"The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper." – W. B. Yeats
Sunlight streamed through the glass set high in the front door, casting a distorted arch of light on the wall of the hallway, allowing the bare wooden staircase and the floor’s carpet some shade. Yvonne sat near the bottom of the stairs in her t-shirt and denim shorts (hotpants, Mammy called them) and concentrated on her card shuffling. Ten-year-old Julius sat behind the coarse red mat at the bottom of the stairs in his oversized Six Million Dollar Man t-shirt and tight corduroy trousers, barefoot. He gazed up at her with wide eyes. Inwardly, Yvonne groaned. Julius looked like a Buddha. A young and scrawny black Buddha.
She cut the pack again, before returning to more of the overhand card shuffling: a basic and sloppy technique.
“You’re good at that.”
Yvonne already knew she had picked up enough skill in shuffling cards to impress the layman. That was the joy of the bank holiday weekend – time spent watching all the good bits of “They Call Me Trinity” on video had given her the idea of something to do. And then, Mammy had decided to see her sister for the day, which left someone to look after Julius. That was the pain of the bank holiday weekend. Seventeen years old, and the only boy she got to see was her clingy little brother.
“Uh-uh, watch this.” Tapered fingers cut the pack and pulled off one riffle shuffle after another, the flutter of cards the only sound in the hall. Yvonne allowed herself a nod as Julius mouthed a silent ‘wow.’ She continued to shuffle, knowing the pathetic whining would come sooner or later.
“Yvonne, would you teach me, please?”
“Begging is for dogs, Julie.” A small sweet smile, too sweet, played on her lips as she progressed to more intricate shuffling. Mentally, she ran through a catalogue of music, searching for something to hum: anything to get under the skin and gnaw at any leftover shreds of her brother’s interest and self-respect.
Scowling, Julius got to his feet, the hem of his t-shirt falling around his ass, the neck showing gaunt collarbones. “You’re just being mean. When Mammy gets back, I’m telling.” He headed to the kitchen.
“Julie, wait!” She waited until he met her gaze, his eyes distrustful and full of hurt. “I’ll teach you some shuffling.”
Julius brightened, a frail smile stretching his chapped lips as he stepped back in front of his sister.
“If,” she said, beaming, and waving a card at him, “you can guess three cards.”
The frail smile dissolved in the wake of immediate agitation. Julius pouted. “That’s not fair. I’ve been waiting for ages, and you –”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” she said, fluttering her hand in impatience. “It’s only three cards. Besides, like Mammy says: if you want the true reward of something, you have to work for it.”
He narrowed his gaze, his lips pursed as he shook his head. “She ain’t said anything like that.”
Yvonne gave a theatrical sigh and crossed her bare legs. “Look, do you wanna learn or not?”
His chest rose and fell, the sharp sigh through his nostrils signified a decision would soon be reached. “O-kay,” he said, his tone surly.
“Good.” She gave a hesitant smile, wondering if she had pushed him too far, but hoping she hadn’t. If Mammy found out, Yvonne would face a beating that would ‘make sitting down a thing of the past.’
Peeling off the first card, Yvonne held it up by its corner to her chest, seeing the five of spades. “Call it.”
“Five of hearts,” he mumbled.
“Oooo, nice try.” She chided him with a tsk-tsk before sliding the card to the bottom of the deck and drawing the next one from the top. She glanced from Julius’s face to the card: the ten of diamonds.
“Ten of diamonds.” His head lolled on his neck as he fixed her with an expression of bored exasperation.
Yvonne glanced down at her card. “Sorry, sport,” she said, hurriedly tucking it at the bottom of the pack and drawing another card from the top. This time, she let the card rest against her palm.
“Jack of diamonds.”
Yvonne frowned at the card in her hand, where Jack sat perfectly framed in his border, reflected at the waist while looking at the big red diamond.
Her eyes cast a sidelong glance at nothing in particular, trying – and failing – to decipher this magic trick. Tendons in her neck felt as if they would creak like old doors in long-deserted houses. Sheer disbelief wouldn’t –
“Well? Are you going to tell me what card it is? Or are you going to tell me another stupid lie, like you did with the card before?”
She slid the card into the pack and fixed him with a look of weary boredom. “Okay, Julie,” she said, sighing. “How?”
A faint smile spread across Julius’s face. The same faint smile did not reach his eyes.
“So what? So now you’re not gonna tell me, is that it?” she snapped, glaring at him.
“Let me tell you something.” His voice had become hoarse. “I can understand your desire to torment your brother.”
“The only thing –”
“Don’t interrupt and don’t lie.”
Julius pushed up on tiptoe, arms ramrod-straight with his fingers splayed. His head bent back until his torso arched backward to an inhuman degree. An audible click like the cracking of knuckles sounded from within him. “I will torment you in return.”
Yvonne watched her brother teeter like a warped marionette, his face still turned to the ceiling. At this angle, his eyes looked perverse. Sunlight shone across the surface of his unkempt Afro and lit his forehead with an arc of light. The whole thing was an act: typical Julius behaviour. She pushed to her feet and stomped to the bottom of the staircase, determined to slap some sense into that stupid, scrawny –
A blur of motion registered and then his skinny fingers on her neck, his palm resting against her throat. “Take your hand off me, you little shit,” she said, clawing at his hand. Skin tore, gathering under her nails. His fingers stayed where they were.
The grip slammed her against the wall, cutting off any menace she could muster. Yvonne struggled to pry herself free until Julius slowly and deliberately lifted her off her feet with alarming strength.
She felt the first twang of impotent fear.
“Is this uncomfortable?” The voice, still hoarse, was thicker now - deeper, even. “Does it make you nervous? Surely not. You wanted Jason Weekes to throw you up against the wall and fuck you. Those legs are far too young to be spread for the likes of him.”
Yvonne screwed her eyes shut. “That’s not true,” she whispered. How did he know, how the hell did he know? She hadn’t even told Rosalyn Barrie this. Her mind reeled, fumbling for traction.
“No fucking for you.”
A stink reminiscent of rotten egg washed over her. The hold on her neck began to tighten.
“Please, don’t. Julius, please –”
“Julius, now? What happened to ‘Julie’?”
The grip on her neck began to tighten. She felt herself swung away from the wall, only to be rammed back into it with a loud smack, lighting her body up in a flare of pain. Somewhere in her neck, a sinew popped, like the final glow of a light bulb filament. And as the hand swung her away from the wall again, Yvonne felt consciousness slip away.