In Hazel’s Mind
It was ten degrees too hot to be picking strawberries. They were warm to the touch and smashed between Hazel’s fingers as she reached into the damp Earth for the forgotten ones that had fallen from their stems. Though sweat dripped from every cavern and crevice of her body, Hazel continued to dig, methodically, through the sprawling, fuzzy leaves, searching for the biggest berries in the patch. Mama would be so proud of the juicy fists of strawberries Hazel had found so far. You’re a foolish girl for bendin’ in the sun all day, she’d say. But Hazel knew better than to take Mama or her chastising words. Her eyes always gave her away—big and brown and shiny like the lake at nighttime.
With A.B.’s wedding so near, Mama was probably bustling around the kitchen, trying to do everything all at once. Hazel imagined her covered in sifted flour, trying to scrub the sticky baking pans, organize lunch for Papa and Henry, and keep the dogs from yapping for scraps. She dug deeper into the patch; strawberry rhubarb pie was A.B.’s favorite and Hazel wanted to make it special for her sister. But with the wedding just one day away—One day! Hazel could remember when she needed her fingers and toes to count the days until she would be flower girl—things were growing stressful for everyone, and, being seven, Hazel wasn’t quite old enough to use the oven all on her lonesome.
She sighed, wiping a grubby hand across her forehead, sure she was streaking dirt. Don’t you dare come runnin’ in here with your face all dirty, Miss Hazel, Mama would say, not even bothering to look up from her kitchen duties. Go out back to the spigot and wash up. With the wicker basket filled so high with berries that carrying it back proved tricky, Hazel struggled through the dirt that was still damp from yesterday’s storm. Finally reaching the spigot, she turned it on full blast, scaring away the barn cats and getting a few nasty stares from the cows as well.
“Hey, little nut.” The buckles of Henry’s work boots clicked as he trudged heavily through the mud, stomping like he was killing a bunch of fire ants. His accent wasn’t like Hazel’s or Mama’s or even A.B.’s, whose intonation had become flatter since her travels to New York. Henry’s accent was gentle and pronounced, as if every word he said was part of an important book, maybe a dictionary or something like that. A.B. told her it was because Henry was British, from another part of the world—“across the pond,” she’d say, which made Hazel think of a lonely old toad sitting on a lily pad on the other side of the lake.
“Hi, Henry.” Hazel wiped her hands on her pants—Mama would get her for that later—and reached her hand out, shaking his hand properly like always. Henry was going to be part of the family as soon as he married A.B. He had taught her how to introduce yourself to a stranger—a firm handshake, and a quick smile, focusing your eyes on theirs.
“Good shake, better every day.” He nodded with a grin. Hazel smiled back.
For as long as she could remember, Mama’s bedtime stories lulled her to sleep most nights of the week. If Hazel finished all of her chores and made sure the cats had their pre-bedtime milk, she would be allowed to snuggle in the big bed as Mama read from a musty old book that smelled like the attic. Hazel knew each fairy-tale by heart—first the one about the grouchy prince who turned into a frog, then the story where the golden-haired princess falls into a deep sleep, then Snow White who bites into the poisoned apple only to be saved by a handsome prince with dark wavy hair and bright blue eyes. Hazel always knew the princes in her book were handsome, but when she met Henry two months ago she knew he must be a prince because he was the handsomest man she had ever seen. He was tall and strong, two of the most important qualities, with wavy hair and nice blue eyes, just like the prince who saved Snow White. And if Henry were a prince, then, of course, A.B. would be a princess. Hazel liked the idea of her sister being a princess. She was the prettiest girl Hazel knew, and she loved animals, just like the princesses in her bedtime book.
“Did you pick all these strawberries?” Henry reached into the basket and grabbed a handful.
“Henry, no!” Hazel scolded. “They’re for A.B.’s pie!”
Henry shook his head and laughed. “You do sound more like your mother every day,” he said. He dropped the berries, leaving one between his ring and middle fingers. “Saving one for later.” He winked at Hazel and turned towards the barn—likely to see A.B. who was hard at work milking cows and feeding horses. Hazel peeked into the barn after Henry one time to see him wrapping his strong arms around A.B.’s waist, and kissing her mouth with a kind of determination Hazel didn’t quite understand. But she did get a scolding from Mama, “Mind your little behind’s business, Hazelnut!” she said, flicking her with a dirty dishtowel, “Now off to your room to wash up before supper.”
When A.B. left, Hazel was only a little girl. She barely remembered a time when her sister was around. Mama and Papa were always talking in hushed whispers in the living room about A.B., wondering if she was ever going to come back. Hazel’s nosiness always got to the better of her and she’d often tip toe into the kitchen when Mama and Papa thought she was asleep, the pads of her feet and palms of her hands sweating because she knew she oughtn’t be eavesdropping.
“I wish we hadn’t scared her away.” Mama’s sigh was unmistakable. She always sighed when she felt bad about something. “Maybe if we hadn’t let her finish high school…”
“You know that’s not why she left.” Papa was smoking tobacco. Hazel could smell the sweet stench from the other room. “She wanted more than to be a laborer,” he paused. “She deserves more than to be a laborer.”
“But that boy isn’t going to support her, or the family they will one day have,” Mama said, her voice growing louder. “He’s an actor.”
They always talked about Henry before Hazel even knew whom Henry was. They always said “that boy” instead of his name. It wasn’t until A.B. returned from her journeys that Hazel realized that “that boy” was in love with her sister.
Closing her eyes, Hazel imagined Henry and A.B’s wedding day. They would dance to an orchestra of violins and horns, A.B. wearing a princess’ gown made out of lace and satin, and Henry wearing a fancy suit with medallions and silk sashes. Where would they dance? Hazel asked herself as she yanked off her boots and peeled off her sweaty socks. Obviously they’d dance in the back barn; the one that the animals worked day and night to turn into a majestic palace. Hazel laughed at herself—if only animals could actually do such magic.
“Hazel, is that you?” Mama’s voice rang from the kitchen, along with a clanging of metal pans and wooden spoons.
“Yes, Mama, I’ve brought a present.” Hazel carried the basket of strawberries, hugging them tightly to her chest to keep the berries from tumbling onto the floor, and spraying their delicate juices all over the tile.
Hazel noticed the kitchen was quite messy today. Bowls of flour and dough covered the back counter, pots overflowing with dirty dishwater filled the ceramic sink, and the oven had been left wide open. Mama was stirring something thick in a pot that had a charred, black bottom. The window above the sink was cracked, and the sound of neighing and mooing snuck in between the curtains, which were blowing idly in the late summer breeze
“Now’s not the time for presents.” Mama seemed angry. “Come, stir this so I can rest for a few minutes.”
“Ok.” Hazel was a little disappointed that Mama wouldn’t let her deliver the berries with the enthusiasm she’d hoped. Mama was always excited for the challenge of a new baking adventure, be it berry pie, rosemary bread, or apple crumble in the late autumn.
Reaching for the pot, Hazel stirred the mixture, sniffing its contents for a hint at what dinner was going to be.
“There’s no use in sniffing, Miss Hazelnut. Supper’s is a surprise tonight.” Mama had flour in her hair, just as Hazel had expected. The three, deep lines that extended from the outer corners of each of Mama’s eyes lightened as she closed her eyes and laid her head back against the chair. Her clothes seemed a bit baggier than before, but Hazel knew better than to say anything. If Hazel had listened to Mama and wrung out the clothes right instead of hanging them straight onto the clothes line, then none of the clothes would have outstretched. But she had been too eager that day to go to the lake, so she decided to leave the clothes to their own devices and instead raced Henry to the shoreline. She had won the race, of course. If there was one thing Hazel could do, it was run faster than anyone else. Before she was old enough to help out with chores, Hazel used to race the dogs back to the house at the end of the day, having no one else her own age to play with.
“So I see you picked some berries in the hot sun.” Mama’s lips curled into a smile. “Foolish girl.”
“They’re A.B.’s favorite, and I thought we could make a pie.” Hazel tapped the spoon against the edge of the pot, turning the flame down at Mama’s instruction.
“You have a good heart, Hazel Brown,” Mama said sighing, “But we barely have time to finish supper. How would we ever get a pie done?”
“Henry’ll help, I’m sure.” Hazel filled a glass with water for Mama to sip. “He seemed real excited about the berries.”
“That he will!” Mama let out a croaky laugh. “That penniless boy has nothing more to offer than his good looks.” She shook her head and sipped the water.
Hazel looked at Mama, confused. How could a prince be penniless?
Outside, Papa was yelling at Johnny, the boy from town who sometimes helped out on the farm in exchange for fresh produce and dairy. He must’ve messed up the tractor again because it made an awful sound as if the cogs inside were screaming at someone.
“Where’s that damn Henry?” Papa shouted. Hazel looked out the window, trying to catch a glimpse of Papa and Johnny between the fluttering curtains.
Mama had a knowing look on her face as she stood up slowly, squeezing her eyes shut for emphasis. “Don’t waste your mind staring at nothing,” she said. “Help your mama wash these berries.”
* * *
Even though Lulu was only fifteen, she was almost never around the farm to help out. Hazel wasn’t sure where she went during the day, but tonight, like always, she was late for supper. And just like always, Mama raised her voice. Hazel covered her ears so she didn’t have to hear all of the screaming. While everyone else sat patiently at the rickety dining room table, Mama shouted at Lulu in the kitchen, warning her that next time she was late, she wouldn’t get dinner at all. Mama always said that, and next time there was always dinner.
After the dishes had been cleared, Mama told Lulu to help Hazel with the pie. Hazel could already taste the sweet-tart filling and the buttery piecrust as she watched her sister pull open the oven door and carefully grasp the pie between two tea towels. Following Lulu into the dining room, holding a great big bowl of freshly whipped cream, Hazel couldn’t help but wonder what Lulu spent all day doing. She noticed there were twigs poking out of the bottom of Lulu’s dark braid, and her blouse was wrinkly in the back. Her thickly lashed lids closed and opened with the slowest of movements, as if she was fighting off some kind of sleep. That’s when Hazel realized that Lulu was just like Sleeping Beauty. She must have spent the day sleeping in the fields, that’s why her back is so dirty, she thought. But would that make Mama the mean old queen? Hazel closed her eyes and wrinkled her nose. She knew better than to think like that.
“Oh, Mama! Strawberry rhubarb!” A.B. squealed with excitement as she rested her hand lightly on Henry’s forearm. Mama’s eyes followed A.B.’s hand, disapprovingly.
“It was your sister’s idea.” Mama didn’t shift her gaze. “She picked the berries fresh this morning.”
“Hazel, you sweet little thing!” A.B. wrapped her arm around Hazel’s waist, pulling her in close so that Hazel’s braids tickled of A.B.’s cheeks.
“It’s for your big wedding, A.B.” Hazel said softly.
“Now, Hazel, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m AnnaBeth now. A.B.’s a schoolgirl’s nickname,” A.B.’s voice was gentle, but her face looked like an angry grown-up’s, so Hazel squirmed out of her grasp.
“We really appreciate the pie,” Henry said, smiling broadly. His eyes seemed to twinkle in the dim evening light. “It’s very thoughtful.”
Hazel nodded at the prince. She suddenly forgot what had gotten her so worked up in the first place.
“Mmm, Hazelnut, this is deeelish.” Papa smiled with strawberry seeds in his teeth. “You do have the magic touch—not too tart, not too sweet.”
“Papa, you have seeds in your teeth!” Hazel giggled.
“Do I now?” Papa’s deep brown eyes widened, and he picked up a knife to look at his reflection. “Well, what do you know? You’re right.”
“I’m always right, Papa,” she said.
Papa always did silly things to make Hazel laugh. When she was very young, he would take Mama’s apron and use it as a bonnet, pretending to be an old grandma. As she got older he’d intentionally forget to shave part of his face so that she could point out his funny-looking mustache, and sometimes he’d put his socks on his hands instead of his feet. He’d always say, “You’re right, Hazelnut. You’re always right.” Lately, however, he had been doing his tricks less and less. So instead of waiting for him to tell her she was right, Hazel got into the habit of saying it first. It was her way of reminding him that she liked it when he teased her.
“Well, Hazelnut, I think you’ve surprised us all,” Mama’s pride colored Hazel’s cheeks a perky pink, “Just the perfect amount of sweetness with a little bit of zing.”
After plates had been scraped clean and the leftover pie had been covered and put into the refrigerator, everyone retired to the living room to play card games and read. Lulu said she was too tired for card games and snuck off before anyone could object. Hazel helped Mama wipe the counters of their crumbs and give the cats their nightly milk. The dogs gathered around Mama’s feet mopping up the floor with their sloppy tongues.
“You foolish animals.” Mama whacked them gently with the dishtowel. “If I needed a broom and dustpan, I’d go out and grab one.”
Hazel giggled. “Mama, they can’t understand you!”
“If only they could!” Mama threw her hands up, “Then all the world’s problems would be solved.” She gently pinched Hazel’s nose, then shooed the dogs into the living room where they jumped onto the couch and began licking Henry’s face. AnnaBeth laughed, egging the dogs on with a high-pitched whistle.
Watching her sister and Henry made Hazel even more eager for her for the big day tomorrow. She couldn’t wait to see what kind of princess gown her sister was going to wear. Would there be matching white gloves? A glittering tiara? A velvet sash held in place by a bow exactly precisely at A.B.’s waist?
“You’ve got that wandering wistfulness in your eyes, Miss Hazel,” Mama turned off the kitchen light. “What’s on your mind?”
“A.B.—I mean AnnaBeth’s wedding,” Hazel looked up and wiped her hands on her pants. Mama shook her head.
“Well, if you promise to put those pants in the wash first thing tomorrow, I’ll show you something special.” Mama stretched out her hand and Hazel slipped her little one in Mama’s big one.
Hazel was rarely allowed in Mama and Papa’s bedroom, but for a special occasion like AnnaBeth’s wedding, Hazel was allowed in as long as she was washed up, brushed her hair, and changed into her nightdress. Mama’s bedroom was at the end of hall, snug between two closets. A purple and blue quilt, tucked tightly into the mattress covered the two-person bed, which had been known on occasion to hold three people when Hazel had nightmares. A tall wooden dresser stuffed with four long drawers stood in the back corner of the room. It had lovely brass handles and scratches that Mama said made it an “antique,” which Hazel learned meant really old. But the most exciting part of the room were the boxes of old photos, letters and jewelry tucked safely underneath a rollaway desk. Mama almost never let Hazel go through the boxes. She’d always told Hazel that when she was older she’d get to keep the boxes, and then she could look through them all she wanted. But tonight, Mama opened up two of the boxes. One was a book filled with photos that were fit nicely into crinkly, plastic sleeves. The other contained a top hat and a beautiful sheer veil that ticked Hazel’s fingers when she touched it.
“Can I put on the veil again?” Hazel whined. She had already put it on three different times, but she loved the feeling of something resting gracefully on her head like a crown.
AnnaBeth laughed, handing over the veil. “You can have it,” she said. “I won’t be wearing a veil tomorrow.”
“Now, AnnaBeth, don’t say that yet. This veil has been in the family for three whole generations.” Mama adjusted the veil so that the lace part tumbled down Hazel’s back.
AnnaBeth sighed, her pink lips parted slightly as she exhaled. She was the only one in the family to have blonde hair, and it was so beautiful all golden and wavy. The lace veil would compliment her hair stunningly, making it shine even brighter than it already did.
“I think you should wear it,” Hazel said, taking off the veil for the final time and handing it back to AnnaBeth. “It looks better with blonde hair.” She twirled her own brown curls between her fingers, wishing it were lighter. In her fairytale book, all of the princesses had long blonde hair and bright blue eyes, just like AnnaBeth. When Hazel was younger she had hoped her hair would turn blonde. She’d run to the mirror every morning, hoping she had just woken up a princess. But Mama explained to her that hair doesn’t magically change colors by itself, and that everyone’s beautiful with the hair that grew on their head, no matter what color it was.
The dogs, who were lazing on the floor, wagged their tails eagerly, as AnnaBeth looked through Mama’s wedding photos, squealing each time she turned to a new page. Mama looked so beautiful in each and every photo. Her hair was tied back into a neat bun, and the sheer veil, which covered her beaming round face, fell to the floor like a waterfall. The small tiara crowned her head made Hazel beam—a tiara was the sign of a true princess.
“Mama do you still have that tiara?” Hazel asked, pointing to the photo.
“No, that was borrowed from a friend, but it was beautiful, wasn’t it?” She looked wistfully at the photo. Mama’s skin was a little looser and her hair was a little greyer, but she still had that same wedding-day glow when she smiled.
Hazel ran her fingertips over the photo, tracing the outlines of Mama and Papa cutting a wedding cake the size of Hazel herself. Papa looked handsome too, his brown hair combed neatly to one side, his big brown eyes full of excitement as he gazed fondly at his bride. He, too, looked the same, just with a neatly trimmed beard covering his face.
“It was a modest wedding,” Mama said, wrapping her strong arms around Hazel. “But it was the most magical day of my life…that is until I had you and your sisters!”
“Of course,” AnnaBeth laughed. She leaned over the book eagerly, like a child, admiring each and every photo as if taking mental notes.
Papa’s snore was what startled them all, sending the three into a fit of giggles that made the dogs jump up and whine, wanting to join in on the fun. AnnaBeth put the veil on her head so that she could use her free hands to scratch the dogs’ ears. Looking at Mama in the photo and AnnaBeth in the veil, Hazel grinned. It was like the princess learning to be a princess from her mother, the queen.
AnnaBeth kept turning the pages, a sad wistfulness in her eyes. Hazel wanted to ask what was making AnnaBeth so sad, but she felt like she shouldn’t. She didn’t want to ruin the fairy-tale moment.
* * *
Tucked tight in bed, Hazel couldn’t sleep. She kept imagining Henry as a handsome Prince—he could insist all he wanted he wasn’t a Prince, but Hazel knew a true prince would never reveal himself to the common folk. Claiming he was an actor was simply a way to disguise his true self. She wondered if Henry’s parents, the King and Queen, would attend the wedding. She figured probably not, considering they were busy ruling a country. That must be quite tiring, Hazel thought as she stared at the soft moonlight sneaking through the curtains of her bedroom. No wonder Henry came home with AnnaBeth. He wanted to escape the burdens of the kingdom. Or maybe an evil witch sent him away…
Just as Hazel thought she might actually be falling asleep, she heard the bedroom door shut with a click. Still lost in her thoughts about princes and evil witches, Hazel feared the worst—Henry had been discovered and the wicked witch had sent her minions to kill him.
“Henry’s not here,” Hazel whispered into her quilt, unsure whether she should close her eyes or widen them with fear.
“I’m not looking for Henry, idiot,” Lulu’s voice was so scratchy Hazel almost didn’t recognize it.
“Lulu, I thought you were sleeping!” Hazel relaxed a little bit. “Where were you?”
“None of your beeswax.” Hazel could barely make out her sister’s pale face in the dark. And then something metal flashed in the moonlight.
“What’s in your hand?”
Lulu scrambled to cover the mysterious, sparkly object with her pillow. “It’s nothing.” Her face was now in a beam of moonlight, her dark braid swinging over her left shoulder, her thin lips pursed.
But Hazel’s seven-year-old curiosity drove her to find out what Lulu was hiding. She jumped out of bed and stealthily stole the metal object. Lulu’s eyes widened. “Give me that flask,” she snarled.
Hazel examined the flask carefully. “What’s in this?” she asked. The cool metal gave her chills. It must be poison, Hazel thought, Probably to kill Henry.
Lulu shook her head, “Give it to me, now!” She was trying to be stern, but her words came off as unconvincing. She stumbled forward, and Hazel noticed her blouse was buttoned wrong.
Convinced the flask contained a deathly drink, she unscrewed the cap of the flask and took a whiff of the contents. And, oh boy, did it smell like poison—or how she imagined poison would smell. So evil and biting in its smell alone, it made Hazel draw back, coughing. The stench stung her nostrils and made her eyes water.
“Did someone give this to you to poison Henry with?” Hazel was beginning to believe her suspicions had been right all along.
“What?” Lulu grabbed the flask and quickly screwed the top back on
“Why are you carrying poison?”
“It’s not poison. Are you crazy?” Lulu scoffed. “It’s…” Her voice trailed off momentarily, then, “It’s a love potion.”
“Love potion?” Hazel had never seen one in real life. Was it like the one the princess drank to win the handsome prince in the end?
“Yeah, it’ll make any boy fall in love with you.” Lulu’s eyes glowed in the darkness, her voice suddenly eerie. “I know you’ve got a crush out there somewhere. Take a sip.”
Hazel looked doubtfully at the love potion. Lulu was always playing tricks on her, ever since she was young. She used to switch the sugar and the salt so that when Hazel ate her cereal she gagged and spit up all over the table. Mama always said it was because Lulu didn’t have a brother to get all of her energy out with. But what if it was a love potion? What if she drank it and a charming prince her own age came riding on a horse to take her away? But weren’t there always consequences to drinking a love potion?
Hazel shook her head; she wasn’t willing to sacrifice her voice or her family.
“Don’t be such a baby.” Lulu groaned, “Just drink it.”
“Will I lose anything?” Hazel’s voice was quiet; she was so confused she wanted to cry.
“What are you talking about? Of course not!”
Hazel put the flask to her small lips. The metal was cold and tasted bitter. She tilted concoction the upward, hearing the sloshing of the potion inside. The next few minutes were so terrible she barely remembered them after they happened. Sputtering and coughing like some kind of broken furnace, Hazel reached for the pitcher of water at her bedside and drank a cupful just to get the burning in her belly to stop.
“Tastes good, huh?” Lulu stood up and stretched her body.
Tears poured down Hazel’s cheeks. “That was terrible!” She cried. How can a love potion taste so awful?”
“It’s not a love potion, stupid, it’s bourbon,” Lulu slid off the with the flask and opened the dresser drawer, stuffing the flask into a pair of pantyhose. “Grow up, Hazel,” she said as she stripped off her clothes and slipped on her nightgown.
Bourbon was what Papa drank when the rain flooded some of the crop or when AnnaBeth sent a postcard saying she was engaged. It always put him in a better mood, so Hazel didn’t believe what Lulu told her. She didn’t believe that something that put people in good moods could taste so foul. She was convinced that whatever was in the flask was indeed some kind of poison, and that it was going to make her sick.
* * *
“Stop fidgeting!” Mama scolded, her voice muffled by the pins she held in her teeth.
“I can’t help it, I’m so excited!” Hazel was waiting for Mama to finish braiding her crown. Just because AnnaBeth didn’t want a crown, didn’t mean Hazel couldn’t have one—even though it was just made of hair. Mama and Hazel were helping AnnaBeth get ready in the big bedroom, while Henry, Papa and a couple of men from town were getting ready downstairs. Lulu was supposed to be outside helping to set up for the ceremony, but Hazel saw her sneaking off with Johnny. She swore not to tell Mama, but the urge to spill on her sister was overwhelming.
Hazel stared at her own reflection. Her dark hair was neatly coiled on top of her head, her dark eyes gazing steadily at her own reflection. She could’ve sworn she had less freckles last time she checked. Did princes like freckles? She thought real princesses had flawless skin.
“All done,” Mama took a deep breath and stepped back. Her own hair was pulled into a bun, her cheeks were rosy from her make up and her eyes lined with black pencil. Even though Mama’s lilac colored dress was her church dress, she still looked beautiful. Earlier that morning, Hazel had watched AnnaBeth pin Mama’s dress so that it wasn’t so baggy.
“Are you sure you’re eating enough, Mama?” AnnaBeth was still in her nightgown, her hair undone.
“I’m fine, don’t you worry about me.” Mama waved off AnnaBeth’s concern.
“The doctor said…”
“Hush, now AnnaBeth!” Mama’s voice was sharp. Her eyes quickly darted towards Hazel, who blinked back at her, unfazed.
“I think I need to sit down,” Mama lowered herself onto the edge of her bed. When she thought Hazel wasn’t looking, she opened a bottle, and shook out two small white pills.
“What are those pills for?” Hazel asked as AnnaBeth helped her get into a sunny yellow church dress.
“Oh! Those are for Mama’s head. She’s got a bit of a headache this morning,” AnnaBeth zipped up Hazel’s dress in one swift motion. “You look beautiful, Hazelnut.”
“You know when I first met my Henry I was wearing a yellow dress, just like this one.” AnnaBeth held the fabric between her thumb and forefinger. “He told me I was the happiest thing he had seen all week, and that he couldn’t ever bare to lose me.”
“That’s so wonderful,” Hazel said softly. She imagined Henry, a down-on-his-luck prince, meeting his future—the girl in the bright, yellow dress.
“Hazel, go find your sister,” Mama said. “We’re going to start the ceremony soon.”
Lulu was sitting on a bale of hay by herself. Her elbows resting on her knees, she gazed out at the strawberry fields, staring at something Hazel couldn’t see.
“Lulu, we’ve got to get our flowers. We’re starting soon.” Hazel tapped her sister’s shoulder.
“Okay,” Lulu didn’t budge. She kept staring out at the field.
“What were you doing with Johnny? I saw you sneak off with him.”
“We were kissing and stuff,” Lulu looked at Hazel and smiled. She was really beautiful when she smiled. Her eyes crinkled in a kind way—just like Mama’s.
“Well, don’t tell Mama,” Hazel warned. She didn’t like Johnny—he did strange things like look up ladies’ skirts and steal silverware from Mama and Papa.
“I won’t if you won’t.”
Hazel told herself she’d try her hardest not to tell, but she knew she couldn’t promise.
And before Hazel knew it, she was a flower girl. Henry was standing at the front with the pastor from town, Mama and Papa sat on the front two bales of hay, Lulu by their side. There were a few neighbors from town, but not very many others. Hazel was disappointed—there were no fluttering doves, no ball gowns, no quartet. As she walked down the aisle, AnnaBeth looked beautiful in her simple white cotton dress, her hair woven into its usual braid. No flowers adorned her crown, no jewels draping her neck. Just a simple silver cross dangling between her collarbones. Henry was wearing a dark blue tie and a faded button-down shirt. He didn’t look at all like a Prince, just a handsome stranger.
* * *
Later that evening, after a modest dinner of Cornish game hens, mashed potatoes with chives, and carrot-and-leek salad, AnnaBeth and Henry rode off not on a horse into the sunset, but in Papa’s pick-up truck to fetch the doctor because Mama’s chest was aching. Hazel had always thought that Mama’s chest ached whenever she herself misbehaved or thought of something naughty or forgot to take her stockings off when she ran through the backyard, but Papa told Hazel that Mama was sick and that her heart wasn’t beating as strongly as everyone else’s. Hazel didn’t understand how Mama’s heart could be sick. Wasn’t the heart the place where love came from? Where did all the love go when the heart was sick? Mama could never lose her love, Hazel thought. She’s so kind to everyone! Even when she scolds, it’s always out of love.
Hazel remembered the day Mama had helped the lost man by the road whose car tire had busted. Hazel helped Mama load a picnic basket with fresh cheese, warm, freshly baked bread, and some of the biggest apples Hazel had ever seen. Mama didn’t want to man to go hungry while he waited for the tow truck. She’d even invited him to wash off at the spigot, but he declined saying the food was already too much.
Hot tears pooled in Hazel’s eyes. Mama was strong; it couldn’t be that she was ill. Her Mama—always hustling around the kitchen, always busying herself with the well-being of others, always making sure everyone was feeling happy and comfortable and full of food.
Papa came over and snuggled next to Hazel on the couch. Tucking her head in the crook of his arm, just like when she was a toddler, Hazel found that her head wouldn’t fit in the cozy little spot anymore.
“I know it’s hard, Hazelnut.” Papa stroked her back gently. “But that’s part of growing up—realizing that nobody’s invincible.”
Hazel didn’t know what that meant, but it broke her heart anyway, and a sob crept out of her chest. She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve, not caring that Mama wouldn’t approve because it didn’t matter how well she behaved, there was nothing she could do to help Mama out.
“Doctor’s here,” AnnaBeth called as she closed the front door and walked through the foyer to the sitting room where Papa and Hazel were wrapped in a blanket, “Henry just went up with him to check on Mama.”
Papa stood up and sighed; AnnaBeth’s eyes moved to Papa. “You should trust him, Papa. He’s the man I love.”
Papa didn’t say anything as he left the room, slowly taking the stairs one at a time. Hazel could hear footsteps and muffled voices through the ceiling. She buried her head in the couch pillows, but they just hissed and flattened against the armrest.
“Hazel, it’s okay to close your eyes if you’re tired.” AnnaBeth sat down and rested her hand on her sister’s forehead. “Henry and Papa and I’ll be here to make sure everything is okay.”
“Where’s Lulu?” Hazel’s voice was soggy from her tears.
“She’s upstairs with Mama.” AnnaBeth said. “She refuses to leave Mama’s side.”
“Can I see Mama yet?”
“Soon, little nut, she needs her rest.”
“Is she tired?”
“Seems so,” AnnaBeth kissed Hazel’s forehead. She smelled like Henry’s aftershave, which made Hazel smile a little. She used to sneak some onto her fingertips just so she could smell royalty. She used to make Kenzie, the family’s grumpy, orange tabby sniff the stuff so that he could turn from a royal cat into a Prince just like Henry. It never worked because Kenzie would run away hissing whenever Hazel tried to grab him.
“AnnaBeth, are you and Henry leaving?” The warmth of the blanket and the quiet chirps of the crickets outside were making Hazel sleepy. She didn’t want them to go. She liked being a family, all together on the farm. It hadn’t been like that for as long as Hazel could remember. When Henry and AnnaBeth were around, she could pretend she was in a princess story. Without them, the fun would fade away when she closed her storybook at night.
“Only for a little bit.” AnnaBeth’s voice was soothing. “We’re going back to England where Henry’s from for him to work there as an actor.”
England. Ing-land. Hazel liked the sound it made when she rolled the word off her tongue. If Henry were a Prince in his homeland, of course he’d want to return to formally introduce AnnaBeth as his chosen bride. Hazel yawned. Could that mean that soon she too could visit England and become a princess?
In her dreams, Hazel was running in the wheat fields, scared of something that was chasing her. She looked left and right and then, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted herself, pale freckled with braided brown hair piled neatly into a crown. For some reason, she was terrified of herself and kept on running and running and running. The next time she looked up, she saw Mama’s face where the sun was supposed to be. Mama looked like she did in the picture of her wedding day, round-faced and full of grace. And when Mama smiled down at Hazel, the warmth of her smile made her forget for just a second that Henry wasn’t a Prince and that Lulu was lost and that soon it’d be just her and Papa picking strawberries in the sunshine.