In summer, Frankie had loved an outsider, though he’d tried hard not to. Had the idea of it even occurred to The Family, they would have forbidden it long ago, but for better or worse the idea of the feelings that Frankie found himself surprised by that summer had been wholly novel to all in Town. But like those few precious days of warmth and sun that summer brought the Townfolk — beckoning the young to lie in the grass and splash in the tide, the old to sit along the street’s edges with faces upturned to the sky — Frankie’s love was so quickly past that now in autumn he caught himself marveling at the chill in the air, the color in the thinning leaves, and the abruptness of nightfall. The dread of a long, dark winter filled him doubly this year, knowing how far away another summer would be while unknowable remained how long this winter of the heart might last.
She had been the first rose of spring, the first ray of sunlight to warm his hirsute face in many years. Sharing his love of everything about the sea, Rhoda joined him for hours at a time walking hand in hand along the beach, digging sea glass treasures out of the sand and catching snacks for each other from the pools left at low tide. As a young man, Frankie had been pursued by his share of girls, but always for his Family’s name or money; he always knew they didn’t want him for him alone. And all upon whom Frankie’s eye fell seemed wary of the same: the violent infamy of his Family name.
Because of this familial reputation, there was no surprise for Rhoda. She knew exactly what to expect, and from the first moment they met — in the back corner of an old bookshop among volumes of nautical history — they spoke in whispers, left public places with minutes between their departures, and chose the most isolated beaches and seafood restaurants for their rendezvous’. With Rhoda, Frankie discovered a privacy in isolation he had never known, thanks to his large, omnipresent Family, and for the first time in his life knew the thrill of having a secret to keep.
But like the summertime, secrets were not long for this world of Family business. On the eve of the first autumn storm to blow in off the sea, Rhoda was discovered, seen despite Frankie’s best efforts to conceal her within the dark of night and the roar of the returning wind. She was escorted away from the hotel room he’d paid for in cash under a storybook name, and for not being a Friend of the Family, was banished from Town and from Frankie’s life forever.
Frankie, however, was part of his Family, and Family business had been a part of him since his first breath. And so began a long month of counter-espionage upon his own Family, undertaken with heightened care and a complete, deep suppression of both grief and anger; he knew well that vengeance could only be served cold. Through still-loyal friends, connections beyond Town he’d made through Rhoda, and a secret cypher Frankie developed and destroyed for this purpose alone, he learned that Rhoda’s exile was not only from him or the Town, but from free life altogether: she was to be sent to Market. Frankie knew there was no worse fate possible — men were shipped north to the mines while women were carted south to unnamed brothels behind unmarked doors, all in indentured servitude with no path to freedom, never to be heard from again.
It was unacceptable.
Frankie couldn’t burn down the Family empire, as much as he wanted to; he couldn’t break Rhoda free — there was no where they could hide even if he could. But he knew them well enough to guess where they would hold Rhoda until auction. His contacts confirmed it. So Frankie made a public display of wild rage and reckless, poor choices — drunken rounds bought, brawls nearly lost, full-speed horse chases through crowded streets. Then he hired a low-tier thug from a friend of Rhoda’s family to make a clumsy hit against a Family business across town from Rhoda’s prison, the transaction observable and easy to follow. And finally, Frankie slunk into the Town’s Underground and bought two drams of poison from a black market apothecary, the mortal drugs held in small glass vials, and went into hiding — perhaps assumed fallen into a drunken stupor — until nightfall.
Late that night, while mis-aimed gunfire and the arrest of a fool kept the Family occupied, Frankie emerged to visit Rhoda in her cell, kneeling and clutching her fingers through the bars.
“Are you comfortable, my Rhoda?”
“Get me out of here.”
Frankie kissed her, the metal rods cold against his cheeks. “I cannot. We chose our path and this is where it leads. My Family can be tricked for a moment, but they do not lose wars.”
“I wish we could turn back, keep our secret just a little longer. What I wouldn’t give for one more night with you before…”
“I know.” Frankie felt the glass vials clink together in his pocket. “What if we could turn back from this path? What if our last night together could be our last?”
“My family can only control the future of our lives, but we could at least deny them that victory.”
“There is nothing worse than the fate they’ve dealt to us.”
Perhaps not, Frankie thought, withdrawing the glass vials from his pocket. But fates could be changed and sins forgiven. Clutching the cool glass, the cold of his anger began to thaw, understanding — even as he felt his hand reach out and offer one vial to Rhoda — that his last mortal action was about to be the murder of the love of his life.
Logically, these vials contained the best solution for denying his Family the satisfaction of control, the preservation of their rules. But maybe all along Frankie had hoped Rhoda would choose exile over death, choose hope for a better future over an ending, even on their own terms. She held the vial eagerly, already removing the small cork from its neck, and seeing her trust in him warmed Frankie’s cold heart even more. His mind began to race with new schemes, plans for a later, better future and how they might survive apart until then.
Could they, he wondered, go down this path, leave her to the brothels where — after groveling for renewed welcome — Frankie could use his share of the Family resources to hire her every night and keep her safely engaged until he could arrange a more complete solution? Could they…
His mind stopped. Snapped back to the moment by a quick motion he didn’t quite catch, only knew it had happened. He gazed again into Rhoda’s eyes, which beheld him with love. But then she coughed, punctuating the silence between them, and a trickle of blood appeared in the corner of her lips. Frankie glanced down to find the vial in her hand empty.
“Rhoda!” he cried. “No no no what did you do?”
Her brow furrowed and a tear left her eye. She coughed again, harder. “You too, Frankie, you too…?” Her eyes glazed over, and her body slumped against the bars of her cell, her face frozen in the surprised confusion of betrayal.
Frankie keeps his vial of poison in a tiny drawer of an old teak hutch, an always-present way out he doesn’t believe he will ever use. The perfect moment hadn’t been right. But he buys more of the vials in small batches a few times each year. There are other ladies in Town who find themselves cornered against a wall, out of options, in situations they would choose not to live through if they could.
Anonymously, Frankie offers them a way to turn back from the course their lives have taken.
He bides his time, waits and watches from the shadows, listens to stories and observes body language in moments of turning away and between conversation that no words will express. Then upon a doorstep with a simple note — “To turn back” — a swift knock and a vanishing, Frankie places a vial.
A month ago, or maybe two by now — was it three? — he left a vial for Lady Dinae, who could no longer accept the parts of her that had become green and leafy. In this way, with this small mercy, Frankie justifies the poisoning of his love as a mercy, too. There was no way forward, no other way out for Rhoda, only a turning back, he tells himself; and he remained in Town so he can pass this mercy along.
Tonight, through a bedroom window from the still-dark street, the lamplighter soon to arrive, Frankie confirms the sadness he’s read over time in the downcast eyes of Miss Trilling, who serves tea at the café. Frankie waits for the evening street to quiet, the lamplighter come and paused and after a moment of reluctance moved on. And in the stillness of night, Frankie leaves his vial, tied with a ribbon, on her threshold, and then walks out to sit on the cold beach and wait for dawn, for summer to return.
By Matthew Brennan