Alone and Unarmed

Sorry for the delay in posting. As always, any comments/critcisms are greatly appreciated!
— Beatrice

“Rather fine day, isn’t it, love?”
The voice cracked her concentration, and the teacup tilted backwards, staining her white sundress.
“Oh! Dear God…” She grabbed a handful of serviettes from the table, only to find the white paper stuck firmly to the wet portions of her dress, giving her the appearance of a half-plucked chicken.
“Here, try this, love.”
She looked up, hesitantly taking the proffered towel. The man was right; it did help, although there was still an unsightly brown stain running down her chest.
“I’m terribly sorry about that, love. I didn’t…I mean, I…”
“Eva.”
“Come again?”
“My name is Eva. Eva Castillo.” The woman smiled “So you don’t have to keep calling me ‘love’.”
The man scratched his chin. “Castillo…as in the famous Dr Eva Castillo?”
Eva laughed lightly. “If you consider commandeering cruise ships and subjecting their crews to rigorous training cause for fame, then, yes, I suppose I am.”
“The media says you have quite the track record. In preventing the outbreaks, that is.”
“The media’s goal is to solicit an audience, not report facts.”
“Still, I feel I’m in safe hands.”
“I’m flattered, Mister…”
“…Rodney Winchester.”
The woman nodded. “Mister Winchester.”
A small smirk gilded the man’s face as he adjusted his oversized Gucci sunglasses. The smile disappeared, however, when the man heard a small click come from the table behind him. Instinctively, he pushed the woman beneath the table, ignoring her indignant cry, and pulled a handgun from his inside coat pocket.
“Long time, no see.” The man spun around to see a group of uniformed waiters standing behind him. Each held a gun or pistol.
The man’s arm twitched, and one dozen firearms were pointed at his heart.
“Drop the weapon,” said the closest waiter, a middle-aged Oriental woman with bushy eyebrows and a deadly stare.
The man complied, setting the handgun on the floor.
“Kick it away,” said the waiter.
“If you say so…” The man gently nudged the gun under the tablecloth with his foot.
“Where is it, Parker?”
“Where is what?”
“The hard drive. We know you’ve been spying on us.” The Oriental woman cracked her neck.
“Really, Christine, do we have to do this here?” The man sounded exasperated. “This ship is full of innocent people.”
“You have a warped sense of innocence,” said the woman dryly. “This ship is full of mob bosses, loan sharks, and mafia dons. And you, of course. But that can be corrected. Boys?”
Two of the larger waiters advanced towards the man, and he placed his hands in the pockets of his jacket.
“As enjoyable as this has been…”
A pair of shots rang out. One of the burly waiters fell to his knees, and Christine clutched her arm. The man knocked the table over, grabbed Eva, and began to run.

The man triple-bolted the cabin door as Eva bent over the vanity, breathing heavily.
“Who…the hell…you’re not…name’s not…Rodney Winchester, is it?”
“Sorry, poppet,” said the man. “The name’s Parker.”
“Is that a first name or a last name?”
“Has anyone ever old you that you ask too many questions?”
“It’s in my job description,” Eva snapped. “And what on earth are you doing?”
“It’s an inflatable lifeboat,” said Parker. “You don’t think they’re going to leave us alone, do you? After that scene?”
“You expect me…to get into that…with you? I don’t think so.”
“Well, you’d better think now, doctor, if you feel like getting off this boat alive!”
As if on cue, the cabin door shuddered. The impact was followed by the sound of shattering glass, and an alarm.
“Well, that’s our cue!” said Parker. He opened the door to the balcony, pushing the inflatable boat outside. “After you, love.”
“What do you…?”
“Jump.”
“J-JUMP?”
“Or I can push you.”
“Wha-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

“So, you’re a secret agent? Like James Bond?”
The orange lifeboat rocked against the billowing waves as Parker rowed and Eva chatted. In her defence, speaking was the only thing currently distracting her from the unpleasant bubbling happening in her stomach, and she was afraid she’d vomit if she paused for breath.
Even if Parker knew this, he wouldn’t have cared. Taking care of babbling women wasn’t in his job description, and the fact that the one next to him was responsible for his aborted mission annoyed him immensely. But Parker knew the boss, never mind half the world, would have his head if something happened to Dr Eva Castillo. Therefore, he gritted his teeth and doubled the pace.
“…water’s so blue and clean, isn’t it? And the sun sparkling on it almost looks like a diamond mine here in the open…just water, no sign of any…Parker? Parker!”
Parker grunted.
“Did you even think this through? We’re stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of God-knows-where, no food, no water, not to mention the unsanitary nature of this…”
The woman was going into hysterics, Parker decided.
“…that even consider adequate vaccinations against tropical maritime vectors…”
“Where did you learn to shoot a gun like that?”
Eva paused, then frowned. “I asked you a question first!”
Parker chuckled. “You asked me a lot of questions, love.”
“You answer mine first, then I’ll answer yours.”
Parker chuckled again. The woman had gumption. He wouldn’t be surprised if she were another undercover agent, sent to provide back-up. “There’s a tracer in my shoe, poppet. My people will be here soon.”
Eva muttered something about that not being soon enough.
“The gun, love?”
“I can’t fire a gun,” Eva said. “Those were curare-tinged darts from my dart-blower. The gunshots were just a distraction.”
Parker inspected the small device Eva passed to him. Perhaps she isn’t entirely useless…

At first, it was difficult for Parker to believe the petite woman from the cruise ship was the great Eva Castillo. She was talkative, sensitive, messy, and clumsy. They were stranded on the boat for five hours; in that time, she had talked up a storm, managed to fall overboard, set the oars on fire, cried five times, and shot Parker in the arm with one of her dummy darts.
But she was clever. Parker had to give her that. He made this discovery twenty-eight hours after their rescue by the HMS Neptune. After a nap, a good meal, and a hot shower, Parker went down to the control room to meet with his boss. Surprisingly, Eva was already there.
Oh, goody, goody. The boss gets to chew me out in front of a pretty girl. Wait a minute…did I just call her pretty?
The boss did indeed “chew him out”, although Parker was surprised by the comparative leniency of the scolding. It must have been because Eva was in the room, he decided. Although she did look quite pleased to see Parker in trouble…or was that concern? Parker had never been good at reading women’s faces…beyond whether they were planning to shoot or let him live, of course.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that, doctor.” Parker’s boss was uncharacteristically cordial to Eva after he had finished his lecture. Must have been because the woman was an international celebrity. “Parker managed to compromise what should have been a very simple mission.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Eva. “It seems the balmy cruise vacation wasn’t everything the tourists expected.”
“Far from it,” said the boss. “But it’s our responsibility to keep the innocents safe and separate from our dealings, neither of which Parker seems to have managed.”
Parker shifted uncomfortably. It was horrid that Eva had become caught up in all of this.
Her next sentence, however, changed that view.
“Would this scheme happen to involve a ruby revolver?”
Parker jumped, then slammed his hands on the table. “How do you even know about that?”
Eva shrugged. “I’m a scientist. I listen and I look for clues.”
“But –”
“The entire dining room staff and most of the cleaners on that cruise ship were underworld agents. When I was training them, I heard several rumours too interesting to simply pass over.”
“So you…went looking?”
“Well, I prefer the term ‘investigating’. And would you believe what I found…” Eva reached under her dress and produced a small, lipstick-red pistol.
“Look familiar, gentlemen?”
“By George…” Parker’s heart was pounding as he walked towards the woman. “D’you have any idea…”
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Eva hid the pistol behind her back. “Five hours stuck in a lifeboat with you…I think I deserve some kind of compensation for my efforts. Don’t you, Parker?”
Parker’s boss was grinning. This woman was very interesting.
Parker, on the other hand, was flustered. Highly unprofessional.
“Now, see here,” he said. “You have no idea how valuable that…”
“Eighteenth century French artifact with the legendary power to convert lead into precious jewels. Lost in the mid-nineteen hundreds, found two days ago. Estimated value three hundred and fifty million American dollars. Four hundred million euros in England. They value French history more than the Americans, it seems.”
The woman was, in Parker’s eyes, most certainly very clever.

The days turned into weeks, and Eva and Parker were still on board the HMS Neptune. Neither of them could leave until the rogue cruise ship had been sequestered and its crew apprehended. The passengers, most of whom had Interpol files, would also be detained for questioning. Since both the crew and passengers had seen Eva and Parker, the two had to stay hidden under the protection of the Secret Service.
Or, at least, that was the plan. And, as with all plans, this one went terribly awry.
There were three underworld agents on the HMS Neptune. Given the choice between kidnapping a British secret agent and an internationally-renowned epidemiologist, they chose the latter and placed a potent sleeping powder in the woman’s dinner. She hadn’t awoken until she was tied securely to the steam pipes on the cruise ship’s engineering deck…by which time, there was no one around to hear her scream.
It was six twenty-four in the morning when Parker found the note taped onto his bathroom mirror.
We have the girl.
You have twenty-four hours.
Come alone and unarmed.
—Christine

Parker openly declared his arrival on the cruise ship. He was greeted with guns, threats, and smirks.
“Knew you’d come, you damn limey,” said Christine.
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world, love.”
Christine grunted in response before disappearing below deck.
Parker was happy to advertise the fact that he was unarmed and ready to negotiate. What he didn’t advertise were the dozen or so British submarines surrounding the ship with torpedoes aimed for the hull if something were to go awry. Such a manoeuvre was undesirable, though, as it would cause both Parker and Eva to perish along with the rest of the ship.
Parker knew he had strong feelings for Eva. Whether it was guilt for dragging her into this mess or something more, he wasn’t sure. But he did know he had to get her off this ship safely. He owed her that much, at least.
Several guards donned in waiter uniforms escorted Parker to a meeting room, which housed a single, long table. At one end sat Christine. Next to her was Eva, gagged and bound. Her eyes were active, though they lacked the vigour they once had.
Parker winked at Eva. Don’t worry, poppet. I’ll get you out of this.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, limehead,” said Christine.
“Don’t try to be clever,” said Parker, taking a seat at his end of the table. “It won’t work.”
“Aye,” said Christine. “I’ve heard the clever one’s sitting right next to me. Doesn’t speak much for your agency, now, does it?”
Parker’s hands clenched under the table as he looked carefully at Eva. She had several cuts and bruises, and a black eye was forming on her right side.
“Like the new look?” asked Christine. “I did the eye.”
Parker’s knuckles were white. “What do you want?”
“The revolver. For starters.”
“Well, I don’t have it.”
“Don’t…”
“You said come unarmed. So I did. The ‘ruby revolver’ would count as an arm, wouldn’t it?”
Christine shrugged. “Then send word to your people to bring it here.”
“You think they’re that stupid?”
“Eh?”
“No one who walks on this ship is going to leave alive.”
“And yet you’re here.” Christine smiled maliciously.
Parker shrugged. “You have something I need.”
“The doctor? Parker, have you gone soft on us?”
“No,” said Parker, feeling in his pocket for Eva’s dart-gun. “I just learnt a few new tricks.”
Several minutes later, Christine and the guards were laying on the floor, paralysed. The first thing Eva said when Parker untied her gag was: “Your handgun. Left boot, third buckle.”
“Thanks, love. Blow darts aren’t quite my style.”

“What was your plan, again?” Eva muttered as she and Parker pressed themselves against the stairwell wall.
“Get onto the boat and find Christine.” And you, of course. But he didn’t say that part.
“And now…?”
“I didn’t think that far. But running seems like a good idea.”
With his handgun in one hand and Eva’s arm in the other, Parker dashed across the open deck towards the rail. Gunfire opened almost immediately, and Parker lifted Eva off her feet, carrying her in his arms, trying to shield her with his body.
“Good. Lord. In. Heaven.” muttered Eva.
“Hush,” grunted Parker. In one fluid movement he jumped over the deck rail, dropping himself and Eva into the seawater below.
“You can swim, right?”
“Of course I can swim, you stupid man. But what does…oh, God, you’ve been shot!”
Parker raised his head high enough to see a large, red stain quickly spreading across his chest. “Bloody hell,” he muttered. “This doesn’t…look…”
“…Parker? PARKER!”
“…Eva…”

Due to policy arrangements, the funeral was not held until two weeks later. It was a small service, one for a brave comrade who had fallen in the line of duty, protecting the people he served. The media had a field day with the story, of course, and there was talk of a new movie focusing on an epidemiologist and a secret agent trapped on a modern-day Titanic.
But Eva heard none of it.
She saw only the stone marker, the name engraved neatly in curled print: “Phillip Parker Putnam. May he rest in peace.”
Neither his first nor his last name. The tears fell quickly, when they did fall, and she felt her heart crack open.
“I-I wonder…what h-he…oh, God, Eva don’t be stupid. You were just…just a…annoying little girl…”
In the distance, two bald men watched the scene. Large Gucci sunglasses covered most of their faces.
“You had to, you know,” said one man to the other. “There was no choice. You’d just put her in more danger.”
“I know,” replied the other man. “But it’s hard to see her like this.”
“It always is. But it will get better.”
The second man folded his arms. “You’re lying.”
The first man sighed. “Come on, Parker. Your next assignment is waiting.”

The Five Heroes You Meet

My final history assignment wasn’t about daring battles or secret marriages or long expeditions. It was about finding everyday heroes in the world around us. Five of them, to be precise. Being the procrastinator I am, I waited until lunchtime the day before the assignment was due to read the prompt. Now, as I head to my after-school job at the local corner store, a series of thoughts fly single-file through my head. Perhaps I’ll meet my hero tonight. At least one of them, anyway. He’ll come up to my register and sweep me off my feet. Yes, that would be lovely, wouldn’t it? I need a hero in my life; I haven’t even got a prom date. Everyone was sure Orson Collins would ask me, but he asked that stupid Cindy Lewis instead. Now I’ll be stuck as a wallflower unless I can find somebody. Fast. There’s only one week left before prom.

As soon as I switch on my overhead light (#4), a man runs in front of my register. He wears an old, faded denim jacket over a gray track suit. In his hands rest a bag of nappies and a box of baby wipes, with a bottle of Destin precariously balanced on top.
“Find everything you need, Sir?” I ask as I begin to scan the items.
The man grunts in response as he pulled out his iPhone, which had just started to ring. I grin, taking in his dopey, unkempt appearance. His hair is matted, as if he had run through the pouring rain to reach the store, and his shoes are stained with mud and grass.
It isn’t until I take his credit card that I recognise his name. Reverend Lance Johnston. Pastor at the Methodist church two streets away from my school. His wife had given birth to a baby with severe spina bifida three months ago. A small, sickly thing they called Lucy. The doctors said it wouldn’t survive the year.
But that hadn’t stopped the principal from milking the student body for every cent we had last Friday in exchange for some rubbish lollipops.
And that hadn’t stopped Reverend Johnston from running out in the rain late one Thursday afternoon for emergency baby supplies.

My next customer is a teenage girl, a little younger than myself. She places a large bouquet of pink roses on the counter. It is a simple scan-and-bag…at least, so I think until I hear a small voice emerge from behind the counter. “Um, Lizzy? Can I have a Mars Bar?”
The girl frowns. “Dad said no snacks before dinner.”
“But…”
“No.”
“It’s…”
“I said no, Zach!”
The boy pouts, and the girl softens. Slightly. “Zach, I’m sorry, but Dad told us to just buy the flowers because we have to…”
“But the flowers are from you, Liz! I want to give Mommy something, too.”
The girl scowls. “You can’t give her candy, idiot. She can’t eat it.”
“But we could leave it for her.”
The girl rolls her eyes, her attitude masking something deeper. “Fine, whatever.” She reaches in her pocket for the extra money.
“Oh, uh…Zach?”
“Lizzy?”
“I’m short fifty cents.”
Tears begin to form in the little boy’s eyes. “But, Lizzy! I have to give Mommy something. She’s my mommy!”
“She won’t even know you gave it to her, you know…” The boy’s sobs begin to pierce the quiet bustle of the store, and customers turn around. The girl freezes momentarily, then reaches for the bouquet of flowers.
“Miss?” she says, addressing me. “Do you mind if I swap this for something else really quick?”
The girl returns moments later with a smaller bouquet of baby’s breath and a little plastic sign which says: “In loving memory”. She places the items next to the chocolate bar, and says, “I think I should have enough money, now.”

Several customers later, a rather obese man waddles towards the counter, tossing a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts next to the register.
“Just this?” I ask. My manners are disappearing with my energy. I need a Red Bull.
“Uh-huh. Oh, and maybe add this, too, darlin’…” The man tosses two Butterfingers and a Babe Ruth next to the doughnuts.
It takes all of my concentration to keep from smirking.
“Total’s twelve-eight-five, mister.”
The man pulls out a wallet and gasps slightly.
“Everything okay, mister?”
The man totters to the side, clutching his chest. His lips are slightly blue.
My heart skips a beat.
“Mister!” I say, my voice rising. I walk around the counter. My feet are wobbly. What do I do?
“Mister, can you hear me?”
The man kneels on the floor, gasping for breath. His face is shiny, and his shirt is wet.
I look around the store. No one in sight.
The man groans.
“Help! HELP!” I scream. “Someone, we need a doctor!”
A young woman appears from inside one of the aisles. She has a light jacket thrown over dark blue scrubs. She is a nursing student from the CC.
The nurse sees the man on his knees, and me hovering around the counter, unsure what to do.
“Call nine-one-one,” she tells me, kneeling next to the man. I use the phone by the register.
“Sir, I need you to calm down, okay?” says the woman. “Just sit back here, yes, just like that. Tilt your head back. Good. I’m just going to loosen your shirt and belt. Nothing to worry about, okay? We’ll get you some help.”
The woman is much calmer than I am, I realise, as I squeal at the emergency dispatcher on the other end of the phone.
“He’s having a heart attack! Oh, god, what do we do? What do we do?”
The paramedics are dispatched, and I watch the woman speak soothingly to the man. I feel useless. Numb.
“Do you have any aspirin?” the woman asks me a few minutes later. I nod.
“Can you get it for me?” Her tone is still calm. Collected. For a moment, I am jealous of her poise. I wish I had nerves like that.
The nurse asks the man to chew and swallow the aspirin. Moments later, the store doors open, and two paramedics rush in with a stretcher. I see my manager standing behind them. The paramedics place the man on the stretcher. The nurse says something to me, but I don’t hear her.
I only see my manager several feet away. He gives me two thumbs up.
But I wasn’t the hero, here.

Two hours before my shift ends, the effects of the Red Bull kick in. My smile is brighter, my head is foggy, and I wonder how late I’ll have to stay up to write this essay. Two hours, three, maybe, if there’s an interesting discussion on Facebook. My best friend Katelyn has been having problems with her boyfriend. He’s really cute. I wonder if they’ve broken up as yet.
There is a lull in the flow of customers, and I inspect my nails. I still have to pick out my prom dress. I’ve narrowed it down to a yellow tulle and a purple satin; I’m going back to the shop tomorrow to try them on one last time. Cindy Lewis is wearing silver and blue, but I don’t know what fabric. Not that it matters. Everything she wears looks like spun gold.
“‘ello, poppet, ‘ow are you today?”
A little old lady stands in front of me, clutching a box of Earl Gray teabags and a box of cookies.
The automatic smile returns. “I’m very well, thank you, ma’am. Did you find everything okay?”
“Yes, thank ‘ee, dearie.”
“Just these, then?” Tea and biscuits. Typical old lady.
“Just these, dearie.”
I begin to place the items in a bag, but the lady stops me.
“Love, you can just put them right there. They’re for your food drive.”
Food drive? I follow the lady’s finger to see the barrel of dry goods by the door. HOLY TRINITY FOOD COLLECTION.
“Oh…that food drive…”
The lady smiles. “Nothing like a spot of tea and a nice biscuit on a chilly night, is there, love?”
“No, I suppose not…”
The lady follows me as I walked towards the barrel. I suppose she thinks her donation had bought her five minutes’ worth of my ears. “It’s uncanny…I had a daughter who ran away from home, once. We had a huge argument. Something silly that I can’t remember, now. She spent three weeks living in a shelter and eating from a food bank. Ever since that time, I always try to give back, give to someone else’s daughter, even if that means I don’t get my cuppa every night. Sometimes all it takes is a good deed to warm the heart. Right, poppet?”

My final customer for the night is Orson Collins. My heart stops when I see him standing in front of my register. Even though he’s technically with Cindy Lewis, the girls still swoon every time he walks by. Myself included.
Stupid heart.
He has no boxes or parcels in his hands, though, and I raise an eyebrow.
“Something I can help you with…sir?
“My car…it just broke down…I don’t…the garage isn’t open…I can’t…” He jumps and stares at me, as if seeing my face for the first time. “Grace? Is that you?”
I sigh. “Yep, it’s me, Orson.”
“Grace, you gotta help me. My mom’s gonna kill me if I don’t get home before nine.”
“Did you try calling her?”
“Busy signal…”
“Try again.”
“I’ve been trying for the last hour. I think someone forgot to hang up the phone.”
I sigh. “Where’s your car?”
“I managed to push it into your parking lot, but I don’t think it’s going any further. I’d walk, but it’s all the way across town. And it’s raining.”
“Well, I get off at ten. I could give you a lift…”
“I have to get home for nine.”
I rolled my eyes. He didn’t have to try so hard to be annoying. “Call a cab.”
“No money. You know they require cash on sight. Especially from teens.”
“Orson, I’m sure your parents will understand if you…”
“No, Grace, you don’t understand. We’re having a wake for my Gran. I have to be there at nine. Mom’s been alone since this morning. She’d be exhausted. But she can’t go to bed unless someone else is there to keep watch.”
I sigh again. This one is much longer. Then I reach over, and flick my lights. The manager runs over.
“I just need a sec,” I say, abandoning my register and grabbing Orson by the arm. I take him to the back room, pull my purse out of my locker, and pass him my phone and a fifty-dollar bill.
“Call a cab.”

The next day, I hand in a half-completed history assignment. Mr Sterling raises an eyebrow after flipping through the paper, but he doesn’t say anything. I have no energy, no motivation to do anything. Last night, I gave Orson Collins over half of the money I’ve saved for a prom dress. My family isn’t rich. I’ve been saving for over three months. I know I’ll never be able to afford a dress now. I probably won’t even end up going to the stupid dance.

Two days before prom, Orson Collins arrives back in school. He is carrying a large parcel with him. There is much speculation. Some say it’s for an elaborate proposal for Cindy Lewis. Others say it’s a mini Ferrari.
It isn’t until lunchtime that Orson pulls me over and thrusts the package in my hands.
“I heard through the grapevine,” he said. “And don’t worry about the history assignment. I’ve already told Mr Sterling about my everyday heroes.”
Puzzled, I tear off the paper wrapping. Inside is a silk, floor-length, green-and-gold gown.

Spanish Eyes

“Your eyes are beautiful.”
The girl blushed, and I continued.
“They’re so green…like grass…or frogs…or avocados…”
“Juana!” Santiago scowled. “You can’t run around telling people they look like avocados!”
“But her eyes! They’re such a delightful shade of green! Don’t you think so, hermano?” I tugged his shirt. “Don’t you think her eyes are pretty?”
Santiago pushed my arm away from his body. I whimpered.
“Hush,” he said. “You can’t run around telling strange girls they look like food items, and you certainly can’t run around saying that they’re pretty!”
“But her eyes! They’re green!”
The girl was smiling now, as if she found our conversation amusing. As if she understood.
“She’s a foreigner,” said Santiago. “Of course she’s strange. But you can’t speak to them. And you certainly can’t insult them. They will kill you.”
“I mean you no harm.” I looked at the green-eyed girl, who was forming our words with her mouth. “And I think your sister is adorable.”
“Oooooh! Hermano, did you hear that? She called me adorable!”
“Hush your mouth,” said Santiago. “Please excuse my sister, señorita,” he added to the girl. “She has no manners.”
“I do have manners!” I fumed. “Tía Magdalena says I am the perfect little lady!”
“You’re the perfect little something else,” Santiago muttered.
“You two are just so cute!” said the green-eyed girl. “What are your names?”
“I’m Juana,” I said. “And he’s Santiago.”
“Why you little…” Santiago grabbed my arm and dragged me away from the girl. “You cannot speak to strangers! You can’t walk up to a girl and tell her my name!”
“Why not? You like her, don’t you, hermano? You think she is hermosa.”
“What? No! She’s a foreigner. We should not associate with them.”
“She’s following us, you know, hermano.”
“The devil she is!”
“You should watch your mou–Santiago! You’re hurting me!” I tried to pull my arm back, but Santiago’s grip was strong.
“We have to get away from that girl, Juana. She’s trouble.”
“You’ll be in trouble when Tía Magdalena finds out that you hurt me.”
“Hush your mouth!”
I bit my lip. “Hermano, you’re frightening me!”
“We have to get away…” Santiago mumbled, half to himself, before pausing.
“Santi…”
“SSSHHHHHH!” Santiago threw a hand over my mouth and pushed me to the ground.
But he was too late.
Through the grass, I saw at least a dozen archers forming a semicircle around Santiago. They were pale-skinned, with eyes coloured like the girl from earlier. They spoke to each other in a strange language which blended with the whistling wind, but their voices turned clearer when they addressed Santiago in our tongue.
“Where is the village? We will speak with your chief.”
Village…? I pressed myself lower in the ground, looking up at Santiago’s face. He was angry. Angrier than I have ever seen him.
“Where is the village, dog? I will not ask again.”
Santiago spat on the ground. “I will die a thousand deaths before I tell you.”
“Very well, then. Men!”
“No, wait!”
It was the voice of the green-eyed girl from earlier.
“You can’t do this. He’s just a boy!”
“He is a message to the rest of these native scum! They will learn to obey us, or they will pay the price!”
“Juana.” Santiago’s voice was soft. “Juana, when I shout, run. Run and don’t look back.”
I was too frightened to nod.
“Boy.” The green-eyed girl was speaking to Santiago. “We want to speak with your people. We want to teach them our ways. The ways of the King.”
“You want to kill us,” spat Santiago. “I know your kind. I watched my parents die on the arrows your people carry. They were shot in the back as they ran from the burning village. I will not watch another village burn. You cowards will shoot me, yes. An unarmed boy against twelve full-grown men. Yes, that sounds like the odds you cowards are used to. But I will not betray my people. You will not win this time.”
“You DOG!” shouted one of the archers. “Men, AIM!”
“NOW, JUANA!” I leapt to my feet and darted towards the trees, not daring to look back at the confusion behind me. A few arrows fell at my feet, but I was too fast. The trees granted me cover long before the strangers thought to follow me.
It wasn’t until I reached our village that I realised Santiago was not following me, either.

Fake a Smile

I sat cross-legged on the floor in Ryza’s study. My sketches and equations lay scattered around me as I doodled on my latest design. I heard the door open behind me.
“Ryza!” I said happily. “D’you think the tank should be brown or green?”
Ryza didn’t respond, and I tossed my hair over my shoulder, adding a spare tire to the back of a motorcycle. “Ryza? Ryza? Ryzzzzzzzzza…?”
“Katerina.”
Ryza’s tone made me drop my pencil and turn around. “Ryza? You okay?”
“Katerina, you know I love your company, right?”
Ryza was using my full name. Anxiety bubbled in my heart. “Ryza…are y-you kicking me out?”
“No, no, of course n-not, Kate! It’s just that m-my father…”
My heart began to race. Ryza’s father? Lord Salvator of the Llynx Noire? He was supposed to be on a three-month diplomatic mission to the neighbouring countries. Of course, it was little more than a scare tactic to coerce a trade agreement from the weaker nations around him. Mine included. But the rebels had overthrown my capital a little over three weeks ago, and I sought refuge with Ryza while her father was still travelling. Lord Salvator was currently unaware of our situation, but Ryza doubted he would have minded my presence. It would have fed his ego to know that a neighbouring princess needed his assistance. No doubt he would have tried to weasel a biased trade agreement with me.
“What about your father?” I asked Ryza.
“He’s coming back.”
I stiffened. “When?”
“Tonight.”
I leapt to my feet, all sketches forgotten. “Tonight?!?! But, Ryza, that…”
“He already knows about you. One of the guards sent him a message, apparently.”
“Bloody traitor,” I muttered under my breath. Louder, I added, “What should I do?”
“Play the role. He’s expecting a weak, quimbling creature who will succumb to his will.”
I scowled, kicking the tank sketch under the table. An unsightly mud smear appeared beneath the wheels. I hadn’t realised my boots were so dirty. “Quimbling? Is that even a word?”
Ryza shrugged. “Is now.”
I looked at Ryza warily. “Does this mean a dress?”
“A dress? Katie, you’ve no idea…”

Three hours later, I stood at the top of the ballroom staircase, a scowl plastered across my face. Ryza’s words still echoed in my ears.
“You’re here as a foreign dignitary. You are soliciting our aid, and you will have to comport yourself in an appropriate manner in front of Father. Which includes attending his welcoming ball tonight.”
My scowl deepened as I looked at the dress Ryza had forced me into. It was a light, wispy purple with a long train, making me look as fragile as the china dolls on Ryza’s dresser.
“You have to play the part,” she said. “If Father thinks you’re tough, he’ll be intimidated, and he’ll make you leave.”
I thought briefly of my sketches, tucked gently under Ryza’s bed. They were nearly finished. With a few more strokes, I would be able to send them to the general by the morning post.
If I survived tonight, that is.
“Stop being such a drama queen…” Ryza poked my side just as her name was announced.
“The lady Teryzana of the Llynx Noire!”
“Well, this is it!” Ryza squeezed my hand before she started down the stair case. “Good luck!” she called, glancing at me once before she was swarmed by adoring attendees.
An unsettling lump formed in my throat as I thought of my own country. My people loved me, too.
“The princess Katarina of Galbury West!”
The announcement left a bitter sound in my ears. Gritting my teeth, I spread my lips in an unnaturally broad smile before descending the staircase. Like Ryza said. Play the part, Katie. Play the part.
“Ah, Katarina! It is certainly a pleasure!”
The slimy voice of Lord Salvator crept into my ears. I curtsied, noticing my trembling hands.
“My lord Salvator, the pleasure is mine. To be sure, I am gladdened by your lordship’s safe return to his kingdom.”
A cruel smirk passed over the lord’s face. “Yes, well, it is a dangerous world out there. For sturdy men such as myself. Never mind a delicate flower like your majesty.”
My hand clenched into a fist, but I kept the smile on my face.
“I hear your country is doing well in the diamond business,” Lord Salvator continued. “An unhappy current state of affairs, of course, but perhaps you could be tempted to initiate a trade agreement?”
My blood boiled, and the tremours worsened. “What exchange would you offer?” I asked.
Salvator reached in his pocket, and I saw the butt of a silver pistol. “Your life.”

Early the next morning, I donned a thick, coarse cape and went to the post office in one of the smaller towns to send the general my sketches. Although Ryza was a sweetheart, the sooner I got out of this miserable hell-hole, the happier — and safer — I would be.
The lady behind the counter was a sweetheart, and a good friend of mine. Curiously, she was holding a letter for me. It was addressed to “Little Kate, Companion to Lady Teryzana”.
I tore open the envelope. The letter read:

To Her Royal Majesty, Princess Katerina of Galbury West:
I write to inform you that we have discovered the source of the rebels’ funding. Salvator, Lord of the Llynx Noire. I would advise you remove yourself from his area of influence as soon as possible. Our fear for your safety increases daily.
I know you hoped to send sketches for new machinery, but I fear we shall be overrun before you read this letter. Focus on saving yourself. You are wiser than I, and I hope you might be able to appeal to our few remaining friends for assistance. Our country is lost, but I hope you might be able to escape from the grip of Salvator.
Yours in life and death,
General Barret of Galbury West

Consequences

A trial run of “Consequences”, the game.

1. Adjective for man: Rich, proud, and hated
2. Man’s name: Barnaby Hammond
3. Adjective for woman: Young and naive
4. Woman’s name: Lady Penelope Eliza
5. Where they met: Westminster Bridge
6. He wore: His new dinner jacket
7. She wore: Satin and lace
8. He said to her: “I beg your pardon?”
9. She said to him: “Beg all you want, you shan’t receive it.”
10. The consequence was… a disgruntled gentleman
11. What the world said: “Why, he deserved it!”

Rich, proud, and universally hated, Barnaby Hammond was no match for the young Lady Penelope. They met on the Westminster Bridge. He wore his new dinner jacket; she wore satin and lace. He said to her, “I beg your pardon?” She said to him, “Beg all you want, but you shan’t receive it.” The consequence was a rather disgruntled gentleman and a self-satisfied lady. The world said, “Why, of course he deserved it!”

My Dear John

Her name was Susannah, but she was called April. A herald of the hopeful spring. Her mother had gone into labour as the ice melted and the first delicate rosebuds appeared on the bushes, but no sign of spring was more beautiful in the mother’s eyes than little baby April. For the first time in her life, the mother was content.
Thus April’s life passed. Wrapped in quiet contentment and love. She was educated by private tutors, never wanted for anything, and, after a brief courtship, was betrothed to a minor officer in the British regiment.
Three months before the wedding, her dear John received a summons from the general to perform his duty.
“In one of the colonies,” John had said. “A small uprising. Bloody Yankees have no sense of timing. We shall probably have to postpone the ceremony, but don’t worry. I’ll be back before Michaelmas.”
He left early one morning in a new red coat and a freshly washed pair of breeches. April thought he looked simply dashing.
John sent regular letters, in the beginning. Every week. Every other word cursed the Yankees, and their separation. Every other line spoke of his love, and their future.
But, after a few months, the letters became less common. Though their length and reassuring tone almost made the wait worthwhile. It was difficult to be a hero, she knew. Post offices and paper were difficult to find in the savage colonies. The war was taking longer than expected. He was busy. The days were full of battles and the nights were full of planning.
Sometimes the letters would arrive weeks apart. It was a cold, wintery night when the little Hemsworth boy finally knocked on April’s door, armed with a heavy woolen coat, a hat, and a letter. April eagerly ripped the envelope open and read:
Dear Susannah,
I have found someone else here in the colony. Her name is Abigail, and we are in love. Even though my time in the service is nearly completed, I do not think I could bear to leave this place without my dear Abigail. I am sure you will understand, and I wish you only the best for the future.
Yours, etc.
Sgt. John Hutson

Nearly a decade later, April (now Lady Susannah of York) was paying her dear sister a visit in West London. As she stepped out of the carriage, however, she fancied she saw a vaguely familiar face, walking next to with a tan-skinned, big-boned washerwoman.
It wasn’t until she was responding to party invitations that night that a name popped in her head.
John Hutson.

In the Estuary of Love and Loss

Even the obstetrician had warned Mrs Burnham that her son was going to be a prankster. He was born laughing; the doctors could hear the low chuckles as his head emerged from the womb. Something as sacred as birth struck him as immensely funny. The blood, the doctors, the beeping machines and funny smells…
Indeed, Collin Burnham would never take anything in life seriously.
Nothing, that is, except this.
It had been two years. Two years since the most beautiful girl had walked out of his life.
Well, jumped, actually.
He didn’t understand why. He thought they were happy. She was happy. They had something special. Together. A future.
Didn’t they?
When he told jokes, she laughed. He gave her presents, and she smiled.
But she slipped away one evening, after their date night in the park. He didn’t notice; he was brushing his teeth when he got the text. He raced to the bridge, but it was too late. She was already gone.
They had found the body a few weeks later, washed up several kilometres downstream. Lucy’s beautiful face was bloated and distorted. Collin would never have recognised her.

His cousin Moira came over for the day. She dusted the furniture, cooked a few meals, and lit a white candle to place by the window. “For the visiting spirit,” she said.
But Collin knew better. Lucy would not come back to visit him. She had left him. Freely.
Perhaps it was a joke. Perhaps he was missing something, and everyone was laughing at him. A change, for once.
But all jokes end. Everyone understands at the end. But Collin didn’t understand.
This wasn’t be a joke. And he couldn’t understand it.
Collin fiddled with the ring on his finger. Moira had begged him to remove it, but Collin didn’t see why. There was no life without Lucy, no life after Lucy, so why should he try?
No life without Lucy…
After Moira had left for the evening, Collin took a stroll through the park. Their park. The one with the little bridge over the large river. The one where he met her, courted her, proposed to her, married her, and lost her.
He stood on the bridge for a little while, thinking and twirling the ring on his finger. Tears streaked down his face, and it began to rain. His tears merged with the rain around him, forming an estuary of love and loss.
Then, in one fluid motion, Collin jumped over the railing, hanging slightly to the iron bars before finally letting go. The boy who had entered the world laughing left it in tears.