Val is Ten:
It wasn't that she needed a big birthday party when her birthday was December 22 and Christmas was just three days later, it was that this year, nobody really noticed.
At least, nobody in her immediate family noticed. She waited all day, thinking that maybe they meant to surprise her, but in the end, there wasn't even a cupcake with a candle in it for her.
When she told Dad, he said, "Sorry, Val honey. I guess it just got lost in the excitement. I'll take you to the mall after the holidays are over, so you can get exactly what you want. Don't be childish about it now; you don't want your mom's family to think you're a baby, do you?"
By 'Mom', he meant his wife Brenda, of course.
And that was that, except that the next day, she got a package from Aunt Judy and Aunt Ali. They sent her a birthday card and a Christmas card, a book on meteorology, and a real silver bracelet with charms for the sun, a cloud, a lightning bolt, and a snowflake on it. It had an extra piece of chain on it so Val could keep on wearing it as she grew up.
Most days she wished she was still living with her aunts. She really wished she could be there with them at the lodge for Christmas, not here in Pittsburgh with Brenda's folks.
At least Val had her new meteorology book along with her. Since she didn't want to play videogames with Brandi and Brandi's cousins, and she was too little to help out in the kitchen, she could stay out of the way and read. There was a window seat in the landing halfway up the stairs, so she settled in there, drew the curtain halfway, and opened her book.
However, the way the house was set up, any conversation in the kitchen could be heard clearly on the landing. "So, Brenda, how do you like your slanty-eyed stepchild?" Brenda's mother asked.
Brenda's sisters laughed.
"Feh!" Brenda huffed. "The freaky little b***h. I can't stand her. She's practically a robot. She gets good grades in school and her manners are all stuck up. She's got no friends, she does nothing but read—she even still talks to that ratty old bunny toy. If it weren't for Michael and my conscience, I'd ship her back to the lezzie aunts in the country. Who knows what they'd do to her—or what they've already done."
The other women laughed again.
Val froze up. She wanted to scream at Brenda. She wanted to go outside and walk all the way back to Anthracite and the Rainbow lodge, even if it was hundreds of miles away. She wanted to go tell her dad what the women had said, but she already knew what he would say about it—"Don't cause trouble, Val."
She took Mrs. Bun-bun out of her pocket and looked at her. Mrs. Bun-bun was the only thing Valentine had from when she was a baby, the only thing that didn't come from the Townsends. When she was really little, she used to imagine Mrs. Bun-bun actually talked to her in Mandarin. Mrs. Bun-bun wasn't ratty or old—she wasn't.
Wiping away her tears, she closed her book, put Mrs. Bun-bun back in her pocket, and decided to go read in the room she was sharing with Brandi and two of the girl cousins.
Halfway there, Brenda's brother Jack called to her. "Hey, little China doll. Do you want to come play around on my computer?" He was nineteen and didn't go to college or to work. He just lived with his parents and did stuff on line. Now he was standing in the door to his bedroom with one hand in his pocket, watching her.
"My name is Valentine," she said. "No, thank you, I don't want to play on your computer."
"Aww, don't be like that," he said. Reaching out, he yanked on her arm and dragged her into his bedroom, closing the door behind them. "I've got a really neat movie playing—I've bet you've never seen anything like it!" Whatever it was, it had a really weird soundtrack with moaning and grunting.
She started to scream, but he put a hand over her mouth. She bit him.
The next moment, he was the one screaming. A huge animal was kicking him in the stomach and raking him with its back paws, biting him savagely too! There was blood—a lot of blood. And ropy things bulging out of big tears in Jack's stomach as he lay there on the floor. He was gurgling and not moving a lot anymore.
It was—it was a rabbit? "Mrs. Bun-bun?" Val asked, because the rabbit's markings were exactly like her toy's. This wasn't real—things like this didn't happen.
Mrs. Bun-bun hopped off of Jack, twitched her nose, and shrank back down to a tiny stuffed toy again. "Whatever you do," Mrs. Bun-bun said, "don't mention me."
Now there were grownups screaming and pounding on the door from the outside. "What's going on in there? Jack!"
Val stuffed Mrs. Bun-bun back in her pocket, ran over to the door and unlocked it. Brenda and the other women from her family were there.
"What did you do to him? Someone call an ambulance!" screamed Brenda and Jack's mother. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything! He grabbed me and dragged me in here! He said he wanted me to watch a movie with him, but it was a weird movie and I didn't want to watch it. He put his hand over my mouth and I bit him. That's all!" Val protested.
"You lying little w***e! Jack! Are you all right?" The woman threw herself on her son and tried to tuck the loops of ropy stuff back in his belly, and after that things got very confusing and crowded and somehow very far away, too. There were sirens and flashing lights and lots of strangers all over the place before…
"This child is in clinical shock," said the police officer, who was a woman. "That's why she's not responding. Make her a cup of hot chocolate or something. And stop yelling at her. It isn't helping."
"Now," the policewoman said. "While Valentine here is recovering, let me tell you how this looks. We have here a nineteen year old guy who grabs a ten year old girl and drags her into his room to 'watch a video' with him. That video, by the way, was hard core p**n called, I believe, 'Another Slant'.
"He then locks the door behind him and puts his hand over her mouth. In what universe is that an acceptable thing for him to do to her? What do you think he was going to do next? Sit there and have an innocent tea party with her and dolls?
"No. It doesn't matter that you claim she lured him or enticed him or trapped him. Valentine's ten. She bit him—the marks on his hand bear that out. So, what happened next? Did she slash him with a knife or a gardening fork? There's no knife or gardening fork in the room, and very little blood on her.
"In fact, if anything, it looks like what my pet rabbit did to the neighbor's dog when it got in her pen. Rabbits are more ferocious than people think. Was your son keeping some kind of wild animal in his room?
"Now then there's two other little girls, your granddaughters, who also say that Uncle Jack liked for them to sit on his lap—while he was wearing only his boxers. I'm really glad your son's going to survive, because we have some very pointed questions we want to ask him…"
They didn't stay for Christmas dinner at Brenda's parents' place after all. It was a very weird and silent drive home.
"So," Brenda said, twisting around to glare at Valentine in the back seat. "I hope you're happy. You nearly killed Jack and ruined his life as well."
"Don't talk to my daughter that way," Dad said, between gritted teeth. "I, for one, am glad Val knew how to protect herself from being molested."
"Jack wasn't going to molest her! The police misunderstood!" Brenda yelled.
"Really?" Dad said. "Jack may be your brother, but you have a daughter just one year older than Val. Would you want him to behave toward Brandi as he did toward Valentine?"
"That—Jack wouldn't really have hurt her." Brenda sulked. "And it's not like she's really your daughter."
"Not really my daughter?" Dad asked. "When we got married, I adopted Brandi. If Val isn't really my daughter, than neither is Brandi. Brenda, you need to rethink how you think of family. And you need to apologize to Val."
"Mike, I'm sorry." Brenda said, her attitude suddenly changing. "I can't help my mood swings. It's the hormones. Pregnancy hormones."
"Really?" Dad asked incredulously. "Pregnancy hormones? You're pregnant?"
"Yes. I was going to tell everyone at Christmas dinner. My extra present for everyone. Now the surprise is ruined." Brenda blushed and looked sweet and innocent.
"Did you hear that, girls? You're going to have a little brother or sister!"
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