Beth, Lori, and I watched the flames consume the lilies. I heard Beth say something under her breath that sounded like, “Finally.” But before I could ask her to repeat it, a shout of alarm came from across the lawn.
“No! What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” Madam Cromwell was running towards us, waving her arms. “Jacob! They’ve ruined everything!”
The guests stopped their activities and were staring at us standing next to the bonfire. Sir Cromwell, hearing his wife’s cries of alarm, pushed through the crowd to stand next to her.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked.
“Oh, Jacob. That…That girl has destroyed our lilies!” Madam Cromwell clung to her husband’s arm as she wept.
Sir Cromwell looked at the fire, then at the Beth and I. “Joe! Get over here.”
Joe approached, still carrying the slingshot, and stood defiantly next to his sister.
“You all have some explaining to do. Guards! Clear the grounds.” As the guards began ushering people down the driveway, Sir Cromwell glared at his children. “Explain yourselves.”
I stepped forward. “Sir, it was me. I figured out about the lilies, and it was my plan to get rid of them.”
“You’re fired, you know that, right?” Madam Cromwell hissed.
Esther arrived, her daughter trailing behind her. “What’s going on? Why did you send everyone home?”
“Oh, Esther! These wretched children destroyed the lilies!” Madam Cromwell flung herself into Esther’s arms.
“They did what?” It was Esther’s turn to glare at my friends and me.
“Everyone, be quiet! I want to hear from my children.”
Beth moved closer to Joe, who put his arm around her shoulders. “Father, we’re tired of being immortal. Do you realize we can never get married or have children unless our family will also take the pollen?”
“You can slip it to them. They don’t have to know.” Sir Cromwell waved his hand dismissively.
“And how would that play out when my wife discovers it? Do you really think someone would stay with us after that? We’re miserable, father. We’re bored of being locked up on our property. Beth wants to travel, and I don’t know what I want to do, but I know I don’t want to be your gardener for the rest of eternity. We want freedom. And Emma helped us get it.”
Sir Cromwell advanced on his son, fists clenched. “Do you realize you not only gained your freedom, but you also wrecked what your mother and I built here? And Esther and her family have served us for generations. What will they do when we pass away? Did you think about anyone else besides yourselves?”
“What you were doing to the temporary laborers was not right! You were murdering innocent people for your own gain. What makes you think you’re better than the rest of us? Better than them? They deserved to live, too.” I stepped between the older Cromwells and their children. Lori tried to pull me back, but I shook her off. “You are deceitful and despicable. I suggest you leave town and find a new place to live. No one will want you here after this. It might not be safe for you.”
Madam Cromwell whimpered, but Jacob looked furious. He raised a hand as if to strike me, and I flinched, closing my eyes. The blow never came, though. I opened my eyes to see Joe holding his father’s fist while Beth held a kitchen fillet knife to his throat.
“You’re done, old man,” Joe said. “You won’t ever hurt anyone again. If I were you, I would start packing tonight.” Joe shoved Jacob towards his mother and Esther. “All of you, get out. And if you hurt Emma, if you even try to hire someone to hurt her, it will be the last thing you do.”
Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell turned and fled to the house, Esther and her daughter trailing behind.
“Thank you, Emma! Thank you, both.” Beth pulled me into a hug, then hugged Lori as well.
“What will you do now?” I asked.
The Cromwell children exchanged glances before Beth said, “Neither of us wants to be here anymore. We’ll probably sell this place. I’ve always wanted to see India.”
Joe smiled at me before saying, “We’ll travel for a while and then see where we want to settle down. I think teaching botany would be fun.”
“I wish both of you the very best. I am happy I helped you.”
Beth hugged me again, and Joe shook my hand before they headed to the house. Lori kicked some half-burnt stems back into the flames. “Ready to go home?” she asked.
“Yes. More than ready.” I retrieved my duffle bag from behind the azalea bushes, where I stashed it when I walked the garden before the party, and Lori and I walked down the long driveway to her car.
My parents were thrilled to have me home, especially after Lori and I recounted our adventure. I was content to let my mother fuss over me and endure lectures from my dad about being careful who I spent time with. It was nice to have people concerned for my well-being.
The next day, a large envelope arrived by courier for me. A note in a smaller envelope taped to the outside read:
We wanted to thank you again for setting us free. We know what you did for us was risky and that the lilies could have taken your soul. Since our family has lived for so long, we have more than we need. Please accept this gift as a token of our appreciation.
Beth and Joe Cromwell
P.S. I’ll write to you from India! ~Beth
I opened the large envelope and was astonished to see several bundles of one-hundred-dollar bills and a check for three million dollars.
A week had passed, and Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell were leaving in the afternoon. They needed the time to transfer the deed of the manor to their children and purchase a home in southern Italy. Jacob Cromwell insisted that they be allowed to live in with similar comforts, and Beth persuaded her brother to give their parents time to make proper arrangements. Joe reluctantly agreed.
That morning, Madam Cromwell wandered the rooms of her home, checking to ensure her favorite plants were carefully wrapped for shipping. She couldn’t bear to leave them behind. As she passed by the foyer, she paused, staring at the empty urns. A tear slipped down her cheek, and she went to her knees beside one of the planters. She stroked her hands over the disturbed soil, smoothing it out.
“Oh, my darlings. My precious lilies. I am so, so sorry for what that horrible girl did to you.”
Suddenly, her hands stilled, then she gently dug into the dirt, brushing it away. There, barely beginning to poke up into the light, was a single green sprout.