Title: The Beast
Author: A.R. Davis
Audience: Young Adult
Format: E-book and Paperback
Publisher: Alice Davis
Cover by: Joseph Bradley
Editor: Kathrin DePue
Date Published: 7/7/2015
On her way to the marketplace, she passed the pub her father frequented. Valerie wondered if her father was in there now. She had half a mind to go look, but it would only delay her and it was quite useless otherwise. Last night, her father had returned home with a black eye and shards of glass embedded in his arm. With their combined salary, they were able to cover most of the doctor’s expenses. Whenever Valerie had any doubts about the necessity of her going into the forest to steal, she was reminded of the reason she had to continue with this dirty business. If Valerie refused to steal meat from the hunters’ traps, they would have had to choose between rent and supper—or doctor’s visits and rent and supper. Was it so wrong with the fact that she did not want them to starve?
Her father was, of course, apologetic as always, and as always, she forgave him before the words were even out of his mouth. It was easier for Valerie to forgive than to be angry with him. After all, he was all she had left, and she could not lose him, even if sometimes it felt like he was determined to be lost. Her father assured her that the other man struck first. The childish part of Valerie wanted to ask, “But why did you have to strike back?”
Valerie turned sixteen the previous spring, and she was too old to ask such naïve questions. She was of age to be considered for marriage, but there were no suitors lining up at her door, not that Valerie was interested in such things. She was only thinking about her father. Although, if she married, it might be easier to take care of him.
The town of Leola was drinking in the remains of late-summer. Women hung their laundry out the window, on the line between buildings. Wet slopping sounds of waste being tossed down into the alleyways could be heard as it spilled down the cobble-stone streets toward the main road. Lord Aubrey’s guardsmen marched in a unified line carrying rifles, their metal armor winking in the sunlight. Several passersby waved hello to Valerie, and she waved back cautiously. Children ran breathlessly as they chased each other, their laughter ringing in the air and mixing with the incoherent shouts of stall owners. Horses clopped lazily along pulling their carriages with heads bowed low as though they feared to make eye contact with beings around them. The aromas of waste, horse hide, and baking bread created a strange concoction in the air. All of this blended together to form the smell of the town that Valerie knew best.
She stopped in front of the tailor’s display window. The tailor himself was arranging a beautiful emerald gown for all of Leola to see. There was already a group of girls standing in front of the window, pointing, giggling, and gossiping. Valerie took a moment to imagine herself in that gown. Maybe she would join the girls in their gossip. Maybe she would be invited to one of Lord Aubrey’s parties, and he would be so impressed by her wit and charm that he would give her enough money to take care of her father forever.
The weight of the dead rabbits was enough to snap her out of her momentary daydream. No lady could carry such cargo and still be considered lovely or charming or witty. Valerie thought she had completely rid herself of such fantasies, but they kept finding her as though she was engaging them in an endless game of hide and seek.
A severely strict looking woman, who wore her hair in a bun so tight that it appeared to pull her face up toward her ears, was just turning the sign from Closed to Open on the front door of the bookshop. Valerie waited patiently for Mrs. Lind to finish arranging the books in front of the display window before walking inside.
The bell rang when Valerie pushed the door open. Mrs. Lind promptly swiveled around wearing a scarily forced smile and folded her hands in front of her. Her voice rose to an unnaturally high pitch.
“Wel –” she said before dropping three octaves into a low, disappointed tone. “Oh. It’s you”—her substitute for “Good morning.”
Altogether, it wasn’t said unkindly, though anyone else might have taken offense. Valerie simply shrugged it off.
Mrs. Lind snatched the bag away from Valerie. She made a face like something smelled rotten. “Did anyone see you?”
“No, ma’am.” If they did, you would already know, Valerie thought. It was best to keep such comments to herself. She didn’t want to argue with Mrs. Lind and lose her job. Even though she was only allowed to clean the shop and alphabetize the books, Valerie enjoyed it. There was something about being quiet in a room where hundreds of stories were at her fingertips. It was the only place where Valerie felt she was in control of anything.
“If they catch you, I’ll have to fire you. And I’ll pretend I knew nothing.”
Mrs. Lind sniffed. “Is that all you can say to me?” She imitated Valerie’s tone, “Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. Are you a machine?”
Valerie didn’t know how else to respond to that question. “No, ma’am.” Though some days, she did feel like a machine. This was one of those days.
Mrs. Lind sighed with a hint of pity and stored the bag in a safe place where the rabbits would take longer to rot. Then she returned to Valerie, touting.
“What on earth are we going to do with you, child?” Mrs. Lind asked as she pinched Valerie’s torn skirt. “If your father finds out about this, he’ll have my head!”
Valerie wondered what Mrs. Lind would say if she told her that not only did her father already know but that he had given her a knife for her birthday. “If you’re going to disobey me,” he said, “you may as well defend yourself while you do so.” Valerie had only ever used it to finish what the traps started.
Mrs. Lind continued to fret over Valerie and Valerie let her because, in a way, it was nice to be the subject of someone else’s worry, rather than the worrier, for a change.
“If you leave this with me tomorrow, I can probably fix it,” Mrs. Lind said about the sleeve of Valerie’s dress, “I can’t make any promises, however.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Valerie said.
“Yes, yes. You can keep your thanks. I’d rather you show your gratitude by stopping this nonsense altogether.”
Mrs. Lind narrowed her eyes at Valerie as though waiting for her to promise that she would do just that. But Valerie couldn’t, and, frankly, Mrs. Lind knew that too.
After a moment of silence between them, Mrs. Lind said, “Can you please re-alphabetize the adventure stories? And when you’re done, dust the top of the shelves.”
“If you finish saying what I think you’re going to say, so help me, I will do what your father refuses to.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Valerie said under her breath.
Mrs. Lind resigned to the counter while Valerie started her work. Children were their most frequent patrons, and sometimes they would leave sections in disarray. They loved holding the books in their hands and looking at the pictures. Some of them couldn’t quite make out the words. Sometimes Valerie would read to them. She liked watching their eyes widen in wonder. It reminded her of when she was a little girl; she used to stay up late to listen to her father’s stories, especially the one about the Beast. That was always her favorite.
Valerie could appreciate the adventures of dreaded pirates and Greek heroes, but her favorite genre was romance. There were rarely any female characters in adventure stories, and most of them were spoken of rather than seen. In the romance books, the ladies were sometimes permitted to follow the hero wherever he went. There was a sort of magic to them; no matter what dire situations the couples were plagued with, they always succeeded and ended up together. Valerie once thought her parents would make great characters in a romance novel. Her father was utterly mad about her mother, and her death was almost too much for him to bear. Coupled with what happened to him during the war, Valerie could almost understand why he turned to drinking and fighting. In a way, reading those books was Valerie’s “drink.” When she read about heroines like Caroline and Cynthia and Emily, she found herself stepping into their shoes, becoming mysterious, sweet, and desirable all at once. Sometimes, when she looked at herself in the mirror, she would recall her favorite lines and pretend she was wearing those pretty dresses in the window of the tailor’s shop. And the heroes they met weren’t half bad, either. Saxon and Daniel and Gregory: she could see herself spending time with them if they were real.
What she could live without was the stupid dialogue between the characters, the proclamations of everlasting love. Love was not everlasting.
Her mother’s death had taught her that much.
Mrs. Lind promptly closed shop when the clock tower began to ring the four o’clock hour. She gave Valerie a wary glance as she held up the bag of dead rabbits, as though she was deciding whether or not to give it back and whether doing so would be an act of encouragement. It spoke volumes that Mrs. Lind handed over Valerie’s pay before she handed over the rabbits. In the end, she gave them to Valerie without much fuss.
“Until tomorrow,” she said.
Valerie wished her a good evening (adding a “ma’am” at the end for good measure) and proceeded down the lane to her house. The buildings along her street reminded her of crooked teeth in a grey mouth. They certainly weren’t as nice as the buildings near Aubrey Manor. The manor rested on the tallest hill in Leola, and Valerie saw it as a white eye staring down at the rest of the town. Valerie had only ever seen Lord Aubrey once when he dismissed her father from the guardsmen’s service. She barely remembered him. She supposed she should hate Lord Aubrey—that she should blame him for everything her father went through—but being angry at him was like being angry at the wall. There were more important matters that required her energy, such as making it home in time to make a good rabbit stew and whether or not her father would be home on time to enjoy it.
She entered her house to see her father sitting at the dining table as though he had been waiting for her for quite some time. He undoubtedly still felt guilty about last night. He meant well. He always did.
Valerie resembled her father more than her mother. She had his dark brown eyes and long, lanky frame. She did not have her father’s scarred, leathery skin and the despair he often wore like a branding mark. War left him to deal with ghosts and a bad leg. When her mother was alive, her father smiled all the time. When she reminded her father of that now, he replied, “Now I save all my best smiles for you.”
Her father was offering his best smile now. He greeted her with an embrace and a kiss to the top of her head. “Did you have a good day at the shop?” he asked. He glanced down at the bag in her hand and then quickly looked away as though he could not bear to see it.
“Yes, Papa. Did you have a good day at the smith’s?”
Her father worked at the gunsmith near the edge of upper-Leola. He helped make guns for Lord Aubrey’s men.
“It was tolerable,” her father said. “Everyone is stressed about the deadline. It seems nobody is ready for Lord Aubrey’s son to take the seat.”
Valerie set the dead rabbits on the counter. “I’m sure you will make it. You always do.”
Her father stood at the dining table. Valerie could feel his eyes on her back.
“Did you have many customers?” he asked.
“A few. They came in sparingly.”
“That is unfortunate. Did you bring anything to read?”
“A Saxon Matthews book.” Saxon Matthews was a romance series that Valerie loved. She sometimes read them to her father while he sat in his chair and smoked his pipe. He’d say, “Now there’s a man I’d want to see you with,” at her description of the series hero.
“Ah. I wonder what he’s up to this time.”
“Well, we’ll see after supper.”
Valerie succeeded in removing the heads and began skinning the bodies. The smell of blood was potent.
“Did you hear about Mr. Randall?” her father asked.
Valerie sighed. She did not know Mr. Randall, but she was certain she knew what happened to him. “No, I did not.”
“He’s gone missing—has been gone for several days now.”
Valerie had heard such stories of people vanishing in the forest. At first, she thought they were tales to warn children against going in and getting lost under the dense crown of trees. However, a few days after her birthday, Mrs. Knott’s son left to get married and was never heard from again. Disappearing was a frightening prospect, but to Valerie, starvation was worse.
“That is unfortunate, Papa.”
“It’s been happening quite a lot recently—more people missing every day. I hear Lord Aubrey is considering sending his men into the forest to investigate.”
“The guards might catch you stealing.”
If they do, I’ll act like I’m thick in the head, Valerie thought. That’s what got her out of most similar situations. I don’t know any better, sirs. I was just trying to help the poor animal.
“Or you might be…”
Valerie turned to face her father. His hand was on his mouth as though he couldn’t bear to say the word.
“You know I don’t mean to keep…” His shoulders slumped over in defeat.
“I know,” Valerie said softly.
“Things are going to get better,” he continued. “I’m not going to keep forcing you to put yourself in danger. I’m going to get better. I’m going to be a better father.”
He held up his hand. “Don’t. I’m supposed to keep us together. If I can’t fulfill that duty, then I am less than a man.”
Valerie walked over to him and embraced him as tight as she could. She had heard those words before. Their effect had dulled over time, but she could never stop loving her father.
He meant well.
He always did.
Character Name: Valerie Mason
Age: 17 years old at the time of this interview
Town of Birth: Leola
Known Whereabouts: Unknown
Hair color: Brown
Eye color: Hazel
(This is the last known interview Ms. Mason was willing to give. As you can see, she offers no explanation of where she had been for the last year. We know she was living with someone and was possibly involved romantically, though she denies it. She was found by a group of Lord Aubrey’s men, and it is speculated that she had been wandering in the woods for several days. She had been held at the Aubrey estate for about three weeks. During the time of the execution, she had escaped. No one has seen or heard from her since.)
Describe yourself what is your worst and best quality?
I think my best quality is my perseverance. Even when things get rough, I try to keep going. I do my best to care for others, even setting aside what I want because I don’t want to be selfish. And I always try to see the good in people. My father killed many in the war, but I still think he’s a good man.
My worst quality would have to be that I care too much sometimes. It sort of . . . well, it didn’t go well for me. That’s all I’ll say.
What is the one thing you wish other people knew about you?
I wish other people knew about my life before . . . well . . . before everything happened. After I lost everything. Most people look at me with pity now. But all that, I was normal and happy and relatively unknown. I wish I could go back to that time.
What is your biggest secret something no one knows about?
It’s . . . I . . . I don’t know if I want to talk about it, yet. It’s still raw for me. All I will say is that I did the best I could. I only wanted to be happy, and I wanted to be selfish. And I thought that, if I could just keep pretending, I could stay there.
Was that really so wrong of me?
What are you most afraid of?
I’m afraid of the future. I’m honestly not sure what’s going to happen to me now. I’ve had this worry ever since my mother died, and I don’t know if it will ever go away. But I have to keep going, right? I have to see things through, even if I’d rather just stay in bed sometimes.
What do you want more than anything?
I just want to be happy and live a good, full life. I want to see the world and stop being so ignorant of the things I don’t know.
What is your relationship status?
. . .
It’s over. Though, I suppose it never really started. I think he loved me. And I think I wanted him to. But maybe that was all a lie.
Sorry, I’m rambling.
How would you describe your sense of fashion?
I wear whatever is convenient and whatever I can afford.
How much of a rebel are you?
More than I’d like to admit, I suppose. I didn’t exactly follow the normal society rules when I agreed – I mean, after I agreed. I didn’t exactly agree the first time – to live with him. But maybe that isn’t exactly rebellious.
What do you considered to be your greatest achievement?
I don’t think I’ve quite gotten there yet. Wouldn’t it be sad if the greatest thing I was ever going to do happened right now? Then what would I have to look forward to? Right now, I live my life. I’m trying to figure out what I’m moving towards.
What is your idea of happiness?
Getting on a ship and traveling the world. Also reading all of the Saxon Matthew books in existence. You haven’t heard of it? You can borrow one of mine. But only borrow. I would like to have that back.
What is your current state of mind?
I have a lot of regret. And I think . . . I think I miss him. Is that strange? How could someone like that be the most important person in my life? And yet that’s how it is. Sometimes I wonder if he even thinks of me.
Probably not. It’s not like I really meant anything to him.
What is your most treasured possession?
The figurine of The Beast. It was the only real possession my father owned. That, and the book I’m going to let you borrow.
How did I get it?
You’ll have to ask him.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I have my mother’s hair. It’s curly to the point of being unruly. It doesn’t matter how many times I brush it; it still insists on poofing out like a little brown cloud.
What is it that you most dislike?
Dishonesty. People keeping me against my will. People thinking they know what I want in my life. People not telling me how they feel.
Which living person do you most despise?
Are you really asking me that? After all I’ve told you? I would think it would be obvious.
You can miss and hate someone. Feelings are complicated. They don’t have to be neatly categorized like books.
It’s funny because if you had asked me before all this, I would have said my father. Sometimes I blame him just as much as myself. But he’s gone. Has been for a while. It wouldn’t be fair of me.
What is your greatest regret?
That I wasn’t there for my father when he needed me most.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
I . . . uh, I don’t know. Honesty. He has to like reading, at least. He has to be kind. Understanding. Do you think you could be my type? Or does my past disarm you?
You don’t have to answer that. I was only kidding with you.
Here’s a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off your brow.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
I like your way of forward thinking! I’ve never actually thought about being with a woman. I suppose I would value the same qualities as I do in a man. It all depends on if I would be ready for a relationship with either. If I could rid myself of my lingering feelings, it would be easier.
No, I never said I loved him. I said I missed him. There’s a distinction.
Who is your favorite hero in fiction?
Saxon Matthews. I hear there might be a new book soon.
Which living person do you most admire?
Captain Jonasson. He is a good, honest man. I appreciated what he’s done for me while I’m here.
What is your motto?
“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” –Buddha