“Penny?” I inquire.
“Mmm?” she responds while gently placing my early dinner on my desk.
“You used to travel a lot before you began working for my parents, didn’t you? Did you ever visit a place that, uh, that had people like me?” I wring my hands while eagerly awaiting her reply.
“I,” she stops herself. “I knew you would ask this some day,” she sighs. She pulls up a chair next to me and takes my hands in hers. “Your parents made me promise to never initiate a conversation about this with you, but I suppose I’m not the one who initiated it, am I?” she smirks. I grin just a she is.
“No, I suppose you didn’t.” I fidget in my seat while she begins to gather her thoughts.
“To answer your question, yes, there is a place where berries live in peaceful acceptance. There are many places, actually. Some towns are comprised of mostly berries, like Sugar Valley, while others, such as Apple loosa Pie, have berries and vanillas alike,” she explains. My mind lingers on her words.
“So my parents are wrong!” I practically jump out of my chair. “It’s just them who dislike berries!”
“Careful, now,” Penny starts. “Your parents aren’t right, but they’re not wrong, either. There are many places that accept and celebrate berries, Celeste, but Sunset Valley is not ones of those places. It’s really not one of those places,” she grimaces.
“But you live in Sunset Valley, and you’re not like my parents!” I protest.
“Yes, dear, but I wasn’t born here. I can assure you that all the years I’ve lived in Sunset Valley, I haven’t met someone who feels as I do.”
“You weren’t born here? Where were you born? I always assumed-”
“A little town called Apple loosa Pie,” she winks. My eyes grow wide as I realize Penny has not only seen, but grown up with berries. She starts to get up from her chair, but I stop her.
“Wait! Please, tell me more, Penny. I’ve never seen a berry before in my life, let alone another person outside of this household. What are they like?” I’m nearly yelling at this point I’m so excited. Penny has the ability to tell me everything about people who are just like me; she has the ability to be my key to the outside world — the world I’ve always desired.
“Why don’t you go see for yourself? It’s only two hours away.” She smiles as she shuts my bedroom door, and I stare at my plate entirely dumbfounded. How does she expect me to see for myself? I’ve never been allowed to leave the house! Unless…
“Absolutely not,” my mother states, unfazed by my proposal. “You could be seen leaving or returning to the estate. I refuse to risk the embarrassment.” She places another vase of flowers on the coffee table with a huff and looks back at me with annoyance. “I can’t believe you would even have the audacity to ask me such a thing.”
“But all I’m asking for is a chance to be myself! I’ve never asked you for anything before! Please, just let me visit Apple loosa Pie. I promise I will never ask you for anything ever again.” I look my mother in the eyes and search for any inkling of kindness towards me. She opens her mouth to speak, and I lose all hope before she utters her first word.
“Celeste, the answer is no. Your father and I already have to live with the embarrassment that you’re our daughter. There is no way in hell I’m going to potentially sacrifice our social standing simply because you want to run off with other berries.” She smooths the front of her dress and turns away from me, beginning to leave the room. “Now, go back to your room and be quiet. Your father and I are hosting a party tonight, so you know the drill.” She gives me a stern look and makes her way to the kitchen to ensure the appetizers are well-prepared.
My mother is right; I do know the drill. The drill is why I had an early dinner. When company is over, I hide away in my bedroom and pretend I don’t exist. When I was little, my parents attempted to treat it like a game, but I soon understood that they just didn’t want me to be seen or heard. Well, tonight I was going to be both.
As I walk down the hallway, I can hear the murmurs of my parents’ guests downstairs. My palms are sweaty, my stomach is in terrible knots, and I feel as if I cannot move, but I know I am because I hear my heels clicking on the floor. When I reach the top of the staircase and catch a glimpse of a woman dressed in green, I almost run. What are you doing, Celeste? I take a deep breath and wish with all my heart that I had Penny to help me do this, but I don’t. It is imperative to keep Penny ignorant; I don’t want her to face the consequences of my actions.
I take a few steps back and lean against the corner of the wall, gazing out the window. Millions of tiny, white specks dot the sky, lighting up an otherwise dark landscape. I smile to myself as I recall how fascinated I always was with stars, as well as the countless hours I spent with my beloved telescope. When I was a child, I used to beg my parents to let me spend one night in our backyard to gaze up at the sky, but they always refused.
It’s thoughts like these that make me loathe them both so much. I haven’t lived my entire life solely due to their vanity. But, I promised myself one thing when I talked myself into this: I am going to start living today.
Tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear, I confidently approach the staircase, and the guests’ voices become clearer.
“Your daughter is absolutely wonderful, Lorraine. She speaks so eloquently, and her skills with the piano? Absolutely exquisite,” the woman I saw earlier compliments. “You raised a true beauty.”
“Why, thank you, Illiana,” my mother replies. “Alexander and I are truly blessed. Alaine certainly feels pressured to succeed, being an only child and all, but we remind her every day that her father and I are proud.”
“I’m happy to make them proud,” Alaine adds. “Their love and encouragement is why I am who I am. They’ve given me everything I’ve ever needed or wanted. Well, except a sister!” Alaine smiles bashfully and playfully teases my mother, resulting in laughter from both her and Illiana.
“Why did you never have more children?” Illiana asks. Before my mother can answer, I handle that for her.
“She did,” I announce loudly, although I hear my voice tremble slightly.
Alaine is the first to notice me, and she looks completely shocked.
“Mother!” she whispers urgently. “Look!” My mother’s eyes slowly drift my way, and it takes her a few seconds to register who is in front of her, but once she does, she looks horrified. She opens her mouth to speak, but nothing audible escapes. I walk straight up to the woman my mother addressed as Illiana and repeat myself.
“She did. My name is Celeste, and I am Lorraine’s first daughter.” Illiana glances at my mother, who unintentionally confirms my statement with the look on her face.
“Is this true?” Illiana questions, a look of disgust already forming on her face. The rest of the guests begin to turn their heads our way as it becomes clear what is unfolding.
“Why do they have a berry in their house?”
“Did she just claim she’s their daughter?!”
“Look at her, positively revolting!”
I try to ignore the whispers around me and stand my ground, but I can already feel the tears fighting to spill down my cheeks.
“Yes, it’s true,” I persist. “They may be disappointed in me, but I am their daughter. They’re not pure vanillas as they claim to be, and there is nothing wrong with that.” A series of gasps fill the room, and my mother finally breaks her silence.
“You never have been, and never will be, our daughter! Alaine is our daughter, our only child, and you are just a sack of berry filth!” My mother’s eyes are filled with intense rage, but I don’t back down.
“Alaine was only brought into this mess because you weren’t satisfied with me! You brought her in as a replacement, and to be honest, if I were her, I would feel just as much hatred towards you as I do for that reason alone.”
“You’re just jealous!” Alaine snaps. “You’re jealous because I’m exactly what they want, and you’re not!”
“No,” I pause. “No, Alaine, all you are is what they needed to cover up the disgrace of having me, and I feel sorry for you that they used you in that way.” Alaine appears taken aback and removes herself from any further conversation, but I’m not finished with my mother. “Really, though. You are that concerned about how other people think of you that you would throw away your own daughter? Do you have any idea how that feels?”
“Do you have any idea how it feels to have a disappointment for a child?”
“No, but I know exactly what it feels like to have disappointments for parents,” I retort. At this point, my father is finally about to say what is on his mind, as he was originally attempting to shoo the guests to another room, but I am done. I turn on my heel and march right back up to my bedroom, leaving my parents to deal with the guests as they begin filtering back into the room.
I worry about more of the nasty whispers echoing through the halls as I fall onto my bed distraught, but my muffled sobs drown out any other noise.
Later that night I return downstairs to find a small bite to eat, but I unfortunately come across my parents.
“Celeste, we were just about to retrieve you,” my father says.
“Retrieve me?” I respond, puzzled. I then notice the small suitcase by the door and begin to feel uneasy. I glance towards my mother, but she refuses to so much as look at me. She remains entirely silent.
“After the stunt you pulled tonight, your mother and I decided that we are done caring for you. You’ve ruined us enough, so there is no point in keeping you here because there isn’t any secrecy to maintain. You’re no longer welcome here, Celeste. You need to leave.”
I’m so angry and hurt and scared that I am unable to form words. My mother simply slips past me and retreats upstairs, and my father gestures towards the suitcase and scowls.
“I want you out,” he demands. He then follows my mother without a second thought. I don’t know what to say or do, so I just stand there, unmoving. “Now!” my father bellows. I quickly stuff the few items spilling out of the suitcase inside and hurry out the door.
The ground softens beneath my feet as I walk across the grass, the night air tickles my neck, and the stars I always desperately wished to gaze upon smile down on me. The freedom I dreamt of is finally mine, though not as I pictured or wanted it. My mind is racing as I try to figure out what to do when Penny comes frantically running outside. She catches up to me as I reach the sidewalk.
“Celeste!” Her eyes fill with tears instantly. “Oh, honey, I wish you would have told me what you were going to do.”
“I couldn’t. You know I couldn’t.” My throat tightens and my voice turns hoarse. “Penny, I’m so scared. I know I always wanted this, to leave the estate, but I have nowhere to go! I don’t have a single penny to my name. How am I supposed to do this?”
“Celeste, you’ve always had a penny.” She gestures to herself and I let a half-hearted laugh escape my mouth at the expense of her cheap joke. “It’s going to be okay.”
“How could you possibly know that?” I wipe a stubborn tear from the corner of my eye and notice Penny pull a wad of cash out from her pocket.
“This should be enough to get you where you’re going,” Penny explains.
“I’ve called up some friends of mine. I own a small vacation home, and I trust them enough to keep the keys and watch the place while I’m not around. The house is now yours. When you get there, find Hibiscus. He is their son, and he said he’d help you get settled. You’re going to be okay, Celeste.”
I’m utterly speechless and search for words, but Penny pulls me into a comforting hug. I cannot comprehend how much Penny has done for me, as well as what she is doing for me right now.
“Penny, I don’t know what to say. What are you going to do? I don’t want my parents to take their anger out on you.”
“Don’t worry about me, sweetheart. I’ll be fine. You need to get going if you’re going to meet Hibiscus on time.” Penny pulls out of our hug and gestures towards the taxi that is approaching the estate.
“But, Penny. Where exactly am I going?”
“You’re going to Apple loosa Pie, my dear.”