The Neighbors Called It Weak: A Short Story
The Neighbors Called It Weak
He had never been this late before.
Elisabeth paced the cobblestones of Victoria Square, careful not to stray too far from the tightly-knit row of houses to her side. London was a hazy, dwindling ember of light at this time of the evening; the fog that encased her city was more than enough to conceal her from the crowd traveling home from work. The atmosphere, usually so comforting, did nothing for her hyperactive mind and disquieted nerves. Instead, the chill of the fog sunk deeper into her bones. Her heels clicked ominously on antiquated stone as her mind raced, and her heart leapt at every silhouette that grazed her skirts.
Her thoughts flickered between anxiety and anger. She shifted from My God, I’m going to kill him when he shows his face to Oh, please, Lord, let him be alright and back again. This never should have happened: where was he?
Elisabeth had been the one to devise the plan, and she had designed the enterprise without fault. Every single thing had been accounted for, every variable considered and solved. It was an easy job. It was a job that should have supported them for months, if not a year. She had done everything correctly: she had even provided him with a map, of all things! He was to get in and out of Lord Berkeley’s exhibition. Simple. Clean. The two of them had agreed to meet in Victoria Square at half past two.
It was almost five.
“Jacob, you imbecile,” she muttered under her breath, pulse racing, “where are you?”
Was her brother simply a directionally-challenged idiot? Or was he bleeding out in some back alley, unnoticed? Elisabeth’s heart assaulted her ribcage at that image. If you are dead, Jacob, I am going to kill you.
She whirled on her heel upon reaching the end of the block, meaning to take one last pass down the way, and swallowed a shriek as she came face to face with a man nearly as tall as her. Her dark eyes met his pale blue ones; his trim (yet deteriorating) wool coat flew about his torso. She exhaled upon realization of who it was. “William, you need to stop doing that. One of these days…”
“I know, Lis,” the younger one said. “You’ll actually have to unsheathe that knife and use it. I know your reflexes.” He chuckled.
Elisabeth surrendered a grim laugh in return. “We can’t be too careful out here. Have you seen Jacob?”
William’s eyebrows knitted at that. “No, I thought he was with you.”
“Then why wouldn’t we have come home?” Her anger was abrupt, emerging from the sudden keening of her stomach.
“I-I don’t know. I thought perhaps the two of you had decided to buy a circus or something, and had taken the money, so I came down here to check,” William replied. His rough attempt at a joke didn’t alleviate Elisabeth’s worry. At all.
She exhaled once more, harshly this time. “Will, he’s never been this late. A few minutes, yes, but it’s been hours.” The siblings stood in contemplative, meager silence for a moment, each formulating their own nightmare. Images of police, of struggle, of a rival, of blood and pain and…
“One thing’s for sure,” William began, interrupting the reverie.
“We have to find him before the government does,” Elisabeth finished. The duo—the brain and the counterfeiter of the outfit—knew their job well. Protect their older brother at all costs.
Giving a subtle nod, the two broke off in separate directions. Each entered the crowd, disappearing as if another pedestrian on a cold London day.
They were anything but.
Their family hadn’t started out this way. Jacob, Elisabeth, and William had grown up in a loving, middle-class household. Their father had been a city lawyer back in the day, taking on fraud and embezzlement cases; their mother had been a beautiful pianist, one whom friends traveled to hear weekly. The couple had been beloved by their community and adored by their children. The three, while not rich, had never wanted for anything growing up. They had instead focused on their studies. Elisabeth had shown the most intellectual promise; shirking propriety of the day, her parents had encouraged her bookish, whip-smart nature. Jacob was much brawnier, growing to become the track star of his private academy, a worshipped hero. William was by far the most creative, following in his mother’s footsteps, though he worked with charcoal and watercolor instead of sheet music. It had been a happy childhood.
Then came the war. At first, all of Great Britain had been so certain their side would win. The foe, Germany, would be defeated. Union Jacks flew high in the sky; the family reveled with the others, patriotic parades popping up along the streets. No one had considered that it would be a World War then: it was simply victory.
The war took their father first. He was killed in France, and the full body never recovered. Then, Jacob enlisted in memory of his dear, strong Papa. Two weeks later, their mother died suddenly in her sleep: the doctors thought it was some rapid form of influenza, but the children insisted it was a broken heart. Elisabeth and William were on their own, orphaned as teenagers with an older brother a channel away from them. That had felt like oceans at the time.
The two rejoiced the day Jacob returned. They had received news of it a few weeks in advance, and had decorated the house with handmade, faded streamers. They had splurged what little money they had to bake Jacob a delicious, William-decorated cake. It was supposed to be a joyous day.
But Jacob…Jacob did not come back in one piece. His body was fine, or so the physicians said. It was his mind that was ripped in two. They called it shellshock. The neighbors called it “weak.”
With their beloved brother unable to work, screaming and trembling in his bed as soon as his eyes closed every night, Elisabeth and William were forced to concoct a plan to support them all. Elisabeth couldn’t work—she was a woman with nothing but academic training, useless, still, in this century—and William didn’t have many marketable skills. They finally came to the conclusion one night, listening to Jacob’s howls of trauma in the other room: the government had done nothing for them, had lied to them. So why not take back what was rightfully theirs? The three combined were certainly intelligent enough, strong enough, creative enough to do it.
Their identity changed that day. No longer intelligent young ones, they were now mastermind thieves with razor reflexes.
It had worked wonderfully. Until now.
Elisabeth’s hat threatened to tear off her head as she fast-walked the streets. She was careful to maintain a calm demeanor, frenetic energy buried beneath. She was a professional, after all. It would be dangerous—no, fatal—to exude any sort of panic.
She and William had to find Jacob before anyone else did. The government sent people like Jacob to asylums, where they withered away to nothingness; the public did worse. If Jacob had had an attack in public, there was no telling what could have happened. Someone could have clubbed him over the head, fearful for their own safety. Someone could have found the stolen jewels on his person. Someone could have reported him, beaten him, screamed “Freak!” as they pummeled him. Or, even worse, Jacob could have done something self-inflicted.
Elisabeth pushed herself onwards, flying past automobiles and cyclists alike. She traced every step that Jacob could have taken. There were two directions her brother may have gone: she had wordlessly claimed one, William, the other. Their minds existed in near-perfect synchronization ever since…well, ever since the day Jacob had come home.
Each clack of a heel translated to the beat of her heart. Elisabeth fought to absorb everything around her, peering in alleyways and thresholds, kicking under shrubbery and tapping the occasional hollow step. Her world was shrouded in a haze, human faces shaded as if by spilt ink on paper.
No. Not there. No. No, no, no, no. Where is he?
She blinked rapidly, fighting down frustrated tears as she turned yet another corner. She emerged onto a nearly-deserted street, dilapidated housing complemented by barely-discernible bits of newspaper blowing down the way. With no one in sight, Elisabeth finally allowed a shuddering sob of a breath to drop from her lips. One hand flew over her mouth. The other grasped at her blouse, desperate for something to cling to.
Then: a cry of response. “Is…is that you, Lis?”
With no hesitation, she bolted to his side, kneeling by a brick stair. Jacob—her lithe, lean brother who used to be the toughest man in the world, who could run a mile in five minutes—leaned against the bottommost step, forcing himself to breathe. His pupils ricocheted, and his hands, while shaking, clutched a package under his vest. “Yes, darling, it’s me,” Elisabeth said. She wrapped her hand gently around his forearm. “It’s alright. I’m here. William and I are here.”
“I…I saw…he had that gun, Elisabeth. And…and he was…he was wearing th-those colors—” Jacob broke off with a choke, trembling more violently. Elisabeth didn’t have any desire to know what hellish landscape he was withdrawing to.
“I know, I know,” she whispered, running her fingers lightly through his hair. “It’s alright, big brother. We have you. I promise.”
“I got everything, though,” Jacob murmured after a moment. “I got it.” He pulled the package out from under his vest, knuckles tinted white from clutching it so hard. Inside, ten priceless jewels rattled, hidden.
“You did!” Elisabeth grabbed the bundle, dropping it carefully into her satchel. “You did, and William and I are so proud of you. And so grateful. This will support us for some time now.”
Jacob’s lips quirked. “Good. I’m glad.” A pause. “That’s all I ever wanted to do, you know.”
“Support the two of you. I wanted to take care of my baby brother and sister. I wanted to make you proud. That’s why I joined. That’s why I went in. Not because of Dad, but because I—” His rushed, gasping speech splintered. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t do that."
Elisabeth’s mouth pulled taut. “Jacob, don’t you believe a word of that. You are the strongest person I know. You don’t have to take care of anyone. We take care of each other.”
The shaking remained, then weakened after a moment or two. Elisabeth and Jacob breathed in tandem, each comforting the other. Words weren’t needed.
Finally, as the rattle of a Ford reverberated across the neighborhood, Elisabeth stood. She felt the weight of the jewels against her thigh, and she smiled. She extended a hand to her hero.
“Come now, big brother. It’s time to go home.”
© Rhiannon Ling, 2018
Written for an undergraduate course
Featured painting by Steven Scholes