Jasper’s sisters greeted him on the drive. Their eyes were bright with relief at seeing him. We didn’t think you’d come, they said. Two of them linked his arms. The others took his bags from the car.
They took him to the kitchen and fussed over him with tea and scones. For all their laughter and small talk, Jasper could see the strain on their faces. The stress of being back at the house was taking its toll. The eldest, Millie, was the worst at hiding her true feelings. Jasper took her aside while the others were playing a rowdy game of cards.
“It might not be you this time,” he tried to cheer her up. “It could be any of us.”
“Look at them,” Millie nodded to the others around the kitchen table, shouting and slapping their hands down whenever two cards matched. “How can I let it be any of them? I’m going to put myself forward. Let her take me. I’ve lived the longest. It should be me.”
“Mother won’t like that,” Jasper was tight-lipped. “You know how she loves her lottery.”
They both glanced up the staircase. Mother was up there, asleep in her four-poster bed. As soon as the sun went down, they would hear the tinkle of the bell from her bedside table. Then they would troop upstairs and say Happy Mother’s Day to her and she would plunge her gnarled claw of a hand into a velvet bag and pull out a numbered ball. Whoever held a ball with the corresponding number was the chosen one. The others would say their goodbyes and withdraw, glad it was over for another year, glad they had not been selected.
“I have to,” Millie’s chin jutted resolutely. “Who knows, I might be the last? Mother can’t go on forever. This could be the last year.”
“We can hope,” said Jasper. “It seems terrible to say it – our own mother – but let’s hope she won’t wake up and ring the bell.”
As if on cue, the soft tinkling they had come to dread could be heard. Mother was awake and calling for her offspring. Millie, with a noble expression, began to climb the stairs but Jasper pulled her back and bounded to the top.
“I can’t let you do this, Mill,” he called over his shoulder. Seconds later, he slammed Mother’s door shut behind him.
Millie went back to the kitchen.
“Is it done?” said Trish, the youngest.
“Has he gone?” said Bella with a hopeful glance at the ceiling.
“Brothers are so stupid,” said Althea. “Every year one of them falls for it. But Jasper was our last one. You don’t think –“
“Relax,” said Millie. “We poisoned the scones, remember. By now, they’ll both be quite, quite dead.”
She elbowed her way to a space at the table. Her sisters giggled and parted, glad it was over and they were free at long last. They didn’t know it but next year Millie would take their Mother’s place.
“Deal me in, girls,” she said, with a sly smile. She pinched Althea’s cheek. Her plump, juicy cheek.