Sunflowers (The Empress, Major Arcana series) by Francesca Astraea

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Little Barking wasn’t known for its stunning natural beauty, nor its architectural significance. It was usually described as ‘nice but nondescript’ by people who passed through it on the way to somewhere else. Except for the sunflowers.

  According to legend and the local newspaper (which was surprisingly accurate), Little Barking was the place to go for magical sunflowers. Specifically, twenty-seven Highbury Avenue. Specifically, on the second Wednesday of every August.

  If you picked a sunflower from number twenty-seven’s front garden on the second Wednesday of every August, you could be guaranteed one wish for the year. Providing it wasn’t something too selfish or psychopathic, you’d have your wish granted.

  For Petronella Schwartz, the second Wednesday of August was highly personal. This was because she owned twenty-seven Highbury Avenue.

  Having moved to Little Barking for a fresh start after a bad marriage, Petronella was initially less concerned with her sunflowers than she was with her safety and independence. For a while, the front garden existed as it had before: scrubby, uncapped, neglected. She assumed it had always been abandoned; the people she purchased the house from hadn’t really gone in for maintenance, which was why she could afford it. Neighbours filled her in soon enough: the previous owners had been the sort of people one usually described as ‘dysfunctional’ and as such had no interest in gardening. Petronella nodded and wondered if she, too, was dysfunctional. To own number twenty-seven Highbury was to own a piece of history, the neighbours assured her, and one was expected to respect that. Naturally private and disinclined to socialise outside of her work as a music teacher, Petronella was initially happy to leave the locals to their traditions; she wasn’t much of a gardener and often went away in August anyway.

  But as the years went by, she began to look forward the summer season, to watching the flowers bloom over the weeks and seeing people pass by the house throughout second Wednesday in August. Most took a cutting and hurried away, but some would chat while she popped into and out of the house. Without intending to, Petronella became as much a part of twenty-seven Highbury Avenue as the sunflowers themselves. She even began tending to the back garden.

  Her attitude changed when she came home from holiday on the morning of the second Wednesday, eight or nine years after she moved in. She was looking forward to seeing her sunflowers before locals began arriving. For the first time, she found herself planning to cut one of the flowers for herself. Her holiday, taken with her sister and her brother-in-law, had involved a family wedding. It was the first family function Petronella had attended in over a decade, so naturally involved a great number of questions about why she’d fallen off the face of the earth.

  Petronella declined to answer any of them. A substantial part of her life had been locked in a box when she moved to Little Barking, the key buried beneath years of new memories. She told her family this.

  It did not put her family off asking.

 Petronella was supposed to arrive home on Monday, but a combination of air-traffic control issues and road traffic issues saw her reach Highbury Avenue at five thirty on Wednesday. In dire need of a shower, she initially didn’t notice that anything was amiss. Only when touching a cup of tea and collecting letters from the post box did she realise: this was the second Wednesday.

  All the sunflowers were gone.

  It was still dawn.

  Until she was standing outside in her socks, staring at a bed of stubbly stems, Petronella hadn’t realised how much she’d been relying on that wish. Had the entire town trooped by at first light? Most people came along throughout the day in dribs and drabs. What, exactly, gave the townspeople the right to help themselves to her property?

  The next year, she promised herself, she would be waiting.

  Petronella was so crestfallen at her neighbours’ behaviour that it took until Halloween for her to calm down and consider a plan for next year. In the meantime, she had built quite a reputation at local shops. Every time you said hello, she glared at you in disgust, clearly trying to decipher if good luck lingered on your person. She began to build a reputation as the music teacher who would throw your instrument across the room if you so much as mentioned Waltz of the Flowers.

  By Christmas, she had a clear idea about what to do come August.

  By Easter, her plans were finalised.

  By the second May bank holiday, the neighbours knew she was up to something.

  By mid-June, there was talk of open warfare.

  On the eve of the third Wednesday in August, Petronella settled into her home for the next twenty-four hours: an alcove in her attic, specially constructed by a crack squad of out-of-town carpenters (she had been too paranoid to use local suppliers). From behind one-way glass, she could see her front garden and the approaching foot traffic. No blind spots, unless you counted behind the low garden wall – which she didn’t, as she had installed a complicated camera system thus her giving her extra eyes onto the street below.

  The first target arrived at five o’clock. Petronella had spent a few days accustoming herself to the all-nighter required, so was tired but confident in her abilities to stay alert. She had also been learning to meditate, so by three o’clock was sat peacefully, listening carefully to the sounds of the neighbourhood.

  One set of footsteps: a smaller figure, entering in black clothing. Petronella was glad she’d put this year’s holiday money into the cameras, which had a night vision setting.

  Light began to break around five thirty—just enough to be considered daytime, Petronella supposed.

  A balaclava-clad head popped up. Petronella directed her water pistol. The intruder set a pair of kitchen scissors on the wall… Hands snaked toward the sunflowers—


  Dual jets of icy water smash the intruder directly in the chest. They fell backwards over the wall on into a very satisfying puddle.

  The best bit? Water pistols aren’t as loud as a car or slammed door. No lights came on in the nearby houses. The intruder, dripping wet, sprinted down the street.

  Satisfied, Petronella sat back for another twenty hours of waiting.

  The next invasion: around five forty-five. Dawn was really breaking, with a steady glow lighting the avenue. The new figure: much older, dressed in jeans and a football shirt. Petronella scowled, recognising them immediately as Mr Campbell, the proprietor of the local shop. He leant over the fence, secateurs in hand, to—


  He landed on his haunches, spluttering. Petronella allowed herself a congratulatory sip of Sprite, sat in the cool box by her feet (also in residence: a camping toilet, wet wipes and a photograph of her garden last year).

  But wait. Mr Campbell had company. The black clad figure from earlier! Petronella had watched them run down the street—they must have hidden behind a car. They helped Mr Campbell to his feet and seemed to be discussing something. Going by the body language, Mr C’s response was argumentative. Why, damnit, hadn’t she invested in a sound kit?

  Before Petronella could ready her water pistols, a taxi approached. An elderly lady shuffled out. Petronella thought she recognised Mrs Dubois, an elderly resident who lived in a bungalow near the park and was best known for being both a rank alcoholic and mother to a gentleman currently doing time for something involving children.

  Mrs Dubois leant heavily on a stick and joined the conversation. For the first time, Petronella faltered. Could she sploosh an elderly woman? She had expected youth and lager louts, not pensioners.

  While she deliberated, the discussion below became increasingly heated, with arm waving and snatches of conversation floating up to the attic. The smaller black clad figure turned and pointed at Petronella. Her heart lurched. The figure beckoned.

  This was not part of the plan. Petronella stomped downstairs, still clutching her water pistols, to confront the thieves.

  ‘What was the water pistol for?’ Mr Campbell demanded.

  ‘Self defence.’

  ‘I wanted your sunflowers, not you.’

  ‘I’m administering self defence on behalf of the sunflowers.’

  ‘Why are you here?’ Petronella asked Mr Campbell.

  ‘None of your business. Not now you’ve splooshed me.’

  ‘It is if you’re planning to remove every single flower from my garden and take them for yourself. Since when did coming at predawn become a thing? I used to watch people, all day, all times of day, take one flower.’

  Mr Campbell and Mrs Dubois looked guilty. The kid didn’t. ‘What if we need them?’ they asked. Petronella couldn’t tell how old they were, nor what they looked like beneath all the black. She thought she recognised the voice, though.

  ‘All of them?’

  The kid shifted.

  ‘Take your balaclava off so I can see you.’


  ‘Why not?’

  ‘I don’t want my parents knowing I’m here. They—they might ask why.’

  ‘And you don’t want to tell them because…’

  ‘Because none of your business, lady.’

  ‘Right, then, Mrs Dubois. Explain why you’re here in the wee small hours.’

  ‘It’s my son.’

  ‘The prison one.’

  ‘Yes. I take a flower every year to make sure he stays out of trouble in prison.’

  ‘Out of trouble?’ Petronella echoed.

  ‘Safe. Healthy. You know what those places are like.’

  Petronella didn’t, but she had seen films that might be accurate. ‘And you, Mr C? I am sorry for splooshing you.’

  Mr Campbell rubbed his eyes. ‘It’s my wife. She has—’

  ‘Multiple sclerosis. God, Mr Campbell, I’m so sorry I forgot. Please, take your flower. You too, Mrs Dubois.’

  Balaclava kid stood up from the fence. ‘Can I?’

  ‘Not until you take that bloody mask off.’

  ‘Fine.’ They pulled off the balaclava to reveal—



  ‘I used to teach you piano! Until—’

  ‘Until my parents rescinded my hobby privileges because I came out to them.’

  ‘Came out?’ Mrs Dubois asked. ‘What does that mean?’

  ‘Jesus, Mrs D, I didn’t think you were that old. I. Told. My. Parents. I. Am. Transgender. You can Google that, I’m not explaining it to you.’

  A silence settled over the company. Mrs Dubois looked like she was doing a lot of thinking. Mr Campbell looked like he wanted to go back to bed.

  Petronella probably looked like she was doing a lot of thinking, too. How had she never thought to ask why the townspeople came to number twenty-seven? She’d seen Mrs Dubois most years, leaning on that bloody cane.

  ‘You wanted a sunflower to get your parents back on side?’ Petronella looked at Sam, who was fidgeting.

  ‘Something like that.’

  ‘Well, then, take it.’


  ‘Of course. And if you ever want to come round for lessons, I won’t charge.’

  ‘Oh. Thank you. There’s—there’s something else you should know.’


  ‘It was me who took all the sunflowers last year. For my friends and I. We’re part of the same online group. There are a lot of us,’ Sam added defensively.

  ‘I understand.’


  Petronella shrugged. ‘The reason I was so angry last year was that I wanted a sunflower for myself. You’re not the only one with complicated family.’

  ‘I wanted to come last year too, Mr Campbell said. ‘Jessie had just been diagnosed. I hated that we had to wait another year for a chance to alleviate her symptoms.’

  ‘I’m sorry.’ For the first time, Sam looked genuinely upset. ‘I didn’t think about why everyone else wanted them.’

  ‘Well, that’s understandable,’ Petronella said. ‘I tell you what. Why don’t you all come in for a cup of tea? I’d like you to have a look at my back garden. I was thinking… I could plant some sunflowers in there?’

Thank you for reading!

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You can read more about what inspired the Major Arcana series on my website. Learn about where you can get my book, The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes here.

Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Burke

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

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