“Is someone meeting you, young lady?”
Lilly looks up, schooling her look of annoyance into wide-eyed honesty: “Why yes, mister guardsman. I only have to fare to the crossroads down from the station.”
He pauses, decides this lavender-clad genteel waif is scion of some quirky outland nobility, nods politely, and moves to the next compartment.
She pouts. That’s the problem with having an Anywhere Cannon. Getting places is simplicity itself, bar a little straightening of attire after landing. Getting back means she has to rough it with the ‘breakables’, as her mother called them. People. What daft things they are. Give her flitting bats and silence, rather than the incessant yammering that infests the haunts of man.
The train pulls in and, as usual, she’s the only one getting off at Cobb Holt. She waves to the guardsman and then watches him watching her until the train goes round the bend and out of sight.
With a sigh she sets off for home, taking a moment to fit a plump cigarillo into her dinner-length cigarette holder. Clipping the tip, she lights it with a smile and watches purple smoke twist off in directions that ignore the breeze. The guardsman would be mortified. Of course, many things about her life would shock him, poor breakable that he is.
As she walks, her mind turns to the usual mysteries: Papa never told her why the family got cursed. It definitely had something to do with his work, but, being the youngest girl in the family, she wasn’t privy to the details.
Young? Now there was a mystery in and of itself. She thinks of herself as eleven and the epitome of supernatural elegance. She has no illusions of achieving twelve. The curse will ensure that. However, she suspects that the length of a year for her doesn’t match what everyone else thinks it should be.
Contemplations of these topics occupy her for some while. It’s only when she enters Starkwood that the smell of damp ashes and mulch brings her back to the here and now. She smiles. Full moon tomorrow. She’d find a big, healthy conifer on the northern fringe and add it to Starkwood with copperfire and dancing. It’s the only time she misses her elder sister. Dancing round a burning trunk isn’t the same without her. The curse had done for ‘big sis’ on her way back from a safari in Africa. Gone before she shared her name with Lilly, but gone so well: a whole steamer burned to the waterline, with no survivors.
Home comes into sight and she laughs happily. The empty windows upstairs are like eye sockets on some multi-eyed monster petrified as it rose to flee. The arches of the conservatory on one side and the observatory on the other providing the shadowy illusion of legs frozen mid-lift.
The family plot has become overrun with brambles. Nasty things. She’ll do for them right quick. Rushing inside, she grabs tinder and fuel from the scullery and sets about making the intruding brambles very, very sorry.
As the brambles fall back, blazing, she takes a deep breath against the lassitude that nearly overcomes her. It was all a bit much, this sudden effort on top of a tiresome return journey. She settles against Mama’s headstone and lights a fresh cigarillo. As she watches the wisps of purple smoke rise and hesitate before drifting away, as if deciding which way to go, she smiles drowsily. Everything else can wait until tomorrow.
Lilly sleeps peacefully, legs crossed, arms curled just right to let her cigarillo holder rest safely. Purple smoke rises and twists, and, while her dreams are elsewhere, figures appear, sketched in purple monochrome.
“She’s beautiful at rest.” Mama’s ghost smiles.
“Moreso than when awake, at times.” Papa’s ghost muses.
Mama slaps him quick, leaving a smoky trail and a hole in his head that slowly refills.
“It wasn’t a criticism, my dear. She has a weariness about her, at times.”
“Is it any wonder? Your crazy idea about the Eternal Smoke! Really. Who would have thought it?”
Papa smiles a hollow smile: “I didn’t think it would work, but to save one child, it was worth a try. I simply didn’t realise that to obey the charm of the smoke and the tenets of the curse, Lilly Cobb simply cannot reach the physical age of twelve. Thankfully, the smoke works far better than intended and handles all the necessities and foibles that keep her in this state. Really, the potential of the stuff is incredible, for all that it’d kill anyone except her.”
“I don’t think ‘kill’ quite encompasses the horror of what happens.”
“My dear, as we are the only ones to ever behold that, let’s leave it a moot point.”
The blurred purple figures settle either side of Lilly.
“Sleep well, little daughter. Who knows what tomorrow may bring.”
“Blessed Be, Lilly, our Lilly. Here’s to the future you will inevitably see presenting better chances for you.”
She looks at him: “And us?”
He smiles: “We both know we’d give it all for her. So, let us wish for her, and if fate sees fit to extend a beneficence to us, it’ll be an unlooked-for boon.”
They reach and hold hands over their sleeping forever-girl as the brambles smoulder and night draws in.