Frankie

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?”

“You mean…?”

“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

Sabeline

It was the trial of the century. All the Town was ablaze with gossip and rumour. Miss Sabeline was to appear before the magistrate on three charges of assault. Rumour was that the Bunny boys had not gone to sea as their mother averred but instead had been driven, bloody and beaten, from Town by Miss Sabeline.

Sabeline, when the two apologetic officers arrived to escort her to the initial hearing, appeared entirely calm.

“Of course boys, let me just fetch my mink. I shan’t be a minute and then you two lovely chaps can escort me wherever you please.” She smiled very wide, maybe too wide, but then again, didn’t Sabeline always smile just a little bit too wide?

Whispers came out of the hearing that, when asked about the Bunny boys, Sabeline had shrugged her mink-clad shoulders and said appealingly, “I do declare, you don’t think I had anything to do with that? They were such delectable young things too; I quite miss their charming faces.”

And the allegation that the boys had last been seen entering her garden and had never once written to their mother since their disappearance?

“To be sure, they did come visit before they were going away. I was quite desolate to see them go! I really was quite fond of them. And I simply couldn’t say why they haven’t written – I’m sure I have no part speculating on their relationship with their mother.”

She blinked beseechingly up at the judge who had cause to reflect that in general, perhaps, Sabeline did not blink quite as much as other folk.

The initial hearing was adjourned with no one the wiser but the gossip-mongers much the richer. Sabeline permitted herself to be led to the gaol to await the trial. She was kept only two days before the warden let her go under the condition that she remain at home and return for the trial. She said, “Why, of course I shall attend. It is quite the most delicious thing.”

He said, “She’s slippery that one, but I think she’ll show.”

And Sabeline did show. Day one of the trial opened with her seated demurely, throat clasped snugly by a rich black velvet cloak and lips expressive with bright red lipstick. She sat very quietly and very calmly through the opening procedures, smiling broadly at Judge Trillit whenever he glanced at her.

The bombshell hit when, in the late afternoon, the prosecution produced their final piece of evidence. With a dramatic flair, Sidney unveiled the clincher.

“This, ladies, gentlemen, honourable beasts, is the shirt Nathan Bunny was wearing when he and his brothers tragically left home to make their fortune. Yes, my squeamish or avid viewers, those are bloodstains that you see before you! And where was this shirt found, you may ask. Where indeed.”

Sidney paused for effect. The courtroom sat in rapt silence. “This shirt was found buried in the bottom of Miss Sabeline’s garden!”

Uproar. Outrage. Delight in the spectacle.

Sidney turned in triumph to where Sabeline sat. “What have you to say to that, madam?”

Silence fell as the crowd waited to hear what Sabeline could possibly say in response to this incontrovertible evidence. She showed no sign of being discomforted.

“How atrocious! I have not the slightest knowledge of how that shirt came to be in my garden. Surely, I did see the Bunny boys before they went abroad. But they left after a lovely chat. I am quite sure they were entirely clothed at that point.”

“So you admit you were the last person to see them alive, in Town?” Sidney asked eagerly.

“The last person? Oh no, my dear, oh no, I was not the last. We were the last.”

“We? Someone else was there? Who?”

Sabeline smiled coquettishly. “That is a most personal question, but if you must know, I was there with Ivan. We spent the whole evening together. I’m sure he would have noticed anything amiss with the Bunny boys.We were quite…inseparable.”

Sidney stepped back, flabbergasted. Murmurs spread through the crowd. Judge Trillit peered over the courtroom.

“Is Ivan here?” he demanded.

From the back row, Ivan stood up.“

Can you confirm what Miss Sabeline has here said?” asked the judge.“

I can, Your Honour.” Ivan spoke in a low rumbling purr, “As Sabeline says, we were entirely…occupied together.”

Sidney tried to pull himself together. “Was there any point that night in which Sabeline would have been alone? Perhaps after you left?”

Ivan shook his head. “As I said, we were occupied. Right up until morning.”

Several ladies fainted and had to be removed from the courtroom. Sidney stuttered, the wind taken out of his sails. Judge Trillit ordered the court adjourned. Ivan winked at Sabeline as she sat, entirely composed, smiling broadly.

Sabeline was acquitted as she and Ivan provided each other with smiling, impenetrable alibis. Mrs. Bunny left the courtroom in tears and forbade all her numerous relations from ever going near Miss Sabeline’s house again. When they were finally dismissed, Ivan offered Sabeline his arm and escorted her proudly home.

by Adena Brons

Syrene the Scientist

I was looking for the antidote to love. Not, I hasten to add, because I myself needed that relief, although that came later, along with a great many other things. No, I directed my research to this pursuit because I recognized a need for such a cure in a great many of my fellow Townsfolk. The love-lost, lovelorn, bereaved, bewildered, abandoned, and alone, there were many suffering from the ailment of love.

I set to work. Science must begin with research so I turned to the medical, psychological and physiological literature to see what had been investigated. My scientist forebears had greatly neglected my chosen field of inquiry so that avenue proved futile. I turned to philosophy and poetry, reasoning that if the scientists of the past had ignored the medical ramifications of this affliction, the philosophers and poets had not. I read a great deal about the possible causes and effects of love but very little about its cure. Consensus seemed to be that, if the love was true (and what did they mean by true? I spared a moment to wonder), then it was eternal and all-consuming and its loss could only be endured in life or ended by death. Some poets went so far as to claim love’s perpetuation after death but I respectfully ignored these metaphysical claims. I was attempting to deal with the here and now and the necro-future was not my concern.

A challenging prospect nonetheless faced me. Aware of the great task I had set myself, even so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I drew from a pool of volunteers, gathering data about their symptoms, the progression of their disease, and the probable causes.      

“His smile.”

“I cry every morning when he’s not there to make breakfast.”   

“We never saw her grow up.”  

“That empty side of the bed.”   

“I can’t eat.”   

“I eat too much.”   

“I’m alone.” 

My notes filled books and then cabinets. Eventually I began, cautiously, to develop possible treatments. I enlisted the help of the local pharmacist, an antlered youth named Danid.   

Danid was invaluable, seemingly as invested in the work as I was. Together we stayed late into the night, refining formulas and comparing chemical compounds. Gradually we fell into a rhythm, a routine of work that ran smoothly from task to task. We hypothesized, tested, failed, revised, tested, revised, and tested again, each failure an improvement on the one before.   

Finally, after months of labour, we had a sample that we thought might work. But how to test it? Our development had involved tests with fruit flies and rats so we were certain that the elixir wasn’t poisonous. But how could we know whether it actually worked? Actually cured love?  

I contacted some of my previous volunteers, searching for test subjects. I explained the risks and potential benefits of the drug. We had observed few dangerous side effects in our lab rats so I conjectured there was little risk of physical harm. But the questions my volunteers asked, I could not answer.   

“Will I still remember her?”   

“Could I fall in love again?”   

“What will happen when I see them?” 

Despite their evident pain and willingness to talk about it, even the desire of some to share the burden with me, no one was willing to take the risk or the reward that I offered.       That night, after the last volunteer, with vague and unformed excuses, had refused the test drug, Danid and I sat together in the laboratory, sharing a commiserating bottle of whiskey. Normally I detested the stuff but tonight it felt like the only suitable option. Its searing fire and rich earthiness matched my own frustration and leaden disappointment.   

Danid was very quiet and I thought I perceived a different quality in it than expressed in my own moroseness.  

“Well, it looks like that’s it,” I sighed, “I’m sorry it’s all come to nothing.” My tongue was whiskey heavy but my thoughts darted and flashed in iridescent colours behind my eyes. “You’ve been invaluable. I don’t know where I would be without your help.” I suddenly wanted Danid to know that my failure was my own and unshared between us. I reached out a hand and, with the delicacy of inebriation, gently landed on a knee. Danid’s hand came to cover mine and when I looked up, our eyes locked. Despite what we’d had to drink, there was clarity, directness and a question in the look Danid gave me.    

Now, I wonder, at that moment, if I had any inkling. Did some slow befuddled thought cross my mind before extinguishing itself in the muck of my consciousness? Perhaps. Perhaps not.   

How the night ended, I cannot say. I awoke still in the laboratory, although one of the spare lab coats had been draped over me. The trial dose was gone. Danid was gone. I began then to understand what the question in Danid’s eyes had been.  

As the day wore on and I searched fruitlessly, I began to understand what had happened in the past few months, quietly, under my nose, as we had worked so closely for so long. As I returned to the lab at sundown, I began to understand the pain and fear I’d heard about and recorded so many times before. But I truly understood when I opened the door to the lab and Danid was there. I understood the pangs of love. I understood the drug had worked. I understood all that I had lost and why I would never replicate the ‘cure’ we had succeeded in finding.

I was looking for the antidote for love because I thought that would cure people. I now knew what we needed was the antidote for grief. Despite my belief in the endless possibilities of science, I do not think it shall be found.

by Adena Brons

Phil’s Eggs

Phil

  It was opening day. Phil stopped in for breakfast at Maurice’s steakhouse. Corned beef hash. And coffee, of course. Coffee and whiskey were the only drinks that Maurice served. But he always said that it was important to diversify.

  “It’s important to diversify, Phil,” he was saying now. “Steak and eggs. Bacon and eggs. Even tomato and eggs.”

  “You know that’s not my style,” said Phil.

  Maurice shook his head, wiping at a glass. The same glasses were used for both beverages. “You don’t even like eggs.”

Maurice

  “Can’t stand ‘em,” Phil agreed.

  Maurice just kept wiping. “I don’t get you, Phil.”

  “But you like me,” Phil said, pushing back his plate.

  It was true. Everyone liked Phil. It was why he had so many friends.

  “What time are you opening?” Maurice called as Phil walked through the swinging door.

  “As soon as the signs are in place,” Phil called back, tapping his nose.

  Whistling, he walked along Gristle Road toward the fens. It was a beautiful day. Rays of sun could even be seen through the mist.

The Misters Anche

  “Morning, Phil,” croaked old Mr. Anche, from where he hunched in the doorway, sandwiched between his brothers.

  Phil tipped his cap and walked on.

  “Big day, Phil,” Judith called, leaning out of her window above the underpass. 

Judith

  Phil just grinned and waved.

  Phil was happy to see all his friends, and happy to walk through his town on such a fine morning. But he was happiest of all when he got to the edge of the fens and saw it. Just a dark little hollow between a dry cleaners and a boarded-up strip club. But it was all his, thanks to a few strings pulled by a few friends.

  And the signs were in place. Buddies of Hector Robinson’s had made them from driftwood in the night and left them stacked just inside the door. In bright green paint, they read:

Hector Robinson

PHILS EGG’S
  Phil loosened his tie and set to work, whistling. He dusted the shelves. He hung the signs from their hooks. He unpacked the crates and crates of eggs.

  Phil knew he didn’t need to diversify. Phil’s Eggs was perfect. It didn’t need Easter eggs, or chocolate eggs, or eggs with toys in them, or wooden eggs, or magical eggs, or decorative eggs. Phil’s Eggs was a simple shop, for friends who liked a good, simple meal. Chicken eggs, duck eggs, quail eggs, and cow eggs. That was all he needed.

  He’d had the idea about a week ago, and now it was finally opening day. Phil could move fast when he wanted to. He always had friends ready to do a favor for him, just like he was always ready to do a favor for them.

  Phil got to the last crate, which was small and damp-looking, and smelled of sea water. When Phil touched the wood, his fingers nearly sank into it.

  A rotten batch? Carefully, Phil wrenched the boards off with his claws, one by one.

  A single egg sat inside, on a nest of old newspapers. It was black, but not the black of rotten eggs. The black of a movie screen before the picture starts.

  Phil took off his hat and leaned close to the egg. It was about the size of his hand, and had a smooth matte texture. “Hello there,” Phil whispered. “What are you?”

  Carefully, he laid one finger on the side of the egg. He felt the delicate material of the eggshell, and below it, faint and irregular, a heartbeat.

by Hannah Baker