Charles Shrubbery III was, as any child left alone for long periods of time, very bored.
His parents, Sir Charles Shrubbery II and his lovely wife Lady Katherine Shrubbery, didn’t get where they were without working hard, working often, and stepping on those below them. It took them all over, abroad to the States or just out of town, leaving young Charlie by himself with a nanny and the staff in the large estate or at the boarding school he attended.
The drivers, cooks, maids, and bodyguards of the estate were too busy for him. Teachers and staff at the schools didn’t like him. So he got used to reading, listening to the radio, and playing by himself. He made up games by watching and listening to the quiet whispers of his parents and the other members of The Family.
Charles would sit atop the stairs as they went by in their suits, acting like he hadn’t seen their gun holsters when they were in the parlor just an hour prior. He listened to them talk about The Family business, about what deals needed to be made, about who—not what, he noted—needed to be cleaned next. He learned by observing what happened around him. The tiny movements, the little turns of phrases… it all gave something about them away, and Charlie saw everything.
It was different at school, where people weren’t trying to protect him from a world they didn’t know he was already fully aware of. The teachers weren’t as naturally charismatic as his parents, and they didn’t cover up lies as well with sharp actions or controlled aggression. The kids around him were the easiest to read. Everything was laid out in front of him—no pretenses, just honesty.
He could easily see how everybody would fit into the structure of a Family like his. Who would lead? Who would they send to kill, who would be killed? Would there be anybody to step in and save the victim? Would there be a traitor?
Charlie was sitting under a tree reading a book during a study break when a fight broke out, and he saw everything in action. It was hot outside—most people were indoors. Charlie could relax normally when it was quiet like this, but the fighting was distracting. There was shouting across the yard, and his eyes were naturally drawn to it. There were two boys, one in football boots and the other with a cricket bat.
“You think you can steal my yard time?” Football was shouting at Cricket. He had a ball tucked under his arm but threw it down as he got in Cricket’s face.
“I signed up with the coach!” Cricket yelled back.
Charlie recognized the two of them. They were both well liked and normally got along. The two of them joked around in class and generally got good grades from what he knew. They’d do better in class, if they weren’t fooling around so much, Charlie thought wistfully, but that didn’t matter. The important thing here—the explosive part of their argument would be…
“Of course you did, you teacher’s pet…” Football grumbled.
Cricket rose to the bait. “I’m not!”
Charlie’s lips twitched into a smile. I was right. There was a strain of jealousy that ran through Football. Cricket was the perfect British Boarding School Student—well liked, played a British sport, got good grades, his parents were in high standing. Football was… less than all of that, and he knew it, and he felt like everybody knew it. There was somebody like this in every group usually. He’d seen it a dozen times in The Family.
Football prickled. “Sure, you are. Go. Run. Tell someone if you have to. I’m playing football.”
Then he turned away from Cricket. Devastation written plainly on his face quickly turned to embarrassment turned to anger. He must have thought they were closer friends than Football did. Anybody else that had been in the yard had fled by now. Probably to get a teacher. Cricket’s hands were shaking and—
Oh. This was something Charlie hadn’t thought Cricket was capable of, until now.
Cricket raised the bat.
Not only better in his intelligence and amiability, but Cricket was apparently also better in his aggression. But not strong enough to do too much damage.
They are still kids, after all, Charlie thought, as Cricket brought the bat down on Football’s head. Blood splattered outwards. Cricket started to cry.
“Walter!” A shriek from behind him, and the homeroom teacher ran over to the two boys.
The other students who had left the yard came padding behind her like ducklings. A few other teachers came from the nearby buildings to check on her screams for assistance. It didn’t take long for a crowd to form at the noise, for the boys to get the help they needed. Charlie shut his book and pushed himself up off the ground as everyone fussed over Football and Cricket. As he was heading to his room, the homeroom teacher caught his arm.
His head snapped to her. Who does she think she is to touch me?
His voice echoed in his head so loudly, so aggressively that it scared him. Self-satisfaction with his game had never been so strong before, and Charlie quickly quieted the unprompted voice as he observed the way the teacher was observing him.
She was furious, visibly trying to reign herself in. There were dark circles under her eyes that she’d tried to cover with makeup, but it was wearing away now that it was later in the day. A faded bruise on her cheekbone—and Charlie recalled that it wasn’t the first.
A victim, bubbled somewhere up in the recesses of his consciousness, but he focused instead on what she was saying.
“Just because your parents paid for you to be here doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want,” she said. She swallowed hard. She was brave, here, at school, at least, while most of the teachers avoided him because of his family.
She had a wedding band and had never once mentioned her husband. She actively avoided talking about her home life, in fact, his mind supplied.
She continued, “You saw them fighting, and you didn’t do anything? You were the only one who left here while everybody else went for help. They could have gotten seriously hurt, Charlie.”
Could they? A part of him wondered. How bad would the damage have been, before someone stepped in? Someone would have, surely, eventually. There was always somebody to stop things before—
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” she stammered. He felt the tremor in her hand, recognized it as the fear all of his teachers felt towards him. He saw it often, heard it occasionally in sudden hushed whispers when he passed a faculty room.
“Are you afraid of me?”
She threw his arm down. “I am afraid you want to be a criminal like your parents,” she spat, her lips trembling.
You would be great at it, that unwanted voice told him.
It would be so easy to give into it and just…
His teacher continued, “Is that what you want? At some point you will have to make the choice for yourself. Do you expect your parents to cover for you forever?”
It came out, before he even realized. The voice he’d been trying so hard to keep in his mind came out of his mouth. “I am not a victim like you. You and the others are afraid of me for a good reason.”
“You don’t know me,” she huffed. Her eyes were teary, at the accusation and the threat. “Look at yourself. If it had been you lying on the ground, wouldn’t you have wanted help?” she asked, and then she paced away without another word, without a decree of punishment for his inaction.
Nobody would have dared, he thought automatically. It had been ingrained in Charlie—that he was untouchable. That The Family would protect each other. That’s what they did.
But she had. She had grabbed him and he had known instantly that just yelling loud enough would have scared her, that hitting her once would have—
The thoughts scared him. They came involuntarily. A flurry of thoughts so fast, so plentiful that Charlie couldn’t make out his own conscious thoughts, what was him and what was something else.
Had his teacher been right? She had said to look at himself.
So he did.
When he got ready the next morning, Charlie looked in the mirror and saw traces of his parents—of The Family in his face. All he could see was a younger, more honest version of his father. It was not his own face, but it was his voice echoing in his head that he had to be careful. That if they found out he was a criminal, he wouldn’t be able to play his games anymore.
Charles turned away from the mirror, but he still felt his own eyes watching him as he went through his classes. Every day, he felt his skin crawl as he felt somebody watching him, somebody waiting for him to make a mistake so they could bring him down. There was a knife at his neck, and he didn’t know who was holding it.
He wondered how he would ever take his father’s place like this.
Was that a place he even wanted to be?
It was the highest honor before. He’d have won the game, if he’d ever played before… But he had never considered himself a player. None of the kids, none of the Family at the estate, ever wanted to play with him. He was an observer.
He had always been an observer, until now. Until he was staring at himself, trying to hide from the eyes that he knew watched him.
It was a relief when the school year ended and he went home to the estate, surrounded by people who could care less what he did. The house abounded with voices that were not his own, and he could lie atop the stairs, focusing on the business on the floor below him.
He was in his rightful place—an observer—a watcher. He was happy here, until—
“Charlie? Are you here?”
It was Dominic—his father’s right hand. He was in charge of much of the dirty work in The Family, but usually stopped by to greet Charlie when they were at home. Somebody hushed him, scolded him for being careless—Ray.
But Charlie recognized the tone of their voices. They were tense. Nervous, even. And Dominic answered:
“Yes, we’ll take care of the old man tonight.”
His father would die tonight.
He heard footsteps, heard the voices in the kitchen. The way they struggled to hide their anxiety in whispers.
His father would die tonight if he didn’t do anything.
This was no longer a game, but he was still an observer. Charlie’s heart stayed on the floor as he sat up, searching for something to do. He caught sight of himself in the glass of a picture frame.
The same eyes he’d been avoiding stared back at him—now large, with a barely visible terror. Barely visible in the darkness of the house, just barely catching the light from the downstairs entryway. There was an edge in his expression he tried not to see—a voice he tried not to hear. Like a cat ready to pounce. Was it fear? Or aggression?
He’d heard the nanny as she came up the stairs. She always walked with purpose, and her rubber clogs sounded different than the rest of The Family’s shoes. She jumped when she saw him, but then when her expression smoothed and she laughed easily, he almost felt normal. It was different, the way she looked at him, from the way he saw himself.
Looking at her looking at him, he realized that he could be a player, if he tried. If he knew everything, he could use it for some good.
“I need to speak with my father,” he said. It was an unusual request—he didn’t often ask for his parents, never wanting to disturb them.
His father was at work—at the office, but Charlie insisted. A phone call wouldn’t do, and Charles offered no other explanation other than he needed to explain in person. The nanny buttoned his coat, and they had the driver pull around.
As they drove away, Charlie watched Dominic watching the car as they drove away. A furrowed brow, a nervous hand in his pocket. Would he think Charlie was a threat? Or was it his own plot, his own paranoia getting to him?
They arrived without consequence, as Charlie figured they would. He had never been involved before, nobody bothered to look at him. He was no suspect, held no power in The Family until that night when—
“I overheard Dominic,” Charlie told his father. “He’s planning to poison the dinner tonight and overthrow you as head of The Family.”
His father and mother exchanged a glance, and Charlie saw everything in it. Worry, acceptance, knowing. His father looked triumphant—he must have suspected for a while that Dominic was planning something.
His father came around the desk and took Charlie’s hands in his own large, blistered ones. “You’ve done good son,” he said.
There was a bright feeling in his chest, a lightness he’d never felt before. The only eyes on him were his parent’s, and they shimmered with unshed tears of pride. This felt like winning.
His father thanked Charlie, sent him back home with the nanny and an extra bodyguard.
The nanny took him upstairs and tucked him into bed. He fell asleep peacefully. Satisfied.
Charlie woke abruptly in the middle of the night at the sound of fighting. Screaming. Begging.
He recognized Dominic’s voice, wheezing, coughing. His father’s voice, much more commanding, charismatic. Angry, but in control. Charlie couldn’t make out what they were saying.
There were other voices. Real ones outside his window and his own voices that he’d tried so hard to forget and drown out. You won.
This is what happens when you interfere.
This is your fault.
He saw himself in the reflection of his window as he sat up. Again, he saw nothing. Nothing to hide, nothing to offer. Just large eyes judging, staring back at him.
Outside, he saw Dominic’s back as he knelt in front of his father. Begging for forgiveness. His father pulled the trigger.
Blood splattered on his window.