With the match suspended and the threat to her record averted, Jalasso returned to the peril of the moment: the wrath of her mother. A new wave of panic washed over her, and she dashed to the makeshift net to see if she could disentagle the knotted afghans and reposition the chairs from which they hung.
Miranda watched with vague interest while slowly packing her tennis gear.
“Need some help?” she asked over her shoulder after several moments. Jalasso had started in desperation to pull loose thick strands of yarn from the knit throws.
Jalasso glanced over at her. “Would you?”
“Ha!” Miranda laughed sarcastically. She stood and heaved her bulky saffron tennis bag over her shoulder. “You wish.” She headed for the door at the far end of Jalasso’s bedroom.
In frustration, Jalasso accidentally pulled loose several more strands of yarn from her mother’s expensive afghans. It seemed to her that at any minute the entire collection of knit items might unravel into one long, messy strand. She dropped the twisted mess as she watched Miranda striding toward the door. “Oh, yeah?” she shouted. “Well, next time we play, you’re going to wish something! That I’d stop kicking your skinny butt!”
She should have known from her long nine years of experience that just such a line would signal her mother’s entrance. It never failed that Mrs. Pei arrived always at the height of her daughter’s most outrageous exclamations. As the word “butt” left Jalasso’s lips, the heavy oak door flew open with a soft thud.
Jalasso leapt back a foot and covered her mouth involuntarily. Not because of the sudden terror her mother inspired, though she did. And not because it seemed very likely that she’d lose her court privileges for at least a month, though she probably would. But rather because the door to her room had just burst open with a thud, whereas it typically tended toward more of a crash. The difference between the sounds was accounted for by Miranda. She had just reached the door as Jalasso’s mother came in, and the door hit the girl square in the face.
Mrs. Pei’s reaction was less immediate. She had entered the room admonishing her daughter for her rambunctious, destructive behavior, for her rude treatment of her guest, and for her distinctly unladylike language. It took her a couple of seconds to process the details of the situation in Jalasso’s bedroom, and her tirade sputtered out as she took it all in. Jalasso stood still, eyes wide, hands over her mouth. Several of the antique throws looked in danger of being unraveled, and they were strapped to the delicately wroght chairs she’d hoped would downplay the sporty look of her daughter’s room. And finally, it seemed that little blonde girl Jalasso had a tennis rivalry with stood just inside the doorway. She was holding her nose and wailing in pain.
Mrs. Pei sputtered as she shifted her primary concern from confronting Jalasso about the broken window to kneeling down in front of the girl she’d evidently just hit in the face with the door.
Mrs. Pei held Miranda by the shoulders. “Oh, I’m so sorry, dear! I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were behind the door.”
Miranda continued to cry in high-pitched screams interspersed with long, low sobs. Mrs. Pei tried to pull the girl’s hands away from her face to see how badly she was hurt, but Miranda wouldn’t let her. She kept her whole face hidden, and her endless hours of tennis practice gave the little girl considerable upper body strength.
“Please, honey, let me see,” Mrs. Pei implored the girl. She disliked have to use a soft, mothering tone. Dealing with Jalasso’s unbridled energy and crafty willfulness had made such gentle measures so rare that they now felt false and foreign. But she had to cope with this situation as best she could. She didn’t think it would help to get stern or to overpower the girl.
Slowly, Miranda relaxed her arms, and Mrs. Pei drew her hands back. When she saw the girl’s face, she blanched. She tried not to react for fear of scaring her, but Miranda recognized the look of concern and uncertainty. She knew something was wrong.
Plus, it was hard not to notice the blood that dripped from her nose and now covered the bottom half of her face and both of her hands. Immediately, Miranda’s whimpering escalated into a series of high, anguished shrieks. Her hands flew back to cover her face and she sat down heavily on the floor, her tennis bag sliding off her shoulder and slumping to one side.
Mrs. Pei did her best to make soothing sounds, but Miranda seemed to be going into some mild form of shock. “Jalasso,” the woman whispered loudly, never taking her eyes off the injured child, “call down to Marble. Tell him your friend is hurt.”
Jalasso stood at the far side of the room, shifting her weight from one foot the other. She wanted to spring into action. She knew it was time. But for the time being, she felt incapable of moving. Things would just get worse from here, and she knew it. If only she could rewind things. Back to the match. To those last few returns. To that awful backhand of hers.
“Jalasso!” Mrs. Pei shouted in her best commanding voice.
The girls sprang into action, practically vaulting over her canopy bed toward her phone. She used the intercom function and heard the butler pick up as he always did in two rings, no more, no less.
“Marble!” she shrieked. “Mother’s calling for you. Miranda’s hurt!”
“Very good, Miss Jalasso,” Marble said in his unhurried, unflappable manner. “First aid or emergency?”