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Beauty and the Beast: The Only One Who Didn't Run Away Read online

  As I debate the question, I stir the mixture a bit. It is such a small amount that it will heat through in only a moment. I am fairly confident that my tiny rule-breaking will simply escape Mother’s notice.

  Before I change my mind, I blow on the smoldering embers, secure the lid on the pot, and close the furnace door. Since a watched pot never boils, I pick up my latest notebook and record the details of the experiment while I wait. I then return to the recently deceased worm on my workbench in the hopes that it has somehow revived itself.

  I am about to poke the worm with my finger when BOOM!

  The furnace explodes with the loudest noise ever to ring through the castle, shattering most of the glass in the room and forming a furnace-shaped hole clear through the wall.

  Now THAT Mother’s going to notice.

  The beautiful woman laughs sadly and says, “I am sorry, dear, I am not your mother.”

  I stare at her, wishing I had known what my mother looked like. But if Papa had a portrait of her, he had never hung it up. And now, of course, it would have been destroyed in the fire.

  “I … I am sorry,” Clarissa says, her brows furrowed with confusion. “At first you looked just like her. But now, I mean, it must have been a trick of the light.” She releases the woman’s arm and steps back onto the overgrown path. “Again, I am sorry.”

  “It is I who should apologize,” the woman says. “I hope you do not mind that I took shade in your home. I am looking for someone and thought he might have come this way. Come in, come in. This is your house after all.”

  She steps aside and holds open the door. Clarissa goes in first, and I follow. The woman stays at our side, for which I am glad. I had not looked forward to entering the strange new place without Papa.

  I am very pleased to see that the front room of the house is actually quite lovely. Not nearly as grand as our old house, but the furniture is sturdy and colorful, and the yellow rug is thick. The room gets a lot of light, and we can cover the bare walls with crafts.

  I had almost forgotten the woman’s presence until she says, “Would you girls have happened to see a man in a long silver cloak today? Very tall? I am looking for him.”

  “We have indeed seen such a man,” Clarissa says, clearly happy to be able to help this nice woman. “He was solving disputes up at the mill.”

  The woman smiles. Two rows of perfect white teeth. I have never seen such teeth. “Thank you,” she says. “I shall set out, then.”

  “But it is growing quite dark,” Clarissa says. “And the mill is a good hour’s walk from here. ’Tis not safe for a woman alone. You should stay the night. Papa will be home soon, and he would not mind.”

  She shakes her head. Her hair ripples like blackbirds in flight. Perhaps my sister is correct. I should indeed comb my hair more often. “I shall be fine,” the woman insists, still smiling. “Thank you for your kindness.”

  “But we did nothing,” I say, thinking we should have at least offered her tea. Not that we have tea.

  “You did a lot,” she says, turning away. “Now I must —”

  She stops mid-sentence as Papa steps through the door, his face streaked with the grime of a busy day spent delivering his last few sales. He lugs his empty chest behind him. He sees the woman and freezes in his spot, dropping the chest halfway through the doorway. “Who are you?”

  The woman pushes her hair slowly away from her face. “I am nobody of consequence. Your daughters were kind enough to point me toward the mill. I shall be going now.”

  Papa makes no move to dislodge the chest, so the woman is forced to climb over it. “Papa,” Clarissa hisses, “you are being rude!”

  But Papa does not reply. When the woman has both feet on the brick path, Papa yanks the chest out of the way and closes the door so quickly you would think the grim reaper himself was standing outside.

  “Papa!” Clarissa says again. “What has gotten into you? I am certain that beautiful woman meant us no harm.”

  “Beautiful?” Papa repeats, sounding astonished. “She was hideous!”

  “Hideous? But she —” The words get stuck in my throat. I am too busy noticing that the room is not at all as lovely as I first thought. The furniture is nothing more than discarded pillows on the floor, mold streaking their edges. The walls have holes clear through to the forest. No amount of charcoal drawings or watercolor paintings can hide those. Was the light indeed playing tricks on us as Clarissa suggested? The shadows hiding the holes and adding a rug where there is now only bare stone? “Clarissa,” I say shakily, “did the room look different a moment ago?”

  She does not reply. She simply takes my hand, her face as pale as when we watched our house burn.

  “Now, girls,” Papa says, “I know this house is not too pretty, but soon enough I’ll be on my feet again and we can move back to town, into a proper home again.”

  “When, Papa?” Clarissa asks, tearing her eyes away from the largest of the holes. I can see the weeds through it.

  He pats our heads. “Any day now I should get word about a trunk full of books that will fill our pockets with coins once again. The ship was delayed in a storm, but the latest report is that the waters have cleared.”

  “And until then?” she asks.

  “Until then, I shall knock on the door of everyone who still owes me money. That will be enough for the bare necessities. And, Beauty — I found you a job already!”

  “You did?” I ask, trying — but no doubt failing — to sound enthusiastic. I had hoped to be able to choose my own job. I suppose that was naive of me. I know how things work.

  “Well, most places had little interest in taking on a girl apprentice, but the butcher said that in return for your assistance, he will allow you to take home a chunk of meat at the end of the day. Is not that wonderful?”

  “Yes, Papa,” I say, knowing it is what he needs to hear.

  “That’s the spirit!” he says, clapping me on the back a little too hard. I think sometimes he forgets I am not a son. If I were a son, I would be allowed to make more of my own choices. I wonder if I cut my hair … hmm, no. I am fairly certain no one would believe in a boy named Beauty.

  That night I toss and turn in my small bed. The smell of lavender and tansy rises up from the straw mattress. It shall keep the fleas away, but it is causing my head to ache (although hunger may also be to blame, because all we had for dinner was cheese so hard that Papa had to hack at it with a hammer).

  Clarissa’s bed is within an arm’s reach of mine, and I hear her tossing, too. Part of me is glad to share a room with her in this unfamiliar place, but I miss what little privacy I used to have. At home, when everyone else slumbered, I could sift through whatever treasures I had found that day. The brass button in the gutter behind the marketplace, the sea glass washed up on the riverbank, the perfectly round beechnut stuck under a tree root. Then I would make up a story about how the object wound up there. The pirate on the high seas who broke a bottle overboard, only for it to wash up as sea glass dozens of years later. Or the little girl whose button popped off her coat after she ate too much plum pudding. Perhaps it does not matter. My whole collection is gone now, and with it the leisure time to collect it in the first place.

  An animal howls. The wind howls along with him. I shiver and hope that the thin pieces of wood that Papa used to mend the open holes will hold against both animal and wind.

  I sit up. “Clarissa, do you slumber?”

  “No,” she says, with no sign of sleep in her voice. “Is something the matter?”

  I pause. “Will you comb my hair?”

  “Some people will do anything to get out of going to a ball,” Alexander says. “But was it truly necessary to blow up the castle?”

  He and I stand beside the large pile of stones, shivering as we stare out at the moonlit night. Even with the flurry of activity swirling around me, I cannot help but admire how well I can see the moon and stars now that half the wall is missing.

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