Calculated Risks – Seanan McGuire

NO.” THE DARK-HAİRED LİTTLE girl clutched her seatbelt like it was a lifeline, shaking her head hard enough that her pigtails bounced wildly, flicking across her eyes and obscuring her expression. That was fine: Angela wouldn’t have been able to read the nuances of Sarah’s feelings in her face even if she’d been able to see it clearly. Being a non-receptive member of a naturally telepathic species had forced her to get better at reading facial expressions than most cuckoos, who had the neural capability but never developed the skill. Why bother, when it was so much easier to just skim someone’s thoughts and know exactly what they were trying to convey? Why bother, when most cuckoos didn’t actually care about the feelings of others in the first place? Being “better” at something didn’t mean actually being good at it, and since Sarah tended to assume anyone around her could pick up her feelings from broadcast alone, “What are you feeling?” was a common question in the Baker household. Angela was doing her best to raise Sarah to be a thoughtful, compassionate little girl, and to be fair, Sarah’s nature lent itself well to being polite and caring and interested in the people around her, but most of the cuckoo children Angela had encountered had been like that. They were as sweet and sociable and occasionally horrible as human children. Something changed in them around puberty, turning them into monsters. Whatever it was, she was determined that it wasn’t going to happen to Sarah. Not to her little girl. She hadn’t been intending to be a mother again after Evelyn and Drew were grown and happy in their adult lives, but when the world had dropped a cuckoo child in her lap, she’d found herself both unwilling and unable to refuse. Sarah needed a family who could understand her and give her the best chance at a good life, and at the end of the day, Angela and Martin were in a position to be that family. That was the only thing that mattered. That, and finding a way to avoid Sarah growing into the homicidal impulses their species seemed heir to. Angela assumed those impulses were somehow tied to their telepathy.

She was the only cuckoo she knew of who was non-receptive to the thoughts of others; she could project, but she couldn’t receive. She was also the only adult cuckoo she knew of who had never tried to kill anyone. Being able to view the minds around them as if they were open books had to make it very difficult for cuckoo children to make friends, and without friends to keep them anchored to society, maybe they were just having a normal teenage response to raging hormones and changing bodies. Not that she thought most teenagers were secretly yearning to kill everyone around them and salt the ashes, but it was a theory, if nothing else. Evelyn wasn’t biologically a cuckoo—she was as human as the day is long. But she’d been adopted by a cuckoo, and raised in a house with a cuckoo, and in the process, she had developed a certain bright resistance to the constant aura of “you know me, you love me, you would die to make me smile” projected by most cuckoos. Even her learned resistance wouldn’t have been enough to make it safe to bring Sarah around Evie’s children, but Evelyn had married a man named Kevin Price. Kevin was kind, friendly, a little distractable, and most importantly of all, a descendant of Frances Brown, the woman who had been the personal nightmare of every cuckoo in North America from the moment she’d first crossed paths with them back in 1931 until her death in 1945. For some reason, Frances Brown had been resistant—although not quite immune—to cuckoo influence. She could fight off their memory alterations.

She could hear their telepathic commands without feeling any need to obey them. And her descendants had inherited her resistance. When Kevin had met Evelyn, it had been because he’d been investigating reports of a cuckoo in the area who was suspected of preying on local families. Instead, he’d stumbled onto the Bakers, a stable, nuclear family that just happened to be made up of members of four entirely different species. He’d been surprised but pleasant about it, and once he’d established to his own satisfaction that Angela wasn’t telepathically holding her family prisoner, he’d run off with her daughter, taking her to Portland to settle down and have two daughters—and a son— of her own, all of whom were better equipped to shrug off cuckoo influence than the human norm. If Sarah was going to make friends without manipulating their minds, she was going to do it here. Now it was just a matter of convincing her to get out of the car. Sarah had been excited about the trip while they were still in Ohio, talking animatedly about seeing the three cousins she’d already met and meeting the other two. She’d chattered about how wonderful it was going to be to see Verity again the whole time she was packing, and how she was going to be best friends with all five of her cousins. She’d been excited enough that she’d even left room for clothing between her math workbooks and the various field guides to bugs and birds and reptiles that were native to Oregon but not found in Ohio.

Her excitement had started to fade at the airport, where she was had been bombarded from all sides with strange minds, some of them thinking things she wasn’t equipped to deal with. She’d gone from bouncing along at Angela’s side to clinging tightly to her hand and refusing to be parted from her for more than a few seconds, flinching away from the thoughts of the people around them. If she hadn’t looked so incredibly much like Angela—all cuckoos were virtually identical, which made it easy for them to pass as mother and daughter—Sarah’s growing distress might have made it difficult to get through security. Angela couldn’t deflect negative attention as easily as Sarah would eventually be able to, couldn’t take the temperature of a room and know when she needed to step in. But they’d reached their gate with plenty of time to buy Sarah a bottle of V8 and some cheese crisps before their flight, and she had almost calmed down by the time they boarded. The flight itself had been peaceful. Sarah had settled quietly in her window seat, filling out a math workbook and munching cheese crisps. One of the flight attendants had come back to give her a pair of honorary pilot’s wings, but as she’d been doing that for all the children, Angela hadn’t become overly concerned that Sarah was being shown favoritism because she was changing the minds around her. Angela had actually started to think this would be okay. And then the plane had touched down, and the thought of seeing her cousins had become abruptly very real in Sarah’s mind, and all hell had broken loose.

She’d been sobbing and promising to be good by the time Angela had carried her off the plane into the terminal, struggling a little under the combined weight of a child, her own carry-on bag, and Sarah’s heavily laden backpack. Fortunately, the flight crew was used to children having meltdowns, and given that Sarah was sobbing about being scared to see her cousins because they weren’t going to like her, no one had called security. Angela had calmed her as best she could, then led her to the baggage claim and the car rental desk so they could continue their journey. It would have been better for her to use cash and buy a beater car from the local personal ads, something she could leave behind for Kevin and Ted to strip for parts when she took Sarah back to Ohio. But “better” wasn’t always the same thing as “practical,” and much as she knew her son-in-law would hate having a traceable rental car parked on his property for a week, it would be worse trying to go through the delicate dance of under-the-table vehicle acquisition while shepherding a crying child. Sarah had been all cried out by the time she’d been strapped into the car, and had ridden quietly for the roughly two hours it took Angela to navigate out of the airport, across the city, and onto the optimistically-named “roads” leading to the family compound. And all that had stopped now that they were at their destination. “I won’t,” she said, voice peaking just below a wail. Something pushed against Angela’s temples, an almost physical pressure. She sighed.

“You know you can’t manipulate me that way, Sarah, and it’s rude to even try when someone is your friend,” she said, and leaned over to unbuckle Sarah’s belt. “We came all this way so you could see your cousins, and meet the two you haven’t met yet.” Arthur and Elsinore were Kevin’s sister’s children, half-human and half-Lilu. They were still descended from Frances Healy. Whatever protected her descendants would protect them, too. Sarah sniffled, but she didn’t push again, just balled herself tight against the car door, making it impossible to open the door without sending her tumbling onto the gravel driveway. Angela stifled another sigh. She’d thought she was past these times and tantrums when Drew graduated from high school and went into the world to seek his fortune, whatever that meant. Now she was right back at the beginning, or close enough as to make no difference. “They know we’re here, Sarah.

We have to get out of the car.” “How?” “Kevin has cameras everywhere on the property. He knew as soon as we turned down the road that brought us here.” Sarah sniffled and lifted her head. “That was a mile ago.” “Everything inside the ring of ‘no trespassing’ signs belongs to your sister and her family,” said Angela. “They like their privacy because they have some pretty special people living with them,” although “living” was a generous way to describe Mary and Rose, both of whom were definitely dead, “and they don’t want anyone finding out or getting into trouble.” Sarah sat up a bit more. “Special like us?” “Not exactly like us. There aren’t any other cuckoos here.

But your Uncle Theodore is a Lilu, and his children are half-Lilu, so they’re a little bit like us. They’re empaths. Do you know what that means?” Sarah gave her a withering look that even an ordinary cuckoo would have been able to interpret as scorn. Angela swallowed her smile. “Of course. I’m not a baby. They feel other people’s feelings.” “And their own, and they can influence what other people are feeling, just by thinking about it. They don’t hear words the way you do, but feelings can be just as powerful if you know how to interpret them.” Something Sarah would get better at doing if she spent time with people she couldn’t influence, like her cousins.

“Oh.” Sarah wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, keeping a death grip on the seatbelt with her other hand. “I still don’t want to go inside.” “Why not?” “I’m tired. I want to go home and sleep.” “We’d have to take another plane to get home. We don’t have a hotel room. We’re supposed to sleep here tonight.” “In a house with other people?” Sarah’s alarm grew again. “What if I hurt them?” “They have special rooms warded against all sorts of things, like telepathy.

If you sleep in one of them, you won’t be able to hurt anyone.” Angela unfastened her own seatbelt. “Come on, Sarah. Be my brave girl. Let’s go inside.” Sarah looked uncertain. Angela opened her car door. Maybe she’d have to dump the girl out on the driveway after all. As if they’d been waiting for someone in the car to move first, the door of the house burst open and a swarm of children came pouring out. The one in the lead was very blonde, very fast, and roughly Sarah’s age, followed by an older girl with hair a few shades paler, who somehow managed to make a flat-out run look like a saunter.

Verity and Elsinore. Alex was close on their heels, and Antimony was barreling along behind him, her eagerness not quite compensating for her shorter legs. At the rear of the pack was a smaller dark-haired boy who looked almost as if he was there under duress. Arthur. “Grandma! Grandma!” howled Verity as she approached, her voice carrying farther than any of the others. “You came to see us! Mom says you’re not supposed to spoil us, but I think it’s okay if you want to spoil us a little!” “Of course it is, I’m your grandmother!” Angela slid out of the car and caught Verity as she barreled up, swinging her into an embrace. “Oh, you are the spitting image of your mother at your age. She was a little hellcat, too. I can’t believe she has to contend with three of you.” Elsinore stepped around Angela’s legs and peered into the car, eyes fixing on Sarah.

She raised one hand in a wave. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Elsie. You’re Sarah. Ms. Angela says you’re a cuckoo like her. I’m a succubus like my grandma. That means I feel your feelings, and you feel real scared right now. Why? We’re your cousins. We’re not anything to be scared of.

” Sarah blinked slowly at her. “Why do you call Mom ‘Ms. Angela’ instead of ‘Grandma’?” she finally asked. “She’s not my grandma, even though I wish she were,” said Elsie. “My mom is Verity’s dad’s sister, so we’re cousins, but we don’t all have the same grandparents. We both have Grandma Alice, though. She’s the best. She makes cookies and lets us sharpen her knives.” “Oh.” Sarah bit her lip.

“I don’t have any grandmas. Just Mom.” “Oh. That must be hard. I bet you can share Grandma Alice. She likes grandkids.” Alex and Antimony had joined Verity in flocking around Angela’s legs, pulling on her shirt and yelling at her at the same time. Elsie beckoned for Artie to come closer. “I have a brother. Do you want to meet him?” “Do I have a choice?” “I didn’t get a choice about having a brother, so nope.

” Elsie grinned. “Artie, this is Sarah. She’s our new cousin.” “Oh,” said Artie. “Um. Hi.” “Um, hi,” said Sarah. She smiled shyly, and the world was different, in the way it only ever can be for children meeting the people who will be important for the rest of their lives.

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