Author: A.R. Davis
Audience: Young Adult
Format: E-book and Paperback
Publisher: Alice Davis
Cover by: Joseph Bradley
Editor: Kathrin DePue
Date Published: 7/7/2015
Valerie Mason emerged from the relative quiet of the forest and stepped back into the town of Leola just as the sun peaked above the buildings. She carried a bag of two dead rabbits whose blood was seeping through the bottom. She wrapped her arms around the bundle and walked as quickly and inconspicuously as she could, though the obvious tears around the skirt of her dress made it hard for her to blend in with the crowd. The hunters would not appreciate her encroaching on their territory again. She had been scolded a few times. The last time, they had taken her cargo away from her. She could not afford to have that happen again.
On her way to the marketplace, she passed the pub her father frequented. Valerie wondered if her father was in there now. She had half a mind to go look, but it would only delay her and it was quite useless otherwise. Last night, her father had returned home with a black eye and shards of glass embedded in his arm. With their combined salary, they were able to cover most of the doctor’s expenses. Whenever Valerie had any doubts about the necessity of her going into the forest to steal, she was reminded of the reason she had to continue with this dirty business. If Valerie refused to steal meat from the hunters’ traps, they would have had to choose between rent and supper—or doctor’s visits and rent and supper. Was it so wrong with the fact that she did not want them to starve?
Her father was, of course, apologetic as always, and as always, she forgave him before the words were even out of his mouth. It was easier for Valerie to forgive than to be angry with him. After all, he was all she had left, and she could not lose him, even if sometimes it felt like he was determined to be lost. Her father assured her that the other man struck first. The childish part of Valerie wanted to ask, “But why did you have to strike back?”
Valerie turned sixteen the previous spring, and she was too old to ask such naïve questions. She was of age to be considered for marriage, but there were no suitors lining up at her door, not that Valerie was interested in such things. She was only thinking about her father. Although, if she married, it might be easier to take care of him.
The town of Leola was drinking in the remains of late-summer. Women hung their laundry out the window, on the line between buildings. Wet slopping sounds of waste being tossed down into the alleyways could be heard as it spilled down the cobble-stone streets toward the main road. Lord Aubrey’s guardsmen marched in a unified line carrying rifles, their metal armor winking in the sunlight. Several passersby waved hello to Valerie, and she waved back cautiously. Children ran breathlessly as they chased each other, their laughter ringing in the air and mixing with the incoherent shouts of stall owners. Horses clopped lazily along pulling their carriages with heads bowed low as though they feared to make eye contact with beings around them. The aromas of waste, horse hide, and baking bread created a strange concoction in the air. All of this blended together to form the smell of the town that Valerie knew best.
She stopped in front of the tailor’s display window. The tailor himself was arranging a beautiful emerald gown for all of Leola to see. There was already a group of girls standing in front of the window, pointing, giggling, and gossiping. Valerie took a moment to imagine herself in that gown. Maybe she would join the girls in their gossip. Maybe she would be invited to one of Lord Aubrey’s parties, and he would be so impressed by her wit and charm that he would give her enough money to take care of her father forever.
The weight of the dead rabbits was enough to snap her out of her momentary daydream. No lady could carry such cargo and still be considered lovely or charming or witty. Valerie thought she had completely rid herself of such fantasies, but they kept finding her as though she was engaging them in an endless game of hide and seek.
A severely strict looking woman, who wore her hair in a bun so tight that it appeared to pull her face up toward her ears, was just turning the sign from Closed to Open on the front door of the bookshop. Valerie waited patiently for Mrs. Lind to finish arranging the books in front of the display window before walking inside.
The bell rang when Valerie pushed the door open. Mrs. Lind promptly swiveled around wearing a scarily forced smile and folded her hands in front of her. Her voice rose to an unnaturally high pitch.
“Wel –” she said before dropping three octaves into a low, disappointed tone. “Oh. It’s you”—her substitute for “Good morning.”
Altogether, it wasn’t said unkindly, though anyone else might have taken offense. Valerie simply shrugged it off.
Mrs. Lind snatched the bag away from Valerie. She made a face like something smelled rotten. “Did anyone see you?”
“No, ma’am.” If they did, you would already know, Valerie thought. It was best to keep such comments to herself. She didn’t want to argue with Mrs. Lind and lose her job. Even though she was only allowed to clean the shop and alphabetize the books, Valerie enjoyed it. There was something about being quiet in a room where hundreds of stories were at her fingertips. It was the only place where Valerie felt she was in control of anything.
“If they catch you, I’ll have to fire you. And I’ll pretend I knew nothing.”
Mrs. Lind sniffed. “Is that all you can say to me?” She imitated Valerie’s tone, “Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. Are you a machine?”
Valerie didn’t know how else to respond to that question. “No, ma’am.” Though some days, she did feel like a machine. This was one of those days.
Mrs. Lind sighed with a hint of pity and stored the bag in a safe place where the rabbits would take longer to rot. Then she returned to Valerie, touting.
“What on earth are we going to do with you, child?” Mrs. Lind asked as she pinched Valerie’s torn skirt. “If your father finds out about this, he’ll have my head!”
Valerie wondered what Mrs. Lind would say if she told her that not only did her father already know but that he had given her a knife for her birthday. “If you’re going to disobey me,” he said, “you may as well defend yourself while you do so.” Valerie had only ever used it to finish what the traps started.
Mrs. Lind continued to fret over Valerie and Valerie let her because, in a way, it was nice to be the subject of someone else’s worry, rather than the worrier, for a change.
“If you leave this with me tomorrow, I can probably fix it,” Mrs. Lind said about the sleeve of Valerie’s dress, “I can’t make any promises, however.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Valerie said.
“Yes, yes. You can keep your thanks. I’d rather you show your gratitude by stopping this nonsense altogether.”
Mrs. Lind narrowed her eyes at Valerie as though waiting for her to promise that she would do just that. But Valerie couldn’t, and, frankly, Mrs. Lind knew that too.
After a moment of silence between them, Mrs. Lind said, “Can you please re-alphabetize the adventure stories? And when you’re done, dust the top of the shelves.”
“If you finish saying what I think you’re going to say, so help me, I will do what your father refuses to.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Valerie said under her breath.
Mrs. Lind resigned to the counter while Valerie started her work. Children were their most frequent patrons, and sometimes they would leave sections in disarray. They loved holding the books in their hands and looking at the pictures. Some of them couldn’t quite make out the words. Sometimes Valerie would read to them. She liked watching their eyes widen in wonder. It reminded her of when she was a little girl; she used to stay up late to listen to her father’s stories, especially the one about the Beast. That was always her favorite.
Valerie could appreciate the adventures of dreaded pirates and Greek heroes, but her favorite genre was romance. There were rarely any female characters in adventure stories, and most of them were spoken of rather than seen. In the romance books, the ladies were sometimes permitted to follow the hero wherever he went. There was a sort of magic to them; no matter what dire situations the couples were plagued with, they always succeeded and ended up together. Valerie once thought her parents would make great characters in a romance novel. Her father was utterly mad about her mother, and her death was almost too much for him to bear. Coupled with what happened to him during the war, Valerie could almost understand why he turned to drinking and fighting. In a way, reading those books was Valerie’s “drink.” When she read about heroines like Caroline and Cynthia and Emily, she found herself stepping into their shoes, becoming mysterious, sweet, and desirable all at once. Sometimes, when she looked at herself in the mirror, she would recall her favorite lines and pretend she was wearing those pretty dresses in the window of the tailor’s shop. And the heroes they met weren’t half bad, either. Saxon and Daniel and Gregory: she could see herself spending time with them if they were real.
What she could live without was the stupid dialogue between the characters, the proclamations of everlasting love. Love was not everlasting.
Her mother’s death had taught her that much.
Mrs. Lind promptly closed shop when the clock tower began to ring the four o’clock hour. She gave Valerie a wary glance as she held up the bag of dead rabbits, as though she was deciding whether or not to give it back and whether doing so would be an act of encouragement. It spoke volumes that Mrs. Lind handed over Valerie’s pay before she handed over the rabbits. In the end, she gave them to Valerie without much fuss.
“Until tomorrow,” she said.
Valerie wished her a good evening (adding a “ma’am” at the end for good measure) and proceeded down the lane to her house. The buildings along her street reminded her of crooked teeth in a grey mouth. They certainly weren’t as nice as the buildings near Aubrey Manor. The manor rested on the tallest hill in Leola, and Valerie saw it as a white eye staring down at the rest of the town. Valerie had only ever seen Lord Aubrey once when he dismissed her father from the guardsmen’s service. She barely remembered him. She supposed she should hate Lord Aubrey—that she should blame him for everything her father went through—but being angry at him was like being angry at the wall. There were more important matters that required her energy, such as making it home in time to make a good rabbit stew and whether or not her father would be home on time to enjoy it.
She entered her house to see her father sitting at the dining table as though he had been waiting for her for quite some time. He undoubtedly still felt guilty about last night. He meant well. He always did.
Valerie resembled her father more than her mother. She had his dark brown eyes and long, lanky frame. She did not have her father’s scarred, leathery skin and the despair he often wore like a branding mark. War left him to deal with ghosts and a bad leg. When her mother was alive, her father smiled all the time. When she reminded her father of that now, he replied, “Now I save all my best smiles for you.”
Her father was offering his best smile now. He greeted her with an embrace and a kiss to the top of her head. “Did you have a good day at the shop?” he asked. He glanced down at the bag in her hand and then quickly looked away as though he could not bear to see it.
“Yes, Papa. Did you have a good day at the smith’s?”
Her father worked at the gunsmith near the edge of upper-Leola. He helped make guns for Lord Aubrey’s men.
“It was tolerable,” her father said. “Everyone is stressed about the deadline. It seems nobody is ready for Lord Aubrey’s son to take the seat.”
Valerie set the dead rabbits on the counter. “I’m sure you will make it. You always do.”
Her father stood at the dining table. Valerie could feel his eyes on her back.
“Did you have many customers?” he asked.
“A few. They came in sparingly.”
“That is unfortunate. Did you bring anything to read?”
“A Saxon Matthews book.” Saxon Matthews was a romance series that Valerie loved. She sometimes read them to her father while he sat in his chair and smoked his pipe. He’d say, “Now there’s a man I’d want to see you with,” at her description of the series hero.
“Ah. I wonder what he’s up to this time.”
“Well, we’ll see after supper.”
Valerie succeeded in removing the heads and began skinning the bodies. The smell of blood was potent.
“Did you hear about Mr. Randall?” her father asked.
Valerie sighed. She did not know Mr. Randall, but she was certain she knew what happened to him. “No, I did not.”
“He’s gone missing—has been gone for several days now.”
Valerie had heard such stories of people vanishing in the forest. At first, she thought they were tales to warn children against going in and getting lost under the dense crown of trees. However, a few days after her birthday, Mrs. Knott’s son left to get married and was never heard from again. Disappearing was a frightening prospect, but to Valerie, starvation was worse.
“That is unfortunate, Papa.”
“It’s been happening quite a lot recently—more people missing every day. I hear Lord Aubrey is considering sending his men into the forest to investigate.”
“The guards might catch you stealing.”
If they do, I’ll act like I’m thick in the head, Valerie thought. That’s what got her out of most similar situations. I don’t know any better, sirs. I was just trying to help the poor animal.
“Or you might be…”
Valerie turned to face her father. His hand was on his mouth as though he couldn’t bear to say the word.
“You know I don’t mean to keep…” His shoulders slumped over in defeat.
“I know,” Valerie said softly.
“Things are going to get better,” he continued. “I’m not going to keep forcing you to put yourself in danger. I’m going to get better. I’m going to be a better father.”
He held up his hand. “Don’t. I’m supposed to keep us together. If I can’t fulfill that duty, then I am less than a man.”
Valerie walked over to him and embraced him as tight as she could. She had heard those words before. Their effect had dulled over time, but she could never stop loving her father.
He meant well.
He always did.