After weaving through the crowded streets of London on the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle, we finally arrive at an old three-story brick building east of Charing Cross and park next to a chain link fence covered in red and blue ribbons. It’s another obligatory charity event we must be seen at, this time featuring the eclectic artwork of a Tibetan monk with the unlikely name of DC Jones.
Smoking beside the wooden back door, Brax spots us and flicks his cigarette to the ground using the heel of his chunky black doc to snuff it out. He’s been waiting to let us in so we don’t have to face the crowds of paparazzi waiting out front. Without his usual black hat, I can see he’s dyed his buzzcut the color of sharp cheddar.
“Did ya hear?”
There’s a quickness to his nasally voice that I associate with being high and I prepare myself for whatever crazy thing he’s about to say. His bright green eyes are outlined with thick black eyeliner and his lips are painted sparkly blue. There’s a huge hole in his black t-shirt exposing some of his hairy stomach. I hope he’s staying outside or in some back room.
“Hear what?” Ollie says, pulling off a dark leather helmet and dismounting his shiny black Ducati. His blonde curls are matted and sweaty, which only enhances how incredible he looks in his expensive tailored maroon suit. He helps me off the bike and I have to stop myself from leaping into his arms so our bodies are touching again.
We’ve been together for six months and I’ve lost my mind. He’s all I think about. Ollie Sinclair, the man with the icy blue-grey eyes of a wolf, is the enthusiastic lead singer of the underground punk band Juxtaposed. A wild child of famous parents, supposedly chummy with the royal family, he’s unpredictable but kind with a husky voice like some fabled siren. I can’t get enough of him.
Pulling off my own helmet, both men turn to watch as my long red ringlets fall down cascading out like the red carpet undoubtedly unfurled at the front entrance. My hair is part of the magic of my family and I smile at the effect it has on both of them. The sound of brass chimes can be heard from inside the building followed by applause, but none of us are in a hurry. Brax smiles and steps closer to me.
His voice is slurred, he’s got a glazed look in his eyes, and his hands are twitching. I know he wants to touch me. Wearing black leather pants, a tight maroon corset, and spiky heels, there’s little doubt I will distract every person in the room tonight. It’s how it’s always been—the good part of my family legacy. The complicated, yet easy part.
Brax stares into my olive green eyes and swallows hard. Ollie punches him on the arm and Brax shakes his head and looks at the ground. A former heavyweight boxer with a bit of a heroin problem, Brax is the manager of the band. He’s got a boyish smile despite being in his 50s and it’s hard to stay mad at him for long. Ollie gives him a quick hug thumping his back hard.
“What’s the big news?”
Brax sighs and looks up at the starry night sky. A sliver of the moon is visible behind a cluster of dark grey clouds. It might rain.
“Oh, yeah. The Queen died.”
Nothing could have prepared me for the sensation felt inside my body at those words. Thunder. No. Lightning. Electric sparks of pain shoot out from the center of my body activating every nerve ending. I’m not ready.
I want to believe the Queen’s death is a delusion of Brax’s current high, but the truth of it can be felt as an awakening inside me. Like when the cherry blossoms bloom overnight in Greenwich Park creating an arch of pink thick enough it nearly blocks out the sun. I’m lost in the haze of pink and I can barely breathe.
This will end everything. I knew it would happen, she was 96 years old, but no part of me really thought she’d die. I don’t want to do this.
“Are you okay?”
Ollie pulls me to him and I bury my face into his warm chest and let the wailing sobs come. The men talk softly saying things like “she loved the Queen” and “she’s got a tender heart.” They have no idea my feelings are purely selfish. After tonight I’ll pass them in the street and they won’t even look at me. My life as I know it has come to an end.
Brax runs into the building and returns with a wet towel that he places gently across the back of my neck. I gasp for air and Ollie looks like he might cry. His worried expression makes the fluttering chaos inside me intensify. Maybe I don’t have to do this. It’s ultimately my choice, right? What if I choose Ollie?
“Should we call an ambulance?” Brax says. He has tears in his eyes and probably thinks I’m having a bad trip or something. Ollie strokes my hair and kisses my cheek. It only makes things worse.
“No. I’m okay.”
Taking a step back from both men I run a hand through my long hair, parting the thick curls. This magic is an implement, a tool, given to our family for one purpose only. To abandon my duty is simply unheard of, but I’m not like the women before me. Ollie isn’t like the men before him. We could be something real in this world. The thoughts calm my breathing and I take Ollie’s hand and tenderly squeeze it.
Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, I wipe the tears from my face and force a smile. I know what’s at stake here, but I don’t want to think about it anymore. I’d rather spend the evening beside the man I love being admired and envied. The alternative turns my stomach. I don’t want to think about it.
“Let’s go inside.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m okay. People are looking forward to seeing us tonight. Let’s not let them down.”
Holding tightly to Ollie’s arm and leaving Brax at the backdoor, we walk through a maze of dark hallways toward the low humming sound of people talking. Each step requires immense concentration as a nuclear war rages inside me—fulfill my duty and save the world or do nothing and save myself. I’m in charge of my destiny. I get to make the choice but time is running out.
We reach a large square room lit by rows and rows of candles in tall brass holders, giving the space a flickering ghostly feeling. Several hundred celebrities and rich Londoners wander about the room looking at the monk’s odd, splotchy black-and-white paintings set on wooden easels in a spiral pattern in the center of the room. It feels as if I’m in a psychiatric hospital surrounded by flicking Rorschach tests.
A waiter hands me a tall glass of red wine and Ollie and I make our rounds kissing cheeks and trading compliments. Everyone wants to touch us, but instead of feeling the normal thrill of being seen and desired, I feel dizzy and weak. If only they knew the truth about me. If they knew what my inaction would do to their country, they’d be spitting in my face and tearing out my hair. Am I really willing to destroy everything to be fakely admired and loved?
Dressed in a rich brown fur shawl, a large pudgy woman with bright red cheeks grabs my arm and smiles. She smells of fig pudding and I imagine she’s a duchess of something. The rim of her wineglass is covered in pale pink lipstick.
“The Queen’s funeral is likely to be the social event of the decade. It will be a who’s who of the entire world and I’ve already made a call to several designers to get on the list for a dress. You have to work quickly in these situations or you will be left looking like a fool. Do you have a designer in mind dear?”
Her grip on my arm is too tight. Ollie senses my discomfort and answers for me. With a wink he defuses the situation, leaving the woman laughing. Her touch lingers on my skin, burning slightly as Ollie guides me to the next painting. As we stand side-by-side I know I have to get out of here.
“Are you really okay?”
Ollie’s voice drips with pity and concern. I hate this. I wish there was a way to fulfill my destiny and keep him, but that’s not how it works. Once I complete my task, everyone I’ve ever met will forget about me and I’ll return to my childhood home outside of London. That includes Ollie. It’s how it’s always been and always will be. It’s the bargain made and the price I have to pay for the years I’ve spent in the spotlight.
Mum tried to prepare me. She told me not to get close to anyone and to have fun. I should have listened. It’s too late.
“What time is it?”
For a moment we stand staring into each other’s eyes and I feel the room and all the people fading from my view. Standing on my tiptoes I kiss him with every ounce of passion in my body, hoping my lips and tongue can convey what my words can’t. Stepping back I pull up his sleeve and look at the golden watch on his wrist. 10:30 p.m.
“Do you know what time the Queen died?”
Ollie looks around the room and realizes I’m talking to him, he slowly shakes his head. Spinning from him I walk to a cluster of people standing around one of the paintings talking softly about the proper ingredients for Yorkshire pudding. I’m doing them a favor by interrupting such a boring conversation.
“Excuse me, but do any of you know the Queen’s time of death?”
Several people look at me and shake their heads, but a handsome middle-aged man I recognize from the game show “Mastermind” steps forward and touches my arm. He’s a former journalist with a warm smile and rich brown eyes. There’s a bit of sadness mixed with longing in his voice.
“It was announced at 6:30 p.m. that Her Majesty the Queen died peacefully at Balmoral, but I suspect she died much earlier than that. Perhaps sometime around noon and they were giving the family time to arrive.”
“That gives me roughly 1 1/2 hours. Shit.”
“1 1/2 hours to do what, my dear? Are you okay?”
Before I can answer, Ollie makes a joke and then pulls me from the group. Holding my arm tight, we walk silently through the crowds of people until we arrive back into the dark maze of hallways. Once we are out of earshot of the others, he stops and presses me against a brick wall. I think he might kiss me, but instead, he hugs me gently.
“Are you okay? You seem shaken by the Queen’s death. Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
For the second time tonight, I consider telling him the truth about the history of my family and our connection to the crown, but I know how insane it sounds. Plus, I’d have to reveal his attraction to me isn’t exactly of his own free will. Instead, I flip around and press him into the wall and kiss him one final time. I’m going to miss being Ollie’s girl. Tears roll down my cheeks.
“Goodbye,” I say, stepping back. He grabs my arm and pulls me hard into him with a mix of desire and an urge to protect me. He looks wild and scared. The magic is working overtime, but I remind myself he won’t remember any of this. I have to be strong. Pulling his watch off his wrist, I slip it onto mine.
“What’s going on? You aren’t acting like yourself? You are scaring me.”
His desperate voice is interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps coming in our direction. Brax appears in the dark hallway holding up his cell phone flashlight. His nasally voice sounds frantic and there’s something that looks suspiciously like a gun in his other hand.
“Is everything okay?”
With a burst of adrenaline, I push away from Ollie and sprint past Brax through the dark hallways. They call to me, but I ignore them, bursting out the back door and into the cold darkness of the late summer evening. The pull inside me I’ve tried to ignore all night roars to life with fevered urgency.
I don’t bother with a helmet, but instead, hop on Ollie’s bike, turn the key, and press the starter button. Within moments I’m zooming toward Buckingham Palace, my magical hair blowing straight behind me like fluttery red ribbons. I’ve made my choice.
Tears stream down my face as I silently curse myself for being so stupid and not following procedure since mum died a year and a half ago. I’m supposed to visit the palace on a tour every summer and locate the tapestry so I’ll be able to reach it quickly. What if this is the year it’s been moved to another room or worse another palace?
When mum died suddenly of a heart attack, something inside me broke so fully that I lost all perspective. For a year I rebelled against every institution there is, testing the boundaries of my magic to see how far it protected me. I swam as far as I could out to sea without a life jacket, walked in front of speeding cars, and took all the drugs. Every time I was in danger, a stranger would risk their safety to save me.
All of my foolishness ended on the night I stumbled into a smokey club and saw Ollie on stage. From the second he opened his mouth, I knew I wanted him. The last six months have been a dreamy mix of passion, music, creativity, and love. I got to do all the things I’ve wanted in life and now it’s time to do the thing I was born to do. My magic is a gift but it comes at a price and it’s time to pay.
Nearing the palace I see the roads are blocked off and there are hundreds of mourners streaming onto the grounds with bouquets of flowers, silver photographs, and stuffed animals. Some are carrying candles and singing. The Queen’s death will be a cause of great mourning, but if I don’t act quickly, things will become far more dire.
Ditching Ollie’s bike on the side of the road, I sprint past the mourners and toward the soldiers dressed in red tunics and black bear hats which have formed a line across the entrance to the palace. Walking slowly in front of them, I find a soldier who has already spotted my hair and is looking at me.
“I need to get inside,” I say. “It’s urgent.”
Without a word, he escorts me through the large gates, across the lawn, and to a side door locked with an iron padlock crested with the head of a lion. Smiling, he takes out the key and turns it with a loud click. He’s young with soft, blue eyes. He and the other soldiers won’t remember they saw me, but I give him a kiss on the cheek anyway touching the golden strap of his helmet.
He blushes and I hurry inside. The lights are dim and I walk through what must be some kind of service area until I find the more familiar palace rooms I’ve visited every summer of my life. Checking Ollie’s watch I see it’s 11:30, which means I’m almost out of time. Fear thunders in my chest and I kick off my strappy heels so I can walk faster.
Although I’m seen by several officers and officials, nobody stops me or talks to me. I’m under the deep protection of magic, nearly invisible to everyone I pass. The energy inside my body vibrates and hums louder and louder.
Closing my eyes, I let mum’s voice guide me toward the tapestry, toward my destiny, and the role the women in my family have played in the monarchy for decades. I’m not sure how long I wander, occasionally bumping into a wall or a red velvet rope, but suddenly I feel it calling to me. Opening my eyes, I run barefoot down several long hallways, through two large sitting rooms, until I reach a room of gold and red.
Taking up almost an entire wall is the gorgeous tapestry of my ancestor. She’s standing with one hand up in the air and the other down at her side dressed in a vibrant dress of emerald green. There are several doves fluttering around her bright red hair which is filled with tiny white flowers. As I watch, one of the flowers falls to the ground.
Touching my own hair, I peek again at Ollie’s golden watch on my wrist. 11:55. I’m almost out of time. With all my might I push an antique desk from the wall until it’s close enough to the tapestry I can climb on top of it.
Sweating and panting from the effort, I feel the magic inside my body pull into a giant ball within my chest—a beating heart of its own. Standing on tippy-toes I reach my hand up and touch the outstretched hand of the woman on the tapestry—my ancestor.
My mother did her best to explain what would happen, but I think part of me always thought it wasn’t true. How could our family lineage be responsible for protecting the sovereignty of a monarchy we weren’t directly related to? Yet, as the power flows out of me and into the tapestry the truth comes with it. A beautiful story of love and sacrifice.
The woman on the tapestry, Margret, was a faithful friend of the beautiful Queen Elizabeth I. A traveler and explorer, she loved her Queen with all her might and would bring her gifts from around the world. Unfortunately, lingering anger from the actions of her sister Mary and her father King Henry VIII had created conflict with the fairy kingdom. The result was pestilence, famine, and lingering curses throughout the land.
Marget traveled far across the sea to the home of the Fairy Queen brokering peace between the two worlds offering herself and her descendants as servants of the fairies. The deal was agreed upon and Margret returned home with the tapestry. Once the Queen hung it within Richmond Palace prosperity and wealth once again flowed within the kingdom.
Each woman in our family since has been born with the power of incredible beauty and magic, but upon the death of the current King or Queen, we must return the magic to the tapestry by the stroke of midnight or the peace between the worlds would be shattered. It’s an incredibly important role and one I can’t believe I considered not fulfilling. Duty and destiny are far greater than any individual’s love and desire.
Falling backward onto the desk with the power returned where it belongs, I feel peacefulness spread through me as if I’m sitting in wool pajamas before a roaring fire. I thought I’d feel empty, but I don’t. The memories of Ollie and the life I’ve lived before this moment feel precious, but also hazy and far away. It’s as if it was all a beautiful dream and I’m finally awake.
I feel connected to my mum and the women before me in a way I can’t fully understand. Pride and love have replaced the magic. It’s a sensation of being whole and complete. A turning of the page.
Sliding off the desk, my bare feet feel cold against the stone floor. It’s time to leave the palace and return to my small childhood home on the outskirts of London. I feel the stirring of new life within my body, a shuddering sensation as if my capacity to love has grown instantly and infinitely greater. Closing my eyes I can see her—my own little red-haired beauty to carry on the family legacy. Touching my belly, I walk through the empty rooms and out the front door.
Author’s note: A few years ago I was fortunate enough to take a tour of Buckingham Palace. As I wandered the rooms almost in a trance, I was taken back to my younger self who dreamed of a “Princess Diaries” scenario. I imagined at any moment someone would appear from behind one of the rich tapestries to whisk me away to some secret room where I’d be told I belonged not in my middle-class home in the United States but rather within the historic walls of the palace.
When I discovered the prompt this week was to write about a story pulled from today’s headlines, I had to do something relating to the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II. Hopefully, this story was a fitting tribute of sorts and not at all offensive to anyone living in the UK. I tried to stay away from actual facts as much as possible, sticking instead to my naive love of fantasy tales like Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere.” Any errors on my part are simply a result of my trying to tell a compelling story.
I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did writing it. Let me know in the comments below and I send my deepest condolences to the royal family and all the people of the United Kingdom.
Short Story Challenge | Week 37
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story pulled from today’s headlines and rewritten. We had to include the words boxer, cherry blossom, magic, implement, artwork, safety, chime, chain link, towel, and ingredient.
Write With Us
Prompt: The main character witnesses a crime
Include: Christmas, almond, paisley, lion, pipe, scream, fade, French horn, inflate, maple
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences
- Week 32: Blood Moon Messenger
- Week 33: The Masterpiece
- Week 34: The Blackberry Quest
- Week 35: The Broken Shell
- Week 36: The Octopus in the Room