"Have you finished boxing them up?" he asked. I looked to the cardboard box and then back up to him. He had seen me tape them shut five minutes ago. I guess he was just being precise. I nodded and he patted the box with a hoof.
"Mr. Orange's workers will be here to pick them up soon," he explained. "Then they'll be sent to the warehouses in Manehattan."
"What happens then?" I asked. He was pretty quiet with his response, mumbling something under his breath. His attention was more occupied by the clock hanging on the wall of the shop floor. It was 17:38. He was pacing back and forth around the room. Finding his behaviour to be unsettling, I asked if I could get a drink. He didn't say anything against it, and so I walked slowly into the kitchen. Artemis was sitting on the table waiting for me. I scooped her up and squeezed her tightly. She remained silent; she had been surprisingly quiet recently. I would normally expect her to have something clever to say, but she must have supported what I was doing: if she didn't, I would have heard something by now.
I rummaged around for the bag of coffee granules. Back home I'd never liked coffee, but here I was allowed to add as much sugar and milk as I liked. It made it taste a lot nicer like that. My father always had his coffee black, and my mother rarely drank the stuff. Having only tasted it upon the order of my father, I didn't know how nice it could be if the actual taste of coffee is masked correctly. I began to boil some water and sat down opposite Artemis. She was perching on some sort of brown ring on the table, probably from the bottom of a cup. I'd put her down on it without realising, but luckily it had dried, and so there was no risk of it staining Artemis' soft coat. Regardless, I moved her away from the coffee ring.
A week ago I'd been asked to make three dresses for Mr. Orange. He'd taken me aside and explained what he wanted from me. At first I'd been doubtful, but he was a hard pony to say no to. I didn't know what it was about him that intimidated me as much as it did. Perhaps it was the feeling of not quite knowing what he was capable of? A lot of the time, so I'd been told, the silent types were the ones to worry about; those who talk a lot are easier to get a reading on. But the quiet ones are usually hiding something, and there's normally a reason for them wanting to keep their secrets hidden.
I'm one of the quiet ones, I guess you could say. All of the stuff with my mother had left me feeling immense guilt for my actions. And even now, with all of this work to distract me, I couldn't stop thinking about how things may have been different if our home hadn't burned down. At the very least, I would still be living with my mother, and probably my father; but that would be okay, because they would at least be pretending to be happy together. I guess I should come clean: I hated things that my father had done, and still continued to do, but his affair with her wasn't the main reason for why I didn't want to be anywhere near him. It was those feelings of guilt for the death of my mother that kept me away from him. How could I stand in front of my father and admit that everything was my fault? His unhappiness had been caused by me. I just couldn't do it to him.
I realised that my water had finished boiling and carefully poured it into the cup. And then, brandishing a silver spoon that had been resting idly in my mouth, I stirred the mixture, adding copious amounts of sugar and topping it off with some milk. It became a light brown colour: just the way I liked it. I smacked my lips together and took my first sip. Around that time my associate entered the room, taking a seat opposite me and hanging his head low, almost touching the table with his snout.
I chose not to ask him if anything was wrong, because he wouldn't have told me even if there was something on his mind. He was obviously just stressed. I wasn't too worried about the transaction; Mr. Orange had complimented what I was doing, and I was happy with two out of the three dresses: the pink and blue ones had been nice. It was really just the brown one that I disliked; brown was such a horrible and boring colour, and I couldn't imagine that any pony would wear it. He had explained to me, though, that Manehattan's fashion world would surprise me, and I was happy to believe him. He obviously knew a lot more about that sort of thing than me. I could only go on what I had heard from magazines and her, which wasn't much.
"Would you like some coffee?" I offered, but he declined, taking to standing once again. I suppose that coffee isn't the best thing to drink when you're already finding it hard to sit still.
"You should sit down," I said. "They might not even be here for hours."
"They'll be here at 17:44," he replied. "I know they will."
At 17:44 there was a knock at the door. He asked me to stay in the kitchen. I wanted to at least get a peek at the warehouse stallions, but he was really demanding and I didn't want to tick him off, and so I did as I was told. I heard a few words exchanged and then he came back into the kitchen. The box had been taken. He let out a relieved sigh and collapsed over the table. I moved Artemis away from him, tugging her close to my body.
"At least we get a break now, right?" I asked.
"I wouldn't bet on that," he whined. "We can only afford to relax until he wants the next batch. We'll have to wait and see if these three are successful or not."
I pushed out my bottom lip, thinking long and hard. "Hey, just hypothetically," I contemplated, "if they don't sell well, what will happen?"
He raised his head. "I imagine that you will be out of a job," he said.
"And what about you?"
"I'll be out of a job, too."
He said those words with sadness, and as I looked at him, I did feel sorry for him. I still didn't know much about him at all: it was crazy that we were still strangers to one another, even though I had been living with him for weeks. I knew that he was older than I was, and that living and working together wasn't normal, but I didn't fear him, which was enough to suggest that I had nothing to fear in asking him questions. And, during this entire time at Carousel Boutique, I'd been wondering the same thing:
"Could you please tell me something?" I mewed softly. "I just really want...no...need to know something."
He remained silent, but nodded.
"-What happened to the previous owner of this place?" I asked, and he reacted slightly better than I thought he would. When I had asked before he had shunned a response with the wave of a hoof. Now he sighed and rolled his eyes, but he appeared more committed to explaining it. I don't know why he suddenly felt more comfortable talking to me about this sort of thing, but something had changed: he was treating me less like a stranger. Maybe he had warmed up to me?
"It's not something that I like to talk about, Farleigh," he said in his exasperated voice, "but I know that you're always going to wonder. I think that you deserve to know at least a few details."
I shuffled closer to the table, sitting on the edge of my seat. I almost fell off the end, but Artemis helped me to steady myself. I kept her between my front hooves, stroking at her tousled mane as he continued:
"You're familiar-" he began, but cut himself off. He contemplated his words for a moment and then resumed. "Have you ever experienced losing someone in your life, Farleigh?"
I didn't want to answer that question. He must have realised, because he kept on talking when I didn't.
"-This boutique once belonged to someone very close to me. Now she isn't here. You must have noticed that by now."
"What happened to her?" I gulped.
"She left," he said. "Forever."
He didn't need to spell it out to me. Either she had broken up with him, or she was dead. It clearly caused him a lot of pain, and I was sorry for having asked him about it. After all, he still didn't know the first thing about me, and now I knew something about him that he probably told very few ponies.
"I'm sorry that I kept asking," I said, "and I'm sorry that she left. Do you miss her?" My question was stupid and I regretted asking it immediately after.
"Yes," he replied all the same. "Every time I walk into this kitchen, or hear the floorboard creak at the top of the stairs, or smell her fragrance in the bathroom...it all reminds me of her."
"Would you rather be without that stuff?" I asked, and he sighed.
"Sometimes," he said, "but knowing that it's always there is the only way that I can remember what I had. If I got rid of it all...I wouldn't be able to remember a second of it."
I wanted to ask more questions while he was willing to talk about it, but I could see that tears had formed in his eyes. Seeing them made me cry as well, and I had to wipe my eyes with the back of my hoof to get rid of them. I sat there with him for a little while. I hated talking about stuff like that as well, but maybe that was the reason why I felt that I could relate to him? I'd been keeping my emotions inside me, bottled up, for so long. I needed to talk to someone, finally, about what had happened. It had to be a pony who wouldn't take it as evidence of a crime, or tell me that I wasn't guilty; I needed to speak to an honest pony. A pony like this one.
"I...um..." I started, gulping. "You asked if I had ever lost someone close to me. Well, I have." I squeezed Artemis tightly. I thought that he'd be more surprised by what I said, but he didn't react at all.
"A few months ago, my mother died," I said, doing my best to stop my bottom lip from trembling. "She was killed in a house fire."
I had said it. Finally, I had said the words. And the pony sitting opposite me, even though he was a stranger in one respect, simply remained quiet and composed, and allowed me to continue. "I miss her so much," I said, "and every day I wish that she was still here." I had only one final boundary to cross: admitting that I was responsible for it all. I looked at the pony in front of me. I just couldn't keep it inside any longer. For months I had punished myself about it without telling a soul. The floodgates had now been opened, and they weren't going to close until I had finished.
"I...I think..." I stuttered. "I think that...I am to blame. I feel as if...it's my fault."
He reacted to that in a greater way than I had thought he would: tears were forming in his eyes once again, and he shook his head slowly back and forth.
"The night that it happened..." I continued, "I think I left a fire on...or left something else burning. I think I may have had some of my father's alcohol and might have spilled a bit which helped the flames to burn...I think that-"
He cut me off.
I paused, noticing that my body was trembling. I burst into tears, not even caring that I was showing my most vulnerable side. I was tired of running from what had happened. I just couldn't go on with it eating away at me.
"You're not to blame," he said in a soothing voice. "I promise you that it's not your fault."
"My d-dad is going...to be...s-so...angry with me..." I cried weakly, my throat hurting from the strain of my tears. Through the blur I saw him reach a hoof out towards me across the table, which I gripped onto with my own.
"Why will your dad be angry?" he asked, doing his best to remain composed. Having come this far, I decided that it was pointless to hold anything else back. Telling this kind stranger about my family couldn't hurt me now: Mr. Orange was already familiar with my father, and I trusted this pony far more than him.
"His name...is Friesian Cross..." I said. "I just call him my dad...my father...but...he misses my mother so much...and I can't do anything to bring her back."
"I know of the house fire that you're talking about," he said casually, which took me completely by surprise.
"How do you know...?" I asked breathlessly.
His words clung to his lips.
"-It was in the news," he replied. "Now that you've said his name, I remember it: Mr. Friesian Cross. I heard that his home burned down in Trottingham months ago. The wife died...but the daughter lived."
He sounded as if he was reading a speech from a newspaper article. I nodded and felt the tears returning. He gripped my hoof tightly.
"You have to stop blaming yourself, Farleigh," he said to me. "I remember when that news hit. I read every single newspaper and story about it for days. I bet I know more about it than even you do. Do you know what the fire department ended up saying caused it?"
"The logs behind the fire-guard..." I sobbed. "The one that I left open..."
"No!" he exclaimed, something resembling a smile forming on his lips for a moment. "It wasn't the fire-guard after all. That's a common misconception! It was some old oil-based lighting system that lit the house. It was really dated and dangerous, and that night it went wrong. Honestly, it's a wonder that the home didn't burn down years before."
I shook my head, finding his words difficult to comprehend. I remembered sitting in the living room that night, failing to extinguish the dancing flames. Then they had danced upon my mother.
"Blaming yourself doesn't get you anywhere, Farleigh," he said. "Trust me on that. For the longest time I blamed myself for what happened at this boutique...between its four walls. But none of us act deliberately to hurt others. And you have to ask yourself: did you want your mother to die?"
"Of course not!" I groaned.
"-And would you do anything just to see her again?"
"I would..." I replied.
"Listen to me, Farleigh," he said, lifting himself out of his chair and walking around to my side of the table. He knelt in front of me and stared up into my eyes, showing no sign of hesitance. "You are not a murderer, Farleigh," he said with utter conviction. "You are not a criminal in any way, shape or form. You're a young girl who is a very long way from home."
I nodded. Finally, words were beginning to make sense again.
"We always want to blame ourselves when things go wrong that deeply hurt us," he said. "It's the only time that we ever will hold ourselves responsible for something. When we truly love someone, that is when we feel the most vulnerable; and, in losing them, we cannot help but feel as if it's our fault for being unable to keep holding on."
"What should I do?" I asked, trusting his judgement. He was the only pony who had spoken with me honestly about the ordeal; others had attempted to shelter me from it, and my father had chosen to ignore it to the best of his ability, being unable to find any way of discussing it. All I had needed was a pony who understood, and now I had found one.
"You should stop holding yourself responsible, for a start," he said, standing up and pouring himself out a cup of coffee, before taking a seat opposite me once more. He offered me another drink, but I had barely even started mine. I took that as my cue to take a sip.
"In addition," he resumed, "you should do what you think is right. Now that you've told me everything else, why don't you tell me why you ran away?"
I was hesitant, but there were few barriers between us now. He had been entirely honest with me, and in return, I would be honest with him. He had probably already guessed part of the reason why, anyway.
"My father is a good stallion, deep down," I said. "Have you ever met him before?"
"Mr. Friesian Cross?" he replied. "-Nope. I've never met him before in my life. I only know about him because of the story in the news."
"He has a lot of good qualities...but he has some bad ones as well."
"What are the bad ones?" he asked.
"He...smokes a lot..." I said. I don't know why that was the first negative quality that came into my head, but perhaps it was because all week I had been smelling smoke coming from the boutique. "That's why I don't want you smoking your pipe...I always got scared when I was young that he would die from doing it."
"You're still young," he remarked, and I found myself smiling a little.
"-When I was very young, then."
"I might cut down, then," he said, which made me happy.
"He's a good businesspony," I continued, deciding to list some of his positive attributes, "and he's very wise and clever. He loved my mother...in his own way...but then she came into the picture."
"...Her name is Ambrosia Clemency," I said. I didn't expect that he would recognise the name, and he said nothing to suggest that he did. "She's nothing but a Manehattanite whore! She started seeing my father under my mother's nose."
"Is she the reason you ran away?" he asked.
"Sort of," I admitted. "During...the fire...he was with her. He said that he was in Manehattan for a business meeting, but there was no meeting. And after the fire, he was still with her. And I just can't help but think that if he'd been in Trottingham on the night of the fire...he might have been able to save my mother. By being away with her, I was left alone to save my mother...and then I failed..."
I started to cry again.
"Had he been home," he said quickly, "he may have also been killed. I understand that his behaviour is wrong, but it's possible that being away that night may have saved his life."
"I don't hate him," I said, nodding along with his words. "I did for a while...when I was questioning for weeks upon weeks why he hadn't been there to save his only daughter and wife...but now I don't. Now I realise that he's the only family that I have left. And...I understand that he never wanted harm to come to me. Even when he moved in with her after the fire...even when he had no time left for me."
"Sometimes we do stupid things in order to help us to grieve and overcome things," he said. "I bet your father doesn't love this 'Ambrosia Clemency' mare anywhere near as much as he loved your mother and still loves you."
"You might be right..." I said with a sigh. I had gotten so much off of my chest. The most enormous weight had been lifted, and I had this kind stallion to thank for that.
"Thank you," I sniffed. "I really do mean it."
"It's okay," he said.
"Not just for talking to me now," I continued gratefully. "For taking me in, and for giving me a room upstairs. I know that you didn't want me sleeping up there, so thank you for letting me! And...thank you for giving me food and shelter, and for keeping me safe and for looking out for me. Thank you for giving me a chance and for not sending me home when I couldn't face it."
"Are you about finished?" he joked, and I couldn't help but smile.
He was modest, but I could tell that he knew that my praise was genuine. "Oh," I said quickly, "and thanks for letting Artemis stay, too." I lifted her hoof to wave at him, and he gave a little smile in response. He offered to take my cup, which was now empty, and he set about washing it at the kitchen sink. As he did, I thought back to the fire, and then again to his words. For the first time in months, I felt as if I wasn't the one to blame. My mother would not have wished for me to spend my life blaming myself, and I knew, deep down, that I would never have been capable of hurting her. It must have been a tragic accident; an old lighting system, as he had said.
I looked to him as he moved on to washing his own cup. He only had two left now; the third had broken, he explained. It had been leaking water, he had said, which was no use for a cup. But our two cups were complete and incapable of leaking. We would have to be careful to avoid breaking them. I began to think of my father: I bet he didn't blame me at all for any of what had happened. In fact, I bet he missed me, and was looking for me at that very moment. And then my eyes settled again on my friend, who was scrubbing every trace of coffee from the inside of that cup, and I made a decision.
After a short while he explained that he was going to the store to pick up some food for dinner. He asked if I wanted anything in particular imported from Trottingham, although for the first time I agreed to eat food grown in Ponyville. He told me to wait at the boutique, given the toll that confessing everything had had upon me, and insisted that he would be home soon. The moment that I heard the door of the boutique close Artemis found her voice from between my hooves:
"And so, anchoress, will you now be returning home? Young fillies should never stray and roam. Your pilgrimage has proven a success; no longer are you plagued by stress."
"Soon," I said, pressing my chin against the top of her head. "I need to see my father soon. I need to go home. But before I do, I owe this stallion my help, just for a little while."
Artemis contemplated upon my words for a while. When she spoke, it was the last thing that she said for some time:
"Very well, Farleigh, but you should get out soon; darkness and danger are drawn to this loom. Conclude your promises as a good filly should; but leave this place in haste: it will end in blood."