Let me preface by saying that I had completely forgotten about this challenge until Zielle posted about it and I saw my name in Team Forest.
Let me also say that I didn’t really care for these particular prompts, so I sort of just winged it. (Wung it?)
But let me finally say that I love what came out of this.
Here is my newest short story Etiquette. Enjoy.
I shoved my hands in the pockets of my tailcoat, even though I knew it looked odd. But it wasn’t like like I cared. I had wanted to stay home tonight. I had wanted to continue with my enthralling study on fourteenth-century architecture. In fact, about the last thing I had wanted to do was to get dressed up and go socialize.
But Robin, in that that annoyingly enthusiastic way of his, had promised the host that I’d be there – to “get a bit of air and exercise his smile”, he’d said. And when I’d loudly protested, he’d grinned, like he was enjoying it.
“I’ll be sick that day!” I had threatened.
“I’ll call up the doctor. He can give you a placebo,” was his wry reply.
I sulkily leaned against the pillar behind me. Well, he could make me come, but he couldn’t make me be happy about it.
I caught sight of the top of his head in the sea of people before me. It was unmistakable. He was very ginger, and his hair was pushed up in the front – he had a habit of running his fingers through it when agitated. He was weaving through the crowd, dodging servants with trays of prawns and champagne and trying not to step on anyone’s toes.
Finally, he broke through the crowd. I pretended I hadn’t seen him, because the look on his face was unmistakable. He was coming to chew me up about being a wallflower, and I was going to have to expend some effort and tell him he couldn’t force me to do anything.
He stopped just a few feet from me. “Come on, Ned, I didn’t bring you here so you could sit over here and pout.”
“Well, that’s what I’m doing,” I replied. “Any questions?”
He shook his head, smiling a bit. “I just can’t imagine how you could prefer doing nothing to Yuletide.”
I was actually thinking over intelligent topics, but I decided not to test my luck. “Your cravat is crooked,” I said critically.
“Yours would be too if you were having any fun.”
I shrugged. “Maybe your idea of fun. I’d rather be doing something intellectually enriching.”
“I’ll choose to not be offended by that.” He chuckled. “But come on, the only other person sitting out is Dr. Matterhorn over there.”
“It’s because he’s smart.”
“It’s because he’s a sociophobe,” he whispered, smiling grinchily. “Bring honor to our name and be a bit less reclusive, for heaven’s sake.”
“I’ll do what I want, thank you.”
For a moment, I thought that rebuff was going to work. He stood there and looked at me for at least ten seconds. Then I saw the naughty idea twinkle in his blue eyes.
He took me by the shoulders and turned me round to face the party. There were people I knew, people I didn’t know, people I recalled seeing but couldn’t think where. I felt him grab my upper arm. His hand could almost go the whole way round it.
“Well,” he said as he started to drag me along, “if you won’t come on your own, I suppose I can lend a hand.”
“Let go of me,” I replied, trying not to make a scene. But he kept striding on, nearly pulling me out of my shoes at times. Finally, he let go of my arm. I pulled away, brushed my sleeve off. How embarrassing.
Robin smiled amiably. “Social interaction, courtesy of big brother. If I catch you back on that wall I’ll make you dance. Understand?”
I crossed my arms. “I’m not promising anything.”
He shrugged. “You’d best find a lady you like, then.”
At least he left me alone after that. I began to think of ways I could get out of this situation. Though I may not have been able to confront Robin physically, I definitely could outwit him. Or so I thought.
I must have looked quite odd. Here I was, standing in the middle of a Christmas party, staring down at my shoes with a face of inner turmoil.
“Heart been broken again?”
I turned around. A man was standing behind me, speaking from behind a furry mustache. He was short, stout and was wearing spats. He had his head back and was dangling a prawn over his open mouth. I furrowed my brow and just looked at him askance.
“It happens to the best of us, son. ‘Many a head will rest on pillows wet with tears as prejudice and fear mar the perfect world that spins about our ears.'”
There were many things I could have said that would have sent him packing. But I was curious now, though desperate not to let him know that. I’d learned that people like him thrive on people’s curiosity and disbelief.
“Beg pardon?” I said.
“It’s by Kaiser. Good, isn’t it? But it doesn’t detract from he situation you’ve found yourself in.”
He looked at me like I was daft. “Why, your pickle, is there any other?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “You love her deeply, just pining away, but when you work up enough courage to tell her that, she rejects you.”
“No, no, I’m rejected by whom?”
He adjusted the bluish crystal monocle in his left eye. “Why, I don’t know. I’m not a gipsy fortune-teller. Be a good boy and tell me, won’t you?”
Some people. “Firstly, I’m not a boy. I’m nearly twenty as it is. Secondly, I’m currently pining away for no one.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be either if she had done the same to me.”
“No, no, I never was.”
He chuckled, patting his belt line. He wore his trousers very high, so that was about right at his navel. Or so I estimated. “Come now, son, don’t be prickly. I do understand that this is a difficult time in your life, but I assure you, you’ll weather through it. You’ll come out on the other side wizened, but -”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He stopped, his mouth still open, then closed it like a spectacle case. “It’s rather rude to stop a man from sharing his words, don’t you think?”
“I prefer not to play by the rules of society, if you please.”
“Aha, so you’re a rebel, are you?”
I didn’t want to explain. There wasn’t any way to speak my mind without offending him. My actual position in the matter? Parties are pointless and are basically cesspools of people like this man – people who won’t leave you alone. But at last he found a new victim to heckle, and sauntered off, seizing a cup of punch from a tray as it passed over his head.
Sighing audibly with relief, I tried to remember where my train of thought had been before he’d derailed it. Ah, yes. I was plotting escape. In all this mess, it shouldn’t be too hard to slip off when no one was watching, to retreat in a cab to my lovely study with its bright fire and claustrophobic bookcases. So where was the exit?
I craned my neck, trying to see above the hubbub I was within. The room was very large – it had a balcony skirting the walls that was supported by thick columns of white granite. I suppose the architect put it in just so the people like me could have a birds-eye view of the frivolities below. Between two of these pillars, I remembered there being a set of gilded double doors, which we had come in through.
A glint of gold caught my eye. One of these doors had been opened – by a certain man with orange hair pushed up in the front. Once he’d closed it again, he picked up his glass where he’d set it down and leaned against the jamb.
Well, so much for that. I wondered whether he’d done it on purpose or not. It could go either way. But there had to be another exit. Wasn’t that required by the fire marshal or something? I turned around to inspect the walls – and nearly ran over a lady in a white organza gown.
It is one thing to be rude to a nosy old man or a pushy brother. But I would have had to have no soul to tell a lady she was in my way, particularly when she hadn’t directly annoyed me yet. That’s the troubling thing with ladies – they lack self-confidence, so if anyone tells them to go away, they take it personally. Perhaps I did spend too much time in my study, but I had read an ettiquette book or two.
“Excuse me,” I said apologetically. Or, rather, as apologetically as I could manage.
She chuckled. “No trouble, no trouble.”
We looked at each other for a moment.
“You look distressed,” she said. Was it that apparent? “Is there something wrong?”
Composure, Ned, composure. “Not horribly. I’m just looking forward to getting back to my study, that’s all.”
She considered that for a bit. “You read a great deal, then?”
I nodded. “You can’t change much about yourself, but you can improve your intellect.”
“Intriguing,” she said, the word coming awkwardly off her tongue. It was evident that she’d been waiting for a chance to use it. “Are you attending a university?”
“Hopefully, I will be soon. Until then, I’ll learn as much as I can on my own.”
We were silent for a bit.
“What brings you to the ball, then?” she asked, cocking her head.
“Peer pressure.” I caught sight of Robin, now occupying a clearing in a forest of people. He seemed to be giving a speech of sort, perhaps telling one of his stories. The room was too large for me to tell which it was. “I’d much rather have spent tonight at home.”
That comment slipped out without my realizing it. I instantly regretted it. Maybe I hadn’t read as many ettiquette books as I should have. You don’t tell people you wish you were elsewhere while at a ball; rather, you’re supposed to give the impression that you are having the time of your life, even if it’s not true. That’s the other thing about party manners – you have to say a lot of things that aren’t expressly realistic, just to save your face.
I worked up enough courage to glance over at her. She was looking at me. I looked away. Yes, she had heard me, but she wasn’t affronted. In fact, she looked…curious?
“You certainly have no problems saying what’s on your mind,” she finally said.
Oh, this was embarassing. “It’s a symptom of solitude, I’m afraid. I apologize.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she chuckled. “It is nice to know that there’s someone here who says the truth.” She didn’t say it with a trite tone and genteel manners. There was a spicy tone to her voice, like she had been lied to, perhaps indirectly.
“If I can be so bold as to make a hypothesis, I’d say we’re agreed on the subject of parties.”
“I’m not exactly enchanted by them, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
We looked at eachother significantly. She laughed. Without really realizing it, we began to walk together, just observing our surroundings in eachother’s company.
“I suppose it’s a nice change of scenery,” she said, gesturing toward a garland of holly curled around the railing of the staircase.
“It’s a prison cell,” I muttered.
“Nothing.” We moved closer toward the railing, shoulders touching as a woman in a very large skirt passed us. “I was being sarcastic.”
We were up on the mezzanine now. She leaned on the banister, staring down at the swirling colours of silk and satin blooming over the dancing floor.
“It’s not the idea itself that bothers me,” she regressed. “In fact, I think it’s a rather nice idea, to all come together and pass an evening over champagne.”
I looked over at her. A strand of her dark hair had fallen out of the bundle on the nape of her neck. Now it trailed down, curling slightly, past a white tea rose she had placed behind her ear.
“Then what keeps you up here with someone as anti-social as me?”
She tore her gaze from the dancers and looked me straight in the eyes. “You’re the first person I’ve met who’s honest with himself.”
Both she and I knew that it was terribly rude at a ball to spend all one’s time with just one person. But neither of us were too concerned with manners that night. It was all a show, anyways. I found myself regretful to leave, strangely enough. It wasn’t because of the other people, though. I had finally found someone who thought roughly the same way that I did, and now that I had made that connection, I almost didn’t want to go back to being a solitary creature in a study.
Perhaps my solitude had always been because I’d never found anyone who saw society the way I did.
The moment I had been looking forward to before hit me with an undertone of sorrow.
“Goodnight,” I bid her politely. “And a happy new year.”
“The same to you. They say two hundred books are published every day, so that means you should have read…” She calculated. “Seventy-three thousand by the time we cross paths again?”
“Let’s hope it’s fewer.”
“Mister Glasscock.” She pressed something into my hand as her father, who had chaperoned her, waited with her cloak.
I closed my fist around it, tipping my hat. “And goodnight, Miss -”
“Blair,” she called over her shoulder as they climbed into their cab. “Millicent Blair.”
The coach’s door closed as she pulled her white organza skirt out of its jaws. I didn’t realize it (or perhaps I didn’t care), but I stood there and watched it leave, the horses’ feet clopping on the cobblestones and echoing off into the night. Many others passed in front of me, between the double doors and away in other coaches. Finally, I looked into my hand.
On the scrap of paper torn from who-knows-where, she had written an address in very nice letters.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped, shoving it into my breast pocket. Robin was standing behind me, the look on his face spelling triumph.
“What are you so joyous about?” I asked, turning to face him.
“Oh, nothing. I’ve just got this proud feeling inside me that my efforts paid off.”
He laughed. I sighed in annoyance, even defeat.
“Don’t expect it to happen again.”
I realize this was really long, clocking in at almost 2500 words. So I apologize.
Trivia: Ned and Robin were the main characters of my 2017 Camp Nano novel Brother Robin. Next challenge will feature some more Nano characters – fun!
I only used one prompt. Can we please not use the ridiculous mistletoe one anymore? I kept on trying to think of ways to use it that weren’t repulsive to me, but I couldn’t think of any. And obviously, because of the Victorian setting, I didn’t use the pickup truck. Though I did like the photo.
I also mentioned my Team Name (I caught sight of Robin, now occupying a clearing in a forest of people.)
So 1 point for participation + 1 point for the prompt + 1 point for mentioning my team name = 3 total points.
Sayonara for now – Go Team Forest!