men. Quentin followed her helplessly, now trembling from fear.
"Wait!" the gang leader shouted.
The woman shook herself, frowned, and taking her time, turned around.
"Don't let him come close," muttered Quentin, scooting behind her back.
It seemed to Quentin that the woman and the head of the band were sizing each other up, with an air of not understanding who the other was or exactly what he was doing there. Their respective presences seemed strange and inappropriate. The moment lasted an eternity; Quentin got the feeling that his life was hanging on the outcome of this silent confrontation.
It was the woman who finally spoke.
"You have no right to be here. I don't know who you are, but you do not belong to this world."
The man replied with a sinister baying sound. In one bound, he was in front of the woman, almost against her.
Quentin suppressed a sob, hiding behind her back.
The man stretched out a hand, skinny and dirty, toward her ugly face.
"I'm very much at home here. And him, he's mine," he added, pointing at Quentin with a yellow nail.
"You're in his territory here, and no one belongs to you. Go away." The gang leader's eyes widened and he grimaced frightfully. Quentin fell back a step, instinctively. This was no longer a man. It had never been a man. It was a creature, a travesty of a man, whose mind was so horrible that he could not make his disguise work.
"We know each other, don't we?" whispered the creature, carefully observing the woman.
The woman shook her head.
"Oh yes," replied the creature. "You are -" Then surprise gave way to anger on the gang leader's abnormally thin face.
"- One of them! Bitch! Sorceress!"
He grabbed the woman's shoulder with his bony hand. To Quentin, it felt like the creature had actually caught him. He stumbled back.
The woman freed herself with a jerk and took the boy's hand again.
"Get out of this mind," she murmured, without breaking eye contact with her opponent. "I don't know what you are, but I want you out of there, now."
"You don't tell me what to do! I'll destroy you!" The creature was so close that his nose practically touched the woman's nose. "I'm going to destroy you, you hear me? Sorcer - "
He stopped suddenly. The anger vanished from his face and a frightening, malignant look of joy replaced it. His smile was the worst threat of all.
Quentin and the woman began to run.
Soon, they came to a street just like those he had walked earlier: tall buildings of beige stone on either side, and between them, silence and emptiness.
The woman knelt down, gently took Quentin's shoulders in her hands. In a strident but low voice, she said, "Listen to me! In this place, you cannot be fooled by appearances, do you understand? Everything is reversed."