What had transpired at Mrs. Gibson’s remained an untouched subject between Maggie and Victoria. Neither mentioned it; it was like it never happened at all. It seemed that the only subject anyone did speak of now was Winnie’s impending marriage. Maggie perpetuated the talk by declaring how eagerly she was awaiting the day of the ceremony when Victoria knew, for a fact, that she was not (“I don’t care at all about Winnie’s wedding anymore,” she’d confided in Victoria. “In fact, I wished it had already happened and that I’d forgotten to come.”).
As a gift to the Edwards family, the Blaylocks were providing breads and pastries for the wedding breakfast. This meant that in the days leading up to the wedding, Victoria was bound in the kitchen tending to yeasts, kneading doughs, stoking oven coals, and piping jams into flaky crusts. It was such an all-encompassing process that she went to sleep and awoke to the phantom smell of baking dough.
“How many people are coming to this breakfast, anyway?” Victoria groaned as she cracked an egg into a bowl on the last day of baking.
“The Edwards know a lot of people,” was Mrs. Putnam’s curt reply. She poked her neck over Victoria’s bowl and sighed. “Victoria, you’ve gone and scattered bits of eggshell all into this mixture. Dear God—give it to me. I’ll fish them out.”
“I’ve never been to a wedding before,” said Victoria. She’d moved onto helping Lena rub the skins from the intimidatingly large number of blanched almonds needed for the marzipan. “Let alone a wedding breakfast. It sounds very nice.”
“Marriage is important, which is why it’s so unfortunate that weddings are taken so seriously. All that fluff and fervor—and for what?” Lena pounded the almond paste with a rolling pin. “To show how much their love is worth? If their love really means anything and they want to prove it to themselves and to God, they should get married in private with no one else to see how special it is.” Lena wielded the rolling pin in the air like a determined fist.
Mrs. Putnam gasped. “Lena! What a perfectly terrible thing to say!”
“Terrible maybe, but true.”
“I loved being a bride,” sniffed Mrs. Putnam. “I was treated nice, like a proper lady.”
“I don’t give a fig who’s getting married or why they’re doing it,” interrupted Miss Blush, “so long as they have all the food they requested. So everyone had better do less talking and more baking.”
On the morning of the wedding Victoria woke up cheerful, despite not even particularly liking Winnie; she hoped that, despite the cynicism she’d encountered about the event, that she’d witness something beautiful.
“We won’t see any of the actual ceremony, Victoria,” Lena lectured as she pinned up her hair in the lamplight.
“I’m aware, thank you,” Victoria retorted. “But surely the wedding breakfast will be magnificent—it’s all the best parts of the wedding without all the seriousness.”
Lena leaned into her little mirror, squinting at her reflection. “If that’s what you want to think, sure.”
Before the sun rose, the household staff set off to the Edwards house squashed together in a private carriage hired by the Edwards.
“I’m surprised they didn’t send us an automobile,” commented Victoria, as she maneuvered her way inside.
“An automobile? Why on earth would they send one of those?” cried Mrs. Putnam. “Those abysmal machines can’t last longer than thirty minutes on a trip. Besides, the Edwards don’t own one.”
“Oh? The Blaylocks do.”
“They do not,” Mrs. Putnam sternly insisted.
“They do, too; they sent one for me the day I arrived here.”
“You’re imagining it, surely—which, by the way, is very easy for me to believe. Now quit arguing and help me with these.” She grasped several baskets full of baked goods, which were eventually crowded in every lap and at every foot. Only Miss Blush got her own seat, though she shared the entire space with more baskets. Victoria tried to condense herself as much as possible so her elbows wouldn’t poke Mrs. Putnam or Lena, who sat on either side of her. She’d been told once by Lena that she possessed unusually sharp elbows and had been self-conscious of it ever since. Still, both she and Lena managed to fall asleep for the entirety of the three-hour ride.
They were shaken awake when the carriage jumbled to a halt at last before the Edwards’ stately brown brick home. Each of them grabbed as much of their supplies as they could and shuffled to the front door, where Mrs. Putnam managed to free a fist to rap upon it.
A woman in a crisp white uniform swung open the door. “You’re from the Blaylock household, correct?”
“Yes,” answered Mrs. Putnam.
“Wonderful.” The woman didn’t smile or give any indication of wonder. “Follow me to the dining room, please. I’ll get you all some aprons and caps.”
“Oh, we’ve brought our own,” said Mrs. Putnam, as they stepped inside.
The woman smiled with her mouth closed. “I’m sorry, but you’ll need to wear the ones approved by the household. It simply won’t do to have us…mismatched. Mr. and Mrs. Edwards would be very displeased.”
Mrs. Putnam—whom Victoria could tell desperately wanted to object—nodded, and they followed the woman down a hall and through several rooms into the Edwards’ spacious dining room. It was bright and white, with frighteningly high ceilings from which hung crystal chandeliers which bounced the light onto the walls in such a way that Victoria might’ve thought she was entering a kaleidoscope. During her moment of awe, Lena and Miss Blush had already tied themselves into the allotted aprons and were helping pin each other’s caps.
Suddenly Mrs. Putnam turned and thrust the sack of unwanted aprons at Victoria.
“Return these to the carriage, please,” she said.
“But shouldn’t I stay to—”
“Just do it, Victoria.”
“Alright, alright.” Victoria sighed and set off back down the path that the Edwards’ servant had led them, to the right of the dining room and straight on until the front hall—at least it’s what she’d thought was the correct direction, though she must have taken a left instead of a right (or a right instead of a left?) because she’d stepped into a room she deemed unfamiliar (though she couldn’t say for sure that it was, only having had walked through the house once). Annoyed, she backtracked and found herself at the mouth of a hall.
As she turned down it, she caught what was, unmistakably, muffled crying echoing from somewhere down the way. She paused in an instant, hoping that the reverberation of her last footfall upon the tile wouldn’t disrupt whoever was upset. She stood there dumbly in the center of the hallway as the whimpering continued—accompanied by, she realized, a second voice, also hushed, but harsh.
“Please, don’t say anything else. I don’t want you to say anything…”
“Why? And let you continue to make a disgrace of yourself like a child?”
A drawn-out sigh.
The other person muttered something that Victoria couldn’t catch and then, save for a few more sniffs, all fell quiet.
Then, approaching footsteps. Victoria sprung to life, continuing down the hallway—and nearly colliding with Winnie, who stumbled into her path from just around a corner.
“Oh! Victoria.” Winnie brought a hand to her chest. “My goodness, you startled me. Mama and I were just…having a conversation. I probably look horrible—didn’t get much sleep last night…you seem in an awful hurry. Are you looking for something?”
For a moment, Victoria did forget just what she had been doing, distracted as she was by Winnie’s pink-rimmed eyes and crimson cheeks. “Um, yes—I mean, no, I’m not looking for anything, just putting these back in the carriage because we don’t need them. Actually, I’m looking for the front hall. I got a little lost.” She lifted the sack. “They’re aprons…that’s what’s in there. Anyway.”
“I see.” Winnie nodded. “Did you…”
“I was just wondering…if you heard anything—anything that was said.”
Victoria pondered lying. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
Winnie’s face grew even more flushed.
“Not much, though,” blurted Victoria.
“It’s alright, Victoria. You didn’t mean to. I’m just…I’m having some worries about everything, that’s all. I feel like I’m boring you.”
“No, I’m not bored.”
Winnie sighed and rubbed at her eyes, which were glistening with tears again. “Victoria, please don’t tell Maggie, okay? Whatever you heard. Everything is going to be all right.”
Victoria nodded. “Okay.”
Victoria tucked the sack of aprons under her arm and fumbled in her pocket for a handkerchief. She extended it to Winnie. “Here. You may need it.”
Winnie smiled. “Thank you, Victoria. That’s very kind of you. I’ll see you later.”
The two crossed and moved toward their respective destinations. After circling the same rooms, Victoria found her way to the front hall at last. She hurried out and tossed the aprons in the backset of the carriage and then (with the help of an errant maid) rushed back to the dining room, considerably less cheerful than she’d been on the way over.
As girls, Maggie and Winnie had pictured their wedding days with beautifully dressed guests, a big blue sky, and a brilliant, golden cathedral. As far as fashion went, Maggie and her parents were, at least, appropriately attired; it didn’t appear as if it were going to rain, and the church didn’t seem different than any other morning.
Inside, a wave of somber murmurings accompanied a light organ melody. The Blaylocks settled into their assigned pew, near the very front. Almost immediately Maggie located the Aldridges, a little further back; she and Simon caught each other’s attention and shared a moment of recognition before Maggie turned back to face the anticipatory altar.
The ceremony began promptly. Church bells cued the organist into a joyful tune and in walked Hubert, arm-in-arm with Mrs. Guild. The remainder of the small party followed, ended by Winnie herself on the arm of her father, looking positively angelic in that gold-lined gown, the gauze of her veil mingling with the ringlets cascading down the sides of her face.
Everything else that followed transpired as if it were a dream in garbled passages and gleaming exchanges—and then Winnie and Hubert were in the corner signing the registry, and Maggie felt that all the so-called magic, if there had been any at all, had already faded away. And when the newlyweds were announced—“Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Guild”—an ache rang in Maggie’s chest: in an instant, Winnie Edwards was gone, replaced forever by a stranger named Mrs. Hubert Guild, while Hubert himself remained proudly and comfortably as he ever was.
During the wedding breakfast, seated at an assigned little round table in the Edwards’ dining room, Maggie barely registered a taste from her delicate forkful of cake other than a sharp sweetness. Winnie and Hubert had both smiled as they’d sliced into the magnificent tower of pastry and now, as Maggie peeked over at their table, they both simply looked tired. Maggie herself suddenly felt drowsy and overwrought, as if she’d just had a good cry.
Her focus was drawn back to the politely mingled room when her jaw clamped down on an unexpected object lodged in her cake; she fished out a round ivory button from the crumbs.
Mr. Blaylock laughed. “Well, look at that! You’ve found a favor.”
Mrs. Blaylock motioned for it, and Maggie handed it over. Mrs. Blaylock turned it around in her fingers. “Hm. If only you were a better sewer, you could find a way to make good use of it.”
Mrs. Blaylock returned the button onto Maggie’s open palm. Maggie lowered her hands to her lap and ran her thumb over the object’s tiny divots as she surveyed her surroundings.
“Where’s Victoria, I wonder?” Maggie asked. “I’ve only seen her once, I think.”
“You’re right. It is strange that she hasn’t managed to make a commotion,” Mrs. Blaylock joked.
Victoria was, in fact, avoiding the Blaylocks—namely Maggie, as her promise to Winnie was fairly bursting out of her. She longed to pull Maggie aside and divulge the sad scene she’d inadvertently encountered. Maggie would sympathize, and then later they’d further discuss the issue and then promise each other that absolutely nothing like that would happen to either of them—but then the Aldridges had arrived, and that sent Victoria fleeing to the kitchen, reeling into even more confliction.
Eventually, the meal died down and they began to tidy up the place. Victoria aided Lena in clearing away dishes from tables, trying her best to keep her head down, which the more genteel of the guests surely acknowledged as a servant knowing her place but in actuality was Victoria attempting not to make even indirect eye contact with anyone. (This also made it much more difficult to navigate a crowd carrying loads of items with swiftness and efficiency.)
It was a great relief, then, to return home to the Blaylock residence after all the work was complete. It was only three o’clock in the afternoon, but to Victoria, it felt like she’d already lived a full day. Mrs. Blaylock gave Victoria and Lena the remainder of the afternoon off to do as they pleased. They both retreated to their room. Lena sequestered herself to the desk to scribble letters to her family and probably her numerous beaus, and Victoria curled underneath her covers and went to sleep.
When Victoria awoke, Lena had gone. The sky was not yet quite dark. She pulled herself out of bed, dressed, and tiptoed into the hallway. The grandfather clock chimed seven times. Victoria scurried down the stairs and into the kitchen, where Miss Blush was stirring a steaming pot on the stove. Lena stood at the counter, lazily slicing bread.
“Aha, Victoria! So pleased you’ve decided to grace us with your presence. How was your little nap?”
“Fine,” Victoria said.
“You’ve been awful quiet today.” Miss Blush squinted at Victoria. “I hope you’re not planning anything odd. Here—take a tray up to Margaret. She claims she isn’t feeling well.” She ladled soup into a bowl and placed it onto a tray with a slice of bread and a glass of water. “Go on, then.”
Victoria knocked cautiously on Maggie’s door and then poked her head inside, too anxious to await a proper reply. Maggie sat hunched on her window seat cushion, arms wrapped around her knees, her hair loose down her shoulders, staring outside melancholily like a girl in a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painting.
Victoria entered the room fully, shut the door gently, and crept to Maggie, bearing the tray before her like an offering. “Miss Blush made you some soup. I don’t know what kind, but it smells nice.”
“Thanks,” replied Maggie, flatly. She still hadn’t torn her gaze from the glass.
“What are you looking at?”
Maggie let her shoulders rise and fall.
“Okay. Well, I’ll just set this here, then.” Victoria lowered the tray to Maggie’s vanity.
Maggie lolled her head aside to Victoria. “How was it for you?”
“Oh. It was fine, I guess.”
Maggie nodded. “Yeah.”
She was quiet for a few moments more, and then broke into tears. Victoria rushed to her side, unsure of what to do, staring awkwardly down at Maggie as she buried her face in folded arms. When she lifted her head at last, she said, “I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t think it would be this weird.”
“What?” Victoria lowered herself onto the cushion across from Maggie.
“Losing a friend,” Maggie said. “Winnie’s moving away, you know. But it’s much more than that. She and I were very close once—for a long, long time. It hadn’t been that way for a while, only it took me so long to realize it. I might not ever see her again, but I’m also not sure I’d even want to—and that’s what’s sad. And now I have no one, except for Simon, of course. And you.”
Maggie sniffled, and then scoffed, shaking her head.
“I can’t believe that my life has come down to one of my best friends being a hired girl.”
All feelings of importance and gratitude vanished from Victoria’s mind. She stood.
“Oh, that’s what I am—I almost forgot, thanks for the reminder. I’ll leave you to your groveling then.”
“That isn’t what I wanted to say. I think you understand what I meant.”
“I don’t. I can’t read your mind,” spat Victoria.
“Victoria, please. You’re being dramatic.”
“I’ll return before bed to collect the tray.”
Maggie protested further as Victoria rushed out.
All through the next week, Victoria spent her free time working in Mrs. Gibson’s yard. She tugged weeds from the earth with a vengeance, envisioning her anger and frustration uprooted. She knew that Mrs. Gibson was watching her from her kitchen window but refused to acknowledge the woman. After every trip, Victoria left with a pail full of verdant pests and an itching feeling to return and do more work, as her progress was slowly showing itself in the neater, more pleasant patches of grass that dotted the space around the house.
The Aldridges took weekly evening visits to the Blaylocks, the families spending their time outside on the patio until the darkening sky drove them inside. There, they lingered for a little while longer in the sunroom before they retired for the night—the Aldridges to the guest bedrooms, which had been carefully prepared by Victoria herself.
Sometimes, if the evening called for it, they played a game or two of cards. Which games exactly, Victoria didn’t know; what interested her was that, amidst these events, some semblance of fun was evident amongst its players. The first time they’d commenced a game, Victoria had rushed to the room upon hearing a reverberating series of shrieks and stumbled in only to realize, to her amazement, that the culprit was not fear but laughter—even pinched Mrs. Aldridge had cracked a smile from behind her hand.
It was while the families were enraptured in their own private amusements that Victoria wordlessly catered to them, pouring drinks and replenishing the cheeses or fruit that Miss Blush had sent out. Not even Maggie so much as acknowledged her as she did so—though, once, Mr. Aldridge sneered up at her with a sniff before slapping a card down on the tabletop.
Each time the Aldridges left, Victoria dawdled near the top of the staircase, watching Simon from afar. He appeared as fidgety as ever, perhaps even more so, as he muttered his goodbyes and offered parting gestures. She didn’t allow herself to look for long, so that no one would catch her staring down upon the whole scene.
One evening, near the end of June, Victoria was busily de-vining the side of Mrs. Gibson’s house when she was interrupted by Simon. She knew he’d been creeping up because she’d heard him tromping through the dead grass and had once exclaimed, “ow”—most likely at one of the pesky, prickled branches that stuck out from one of the half-dead trees on the way. However, she pretended as if she hadn’t heard anything at all and went on with her work with him standing nearby until his silent presence became too much to bear.
“Yes, Simon?” Victoria threw a handful of dead vines into her pail.
“I just wanted to see what you were doing.”
“You can see clearly what it is I’m doing,” Victoria grumbled, pulling up more vines.
“Yes, but why are you doing it?”
“It’s good to have a hobby and cleaning up other people’s messes seems to be mine.”
She turned to him. Clutched in one hand was what appeared to be a haphazard array of grass, weeds, and drooping flowers.
“Look—strawberries.” Simon dropped down to the grass between their feet.
Surely enough, a smattering of tiny red berries peeked up at them. Simon plucked one and turned it over in his palm. “Look at how large the pips are. You know, if you made some space here along the side of the house, you could probably cultivate a variety of fruits and vegetables. This soil seems well-suited for growth.”
“Charming. Maybe you should bring some seeds of choice with you next time.”
He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “She’s watching you, you know—Mrs. Gibson, I mean.”
“Yeah, she tends to do that. I mostly just ignore her.”
They both stole a glance at the window, where Mrs. Gibson glowered at them before tugging closed the curtains.
“Is she…paying you to do all this?”
“Simon, if you don’t have any more advice about plants, I’d like to be left alone.”
“Here, let me help you.” He reached out a hand and Victoria stepped aside.
“No, thank you.” Victoria gripped another vine—a rather stubborn, extra-long one it seemed, which proved quite difficult to unravel by herself, which annoyed her, as she’d imagined herself proving a point.
“Let me…Vic, let me help you.” Simon stepped in and grabbed hold of the tendril, but Victoria let go and spun around to face him.
“Sorry—what did you just call me?”
“You just called me ‘Vic.’ How would you like it if I just called you ‘Si’?”
“I don’t know. No one’s ever called me that before except for you, right now.”
“Of all the abbreviated versions of my name you could call me, why ‘Vic’? It sounds so…sterile.”
“How many nicknames are there for ‘Victoria’”?
“A lot, probably. ‘Vicky’, for instance—although I think I might hate that even more than Vic. And ‘Tory,’ which just sounds political.” She took a moment to gather her thoughts and her breath. “I think what I’m trying to say is that I would like to be called just by my name. Just
‘Victoria’ is fine.”
Simon appeared a bit shaken. He blinked. “Yeah, okay. Sure.”
“Good,” nodded Victoria.
“Simon!” called Maggie from the Blaylock’s yard.
“Sorry!” shouted Simon in return. Then, to Victoria, “Good luck with your…vine pulling. It looks great, by the way—what you’ve done so far.”
Simon took the little fruit with a smile. “There’s no way this would grow a new plant. But thanks for the consideration.”
He walked over to Maggie, holding the strawberry up to the lingering sunlight.
Maggie had replayed the moment when she’d uttered that fateful sentence to Victoria over and over in her mind, and each time it stung just the same. She’d been too embarrassed the following morning to apologize to Victoria and as the days went on, her apology became harder and harder to voice, until it felt as if it had cemented itself into the seemingly constant knot that had tethered itself to her stomach.
The Aldridge’s visits had become something of a routine, one that Maggie’s mind had settled as something fine and normal. She perceived it as something of a game of tolerance; for a few days at a time, she could playact social niceties: holding her tongue when Mr. Aldridge delved into contentious topics; providing lackadaisical commentary to a conversation; and when they all played a round of dominoes or cards, she neglected to strategize so she could have fun without any complications.
Simon, though genial, was always distracted. No one else but Maggie seemed to notice or care. When he wasn’t nodding in tepid agreement to whatever was being discussed, he appeared to drift into another plane completely, leaving his drink untouched and his gaze blank. One night he’d held onto what looked like a tiny red ball, passing it from hand to hand all night. It piqued Maggie’s curiosity so that after a few hours of catching it in her peripheral she finally asked, “What is that?”
He’d glanced down at the object in his fingers in surprise as if he’d forgotten something was there. “Oh. It’s a strawberry.”
“A strawberry? Where’d you get it?”
“Over in your grandmother’s yard.”
“What were you doing over there?”
“Victoria was there earlier, I think, doing her yard work.”
“Oh, yeah,” he answered quickly. “She was.”
As if to put an end to the conversation, he’d pocketed the object of interest.
On the last Saturday evening of June, the Aldridges arrived a bit earlier than expected. Maggie was still upstairs, reading the newspaper her father had saved for her. She spritzed on some perfume and flew downstairs. Mr. and Mrs. Aldridge left the foyer with Maggie’s parents, leaving Maggie and Simon alone.
“Oh—” Maggie looked to her parents, who were caught up in conversation as they headed toward the French doors to the patio.
It was the first time, Maggie registered, that they’d ever been left unattended.
Simon shrugged. “Let’s ignore them for a while.”
Maggie was taken aback, but relieved. “Sounds good to me.”
The sky was charged with grey, but neither acknowledged it. They exited the Blaylock home through the front door and embarked down toward the sidewalk, silently. She appreciated that when she was around Simon, she didn’t feel a need to make the small talk that she so resented.
It was when they were a block away, distant enough from the Blaylock home that it looked like an overlarge dollhouse, that Simon stopped abruptly and Maggie—several steps ahead before she heard his aggravated sigh—pivoted to face him looking absolutely dismal. He was slightly hunched over, eyes shut, as if he were going to be sick.
“Well, what’s the matter with you?” Maggie asked. For a moment, she thought that she should perhaps approach him, but she stayed planted firmly on the stony path.
Simon sighed, and his eyes flicked to hers. “I need to ask you something.”
Maggie’s heart lurched. She quickly glanced down at herself, having forgotten what she was wearing: a plain blue day dress, it seemed, slipped on without a thought, and her old brown boots, which were somehow dusty with dried mud.
A roll of thunder sounded from afar.
“Maggie, do you want to continue to do this?” Simon asked.
Maggie’s mind went blank. “We’re only a little down the street. We can head back.”
“No, not the walk.” Simon sighed. “I knew this was going to be difficult, which is why I kept avoiding it. Stupid, stupid...”
He turned away momentarily. Maggie hugged her arms to her chest; suddenly she felt cold. Finally, Simon stepped toward her.
“Maggie,” he began again, punctuating her name in a staccato. “I like you. I always did, even when we were kids. You know that. I admire you, and I think you’re a great person to be around. But I don’t think we should continue to be together.”
“Oh,” was all Maggie could think to say.
Simon moved closer. She looked away but didn’t move. She let him unfold her arms, gently.
She looked down. He held her hands in his, but she hardly felt a thing.
“Maggie, I need you to say something, please.”
He squeezed her hands, once. A drizzle had started, but she didn’t mind; it felt nice on her skin, which felt like it was burning.
“What will our parents think?”
“Our parents?” Simon nearly shouted over the rush of the wind. “Why does that matter?”
“I don’t know,” Maggie admitted.
Simon shook his head. “You know, Maggie, you always make it seem like you don’t care about what other people think about you, but you do.”
The rain was picking up rapidly. Simon brushed water from his hair. Maggie returned to hugging herself against the chill of the worsening downpour. They both blinked raindrops from their eyes. Maggie thought about how at least her shoes were clean now. And then they were both laughing. Poorly shielded by Simon’s jacket—which he’d slung off and promptly wrung out a few times before he and Maggie hoisted it above them—the two of them hastened back toward the Blaylock home, feeling as sorry a sight as they assumed they appeared.
The silence of anticipation was palpable when they walked in through the back patio entrance, where the Blaylocks and the Aldridges reclined in the sunroom. Maggie and Simon shut the French doors together, sensing eager eyes at their backs, and shared a final moment of solace before they turned.
Mr. Aldridge cleared his throat aggressively, which developed into a series of short coughs. Mrs. Blaylock smiled at Maggie as she raised her wineglass to her lips. Her smile wobbled when her gaze traveled to Maggie’s naked finger.
Maggie curled her fingers into each other, then locked both hands securely behind her back.
“Is everything…okay?” Mr. Aldridge asked. He coughed again.
Simon didn’t waste another moment. “Margaret and I have decided together to…not continue…our relationship.”
Mrs. Blaylock blanched. She set down her glass.
Mr. Aldridge laughed, unamused. He stood, his eyes piercing Maggie. His hands were shaking. “You’ve thrown away a very good thing.”
Simon shifted. “If you’d let us—”
“Hush, boy,” snapped Mr. Aldridge.
Mr. Blaylock intervened. “Do not address my daughter in that tone, Sam.”
Mr. Aldridge dropped back onto the sofa beside Mrs. Aldridge, who’d hunched over with her face hidden in her gloves.
“Is this a final decision?” Mr. Blaylock asked.
Simon and Maggie nodded.
“Then it is what it is,” concluded Mr. Blaylock. “They’ve made up their minds.”
“But—” Maggie began, and all eyes were on her. She paused, her mind clouded. “I’d still like to see Simon if that’s all right. He’s my friend.”
“Margaret,” Mrs. Blaylock said, softly.
“I’ve truly enjoyed his—your—visits. It’s nice to have company.”
Mrs. Blaylock sighed and pressed her forehead into her palm.
Mrs. Aldridge’s head jerked up with a scowl. “To suggest such a thing is unbelievable. My family will certainly not be spending any further time with you, Miss Blaylock.”
Maggie looked at Simon. He stared straight above everyone’s heads.
“Don’t look at him!” screeched Mrs. Aldridge.
“Ida, really.” Mr. Blaylock gripped the sides of his chair as if he were about to pounce from it. “This is absurd. It was an innocent suggestion.”
“Please,” Mrs. Blaylock piped up, flashing her finest diplomatic smile. “We shouldn’t escalate the situation. I think that now would be appropriate to say goodbye. Please, let us walk you to the door.”
No one offered any objections.
The dismissal of the Aldridges passed by in a nervous blur. There was a round of insincere, mumbled thank yous and vague well-wishes. Lena and Victoria rushed down in a few flurried trips with the family’s belongings then escaped up the staircase. Maggie didn’t say anything to anyone. She refused to watch Simon walk out the door. Instead, she fled upstairs.
“Margaret, we want to speak with you, please,” Mrs. Blaylock called.
“Maggie, I know you’re probably embarrassed,” Mr. Blaylock added, “but we’d like to know what happened and we want to make sure you’re okay.”
“Embarrassed?” Maggie shrieked. She paraded halfway down the staircase but kept a reasonable distance between herself and her parents. “Yes. I am embarrassed. But not for the reasons you probably think I am—or think I should be.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Mr. Blaylock’s face cut with anger.
Maggie gripped the banister. “I’m embarrassed that I let it get this far. That I never really stopped to slow down and wonder if I wanted...all of it. Any of it.”
“Margaret, honey, I’m so sorry you feel that way.” Mrs. Blaylock sniffed back tears. “We had no idea.”
“You never asked!” Maggie screamed, and immediately she wanted to shut her eyes, to not see the shock and confusion and hurt in her parents’ faces, to pretend she hadn’t reacted like a petulant child. Her eyes smarted and her throat choked with tears. Before she or anyone else could utter another word, she trudged to her room, her legs leaden and her chest aching.
Victoria had known something was amiss when the usual cheerful murmurings that accompanied the Aldridges’ presence were replaced by a stillness, punctuated by short bursts of exclamations from the sunroom. And when Mrs. Blaylock rushed to fetch her and Lena from the kitchen, telling them to get the Aldridge’s things as quickly as they could manage, she and Lena had followed the order in swift, confused silence. Once Lena had dropped her share of bags at Mr. Aldridge’s feet, she’d rushed upstairs at once. Victoria, after placing the remaining luggage as quietly as possible on the tile, followed—but lingered at the top, peering down. No one had embraced or shaken hands or clapped shoulders; hats were placed on heads and gloves were pulled on with utmost graveness.
Simon lifted his head to Victoria. She tried to manage a smile but feared, in her discomfort, it expressed itself as something of a grimace.
“What are you looking at?” squawked Mrs. Aldridge, her shrill tone ricocheting the room.
Victoria, embarrassment rising in her chest, slipped out of sight.
“Nothing,” murmured Simon.
Lena approached Victoria that night with a sly grin.
“Maggie turned him down,” she said, back against the wall as she sat at the foot of Victoria’s bed.
“You heard me. Apparently, he’s not good enough for Miss Perfect.” Lena flopped down at Victoria’s feet. “I would have killed to have been in the room when they broke the news. I bet the shock was terrific.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Victoria—though actually, she could.
“I wonder what’ll happen now?” Lena mused. “So many things could happen that I’m shivering just thinking of it. This is sort of like living in a magazine story, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” agreed Victoria.
Lena had recapped some of her favorites during their dullest chores: sensational tales, featuring lusty heroines and their either scoundrel or too-good masculine counterparts. Victoria didn’t recognize their charm in the way that Lena did but nevertheless nodded along to Lena’s excited chronicling. If having a magazine story narrated to her was tiresome, living one seemed much worse.
The sunlight was painful. Maggie twisted in her bed while Victoria stood silently by the window, where she’d just drawn the curtains.
“Oh, it’s morning already. How awful,” grumbled Maggie. “I was so hoping to remain unconscious for at least a few more hours.”
“Because of what happened yesterday?”
Maggie opened her eyes, despite the dread, and sat up. “Yes, Victoria. Because of yesterday.”
Victoria crossed her arms.
“Victoria, I’m sorry—you know, for what I said about you. It’s not true, and it was an awful thing to say. I shouldn’t have waited this long to apologize.”
“Are you just sorrier now because Simon is gone?”
Yesterday’s disappointments and humiliation flooded Maggie’s mind anew. “No, that’s not the reason.” She flung herself back onto her pillows. “You know, Winnie told me that love wasn’t easy, and it’s been nagging me ever since. Because I don’t think love is hard—I think it’s the easiest thing in the world, and that’s why it mixes people up and makes such a mess.”
Warily, Victoria perched on the end of Maggie’s bed. She wasn’t sure she understood what Maggie was saying, but she nodded anyway.
“It’s like I never feel the way I’m supposed to feel about anything.” Maggie shook her head. “It’s very inconvenient.”
Victoria nodded, slowly. “I understand. And I forgive you.”
“Listen, I don’t really have many options here. I could go on being quiet and cautious around you, but it’s hard work—and boring. And so is staying mad.”
“You’re welcome,” Victoria replied. “Now get dressed before your mother starts screaming.”
© 2022 Angeline Walsh
The Reign of Victoria; or the Year That Everything Changed is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to real persons or events is coincidence. Thank you for respecting the original creation of the author by not reproducing or distributing any part of it in any form without permission.