As you may recall, I told you I would be gone for the month of May. Yet here I am, with the month not yet over? You may well wonder, why have I returned prematurely?
The answer to THAT, my dear friends, should be evident from the title of this post.
The fantastic flash fiction prompt series where we look at pictures and write things and scream at each other in the comments.
Here’s the Prompt:
A few things you don’t need to know before you read what I wrote:
- …..so yes, the title is a lie
- I was actually going to go for more banter and less angst but…I forgot to put the banter in as soon as I started writing, oops
- (no one is surprised by this)
- At the least the tea isn’t a lie. There is tea
- The unhealth though
- I’m too tired and forgot to actually put any details in that tell you that it’s supposed to be Victorian but… *waves hand vaguely*
“Ah, Benjamin,” Magnolia said, “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.” She was already sipping a cup of tea and didn’t even bother to look up as I approached. As if she wouldn’t have cared if I hadn’t shown up.
“You know I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, taking my seat across from her. The teashop was comfortably quiet, only a few other customers, sipping their tea and carrying on easy conversations. The table Magnolia had chosen was tucked away in a secluded corner but close to a window. We had a nice, if a little obstructed, view of the garden out in the courtyard. Just visible was the rim of the little pond where black and gold and red fish swam, eternally hungry and purposeless.
“I know no such thing,” Magnolia said, still without looking at me. I noticed the edge to her tone at once. I had become very attuned to such subtleties over the years. “In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if you hadn’t shown up at all.”
I looked down at my hands and said softly, “Don’t say that, Maggie.”
She softened, finally looking at me. She studied me for a long moment, then set down her teacup. “How are you, Benjamin?”
I shrugged. “I’m all right. And you?”
She lifted her chin. “I am excellent, as always.”
She did look excellent. She wore a filmy white dress with lace trim, dangling diamond earrings, and an expression of perfect confidence. But I had long since learned not to make judgments too quickly when it came to Magnolia.
“How is business?” I asked carefully.
Magnolia looked instantly annoyed. “Why do you ask when we both know you don’t want to hear about it?”
My face flushed. It was true of course, but even though I had refused to take part in the family business, I still felt obligated to ask after it. It was the family business after all.
“You know,” Magnolia said, tracing a finger along the rim of her teacup, “I read something in the paper the other day about you joining some kind of committee for the welfare of orphans, or something equally sentimental and nauseating.”
I said nothing.
“In fact, I’ve been hearing a lot of things of that sort—not from the papers, of course. You’re not so special as to merit more than one appearance in print, but reliable sources have been bringing me reports of all kinds of good deeds you’ve done.”
A waiter brought my tea and hurried away. To see him, you would have thought the shop was overflowing with customers—dozens of orders to fill, no time to lose. Maybe it was my imagination. Or maybe he was afraid of Magnolia. I wondered if he had any idea who she was.
I didn’t touch my tea. I watched the steam curl up between us, Magnolia’s eyes narrowed and fixed on me. I didn’t ask her who her reliable sources were. Once, not long after I made my departure from the family business, I had asked her to stop sending her people to spy on me. She had been outraged. “You’re my little brother and my responsibility. How can you fault me for wanting to keep an eye on you?” she had demanded. I hadn’t broached the subject again.
Sometimes letting Magnolia talk and saying nothing was the best way to keep her happy, but today my silence only seemed to increase her displeasure.
“One would think you were trying to make up for something,” she said, levelling me with a steely stare. “Do you think if you do enough good you’ll cease to be a part of this family?”
“I don’t pry into your business,” I said quietly. “Will you leave me to mine?”
Too late, I realized I hadn’t denied that what she said was true. The color rose in her face, her hand curling so fiercely around the delicate handle of her teacup that I was afraid it would break. “So that’s it then,” she said. “You think you’re too good for us. You think you can walk away and start a new life and where you came from won’t matter anymore.” She leaned across the table, her face only inches from mine. “But it’s all a ruse. Maybe the people you’re pretending to help don’t know it, but I know it and so do you. You’re leaving me to do all the work, but you’re still a part of it. Your generous contributions go so far.”
The envelope of notes was in my pocket. Sometimes I thought that was the only reason Magnolia and I had these monthly meetings. We talked for a while, then I turned over the better part of my month’s wages.
But no, I wasn’t giving her enough credit. She truly wanted to see me, as I wanted to see her. More than once she had spoken lightly of taking me home with her after our meetings. I was never quite sure that it was entirely a joke, and it always made me uneasy. I did miss her—sometimes so much that it ached—but I couldn’t stand the thought of being dragged back into my old life. It was bad enough that I was still helping the family business from a distance. I did my best to forget about the money I gave her, but every time I read of some new tragedy in the paper, I wondered if she had been behind it and if my money had helped her.
“What if I stop turning my money over to you?”
Magnolia made a face. “For someone who’s supposed to be such a do-gooder, that’s awfully miserly of you.”
Her failure to take my question seriously fueled my frustration, emboldening me. “Magnolia, I don’t want to help you anymore.”
All the humor went out of her face. She sat very still, staring at me. Then, slowly and casually, she reached into some hidden fold of her skirt and laid something on the table. She didn’t take her hand off it.
It was a gun and it was pointed at me.
I swallowed. “You wouldn’t kill me.”
Magnolia stared at me steadily. “It’s so hard to tell what people will and won’t do. For example, I never thought you would turn your back on your own family, but here we are.”
“I’m not talking about the business,” she snapped. “I’m talking about me. Have you forgotten how much I’ve done for you? You wouldn’t even be here if not for me.”
“Lower your voice,” I murmured, glancing around the room.
“I’ll speak as loudly as I like. The patrons of this teashop are remarkably good at not hearing anything.”
She was right. The few customers had their attention rigidly fixed on their tea. There wasn’t a waiter in sight.
“And if they do happen to hear something,” she continued, “I can deal with them easily enough.”
She raised the gun, no longer even trying to conceal it. The cool metal pressed into my forehead.
“Do you remember when Clayden and his men came after us?” Her voice was fierce, her eyes burning. “They were angry at father for intercepting that shipment, and they found out where his children were. I hid, but they found you. You were only seven years old. Do you remember it, Benjamin?”
Of course I did. I still woke sometimes in the middle of the night, sweaty and shaking, gripped by the nightmare. “Maggie, please—”
She went on as if she hadn’t heard me. “They pinned you to the ground. They took a knife and carved their message for father into your arms.”
My hand moved unconsciously, tugging my cuffs further down over my wrists. Phantom pain raced along the old scars.
“Sometimes I can still hear you screaming in my head.” Her voice trembled. “After that, they meant to kill you. But they didn’t. Do you remember what stopped them?”
I would never forget it. It was an image as frequent in my nightmares as the man bending over me with the knife.
“I killed them,” Magnolia said, her grip tightening on the gun. “I killed all of them. I was only twelve, but they never saw me coming. They assumed that anyone nearby would have come sooner at the sound of your cries for help, but I was smart. I used what father had taught us. I strategized and I waited, and I killed them all. That was the first time I killed, and I did it for you. I did it to save you.” The muzzle pushed harder against my forehead. “But that means nothing to you. Less than nothing. You see me as some kind of monster for it, don’t you? And you want nothing to do with me.”
I shook my head, unable to form words.
“You hate me!” she screamed suddenly. Her eyes welled with tears.
Tears stung my own eyes. “I don’t.”
“You think you’re better than all of us—that you can go off and do your good deeds and forget about us, but if you can forget who you are, you’re a worse monster than I am.”
“I don’t want to forget you,” I said in a hoarse voice.
But it wasn’t quite true. As much as I loved her, she was so inseparably connected to everything I hated about my childhood and my family. She was so caught up in all the things I wanted to leave behind forever. Sometimes I thought it would be easier if I could forget her along with everything else. I hated myself for the thought.
“Give me the money, Benjamin.”
I took the packet from my pocket and laid it on the table between us. She didn’t even look at it. Her eyes were fixed on me, such wildness in them that, for a moment, I thought she really would shoot me.
She lowered the gun slowly. “So you haven’t betrayed us completely yet,” she said quietly. She swept the packet of money off the table and tucked both it and the gun into the pocket hidden somewhere in the folds of her skirt. Swallowing the last sip of her tea, she stood.
“Keep doing your good deeds,” she said, “if it makes you feel better. Care for the orphans and widows we make and masquerade as a good person. But we both know who you are. Whatever you do, you’re still my brother.”
She stooped and planted a kiss on my forehead, right where the muzzle of the gun had left an imprint on my skin.
Then she was gone.
Can’t escape the Victorian mafia, am I right?
Many sincere thanks to Jem Jones! (DO YOU REALIZE HOW MANY CHARACTERS YOU HAVE PROMPTED ME TO CREATE THAT I NOW ADORE??)
IN OTHER NEWS…
Remember when I said part of the reason I was going on hiatus was to work on the first draft of a new book? Well, I spent much of this month sleep-deprived, screeching to myself or my sisters about HOW ON EARTH ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO WRITE THINGS??, and–funnily enough–actually writing things. And guess what??
I FINISHED THE STINKIN’ THING
It’s a mess. I adore it.
I’ll tell you more next time. (Archibald Asparagus voice: Tune in next week to hear Hyde say, ‘Wow, I was so sleep deprived, look at these typos’ [and also possible snippets and general screaming])
Do you ever go out to tea (or coffee, or lunch, etc.) with a sibling? Is it this awkward?? At this point, do you just assume all my quirks are going to be angsty? (Because…you’re not wrong.) What did you do in the month of May? Who needs therapy more: Magnolia or Benjamin? Do tell!