“Beth! Over here.”

At first I didn’t even realize that the person was calling out to me. Nobody had ever called me Beth before. The name I was given in the Kingdom had never been modified; it was always Bethany. There was an intimacy about “Beth” that I liked. Ivy and Gabriel froze in unison. When I turned back, I saw Molly with a group of friends sitting on a bench outside the ice cream parlor. She was wearing a backless halter dress, which was completely inappropriate given the weather, and was perched on the lap of a boy with sun-bleached hair and tropical board shorts. His broad hands were stroking her bare back in long rhythmic strokes. Molly waved frantically and beckoned me over. I glanced uncertainly at Ivy and Gabriel. They didn’t look happy. This was exactly the sort of interaction they wanted to avoid, and I saw Ivy stiffen at the commotion Molly was making. But both she and Gabriel knew that to blatantly ignore her would contravene laws of courtesy.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend, Bethany?” Ivy asked.

She placed a hand on my shoulder and guided me across to where Molly and her friends were sitting. The surfer looked peeved when Molly extricated herself from his grasp but was soon distracted, gawking unashamedly at Ivy, his jaw slack, his eyes taking in the symmetry of her body. When Molly saw my siblings up close, her face took on exactly the same awed look I’d seen all day at school. I waited for her to say something but she didn’t speak. Instead she opened and closed her mouth like a fish, before recovering her composure enough to give a wobbly smile.

“Molly, this is Ivy, my sister, and my brother, Gabriel,” I said quickly.

Molly’s eyes traveled from Gabriel’s face to Ivy’s, and she only just managed to stammer a hello before coyly averting her eyes. This was something of a surprise. I had watched her all day talking freely with the boys at school, luring and teasing them with her charm, then flitting away like an exotic butterfly.

Gabriel greeted Molly in the same manner as he greeted all new acquaintances — with impeccable politeness and an expression that was friendly but distancing.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said with a slight bow that seemed absurdly formal given the surroundings. Ivy was warmer and flashed Molly a kind smile. The poor girl looked like she’d just been hit by a ton of bricks.

Raucous shouts coming from down the street put an end to the awkwardness. The disturbance was caused by a group of burly young men coming out of the pub, so inebriated they were either unaware of the noise they were making or simply didn’t care. Two were now circling each other with fists clenched and faces contorted, and it was clear that a brawl was about to break out. Some people who’d been enjoying an evening coffee outside now retreated into the safety of the pub. Gabriel stepped forward so that Molly, Ivy, and I were positioned safely behind him. One of the men, unshaven and with an untidy mass of black hair, swung at the other. There was a crack as a fist connected with a jaw. The other man lunged, tackling his opponent to the ground, while the others in their circle cheered and spurred them on.

A look of repulsion flitted across Gabriel’s usually impassive face. He strode purposefully away from us toward the center of the scuffle. The onlookers were confused, wondering what this third party was doing there. Gabriel took hold of the dark-haired man and pulled him easily to his feet, despite the man’s weight. He hauled his companion, whose lip was already puffy and oozing blood, up from the ground and stood between them. One of them swung at Gabriel, but he intercepted the punch midair, his expression unchanged. Enraged by the interference, the two men joined forces and now directed their combined anger at Gabriel. They swung wildly at him, but every punch failed to find its mark. Yet, Gabriel had not moved. Eventually both men tired and slumped to the ground, their chests heaving from the effort.

“Go home,” Gabriel said, his voice resonating like a crack of thunder. It was the first time he had spoken to them and the authority in his voice had a sobering effect. They lingered a moment or two, as if weighing up their decision, then staggered off, steadied by their friends and still swearing under their breaths.

“Wow, that was amazing,” Molly gushed when Gabriel returned to us. “How did you do that? Are you like a karate expert or something?”

Gabriel shrugged off the attention. “I’m a pacifist,” he said. “There’s no honor in violence.”

Molly struggled to come up with an adequate response.

“Well… do you wanna hang out with us?” she said eventually. “The mint-chocolate-chip ice cream here is to die for. Here, Beth, have a taste. ..”

Before I could object, she leaned over and shoved her outstretched spoon into my mouth. Immediately something cold and slippery began dissolving on my tongue. It seemed to be shifting shape — transforming from velvety solid to liquid that trickled down my throat. The cold made my head ache and I swallowed as quickly as I could.

“It’s great,” I said truthfully.

“Told you,” said Molly. “Here, let me get you some. ..”

“I’m afraid we have to get home,” Gabriel cut in, rather brusquely.

“Oh… right, sure,” said Molly.

I felt for her as she tried to hide her disappointment.

“Maybe some other time,” I suggested.

“Sure thing,” she said more hopefully, turning back to her friends. “See you tomorrow, Beth. Hey, wait, I almost forgot. I got you something.” She dug into her bag and pulled out a tube of the Melon Sorbet lip gloss I had tried at school. “You said you liked it, so I got you some.”

“Thanks, Molly,” I stammered. I had just received my first earthly gift and was touched by her thoughtfulness. “That’s so sweet of you.”

“No big deal. Hope you like it.”

No comments were made about my new friendship with Molly on our way home, although I saw Ivy and Gabriel exchange meaningful looks a few times. I was too tired by then to try and decipher what they meant.

Getting ready for bed that night, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror that stretched across an entire wall. It had taken some getting used to — being able to see what I looked like. In the Kingdom we could see others but never our own image. Sometimes you caught a glimpse of yourself reflected in someone’s eyes, but even then it was a blur, like an artist’s rudimentary sketch that still lacked color and detail.

Having human form meant the sketch was fleshed out. I could see every hair, every pore, with perfect clarity. Compared with the other girls at Venus Cove, I knew I must look strange. My skin was alabaster pale while they still sported tans from the summer. My eyes were wide and brown; my pupils hugely dilated. Molly and her friends looked as if they never tired of experimenting with their hair, but mine was simply parted in the middle and fell in natural chestnut waves. I had a full, coral-colored mouth, which, I was later to learn, could give the impression that I was sulking.

I sighed, pulled my hair into a loose knot on top of my head, and put on flannel pajamas with a black-and- white print of dancing cows. Even with my limited experience of the world, I seriously doubted any other girl in Venus Cove would be caught wearing something so unglamorous. Ivy had bought them for me and so far they were the most comfortable item of clothing I owned. Gabe had received a similar pair except with sailboats on them, but I had yet to see him wear his.

I went up to my room, grateful for its simple elegance. I especially liked the narrow French doors that lead to the tiny balcony. I liked to open them a crack and then lie under the muslin canopy and listen to the sounds of the sea. It was peaceful there, with the briny smell of the ocean wafting in and the sound of Gabriel playing the piano downstairs. I always drifted to sleep listening either to the strains of Mozart or the low murmur of my siblings’ voices.

In bed I stretched luxuriously, relishing the feel of crisp sheets. I was surprised to find how inviting the prospect of sleep was, seeing as we didn’t need a lot of it. I knew it would be the early hours of the morning before Ivy and Gabriel went to bed. But I had found the day full of new and unfamiliar interaction draining. I yawned and curled up on my side, my head still swimming with thoughts and questions that my exhausted body chose to ignore.

As I drifted in and out of sleep, I imagined a stranger coming quietly into my room. I felt his weight as he sat on the edge of my bed in silence. I was sure he was watching me as I slept, but I didn’t dare open my eyes because I knew he would prove to be a figment of my imagination and I wanted the illusion to continue a little longer. The boy lifted his hand to brush a wisp of hair out of my eyes and then leaned to kiss my forehead. His kiss was like being touched by butterfly wings. I felt no alarm; I knew I could trust this stranger with my life. I heard him get up to close the doors to the balcony before turning to leave.

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