The catalyst comes in the shape of an innocent proposal between siblings basking under a setting sun. Its form is virtually shapeless, disorganized and chaotic, an onslaught of jumbled ideas too ludicrous to consider seriously.
Alexandra is too busy laughing at the notion, already dismissing the thought, that she fails to notice Jamie’s unprecedented silence. Her inability to stop the fits of uncontrollable giggles earn her a rough shove.
She nearly topples over at the force, but she quickly regains her balance. “Don’t do that again,” she snaps.
Jamie does not apologize. Instead, he asks, “Will you consider it?”
“Of course not,” Alexandra answers, easily. She smooths her skirt and turns away from him. “Headmaster won’t fall for such a scheme. She’s far too clever to be tricked.”
She stands, preparing to leave, but Jamie grabs her by the hand before she manages a step. She scowls at his advances but takes notice to something intriguing; his composure begins to crumble.
Soon enough, desperation leaks in the form of flattery.
“Your writing is spectacular, your cunningness even more so. If anyone is able to plan a successful ruse, it’s you,” he says, squeezing her hand gently. His eyes light up suddenly. “Books! I’ll get you books! If you do me this favor, I’ll get all the books your heart desires. What say you?”
Alexandra’s rush of annoyance vanishes, replaced by growing bewilderment. She’s stunned. Access to a countless number of books in exchange for writing an essay—it is almost too enticing to bear. Yet, she refuses to be swayed.
Jamie is playing a dangerous game.
“The consequences will be severe if we’re caught,” she reminds him, and in doing so, reminding herself. It’s an unappealing realization. A risk she’s not willing to take. “What you ask me to do is … inappropriate and unbecoming for a lady.” She gently slips her hand out from his, and wipes off the sweat culminating on her brow.
Jamie makes an aborted gesture with his hands before throwing them up in the air. He stands too. He begins to pace back and forth.“I’m ready to face the consequences. I’ll take the heft of the punishment if it comes to it,” he volunteers graciously. His exaggerated motions stop when he notices Alexandra’s stare. “Writing isn’t unlady-like,” he adds quickly. “In fact, you’d be considered an enlightened lady!”
Countering his argument is easy. “Your plan is flawed. Entirely. It’s not an easy feat smuggling a girl dressed-as-a-boy into an all male classroom. The entirety of it all is absurd and unlady-like,” she retorts. “It’s probably not allowed anyways.”
Alexandra’s attempts to pass him are fruitless. Jamie stands in the middle of the only path clear of shrubbery, purposely blocking the way, trying to intimidate her. Gazing into her eyes, he grabs her by the shoulders.
“Do you not see our advantage?” he rambles, as if she had never spoken. “Our uncanny resemblance is perfect—we practically look like twins! It wouldn’t be hard to impersonate me.” His grip slackens as his thoughts are steered elsewhere. “The height difference can be easily fixed—”
“You misunderstand. I’m completely uninterested in this ploy,” Alexandra grinds out, pushing him away. Frustration is a red heat that rises to her cheeks and spreads throughout her body.
“You have a whole month to think about it,” Jamie continues.
“Everything that comes out of your mouth is nonsense!” she blurts. “These idiotic ramblings will get you into trouble.”
The silence that follows is near suffocating.
Alexandra watches as Jamie’s face contorts. His eyebrows scrunch and his lips thin, the hands that lay motionless by his side tighten into fists. His face begins to turn red.
“Now listen here, Alexa,” he begins. Trying hard not to show how this infuriates him, he slowly and carefully enunciates his words. “I’m making an offer you can’t refuse. I suggest—”
“No,” Alexandra says, sidestepping him, catching him off-guard in his moment of listlessness.
She skitters away then, practically runs, swiftly covering more ground than normal. Alexandra hopes Jamie doesn’t pursue.
Triumph should be a glorious thing, a fulfillment to the soul, something that spawns bone-warming satisfaction. And yet, Alexandra doesn’t feel like a winner. She feels strangely empty for the escalation of events that would’ve usually left her perturbed. She tries to shake off the feeling to no avail.
The journey home is uneventful and long. Alexandra takes a longer route to avoid crossing paths with a volatile older brother, and though the temporary isolation is soothing, too much of it is unfavorable in her situation.
As the sun continues its endless cycle, light begins to fade, turning the woods progressively darker and darker. She soon becomes victim to an overactive imagination that conjures unnatural apparitions of the forest.
At one point, her eyesight becomes tainted with phantasms of Jamie. Her pace quickens as she tries to outrun them, but his face carves itself into the disfigured tree barks, into the rocks, in the exposed soil. The wind mimics his voice, the rustling of leaves sound like footsteps.
She rubs her eyes hard and rough, banishing the images of betrayal and hurt and anger.
Guilt, she finds, is a strange thing.
The topic remains untouched for nearly a week until it resurfaces unceremoniously amidst the commotion of dinner preparations. Meals are usually calm affairs, but this Friday is marked by father’s arrival. His three-month voyage, though fruitful, weighs heavy on the remaining members of the family, especially to mother who feels his absence more profoundly.
While mother bustles about, instructing and ordering the servants what to prepare and what not to prepare, father sits at the head of the dinner table, recounting one of many anecdotes of his voyage. He pauses to take a drink, and that’s when Jamie prompts a question that shatters the serenity of the evening.
Jamie begins, ecstatic, as though the mere idea of it is thrilling. “Father, is it possible for you to help me write an essay for school? This topic I'm going to write about, I’m confused on how to organize it into—”
“Son,” father interjects, his smile wavering slightly. He lowers his cup and clears his throat. Restarts. “Jamie. It pains me to admit I simply haven’t … the time. You see—you must understand—though it may not appear it, my appearance is temporary. Me being here ‘tis only a visit. I am not to stay long. My captain has set for a departure by the end of the week.”
Jamie’s smile crumbles.
Dinner becomes an awkward congregation of distanced family members. The realization is sickening but accurate.
Alexandra notices the nervousness through mother’s bouncing leg and through father’s mumbling; the newfound hesitancy is perturbing to witness. Through the silence of dinner, she watches, observes. Every conversation between them is delicate. They keep their voices soft and low as if in an effort to preserve a nonexisting tranquility. Jamie keeps to himself through the entirety of it all, subdued by the revelation of father’s words.
The next few days pass in like foggy daze. During this time, Jamie withdraws from his usual activities, requesting time alone, disappearing into town and returning only to eat dinner and sleep. Mother attempts to spend time with father, but when Alexandra returns home one day to find father smoking in the yard and mother locked in her room, she knows something is amiss.
Home begins to generate discomfort, and so after another similar incident, Alexandra finds herself returning home less and less, mirroring Jamie’s schedule.
But the whispers of unpromising endings plague her mind and grow, festering like a disease.
She concludes that the town is no good either.
The ship is set to depart in ten minutes but Jamie is nowhere to be seen.
“Jamie’s actions are selfish,” mother says, guiding Alexandra through the crowd. “He will regret them.”
Before she can register the comment, father appears in front of them. He wears his usual attire for the sea. He crouches down, tucking away a loose strand of hair from Alexandra’s face, smile melancholic.
“Where has the time gone, my dear? You’ve gotten so big and beautiful, like your mother.”
“When will you be back?” Alexandra asks. Her heart painfully thumps against her chest. She despairs for an answer, fearing something inevitable. She’d heard rumors among school mates, conversations from pirates and sailors, stories of feuds between wedded pairs from ladies around the tavern.
Father doesn’t answer right away. His gaze strays towards mother, then flicks away just as quickly. “I’ll return as soon as my captain allows it,” he answers, standing up.
A strange, overwhelming feeling materializes so quickly Alexandra sways on her feet. She feels faint. A feeling that the world has gone wrong.
Mother doesn’t smile, nor does she cry. She says nothing. Their bade farewell is just as despairing to see. They don’t hug or laugh, don’t whisper sweet nothings to each other. No promises of grand riches or dreams of fantastic wonders. The kiss is technical and quick, a show for the children almost. A facade.
Instead of bringing unity to the household, father’s departure manages to usurp the little remnants of order and peace. Like the delicacy of a crystal chalice, cracking under the strain of a harsh climate, Alexandra watches the painful unraveling of her mother.
One week later, Jamie lies on his bed reading under the faint glow of the light of a single candle.
She enters without knocking, surprising him with her dark silhouette.
“Alexa,” Jamie starts, worried by her unnatural stillness. He gets up, whispering. “What is it?”
“Your offer,” she says. “The trade. The one with the books. Is it still available?”
He stands up straighter, suddenly more awake. “Of course. Have you decided on something?”
“Well, tell me.”
“I’ll do it.”