Celia Jefferson was dead to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. As her daughter April sat by her resettled grave, surrounded by flowers that seemed to shine in the sheen of winter’s frost, the girl could only sigh. Old Celia was dead as a door-nail, and now, The Garden of The Free Children was her responsibility. It had been for several months, but April had never felt truly ready to step into her mother’s shoes, and longed, with great fondness for her carefree days as the Garden’s treasured daughter.
She hadn’t a head for figures, and her responsibilities as leader weighed heavy on her as the days went by. She found herself relying on and delegating much of the day to day work of leader to Father Andre, who was doing his best to manage his own duties as a recruiter with all the things April didn’t feel like doing, such as leading prayers, preparing the other children of the Garden for their journey to the Higher Garden or managing the finances for the organisation.
While she didn’t like to look at the numbers, April certainly liked to spend the spoils of the Garden, and lived in luxury, with her own wing of the house and fine furs to keep her warm as winter came. Her mother was gone, but April was still taken care of, by the worshippers who called her their leader, but unbeknownst to April, they had grown tired of pampering the Princess of the Garden.
An icy wind swept through the compound as the worshippers of Invierno shivered around a fire. It was Christmas Eve, their cheeks, artificially rosy with the whistling, whipping winds of the late winter.
It had been a tough year for the people of the Garden. They were still recovering from the heavy losses they had suffered during the long foretold Grey Death that had spread across the Earth, and had used a lot of resources setting up a new Garden after being run out of Inverness when the townspeople realised that a cult (their words, not the children’s) was hiding in plain sight in their neighbourhood.
It had cost almost everything that they had to start over, but the Children were happy to do it, in pursuit of their dream to build the perfect Garden on Earth, in preparation for the battle with the darkness and the rebirth of their treasured Goddess Invierno, just as April had prophesied, and Celia had before her too.
Every member of the Garden had tightened their belts and gone without to aid in the relocation to Glasgow, after April saw their new home in a dream, and as soon as they arrived, the Children took to the streets, recruiting and fundraising to help the Garden recover, but as hard as they tried to avoid it, they were beginning to resent how little April was contributing, and how much she was taking.
As they sat by the fire, looking up at the hill where their former leader lay, they couldn’t help but miss the firm and often selfless guiding hand of Celia, and loathe what her daughter had allowed the Garden of the Free Children to become.
“Cheer up my brothers and sisters, and follow me.” April called, descending from the hill and snapping her fingers with a bright smile. The crowd rose from around the fire and followed April to the meeting room, without a word, watching as she motioned to the chairs before her and stood upon the stage at the front of the room with a grin. “It’s time to talk about the Christmas fundraiser.”
The others looked around at each other, shuffling nervously in their seats. They had spent every day in the build up to Christmas wandering the high street with buckets, and going door to door to spread the good word of Invierno while shaking their buckets to raise money for the Garden. They came back with a good haul every day, but it never seemed to be enough to satisfy April.
“There is a cost of living crisis, April.” Andre interrupted, smiling reassuringly at the congregation. “The children are gathering all that they can, but people don’t have much to give.” A few of the members nodded in agreement, but April’s face was thunder.
“Those pigs are spending small fortunes on presents, trees and turkeys, so they can afford to donate.” She snarled, stepping down from the stage and into the crowd. The gathered worshippers cowered, their eyes falling to the floor as April wandered through her flock, setting her eyes on the back of the room. “We have responsibilities to each other, my friends.” She pushed past the crowd until she reached the back of the room, where Andre’s wife Gillian sat, cradling her infant son, Tim.
Andre had been blessed by Invierno with a wife, and a beautiful child, but the child was sick. April had forbidden use of the local hospital, in accordance with their beliefs, but the Garden’s medical centre lacked the supplies to care for the boy, and his health had been the primary motivator for the fundraiser. As grateful as he was for the kindness of his friends in the Garden, he was well aware of how much of the money they’d worked hard to raise was going to April’s pocket, and was once again having a crisis of faith.
“Tiny Tim.” April cooed, reaching out her arms and wrapping them around the small boy. Andre winced, watching her lift him into her embrace with a wicked smile. “We are so lucky to have you, my little flower.” She gently rocked the child, staring at Andre intently from across the room in a way that made him uneasy. He watched her circle the crowd with his son in her arms and with each passing moment, he felt more and more unsettled by the scene. “We must make enough to care for our beautiful blessing.” Tim began to fuss, a little cough escaping his small chest, growing bigger as the coughs continued, and Andre felt his chest tighten, rushing to his son’s side and snatching him from April’s arms, with an apologetic look that he didn’t really mean.
Tim was sick, but he was a very lucky child. It was the way of the Garden to send baby boys along with their brothers in the garden to satisfy the hunger of Invierno, but a combination of being born to April’s right hand man, and being the only baby born to the Garden that year had saved his life.
“We’ll work harder for Tim.” Came a cry from the crowd. April smiled, gesturing for Joanna to come forward. Joanna had been part of the Garden since its inception, standing side by side with Celia as they built their road to paradise together, and were it not for the friends she had made, and her belief that Invierno would one day return and rescue their membership, she would have left a long time ago. Deep down, April knew this to be true, and she knew that Joanna was not alone, but as long as they still believed her to be their prophet, she had decided that they could not do much harm to her.
“Yes, we’ll do it for Tim!” Another voice joined her, this time from Leigh, another daughter that was faithful, but hanging on by a thread due to April’s antics. Soon, the room was filled with promises of devotion to the cause, in the name of the small boy who wriggled in his father’s arms.
“I’m so happy to hear that!” April cried, taking to the stage again with a flourish. “So, you’ll get started at 6AM tomorrow.” The crowd fell silent, staring up at her in disbelief. There were a few uncomfortable gasps, but nobody dared to speak until Andre stepped forward, clearing his throat and raising his eyes to meet April.
“While I appreciate the enthusiasm, I do think it’s important for morale that our brothers and sisters are able to celebrate Christmas with each other tomorrow.”
April rounded on him, her face flashing with rage. Andre stumbled back, struggling to keep the child securely in his arms.
“Christmas?” She bellowed. “What about my money?” The anger fell from her face for a moment as she remembered the ruse, and then returned in an instant, as she glared at the cult members, pointing over at the small boy in Andre’s arms who was peacefully snoozing, his little hands clasped tightly around a small teddy bear. “I mean… Tim’s money!”
There was silence from the others, but each of them nodded, defeated once again by April’s demanding nature. The crowd began to file out from the room, none brave enough to argue back, but all muttering under their breath as they walked to their quarters.
Everybody shared accommodation, with the exception of April, and as the members of her flock settled in for a cold Christmas Eve, away from April’s prying eyes, they shared a small, but satisfying dinner without her.