Charlotte Benson settled into her desk chair and pulled a sheet of hand-cut, thick paper toward her as outside, lightning snagged the sky in forks and flashes. She paused, pen poised, listening to the patter of rain on the tin roof. The young girl had mastered cursive the week before and earnestly began a letter addressed to her father. Tight loops filled the page as white flashes pitchforked against the plate of early morning sky. A flimsy metal chair hurtled through Charlotte’s window. The glass split into thousands of tiny shards, and Charlotte lurched in her seat, startled. She darted over to the window and stared. The chair had lodged itself into the window, and slivers of glass glittered all over the scratched hardwood. Howling winds kicked around a scattering of lawn ornaments outside, and slate gray storm clouds billowed above the mansion. Charlotte trembled, her hazel eyes focused on the sickly green skies above her. The window was broken and the chair was wedged firmly in its frame. Pinpricks of sleet ricocheted off Charlotte’s palm, opened with curiosity. All the while, outside, a storm raged.
Why was a chair sitting in Charlotte’s side yard? She glanced down into the dying garden and noticed the horseshoe shaped ring of similar folding chairs tucked into the hard dirt and nearby, she saw the dry, dusty bulbs exposed in pockets of dirt, not fully planted. She looked farther in the distance and saw a scarlet smudge in the woods beyond the house.
The house, including the property surrounding it, filled fourteen acres; it had once been the gem of the city. However, Charlotte’s father had neglected to pay the gardener or the housekeeper, and he had overlooked taking care of the grounds. Instead, he would tinker with his inventions. Charlotte’s stepmother couldn’t be bothered with day-to-day chores of running the estate. The mansion looked like a haunted house. Blades of grass grew too long, and mushrooms overtook rundown, dirt pathways. The exterior bricks crumbled in places. The foundation settled unevenly, and ivy once hanging thick on the eastern wall now decayed. Its leaves browned and hung tenuously. The once heavy roots, now dry as brittle bone, twisted up the side of the house in whorls.
The art deco stained glass cracked in both the great room and in the back of the house. In the side panels, it was shattered completely. Leaves and dust blew in from the front walk, collecting in untidy piles in the foyer. The mansion was elaborate, colossal, yet it felt worn, abandoned. Trees grew up with gnarled, tangled roots, protecting the perimeter of their land like a haunted wood out of Grimms’ fairy tales. During the spring season, the untended gardens flourished with wildflowers popping up where they oughtn’t be.
Charlotte rushed down the dilapidated stairs and thumped to the landing, peering up to the room on the left, her stepmother’s room. The door didn’t swing open, nor did she call out a reprimand like Charlotte expected. She found silence awaiting her, and she glanced around the foyer. Charlotte searched the study, the living room, the kitchen. Upon not finding anyone, she slouched at the piano bench. She pounded at a few keys, scowling. “Typical,” Charlotte thought. Nothing was worse than a stay-inside day when all you wanted to do was play outside and slosh in rain puddles. She stomped over to the window seat and chased patterns of rain all about, tracing the raindrops idly with her fingertips. She gazed out the window and saw adults in slickers and galoshes, dressed in black, walking toward the side yard.
Her eyes nearly popped out of her head. Charlotte stared. Her jaw dropped and dangled open. She leaped to her feet and dashed into the kitchen, pulling a chair over to the sink and clamoring on top of it, leaning into the window, her eyes focused. She examined the side yard again, studying the bizarre ring of chairs and noticed Uncle Ernie. Her eyes drifted toward the cork board in the cloak room. The list of Nevers. Charlotte had always obeyed the rules in the past and had been rewarded with a sweet wrapped in gold, crinkly paper. One of the rules was, “Never go outside alone” and though Charlotte had always waited for her father or her stepmother to join her outside, today felt different.
It felt as though the list of Nevers needed to be broken. The girl felt fairly certain at the age of ten, she was a grown-up and no longer needed to follow a silly list of rules on a sheet of faded floral stationery. The prize of a caramel or a truffle no longer outweighed her curiosity. She needed to know what was going on in that side yard, and if it meant punishment, this was a risk Charlotte Benson was willing to take.
Charlotte slipped into her weather-resistant coat and sped out the door. She stopped, puzzled by the sight of the postal worker. It was peculiar seeing him aside from talking at the front door. He trudged through the thick mud and slosh as the sleet pelted him. When he saw Charlotte, his face broke into a smile. He bent down and folded her into a hug.
“Does your stepmother know you’re out here?” He asked.
“Pro’lly not.” Charlotte said as he glanced around the estate, his eyes searching for her stepmother. Charlotte turned her attention to the sidewalk and noticed the phalanx of women a couple of feet away from her walking in a straight line. The women, cloaked in black, wore black lace mantillas draped over their heads, covering their perfectly coiffed hair.
Elmer, the postal worker, tugged at his ear and looked intently at Charlotte. “Do you ever talk to strangers?” His voice was hushed, and a concerned expression creased his face. She glanced back in his direction.
“No.” Charlotte barely flicked her eyes in the direction of the women. She bit at a hangnail. “My stepmother says not to talk to strangers.” Elmer was no stranger though; he had become practically family after delivering their mail for as long as Charlotte’s father could remember. Even Charlotte’s stepmother couldn’t object to Charlotte talking to Elmer.
“Smart woman.” He said under his breath.
“Is that mustache real?” Charlotte asked, her eyes bright with hope as she played with a stray curl that kept falling into her face, thinking of her father who she hadn’t seen in thirteen days. Maybe Elmer was just her father in disguise.
“Yes, honey, it is.” Elmer replied, swinging his messenger bag over his shoulder.
Charlotte shoved her palms to her face, wiping away the tears that stung her eyes, her cheeks reddening in embarrassment. “Oh, by the way, I have a delivery for you.” He added, seeing the young girl’s tears. Elmer reached into his bag and pulled out an awkwardly shaped package wrapped in brown packing paper and wound up in twine; her father’s familiar messy scrawl had scribbled Charlotte Benson’s full name and address on the outside. Elmer handed Charlotte the clipboard, and she carefully wrote her name in cursive on the sheet of paper.
“Best get inside, love,” he murmured kindly, “it seems the weather’s about to take a nasty turn.” Charlotte made an elaborate show of spinning on her heel and heading back toward the house. The blustering wind gusted over her and nearly carried the small girl off as she was walking away, but as soon as Elmer’s back was turned, Charlotte sneaked in the direction of the side garden. She paused and watched the sky for a breath when the claw of fingernails dug into her shoulder blade. She squeaked, surprised, half-expecting her stepmother to be standing over her with a scowl etched into her face.
Instead, it was one of the women from the sidewalk dressed in an ankle-length black gown and lace-up black boots. Her eyes were a soft, muted gray and her skin pale. Her voice velvety, she purred, “In a decade and a half, you will receive your greatest joy, but your greatest joy will turn into your greatest sadness. Your life will never be the same.”