A contemporary fantasy inspired by Child’s Ballad #84, “Barb’ry Allen.”
Lead the Way
75th Ranger Motto
It’s May and the first bloom opened on the rose. I can see it from the window even at this distance because the long canes have climbed to the top of the church tower. It’s been five years since it happened but the thorns of each year prick my heart as sharply as do the thorns on Barbrianna’s briar. Weirdly, there’re no thorns on the rose. What are the odds of that? It came from somewhere in the Middle East I think, but now there’s no one to ask. No one’s ever had a rose like it—thornless, blood red petals, a tiny dot of white at the base, and silvery when the light hits right. Especially moonlight. They can’t be easily picked because of the thorns on the briar.
The canes of the briar are thick as my wrist and the barbs are longer than my fingers. The briar grew up the old church-tower that second spring, straight up and never stopped until it reached the top. People say the briar never blooms, but it does. At night, I’ve seen its flowers in the moonlight, velvet black holes against the white bell-tower. The rose grows on the briar canes because it hasn’t thorns to cling to the tower on its own. It’s twisted around the briar and goes clear to the top. In a month it’ll be covered with blooms and the tower’ll look like blood from far off. People come from all over to see it.
No one picks the roses ‘cause of the briar’s thorns—no one but me, that is. Dad’s scared I’ll bleed to death when I get stabbed. He’s relieved when the blooms whither in the fall. Mom put drapes and louvered blinds on my windows so I wouldn’t look at ‘em all the time, but I can’t stand it; I hear ‘em climbing and calling my name—Maddie… Madelyn Allen. I open the blinds at night to see the blooms on the rose and the brier, silver and black in the moonlight. Mom brought me a humongous old Italian silver vase from Dad’s antique shop. I polished it and fill it with roses every third or fourth day. The whole house smells of roses until the petals begin to drop.
Dad ordered Harley Davidson leathers for me to wear to the churchyard. The jacket zips closed and the leather chaps zip up and fit like a glove. It minimizes the thorn damage. But my hands bleed. Like my heart. There’s always blood on my hands. If once there was poison in the barbs it is either gone, or I’m immune. I’ll tell you the story.
Randall Graham’s son, William Graham, became a marksman and officer in the 75th Ranger Airborne. He was old money and lived in the estate on the hill above our little town in New Hampshire. When we were all kids, he began to win marksmanship competitions at the spring Faire and no one ever beat him. He soon made a name for himself in international competitions. They say he could shoot the heart from a target at one thousand yards. He was recruited by the Army’s special ops unit and trained with the Airborne ROTC when he was still at Virginia Tech. The local girls thought he was pretty special and more than a few lost their hearts, but from the time she was ten William set his sites on my sister.
Brianna was dark and exquisite, and I loved her. She had mom’s amber eyes, and dad’s black hair which fell to her waist in a shining braid. We talked of my dreams to be a novelist, and a foreign correspondent, and of hers to be a famous horticulturist and to develop the perfect black rose; she made me believe that all of our dreams would come true. She believed in the odds—she made me believe the odds too. We spent a lot of time in the greenhouse that dad built, working on her dream. I worked on my dream at night, sitting with my laptop in the window seat where I could see across the garden to the churchyard. I wrote strange, mythical stories that always managed to include the moonlit cemetery as a setting.
Brianna was kind to everyone and everything. Spirited horses quieted under her hand, dogs loved her, and children followed her around town asking her to sing or tell them a story. That’s why Will noticed her, of course, that, and because she was beautiful.
Dad walked us to school everyday. After school and on weekends we went to the shop, Professor’s Antiquities, Curiosities, and Books, and walked home with him when he closed. Even now, I still walk with him in the morning and try to be there at closing to walk him home. These days I perceive his long stride is weary and now his hair is silver; though my hair isn’t silver, my stride is also weary. But when we were younger, he held our hands as we skipped and he told us stories that made our eyes shine, mostly stories of the strange things that came to his shop from exotic places.
I was fourteen when Barbrianna was ten. She was almost as tall as I, graceful and willowy, even at that age. We walked from our house at the edge of town to school via the dirt road that skirted the Graham estate. One day we were set upon by a pack of muddy hunting dogs whose excitement made them overly aggressive. But Bri caught them by the collars and whispered to them. The dogs sat down and gazed at Bri as if she was fabulous, their tongues lolling stupidly in their grinning faces. It was then that Randall Graham and his son William rode across the field and jumped the fence that bordered the road. Randall Graham’s horse was a glittering gold creature with an elegant head, an incredibly long white mane, and a tail that swept the road. The horse’s great eyes were soft and deep, and he stood as still as stone while his master leaned down to scold the dogs, and speak with my dad.
The eye of Will’s gray colt showed white around the edges. His distended nostrils were red inside and the veins stood out on his lathered neck. The foam he tossed from his bit landed on my denim jacket. His silver mane was braided and the thick braids clattered together as he threw his head, impatient to be off. He was fractious and would not stand even at the command of his young rider; his shod feet drummed the earth, and I thought he’d step on us.
“Knock it off, Hadrian,” the blue-eyed teenager said curtly, jerking sharply on the bridle. Wildly, the colt skittered sideways and my heart hammered thinking he’d trample Brianna. I believe Will thought the same thing, for he was more surprised than I when she placed her white hand on the young stallion’s neck.
The horse’s breath whooshed out and he deflated. The chiseled head dropped and the irritated, pinned-back ears swiveled forward expectantly. All the white left his eye and he blew softly against my sister’s dark hair. He stood as though carved of marble by Lysippus himself. Will and Hadrian looked into my sister’s amber eyes and lost their hearts.
Will Graham was not like the local guys who thought a cool car or flashy clothes would hook the chicks. Will came often to dinner because he loved mom’s cooking and dad’s stories. He laughed easily and often, and galloped up the lane on Hadrian, or later when he was old enough, charged in on his motorcycle, raising dust. He was a year older than me and treated me like a sister. He never said so, but we knew he was crazy about Bri. Even Will’s father, Randall Graham was bewitched by Barbrianna. Randall Graham wasn’t a pretentious man and didn’t seem to mind that dad owned a book shop. Dad also had a doctorate in literature from Yale and everyone called him “the professor,” even Graham. They became good friends and played a lot of chess and poker together as the years passed.
Will used Bri’s interest in unusual plants, especially roses, as a key to her company; he’d bring her a plant and spend hours with her in the greenhouse discussing its potential. I’d quickly bore of that monotonic prattle and go write something grim to liven things up. She came to love motorcycles and he would take her riding when he could get her out of the greenhouse.
When he was sixteen, Will went to Valley Forge Academy and then to Virginia Tech. He went straight from Virginia Tech into the 75th. He was groomed as a sniper, and like everything else, he was really good at it. Will was as popular in his unit as he had been in Virginia Tech. He had a couple long-time friends from the Academy who made a habit of visiting Graham Manor. Will took them hunting and hawking. They marched across country in hunting clothes and mud boots and pretended to shoot things, but really only Will and his friend Bruce could kill anything.
Darrin Westmorland, the son of a well-placed lawyer, visited often. He went from the Academy to Harvard Law School. John Collins also frequented the Graham estate. His father was a Vermont Senator. But it was the handsome Bruce Martin who I noticed. His father was a doctor and like Will, Bruce loved motorcycles. Bruce was also a Ranger in the 75th, and was from a town in Maine not all that far from ours.
It was never clear to me if Will really liked Westmorland or if Darrin was the result of Will’s tolerant nature. Darrin Westmorland was a player and a womanizer. He was arrogant, had no respect for women, and his eyes said none of his words meant anything. With the exception maybe of Will, I can’t remember a single truly kind thing Darrin ever said about anyone. I wasn’t certain sometimes if Westie, as they called him, admired Will, or envied him. Darrin couldn’t help but be compelled by Will’s charisma; but for Darrin, envy and admiration were very likely synonymous.
Bruce Martin was the counterpoint for Darrin Westmorland. He was truly a nice guy and I’d’ve hooked up with him if he’d noticed me. Bruce didn’t say he had a thing for Bri but who didn’t? Like everyone else in New England, he only had eyes for Bri. After all, I was as plain as a pigeon on a fencepost.
Bruce Martin was as dark as Will was fair. He was not as tall as Will, but he was a soldier, buff and fine, he loved books, and was an avid hunter. Across our dinner table, his eyes were green as new oak leaves. When he glanced my way, which was rare, I wished that I was pretty enough to make his eyes stumble. I often wanted to smile at Bruce, but whenever he looked my way, I lost my courage.
For the next two years William Graham, and Bruce Martin were deployed in Afghanistan as part of the Allied forces, and Will chased Bin Laden for a spell. We pretended that we weren’t worried about them, but we all knew the odds of injury got bigger the longer the deployment lasted. Time wore on Bri badly; she had dark circles under her eyes and a haunted expression that never left her face.
About that time Darrin Westmorland joined his father’s law firm in Boston. He’d show up occasionally, dropping by for a purpose that remained obscure to me since he really didn’t like either of us. Ostensibly, he came with a note or a gift from Will that for some mysterious reason Will couldn’t send us directly. Westmorland never stayed long, thank god. Even my father didn’t like him and the professor liked everyone.
Every month or so, Will sent Bri some exotic plant he’d find. It was a very big event when he sent the silver rose; you’d’ve thought we were operating a preemie critical care unit the way she babied that thing in the greenhouse. But it was the briar that changed everything. Will brought it home with him when he came on leave in June. He said it came from somewhere in Pakistan. It was a horrid thing with thorns the length of my fingers. The tiny flower was night black. My sister was a mad-woman scientist, crossing that nasty briar with the silver rose. She hardly left the greenhouse. She coddled, and propagated and split and grafted and waited. She’d have her black rose. The thing she made never bloomed, but those terrible thorns grew longer under her care.
Brianna turned eighteen and William turned twenty-three the following April. Will got leave again and came home. He came home to ask Bri to marry him; I read it in his eyes and the way he hesitated when he started a conversation with her. I didn’t say squat. Darrin Westmorland showed up like a dollar bill with a “Where’s George now?” message on it. He hadn’t been ‘round in quite a while, thank god. He hadn’t changed much unless it was to become more boring and egocentric.
John Collins was a legislative aide in Washington D.C. Bruce Martin was still in the 75th and got leave at the same time as Will. Thankfully, they came to Graham Estates with Will. My bet on the odds was that there was a limit to Westie’s civility, but the other three shamed Westie into being tolerable.
“What have you done with your hair, Maddie Allen?” Bruce Martin asked that first night when we all went to the Whistle Stop to celebrate. It was the first time Bruce Martin really looked at me instead of just through me.
“Put a bit of sun in it,” I confessed. Taken it from dishwater to platinum ala Lady Clairol is what I did. And whacked it off short rather like I caught it in the lawn mower.
“It’s sweet,” Bruce said.
“Yeah. it’s pretty bad ass,” John Collins said. “I didn’t realize you’re as hot as your sister,” he added. “What exactly are you studying at the University?” he asked.
“Journalism,” I replied, amazed the attention lasted more than two sentences.
“Right,” Darrin Westmorland said acidly, “I read the bitch’s guest column in the Times. Fucking bleeding heart liberal.”
“You wrote a column for the Times?” Bri asked.
“Watch your mouth, Westie,” Will said. “Maddie has a right to speak her mind. What was the column about, Maddie?”
“—the woman journalist who was beheaded in Syria. Actually, it was about the Islamic oppression of women and journalists. And the joke they made of her so-called trial.”
“What’s so liberal about that?” Bri asked.
“Women shouldn’t be allowed to be correspondents,” Westmorland said. “Look at the two Chinese American bitches jailed in China. Female journalists say crap that gets them into hot water and then want to use—uhh—being female to get out of it.” I knew what he really wanted to say. I stared him.
“That’s an exceptionally misogynistic comment,” I said hotly.
“Hey, babe, it’s a sexist world,” he said smugly. “Get used to it or get a job as a secretary or a waitress. You’d probably do that pretty well. I understand the tips are great, especially if you put out.”
“Shut the crap, Westie,” John Collins said.
I stood up to leave. The guy was a frickin’ moron and I wasn’t going to sit and listen. Bruce Martin caught my wrist.
“Stay, Maddie. If he says another word, I’ll kick his ass.”
I sat down again and pulled out a deck of cards.
“Let’s see how you do with the cards, buck-o,” I said. “Texas Hold ‘um?”
“No chick can beat me at cards,” Westie said. We got the chips and divvied them. Everyone anteed; for the Allen sisters it was a high stakes game—five hundred dollars. Bri and I pooled to buy in and only I could play.
I dealt. Bri sat between Will and me so she could see both our hands. Her expression was deadpan; she never gave away a tell. Once in a while she’d bump my knee though. It didn’t take me long to catch Westmorland’s tell. When he was on a real hand, he’d leave his hand on it as if to protect it. When he was bluffing, he’d lean back in the chair and make a raise that the chicken-hearted wouldn’t call. He didn’t like to fold and hated to lose. He’d play a dead hand just because he couldn’t stand to not know what someone else had. He’d use a big raise to bluff the other players to fold.
John Collins folded every time he had to call a large bet. Either he was a tightwad with his family’s money or he’d been cut off. Bruce Martin played only if he had a real hand. If he placed a bet, you’d better have something impressive. He was a little too straight a player. I played with Bri and Will a lot in the past so I knew their manner of play. Will was just damn lucky. And he was a smart player. He purposely lost so the other players would think he was a crap player. A round or two after losing he’d turn around and double up.
That night Will lost on purpose. I had two aces and the door card flopped ace. But then, a six showed up on the turn and Bri bumped my leg. I was screwed; Will had a full house. I was about to fold the set—lose half my stack, when Bri bumped my leg again.
I called the hand and showed my aces. Will tossed his cards face down and let me have the hand. He pushed the last of his tiny stack my way, stood up and took Bri’s hand.
“Take ‘em for everything,” he whispered. “Watch the hand on the card thing,” he added.
“Yeah, I got him. Have fun,” I said with a wink. I heard the motorcycle start up and leave.
I took John Collins’ chips right off and he went out. You can’t be chicken and play poker.
Afterwards, Collins stared at me like he’d never seen me before. Bruce Martin got lucky on a few hands and I let him have one I had him beat on. It made him confident. Trouble was Westmorland played hands he shouldn’t have and bet high when I had nothing substantial to call him with. He stole the blinds and looked smug.
John Collins dealt for us now he was out; flopped a king, jack, ten. Bruce was big blind but I could tell he had a hand. Westie called. The turn card was another ten. Bruce bet a lot on the turn. I figured he had at least a set. Maybe he had a straight. I caught perfect cards—a boat already—two kings in my hand, so a straight wouldn’t beat me. I limped in to make them think I was being careful. Westmorland came over the top with a huge bet thinking that I didn’t have anything. He wanted us to think he had the kings. He leaned back in the chair and ordered a drink and patted the bar girl on the butt.
Westmorland’s bet was three-quarters of his stack. To call him, Bruce went all in minus about a five-thousand chips. I ruffled my chip stack as if I was hesitant. It would cost me more than half my chips to call. Then, Westmorland’s hand moved surreptitiously across his down-turned cards.
Oh shit, I thought. He has something.
But I had cowboys in my hand and a king and two tens on the board. A pair of aces wouldn’t cut it since there were none up. Did he have a king? A king, or even a jack and a ten for a full house? Maybe he just had a ten. That was probably it—he had a set. But what if he had quads? That would be bad. What were the odds? I licked my lips. Was that a tell? Maybe they’d think so.
I called. The river card was the last king. Quads! What were the frickin’ odds? Bruce checked. Darrin checked. Everyone was a little nervous now. I was chip leader so I bet what Westmorland had left. Bruce put in the rest of his chips. Westmorland met the difference on the side. Darrin thought he had me, showed two tens. Bruce showed a straight. I showed my kings. It was over.
“Shit,” Westmorland said, standing up and spilling his drink. “That’s bull. You fucking cheated.”
“Whoa, dude. Easy,” John Collins said. “I was dealing. No one cheated. You’re beat, Westie. The lady called your bluff and four of the big dudes beats your ten quad.”
“Four of a kind isn’t a bluff,” he hissed.
“You’re right,” I said.
We were playing penny stakes, so 250,000 chips wasn’t all that much. He wouldn’t go broke. But he hated losing—especially to a woman.
He drank glumly with us for a little while before he left to go back to Graham House. John Collins went with him because otherwise Collins would’ve had to walk. Almost I thought John was going to ask me to walk with him. Then his eyes dropped away and he didn’t make the call. He stood up when Westmorland did. Collins tipped the bar girl, but it was hesitant.
“I got it,” I said when he fumbled in his pocket for the tab. “Least I can do.” He smiled sheepishly and they staggered out. I hoped they wouldn’t put the Mercedes in the ditch.
“It’s a nice night for a ride,” Bruce Martin said, standing up. He had a sexy smile, with white, even teeth.
“I guess,” I agreed, my heart sinking. I was hoping he’d stay awhile.
“We could take the bike out on 95 and let her out,” he said, making it sound like a question.
“Are you asking me to go?” I asked, surprised.
“I was thinkin’ that, yeah,” he said. The way his green eyes gleamed when they fell on me was an entirely new experience. I went hot and cold.
“Okay,” I said.
I squeezed against his back to stay warm as we sped across the hills toward the ocean at speeds that made my stomach lurch. The fragrance of blooming clover had settled in the low spots where the road dipped and I could smell the spicy scent of the soap he used. I tightened my arms around his waist and felt how hard and fit he was. It stirred unexpected ideas in me. In him too apparently. He stopped the bike in a quiet cove where the waves pulsed like white rolling pins onto the sand.
“Come here, Maddie,” he said, pulling me closer so he could see my face.
“Bruce, I—” I was flustered as he took off his helmet. I was glad he couldn’t see the heat that flushed my cheeks.
“You’ve watched Bri get all the attention for years. You just sit there, quiet, expecting everyone to love her like you do. I thought you’d never give me the time of day. I even thought maybe you liked girls. You let me win a hand tonight—but I think it was more to sucker me than because you like me.”
“It was to sucker you,” I said. “But I like you.”
“As a friend, I know. Or maybe like a brother? Do you have someone at the university—someone that likes the smart, silent type? You changed your hair.” He brushed my hair back from my forehead. The touch was electric. “It crossed my mind you did that for someone.”
“There’s no one,” I said, my heart hammering. We’d both drunk too much. What were the odds it was the beer talking? “I changed my hair for me.”
“No girlfriends, then?”
“Would that bother you?” I asked, feeling daring enough to call his bluff. My teeth were chattering, more from nerves than cold.
“Actually, that might be interesting,” he said gruffly. He stopped shuffling his feet and looked square at me.
“Then maybe I should try it,” I said. I laid a hand against his chest and felt his heart pounding rapidly. He placed his hand over mine and pulled it around his waist. I crooked my other arm around his neck and kissed him lightly. His breath smelled of beer and mint. That kiss unleashed something wild.
His kiss was so fierce it made my knees go weak. His hands pulled me against him and then were everywhere.
“Maddie, he muttered. “Maddie, I want you,” he said, tumbling us to the sand.
“Are you waiting for permission?” I growled, biting his lips.
He didn’t wait.
“You’ve never had a man, Maddie Allen,” he said then, with such surprise I laughed.
“I have now,” I growled.
Afterwards we rode all night, looping the coast and back through the hills on the motorcycle until we found ourselves at the churchyard next to my house at dawn.
Afterwards we rode all night, looping the coast and back through the hills on the motorcycle until we found ourselves at the churchyard next to my house at dawn.
We walked through the cemetery as the sky paled. It was replete with an alluring peace. I never realized a graveyard could actually be romantic. I was almost witless with exhilaration. Bruce Martin dragged me, laughing into the concealed shadow of a shrine and kissed me until I was breathless.
“Do you think,” he paused to read the writing on the stone, “that Harrison Hollingsworth will mind if I do you on his tomb?” Bruce asked, the intensity of his kisses mounting.
“Let’s find out,” I suggested lewdly.
“You’re an exciting little minx, Maddie Allen.”
“You bring out the best in me, Bruce Martin… or the worst as it were.”
But our romantic interlude was interrupted—an interruption that haunts me still.
It was voices that broke into our corporal reverie. Someone was arguing, shouting actually. It sounded suspiciously like Darrin Westmorland.
Bruce took my hand and we threaded through the headstones. Quietly, we crept up on a bizarre scene. William Graham and Brianna stood in front of the greenhouse.
“You’re making a huge mistake, Will. She’s gotten on her back for everyone,” Westmorland yelled. John Collins looked like he would fall over if he let go of the bit of bush he clung to.
I started forward to defend my sister but Bruce’s grip above my elbow stopped me.
“They’re blasted. They must have gone back to the Estate and spent the rest of the night worshipping the liquor cupboard. We often did that in the old days—boozed up all night and roasted everyone, especially the women who dissed us, and the other guys at the academy. Westie’s one of those dudes who can’t share his buds. Jealous. Hates women.”
“Yeah I know. My sister’s never cared about any guy but Will.”
“He’s just hammered. He’s baiting Will.”
Will didn’t rise to the bait. Bri eased behind him in the greenhouse doorway.
“She puts out, William,” Westmorland insisted. “With you gone, what dy’ya expect? Bitches don’t wait for soldiers. They fuck the lawyers and delivery boys that stay at home. Lawyers like me…” he said slyly.
William shouldn’t have done it and I don’t think he meant anything by it except maybe to see Bri’s reaction. But he looked at her.
Bri stepped back, her expression stunned.
“Bri,” Will said. “Brianna…I don’t—”
“How could you even think it, Will Graham?” she said. There was pain in her voice. She turned and ran through the greenhouse toward the opposite door. Will tried to follow, but she slammed the door and was gone. He turned back to face Westmorland.
“You lying son-of-a-bitch. Why me, Westie? What did you ever want from me? Why are you even here?”
I’d never heard mild-mannered William Graham that angry. He stalked toward Westmorland, who pushed him back. Will staggered and grunted in pain. He grabbed at his arm where a crimson line of blood appeared. He’d stumbled against the wicked barbs of Brianna’s crossbred briar and had been stabbed in the arm.
He became a little sluggish and his words slurred slightly.
“Get your piece, Westie. I’m calling you out,” Will growled.
Westmorland looked as anyone would when called out by a Ranger sharpshooter. I think maybe he suddenly regretted his baiting. But who knows, maybe he got what he wanted.
Now Bruce did step forward.
“Will,” Bruce said soothingly, “you might want to give some thought to that.”
“Bruce!” Will said, surprised. He saw me just behind Bruce and he smiled knowingly. “A good night for the brothers in arms,” he muttered. “Finally got her to notice, did you?”
“Yeah Will, I did. Hey man, calling out Westie isn’t a good idea. Let it go. I’ll take care of it. Go find Brianna.”
“Gotta take care of this—defend her,” he slurred. He staggered against Bruce and Bruce steadied him.
“Get your pistol, Westie,” Will hissed. “Or do I need to loan you one?”
Westmorland backed away with his hands up.
“I can’t do that, Graham. I can’t shoot like you, and I don’t want you to shoot me. It isn’t legal to shoot anyone.”
“Then you’ll come with me and explain to Brianna that you are a rude drunk, and you’ll apologize. Or I’ll have to bag and tag you.”
“I won’t apologize to any bitch, ever. They’re all the same—unfaithful whores.”
Will lunged at Westmorland. But William’s equilibrium was way off.
“You got a problem, Westie,” Bruce said. He tried to get hold of Will’s arm, but Will staggered and Bruce missed.
Westmorland, who was taller than William but not near as fit, grappled with him for a moment, and shoved Will away. Will stumbled and fell into the briar again; the thorns pierced his side and chest and he screamed. Bruce Martin caught him as he collapsed.
Westmorland watched Will writhing in pain on the greenhouse floor.
“Women’re all whores,” he said.
I think I saw John Collins puking outside. I was angry. Really angry. Will didn’t look good. Bruce pulled out his cell phone and called for the paramedics.
“What the hell’s the matter with you, Westmorland?” I yelled.
“Don’t talk to me, you cheating bitch. I know you cheated at cards last night.”
“One thing I’ve noticed in this life,” I said, curbing my anger. “People tend to accuse others of the very things that they would do—it’s because it’s what’s on their mind.”
“Are you calling me a cheater?” he said.
“I believe it was you who called me a cheater—and probably a self-recrimination if my experience serves me.” I was standing near the tool stand. “It was a good thing you had to ante your chips before the game,” I said, scathingly.
He took a threatening step toward me. I plucked a spade from the tool caddy and stood my ground.
“Get off our property. You’re no longer welcome here and until you apologize to my sister, you’ll never be welcome here. Get off now.” I took a step toward him and raised the spade. I wanted to hit him with it, wanted him to give me any reason.
He turned, somewhat drunkenly I might add, and left the greenhouse. I saw John Collins help him into the Mercedes and they drove away.
I knelt by Will. His breathing was extremely labored.
“He doesn’t look so good,” I said.
“The barbs must be poisoned,” Bruce said. “The ambulance is on its way.”
“Is it as serious as it seems?” I asked, realizing that Will was really struggling to breathe. I was suddenly afraid he might die. Bruce started CPR.
We could hear the siren now. I took a big breath.
“I better go find Bri,” I said.
“I’ll go with Will.”
“I’ll bring her there,” I said.
I found her in her room; she’d been crying.
“Come on,” I said, “we gotta go. Will’s going to the hospital.”
But Brianna refused to go. She was angry, and offended.
“He actually believed Westmorland,” she said. “Did you see the look, as though to ask me if it was true? How could he think that?”
“Bri,” I said soothingly. “You’re overreacting. Will didn’t believe that for a minute. He KNOWS it isn’t true. He just looked to see your reaction.”
“He thought it.”
“Bri. He didn’t. You’re being unreasonable. Why are you doing this? What happened? We need to go to the hospital. Don’t you care?”
But she was clearly offended beyond forgiving Will anytime soon. Something happened—something more than just Westmorland’s jealous words. I said nothing, just waited.
Finally, she spoke.
“Did you go riding early today with Bruce Martin?” she asked.
“I left the Whistle Stop with him last night. We were just getting home.”
“Really? Where’d you go?”
“We rode the motorcycle up the coast—fast. We stopped for a while by the ocean.”
“Wasn’t it kind of cold?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t have noticed.”
It must have been something in my voice. She glanced at me sharply.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“Let Bruce make a woman of me,” I said.
“Why would you hook up with him after all these years?”
“Why not? I like him.”
“But they’re soldiers. They have women all over the place. They aren’t virtuous.”
Was that what was bothering her? Did Will confess to some past escapades? If so, that was foolish of him. But, he was that sort of guy—not foolish, but honest.
“Who’d want a man with no experience?” I asked reasonably. “Not like it isn’t about the most awkward thing in the world—going from virgin to woman. Why on earth would you want the guy to be inexperienced too? Then it’d be painful, completely awkward, and probably not very satisfying.”
“So, you’re saying you liked it?”
“What’s not to like?” I licked my lips, remembering.
“Everything,” she said.
“How would you know?”
“Because Darrin Westmorland forced himself on me.” She was weeping again.
“What? Are you serious? When?”
“Last year, when Will was deployed and Darrin went to work for his father. He used some excuse that he had something for me from Will.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I was so ashamed. I love Will. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t worthy.”
“Guys don’t expect you to be a virgin these days, you know. And Will would’ve defended you, made Darrin pay. Westmorland should be arrested. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“He said he’d tell Will I asked for it.”
“That’s bullshit.” My phone rang. It was Bruce.
“Where are you two?” he asked.
“Uhhh,” I said.
“You need to come down here right now. Will’s not going to make it.”
“What? Are you serious? We’re on our way.” I hung up and stared at Bri.
“What?” she said.
“Will isn’t going to make it.”
“You’re not serious?” she said.
“We have to go right now,” I said, dragging her downstairs by the arm.
Will was hooked up to three machines that beeped and whooshed. He wasn’t conscious when we got there, but the moment that Brianna fell, weeping onto his hand, he opened his eyes.
“Will,” she choked. “I love you. Don’t leave me.”
“I didn’t believe him,” Will whispered. “Never believed him.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Will you marry me then?”
“Yes. Yes, I’ve never wanted anything else.”
“I need to tell you”—
“No. I know—doesn’t matter.”
“You know?” Bri asked, shocked.
“Yesterday—he bragged—wanted to kill him.”
“Bruce. Marry us,” Will whispered. “Ring’s in my pocket…”
Bruce took out the ring and placed it in Will’s hand. Will slid it onto Bri’s finger.
Randall Graham came in, breathless. He froze when he saw Will and Bri.
“William Graham do you take this woman, Barbrianna Allen”—
“Yes,” Will interrupted.
“Brianna Allen, do you”—
“Will and Bri, I pronounce you husband and wife.”
“Kiss me, sweet lady,” Will whispered.
Bri leaned close and kissed him softly. Her lips lingered. Will closed his eyes.
“I love you,” he said. His breath sighed out. The machines started squealing. The nurses and a crash team rushed in. Just like that, William Graham was gone.
“Will,” Bri screamed. Randall Graham drew her away so emergency team could work on him. It was futile. He was gone.
When they gave up, she fell on him weeping. Our dad arrived. He and Randall Graham finally took Bri away.
Bruce Martin took my hand and walked me outside. I was crying and couldn’t see very well. Together we sat on a bench and I sobbed against his chest until I couldn’t cry anymore. Then we sat there until it got dark. It felt as though my heart had been ripped out.
Finally I said: “Why?”
“Poison. The plant has poison on the barbs apparently. He suffered acute renal failure. His liver was destroyed. They couldn’t do anything.”
“Why what?” he asked.
“I don’t understand what you’re asking,” he said.
“Bri. Did you know that he raped her?”
He dropped his head into his hands.
“Gods. Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.
“I just did. I found out before we came to the hospital.”
“I’ll have to see to that. Stay with me tonight,” he said.
“We can take a room.”
“My sister needs me. And what about Mr. Graham? Shouldn’t you go there?” I asked.
“He went with your father and sister.”
“Then let’s go there,” I said.
“What will your parents say?” he asked.
“I’m twenty-three years old. I can take you home with me if I want,” I said.
“It might be a bit awkward.”
“Might be. I don’t care. Bri needs me. And you. You’ve been there often enough—why would it be unexpected?”
He drew me closer and kissed me, a long, lingering, searing thing that made my stomach turn somersaults.
Really, no one seemed to notice that Bruce Martin came home with me. Everyone was bewildered and grieving. Brianna locked herself in her room and wouldn’t come out. We knocked on her door but she told us to go away. After a while, we did. The consolation we found was probably better than what others found that night.
William Graham was buried in the churchyard among his family, right beneath the bell tower. Brianna and Lord Graham walked on either side of Hadrian through the spring drizzle; her black hair was unbraided and her amber eyes were bruised and swollen. William’s boots were turned backwards in Hadrian’s stirrups and there was a color guard that fired a salute and gave Bri the flag from his coffin. Bri carried an armful of the silver roses. She scattered them on his grave. She never spoke. Just cried.
At home, she wouldn’t open her door—not to mom, or dad, or even me. Dad was gray with worry as he stood outside her locked door and pleaded with her.
Later, I scratched on her door. She let me in.
“Do you love him?” she asked.
“Bruce Martin, of course. He’s sleeping in your room. You aren’t as quiet as you think you are,” she said.
Apparently someone noticed that Bruce came home with me—as if his motorcycle leaning next to the picket fence wasn’t enough of a clue.
“Yes. I love him,” I said, surprising myself. I didn’t trust anyone to love me back.
“Good,” she said. “Plant the silver rose on Will’s grave. Plant the briar on mine.”
A terrible sadness clogged my throat. I didn’t want my life to be this complicated. Not now. Not ever, of course, but especially not now.
“Don’t talk like that,” I said.
“Okay. I’m sorry. I’m tired. Please go back to Bruce and try to be quiet so I can get some sleep. I love you, Maddie. You’ve always been so good, letting me be the one that everyone loved. I’m glad you have someone finally. Does he love you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. It would be good either way.”
Sometime before morning, I woke up. Bruce’s even breathing belied the breathless cries he emitted in my arms before he fell asleep. Something was wrong. Maybe I heard a noise, I don’t even know. When I sat up, Bruce stirred.
“Why are you awake?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Something’s wrong. I’m going to check on Bri.”
“Come back soon,” he whispered, letting me go reluctantly.
But Bri wasn’t in her room. I went back and got Bruce and we looked for her together. We found her in the greenhouse. She was impaled on the briar and her blood had soaked into the sand beneath the horrible plant. There was a black bloom open above her head that had a peculiar, exotic scent that wasn’t all that pleasant. It was the size of a dinner plate and looked a little like a single-flora rose. There was nothing to be done.
We buried her in the churchyard next to her William. Randall Graham placed a memorial tomb above them, a beautiful, expensive thing with their life size statues holding hands and gazing into each others face. It had a bench to sit on. The bench wasn’t just for me, or mom or dad. I often found Randall Graham there on the bench and we’d sit in silence and admire the view across the stones to his House on the hill.
I planted the rose on Will’s side and the hybrid briar on Brianna’s, in the space between the statues and the wall of the old bell tower. I pruned them back and placed the rose lovingly. I had no love for the briar, but I loved her with every part of my soul and I did what she asked. It was May.
Bruce Martin stayed until after the funeral. He gazed at me with haunted eyes, all the sparkle gone out of the green. I knew he’d leave. The loneliness his absence would be for me had already rooted in my heart.
I took five of the longest barbs from the briar prunings, handling them carefully with my gloves on, and placed them in a backpack. I took the train to Boston and walked to the barrister offices of Westmorland and Westmorland, a posh little building on the upper end. I lingered across the street for two days until that moment when Darrin was in the office alone. Furtively, I slipped in the door, my sweatshirt hood pulled close and my dark glasses on.
He was at his desk studying some papers. He looked up when I eased quietly into his office.
“Who the hell—?”
I shook the hood back.
“Madelyn Allen. What do you want?”
“Justice,” I said.
“You have to pay for justice. You can’t afford the price. You still fucking Bruce Martin? I would think he’d tire of you by now. But he’s something of a simpleton. Prides himself in honesty. A real hero.”
“Not like you, right Darrin? You like to steal what others have, what others cherish. You like to take it and spoil it, ‘cause you’re rotten inside. It oozes out of you and spoils everything you come in contact with. Why? Was your mother so terrible? Is your father a son-of-a-bitch, like you?”
“My mother was a whore. Left with another man and went to Californian when I was little. My father had to raise me.”
“To be just like him, I imagine. A taker. But now you have to pay.”
“Pay for what?”
“For the lives you ruined. For my sister. For Will.”
“And what? You’re going to make me pay? That isn’t likely.” He stood up. “As a matter of fact, perhaps I should see what it is that Bruce likes so much about you.” He came around the desk. I let him come right up to me. I wasn’t afraid at all. I knew what he’d do.
Westmorland reached out and took my shoulders to—whatever he had in mind to do. My arms went around him and I stabbed him through both kidneys with a barb from the briar plant. He screamed and dropped to the floor.
“All in, Westmorland,” I said. I turned to leave and walked straight into the arms of Bruce Martin. He had a gun in his hand. He holstered it quickly and drew me against his chest.
“What’ve you done, Maddie Allen?” he said, fear lacing his voice.
“Killed the bastard. He’ll suffer before he goes.”
Behind us, Westmorland was trying to dial his cell phone. Bruce crushed it under his boot heel.
Bruce also had gloves on. We’d come with the same mind apparently. He turned Westmorland over.
“Help me, Bruce,” Westmorland begged. “Your bitch has tried to kill me.”
“Sorry dude, not this time. If she hadn’t, I would’ve done it myself, Westie. Eventually, if you destroy things that people love, you’re gonna pay. This is pay time.” Bruce drew out the two briar barbs and folded them into some printer paper. He handed them to me.
“Burn them. You better go. I’ll wait here until he’s gone so he doesn’t use the phone. It’ll be a pleasure to watch, but I don’t think you should stay.” He drew me close again and kissed me. “I’m redeploying.”
“I may not come back.”
I nodded. I couldn’t speak; a hard lump clogged my throat. He touched a gloved finger to the tear that escaped my eye.
“I’ll remember that, Maddie Allen.”
It’s May and the moon is full tonight. That means the briar will open its black blossoms. The roses shine like polished silver. I put on the leathers dad got for me and walk to the church yard to sit on the bench a while before I pick roses. It’s been five years, but for me, it was only yesterday.
I miss them. I miss them terribly—Bri, Will, Bruce, and Mr. Graham. I found Randall Graham dead of a heart attack eleven months ago. He was sitting on the bench in the moonlight, a rose in his hand. I sat with him a long time that night, to make certain he got where he was going without getting lost. I miss his silent, compassionate company on the bench. He rests right here by the bench, so I feel his presence. He left his entire estate to my father and me, but we haven’t decided what to do with it yet. He was a good man.
John Collins comes to see me occasionally. He’s always on the edge of asking me something but he never makes the play. I wouldn’t call his bet now if he did. He’s not man enough for me. He brought news in February. He said Bruce Martin was wounded in Afghanistan. Lost a limb or something in an IED explosion. Collins was supposed to find out more for me, but he hasn’t called and or come to visit.
Sometimes I think it’d be better just to impale myself on the briar. Trouble is, I’m immune to the poison so it’d just hurt a lot and I might not even die. I’m too chicken anyway. I don’t like things that hurt. So, I live with the pain in my heart and soul. I never left to be a correspondent though I had an offer. I didn’t want to leave the living, or the dead. I write novels instead. Murder mysteries, and paranormal romances. Every story set in the old churchyard.
I close my eyes and lean my head against their tomb. I can see Bri and Will clearly. I miss Mr. Graham especially tonight. It’s the anniversary of Will’s death. Randall Graham’s been here with me all four of the others—this is the first time I’ll spend it alone.
I never weep like this. Not since the night outside the hospital sitting on the bench with Bruce, the day Will died. But now tears come like blood from a wound that won’t close. I don’t know if they’ll ever stop. I can’t even breathe.
Something touches my face, brushes away the tears. I open my eyes. Bruce Martin leans on a cane. He’s grown a lean beard that makes him look dangerous. His eyes are sad, but the green is brilliant.
“You’ve got to stop grievin’ Maddie Allen,” he says softly.
“I can’t,” I croak hoarsely.
“Do you know what I thought about every night for five years, lying in the desert, in the stinkin’ heat, or in that hospital bed?” he asks.
“Will and Bri?” I ask.
“No, Maddie. That was your job. I thought about you in the moonlight on the beach when I found that you were a girl still and I made you a woman. My woman. I’ve missed you every moment of every day.”
“I’ve missed you too, Bruce Martin.”
“Ahh. But surely you’ve found another man to console you in all this time,” he says. It sounds like a question.
“There is no other man, Bruce. I thought you understood that.”
He drops to his knees and lays his head on my thighs.
“Then I think you should marry me, Maddie, for I can’t live another day without you.”
“I think I will,” I say, “because I was trying to think of something worth living for past this night and that’d be something.”
He draws me up with him and holds me fiercely. His kisses are gentle, uncertain, but when I answer him with the passion that’s built up over the last five years he responds with fire.
“Perhaps we should take a ride up the coast, Maddie Allen,” he says gruffly, his passion barely restrained.
“Perhaps we should finish what we started on Harrison Hollingsworth’s tomb five years ago last night,” I suggest, kissing him until he groans.
“Do you think it would be polite to hit the skins in front of Will and his father and your sister?”
“I think they’ll like that just fine,” I tell him, taking off his coat and pulling his shirttail from his jeans. I run my hands underneath and feel how thin he is
“Ahh, Maddie,” he breathes, unzipping my leather jacket. “They won’t like it nearly as much as I will.”
Barb’ry Allen was buried in the old church yard,
Sweet William was buried beside her.
Out of his heart grew a red, rare rose,
Out of Barb’ry’s grew a green briar.
They grew and grew up the old church tower
‘Til they could grow no higher.
There they wrapped and tied in a true lover’s knot;
Red rose wrapped ‘round the green briar.