A Seal’s Skin

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Fey stood looking out of the window. ‘How had what seemed so right gone so wrong?’ she thought—

She and Andrew had had a good life in London. They lived in a flat at first, tiny, but all they needed. She remembered—He had pulled her close, whispering—‘all we need is a bed to love in’, then adding, ‘and maybe a kettle.’ Then the good jobs, a bigger flat, friends, social life and holidays. (The holidays of their student days, it was hitchhiking across Europe and island hopping in the Mediterranean. In the first-years of their married life, it was staycations, friends and families. The mortgage, the bills, the jobs, ate into both time and finances.) But things eased, promotions and a move for him to a better job. Money was easier; the world expanded—now package holidays and then more expensive long-haul ones. Andrew was a snob, and so the holidays needed to be cultural and enlightening, or strenuous and adventurous. He liked to boast to their friends about the museums and galleries, the concerts attended, or the peaks scaled and hardships overcome. She loved him, so enjoyed culture and enlightening holidays, and endured the strenuous and adventurous, and said nothing. She let him decide where they went and when. After all, his career was far more important than hers. She would sometimes watch as her friends looked at her while he expounded some story about their latest holiday—the treks to high altitude, the wonderful tenor at the opera. She could almost hear their thoughts—wondering about her, about the two of them, wondering ‘what he was doing with her’.

They had met at university. She was the first member of her family to go to university. Her roots were ‘working class’, her background in Northern city. She came from a family of intelligent, hard-working people. She never went short as a child, but there was no money wasted, either. He was from a different background. It had all been so easy on campus. The new situation had levelled everything out. They were making new friends, new networks. She had somehow fallen into his group, simply by being second from last in a philosophy lecture. She had slipped into one of the few seats at the back. He was even later, so had done the same and sat next to her. A few whispered comments, and that was how it had all started. She had discovered the strange world of the back rows of a lecture.

School had always seen her at the front of class, ready to be seen, to ask and answer questions, to prove she was intelligent, hardworking, all the things that her teachers loved. She was now in a quandary. Andrew, that was his name, liked to sit at the back, where he could ignore most of the class. She had become infatuated with him, and so had sat at the back of the class, and at the front, when she was on her own. The day the degree results came, she had to come clean. A double first (he got a 2:1) caused him to be annoyed with her. They had stayed together, and moved to the city, and started on the career path, Andrew always climbing higher, while she took openings where she could balance her career and her conscience.

One evening, after a very expensive meal, Andrew had just been talking about his close encounter with a black mamba—one of his many stories about the latest holiday. He leaned back in his chair and sipped the very expensive wine he had ordered. Fey looked at the group. Esmerelda (was that really the woman’s name?) cooed at him. She knew he secretly fancied Esmerelda; she was thin and had long fine hair of the palest blonde. Petite, she wore designer clothes and worked as PA to some Russian magnate. She was all bones, heavily made-up eyes, draped silk dresses and very wide belts cinching in her tiny waist. The core remained constant, Andrew’s friends from school or university, and respective partners. But there were always some new members appearing, and tonight, one gang had bought a new friend along. Hamish MacSomething—she hadn’t caught his full name. Andrew, confident that Hamish couldn’t beat a two-metre black mamba on the holiday front, had asked—‘where did you holiday this year?’ Hamish looked at him and smiled. ‘Oh, I always just go home.’ Esmerelda turned her enormous eyes and simpered. ‘Home? Where is that?’ Fey watched. She could expect the snide jokes about ‘home’ and felt sorry for Hamish. Then Hamish smiled and said: ‘You won’t have heard of it, it’s a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides. My family has lived there for over a thousand years. My uncle is the clan chief.’

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The Baker And His Wife

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Under her hands, the dough felt like flesh. Smooth, pliant flesh. It made a wet sound—a thunk—as she slapped it against the worn wooden benchtop.

It was soothing, this rhythmic shaping, kneading, pulling, coaxing.

The way her frothy starter ate the flour, she fed it daily, asking so little of her yet delivering so much in return.

Cecily Sehar’s loaves had made her into a small-town celebrity since she’d started entering the annual Baking Contest. High on a kitchen shelf, seven shiny trophies sat. 1st Place, 1st Place, 1st Place—all bar one. The fourth one, slightly smaller than the rest, had taunted her for months, until she finally turned it around.

She remembered that year. It had been difficult to source her ingredients. For some strange reason, the townfolk had been unusually healthy. There were too few accidents, too few casualties. She didn’t dare risk too many trips for fear of attracting attention.

For Cecily, the key was taking just enough to keep her bread loaves dense and delicious. But not for people to notice what was missing.

As she pommeled today’s ball of dough, it occurred to her she was running low. She needed to make another trip, and soon. She couldn’t risk running out. Oh, no… The secret ingredient made her bread loaves so extraordinary.

Why bother? Said a voice inside her head. All this baking, so pointless.

Just like you.

Cecily’s hands slipped, mashing the dough sideways. She leaned forward, breathing hard, her heartbeat building to a crushing crescendo.

She didn’t understand! She never normally entertained such thoughts. Those words were reminiscent of her now-dead husband. Little barbs, designed to land, to sting, to fester in wounds so hidden they settled deep into her bones.

She couldn’t escape him. Even now.

Someone knocked at her door, and she jumped. Sighing, she brushed aside an errant curl of hair with a floury arm. Who could call this early? She knew the humidity of her baker’s kitchen would have drawn tiny dewdrops of sweat along her brow. The red cotton headscarf she’d knotted so carelessly barely contained her black hair. She hadn’t expected a visitor.

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The Shifting Face

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Perhaps, living the first twelve years of his life in a little home, in a little town, is the reason for his shrunken stature. Or maybe, his name is to blame, a manifestation of his mother’s poor choice during his premature time of birth. It feels like there’s a quota, and he never grows past what the town of Saddlewood allows. Despite all that, Little-One Knox has a sizeable nature of sorts that defies his very name.

His little nose is perfect to stick into unwelcome places, and despite the size of his ears, he can hear whispers from a mile away, if he really pays attention.

He makes up fifty percent of the residents in his home. His mother, the other fifty, is a woman with lithe fingers. They have a simple motherly feel when they run through his hair, but only when he’s done something good. Of course, Little-One has trouble doing said good things. Rather, he has a tendency to seek out the opposite. It’s the careless venturing that makes his mother pull at his hair instead of carding through it. Though even when she screeches his name, it sounds like a term of endearment.

Little seeks out excitement by crawling in dirt holes and jumping off the odd tool shack. How he manages to climb them is an irritating mystery to all. Especially Old-Man Dooley, who has an abnormal amount of little shoe dents atop his metal shack.

The route he takes home from school has the quality and charm of a small rural town. Though the sidewalks are cracked and damaged, the clover weeds that grow in between make for a pretty picture. There are lines of red maples on either side of a winding road that tower with age, and every autumn he walks home on a bed of brilliant ruby leaves. At the end of the road, just as he turns right, the tallest red maple droops over a rickety fence overlooking a farm. And on the very top, seven branches part ways and reach towards the sky, making a surprisingly comfortable spot in the middle.

Often, Little climbs all the way up, up, up, and enjoys his late lunch on a seat that nature fashioned just for him. He stays long after he finishes his food, watching little sheep roam the farm grounds, until his mother leaves work and meets him at the base of the tree. A simple call of “Little!” and he packs away his things and climbs on down. From there, they walk home together, swinging their linked hands between them, while Little gushes about his day. And his mother, knowing she’s a true confidant, listens diligently until they reach home.

***

“Little,” his mother whispers, shaking his shoulder gently. Little peeks out from under his blankets only to promptly shut his eyes at the sight of his mother. She’s dressed up in work clothes. “Little you gotta get up, quickly, I’m gonna be late,” she shakes him again, swiftly pulling his blanket off and towards the ground.

Grumbling, he rolls this way and that, wishing he can soak up all the warmth from his bed and bring it with him to school. A pair of cold hands reach under his arms and pull him up and off the bed too. His toes curl inwards, trying to avoid the onslaught of cold tiles that seem to leach his remaining warmth.

“Quickly, Little, I’m not joking, hurry up,” his mother pats him on the butt, shoving him towards the bathroom just outside the hall, “Brush your teeth quickly,” she pushes a tiny pill into his palm, “and take this,” Little puts it in his mouth, “Kay, you have five minutes.”

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The Outlet

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(Year 2051)

“I’ve had a revelation, Doc,” said Jacob Allan Gibbs, suspended in an empty white room, “I don’t trust my Father.”

“That’s quite… that’s quite the revelation,” replied Dr. Natalie Dower-06, almost as if she was seated in the air, levitating across the room, adorned with minor but significant cybernetic enhancements, imprinting the words unto a projected digital page with her blue mechanical eye.

“I’ve always admired my father,” said Jacob, levitating an inch from the floor, pivoting in the air with the metal implants around his joints – unable to stay still.

The white walls around Jacob project images of Raymond Allan Gibbs, a master – no, a pioneer of Neural-engineering, “I admired his incredible intellect, his wit, charisma, and accomplishments, both as a family man and a scientist.”

The projected image lingers on an engram, a preserved narrative of Raymond opening presents with his family – the memory slowly begins to play across every wall before gradually transitioning to Raymond’s crown achievement – The “engram” microchip.

“By every conceivable definition of the word,” Jacob places his hand on the back of his head, caressing the glowing ports attached to his cerebellum, “he was the perfect human being.”

“Was? As in, the past?” Asked Dr. Dower gently, attempting to establish eye contact with her patient, “what caused the distrust – this rift between you and your father?”

Jacob pauses for a second, carefully contemplating the intent behind his words as the white walls turn blank as he struggles to come up with an answer.

***

A rustling noise echoes through a dark room – an office decorated by a slew of medical diplomas and Avant-garde paintings. There are four security cameras in every top corner of the room with beeping red dots – save for one, which turns purple between every three blinks. The beeping stops as the cameras lower their head towards the floor. Jacob gently opens the door with the help of an implant – emerging from his finger like a swiss-army knife.

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Flypaper

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For many summers when I was a girl, my family visited a cabin. While triple-digit sunshine fried neighborhood lawns and sidewalks, it stayed green and cool in the woods. I felt safe there before I learned of the tiny invisible things that lurk in sunless crevices, waiting to rot their surroundings. This happens to neglected places. Neglected people, too.

I shake off a sweaty doze, rejoining time. The cabin’s a dozen years in my past. It’s after midnight in my apartment. My phone’s about to ring. I sense the psychic trash fire of my ex-husband Paul, who calls when he’s strung out and can borrow a friend’s phone. Somehow, he hasn’t killed the brain cell that stores my number. The digits are tattooed in his limbic system, next to the controls allowing blackout drunks to find home. I’ve blocked two of his phones and six belonging to his friends. I won’t change my number because fuck him. He’d wheedle it from another mutual acquaintance who’s not up to speed on our relationship. Huntsville’s not a big town, but big enough to lose touch. The day I get serious with someone new, I’ll take permanent steps to blot Paul from existence. For now, psycho-baffling technology lets me blacklist his avatars at will. Hateful chatter is all that remains of him. He’d never have the stones to confront me in person. If he can’t bully, he shrivels. I doubt he can hold down a job. He might scam some disability pay, but he’ll be dead soon.

Despite all self-assurances my breath falters. I drive a fist into my mattress. “Damn, damn, damn you!” I hiss, meaning the curses for Paul but grazing myself. I’ll outlast him, but meanwhile he wakes me up every other hour in the middle of the night. I’m losing my cool, pissed off but not afraid. Get it together, Claire! You can’t be afraid! Mopping my eyes, I tell myself with fading conviction that every abusive overture is a gratifying reminder of how Paul has unraveled. I summon memories of life before him, including the cabin, but when my eyes close, he lurks there too.

I mistake a buzz in my ear, just after dawn, for more bad tidings. I thrust a hand from under my sheets, but my cell isn’t ringing. The sound circling my ear is a housefly – one of those giant chrome-green bastards that smash open like nasty pimples.

I grab a hefty Ann Rule paperback. My vices are mini-mart powdered donuts and true crime. Sugar dust in my living space attracts bugs, but big blocky murder books are excellent for clubbing them to death. I swing the book backhand over my face, feeling it connect. Nailed it! No entrails on the spine – a clean blunt force kill.

Checking my phone as the coffee pot brews, I delete several chapters of pornographic mind-puke from Paul. There’s also a message I was hoping for, from Brian Adler. I thought he must have changed his number, but I got through. He says give him a shout in the afternoon.

Brian’s family owned the cabin that looms in my memory. They weren’t blood relatives, but close enough, until the Adlers and my folks had some falling out. I tried keeping up with Brian and losing touch with him is a concession I regret making for Paul’s sake. Brian never acted resentful, but it must have hurt his feelings for me to vanish down my black hole of a marriage, bound to a jealous prick who denied me any male friendships. Considering a reversed scenario with Brian as the husband, Paul the castoff playmate, Paul would have cursed me for a faithless bitch as he now does anyway.

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The Chronicles Of El Dorado

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After finalizing his divorce following the death of their 2yrs old daughter, nothing in life seems to make sense. He had shutout the world blaming everyone and everything. The only place he now found solace was in spending long hours driving around and exploring new places whenever he wasn’t working. He was angry with life, destiny, fate and anything that had an influence over his existence that he couldn’t control.

Today wasn’t suppose to be any different from the other days that he had spent driving for long hours at the outskirt of town and sometimes hiking except that for the first time in two years, he was lost without a map because the best part of his routine drive and hiking was the thrill of discovering new places with the element of surprise still intact. The presence of a map or a GPS only took away the thrilling part of his trips. Sometimes he spent the nights in a motel before heading back home. He had been so absorbed in his trance of daydreaming that he had not paid attention to the routes he had been travelling in the last few hours after grabbing his backpack and deciding to go for a hike in the forest. Currently his situation was further complicated because he had no juice on his mobile phone whose battery was already dead. He checked his wristwatch and to his disgust it wasn’t working. He was sure he had been walking for some few hours in the forest and his quartz wristwatch had stopped at 5:13pm but he knew it was not yet dusk because a chainsaw was still audible from a distance. He kept his eyes fixed on the two-lane road that snaked up into some trees as he deliberated on what to do next. It wasn’t long before he made his decision after hearing the howling of a wolf from a distance. He took the right lane and hurried through the forest circumventing trees as his heartbeat accelerated with the thought of having a run-in with a pack of wolves on his mind even though he had no idea where he was going. The irony was that today he had no one to blame but himself.

He lost track of time as he jogged without a destination but with hope of finding a route that could lead him out of the forest. The forest was slowly becoming dark as night gradually approached. He could no longer hear the sound of the chainsaw and the only sound audible to his ears was that of his heartbeats and the constant howling of the wolves.
The collision was sudden and unexpected and he fell to the ground. Without wasting a minute he picked himself up but froze when he saw the double barrel of a shotgun pointed at him. Earlier he thought he had run into a tree. Slowly he put his hands up in surrender. She asked him who he was in an authoritative tone. He told her he was a hiker who had lost his way in the forest and he meant her no harm. At first she seems reluctant to put down the weapon but she slowly lowered the shotgun. He asked her what she was doing alone in the forest but she ignored him as she dusted herself.

The good looking woman before him was dark in complexion and tall with an athletic body, oval face, hooded eyes, turn-up nose and full lips. She was wearing a blue insulated down coat on a black jeans and a black knee high boots. She was also putting on blue gloves and head warmer which revealed strands of brunette hair. He guessed she was in her early to mid thirties. She had an air of confidence and authority and, she held the weapon in her hand with great ease and expertise. She was also carrying a backpack and she looked like a hiker.

She asked him his name and he told her his name was David Finch and, he was a writer who had gotten lost after driving for hours before deciding to take a hike in the forest. She didn’t trust him because she still had her finger wrapped around the trigger of the shotgun as she kept her eyes trained on him. She asked him why he didn’t have a map with him like most hikers. David told her he didn’t know he was hiking without a map until he got lost and couldn’t find his map in his backpack and the absence of network coverage on his mobile device further complicated matters for him. She told him her name was Sarah Jones and she lived some miles away from the forest at the outskirt of town. David told Sarah he was happy to meet her and he would appreciate it if she could help him find a way out of the forest or to the nearest motel to spend the night. Sarah sighed and looked at him exhaustedly before she told him she was also lost. David was left baffled as he asked her how could she had ended up getting lost since it appears it wasn’t her first time in the forest. Sarah told him she never went hiking with a map because she was familiar with the forest and she never brought a mobile device along with her because she knew there was no network coverage in the forest except you had a satellite phone which she didn’t. David couldn’t believe his luck was that bad as he sighed frustratingly and looked up at the approaching dusk. Sarah sensing he was worried told him to relax and that this was the first time she was getting lost in this forest but if she wasn’t home by midnight her dog Iraq who was familiar with the forest was likely to come looking for her though the only reason he hadn’t accompanied her was because he wasn’t feeling too well.

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Divinity – 2021 Vol 1

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Divinity – 2021 Vol 1, 10 Horror and Fantasy Shorts, comes from 6 countries, across 3 continents and includes Winners from our Go Green Prize, Fantasy Prize and Horror Prize. It’s both creepy and sublime, wondrous and forbidding, yet imaginative and lyrical, packed with heroism, supernaturalism and madness.

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Humanity Restored

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Where now all that remains are ruins and the desolation of ash, once stood a great, prominent and prosperous civilization. Cities of stones and gold, rich lands of plentiful harvest and, of course, the prodigious race of Man. Kingdoms were built, warmongering at first but peaceful in time and as such, wars became stories of the past as men learned of empathy. And, in the center of it all rested the Silver Capital of the human world, built upon the very birthplace of mankind: the Cradle of Humanity.

Alas, the sacred tenets, these virtues written by men ironically guided them against their own nature, thus the Taint of Ash spread across the lands, foretelling the end of the human race in its entirety. As the bodies and flesh of the living turned into cinders, their minds too began to rot. The ones that were not consumed whole by ash slowly crumbled into lifeless husks, spared of the grasp of death only to wander amidst a world asunder. Years after years, the great crowns that once guided humanity forward splintered and fell to chaos, as the desperate kingdoms led their afflicted armies towards the Cradle of Man. There, they hoped to find an answer to their undeserved suffering. Yet the watchful knights of the Silver Capital, even in their pitiful state of ashen flesh, incessantly carried their eternal allegiance towards the protection of the birthplace of Man, sovereign and unyielding. In the end, war destroyed all that ash did not. It seemed there was no hope left for mankind, for indeed the very Soul of Humanity was tainted beyond recognition.

Some, however, were not. These very few souls were known as the Untainted Ones, for they had not fallen prey to the curse that had been set upon Man. Neither years nor steel could kill them, as each time one passed unto the next world, their spirit reemerged elsewhere.

1

In the deep chasms of a lost dungeon, darkened by the ash-covered sky, awoke a fallen knight, a wandering warrior, carrying a worn armor of plate dusted by time. His sheathed sword spelt rust, and his helmet sorrow. For a brief moment, the man chose to fall into slumber, as to never have to live and die again. Yet, when the crying plea of an infant echoed through the dark chambers of his prison, the fainted eyes of the knight opened anew – and the dungeon was silent once more. Again, the Untainted One arose, for after each death the thought of giving up seemed oh-so very enticing, yet each time was chased by the sombre memory from a bygone era.

The unnamed knight had done this before. His soul was forever fated to live again, destined to find the unseen path to the scarred corpse of his belongings in a perpetual cycle of rebirth. This time was no different. He stood up, and walked. Walked amidst the abandoned corridors of an ancient prison, crushing the bones of the dead beneath his boots, and to the wooden doors leading outside, to a desperate world left to ashes. As he opened the portal to unwanted freedom, the fresh wind of the sea stirred his torn cape, for the dungeon tower he had found himself in was built on the verge of a perilous cliff. The reborn man sat his gaze inland, standing over the vast plains of the once great empire of mankind, a world of endless desolation.

“Why am I here ?” muttered the helmed knight, as he took out of his pouch an iridescent powder of curious nature. As if it responded to his words, the powder shaped into hovering specks of light above his gloved hand, like a strangely antizing ember floating in the air. At the voice of the fallen knight, the mysterious sparks of light took flight and drifted east, towards the destiny of every Untainted One.

Even more fleeting than the strange light was the memory carried by the Untainted. The knight could remember his mortal existence, in a remote age before the world had fallen prey to the Taint of Ash, but had little to no recollection of his previous lives, nor the manner in which he had died each time. Always, for every death and rebirth, the Untainted Ones were guided by light, by use of an odd powder litting up their path towards their unknown goal, towards the Cradle of Humanity. None knew the purpose of their immortality, nor the reason for their purity of flesh. Either they could choose to fall into eternal slumber, losing themselves completely and, doing so, joining in likeness the fate of the tainted carcasses wandering the ruined kingdoms… or they could choose to perpetuate in their journey, blind, towards the light, nearing, with each life and death, their untold destiny.

In this new life, the fallen knight first traversed the desolate ashland of the west, vast fields that once yielded bountiful crops and abundant harvest. In the distance, dark figures hovered the plains of cinder, scarecrows, whose silhouettes hidden amidst the storm of ash appeared now more terrifying to men than to the black birds who had taken over their outlines.

The fallen knight stopped by an abandoned farming cabin before sundown, less the darkness of the night swallowed his path whole. The shack was not inhabited, as the knight found, on the ash-covered bed, the bones of a father, a mother and a child. He was no stranger to loss himself, and in thought fell to slumber.

As the first light of day shone through the dark clouds of the ashen sky, the knight was awoken by the same plea coming from the mouth of an infant baby. Once again he rose, and continued down his journey westward, inland.

On his path, the fallen knight came upon the lost village of an unknown nation. Few remaining inhabitants feared his arrival, while others praised him, prophicizing the Untainted as the saviors of mankind, the fighters of all evil, the enemies of the Taint.

“Untainted One. I recognize your attire.” said a blind old lady, her very chest, ridden by ash, on the verge of collapse.

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Reticence

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Centuries old and well maintained throughout its life, the Willow Mansion stood tall and beautiful in the darkness of tall pines. The air surrounding it was usually quiet, since the estate sat atop a lonesome peak and watched the town below from a long distance. Several generations of Willows lived and withered away within its walls of stone, until only one lineage remained. Their family consisted of parents Robert and Ariella, and their six-year-old daughter, Molly.

On this particular evening, the Willows had dinner in the courtyard amidst frozen rose bushes and apple trees. Snow was falling from the heavens and had already settled thickly on most of the grounds below. The plants around them were nearly dead from the winter’s cold, but the Willows wore their winter’s finest clothing and sat beside an open fire. The family was served chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and string beans—a preferred meal by the Willows. Yet, the chicken and potatoes chilled rather quickly from the cool air, and the crispy string beans crunched like ice in their mouths.

Ignoring these inconveniences, Robert Willow watched the snowfall in awe. His black hair was well groomed and his olive-colored eyes crinkled at the corners, showing his age. “The fresh air is lovely,” he said to no one in particular. He often spoke to break the quietness that lingered through the course of these dinners. Work occupied most of his days, but on Sundays, such as this one, he wanted to spend time with his family. For this reason, he had insisted on dining outdoors, in hopes the unpleasantness would strike some form of conversation with his wife. “Isn’t the fresh air lovely?” Robert tried again.

Ariella Willow, however, was rarely one to complain, agree, or even speak. She was nearly motionless in her fur coat, with her light-blonde hair tucked underneath a heavy wool hat. She kept her blue eyes down, nodded her head in false agreement, and forked the cold beans on her plate as though she wanted to eat them.

Unnoticed, Molly scowled at her parents in secret from the other end of the table. Unlike her father, she did not favor the cold, but if her mother did not complain, then Molly did not have a voice to either. She did not find it fair: being six years old. Grown-ups never asked her what she wanted. They never even wondered if she was happy, which on this day she was not. Winter was a lousy time for Molly. Her hands were freezing underneath her gloves and her feet were wet from the snow in her boots. She could not run in the sunshine or play in the seemingly endless hedge maze. Friends, though scarce at all times of the year, were even rarer in the winter because the roads were too icy for visitors. Only the groundskeepers and maids spoke to her, but even they were too busy to play.

The Willows sat through this soundless dinner and when it was over, Ariella grabbed Molly’s hand and led her inside. They left Robert sitting alone in the courtyard, frowning at the snowfall. Molly glanced back at him through the glass doors, but he did not meet her eyes. She wished to speak to him, perhaps to apologize for not speaking, but Ariella did not release her hand until they were in the main hall and she could no longer see him.

Molly’s caretaker, Janet, was accustomed to her scheduled bath time before bed, and approached them from the grand staircase. She was a rather large woman with thick brown hair and honey-brown eyes, and for some reason, she always smiled.

Molly felt too cold for a bath. She glanced up at her mother gravely, but Ariella merely leaned down and planted a soft kiss atop her head. With a friendly nod at Janet’s curtsy, Ariella ascended the staircase in her long fur coat and disappeared off to the master bedroom.

“Come now, my dear.” Janet smiled at Molly when they were alone. “I have prepared your bath.”

Molly shook her head in protest and hugged herself for warmth.

“Do not worry,” Janet said comfortingly. “The water is warm.” She pressed a gentle hand against Molly’s back and led her up the staircase.

Molly never had a voice, not once. Not even with Janet. She wondered if the same had become of her mother, if she too would hardly speak when she reached her mother’s age. She hardly spoke now as it was. The thought frightened her, but she shook it off with a small smile. No, she was not like her mother or her father. Someday, she would find her voice—a good, loud voice—and she would scream at them all.

Janet led Molly all the way to the bathroom and undressed her next to the sink. The hot water caressed Molly’s legs as she climbed into the tub and sat down on its ceramic floor. She stayed quiet during her bath, kept her chin held high, and tried to keep her eyes open as Janet repeatedly scrubbed her and poured water over her head.

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