So convinced of her own importance, Bella was more than ready to suffocate her newborn cousin.
She was the eldest daughter, the treasured idol, the beloved firstborn. She was to be unrivaled, unequaled and unchallenged- the reigning queen over a superseding, steadfast expanse of time and land. She was a dictator over what her heart craved most and what her soul starved for in the face of attention.
When her younger sister, Medea, came along, Bella welcomed the companion. When Celia came, three years later, Bella didn’t mind the distraction. But when Ryan- ugly, pink, crying, beloved, awaited, anticipated, heir-to-the-family-fortune Ryan- decided to breathe into existence, it was too much for her eight year old heart to bear.
So, ever so quietly (she wore a white dress that day) and every so carefully (she made sure to smile at her parents and kiss her auntie on the cheek) she snuck into the nursery (she broke a vase in the corridor to distract the maids) leaned over the baby (her hands smelt of soap, her skin clean of the deed) and pressed her little fingers over his little mouth and nose.
Medea stood by the door, her eyes as big and as brown as an accusing stain. Bella retracted her hands.
“I was just looking,” she said, but there was little use in lying; Medea understood her.
Ryan started to cry. It made Bella want to strangle him. Medea looked reproachful and, for once, afraid.
“Let’s call Auntie Volumnia,” said Medea, extending her hand. “Let’s go together.”
Bella stood stiffly by the crib, the writhing child grating against her nerves, and sucked in a tight and angry breath. Could it not disappear? Could it not whither and die?
“Come on, Bella,” said Medea again. “Please.”
“I hate him,” she whispered into her clenched fists. “I hate him.”
Medea flinched back. She came forward and wrapped her arms around Bella’s shoulders.
“I love you more than him,” said Medea, but her eyes caressed her cousin’s plump face. Her hands tried to carry the burden off her sister’s heart. “I always will.”
Bella pushed her away. “But you’re not enough.” She looked at the crying child and tilted her head in a way Aunt Volumnia always did before giving a searing comment. “I’m going to get rid of him.” Her eyes were slits. Her heart was poison. “It’s a promise.”
Medea truly loved Bella. They were the eldest sisters. They were the double act. They both had dark hair and such dark eyes. They pinched each other’s cheeks to imitate their mother’s blush and shared the dresses they had sewn for their joint collections of dolls. They slept in the same bed. They did each other’s hair. They played and talked, trying to be so grown up, so mature, so important.
Celia was the baby; spoiled. And she was lilywhite and fair, with blonde hair, dainty blue eyes and little button nose that burnt under the sun. She was whiny. She was annoying. She was far too young. She didn’t understand them, they told her. She wasn’t old enough. And, as always, blue eyes brimming with tears, Celia would take off crying leaving the two of them in peace.
They picked on her sometimes- Celia was just too spoilt and she was just too pretty- and drew on her dresses and soiled all her paintings. They blew the candles in her room once and left her in the dark. Bella even put a toad in her hair.
Looking back, Medea probably shouldn’t have done all that. It was almost always Bella’s ideas and Medea herself had been easy to goad into playing along. She should’ve been nicer. She should’ve said no. Especially to the toad- she didn’t think Celia ever forgave them for laughing. Truth be told, it hadn’t been funny. Truth be told, even as a child, Medea had thought it quite mean. But Bella had thought it hilarious. Bella had laughed all the way through.
But Medea loved Bella. Her older sister. Her best friend.
And Bella hated Ryan. Little maggot, she called him. Ugly flea.
But Ryan grew.
He was unstable energy. He was cheeky laughter. He was a quick patter of footsteps. He was big curly hair and dimpled cheeks. He was big grey eyes and a glint of mischief.
The maids cooed after him and the butlers never seemed to mind him knocking over the wine glasses. The Regent heir, whispered words, a fortune for centuries. Her parents’ smiles became strained. Her aunt and uncle only tipped their noses higher. Bella festered. Medea watched.
“Touch that again and I’ll kill you,” said Bella.
They were in the nursery. Medea didn’t even know what Ryan had touched. Ryan didn’t seem to know it himself.
“You can’t kill me,” he stuck out his tongue.
“I almost did, you know,” said Bella. “You were a little baby. I almost stopped you breathing.”
“Liar,” he sniggered.
Bella was quick and, compared to four-year-old Ryan, Bella was strong. She slapped him across the face. He hit his forehead against the wall. He was quiet- eyes wide, mouth limp, face confused- before he wailed. Medea went to hold him- to comfort him- but he attacked.
Bella only cackled, like the witches Medea read about in stories, and pushed him aside.
“Are you going to hit me?” jeered Bella.
Her hand was printed across his cheek. He lashed. She slapped him again. Medea moved to stop her.
“How dare you!” screeched Bella. “You’re my sister. You side with me!”
“I hate you!” bellowed Ryan.
He ran out the nursery. Medea ran after him. Behind her, Bella burst into tears.
“You’re my sister!” Bella insisted, stamping her foot. Her voice was wobbling. Her throat was tight. She could barely get the words out. “Medea!”
Celia didn’t really get along with her older sisters. They never included her in any of their games. You’re too young, they’d say snootily, you wouldn’t understand. But she did understand! She was smarter than they thought.
When Ryan was born, she was elated. If Bella and Medea didn’t want to be her playmates, then surely Ryan would. However, he turned out to be just as bad- if not worse- than they were. He always pushed her out of the way, never listened and caused chaos. A sad loneliness settled in her for a while- a quiet mourning- before Dylan was born.
He didn’t do much in the beginning- he was three years younger than her- but he had potential. She overheard her aunt and uncle saying he was an unwanted accident, a useless spare. That made him the unloved, not-doted-on boy version of herself. It lifted her spirits. Now, he’d be her playmate. That was for sure.
Initially, he didn’t want to be. His idea of fun was mimic whatever it was Ryan did. If Ryan jumped into the pond, Dylan followed. If Ryan threw their pet cat, Twinkle, out the window, Dylan threw her out the window. If Ryan blew out the candles and stuck them against the walls, Dylan did that too. If Ryan screamed, Dylan screamed. If Ryan yelled, Dylan yelled. If Ryan broke her tiara, Dylan broke her tiara.
“You’re so bossy!” he’d say whenever she asked him to play. “And you’re a girl!”
“Well, you’re annoying!” she’d say in return.
But, he was cute. He was like a teddy bear. And he was so small. Despite what everyone said, Celia though he was much prettier than his brother. And, when Ryan was nowhere to be found, he was much nicer.
She found him drawing on his own once. She didn’t know what it was, but she said it looked nice.
“You’re not going to ruin it, are you?” he said cautiously. “Ryan always says that before he draws all over it.”
“Of course not!” she exclaimed. She neatened her skirt and sat next to him. “Medea and Bella always ruin my dresses and break my dolls. I know how it feels.”
She looked at him from beneath her tipped nose and realized that he had stopped listening to her. He was back to disastrously colouring outside the lines.
“Do you want to play outside?”
He looked at her cautiously for a moment- as if she was going to pounce on him- before shaking his head.
“By the lake?” suggested Dylan.
Celia scrunched her nose. She was about to tell him no, not by the lake, her mother bought her these new shoes last week. But he gave her a toothy smile and an emotion- bigger than love, sadder than pity- threatened to burst through her heart. Had he always looked so sad?
“I can catch a fish for you,” he said, leaping up to his feet, catching sight of her softening expression. “Ryan taught me how. Want to try?”
No, she wanted to say. I rather like this skirt, she wanted to add. But she didn’t. She forced up a smile and nodded. At least she had a playmate.
Dylan didn’t always like his brother. Sometimes, Ryan was too much. He was too much noise. He was too much energy. He was too much excitement, too much anger, too much laughter, too much, too much, too much. His mother didn’t seem to think so, but, sometimes she did. He didn’t really understand her. His father was only a glimpse in the morning: a black coat, a black hat and black, black shoes. So what he thought didn’t really count, did it?
But, he did like the butler. He was a scarecrow of a man, with knobby knees and gnarly elbows. His back was slightly hunched and lined with bones, making it look like he opened a small umbrella underneath his coat. Ryan thought it was funny to kick the back of his legs when he was setting the table. At the start, Dylan thought so too. But, when he saw the old man struggling to pick up the fallen napkins, he felt bad, apologized, and helped.
“Master Dylan, you must do no such thing,” said Cricket. “It’s beneath you.”
He furrowed his brows. “Why?”
His mother chose to walk in. She caught sight of him on the floor. Her nostrils flared. He didn’t really hear much of what she said at the start, but it boomed across his ears when she pinched the back of his neck.
“Don’t be so useless!” she pulled him up. Her nails were long. The scratched his skin. His eyes welled with tears. “Don’t cry! You are not a child.”
In the room beside them, Ryan knocked down a vase. The sound of shattering glass thundered through the opulent, narrow house. His mother stomped out of the narrow dining room and stopped short of the living room. Ryan stared at the broken glass, the splattered water, the ruined carpet, the murdered flowers, and gave a sheepish smile. Dylan watched the muscles on his mothers face tauten. He saw her jaw click. He caught the flicker of her brow, the flinch of her lashes, the tensing of her temples.
She walked away. Sharply, she said: “clean it up, Cricket.”
And that was that.
Dylan looked between the fallen napkins on the dining room floor and the shattered glass.
“Let’s play something,” said Ryan.
Dylan wrapped his arms around his chest. He glared. “No.”
When his mother wasn’t too busy yelling at them, Ryan loved his younger brother. Whatever it was Ryan did, Dylan did so too. Whatever it was Ryan said, Dylan followed. Ryan was the older one, the smarter one, the stronger one. He liked playing protector. He liked keeping annoying, little Dylan safe. Just as Celia was always the princess whenever they played make-believe, Ryan was always the knight.
But, sometimes, Ryan wanted something different. The narrow house they lived in was too narrow. The opulent mansions they were invited to were too proper. He was bored of his cousins and he was bored of his brother. He was bored of his parents, their parents, his uncles, aunts and acquaintances. He wanted what was beyond the living room windows and beyond the black-iron fence. He wanted the busy streets brimming with filthy children, loud street hagglers and oddly dressed women. He wanted the houses that didn’t smell of perfume and the food that didn’t taste like gold. He wanted something different.
“No,” his mother would snap the front door shut. “You’re not allowed outside.”
“But I’ll come home!” he exclaimed. He was eleven. He was old enough.
“You’re not some ragged street urchin. You’re a Regent. I won’t have you mixing with the riffraff.”
“Then Cricket can come with me.”
His mother’s yellow teeth were bared. Her yellow eyes were narrowed. She looked like the gargoyles from Medea’s stories. “No.”
Ryan’s temper bubbled. He bellowed. “That’s not fair!”
He screamed at her some more. She screamed back. It was the first of their shouting matches, but it certainly wasn’t their last. She stopped ignoring his mistakes and stopped dismissing his misbehavior. Instead, she lashed at him with disproportionate anger and he lashed back with anger just as distorted. And, always, Dylan would be watching from the staircase, from his bedroom, from the living room, from the kitchen- the compulsory bystander, the forced spectator.
It stopped being quiet. The house was tense. Even at night when he’d creep down to steal a treat, she was untouchable and rigid with silent fury. With a glass of red wine in one hand and a long cigarette in the other, she would stare into the pits of the fireplace.
“She’s sad,” said Dylan.
“No,” Ryan rolled his eyes at him. “She’s just crazy.”
Dylan looked aghast. Ryan couldn’t care less. He didn’t like his mother much anyway. Why would he? He didn’t like angry people. He didn’t like people that didn’t let him go outside.
“Can we keep the light on this time?” asked Dylan.
“No,” Ryan blew the candle out.
He pulled up the covers and threw himself against the pillows. His bed shook from the weight. In the cold darkness, Dylan curled towards him. As per their routine, Ryan put his arms around Dylan’s thin shoulders, gave him a squeeze and kissed the top of his head. Ryan then turned away and pulled his knees up to his chest, ready to sleep. As per their routine, Dylan whispered that he loved him. As per their routine, Ryan called him a baby. As per their routine, Ryan quietly whispered that he loved him too.
Celia was always the princess and Bella was always the witch. Ryan was always the knight and sometimes even the king. Dylan always wanted to be an animal of sorts- a cat, a dragon, a bear- but ended up being whatever it was they forced him to be. Medea, the storyteller, all weaved them into place.
They stopped playacting when Bella turned thirteen. She was invited to her first ball and she considered herself far too old to be playing games with children. Soon after that, it all fell apart. Celia dragged Dylan away to the gardens, the nursery or the music room and Medea was left trying to pull Bella and Ryan apart.
The memory of Bella pressing her little fingers against Ryan’s face was a memory she tucked away. Sometimes, Medea even thought she forgot it. Sometimes, she thought it was a dream. But, it left a lasting effect on her. She never left the two of them alone in the same room. She loved her sister, but she loved her cousin. She loved them far too much.
So, she threw rocks with Ryan in the lake beside their house and listened to him babble on about his narrow house in London.
“It’s dark and ugly,” he said. “And mother only takes us to the same shops. I think there’s more to London than Bond Street.”
“There is,” agreed Medea. “You know, when you walk down the Thames, you can see sailors that are from China, India and even Africa.”
He gawked at her. “You’ve been there?”
“No,” Medea threw a rock in the pond. “I just heard father talking about it with his friends. And I read a few books in the library.”
Ryan seemed to consider something. He was such a handsome child, with his black hair in ringlets and his eyes like stars. He was the prettiest child she had ever seen. Dylan was cute, but she preferred Ryan. Dylan was encased in this shell of fear, unable to crack through it, whereas Ryan was roaring seas, bellowing winds and vast, open adventures. He was a much better story.
“I’m thinking of sneaking out,” he said.
She looked up at him worriedly. “Don’t do that.”
“I’ll go at night,” he clicked his jaw.
“Then who’ll let you in?”
“Then I’ll accidently get lost the next time I’m out with Mother dearest,” he said smugly.
For a nine year old, that wasn’t half bad. He crouched by the edge of the lake and picked at a few tendrils of grass.
“I feel like they’re locking us in that house. I hate it. Don’t you?”
Unlike her aunt and uncle, Medea’s parents lived in the family’s manor in the countryside. She didn’t know why Ryan’s parents decided to move out, but apparently it involved something along the lines of medication, business and inheritance.
“There are endless meadows here,” she said. The running breeze emphasized her point. The lush trees whispered their agreement. “It’s a big space. That’s hardly a cage.”
Ryan glowered at the water. “Not all cages look the same.”
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