*This is my first place winning story from Story Embers' Fourth Annual Short Story Contest. Their editors were amazing and so was working them--it doesn't seem fair that I get to take the credit for all their hard work. I'm amazed at how much this story has improved from the draft I entered in the contest. So here is both my work and theirs, for your enjoyment.*
Mother’s favorite waltz warbled from the corner of the garage. I must have left the phonograph on a few hours ago, before the party. Behind me, the chipped door closed on the clink of crystal, the swish of silk, and the thrum of a cello.
I flicked the light switch. The bulb popped on, glinting in the Model A’s blue finish. I never imagined I’d touch one of these, at least not for ten more years when I might have a chance at rescuing a relic from Glancey’s scrap heap. Ford had only begun production last year.
I wove around the jars and cans that cluttered the floor until my reflection swayed across the automobile’s bonnet. Each blonde curl had been coifed into submission, my pale yellow dress belonged in a motion picture, and not a speck of grime hid under my fingernails. As the daughter of a famous fashion designer, I had an image to upkeep, or so Mother insisted.
I lifted the bonnet and traced my finger over the engine. Pistons, crankshaft, camshaft--
“Isla, what on earth are you doing?” Mother’s heels clicked across the concrete. “You’ll smear grease all over your outfit.”
Five minutes. I couldn’t even escape for five minutes. And I wasn’t tearing the engine apart. Just admiring it. “Mr. Ethington, the owner, gave me permission to take a peek.”
Mother rested her palm on the bonnet, and I slipped my hand underneath before she could press down. The metal slammed onto my wrist, stinging like the time I whacked myself with my largest wrench while trying to loosen a bolt.
Shaking her head and huffing, she stalked back into the house.
I massaged my wrist and raised the bonnet again. Father didn’t mind that I enjoyed fixing autos more than styling my hair. Why couldn’t he have come out instead? He never showed an interest in my tinkering anymore. At first I thought that work kept him in his study. Then I wondered if Mother’s parties tired him too. Now I’d run out of guesses.
“Fourth auto to the left, Chevrolet Series AA Capitol, 1927.”
I lost my grip on the bonnet and had to catch it with my elbow to stop it from clamping shut again. My cousin, who also happened to have earned the title of my best friend, chuckled and rounded the fender.
“Archibald Baines, how did you sneak in here? Is Percy with you too?”
“Guilty as charged.” Arch’s brother propped his foot on the running board, his ever-present grin crinkling his face. “We knew you wouldn’t be able to resist this beauty.”
“It’s much more thrilling than modeling Mother’s latest creations, that’s for sure. Besides, she doesn’t need my help.” The confidence in my voice almost convinced even me. I lowered the bonnet and crossed my arms. “Except this is a 1926 Superior, not a 1927 AA Capitol.”
Percy fished in his pocket and offered me a stick of strawberry gum. My favorite flavor. His too. He only sacrificed a piece when I was upset. I thanked him with a smile as the sweetness rushed over my tongue.
Percy exchanged glances with Arch, and their mouths twitched in unison.
“All right, what are you two scheming?”
Arch leaned over and cupped his hand around his lips. “How would you like to get behind the wheel of a Model A coupe?”
“Do you have to ask?” I crumpled the gum wrapper and tossed it over Arch’s shoulder. It bounced against the wall once, then fell into the rubbish bin. “But they’re rare.”
“Not if you work for the Aylesworths. That’s where we’ve been all summer. Got jobs as handymen. Their last chauffeur retired, and now they’re looking for a replacement. Percy happened to mention your remarkable mechanical skills—a fact the lady of the house found most intriguing.”
“I most certainly am not. The man they had before couldn’t remember which end of a car was which. You’d be responsible for driving once or twice a week and making repairs as necessary. Once people hear that the most prestigious family in London has entrusted you with their Model A, they’ll have to respect you and your hobby. No more high-society parties promoting frippery you don’t care about. Just you.”
Percy spread his hands. “What do you say?”
“When can I start?”
I cut the engine of my 1920 Model T—christened Clementine because I loved the name as much as Mother did. Her first dress design bore the same label.
Arch had instructed me to park a couple blocks from the Aylesworth mansion and wait for him to bring the coupe out. Though I’d patched up my rattletrap eighteen times, it would still be an eyesore on the meticulously manicured lawn. Even here, people wearing servant uniforms gawked at all of the rust and dents as they shuffled past me on the sidewalk.
An engine revved, and the Model A whipped around the corner. As it skidded up to the curb, a small cluster of household staff scrambled backward. No wonder Arch hadn’t won the position. But I couldn’t scold him after the favor he’d done for me.
Arch flung the door open, then scrunched himself next to Percy on the passenger side. “Get in.”
Slowly, I wrapped my fingers around the handle, half expecting the coupe to disintegrate like the remnants of a dream. Its purr vibrated up my arm.
“Hurry up, will you?” Arch swiped at his forehead with a handkerchief as he tugged his cap even lower.
Since when had he become so impatient? I settled onto the cushion. “Aren’t you going back to the mansion? I thought you were both handymen. Why are you—”
“Just go!” Percy drummed the seat, and Arch glanced over his shoulder at the servants pointing their fingers at us and whispering.
I couldn’t make sense of my cousins’ behavior, but perhaps the Aylesworths needed them to tend to an urgent errand in town. I reached for the gearshift. “Where?”
“We’ll tell you.”
I checked the rearview mirror—this auto had mirrors! As I pulled out, a boy broke away from the group and darted toward the mansion as if he had a message to deliver. But no one had handed him any paper.
Arch elbowed his brother. “Did you get it?”
“Of course.” Percy jiggled a tin with contents that clanged.
With a nod from Arch, I spun the wheel to the right. “Are we taking something to the repair shop?”
Percy lifted the lid, his mouth quirking. “Unless you mean we’re fixing your life so you can stay in your garage and putter with any auto you fancy, no.” He angled the box so that Arch could peer inside, and silver shimmered in the sunlight before he closed it again.
I stomped on the brake. “I’m not budging until you explain what’s going on.”
“He just did. Blimey, Isla, you can’t stop in the middle of the street.” A truck screeched around us, honking, and Arch cringed. “We won’t make a farthing from this auto if you wreck it.”
But this auto, and whatever loot they had in that box, didn’t belong to us. “Fine.” I roared forward and jerked into a parking space inches from a Model T. The memory of glass shattering ricocheted through my mind. Twisted metal. Smoking parts. Pain radiating through my body. And silence from the passenger seat.
Too close. Must be more careful.
Someone shook me. Arch. “We need to keep driving. I won’t let you throw away this opportunity. We’re the only ones who have ever stolen anything from the Aylesworths, much less a Model A coupe. We’ll be the top of society.”
“No, we’ll be the bottom of society.” I put the auto in reverse, wanting to shout, Who are you? But my throat burned like I’d poured gasoline down it.
Arch dug his nails into my arm. “If you turn around, Percy and I won’t be arrested. You will. We have an alibi, a lumber order that we left to pick up a quarter of an hour before you, the prime suspect, were seen behind the wheel of the getaway car. And we planted a swatch of grease-stained yellow fabric in the Aylesworths’ garage. The coppers will recognize it as an Esme Medlock original from the party last night.”
I gritted my teeth. “You’d dare to harm my mother’s reputation? She’s your aunt!”
Arch folded his arms behind his head and leaned back. “You both owe us. Don’t you?”
An image of Arch prying open a mangled car door flashed through my vision. If he’d arrived a few moments later…
I hit the gas so hard that Percy’s head banged against the window. “I hold the controls. Remember that.”
Arch had the nerve to pat my knee and begin the game we’d been playing since we were children: identifying car models. “1921 Duesenberg Straight 8.”
A cheerful voice piped up with the correction I refused to grace Arch with. “You need a pair of spectacles. That’s not a Duesenberg.”
My foot jolted on the pedal, and the coupe lurched. Arch twisted around, grappling the seat like he might claw through it. “Who’s there?”
“The other chauffeur you left out of all the fun.” A boy in his early teens with freckled cheeks and an explosion of reddish hair rose from the backseat. “Jay Foxcroft, at your service.”
The veins in Arch’s neck bulged. “What the dickens are you doing here?”
Jay shrugged. “What are you doing with Lady Aylesworth’s bracelet?”
Arch clenched and unclenched his fists, his glare flitting from the stowaway to the road ahead. He pointed to a faded sign. “Take the next right. Get off at the Red Quill Tavern.”
“Lovely idea, old chap.” Jay stretched out his legs and winked at me in the rearview mirror. “I’m starved.”
I eased into the alley behind the tavern, a bottle crunching under my tires. Arch yanked the key from the ignition. “You two stay here. Percy, out.” He hooked a thumb toward an alcove ahead.
After the brothers slammed their doors, Jay blew out a long breath. “My, we’ve both landed ourselves in a mess.”
I snorted. “Seems to me like you chose to jump in. Why were you in the boot anyway?”
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and crawled in here like a dimwit. But I did stay quiet long enough to eavesdrop. Now I can witness on your behalf. Isla, is it?” He extended a hand, and I shook it. “My mother adores the Medlock designs. She follows the line in all the magazines. Rabidly.”
I adjusted the rearview mirror, scanning the road behind us and mentally measuring the distance we’d traveled. How would I retrieve Clementine? Or even go home?
I needed to learn what my cousins were plotting. I pushed on the window crank. It squeaked as the pane rolled down, and Percy frowned in our direction. Their tense stances and agitated gestures indicated they were arguing.
Jay fidgeted with the lapel on his jacket. “I don’t need to hear their conversation to know they’re talking about me. I’m a complication.”
Stray words drifted in about a “ransom” and a “worthless scamp,” but nothing that would alert me to their next move. “If only they hadn’t confiscated the key. Perhaps I have something in my purse that could—”
Jay dangled a chain in front of me. “You mean like this one?”
“You have a key to— How?” I grabbed it and shoved it in the ignition.
“I am a chauffeur, after all.”
At the rumble of the engine, Arch and Percy whirled, but they couldn’t jog fast enough to catch up. I switched from reverse to drive and tore off down the street, the breeze raking through my curls. “For heaven’s sake, why didn’t you mention you had a key earlier?”
Jay met my gaze in the rearview mirror. “I wanted to make sure you were willing to accept the risk. You’re the one who’s been implicated in this crime.”
I hadn’t thought that deeply about it. “Right. I can’t prove my innocence.” I scrubbed at my brow. “I doubt the police would believe the testimonies of two chauffeurs with all the evidence my cousins manufactured. We need that bracelet.”
“And they need this auto. To elevate their status.” Jay punctuated the statement with a stuffy accent that would have cracked me up under different circumstances. “They’re apt to chase after you. Any clue when and where they’ll attempt a reunion?”
My answer ebbed out as a groan. “My mother’s next design party. Tonight. It’ll be the ideal diversion.”
To recover the stolen property and clear my name, I’d have to face Mother.
“Where are the rest of the deviled eggs? I told you to prepare six dozen, not five—” Mother’s reprimand died as I folded my hands on the scratched table. The cook glanced from me to her and rushed off to the pantry.
Mother propped one hand on her hip, her posture as perfect as if she had a photographer tailing her. “Are we in the habit of receiving visitors in the kitchen?” She jutted her chin at Jay. “Or should I call him your accomplice?”
I combed my fingers through my hair, which must have been a nest of tangles. “Mother, I—”
“The police questioned our entire household, reporters have picked up the story already, and five neighbors dropped in to feed their gossip.” She swept a newspaper off the counter and waved it at me. “Do you realize the damage you’ve done? To your reputation? To the business? To your father?”
“Arch and Percy set her up, Mrs. Medlock. I saw everything.” Jay tipped his hat. “That’s a ravishing dress you’re wearing, by the way.”
Mother slapped her other hand onto her opposite hip. “And who are you?”
I stepped between them. “A chauffeur. Listen, Arch and Percy are coming here tonight, looking for me. I can’t explain what happened right now, but please use caution.”
“I always do. Unlike my daughter.” Mother turned on her heel, leaving the swinging door flapping.
I slumped into a chair and laid my head on my arms. Would she never forgive me for that?
Jay plopped down beside me. “What was that about?”
“Two years ago, I crashed my Model T. Mother was with me. Obviously she survived. Only a bump to the head and a gash to the leg.” But when I regained consciousness, she was silent for the first time in my life. I worried that I’d killed her.
“That must have been”—he cleared his throat—“terrifying.”
“Arch and Percy found us. Hauled us out before…” I stood and headed for the back door. “Before my engine burst into flames. Now Mother hates autos. And me.”
Oil dribbled onto my curls. I’d been operating on the underbelly of this 1926 Model T for over an hour. Jay rethreaded wires underneath an identical Model T to my left, pausing now and then to smile at me. The tinkle of music and laughter floated from the house. Maybe my cousins had scrammed with the bracelet and wouldn’t show up at all.
Gravel crunched outside, and headlights washed over the concrete floor. Or maybe they would.
The engine squeaked like Arch’s auto always did when he changed gears. Two pairs of shoes appeared beside the tires.
“Do you honestly think Isla will speak to us?” Percy.
“She needs us.” Arch.
“Or we need her. Let’s scope the party first in case Aunt Esme pressured her into modeling.” Their footsteps tapped onto the veranda, and the soft melody that had been playing for the past minute grew louder as the door opened.
I squeezed my eyes shut for a few seconds to stopper the tears. Arch and Percy had protected me from bullies, walked me to school. We’d traded gum sticks and repaired autos together. We’d daydreamed of the models we’d buy and the cities we’d explore. How had we fallen into this ditch? And how did I not see the signs?
I motioned to Jay. We tiptoed outside, and I wiggled a long pin into the keyhole of Arch’s auto. I’d done this trick with my cousins so often while rummaging through Glancey’s scrap heap.
The lock clicked faintly, and Jay scrambled in to search the rear. I watched the main entrance and the garage door through the windscreen as I groped along the footwells in the front of the auto. Under the passenger seat, my fingers brushed metal. Still keeping an eye on the house, I removed the box and cracked the lid.
The bracelet sparkled even in the moonlight. Jewelry didn’t usually affect me, at least not as much as polished nickel or the hum of a well-tuned engine. But the swirls of silver inset with sapphires arranged in floral shapes resembled the style of Mother’s designs.
I clasped the piece on my wrist and slid my sleeve down over it. After I tucked the box back into its hiding spot, I thumped on the seat to get Jay’s attention. He didn’t respond, and the next instant a hand clamped onto my shoulder.
“Practicing your thieving skills, eh?” Arch nudged me aside to feel for the goods, and his lips curled in satisfaction. He didn’t bother to open the box. “So where’s the Model A? In the shed out back, perhaps under some greasy tarps?”
“What kind of fool do you think I am?” Apparently I was a huge one, because that’s exactly where I’d stashed it. Arch could predict me too easily.
Jay hopped out of Arch’s auto. “I can fetch it for you.”
What? He was volunteering? He was in on this? My mind stalled like an overheating roadster.
“Already sent Percy after it. Carry on.” Arch strode away, but his shadow haunted the north wall of the garage.
Jay averted his eyes and jammed his hands into his pockets. “Isla, I’m sorry—”
Oh, how funny I must have sounded when I asked him to stake out with me. “Why?” I jabbed his chest. “Why would you destroy your life, and mine, for a bauble and a machine?”
“You’re focusing on the wrong part of the story.” He lowered his voice. “I’m merely pretending to be a chauffeur who has a grudge against the Aylesworths. I overheard your cousins discussing the value of the coupe and offered to pay them to pull off a robbery. I suggested they sell both the car and the bracelet and split the profits with me, but I had every intention of returning the items as soon as—”
“You hired them to commit grand larceny so you could be a hero? That’s the most selfish, crazy, unscrupulous—” I couldn’t finish the list. No description could do his actions justice.
His face reddened. “You don’t understand. My family, particularly my father, doesn’t have any faith that I can handle our estate because of one mistake I made. I need to prove that I’m smart and capable.”
A pang of understanding cooled me off a degree. Every day, I dealt with Mother’s sigh when I came from the garage and her flat “of course” when I shared an accomplishment that involved autos. “And your real identity is?”
“My full name is Newton Aylesworth—Newt to my friends.”
I gaped at him. If he’d meant to imply that we were friends, I didn’t see how we could be now.
An engine whirred out back, and Arch’s shadow faded around the corner of the garage. Newt wrung his hands. “Please. Your cousins tried to double-cross me. They weren’t supposed to take the coupe today, or drag you into it. If you help me recover the bracelet, I can vouch for you.”
I folded my braceleted arm behind me and edged backward. “Why should I trust you? You don’t care who you hurt as long as you impress your ritzy family.”
He flinched. “Maybe I genuinely like you.”
My cousins liked me too, and they’d used me. “I’m not going to play a role in your charade. It’s deceitful.” I fled across the lawn to the veranda, stumbling up the steps.
“Isla! Wait. Together we can—”
I thrust the door open and slammed it in one motion. Gasps rippled through the parlor, probably more due to the rumors about my shady activities than my disheveled appearance.
I stormed past the row of white-gloved ladies with upturned noses. Their opinion of me didn’t matter. In the kitchen, I snatched up the phone and dialed the first few digits of the police station’s number.
Headlights blinked in the window. Newt sprinted to the Model A and leapt in while Arch started up his clunker. Tires squealed, and both autos careened down the lane.
I’d only spent one afternoon with Newt. Not enough time to truly know him. So why did I ache?
I let go of the receiver, and it thudded against the wall. Ratting on them wouldn’t solve anything.
I trudged upstairs to swap my splotched dress for a pair of coveralls, then wandered out to the shed. Either the police or Father, if he’d detached himself from his armchair, had returned Clementine. I sank down beside her and drew my knees up to my chest.
No more listening to others telling me who to be. Just me. Resting here until the police barged in and handcuffed me.
Hinges creaked, and my eyelids fluttered open. I’d dozed off, whether for a few minutes or hours, I couldn’t say. A shaft of moonlight in the doorway blinded me. Mother’s silhouette, all attractive angles and curves, darkened it. “You’ve a phone call.”
I rattled around in my toolbox and rapped on a pipe. “I’m busy.”
“It’s from someone named Newt.”
I dropped the hammer. Mother might be uppity and fussy, but she wasn’t a liar. I trailed her to the kitchen, where the busboys she’d engaged for the evening were washing a mound of cups and platters. I crept the phone up to my ear as if it might spray oil all over me. “Hello?”
Newt’s breath heaved in and out. “Isla. I need help.” He’d lost his jaunty tone.
I plugged my free ear with my pinky to block out the clatter of dishes. “What’s going on?”
“They figured out who I am. Arch spied on us. And the bracelet is missing. They’re convinced you have it.”
Coldness stabbed me like a bucket of water tossed on an engine fire. Like the inferno Arch had doused that would have cooked Mother and me if we’d been trapped in Clementine a minute longer.
“If you bring it to the Red Quill, they promise to…” His voice quivered. Was he crying?
They were proposing a trade: Newt for the bracelet. But would they stop there? Why not demand a ransom from his rich parents?
Arch muttered in the background, and a scuffle created momentary interference before Newt managed to talk over the noise. “Isla, I’m sorry. This is all my fault. You were right. Please. I need you. I can’t—”
The line went dead.
I had to rescue Newt before my cousins resorted to more desperate measures—and because his pleas echoed the loneliness in my own heart.
Mother bustled about, issuing orders to the kitchen staff, but she’d kept her eyes on me the entire time I held the phone.
“Ring the police and send them to the Red Quill Tavern. I’m going after Arch and Percy.”
Clementine coughed and sputtered to a halt in the bottle-strewn alley once again. The Model A gleamed beside me in the dim glow from the tavern’s windows, but Arch, Percy, and Newt were nowhere in sight.
I climbed out and smacked into a figure with a chest made of bricks. Percy latched onto my arm, a whiff of liquor perfuming his presence. “Over here, behind these crates.”
I considered screaming, but in this part of town, nobody would even cock an eyebrow. “Why are you doing this?”
Percy tightened his grip. “You’ve always had nice clothes, a big house, and lived in comfort. Never appreciated any of it either. Arch and I are sick of straggling along.”
They envied me? I realized that money had been in short supply after their father passed away, but they’d seemed so footloose and contented growing up.
“Ah. Finally we’re getting somewhere.” Arch emerged with a gun aimed at Newt’s temple, and the direness of the situation crashed in like a tree limb flattening a windscreen. I hadn’t expected my cousins to be armed. Newt, with his smudged cheeks and skinny build, looked far younger than I remembered.
If I could stay calm, we’d have a chance. And maybe my cousins wouldn’t be as greedy as I feared. I rolled up my sleeve to reveal the jewels circling my wrist. “Now release Newt.”
“Nope. Both of you are coming with us.” Arch dug the gun’s barrel into Newt’s skin. “March.”
He herded us into the coupe, and Newt trembled as he scooched over beside me. I squeezed his hand. “Hang on. We’ll be fine.”
Arch triggered the ignition. The engine wheezed. He joggled the levers and wrenched the key again. Nothing.
Newt’s eyes, and then his smile, widened. I toed him in the shin and pressed on the door handle.
Arch cursed. “Of all nights! How can an auto in top condition…” He stomped out to the bonnet, his gun still at his side.
Paper rustled. Percy unwrapped a stick of gum and popped it in his mouth. To my surprise, he wriggled around to give me one. I needed to break eye contact, but I couldn’t. Sweat slicked my palm. The strawberry flavor would taste sour now.
Newt and I dove out and into Clementine. Arch swiveled, firing a bullet that lodged in the door. The second round embedded in the seat cushion as I threw Clementine into gear. Police sirens wailed in the distance.
“How’d you do that?” Newt beat a jazz solo on the dash to vent his nervous energy.
I tried to concentrate on maneuvering through the intersecting streets. The racket made my head pound. “Simple. I parked several blocks away and snuck up on foot. Removed the drainage plug and let it leak. Then I drove up as if I’d just arrived a few minutes later.”
“That’s genius. I wish…” Newt rubbed his arms as if he were cold. “I never should have partnered with your cousins. They were more cunning than I accounted for. And once you were in on it, I thought that befriending you would flip the outcome back in my favor. But I’d planned to leave you for the police along with both of them because I didn’t trust you to keep my secret. I’m so sorry.”
Police autos whizzed past us, except for one that slowed and urged us over to the curb. Newt straightened and smoothed his clothes and hair. “I can’t undo today, but I can take responsibility for it by telling the truth.”
A smile tinged my lips because his preening didn’t help—and because maybe today had been more than a bad ending to an old friendship. “Well, I’m still just Isla Medlock to anyone who asks.”
Relief brightened Newt’s expression. He pushed his tongue into his cheek. “Someday I hope to just be Newt Aylesworth.”
The passenger door of the police auto swung open. But instead of an officer, Mother stepped out. In heels, no less. I cranked my window down and braced myself for a scolding.
Before Newt or I could utter a word, Mother bent over and wrapped her arms around me. “Thank God you’re safe.”
A single tear glided down my nose onto her shoulder, blotting her crisply starched collar. How long since we had hugged?
Since the wreck.
“We’ll get this sorted out,” I mumbled into her neck. The scent of her rose cologne embraced me too, stirring up memories of afternoon teas and leisurely drives through the country.
“Maybe we don’t have to.”
And for those few minutes, I was just me, and she was just her.
*Hello, everyone! I entered this short story into Bella Putt and Lili P.'s (two fellow students from the Young Writer's Workshop) short story contest. I am so excited to announce that it took first place! I'm very honored and so very grateful for the work they put into this contest and for the chance I had to enter! Check out their sites here:
Bella Putt: https://bellaputt.com/
Lili P: https://goodstorylili.wordpress.com/
Now, without further ado, here it is!*
I could see in his eyes—he’d heard us.
The young man leaned against the café table, sipped his coffee, and held my gaze.
I looked down in the ruse of an adjustment to my scarf. I wrapped my scarf around my face to shield it from the London mist—but more to hide the flame of my face.
Everything I did was a ruse.
The only mother I’d ever known, Sasha, strode down the street. I turned to watch her go. She must not have realized he had heard. Likely my gown for tonight’s event filled her mind. The fact she thought of a gown showed how close we’d come.
I waved. Sasha glanced over her shoulder. She didn’t wave back.
I lowered my hand. After tonight, I’d belong to a real family.
Or so I hoped. The words that played over and over in my head could destroy even our sturdiest plans.
We’d come so close. But Sasha’s words. My words.
“By midnight, everyone will believe you are the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova.”
“But I’m not Anastasia Romanova. I’m Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Not Anastasia. Only a pretender named Aleksandra.
Words that now echoed in the mind of the stranger across the street from me.
As if he had heard his name in my thoughts, the stranger left his coffee and strode away, in the same direction as Sasha.
I pulled my scarf tighter.
Nothing must have come of the stranger, for Sasha and I both strode into the ball that evening with our heads held high and a forged invitation in our hand. Apparently, that was the only correct thing I did all evening.
“Stand taller. More regal.”
“Don’t fidget so! You’ll give us both away.”
“No one will recognize you as the Grand Duchess if you stand in a corner all night. Go on. Dance. Laugh. They say Anastasia laughed often.”
But I wasn’t Anastasia. I was Aleksandra. And Aleksandra had precious little to laugh about of late.
“May I have this dance?”
I glanced up at yet another young man I didn’t know, then glanced back to Sasha. She nodded and made a discreet “shoo” motion at her side.
I looked back up at the young man, tossed an Anastasia-styled curl over my shoulder, and laughed. “I’d love to.”
After all, what was one more lie?
The young man swirled me around the dance floor. The Sasha in my head never ceased her instruction. Relax your shoulders, Alek. You’ve practiced these dances a million times. No better dancer, says instructor. Now laugh. And say something witty in regard to his last comment.
The longer we danced, the quieter her voice became. The dance almost made me forget I was pretending.
My partner swung me round in a wide circle. And as I tossed a glance over my shoulder, I caught a gaze—not Sasha’s—in the crowd.
My feet froze to the floor.
No. Not him.
The stranger who had overheard us earlier leaned against the wall, a glass of punch in his hand. As if he only bided his time.
My dance partner leaned closer. Had he said something? “Is something the matter?”
My lips parted, but nothing witty came out.
“I don’t dance quite that badly, do I?”
Laugh. Laugh. Laugh, Alek!
But I couldn’t.
My partner bent to stare into my eyes. “Say . . . you look like that lost princess from Russia. I can’t remember her name, but I saw her portrait in a Russian paper.” He snapped his fingers. “Anya . . . Anna . . . Anastasia! Anastasia Romanova, that’s it!”
The stranger set down his glass.
“How did you know?” I whispered my question to the man by the wall, but my dance partner snatched it for himself.
“You mean, you’re Anastasia Romanova? You’re actually her?”
Sasha clasped her hands in front of her. I could see all our plans come together in her eyes.
The stranger crossed his arms.
I stared up at my dance partner and summoned my brightest—albeit a bit weak—smile. “Yes. I am.”
Meet at the café where we met the last time. I should like to discuss your heritage as revealed two nights ago.
No matter how many times I turned the card over, no signature appeared. Not that it needed one. I knew the stranger had sent it.
I tucked the card under my saucer and reached for my throat. Where was my scarf when I needed to hide behind it?
But no. I’d left it at home. And now here I perched on a luxurious café chair, in wait of the man who could destroy all I’d worked for.
To destroy my only chance of a family.
I set my cup of tea down. I no longer wanted it. Why, oh why had I come?
I exhaled. Because even if he planned to rip us apart, at least here I had a chance to convince him otherwise.
“I hoped you would come.” The stranger slid into the seat across from me and set his own mug across from mine.
I tried to melt into my coat collar. All thoughts of convincing fled my mind, as I dearly wished to do.
“What is your real name?”
I shook my head. Perhaps I should have finished my tea after all. Perhaps it would dissolve this awful lump in my throat.
“A fine name.” He sipped his coffee. “I’m Zakhar.”
I tangled my fingers in my invisible scarf.
Zakhar set down his cup. “I just don’t understand. Why would you do this? Why would you go along with such a scheme?”
I fidgeted with the handle of my cup. I had no intentions to answer him. The Sasha in my mind shouted, “Stay silent, Alek!” But the answer bubbled out before I could stop it.
“I’ve never had a family before. Not here. Not at the orphanage. Not with Sasha. If I can only get the Romanovs to believe I’m Anastasia . . .”
No judgement lurked in his eyes, nor in the furrow in his brow. “How could you live out your life with them with that knowledge? With that lie?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “I’d have a family.”
Zakhar stirred his coffee and stared down into its black depths as if an answer would pop out of the steam at him. “You’re not Anastasia Romanova.”
I picked at a chip in the tabletop.
“You’re so much more.”
Before I could so much as glance up in surprise, Zakhar abandoned his coffee, slapped some coins on the table, and strode down the street.
I clutched my cup closer.
It always amazed me how fast word traveled. And this matter posed no exception. Before I knew it, word came that Grand Duchess Olga and Xenia Alekandrovna—Anastasia’s aunts—had boarded the train to meet me.
A day that came far too soon.
Sasha fussed and fretted for a solid three hours. And then she sent me off to the mansion. Alone. Despite the most impassioned pleas I found in me, she refused to come. “But I’ll wait here for you, dear.”
Those thoughts kept me occupied as the carriage rattled down the street. And those thoughts carried me up the steps and into the house.
Before I knew it, there I stood. And there my future aunts stood before me. I recognized them both from the portraits Sasha had me stare at until I couldn’t dare mistake either of their faces. She drilled me on the most minute of details, until I’d grown accustomed to calling them both “aunt.”
The sheer ridiculousness of this all smacked me full of the face. I could only hope it didn’t show.
I had only to convince them, and they’d accept me with open arms.
Aunt Olga—I recognized her from the portraits Sasha had me stare at until I couldn’t mistake the face—peered through watery spectacles at me. “Impossible.”
“Could it be?” Aunt Xenia whispered.
A pang shot through my heart. A pang of what, I couldn’t imagine.
So much more.
Where on earth did those words come from? Why would I think of them now?
Aunt Xenia ran a hand down my face. “Could you be our Anastasia?”
So much more.
I couldn’t do this. I wasn’t Anastasia. I couldn’t do this to them. My head shook before the word came out. “No.”
Xenia stepped back. So did I.
“No. I’m not Anastasia.” A tear slid down my face. “I am Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Xenia’s face crumpled. She glanced to Olga, much as I always had to Sasha.
Olga’s face hardened. Her arms hung stiff at her sides. I didn’t let myself look away, though I ached to. I’d caused this. I’d hurt them so. I’d face it like Aleksandra Shatalova.
Olga pointed to the door. “Go.”
What else could I do but turn and walk away? A million words I ached to say went unspoken. A million fantasies I’d dreamed to fill a million dark nights died to ashes. I pulled the door closed behind me.
Only a few lampposts dotted the black. My breath danced in the night air. Sasha would know from the papers by morning. She’d never take me back. She’d find another girl. Or another subject. She’d scheme, and then she’d try again.
I was alone.
But I stepped off the final stair to the cobblestone lane as Aleksandra Shatalova.
I pulled off my scarf.
Aleksandra Shatalova. Not a schemer. Not an orphan. Not an imposter.
I tossed the scarf in the air and let it flutter to the street.
So much more.
A shadow hovered by the lamppost. I froze and clutched my handbag closer.
The shadow stepped into the light. Zakhar.
I let out a shaky breath. “I should answer your question. My name is Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Zakhar smiled. Nodded.
I smiled a real Aleksandra smile.
He tipped his cap, and then he vanished.
(C) Rachel Judith Leitch
*This is a short story that I entered in the Hope in Disaster Short Story Contest. I'm so thankful for the ladies who put this together during this time of quarantine. Even though I did not finalize, I'm grateful that I got to participate, for everyone who read the story to get it ready to go, and for the chance to share it all with you!*
“Why don’t you paint, Annabell?”
I turned my face towards the wall.
The mattress sagged as he sank onto the edge of my bunk. “It might make some things . . . clearer.”
I clenched my fist.
“It could help you . . .” My brother, Benjamin’s voice swam. “I don’t even know what I’m saying, Annabell.”
My throat ached, but still I said nothing.
“We have a few months left. Don’t you want to make the most of it?”
I pulled myself up on my elbows and yanked my hair out of my face. “What’s the point? I’m dying, Ben!” Oh, how I wanted to deny it, but there sat the letter from the specialist on the side table.
Mr. and Mrs. DeRose,
I regret to inform you of what I have just informed Benjamin and Annabell. Annabell’s condition was much worse than I could have imagined from your letter. I fear only a few months remain.
“I’m dying.” The whisper died on my lips.
He pressed his fist to his mouth. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
I flopped down and faced the wall. “No, I don’t want to paint.”
With a sigh, the weight lifted from the bunk. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
A rumble shook the ship. “It’s been doing that for the past two hours.” Ben held out a hand. “Come on. We could go see those icebergs L’Angley told us about.”
I curled deeper into the bunk.
The door crashed open. I turned just enough to see a steward poke his head in. “Everyone in their life jackets and up to the main deck!” The door slammed, only for the one next door to bang open. “Everyone—!”
I pulled myself up on shaky wrists. “Ben?”
He stared at the door. Another rumble shook the ship. He shook false cheer into his voice. “You heard the man. Life jackets and up to the main deck.” Ben pulled my life jacket from where I’d tossed it in the bottom drawer. I hadn’t imagined I’d ever need it. Nothing could sink her, they said.
He fitted it over my gown, which I hadn’t bothered to change out of after the night’s insufferable dinner, and eased me into my wheelchair.
But instead of shoving out into the passageway, he doubled back and yanked open one of my drawers. “Benjamin, honestly!”
He pulled out my newest set of watercolors, just purchased in Southampton, where this wretched journey began. He pulled out a canvas from the furthest corner—a painting I’d done of that very city as our ship pulled in.
“You don’t need to—”
Ben set the watercolors and canvas in my lap. He flung open the door and pushed my chair out into the passageway.
People sprinted up the ladder to the deck without a care for anyone or anything else. One mother dragged her child straight into my wheelchair. I huffed and crossed my arms over my middle. “Ben, why—”
“I don’t know.” Ice laced both his words and his breath. He lifted my chair.
A gentleman bumped us with his suitcase on his own charge up the ladder. Ben lost his grip and we both tumbled to the floor. I shrieked and gripped the arms of my wheelchair.
Ben took the paints and canvas back, lifted me from the chair, and sprinted up the ladder.
My chair clattered, abandoned behind us.
Our charge ended in a wall of people. Stewards scurried about. Crew members examined instruments I’d never seen before, tugged on ropes, clambered up and down ladders. And always the people pushing and shoving . . .
“Ben, what do you see?” I craned my neck. For the first time, I realized we stood at an angle.
Not us . . . The ship rested at an angle.
“The women and children are boarding lifeboats.” The frozen breeze frisked his hair as he gazed down at me. “That means you.”
“No, Ben. We stay together.” I clutched at his lapels.
He laid the paints and canvas in my lap. “It’s only for a little while.”
Ben kicked and elbowed his way to one of the lifeboats in time with my protests. He laid me in the seat. I wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t let go. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.
“Cut the ropes!” bellowed a crew member.
“Ben, come quickly, now!” I tugged on his coat.
But Ben only pried my hands free. “Soon, Annabell. Soon.”
The lifeboat lurched, then plunged downward. Splash! Water soaked my hair, coat, and canvas. I dabbed it with my sleeve.
And there we remained. We could do nothing more than row in circles—I could do nothing more than clutch the canvas to my chest and stretch out a hand—as the RMS Titanic slipped beneath the icy waves.
As Ben slipped with it.
The colors bled.
I didn’t watch as we pulled into New York City. Not that I had the chance. Everyone must have forgotten I still huddled down here alone.
I didn’t want to watch anyway.
I pulled the canvas away from my chest. The surface had dried, but I knew the layers beneath still shuddered from the water. No matter how it dried, I could never repair it. I couldn’t even make out that Southampton dock from oh so long ago.
I didn’t remember. Didn’t care to.
At last, a steward deemed it fit to see to me. He dragged me up to the main deck and pushed my new wheelchair down the gangplank. All around me people dashed off the ship, embraced their families, sobbed at their loss, laughed at their good fortune.
No one stood there for me. Father and Mother were late.
The canvas bled against my chest.
The steward left me on the pier across from a young woman not far from my own age. She wrung her hands in the most aggravating manner and stretched up on her tiptoes.
I followed her gaze until I saw what had so enraptured her.
A young man, not far off of Ben’s age. Ben. . .
He ran towards the nervous young woman and caught her in his arms. She mumbled against his shoulder and laughed so hard she cried.
I turned away. Once more, I pulled the canvas away from my chest. Bruised colors smeared against my fingertips.
I tossed the canvas into a pile of crates.
“Why don’t you paint, Annabell?”
Ben’s question. Mother’s voice. I didn’t even grace it with a reply. Only stared out the window in the same manner that I used most of my time as of late. The world went on beneath me in a brilliant rehearsal for how it would in three short months when I no longer joined its dance.
Mother gave up. I leaned my head against the back of my wheelchair.
Only moments passed before footsteps pattered in. They couldn’t hire a decent maid for our stay here? “Marion, I don’t want anything. Please leave.”
“Finally, I’ve found you!”
The voice most certainly did not belong to Marion. It even caused me to drop the hand from my eyes and turn as best I could.
I needn’t have bothered. The footsteps brought a boy of ten to stand in front of me. He carried a bulky cloth-wrapped object under his arm and tatters on his clothes. He looked as out of place in this fine parlor as a mouse or some other such creature might.
“Forgive me for sneaking past the maid, but I’ve been looking for you for months!” A grin lit up his freckled face, like the lights from the Carpathia had lit up the waters.
I laid my head back once more. “I believe you’ve made a mistake.”
“No mistake! See, your signature, right here.” The boy tore the cloth off the object to reveal a canvas.
“I had a time of it deciphering the signature, since it was so smeared and all. Suppose it must have gotten soggy in those crates. But I waited for it to dry, and now . . .” He set the canvas in my lap. “Here.”
I didn’t touch the canvas. The wounded colors wept even more in the sight of day. My shoulders sagged. “Thank you. But I’m sorry you went to so much trouble for this piece of trash.”
He looked at me in horror. “No, no, miss. It’s not trash. It’s too beautiful to be trash. It’s just not finished yet.”
I stared down at the bleary canvas. A drop of orange graced the corner. Like a spark. Like a light from a rescue ship.
“I guess God hadn’t finished it either.” With a wise little bob of his head, he brushed his hands together. “Well, I’m off.”
“Wait.” I brushed his arm and fumbled for my purse. “Please. Let me reward you.”
He frowned and stepped back out of my grip. “But I didn’t come for a reward.” He scrunched up his face. “Wait, I know! If you want to reward me, then reward me by finishing the painting. That’ll be a good reward.”
He gazed at the blur of colors. And I let myself do the same. I tucked my purse away. “Very well, then. So I shall.”
He grinned wide enough to reveal a missing tooth.
“Would you do something for me? Let Marion know to bring my watercolors up.”
“Straightway, miss.” He tipped his cap and scurried away. I turned to the window just in time to watch him skip down the street.
“Your paints, miss.”
I dipped my brush into the cup of water. I lingered over each color I dripped the water into. Where to start? What to paint?
Marion was so kind as to bring up my easel as well. I set the canvas atop it and pulled my wheelchair closer. I looked at the canvas. I looked at my palette.
I dabbed my brush in the sky blue. Ben’s favorite. I brushed it across the canvas. I followed it with a streak of lilac, my personal favorite. The strokes bled together into the sky beyond my window.
Perhaps God hadn’t finished after all.
I turned a corner of my mouth up. “Yes, I’d love to paint.”
(c) Rachel Judith Leitch