J. J. Fletcher
“Ellen, I really do think you are exaggerating.” Mary Webster stood behind the quarter-sawn oak shop counter. She wiped her hands on her long white apron. In front of her were myriad glass bottles, waiting for Mary to paste with a label that read, “Dr. White’s Soothing Syrup for Babies and Toddlers, pat. pend. 1873.”
Her cousin, Ellen Webster, stood a few feet from her, wiping out the tiny funnel she had used to create Dr. White’s concoction. Dr. White, who was out of the office attending to the difficult births of both a calf and the mayor’s firstborn, had taken it upon himself to steal the recipe for the popular Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup on his last trip to Boston. He believed in cutting out the middleman in his small, Gilmanton, New Hampshire practice. His endeavors in this area were so successful that he hired the two young cousins to run his pharmacy (and thereby make more money) while he was out on a house–or barn–call.
“I am not exaggerating, Mary,” Ellen said, carefully wiping the bottle of morphine before replacing it in the glass apothecary’s cabinet behind the counter.
“Coincidences happen. He’s not a bad boy.”
“Two deaths in under a year? And Henry present just before they both happened–that is a coincidence?” Ellen asked.
“He’s only ten, Ellen. For heaven’s sake, what could he possibly do?”
“I am not sure I want to explore the answers to that question. Suffice it to say that boy is fiendish.” Ellen recapped the sodium carbonate, ammonia, and powdered opium bottles and put them back in the cabinet, pausing as she stared at one particular bottle.
“I know I’ve only just begun my studies in nursing, Mary, but we have seen how opium dens ravage people. I just don’t understand how it won’t do the same to children.” She shook her head and shut the cabinet door.
Mary shrugged. “Doctor White has treated many patients with success. It’s the tiniest of amounts.” She continued pasting labels onto bottles.
The door’s bell jingled and a smallish boy came in, stomping snow from his boots.
“Hello, Henry!” Mary gushed. “How is my favorite boy-cousin today?”
Henry smiled. “I’m well, Mary. How are you?”
“What are you doing here, Henry?” Ellen asked, watching her younger brother unwrap his scarf from around his neck.
“Mother sent me. I’m to get a bottle of laudanum for her.” He thrust out a note.
Ellen surveyed the handwriting. “Very well. But tell her I’ll bring it home. I shall be leaving shortly.”
“I’m not to trouble you, Ellen. I’m supposed to take it home directly.” Henry smiled sweetly at his sister. “She’s not feeling very well.”
“I understand, Henry. I’ll write her a note in reply, and you can deliver it.”
Henry shrugged his shoulders. Mary looked at him apologetically as Ellen pencilled her message.
“Here you are.” Ellen passed him the slip of paper. “Do be careful in the snow, Henry.”
“Goodbye,” he said, wrapping his scarf about himself. “Have a nice day, Mary.”
“And to you too, Henry!”
The door jingled shut.
“You see?” Ellen asked, glaring at Mary.
“No, I do not.” Mary resumed pasting.
“Ellen, just because your little brother’s friend died does not mean he was responsible. Austin could have easily fallen, just as Henry said he did. I think you’re just digging for a connection.”
“The connection is my baby brother. They were alone, Mary. And what about little Georgie Foss?”
“Doc said it was food poisoning.”
“But Georgie’d been alone with Henry that afternoon–just before he began showing symptoms.”
“And if I were to die right now, would that mean you were to blame? We’ve been together all day.”
“I don’t have a–a history.”
“Young boys are often interested in strange things. Dr. White has said that Henry’s interest in the workings of animal bodies could lead to a passion for medicine. And think of all the changes we are seeing! Henry could be on the forefront!”
“Having an interest is one thing,” Ellen said, tapping her fingers on the counter, watching the snow come down. “Killing poor animals to dissect them is another.”
Back home, Henry leaned against the garden shed, eyes flicking from the family cemetery to the stream moving at the far end of their property. He took his knife out and picked at a wall board. His sister was always so suspicious of him. In some ways, they were very much alike: observant, interested in medicine, wiser than their years. In others, they were so very different. Ellen wanted to be a nurse to help people. Henry just wanted to know how people worked, inside and out. Why did that raise suspicion in Ellen while their cousin Mary was so accepting?
The note from their mother was genuine. She was ill, and in the past Dr. White had given her laudanum. She was so ill that she didn’t feel she could walk the few blocks to the doctor’s office. She was so ill that when Henry returned with just a note, she didn’t scold him. She only sighed and wiped her forehead with her apron.
Henry walked toward the stream that bordered his family’s property. His ancestors had helped to settle Gilmanton in the 1600s, and their holdings–in both property and power–were extensive. In some towns, a certain last name could get you places, and the Webster name was one of them.
Henry made his way up the banks of the creek. The snow had stopped, but the wind was bitter and biting. Ellen and Mary would be closing up the pharmacy shortly and making their way home. They would walk together, as they did every day, until Mary turned a half mile from Henry’s house, crossing a small bridge over the creek toward her parents’ home.
Henry stood near the water’s edge and picked up a few pebbles to toss in. He liked to hear the ker-plunk as the stones broke the surface. Before long, he could hear Mary’s voice singing out to him.
“Henry Webster! You will catch your death out here in this weather! What are you doing, out wandering around in this wind?” Mary scolded, but with a kindness in her voice. A kindness that Henry rarely heard at home. Or anywhere.
“My father says the brisk air is good for us,” Henry replied.
“I think he means a good brisk air found in fall and spring. Not this kind of wind that freezes everything up.” She was now standing next to him, ruffling his hair and adjusting his cap.
“Where is Ellen?”
“She had to drop off a some medicine for Mr. Gilman. His cough has gotten worse.”
Henry gazed upon the water. “Do you like to swim, Mary?” he asked.
“I should hope you aren’t thinking of going for a swim, Henry. I know you’re smarter than that.”
“Oh, I’m not. I just wondered if you enjoy swimming. I do.” He tossed another pebble in. Ker-plunk.
“Would you believe that I never learned how? Even growing up next to this lovely stream?” she asked. “I do like to watch the water as it flows.”
“In the springtime you should try. There are lots of places where the water only comes to here.” He indicated chest-high on himself. “You can stand right up in it.”
“Maybe I shall, but it won’t be while there is frost on the banks!” She smiled at him. It seemed genuine to Henry.
He tipped his head back until the wind caught his cap. It flew up in the air and landed perilously close to the water.
“My cap!” He chased after it as the wind carried it along. Mary chased after him.
“Henry! Be careful! You’ll slip and fall in!”
Mary caught up with him, and he stopped suddenly, spinning around just as she bumped into him. He grabbed her arms and began to twirl her around, one, then two, then three steps closer to the creek until he could feel the icy cool of the water coming through his boots.
“Henry! Let go! I’m getting wet!”
Henry let go, but spun Mary with as much torque as he could muster–right into the water.
“Henry! Help me!” Her thick coat prevented her from wading out. Henry did not move.
“Henry!” she sputtered. The current carried her closer to the bridge. Henry did not move.
Henry watched as the head bobbed up and down in the water, watched until the arms stopped flailing, until he could no longer see a speck of her as she disappeared under the bridge.
He picked up his cap, dusted off the snow, and turned to go home. He smiled upon feeling the glove in his pocket: the glove he’d pulled from Mary’s hand as she tried to hold on, and he tried to let go. He would place it in the wooden box underneath his bed–next to the button from Georgie’s sweater and Austin’s favorite marble.
J. J. Fletcher is an English teacher, writer, and dog rescuer. “Fiendish” is part of a short story collection that re-imagines the childhood of Dr. H.H. Holmes–Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Fletcher is currently at work on a crime novel, The Devil Inside Me, in which a descendant of Holmes resurrects his duplicitous and murderous legacy in the Windy City. Learn more at www.jjfletcherbooks.wordpress.com.