Natural Disaster – Donna’s Story

As soon as she walked in, she felt the tension. Donna dropped her bag on a kitchen chair, then reached for a glass. 

“Do you want to explain your grade?” Her mother’s voice came from the living room. 

Donna held the glass under the sink’s spigot and let the cold water overflow. After a moment, she turned the faucet off and poured some water out. She took a drink before turning to face her mother. 

“I missed two questions on the math quiz,” she said. 

“Apparently. Why is that?” Donna’s mother gracefully stood and glided towards her. 

“I made an error when I was calculating. I still have a ninety-five percent in that class.” 

“Ninety-five is not one hundred, is it?” Now her mother was standing close, back ramrod straight. 

“No,” Donna whispered. 

“No, what?” 

“No, ninety-five is not one hundred, mother.” 

“Humph. At least you know that much about math. Go to your room until dinner. Your father and I will discuss your consequences.”

Donna felt the heat of her mother’s gaze as she picked up her bag and walked up the stairs. Once in her room with the door safely shut, she plopped onto her bed, put a pillow over her face, and screamed. She refused to cry this time, and she stared at the bright white of her ceiling while taking deep breaths. 

Her thoughts refused to calm, and she kept thinking of how beautiful and poised her mother acted, yet how overcritical and vicious she was inside. Willowbrook adored Donna’s mother and all the work she did for the historical society. Judy was a solid presence at every fundraiser and school event. 

If only they really knew her, Donna thought. 

Donna realized her mother wanted her to be the best she could be, hopeful that Donna will one day take over as chairperson for the historical society. But that didn’t relieve the pressure Donna felt every waking moment. I just want to be a normal sixteen-year-old. 

Eventually, Donna sat up with a groan and went to her desk to work on her history project while she waited for the inevitable. Her friends teased about being told to “wait until father gets home,” but none of them had parents like she did. In Donna’s house, it was a definite warning. Jessica, one of her best friends, had parents that supported and loved her, no matter what her grades were like. 

She’ll probably grow up to work in the bank or something else just as boring. At least I have a wonderful future ahead of me. 

Donna sighed and reached over to turn on the radio. She usually concentrated better with music and she wanted to ace the history project. While writing several journal entries as if she was Abraham Lincoln seemed easy on the surface, Donna knew it would take something special to impress Mr. Adams. Deep in her work, she almost didn’t hear the car door slam. 

Donna turned the music’s volume down and strained to hear her parents’ conversation. She caught a few words and tried to piece together what her punishment might be. 

“… two questions… study enough.” 

“Maybe we should… next time.” 

“I think… Saturday’s game.”

“I don’t know… the squad needs her… extra credit…”

“That won’t do any good.” 

“I just got home… after dinner.” 

Then Donna heard her father’s footsteps on the stairs, and she bent over her desk again so he wouldn’t guess she tried to eavesdrop. When the knock came on her bedroom door, followed by the faint creak as it opened, she looked up with a smile. 

“Hi, daddy.” 

“Hi, pumpkin. Your mother told me her concerns about your math grade.” Mike was always one to get straight to the point. 

Donna’s smile faded. “Yeah, I’m sorry. Really, I am. I made two minor mistakes on the quiz.” 

“Well, you’re allowed some mistakes.” Her dad crossed the room and sat on the edge of her bed. 

“Am I? She seems really mad this time.” Donna twisted in her chair to look at her father. 

“I’ve postponed your sentencing until after dinner. Maybe she will feel more charitable after lasagna.” Mike tilted his head back and looked at the crown molding on the wall. His lips made a slight puffing sound that meant he was thinking. Finally, he looked back at her. “I know this isn’t easy for you, but we really want you to do everything with your future in mind. And working hard to be top of your class is one way to guarantee acceptance into Harvard.” 

“I know,” Donna whispered. “But what if I don’t want to go to Harvard?” 

“Do you not want to?” 

“I don’t know. But I would like the option to find out.” 

“You can have the option. When you’re eighteen and after you graduate. Until then, you need to do everything possible to get to Harvard. It’s your mother’s dream to see you there. Now, come on, let’s go have dinner.” 

“It’s not my dream,” Donna barely whispered. If her dad heard her, he didn’t give any sign. 

Dinner was silent, except for the clinking of forks on plates. Donna kept her eyes on her food, but she was aware of every motion her parents made. As soon as her dad put his napkin on the table and leaned back in his chair, she got up and began clearing the table. Without speaking, she loaded the dishwasher, wiped the counters, and swept the floor. There wasn’t much else to do in the immaculate kitchen, so she squared her shoulders and went to the family room. 

Donna’s father sat in his recliner, his feet up and the television remote on one leg. Her mother was sitting on the sofa, one leg crossed over the other, her posture perfect. A magazine was in her lap and a glass of bourbon in her hand. She gestured for Donna to sit next to her. Donna sat, doing her best to emulate her mother’s straight back and long neck. 

“Your father and I have decided what your consequence for your poor grade is,” Judy began. “While we dislike allowing you freedoms when you are in error, we agree it would hurt the cheer squad for you to miss the game this Saturday. So, you will go to the game as planned, but on Sunday you will not go to the city with your friends. Instead, you will be here studying. And you will ask Mrs. Rodin for extra credit work to get your grade up to one-hundred percent. Any questions?” 

“No, mother. Thank you.” Donna tried not to let her relief show. Her father must have convinced her mother that missing the game would be detrimental to their family’s public image. Otherwise, she was sure they would ground her to her room for the weekend.

“I expect to hear what Mrs. Rodin says tomorrow. Or I will call her myself.” 

“Yes, I will talk to her first thing in the morning.” 

Judy nodded and picked up her magazine. Donna looked at her father, and he winked at her before turning on the television. Donna watched the first few minutes of the news before fleeing to the relative safety of her room. 


Author’s note: Donna is a supporting character in my upcoming novel, and I wanted to flesh out some of her backstory. She plays an important part as a catalyst for change for the main character, Jessica. Donna also grows and learns throughout the plotline. I needed to reach a little deeper for Donna’s motives. And this short story — while incomplete — accomplished that.

The Secret Of The Lilies – The End

Read Part 8 here, or start from the beginning.

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: 

Dear Emma, 

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. 

Sincerely, 

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. 


Featured Image by Nowaja on Pixabay

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 8

Read Part 7 here, or start from the beginning.

Blood and bone. Blood and bone.

The lilies’ commingled voices echoed in my head as I stood there, immobile. Several moments passed before I shook free from my daze. “Well, you will be disappointed at this harvest party. My friend and I ensured the workers have family or friends who will miss them. There are no ‘unwanted souls’ here tonight.”

“What? What have you done? We will make you pay!”

I ran through the house and out the kitchen door. I frantically scanned the crowd for Lori and finally saw her walking near a table, admiring the finished jack-o’-lanterns. I tried to slow my breathing and appear calm as I made my way to Lori.

“Lori, you will never believe what the lilies told me,” I murmured.

“What? Let’s go over here, where there aren’t so many people.” Lori pulled me towards the tables where discarded coloring pages and crayons remained from the children who were now eager to light their jack-o’-lanterns.

Once there, I quickly told her what the flowers said.

“What should we do?” Lori asked with a worried frown.

“It’s obvious. We have to destroy them. I will find Beth and ask if she will help us. Get some gloves from the gardening shed. I don’t think we want to touch those plants.” I gestured to the small building before slipping back among the partiers.

Beth stood near the bonfire, talking quietly with Joe. As I approached, they broke off their conversation and looked at me expectantly. Remembering Joe’s reaction when I approached him about the lilies before, I asked to speak to Beth privately. Beth nodded, and we moved a few yards away from Joe.

Once again, I relayed what I discovered, then asked, “Will you help me destroy them?”

I saw Beth hesitate as she looked at Joe. After a moment, she said, “Yes. We need a distraction. I will meet you in the foyer in ten minutes.”

“Perfect,” I replied. “Lori is getting gloves from the shed. We want to protect our hands.”

“You don’t have to worry about your hands,” Joe said from behind me.

I whirled to face him. “What do you mean?”

“The lilies don’t need you to touch them to absorb your energy. Frankly, I’m surprised they told you what they do and let you leave.”

“They said they absorb people’s life-force. And then somehow, their bodies are used to feed the lilies.” My voice rose slightly in panic as my brain echoed the words again. Blood and bone. Blood and bone.

“We take the bodies to the basement and drain the blood. Then we put the bodies in the lower compost pile to decompose. We retrieve the bones and grind them into a fine powder. I combine the blood and bones, and that is the food you give to the lilies.” Joe’s blunt tone gave me chills.

“What about the stuff Cook uses in place of meat? What is that?” I didn’t want to know but also felt compelled to ask.

Beth laughed. “That’s just tofu. Seriously!”

I glared at her. “But you said…”

“No, I allowed you to think what you wanted. How else was I going to win the bet and get you to investigate?”

“What?”

“Emma, we make a bet every time we get a new housekeeper. This time, Beth thought you would help, and I figured you were too young and scared. Apparently, I was wrong,” Joe said ruefully.

“You’re sick. Both of you.” I turned to go, but Beth caught my arm.

“Wait, please. You don’t understand.”

“Then tell me the truth. All of it.”

Beth took a deep breath. “We’re the Cromwell children. Our parents allowed us to age into adulthood, and then our parents forced us to take the pollen. Joe avoids his dose sometimes since he is outside the house so much. But they watch me take mine. We take it every full moon. It prolongs life and slows aging. I look like I’m only twenty, but I’m really one hundred and fifty years old. Joe is one hundred and fifty-seven. Every time a new housekeeper comes, we hope she’s will discover how to end this curse. We don’t want to live forever, like our parents. But we also do not have the courage to stand up to our parents.”

“Does Cook know what you are?”

“No,” Beth answered. “She thinks we’re just eccentric rich people. But she’s trustworthy. Cook keeps us a secret and tells new staff there are small children hidden away somewhere.”

“Why do you work? I mean, you’re the Cromwell’s children. They’re the richest, most prominent family in the entire valley.”

“Because we’re bored. We want to explore the world, but of course, they won’t let us. Joe tried to escape once. The guards caught him, and he spent a month locked in the basement. I can’t imagine not seeing the sun for a month!” Beth shivered. “At least working in the house gives us something to do. And Joe is fantastic with plants.”

“Now you know the truth. What are you planning to do?” Joe asked.

“Destroy the lilies. Will you help me? Tell me what I need to do to avoid being soul-sucked.”

Joe pulled a small box from his coat pocket. “Spray this on the petals. Be quick and get them all. It will numb them, in a way, and prevent them from using their powers for a short time.”

I took the box, and this time, the Cromwell children didn’t stop me when I walked away.

I went to the gardening shed, and Lori stepped out. I noticed the gloves in Lori’s hands. “Put those back. They won’t work. Joe and Beth told me more. Let’s go.”

As Lori and I made our way across the lawn and into the house, I relayed my conversation with the Cromwell children.

“That’s disgusting!” Lori said when I finished.

“I know. We are going to end it.”

I led Lori through the kitchen and into the servants’ hall. Just outside the foyer door, I stopped and opened the box, removing the small spray bottle. “I’ll go first and spray them. As soon as I do, pull them up from their roots. We’re going to add these creepy flowers to the bonfire.”

“Won’t the Cromwells try to stop us?”

“Beth said she would distract them. I don’t know what she has planned, but let’s get this done. Ready?”

Lori nodded, and I opened the door. I flicked on the light and began spritzing the liquid on the flower petals.

“What are you doing? We were friends!” came the lilies’ strange unified voice.

“We were friends. Until I discovered that you and the Cromwells are murderers,” I said, continuing to spray the lilies. “Now, Lori.”

Lori stepped out of the hallway and began grabbing handfuls of stems, yanking and throwing them into a pile on the floor. “Be sure to get them all.”

“I am,” Lori said grimly.

I finished spraying all the flower petals, then helped Lori pull up the stems. Once the large urns were empty, we gathered up the flower remains. Beth was waiting for us in the kitchen, and she opened the garden door.

“Hurry, Joe is using the slingshot to hurl fireworks over the garden, so everyone is watching him, but he will run out soon.”

We ran across the lawn towards the bonfire. Beth scooped up any blooms that fell from Lori’s or my grasps. Red, blue, and green light burst at the corners of my eyes as Joe continued his fireworks display. The fire was still immense, and the heat roared at their faces. Without hesitating, they threw the lilies into the blaze. I winced as I heard the lilies’ agonized cries as they burned. 


Featured Image by Nowaja on Pixabay.

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 7

Read Part 6 here, or start from the beginning.

The time for the harvest party was quickly approaching, and it kept the Cromwell House staff busy with the preparations. Downstairs rooms were cleaned and aired out, wood stacked for the bonfire, and cakes created. Every evening, I fell exhausted into my bed. 

During the cleaning, I conveyed most of the plan to Beth. I was careful to do it away from the lilies. It took several hours as we didn’t have any chances to have a long conversation. 

“Lori’s going to get a list from her friend,” I whispered as I passed Beth in the hall outside the kitchen. “And her friend is going to tell all the applicants to put names of family members on their emergency contact list. If they don’t have one, he’s going to encourage them to make one up.” 

“Is that legal?” Beth whispered back. 

“Probably not, but at least this way no one will look as if they are orphans.” 

The preparation days sped by, and all too soon it was the morning of the harvest party. Garlands in fall colors of orange, brown, deep red, and yellow adorned the front porch. Vases were filled with autumn flowers such as chrysanthemums, asters, and celosias. The dining room table sported a golden runner and white and gold china dishes, ready for the Cromwell’s guests of honor. On the back lawn, portable tables and chairs were placed, along with long tables for the buffet. At the edge of the garden, the groundskeepers had prepared a place for a bonfire, and wood was stacked neatly to the side. 

Everywhere I looked, there was beauty and an air of excitement. I found it hard to believe that I had an hand in decorating the manor. My usual party decorations consisted of streamers and balloons, not this elegant arrangement of harmonious colors. The staff was industrious until lunchtime, putting the finishing touches on table settings and gathering supplies for the various games and activities. 

This time, lunch was held in the kitchen for all of the staff on a rotating schedule. Cook prepared platters of sandwiches, sliced fruit, and cut vegetables. The house staff ate first, followed by the gardeners, and then the guards. Beth took trays upstairs for the family. It took a few minutes for me to figure out who was missing. 

“Cook, where’s Esther?” 

“Eh? Oh, old Esther goes to her daughter’s the morning of the harvest party. Then the girl comes back with her for the celebration in the afternoon. I think it’s truly her only day off.” Cook began putting the leftover food away. “Let’s get this cleaned up so we can enjoy the rest of the day.” 

I helped with the dishes and once Cook was satisfied, I went to her room to change. Beth told me the employees all wore their city clothes to the party. “You know, the ones you wear to town on your days off,” she clarified when I looked at her in confusion. 

I pulled on a soft cashmere sweater in a dark blue, and black jeans. I brushed my hair out, letting it be free of the confines of a braid or bun. Then I called Lori. 

“Are you ready?” I asked as soon as Lori picked up.

“Everything’s set. I’ll see you at four.” 

I decided to wander around the garden while I reviewed our plan. I put on a dark wool jacket and headed outside. The garden beds were mostly empty this late in the season. A few pumpkins still clung to their vines — the ones that weren’t chosen for pies or carving. Corn stalks scratched against each other in the light breeze, and here and there a squished vegetable laid discarded. She could smell the sweet note of apples that were still on the trees, although most were already picked and in storage. 

“What are you doing out here, Emma?” Joe’s gruff voice interrupted my thoughts. 

I looked up to see him standing a few rows over. “Oh, hi. I’m just walking. Is that okay?”

“The party will be starting soon. You should get back.” 

His abruptness didn’t surprise me after the way their last conversation ended. “Yes, okay. See you at the party.” I turned and made my way back to the house. 

The Cromwell’s harvest party was the biggest one in town, as most of the town came. They had jack o’lantern carving contests, apple bobbing, corn hole, and more. There was enough food for everyone. I wondered where they got it all, since the house garden provided for the family and staff, but soon she realized the caterer brought most of it up. Only Cook’s treats were made at the house. 

Lori arrived promptly at four o’clock, an hour after the party started, and I was waiting for her at the top of the driveway. We hugged, and I felt Lori slip something into the pocket of her jacket. 

“Is that it?” I asked quietly. 

“Yep, and everyone has someone to miss them.” 

“Perfect. Once the bonfire starts, I’ll go see if those lilies will finally tell me the truth.”

“Have you seen the children yet?” Lori asked. 

My mouth dropped open. I had forgotten all about wanting to see the Cromwell children in my desire to save the temporary workers. “No, but they should be out here tonight, don’t you think?” 

Lori nodded, and together we headed to the buffet tables. 

As the party wore on, I kept looking at all the children present, trying to see which ones looked like Mr. or Mrs. Cromwell. They were all moving so fast, though, darting between tables and dashing from one activity to another, that I finally gave up and figured they would be introduced when the bonfire was lit. 

Finally, the sun’s last rays were beginning to disappear from the horizon, and Joe stood next to the teepee of kindling and sticks. A loud gong was heard from the house, and everyone turned towards it. Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell stood on the patio that led into the dining room, holding hands and smiling. Once the murmurs quieted, Mr. Cromwell raised his other hand and spoke in a loud voice that carried across the lawn. 

“Welcome, friends, to our annual harvest party! I won’t tell you how many years our family has been hosting as you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” Polite chuckles scattered around the crowd. “Tonight is a special night, as our dear head housekeeper, Esther, is bringing her daughter to the house for training as her successor. Please help me welcome young Abigail to our staff!” 

He released his wife’s hand and began clapping, while a young girl stepped out from the crowd to stand on the lowest stone step of the patio. The guests followed his action, and soon Abigail was blushing from the applause.  

Mr. Cromwell waived his hand and silence descended. “Thank you. I’m sure she will make a wonderful head housekeeper when she’s old enough. Now, to the part you all have been waiting for. It’s not a harvest party without a bonfire, and as part of our ritual here at Cromwell house, we invite you to write down a wish for this coming season and burn it in the fire. Joe, if you please.” 

Everyone turned back to the fire pit and watched as Joe took a punk from a bucket and lit the fuel-soaked kindling. With a rush, the fire caught and raced to the top of the teepee. Joe stepped back, and several other men came forward to add more logs to the inferno. I kept the Cromwells in my peripheral vision, and was startled to see them step down onto the grass and begin to mingle with the townsfolk. Beth told me they usually went back inside the house to their private drawing room. 

“Now’s my chance,” I told Lori. 

Before my friend could respond, I dashed to the kitchen door and raced to the entryway. The foyer was dim, lit only by the porch lights shining in the glass doors from outside. I could see well enough, however, and she stood between the two giant pots of lilies. 

“Hello, beauties,” I said as calmly as I could. 

“Hi, Emma. Enjoying the party?” Their collective voice still made chills go down my spine. 

“Yes, thank you. But I was wondering if you could tell me something.” 

“What? You probably hear more gossip than we do, since we cannot walk around.” 

“True, but this is about you, so I’m sure you know the answer.” 

“What?” They asked again. 

“What really happens at the harvest parties?” 

There was no answer. I figured the lilies wouldn’t tell her the truth. Truth…maybe I can trick them, I thought. 

“Oh, well, I guess you don’t really know. Beth said you didn’t.” I began to walk away. 

“Beth is a liar. We know!” 

“Really? Can you tell me? I promise to keep your secret.” 

There was a small gasp, almost as if the lilies all drew in a breath at the same time, and then they began speaking. “We are magic, you realize. Do you know magic?” 

“I know you’re magic,” I responded. “Regular flowers don’t talk.”

“Yes,” the lilies giggled. “We are rare. We use our magic to help the Cromwells but it needs replenished or we lose it.” 

“How do you help the Cromwells?” 

“We keep them alive. Mrs. Cromwell is three-hundred and sixty years old next month.” 

I drew in a breath. I wanted to ask if they were sure, if they were telling the truth, but I knew we could be interrupted at any moment. “And how do you need your magic replenished?” 

“The lost ones’ souls.” 

“Lost ones…do you mean the temporary workers?” 

“Yes. At the end of the harvest party, Beth and Joe bring them to us, one by one. They can’t resist smelling us. We are beautiful and alluring. When they come near, we absorb their souls.” 

“You kill them,” I stated flatly. 

“Yes, but they do not go to waste. They feed us for a long time.”

“How? What do you mean?” I felt my stomach roll and fought to keep the nausea from overwhelming me. 

“Blood and bone,” they replied. 


Featured Image by Nowaja on Pixabay.

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 6

Discover the beginning! Read Part 1 here.


I kept my promise to Lori and called home as soon as I got to my room. 

“Emma? Oh, Emma! George, come to the phone. Emma’s called!” The joy and relief in my mother’s voice increased my guilt. 

I heard the extension click and then my father’s gruff hello. I pictured him in his recliner in front of the television. It was time for the 5 o’clock news, and he never missed it. My mother would naturally be at the phone in the kitchen. She was probably putting the finishing touches on dinner. 

“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. I’m sorry it’s been so long.” 

“Emma, we are so glad you called. Aren’t we, George? Lori said you’re working at the Cromwell House. Do you like it? What about school?” 

“Let her answer one question at a time, woman.” I could always count on my dad to balance my mom’s eager inquiries. 

“Yes, I started working for the Cromwells as a housekeeper several weeks ago. I like it. The family is a little odd, but they treat all the staff well. I’ll finish school, mom. I talked to my advisor, and he’s going to set me up with online classes so I can do them in the evenings after work. I will still graduate on time.” 

“What happened with Adam?” My dad got the question out before my mom. 

“He bailed on me.” I laughed bitterly. “Just like you said he would.” 

“Honey, why didn’t you come home when that happened?” 

A lump formed in my throat and I gulped it down before responding. “I thought you would be mad at me and not want me anymore.” Tears welled in my eyes, and I irritably brushed them away. 

“We will always want you,” came my dad’s quiet response. 

I couldn’t hold back anymore, and I began sobbing. My parents were quiet while I let it out. After a few minutes, I took a deep breath. “I love you. I’m sorry I made you worry.” 

“All is forgiven. Now, tell us what else has been happening. Are you helping with the harvest party? We were thinking of skipping it this year. We aren’t in the mood for celebrations.” The tears I heard in my mother’s voice renewed my guilt.

“Yes, the head housekeeper, Esther, said we would begin getting ready this weekend. It sounds like it takes an entire week to make the magic happen.” 

“And what sort of work do you do?” My dad directed the conversation further away from the emotions. 

“I clean the downstairs, which isn’t hard right now since no one really uses the rooms. I also help Cook in the kitchen, take care of the houseplants, and sometimes help in the garden.” 

“Good, you are learning the value of hard work.” 

“George, she already learned that from you.” I could almost hear my mother’s eyes roll. 

“Yes, well, she learned how to care for plants from you, Michelle.” A note of pride crept into my father’s voice. He wasn’t usually demonstrative, but I knew he was proud of my mom’s greenhouse. Almost everyone in town got their plants from her. 

A sudden thought struck me. “Mom, have you ever sold African Queen trumpet lilies to the Cromwells?” 

“African Queen… I don’t think so. Sometimes I get orders for bouquets. Last time they ordered several vining plants and bulbs for the outside flowerbeds. Why?” 

“Oh, I am wondering where they got the flowers that are in the entryway. They are lovely specimens.” 

“Not from me, dear. But if you find out, I’d love to know who my competition is.” 

I chatted with my parents for a few more minutes and hung up, but not before my mom extracted a promise that I would visit them on my next day off. 

“It will probably be after the harvest party,” I warned. 

“That’s okay. We’ll see you soon.” 

I headed to the kitchen for my dinner and met Esther in the hallway. 

“Oh, good. There you are. Tomorrow morning, please report to my office as soon as you are finished helping Cook. Mr. Cromwell wants to meet you.” She swept away without waiting for my reply. 

Great. I wonder if he’s as spooky as his wife, I thought as I entered the warm kitchen. 

The next morning, I helped Cook prepare the breakfast trays for upstairs, ate a quick meal of oatmeal and toast, and then presented myself in Esther’s office. 

“Let’s go.” Esther barely looked at me, which gave me the impression that appearances were not as crucial to Mr. Cromwell as they were to the lady of the house. 

Once again, Esther led the way upstairs using the servants’ stair, and this time she knocked sharply on a door on the right of the corridor. A loud “Come in!” sounded, and Esther pushed open the door. 

This room was as bright as Mrs. Cromwell’s, but the air was arid, and cacti and succulents seemed to be Mr. Cromwell’s preferred companions. I could see small, shallow pots of Echeverias and Silver Stars, Jade Plant and Aloe Vera filled larger planters. There was even what looked like Golden Barrel Cactus.

Esther didn’t need to grab my arm this time as I automatically sank into a deep curtsy. 

“Oh, no, my dear. We don’t have the ceremony here. That is my wife’s rule. Stand up straight, let me look at you.” Mr. Cromwell’s voice was a deep, smooth baritone. It reminded me of an actor in some of the old movies my mom liked to watch. 

I stood and met the steady gaze of the lord of the house. Mr. Cromwell’s eyes were similar to Joe’s deep golden brown ones. They seemed to have a bit of a green glint in them, though. He smiled, and I couldn’t help but smile back. 

“You don’t have to tell me, I know. My wife is the scary one. Don’t worry, I won’t tell her.” 

I gave a small giggle but stopped when I heard Esther clear her throat. “Thank you, sir.” 

“She does all the important things around here.” He gestured vaguely towards the windows. “I, however, am the life of the party. And, since the harvest party is next week, I wanted to be sure to meet you beforehand. We can’t afford any mistakes at such an important event. You seem observant, though, and I heard you fulfill your duties without complaint. Do you like pumpkins?” 

“I… uh…” His sudden question startled me. “I suppose so. I like pumpkin pie and carving jack o’lanterns.” 

“Good. That’s part of the festival. Did Esther tell you the rules?” 

“Not yet, sir,” Esther quickly interjected. 

“Ah, I see. Well, Emma, the rules are simple. The staff is required to help prepare for the party. Cleaning, cooking, decorations, that sort of thing. But at the party, the temporary staff fills the roles of serving and cleaning up, and you all are expected to enjoy yourselves as our guests.” 

I felt my mouth open in surprise but quickly shut it. “Thank you, sir.” 

“Oh, stop with that ‘sir’ nonsense. I haven’t been able to break Esther of the habit, but I won’t have you start. You can call me Jacob. Or Mr. Cromwell, if that’s too informal for you. Now, go on. I’m sure you have your chores to do still.”

“Yes, s… Mr. Cromwell. It was nice to meet you.” I smiled. I actually liked Mr. Cromwell and found it hard to believe he was involved in some nefarious plot involving the disappearance of temporary workers. 

“It was good to meet you, too, Emma. I’m sure you’ll be with us for a very long time.” 

I followed Esther out into the hallway and back downstairs. 

“Well, you have now met both the mistress and master of Cromwell House. It’s safe to say you have a permanent position here now. Congratulations.” Ether used the same voice to congratulate me as she did when issuing orders. I wondered if she even had a heart. 

I pictured her wearing a tin hat and carrying an oil can and couldn’t contain my giggle. Esther gave me a stern look. “Go about your business now.” She turned and went back into her office, shutting the door firmly behind her. 

I consulted the schedule on my phone even though I already knew the routine by now. The Cromwell’s Household Management was an app created specifically for the Cromwells. Esther changed our duties if she noticed something that needed to be done. Sure enough, “Houseplants” was in bold lettering on my list for today. It was time those lilies gave me a straight answer. 

I avoided looking at the jars of plant food as I took the watering can from the kitchen shelf. I filled it with water from the side sink and headed to the entryway. Before pushing open the door leading from the servants’ hall to the foyer, I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts. 

“Hello, lovelies,” I greeted the lilies. I knew by now that they would be more chatty if I praised them. They were vain creatures, but I suppose gorgeous flowers had a right to be. “Here is a nice cool drink of water for you. Your leaves still look shiny from the dusting last week.” 

“Thank you, Emma,” their strange combined voices chorused. “Have you talked to Joe?” 

“Why, yes, you fabulous things, I have. And do you know what he told me?” 

“What?” The lilies sounded eager. 

“Nothing. Joe seemed angry that I was asking questions, and he left. Why did you tell me he would help me?” 

“Because he is nice and he likes us.” 

A suspicious thought formed, and I hoped I was wrong. “Do you mean he will help me or help you?”

“Both of us. You are our friend, too.” 

“Yes, we’re friends,” I muttered. 

I moved through the other rooms, watering and pruning the rest of the plants, but my thoughts wandered. What if the lilies didn’t tell me the truth from the beginning? Joe genuinely cared for the lilies, but he also didn’t like that I was asking questions. I realized I wasn’t any closer to finding answers. At least if Lori came through, there wouldn’t be any mysterious disappearances at this harvest party. 

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 5

Read The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 4.

Beth and I took a few minutes to outline a plan to help keep the temporary workers safe. It was only after we went our separate ways to finish the day’s work that I started to wonder who was telling me the truth: Beth or the lilies? The lilies seemed wary of Beth, which caused me to doubt her even more. Cook was friendly and so far has told me the truth about the Cromwells, but she did seem to be holding things back. I decided to cautiously approach both Joe and Cook.

As I picked green beans in the garden that afternoon, I hoped I would be able to talk to Joe without any of the other gardeners around. My chance came just as I was finishing the row. I stood up and stretched my back.

“All done?” A quiet voice came from behind me.

I whirled around. “Joe! You startled me. Yes, I’m finished with this row. Is there anything else you need help with?”

“Sorry, Emma. I forget that the soft soil doesn’t give me away like the cobblestones do.” Joe chuckled. “I think that’s good for today. You can take that basket up to Cook.” He started to turn to go.

“Wait, I have a question.” I bit my lip. “Um, do you take care of the lilies in the house at all?”

Joe smiled, his teeth white against his dark skin. “Sometimes I do. Usually, when we don’t have enough staff for the house. They seem quite happy with whichever housekeeper is on duty. Why? What have they been saying about me this time?”

I stared at him. “You… they…” I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts, but before I could try to continue, Joe laughed again.

“Yes, they talk to me. Odd, isn’t it? I thought I was going crazy the first time it happened. Now I don’t walk through the foyer without saying hello. The rest of the workers just think it’s a gardener thing, talking to the plants. They told me you talk to them, too, so I assumed they’ve talked back, the cheeky little things.”

I flashed him a relieved smile. “Yes, they talked to me for the first time a couple of weeks ago. They said…” I hesitated, then rushed on. “They said you’re much older than you look.”

“Did they now? And did they tell you anything else?” Joe took a step closer to me. I wanted to back up, but I would not let him think I was afraid.

“Well, they said I shouldn’t go upstairs or outside alone during harvest season. I’m not sure what that’s about.” I tried to make the last sentence sound flippant as if it was silly.

“They’re right about that, at least. How old do you think I am?”

“You have one of those ageless faces, I think. And the work you do keeps your body from stiffening up. It’s hard to say, and I’ve never been a good judge of age, but I think you’re around thirty.”

Joe’s ringing belly laugh took me by surprise, and I did take a step back.

“Emma, I wish I was only thirty! I will be sixty next month. But I appreciate knowing I’ve retained my youth.”

“What’s your secret?” I asked, forcing out a laugh to join him in his mirth.

His laughter stopped abruptly, and he peered at me. “What else have those chatty flowers been telling you?”

“Nothing, why? I just want to be able to look as fabulous as you do when I’m older.”

“You’re seventeen. You don’t have to worry about age yet.”

Joe turned away from me and headed towards the other end of the garden. I let him go this time. His reaction to my question worried me. I was beginning to think Beth was telling the truth after all.

I helped Cook prepare dinner and had my own, avoiding the tofu-like chunks this time. The next day was my day off, so after dinner I went to my room to call Lori. We made plans to meet up in the morning for shopping and lunch. I resolved to ask for her help to ensure the harvest festival’s temporary workers had someone to miss them.

After a morning of window shopping and catching up with Lori about her family and our mutual friends, we settled down for lunch at an outside table of Nirvana Cafe, our favorite place. We placed our order quickly, since we both ordered our usual favorites.

“Your parents asked me about you when they came into the store the other day,” Lori said after the waitress had left.

“How are they?” I was hungry for news from home.

“They miss you, Emma. You should go see them.”

“I can’t, yet. They must be so angry with me.” Tears threatened, so I took a big gulp of water and looked at the sky.

“No, they aren’t. They miss you,” she said again. “And they love you. You’re being silly and childish by staying away.” Her voice was gentle, but the rebuke stung.

“Okay. I’ll go see them as soon as I can.”

“Call them. Today.”

“Okay, okay! I will. I promise. But I need to ask you a favor.”

Lori sighed. “What now?”

Her long-suffering look made me laugh. “Don’t worry, I don’t want to move back in with you. I have a thing at work that I need help with, and I figured that since you know a lot of people, you were the best one to ask.”

We were interrupted by the waitress delivering our food. As soon as she was out of earshot, I told Lori all about the Cromwell’s horrible secret, leaving out the part of the talking lilies. I already sounded a little crazy without mentioning that.

“You know, last year there was that boy we met at the mall, remember? He said he was from out of town and came to work the harvest party. He was supposed to call me after the party but never did. I just thought he changed his mind about me. But now I wonder…” Lori’s voice trailed off in thought.

“I remember him. James, right? James…Millwright.”

“Yes, that’s him. I connected with him on Insta. Let me see something.” Lori pulled out her phone. After a few moments, she gasped and handed it to me. “He hasn’t posted anything since just before the harvest party last year! And look, he was really active before that.”

“Lori, we have to stop these people! Can you help me?”

“Of course. I even know what to do.”

After two hours, we had a plan. We gave the waitress a large tip when we finally left the cafe. When Lori drove me back to the manor gates, she made a point of getting out of the car to hug me. Charles had stepped out and unlocked the mandoor when he saw me. He stood there, patiently waiting for me to say my farewells.

“Don’t forget to call your mom. See you next week!” Lori called out, waving as she climbed back into her car.

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 4

Read The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 3.

“Cook, where are the children?” I asked as I placed sliced fruit on a tray. 

The morning sun streamed through the kitchen windows, warming the room even further despite the fall chill in the air. 

“Eh?” Came Cook’s muffled response. She backed out of the pantry, her arms laden with various ingredients. 

“The children,” I repeated. “Where are they? Don’t they go outside to play?”

She grunted as she deposited her loot on the counter then wiped her face with a corner of her apron. “They’re around. You will only see them if they want you to. The meeting with Madam must have gone well?” 

“Yes, I think so. She told Esther to schedule a meeting with Sir Cromwell.” 

“Good, I knew you’d be a fit!” 

I hesitated a moment before asking, “What does that mean, exactly?” 

Cook turned to me, an incredulous look on her round face. “Mean? Why, girl, it means you can be a permanent employee like me or Joe there.” She gestured toward the gardens. “What did you think it meant?” 

I shrugged and attempted a laugh. “I don’t know. I thought it meant I would start working upstairs.” 

“Ah, no, girl. Only Beth and Esther work upstairs. But when the Cromwells host their parties, Esther hires temporary help to set up, serve, and clean. Those people are only here for a week or so. You and me, though, and the rest of the staff here now, get to live here and have security in our jobs. Here, add this to that platter.” Cook handed me a jar of olives. 

“If you want to see the children, the best way is to be around the flowers and gardens,” Cook continued. “They like to hide in them.” 

“I need to water the downstairs plants again today. Maybe they will come visit?” I was hopeful. There was no evidence of the mysterious children, and I wanted to see them for myself. 

“Is that tray ready yet?” Beth asked as she walked into the kitchen. “Madam is becoming a bit peevish.” Wisps of curly blond hair escaped her bun, and she brushed them out of her eyes irritably. 

“Yes, just finished.” I handed her the tray of fruit, cheese, and olives.

“Esther said for you to do the plants then see if Joe needs any help in the garden. Fall means harvest season, which means we all take a turn,” Beth said. 

Oh, that’s perfect! More time in the garden means more chance of seeing the children, I thought. 

“Go on, girl. I can handle things here.” Cook waved me off. 

I gathered the watering can, a soft cloth, and the bottle of homemade plant food, then headed down the servants’ hall to the entryway. I didn’t mind the kitchen work or dusting the furniture and mopping the floors, but my favorite task was to care for the plants. I always loved growing things and found the garden and houseplants in the Cromwell House to be well-cared for and healthy. They were easy to maintain. 

“Hello, my beauties,” I greeted the lilies by the front door. “Let’s shine your leaves up today, shall we?” I spoke to them the way I always did and hoped they would talk back again. I had questions. 

I took the cloth and gently wiped the leaves, even though there wasn’t a spec of dust on them. “There, how does that feel?” 

“How do you feel?” The soft voices of the lilies responded. 

A little thrill went through me. They were talking to me again! “I’m okay, I think. Is there something I should know?” 

“It is harvest season. Everyone should be watchful. Do not go outside or upstairs alone.” 

“I’m not allowed upstairs without an invitation,” I replied. “But I am supposed to help in the garden today.” 

“Joe is nice. He might help you.” 

“Thanks for the warning.” 

“Shh! Beth is coming!” The lilies seemed to sway gently. 

“Oh, there you are. Are you almost finished? The plants in the dining room need attention, and Joe asked who was helping today. The green beans are extremely happy this year! There’s so many.” Beth wasn’t chatty around other staff, but as we shared a room, we’ve slowly gotten to know each other. She was a kind girl, prone to dramatic sighs over romantic novels, and loved to gossip. So far, though, the gossip was mostly from town instead of what I was most interested in. 

“Beth, you just saw me in the kitchen and knew I was coming here. Did you forget?” I poured some water in each planter as I spoke. 

“No, but I wanted to talk to you without Cook.” Beth looked at the lilies. “And away from other prying ears. Come on, I need to dust the mantle in the dining room.” 

I followed Beth through the servant corridor and into the dining room. Here, the door from the hidden hallway opened behind a large portrait of Madam and Sir Cromwell. Hoyas, Spider Plants, and Pothos were in hanging planters by the glass double doors that led to the patio and on wooden stands next to the entryway from the drawing room. I noticed there weren’t any flowers. 

As I moved to dust the leaves and give the plants a little of the food, Beth wiped the mantle, but she seemed distracted. 

“Well?” I asked after a few minutes.

Beth started, then gave a nervous laugh. “I don’t know where to begin.” 

“Tell me, Beth. What is it?” 

She sighed then turned to face me. “It’s the harvest. The Cromwells always throw a party, and every time someone from the temporary staff ends up missing afterward.” 

“What? Do you think the Cromwells are doing something to them?” I was shocked and a bit relieved. Maybe I wouldn’t be part of the harvest after all. A twinge of guilt made me frown. I knew I shouldn’t be glad someone else would be hurt instead of me, but I couldn’t help it. 

“I know they are. We all know they are. The temps are almost always loners or on the outs with their families. Some of them are even runaways or people passing through, looking to make a few bucks before moving on. It’s not hard to make their disappearance look like a coincidence.” 

“How long has this been going on? Can we stop them?” 

“I’ve been here for three years, and Joe told me it happened before that. I was hoping you could help us stop it.” 

“Beth… What do the Cromwells do with the people they take?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but I had to ask. The lilies weren’t very informative on the replenishment process. 

“That plant food?” Beth gestured to the jar in my hand. “The tofu-like cubes Cook uses instead of meat? That’s what they do with them.” 

I stared at the dark liquid in the jar. Bile rose in my throat, and I rushed to the glass doors and outside. Beth rubbed my back as I lost my breakfast in the grass.

“I had the same reaction when I found out. I don’t think Joe will help us, but Cook might. And Esther certainly won’t.”

“Wait, are you sure Joe won’t help us?” I crouched in the lawn, waiting for the nausea to pass.

“Yes, why?” Beth asked. 

“The lilies said…” I began. 

Beth grabbed my arm. “The lilies lie! Emma, you can’t listen to them! Anyway, we have to be sure that all the temps have family or friends who know where they are.” 

I heaved a deep breath as I straightened. “So that’s why Madam asked me about my family.” 

“Yes, it’s good you see your friend fairly often.” Beth gave me a sympathetic pat on the arm before turning back to the house. “Come on, we still have work to do. But if you can talk to Cook, feel her out a bit and see where she stands, that would be great. I don’t have many chances to talk to her.”

I thought of my friend Lori and all of her connections. She was great at networking and seemed to do it without thinking. As such, she knew a lot of people. “I think I know someone else who can help,” I said.

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 3

Read The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 2.

Esther gave me the once over with her dark little eyes before proclaiming, “You’ll do. Follow me.” 

She brushed past me and moved to the stairwell at the end of the hall. Like the passageways that allow servants to move from one main room of the house to the other, the stairs led from the ground floor of public rooms to the second floor where the family lived. We emerged into another servants’ hallway and Esther led me to a door on the left. She knocked sharply and opened the door when she heard a voice on the other side call out, “Enter!” 

The room was filled with light. Large windows seemed to make up the entirety of one wall, and several skylights dotted the ceiling. Plants and flowers of all kinds sat on tables, hung in planters from the ceiling, and occupied large urns scattered around the room. The air was gently perfumed with their scent as well as something musky that reminded me of when I visited the zoo last summer. 

Esther grabbed my wrist as she bent into a deep curtsy, and I followed her example. 

“Ah, Esther. You brought her. Let me see.” The voice was refined and spoke in a tone just loud enough for us to hear. 

As we stood, I saw a woman standing in front of the wall of windows. I hadn’t noticed her before, which was odd considering she was tall, probably about six feet, with long dark hair that floated around her like a cape. She was dressed in a dark red gown made up of layers of gauzy material. As she stepped toward us, my eyes were drawn to her bare feet. They were delicate, for such a tall woman, and the toenails were painted black. 

“Madam Cromwell, this is our new housemaid, Emma Hamilton.” 

“Welcome to Cromwell House, Emma.” I couldn’t tell what color her eyes were due to the glare from the windows, but I felt them slide over me, judging me. 

“Thank you, Madame,” I managed to squeak out. 

“How do you like it here so far? Are you enjoying your duties?” 

“Yes, very much.” After Cook’s advice, I wanted to keep my answers short and to the point, but not rude. 

Madam Cromwell smiled, and I could see the glint of very white teeth. “Are you getting along with the rest of the staff?” 

“Yes, everyone is very kind.” Well, not Esther, but I wasn’t going to say that out loud. 

The mistress of the house chuckled, and for an instant I wondered if she could read my mind. “And your family? Are they happy you have found a position here?” 

I hesitated. If I told her the truth about my parents, it could make me an easy target for whatever they had planned for me. But if I lied, and if she could read minds… “I haven’t spoken to them in several months, but I see my friend Lori on my days off.” 

“I see. You look healthy enough. Are you eating well? Any underlying medical conditions we should be aware of? I know Esther already asked you this during the interview, but I like to hear for myself and help if I can.” 

“No, no problems. The food is wonderful, thank you. I’ve only been sick a few times since I was a kid.” 

Her tinkling laughter rang through the room. “Darling girl, you are still a kid. At least to me, anyway.”  She moved closer to me and reached out to take my hand. Her skin was cold despite the warmth from the evening sun streaming in the windows. “Do not hesitate to ask for anything you need, anything at all. While we do not encourage romantic relationships between our staff, we know it does happen since we are fairly isolated on our hill. If you need birth control or pain medicine, or even a new book to read, please just tell Esther. We want our employees to be happy as long as they are here.” 

Madam Cromwell gave my hand a gentle squeeze before moving away. “Do you have any questions for me, Emma?” 

“Why do you not eat meat?” I blurted it out before I could stop myself. Beside me, Esther gasped. 

“We do not question the ways of the Cromwells!” Esther’s face was furious. 

“No, no, that’s quite all right, Esther. She’s new to us.” Madam waved a hand to silence the head housekeeper. “We do not eat meat because all necessary sustenance can be obtained from plants. And plants are easier to keep than animals. We like to be mostly self-sufficient here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. When humans die, they go back into the earth to feed the plants. It’s the simplest circle of life.” 

Humans. She said humans as if she wasn’t one. 

“Any other questions?” 

“No,” I almost whispered. 

“Good. Esther, set up a time for our Emma to meet my husband whenever his schedule allows. I’m sure he will be as enchanted as I am.” 

That was clearly a dismissal, and Esther and I both curtsied again before leaving through the servants’ door. 

In my room that night while Beth slept, I mulled over the meeting with Madam Cromwell. I tried to remember if I ever heard her first name and couldn’t. I was a little concerned with her use of the word “enchanted.” What did it mean that she was enchanted by me, and what would her husband think? Are these meetings with the heads of household designed to let them decide if they want to eat me or not? I thought of Madam’s explanation of the circle of life and shivered. 

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 2

Read The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 1.

I winced as I plunged the pan into the hot water. My hands felt raw from the heat and scrubbing, but there was still a stack of dishes next to the sink. The yeasty smell of freshly baked bread wafted towards me, but I ignored my grumbling stomach. I wouldn’t be given dinner until the dishes were done. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat anyway. 

“Haven’t you noticed? No one on the property is allowed to eat meat.” The voice of the Lillies came back to me. 

I had noticed but thought it was due to the family being conscientious about natural resources or vegan. I snorted as I placed another stack of plates into the soapy water. Vegan? Ha! 

The view from the window over the farmhouse-style sink was of the garden. I glanced up every now and then, hoping to catch a glimpse of Joe. As the head gardener, he was usually wandering the paths, making notes of what needed to be done, and supervising the other gardeners. I now knew that the garden provided almost all of the food for The Cromwell House’s inhabitants; only a few things were purchased from local farmers on occasion. 

I looked out the window again, and Joe was coming down the path towards the house. He was a reedy-looking man, with salt-and-pepper hair that made him look distinguished despite the blue overalls and work boots that were the gardeners’ uniform. As he got closer, I studied his face. From a distance, his hair made him seem to be in his late forties or early fifties. But the skin around his eyes and mouth was unlined, free from wrinkles or laugh lines. His body possessed the lean strength that came from a physical job, yet there was no sign of stooped shoulders or aching knees. If I had to guess, I would say he was closer to thirty.

Joe looked directly at me and winked as he walked by the window. He was always friendly to me and never hesitated to help me pick the herbs and vegetables Cook wanted if he was available. But I cringed inwardly as I realized he caught me staring at him, studying him. I hoped he didn’t think I was being rude or, worse, flirting. 

“Are you about finished, Emma?” Esther’s clipped tones broke into my thoughts. 

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied without turning. 

“Good. When you are through, take your meal, then come find me. You are wanted upstairs.” 

“Yes, ma’am,” I said again. 

I waited until I heard the head housekeeper’s heels clicking down the servant’s hall before heaving a deep breath. 

“Well, girl, you must be doing well.” Cook’s voice was raspy from all the heat in the kitchen. “Esther doesn’t usually take new employees upstairs until they’ve been here at least six months.” 

“So, that’s good?” I asked hesitantly. 

“Of course, it’s good! Didn’t I just say so?” Cook huffed. “Are you through? Here’s your plate.” She plopped a dinner plate down on the side table where the staff took their meals. “Best hurry; you don’t want to keep Madam waiting.” 

“What will happen? Do you know what she’ll ask me, I mean? I want to be prepared.” I sat and began eating the gorgeous salad. 

“Well, let’s see.” Cook leaned an ample hip against the counter as she studied me. “Madam will ask how you are getting along, if you like it here, that sort of thing. She might ask about your family and friends. She’s very concerned about her employees’ happiness. Oh, and she’ll ask about your health. We don’t have insurance, but the Cromwells will pay for any illness or injuries, and they like to know we’re healthy to begin with.” 

I hid my frown behind the napkin as I wiped my mouth. The trumpet lilies told me the Cromwells needed new housekeeping staff every few years as they were used up. They had used the word “drain,” as if the Cromwell family was sucking the life out of their staff. The questions about family and health seemed to fit in with that. 

“You’ll meet Madam today, and then if she likes you, you will meet Sir sometime in the next week or so. The children will find you when they’re ready. They are very sheltered and shy,” Cook continued with her musing, oblivious to my concern. “Stand up straight, don’t mumble, and be polite. You’ll be okay.” 

“Thank you, Cook,” I said. “I should go find Ms. Esther now.” 

I stood and took my dish to the sink. Beth usually finished up the dishes in the evening since her shift started later than mine. 

As I left the kitchen and followed the servant’s hall to the set of rooms reserved for full-time staff, I wondered how badly I actually needed this job. I still hadn’t tried to contact my parents, but Lori said they missed me. Should I resign and go home? But I was curious to see the Cromwell family in person. They rarely made public appearances and were usually surrounded by security when they did. No one in town knew what they looked like. Plus, according to the lilies, I had a few years before I would be used up. 

I squared my shoulders and knocked lightly on Esther’s bedroom door. I could do this. One day, after I had met all the family, I would leave without warning and take their horrific deeds to the authorities.