Hush falls on small towns like snow on a fresh, green meadow. Completely, gracefully, and always with surprise. And it stays like that until some common fool comes stomping along and ruins it.
Two hushes have fallen over the small town of Greenville over the entirety of its existence.
First: when Mrs. Dubois—the wife of the most affluent man in town—fell ill and died of an incurable sickness. The hush lasted for three days. Some say it was a moment of silence.
And a common fool came and stomped on it while Mr. Dubois was the one who brought her back.
You see, Mr. Dubois made his fortune as a merchant, always going on trips to secure the best deals. When his wife died—a lady as fair and graceful as the fine gowns she created—he threw himself into work and immediately left on a trip. Ella, his daughter, stayed home, all alone except for the staff that upkeep their too big, too lonely mansion
Regardless of the situation, Ella bit her lip and held out hope, for in just a few weeks she would turn eighteen and her father would make good on his promise: to let her come on his merchant trips and sell her dresses—the ones she made like her mother.
And that lovely version of the future almost came true. Until the fool came stomping into the snowy meadow.
On his trips, Mr. Dubois always brought back her daughter the finest of everything. Fine jewels, fine cloth, fine trinkets. You could imagine her surprise when he brought back a subpar stepmom and wife (ie the fool). And two little foolings she called her daughters. Almost unimaginably, it wasn’t even the worst thing he broke back.
No, that was a mysterious disease that made him grow sicker by the day. Not a single doctor could diagnose it, forcing him to stay bedridden for weeks. Ella wasn’t even allowed by her father’s side for fear she could catch it. Unfortunately, everyone had become convinced of the Dubois being cursed with illness and couldn’t risk it.
So, it became just Ella and her subpar, hate-filled step family, which turned out just as terrible as you expect…
“You missed a spot,” Marcy, Ella's step-sister, taunted as she hovered over Ella’s shoulder, putting a bony finger at the spotless floor.
Since Darla had sent all the staff away to “save money for treatment” *cough* more clothes *cough*, she burdened Ella with the upkeep of the mansion because “her daughters were far too delicate to do such harsh chores”.
Are you rolling your eyes yet? Because I am.
“Where?” Ella said as she turned.
Behind her back Lacy, Ella's other step-sister, crept behind her, a sharpened fire poker in her hand. And while stabbing Ella would have been simple, done, and hard proof of abuse, those two were too crafty for such actions. Or too dumb to think of it. It’s really a flip of a coin with these two.
Instead, Lacy jammed the poker into the cold fireplace and flung the black ashes onto the clear floor in a dusty, black cloud. A fair share of it hit Ella in the back, staining her worn out outfit her stepmother forced her to wear, so it’s not like it made it worse.
Both the stepdaughters snickered. “There,” Marcy said.
Ella glared at Lacy. “What?” She said, feigning innocence. “The fireplace needed to be cleaned out. I was just helping out.”
“Give me that,” Ella snatched the poker from her hands.
“Sorry,” Lacy said with a roll of her eyes.
“What is going on down here,” Darla asked as she traipsed down the stairwell in the latest designer gown. She spotted the soot covered poker in Ella’s arms. “Ella, don’t you know better than to be playing with cinders when you’re supposed to be working?”
“Cinders,” one of the stepdaughters snickered. “Ha! I got it, let’s call you ‘Cinderella’!”
“Very clever,” Ella snided. Stiffing her spine, she turned back to her stepmother. “I don’t see why I have to work like a servant in my own home.”
“Dearie, we’ve been over this,” Darla placed a wrinkled hand on Ella’s shoulder and put on her best fake, sympathetic face. “We need to save money however we can to pay for your father’s treatment. The doctors simply do not know what is wrong with him. You wouldn’t want him to die because you’re too selfish to work, would you?”
Ella hesitated, taking a small step backward. “Let’s sell the mansion and downsize. This place is worth a fortune. That’s gotta be enough to pay for his treatment.”
Darla tsked. “I thought you were smarter than that. A dramatic action like moving from his beloved home? That would shock his weakened soul too much to survive. I can’t believe you would suggest such a thing that would harm my husband.”
Biting her lip, Ella hesitated to speak again. Guilt sunk into her soul. Her eyes lowered. “Now dearie,” Darla grasped her chin and lifted it to meet her eyes. “Trust me. I know you can’t visit your father to see his condition, but believe me when I say I am doing everything in my power to help him. Everything is for him. To save him. You want to help him, don’t you?”
“Yes—” Ella began.
“Good,” Darla dropped her chin. “Then you can start by cleaning this mess you made. Quickly now, you still have to go and tend to my garden and pick that special kind of flowers your father loves so much before dark. Any boost in his mood can make all the difference.”
On the boundary of the estate and forest, lies a raised, flower garden that only grew one type of flower. It was quickly hobbled together the first day Darla arrived. She claimed that gardening eased the stress of having her husband sick, but she never actually tended to it. No, she always ordered Ella to do that. Every Saturday, she would have Ella pluck a fresh bouquet of seven flowers.
It was strange though, Father had never mentioned loving this type of flower—Sherre Orchids, a beautiful type with royal blue heart shaped petals that had tiny ivory veins—before. Ella never complained and got down on her knees, soot mixing with the dirt. Carefully, she plucked any weeds, fertilized the Sherre Orchids, and picked seven.
The sun lowered across the hill, heating her back. Ella wiped the sweat from her forehead, smearing it with dirt. “Done,” she breathed and waited. Waited, for the reason why she never bothered to complain about the gardening.
Digging into her dress’s pocket, she grabbed a fistful of bird seed and spun around to find… no one. She frowned. Where was Blu?
Standing, Ella called out, “Blu?”
Feathered flapping got her attention as a bluebird dove down from the sky looking exhausting. He perched on Ella’s thick gardening gloves. “There you are, Blu,” she said as she fed him.
There were three things Ella inherited from her mother: her looks, her gift for fashion, and her love of birdwatching. Ella could even moderately communicate with Blu. Not, like, college-lecture-worthy conversations, but a nice, basic mutual understanding. Brushing his head, Ella asked, “What’s wrong? You look exhausted.”
Exasperated, Blu extended a wing into the forest and pointed at something deep within. “You want me to go in there?”
Blu nodded. With a spare glance back at the mansion, Ella firmly decided that if going into the spooky forest as dusk was going to kill her, she was fine with it.
“Ack,” Ella pulled her boots from the mud trying to eat them. The ground was absolutely soaked and trashed with leaves and sticks from last night’s storm. “Where did you want me to go, Blu?”
Tired of giving directions and more energized, Blu took off and showed her the way. He stopped in the middle of a small clearing where an identifiable blob was. Blu landed next to it, ushering Ella over. Slowly, she crept next to it as it rustled. Flopping over to the over side of a box, a golden bird in a harness with the emblem of Bird-Zon—a huge shipping company—on it. “He must have gotten injured in last night’s sudden storm. There was no way of seeing it coming.”
She flipped the box over in her hands. The top had cracked and caved in. Ella peered inside, spotting a ruined pair of expensive shoes. “Oh man, this is terrible.” She stuffed the box in her gardening satchel and kneeled next to the delivery bird. “First things first, let’s bring you back to the mansion to heal.”
After scooping the bird in her arms, Ella set off back to the mansion with Blu leading the way.
The moment Ella opened the back door, she was greeted by an “Elllla!!! Where are you? Where are the flowers?” Darla hollered.
Ella flinched and glanced at the injured bird. “Listen, Blu, can you cover for me? I have to treat her ASAP.”
Blu nodded and took a long trench coat and hat hanging by the back door. Ella handed him the flowers and wished him luck as she scurried upstairs to her bedroom in the attic where Darla relocated her to the first night she arrived, taking Ella’s bedroom for herself. It didn’t matter that there were other bedrooms in the mansion—since it’s a freaking mansion.
Back in the living room, Blu tweeted through an open window, calling for backup. A pair of twin crows showed, in the middle of a sibling quarrel. Blu chirped twice to get their attention. Together, they filled out the trenchcoat and hat with the twins in the sleeves and Blu manning it with the hat on top. They grabbed the broom and pretended to be sweeping when Darla came thundering down the stairs. Every clack of her heels made them want to flinch, but they stayed strong.
With a snarl, Darla crossed her arms. “Where have you been?”
One of the twins lifted their sleeve to point at the Sherre Orchids resting on a nearby table. Snatching them, Darla growled, “You took longer than normal. You’re behind on work. No more breaks until you’ve finished for tonight. Make dinner, wash the dishes, and finish folding the laundry after you’ve finished sweeping here. Am I clear?”
“Good. And do change into something less tacky. What if someone saw you? What would they think? We have a reputation to uphold, you know.”
Again, Blu nodded. Feeling satisfied with her bitchiness, Darla pivoted away and left. Blu sighed. He was gonna need more back up.
Smoothing out her outfit, Darla prepared to greet her dying husband. She swept a hand on an undusted piece of furniture and smeared it on her dress with a grimace. With a fake smile, she opened the door and greeted him. “I brought more flowers for your tea,” she put six in a vase filled with water, grinded the seventh, and brewed it for Mr. Dubois’s daily cup of tea. “Here you go, my love.”
Reaching out a shaky arm, he gladly accepted and drank it with Darla watching. With a dramatic sigh, she plopped down on his bed, next to him. She sighed again when he didn’t notice it the first time.
“What’s wrong, my dear?”
“It’s just…” She batted her eyes and drew nervous circles on the silk sheets. “Ever since I was forced to send the staff away to save money for your treatment, I’ve been having to do all the household chores myself. And look,” Darla pointed on the smudge of dust on her dress, “this gown is ruined from it.”
Mr. Dubois put his thumb under her chin and lifted her face. “I’m sure we can spare the money somewhere for a new one.”
Darla perked up. “Oh, goodie.” Then, she lowered her eyes again.
“What’s wrong now, honey.”
“It’s C—er, Ella. She’s been rather difficult since you’ve been bedridden. Refusing to help with chores like my gracious daughters willingly do. Snapping at me. Making me out to be a monster.” Darla buried her face in her hands. “I’m telling you, Richard, that girl absolutely hates me and I’ve been trying so hard to get along. She refuses to be anything but difficult. I heard she’s been trying to spread false rumors that make me seem like an absolute demon! It’s too much for my poor heart to bear.”
“Now now, my dear, I’m sure one day, Ella will see you as the kind woman I already know you are.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so. She’s just having trouble adjusting to the circumstances. All she needs is time.”
“Okay, I believe you. But I just don’t know what to do with her anymore,” Darla sobbed.
“Send her in. I need to talk to her in person about this. She can’t be making you this upset and uncomfortable”
Darla’s heart skipped a beat. “But, what about your family’s curse? She’s more vulnerable. I’ve had this before and the flower tea helped cure me so I’m immune,” Darla lied. “She can’t visit you.”
Mr. Dubois coughed. “Just this once, I can make an acceptance. This behavior cannot go unpunished any longer. Send her in immediately.”
Darla hesitated as she remembered the long list of chores she just gave Ella. She definitely wants those done first. “I think she’s in the middle of her dress projects. I’d hate to interrupt her creative flow and give her even more reason to loathe me.”
“Very well, when she is finished, bring her to me.”
“As you wish.”
Several hours later, Ella had finished treating the golden bird—whose name according to her uniform was Coco—and made her a small bed to rest in. Though, there was still the issue of the ruined shoes.
An idea hit Ella. “That’s it.”
She searched her closet for a pair of her old ones as Blu and his entourage of now seven flopped into her bedroom, exhausted. Ella giggled, picked up Blu, and kissed him on the forehead. “Thank you for your help. Thank all of you. I’ll make you a special treat later, but right now… there’s something else I must do.”
She gathered her sewing and dress-making supplies. Curious, Blu peered over her shoulder. “What am I doing, you ask?” Ella said. “I’m the same size as these shoes—seven and half inches. Quite rare and quite lucky. It may not be my forte like dress-making, but I bet I can make a new pair of shoes using my old ones as a base—since the originals were ruined after all. I can have Coco deliver it with a note explaining things when she heals.”
Blu chirped in excitement. “Yeah, I’m excited, too. It’ll be a fun challenge.”
Moments after Ella decided on what to do, Darla bursted into her room. Startled, Ella shoved the supplies in the closet and closed the door. Blu made a dive for the window, lest Darla catch him and turn him into a stew. “Your father wants to speak to you. Now.” She threw the mask and new dress at her. “And for god’s sake wear something nice.”
Father didn’t look happy. Like someone just backed out of a business deal. Ella gulped. She hoped it wasn’t so; she’s been trying to run as much of the business as she can from home with what he taught her in preparation for her joining him when she turned eighteen. “What is it, Father?”
“Darla has been telling me some troubling news,” Father said.
“Did something go wrong with the business—”
“This isn’t about the business.”
“Then what?” Ella subconsciously started to walk closer.
“Please,” he said, “Keep your distance.”
“Darla has been telling me that you’ve been neglecting your duties and being cruel to her.”
Ella snuffled a laugh.
“Is this a joking matter to you?” Father asked, an angry vein popping up on his forehead.
“The lies she tells are certainly jokes,” Ella said.
“Watch. Your. Tongue,” Father snarled with narrowed eyes.
He hadn’t used that expression since Ella was six and broke a very expensive vase. Part of her shivered at his anger and she reverted back to an obedient child. “I apologize, Father.”
“Good. Now, apologize to your stepmother.”
Darla appeared from the shadows with a crooked smile on her face that Father couldn’t see from his bed.
“But she—she’s evil. She’s been working me to the bone day and night, covered in dirt, soot, and rags,” Ella began.
“Your outfit says otherwise,” Father said.
Ella glanced down at the dress Darla made her wear. She clenched her fist. Darla planned this.
“I do not appreciate these heinous lies you’ve been spilling about my wife. I understand the death of your mother and my marriage is new and shocking to you, but this behavior is unacceptable. Apologize.”
“I don’t want excuses. Apologize.”
Fury burning her cheeks, Ella turned to Darla and mumbled out an apology.
“Good. That is all.” Father said. “You are dismissed.”
Anger alone could not describe the way Ella felt. She screamed into her pillow as Blu flew to her side to comfort her. “You should have seen her, Blu. She planned this. And he took her side. I couldn’t even explain.”
“Betrayal?” Ella echoed his words. “I mean, I do feel betrayed. After everything I’ve done—I’m only here for him, suffering under Darla and he took her side. Maybe I should just leave…” Ella glanced at a family photo on her bed stand—one taken before her mother’s death. She groaned. “What would Mother think if I just left my sick father the first time I felt betrayed? One more chance.” Ella told Blu. “I’m staying around to give him one more chance. I’ll find a way to talk to him and explain. Then, he can choose. Me or her. One more chance.”