by Jill Corddry
To call Wicker eccentric was being polite. While she might feel justified calling her brother names in the private chambers of her mind, Amalda would allow no one else to take such liberties. Certainly not the likes of Persimmon Wedgewood and the gaggle of stool pigeons she called friends.
It would be so much easier to ignore his oddities if only he didn’t dress in such an unusual manner. Thank fortune he didn’t wear the helmet in public — their parents forbade that practice once he started school. After all these years, their neighbors should be used to his ill-fitting, one-piece suit, but instead it sent everyone into a gossip frenzy, no matter that he wore it every day. Most didn’t bother hiding their comments behind lace fans or fancy gloves whenever he passed by, speaking as if her ears were as dumb as his mind.
With a deliberate huff, Amalda guided Wicker across the street, and away from the giggling girls. It didn’t seem fitting to call them ladies, even though society deemed them such.
Upon seeing their change of direction, Persimmon sneered and raised her voice from a harsh whisper to the shrill cackle of an agitated crow. “They’ll never marry anything like that off. Either of them...”
Head raised high, Amalda didn’t give any of them the satisfaction of looking back. Wicker, though, turned his pale, moon-cheeked face toward the voices and raised a hand in greeting, his ever-present dopey smile widening when the girls blew bitter kisses his way.
“Wicker, stop,” Amalda hissed. She jerked his still-waving hand down and held it to his side.
His large, watery eyes drooped and he shuffled next to her the rest of the way home, not uttering a word.
Once inside she took his hand and squeezed it, muttering, “I’m sorry.”
He enveloped her in a hug warm as her winter furs and planted a wet kiss on her cheek before he dashed up the stairs and to his room. To don his helmet, she was certain. Though it only now really fit him, his adult-sized body having developed later than it did for most boys his age, he’d insisted on wearing it for as long as she could remember. Its origins seemed a mystery — or at least, no one had yet confessed to gifting him with the strange item. Yet the only time her brother seemed at ease was when he was hidden behind the metal and glass sphere.
Most of the family referred to him as “Poor Wicker,” a name always accompanied by wide, sympathetic eyes aimed at their parents. Her elder brother was different, true, and had been for his entire life. He was smart, of that there was no question. He’d learned his letters and numbers earlier than all of their cousins, and was capable of solving mathematical equations beyond anything her family had ever seen.
Granted, most of their relatives scoffed and claimed he merely scribbled nonsense, but a visiting professor of Mathematics — a colleague of Father’s from the University — proclaimed Wicker’s “nonsense” to be not only advanced but brilliantly elegant. He’d turned to Wicker excitedly, clearly hoping to engage him in a conversation.
Her brother had promptly taken it upon himself to scoop pudding into his mouth with his fingers.
Though only thirteen at the time, Amalda had seen the look her parents shared across the table, and understood why Father gently gripped Mother’s fingers, hiding their trembling. Brilliant Wicker might be, but even their family’s high social standing would make it impossible to find a wife for him.
The Professor had turned a dark shade of red as Wicker painted curious figures on the white tablecloth with his chocolate-smeared fingers. After a long drink of wine, the Professor had quickly returned his attention to Father and ignored Wicker for the remainder of the evening.
As Amalda shrugged out of her coat, her long-crushed dreams of friendship with someone, anyone — even the likes of Persimmon — resurfaced briefly. She pushed the loneliness aside with practiced ease, telling herself solitude was preferable. With Wicker safely tucked away in his room, she headed toward the library, deciding to read in her favorite chair until the dinner bell rang.
Less than an hour later, a crash caused Amalda to drop her book and she warily left the library, peering down both directions of the hallway, though she knew with utter confidence the source of the sound. She sighed, not certain she wanted to know the cause of it, but another bang sent her dashing up the stairs to Wicker’s door.
Where she paused.
Wicker didn’t allow anyone in his room, not even her, but the noises had definitely come from inside. She raised tentative knuckles and knocked. Muffled footsteps retreated away from the door, and then she heard only silence. That worried her more.
She knocked again, louder. “Wicker? Open the door. Please.”
After much pleading from Amalda, the door creaked open a few inches. Her brother’s pale eyes stared back, blinking furiously. He looked like he always did, though there was something slightly off. His eyes, she realized. There was something different about his eyes. Amalda couldn’t pinpoint what it was, only that it was present. The worry deepened. “Wicker? Are you hurt? What was that?”
He opened the door a little further, his sweet grin doing nothing to assuage her nerves. His full lips frowned unexpectedly, an expression so unlike his normally pleasant visage that it took all her willpower not to force the door open and embrace him. To reassure him against... against whatever it was in the cruel, intolerant world that had caused him even a moment of unhappiness.
“I’m fine, Maldie,” Wicker said, the downturned lips resorting to their customary banal smile. “Just fine. But it’s almost time.”
His words stung her with their certainty. “Almost time? Time for what?”
Still hiding behind the mostly closed door, he shook his head and repeated, “Almost time,” before closing it. She stayed there, hand on the cool wood, until her legs ached. But she didn’t hear another sound.
* * *
As Amalda dressed for dinner — her mother demanded a certain level of propriety, even when they weren’t entertaining guests — she wondered if she should mention the strange noises from earlier or if she should write it off as another Wicker moment.
It wasn’t until she fastened the decorative white lace to her dark hair that she finally decided it wouldn’t matter; there was no cause to concern Mother with more of Wicker’s antics, especially since no one had been hurt this time. If one of the servants mentioned it, unlikely a situation as that might be, she was certain she could create an excuse on Wicker’s behalf.
She gathered her long, pale pink skirts and made her way to the parlor, deciding to wait there. Though the chairs were not as comfortable as those in her chambers, it wouldn’t do to miss the summons to dinner.
Some minutes later the bell chimed and Wicker ambled into the room, dressed, as always, in his loose, white one-piece suit. Amalda sighed; he was wearing his helmet.
“Wicker,” she said, intercepting him before he entered the dining room. He made an attempt to step around her, and she almost tripped on her skirts hurrying in front of him. “Wicker, please. You know the helmet makes Father unhappy. You can wear it after dinner. Please.”
“But Maldie, it’s almost time.” She heard the quiver in his voice, a sadness never expressed no matter the extent of the teasing he endured. He put his hands on either side of the large, round helmet and pulled away from her, almost knocking one of Mother’s decorative vases to the plush carpets.
With Mother and Father waiting in the dining room, she hadn’t time to demand he offer an explanation. One situation she’d become quite adept with over the years was to simply use some part of his story to convince him to do as she asked.
“I know it’s almost time. You mentioned that earlier this afternoon, remember? Now, whatever it is can wait until we’ve finished with dinner, right? If it is almost time, you’ll want your strength. Besides, Wicker, how will you eat, wearing your helmet? Now, let us go in and have a quiet meal. Please.”
He cocked his head, his pale eyes flicking between her and the helmet, weighing her arguments, before nodding in agreement. The helmet landed with a thud as he tucked it behind the heavy drapes. Amalda sighed again, this time in relief. It wasn’t always possible to reason with her brother, his logic being of his own making.
Amalda draped her hand over his arm, giving the appearance that he was behaving, for once, as a proper member of society. She paused, curtseying in Father’s direction as they entered. “Sorry, Father. I wasn’t quite ready and Wicker was waiting to escort me.”
One look and she knew neither of them believed her, but the hopeful smile on Mother’s face meant she still clung to the hope that some day Wicker’s social skills would emerge and he would make a proper husband.
The smile lasted until he took his seat and began eating his soup with a fork. Father glared and pointedly picked up his soup spoon, but it made no difference. Wicker happily slurped broth from the tines.
They made it through all four courses with little discussion other than Father’s day at the university and some polite updates on family friends from Mother. Until Wicker once again lapped up pudding with his fingers.
“Oh, Wicker,” Mother wept. “Ever since you came to us, we have tried. Why can you not, for once, do as you’re asked?”
His watery eyes blinked a few times, and he paused his enthusiastic eating. “I remember that night. It was nice of you to take me in. It was cold in the fields. You were very warm. But now, it’s almost time.”
Came to us? What does that mean? Amalda wondered. She studied her parents, scrutinizing their dark hair and eyes, thinking of her own similar coloring, then moved her examination to Wicker’s pale eyes and sandy hair.
Amalda trained her eyes on Mother as she addressed Wicker. “You aren’t really my brother, are you?”
She heard the grin in his voice, could see the full lips and wide teeth even though she still hadn’t glanced his direction. “No, Maldie. No, I’m not. But I love you. Can you still be my sister, even though it’s almost time?”
Before she could answer, Mother sobbed, “Almost time for what, Wicker?”
Wicker reached a hand toward Mother, sticky fingers covering hers. “Almost time for me to go home,” he whispered, as if it was obvious, something she should have figured out by now. “It won’t be this close for many, many more years.” He reached his other hand toward hers. “I’m sorry, Maldie.”
Now Amalda couldn’t tear her eyes away from her brother — for he would always be that to her — believing every word he said. It was the only thing in her life, at least about Wicker, that finally made sense.
With a disgusted toss of his napkin, Father rose to his feet and strode toward the door, stopping only to bark, “Enough nonsense, Wicker. Apologize to your mother and go to your room.”
* * *
The next morning, Mother’s frantic screams roused Amalda, and she dashed out of her room dressed only in her nightclothes.
Wicker’s door was wide open, the walls a mess of equations and star maps, the floor strewn with small metal parts and bits of wire. But there was no sign of him anywhere. Mother sank to the floor, her white dressing gown pooling around her as she keened.
Amalda knew somehow that “almost time” actually meant last night. And the sloppy kiss to her cheek after she’d walked him to his room had been goodbye.
Hours later, as she wandered the grounds, she came across a large circle of scorched grass and earth. A piece of thick paper, lettered in Wicker’s elegant script, was tied to her favorite rose bush. Her eyes scanned the words hungrily, and she smiled at the simple message: I’ll be back, Maldie.
Copyright © 2013 by Jill Corddry