I jumped at my mom’s voice, dropping the roll of toilet paper I’d unwrapped and was trying to fix. “No!” I whispered as it hit the bathroom tiles and ran away from me, leaving a long trail of toilet paper from my toes to the tub.
“Caroline?” my mom said again, and she knocked on the bathroom door. “Are you okay in there? You’ve been in there for a while now.”
″’M okay!” I squeaked as I desperately tried to reach the toilet paper roll without getting off the toilet.
“Are you sure? Because I know you’re a big girl now, but it’s okay to ask for help.”
“Nope, nope, nope, I don’t need help, I promise I don’t.” I stood, reaching for the roll again, but only to trip on my pink shorts. I’d left them down around my ankles.
I caught myself before I fell, but Mom must have heard the noise. The door knob jingled, but I’d locked it. “Caroline, I’m being serious, now. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay.” I huffed as I heaved up my shorts. The bathroom floor was cold on my bare feet as I ran to the tub to retrieve the toilet paper. “I don’t need help. You can leave.”
“If I leave, do you promise to be done and out of there in the next five minutes?”
“I promise! You can go away.” My lower lip wobbled. I held the now very long strand of unwrapped toilet paper in my hands. I tried to quickly wind it back on the roll, but it looked like my blanket did when I woke up in the morning--all bumpy and crunched up. Mommy would definitely know I made it messy.
“Okay,” Mom said through the door. “But I’m coming back in five minutes. If you need help, call me.”
I heard her footsteps leaving. I sucked in my breath. I had five minutes to fix everything.
I unwrapped the roll again and tried to put it back the way it was, but it looked grosser. The floor had gotten the roll wet, and little bits of icky paper had come off in my hands. Part of it had ripped.
I couldn’t fix it.
I screwed up my face and struggled to come up with another way to fix everything--fast. There was only one solution I could think of.
I dived for the cabinet underneath the sink. I opened it and squealed with happiness to find many, many rolls of toilet paper rolls stacked inside--all nicely wrapped up, unlike mine. I chucked the bad one in the back where Mom wouldn’t see it and grabbed a new one. Shutting the cabinet, I made my way triumphantly back to the toilet.
The little stick the roll went on lay on the floor, so I picked it up and stuck the roll on it. I walked, smiling in victory, to place it back on the wall.
My smile quickly faded. The stick was too long. No matter how much I pushed and mashed it, it was too long to fit the little wooden holes.
I grumbled in frustration, tears pricking at my eyes. I hadn’t thought of this problem, and it didn’t make any sense. How had the stick been on the wall before? I know it had been. It had been on there before I’d pulled it off to play with the roll. Had it gotten longer while it had been on the floor? What had the floor done to it?
Anger bubbled inside me and I slammed the stick back to the ground. I slammed the toilet seat down, too, and flushed angrily. Nothing worked for me. It always worked for Mom, and for Jacob, but not for me. I couldn’t fix anything.
I lay down on my back on the floor, giving up. I started to cry.
Just as the tears reached my cheeks, though, I stopped. The wallpaper had become shiny, and I didn’t remember the wallpaper being shiny. I sat back up, interested, but the walls stopped shinning when I did.
I lay back down. The shininess returned. I knew the wallpaper in the bathroom very well. There were shells, a lot of them, and sometimes little seahorses. The color of the paper was pink, like my doll Abby’s hair, and there were six different types of shells. I’d counted once. There were far more than six shells in the whole bathroom, of course, I knew that, but only six types of shells--three big ones, and three smaller ones.
I inched closer to the wall, still lying on the floor. I ran my finger over one of the bigger shells, and instantly flinched back. I realized that I had never touched the wallpaper. It was kinda bumpy, and when I ran my fingers over the shell, I noticed the shininess again. There was a silver swirl around the bottom of the shell, and that’s where the bumpiness came from.
Are there swirls all around the bathroom? I hurried to find out. I ran my hands all along the bathroom walls, every bit I could reach, and sure enough, there were--silver swirls I could only see from very close, with my nose touching the wall, or from down on the floor, lying on my back.
I thought about the swirls, and how I had never seen them. Did Mom know about them? Jacob? Maybe not. Maybe the swirls had been a secret until I’d found them. Maybe no one had laid down on the bathroom floor before. Not before me. After all, would Jacob ever think to lie down on the floor? No.
I was a genius.
I flinched at a knock at the door. “Caroline? It’s been five minutes. Are you done in there?”
I scrambled to my feet, slapping the new toilet paper roll on the back of the toilet. I’d failed to put it back on the wall on the stick, but I didn’t care if Mom found out about that now. I had something she wouldn’t find out about. I had a secret to keep. My secret.
“I’m done, I’m done!” I unlocked the door and threw it open, all smiles. “I’m done.”
“Okay...” Mom said slowly, peering into the bathroom suspiciously as I slipped past her.
I didn’t wait to see her discovery of the fallen stick. I was already thinking about my next trip to the bathroom. Next time, I wouldn’t be tempted to play with the toilet paper.
I’d have my secret swirls to play with.
When he was twelve, he broke the crown.
If it had been an heirloom vase, the Queen might have forgiven him. An ornate dinner plate, perhaps, or even one of the stained glass windows in the stunning cathedral. All could be replaced, and in their large kingdom--founded on the art of glass blowing--there was plenty of glass to spare. Craftsmen would have lined up from the lower town to the palace just for the honor of replacing any item the young prince destroyed.
But the crown... It was a gorgeous piece, lending true awe and crafted over a span of twenty years by some of the kingdom’s most skilled fingers. A royal symbol of power, it had been blown and shaped from delicate glass into tall, twisted spires. The crown’s eight points had long been held as the finest craftmenship the world had ever seen. People traveled far and wide to behold it.
In the sprawling hills of Stolvay, the crown stood at the very heart of the kingdom’s identity. A sewn image of it flew on every banner of every tower. Tapestries proudly depicted its laborious creation. Every knight proudly bore its likeness on his chest. As he grew, Prince Florian watched his father wear it, but only during important addresses. When the crown wasn’t on the king’s head, it sat safely inside a beautiful glass case within the throne room--set between the King and Queen’s complementary glass thrones. When it did sit on the king’s head, five specially-trained attendants trailed him at all times, ensuring it did not fall off and shatter.
In his prime, King Dorian was a beloved ruler. An artist himself, he understood the people and the guild market his land flourished by. Early on in life, he studied with the very best guildsmen, and by the time he was crowned king, one of the windows in the largest cathedral displayed his own glass craftsmenship. When he married Princess Evana of Tolvia, he made sure she learned the basics of glass making; that way, she could understand the culture she was soon to help dictate.
Evana took to the task with more love and skill than Dorian could have ever dared hope for. She was a natural artist, and before long, the cathedral sported her work as well. Queen Evana became as beloved as the king, and when she bore a child, the kingdom rejoiced for weeks after the prince’s birth.
Prince Florian didn’t remember much about his mother, but he believed if she had lived, she would have forgiven him. Maybe his father would have, too, but not Queen Odile, his father’s second wife.
Odile was not a nasty woman. She didn’t love Dorian, but she did her civic duty. She learned the craft of glass making to the level Dorian asked of her, and she accepted the role of replacing Evana not only as a queen, but as a mother. It was a lot of pressure for a twenty-five year old, but she did her best, and the kingdom recognized her for it.
However, the new queen was not born to lead. When Dorian died, Odile was thrust into a fourth role she didn’t ask for--the role of a sole monarch. The responsibility was simply too much. She could not be a queen, a sole ruler, an artist, and a mother all at once. Poor Florian fell to the wayside, and to her dismay, he also became more and more problematic.
She was told everything. Florian’s instructors reported to her daily. They described to her how Florian was a disaster at glass making and how he broke nearly everything he touched. They told her how he couldn’t seem to stay focused on anything, and how he got distracted every time something glinted in the sun. “But most everything is made of glass in Stolvay,” Odile argued, frowning. “Surely many things catch the sun, and often.”
“Yes,” agreed Florian’s instructor, sighing. Exhaustion ghosted every line that creased his face. “His Highness turns his head so very much. One day soon he may become an owl.”
The instructor shook his head in defeat, and Odile’s frown deepened.
That deep frown became her constant expression in the years to come. True to the queen’s wishes, Florian’s instructors never spread the news of the prince’s lack of skill. If the people of Stolvay learned of his incompetence in the craft, they might not accept him as their king when he came of age, and that simply wouldn’t do. Odile wanted nothing more than to hand the crown off to him. She simply needed to hold on until he turned thirteen. Hopefully by then Florian would be skilled enough to rule in the style of his father--an artist who governed artists.
Odile did pray about it. She did try her best. She provided Florian with the very greatest instructors, both in glass artistry and in focus training, but no one could stop the prince’s brain from wandering, nor his hands from shattering instead of creating.
She supposed she should have seen the day coming. At twelve years old, Florian was so close to coming of age, but when a battle is almost won, monarchs often grow cocky and self-assured. Odile had survived five years without disaster. She could handle one more.
Intrepid little Prince Florian, though--despite his lack of attention and skill--did want to be like his father and mother. He did want to be good at glass making. He did dream of making something as beautiful as the Stolvay crown. I can do it, he thought to himself with his little twelve-year-old mind, filled with the type of bold determination almost-teenagers have. I just need to look at the crown. I just need to see how they did it.
In the end, Odile should have seen it coming. She should have been ready, but Florian and his fate was simply a final topper on her failures. He may not have been her flesh and blood, but they were so very alike--Florian broke everything he touched and Odile couldn’t mend the holes she was given.
The destruction of the Stolvay crown was not something she could ignore. A call needed to be made. The current queen did not hold the love of the people--not as Dorian or Evana had. Florian was not fit to take the throne, and now there was no crown to even crown him with.
She wrote up the decree herself. She hoped the sadness in her voice reached him as she banished him. There was nothing else to be done. If he could come back bearing a replacement of the Stolvay crown--a piece just as exquisitely done as the one he’d destroyed, and one done by his own hand--then he could take his rightful place as king. If not, Odile would retain her hold on the kingdom and planned to remarry, starting her own royal line.
Again, Queen Odile was not a nasty woman. She was just a tired girl who really tried her best. She never wanted to be queen.
Prince Florian was also not a spoiled brat. He was just a distracted little boy who wanted to be like his father. At thirteen, he did not take his banishment as a sentence. He accepted his fate head on. He set out to make a new crown, and people still say that as he left--so very determined to succeed--he looked just like his father.
To this day, ten years later, the craftsmen and women of Stolvay still look out to the crest of the hill the prince disappeared over, waiting to see if he’ll return one morning with a crown of breathtaking beauty glittering in his hands.
Queen Odile does, too. Maybe then, she prays, she could die peacefully, having mended at least one hole.
Moira froze halfway through unlacing her right boot, the leather slick with water from the rain.
A single leaf hung pasted to her combat boot’s thick heel. She almost hadn’t seen it as the leaf, small and spotted, was nearly the same shade as the boot’s light brown finish.
Nearly. The leaf’s thick veins had a strong orange tint to them and it had been the orange that caught her eye.
Moira scowled at the leaf for a moment before abandoning her laces. She ripped the thing off her heel and stalked over to the large kitchen garbage can, the plastic aglets of her shoelaces skittering left and right on the tiles. The leaf’s wet tips clung to her hand like a temporary tattoo, but Moira managed to smear the whole of the leaf on the inside of the garbage can. She slammed the can lid shut to hide it from view.
Sulking, she backtracked to the garage door, forming big, gross, muddy footprints in the center of the kitchen. Dad would yell at her for it later, but at the moment, Moira didn’t care. She finished unlacing her boots, kicked them off, and hurried to the front window.
To her relief, the trees and their leaves still stood tall, hosting rich, green foliage. There was no hint of orange... or at least, not from this window. Not yet. September was still a week away, and even then, nature might not betray her immediately. Summer might hold on a little longer.
But the breeze was a sign. There’s a breeze in summer, too, Moira told herself, but there was a difference between a summer breeze and a fall breeze. Her skin knew the difference. Even with the light rain, Moira could feel the coming of the autumn season through the thin fabric of her rain jacket--a crisp cold, but not quite the type that chilled her to the bone.
No. This was the type of breeze that made her feel sick to her stomach. The fall air was a warning of what was to come. Moira accepted that, but she still prayed for more time. She had hoped the leaves wouldn’t attack her so quickly.
No such luck. Somehow, the fact that it was only one made it worse. A single leaf, but many more would follow. Orange veins would lead the charge--a bright and overpowering color that would take her lovely green landscape by storm, washing it away until next year.
She understood it was inevitable. Summer lost like it did every cycle. Soon, all the trees in Moira’s neighborhood would look like they were wearing large orange sweaters. Next, all the students in her school would pull their sweaters out of storage, happy to snuggle into them as the cold breezes picked up. Orange pumpkins would crop up on doorsteps. Moira would grit her teeth and deal, like any good soldier, but as October came, the leaves would abandon the treetops and take over her sidewalks, too. Orange above her and below her and orange all around her. Nothing would be left untouched by the color orange, and as always, it would be too bright for Moira to ignore.
Hanging up her rain jacket, Moira retreated to her room.
The forest green walls--walls she’d painted herself--were comforting. Her white curtains billowed in the gusts from her standing fan.
It was still warm enough for her fan. Moira smiled at that thought. Fall hadn’t launched its full attack yet.
She flopped onto her unmade bed, relishing the thin sheets. Much better than a quilt, she thought, but she couldn’t quite make herself believe it. So much better.
She fell asleep, and when she awoke, every inch of her was freezing.
“No,” she moaned, but just like with the breeze, her skin knew the reality. Fall had launched its attack while she slept. Moira’s fan still whirred on full blast and she was forced, heavy hearted, to click it off. She pulled her sheets up around her, but the cold seemed to seep straight through them, just like the wind had with her rain jacket.
Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes. Moira tried to wind herself in tighter, but her toes were like icicles. A creepy chill waltzed up her back. A sliver of her right thigh hung exposed and the sheets didn’t seem to cover it, no matter how hard she yanked and rolled the folds.
Finally, she admitted defeat. The battle was lost. Fall was here, and orange had won. The tears beginning to fall, Moira got up, spread her closet doors, and grabbed her quilt from the top shelf.
The giant blanket unfolded as she pulled it to her. Bright, warm and undeniable orange assaulted her and she wrapped it around her shoulders, trailing it like a cape as she crawled back into bed.
Her breathing shallow, Moira ran her cold thumb--already warming--against a cloth insert just within one corner of the blanket. She didn’t need to read it to know what it said.
A quilt for Moira. Her favorite color is as bright as her soul. I feel blessed to share my love of orange with her. Forever and always, Grandma.
With a small gasp, Moira balled up the corner of the quilt. She sniffed it and it still smelled like Grandma.
Moira pressed the orange fabric to her cheek and cried.
It was going to be a long autumn.