Grandfather died on a Sunday.
It was just after Thanksgiving, his health was on a steady decline and by Friday we were already making funeral arrangements. His morphine was increased, he would barely be conscious let alone in pain. It was about five in the evening that he went peacefully in his sleep. He never deserved that, a soft ending, but what could I do? Murder was out of the question. Now that the codicil was added, I had no more a reason to wait for him. The will wouldn’t be read for a few months anyhow, so inheritance was out of the question for the time being. My mother mentioned I would receive a portion, how much was up in the air, but I didn’t worry about it. There was no reason to fight over a fortune that could slip through my fingers like fine sand if I said the wrong thing. I had no more reason to fight.
The funeral was a blur. It was the following Sunday, just after the morning church service. During it, I vaguely remembered Daddy’s, his was closed casket given how badly wrecked his body was. Grandfather was on display, quite lifelike, almost like a plasticine doll laid to sleep. Whoever embalmed him did a great job. Grandmother always did want the best for him. And, fortunately for me, I wouldn’t be subjected to another afternoon of squabbling over lunch for me. I was considered in a ‘mourning period’, and even given a second week off school. The bonuses of a death were many at least in this situation, although I did have to fake tears for a man who thought me dead.
Oddly enough, Foxworth Manor was no quieter than it had been, in fact it was louder. Servants bustled about a little less cautiously than they had, instead of hushed whispers they spoke normally, no longer afraid of waking their ailing master, they even gossiped. The house itself had been holding its breath for over two years. Not to say it was lifelike. An air of austerity still hung thick, dripped from the walls, permeated the floors. Foxworth Manor was meant to be a house, a place to eat and sleep. To exist. Not a home.
It was nice for December to come by, though. I loved the celebrations, they were the one thing I could safely look forward to. Somehow, Grandmother would still be holding the Christmas ball. Perhaps it was her way to retain normalcy. This, however, brought a sickening revelation when she pulled me aside the next Saturday, the twelfth of the month. She brought me to the now empty study that Grandfather had once occupied. It was heavily sanitized, I could tell by the scent of cleaners, and the bed was removed. The floor was lighter where it had been, he’d been in there a long time. Grandmother had me sit in one of the desk chairs.
“Lucille.” She began. “We have some important matters.”
I nearly made a biting remark. “Is it about the ball?”
She nodded. “It is. And about your situation.”
I could only assume what that was.
“You will be eighteen this February, am I incorrect?” She didn’t let me answer, of course. It was a rhetorical question. “And obviously preparations must be made. I’ve made the final decision that you will not be formally wed until June, after school is over, but there needs to be arrangements made soon. Very soon. And an announcement.”
I shifted in my seat. “Wedding planning I see.”
“Indeed. I need to base some of it on the groom.”
“So you’re saying I need to make my decision on who to marry.” I responded. “What if I don’t? What if I don’t pick anyone?”
I’d asked this before. She did not react. “Oh, you will.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I’ll show you.”
Up, up, up the stairs we went. I knew where we were going, especially because Grandmother carried a basket over her arm laden with lunch, and to my surprise, four powdered sugar doughnuts. I’d been under the impression she didn’t like sweets. She’d always chastise me for eating any treats, even on rare occasions. She only allowed them on holidays in fear we’d all get too fat. I didn’t know why my siblings would be any different.
“Lucille.” She said firmly as we approached the top of the stairs. “You may speak of your upcoming decision if you so choose. That is your own matter. However, you will not mention Malcolm's death. I will tell them in time, once the will is read.”
That would take months. I cleared my throat. “Why not until then?”
Her lips formed a thin line, like always. “Because I want to be absolutely certain he did not add any details I was unaware of that would affect the situation. Don’t want to instill false hope, do we?”
She unlocked the door, efficiently finishing our talk. There they were, four months since I’d seen them, looking up with sunken faces. Carrie and Cory shivered despite being wrapped in thick comforters, the room was deathly cold. Nobody even looked up. Cathy’s hair was a little longer again, but it no longer had it’s shine. They themselves blended into the room, muted, like a photograph that had been overexposed so that all the colors were washed out. Cory was curled into Chris’ lap, Carrie into Cathy’s, the sharp line of demarcation drawn between genders as they sat in their beds. It was Christopher that looked up first, and he seemed to barely notice me.
“Hello Grandmother.” He said quietly. “Camilla.”
I offered a small wave. It was not returned. Grandmother spoke. “Children, your sister.”
Cory coughed before I could speak, it shook me to the bone. It was a rattling, dry coughing fit, lasting almost ten seconds. By the reactions of everyone, it was normal, it had been going on for some time. Chris just patted his back and Cory curled into him, and as the fit stopped his breathing was labored. He was too small to be as old as he was. He hadn’t grown two inches since they’d been locked up.
I slowly padded over and sat on the girls’ bed. I made sure to be extra ginger, barely displacing the mattress or blankets. Cathy turned away a little, but I made sure not to look upset about it. “I’ve missed you all.” I said flatly.
There was a certain uneasy static tension in the air. A long note on a violin string wound too tight, leaving one bracing for the inevitable break. Nobody spoke, so I continued.
“I haven’t seen you all in so long. I’m very sorry. It’s almost Christmas, though. I’d love to get you all gifts.” The silence persisted. In my peripheral vision, I watched grandmother set the picnic basket on the small table, then stand against the wall. She wanted to watch, see me squirm under the stark reality that my siblings detested me. I cleared my throat. “I have some news though.”
Nobody seemed to react, no interest at all. “I’m getting married in June.”
“To who? Some lawyer?” Cathy asked cooly. She still was turned away. “Are you gonna leave us here?”
“So you know that momma got married.” I responded. “No, I’m not marrying a lawyer. I’m… marrying someone a little older than me, he’s nice.”
She didn’t press further, so I did. “I’ll be announcing it at the Christmas ball. I’ll tell you more about him then, I promise. And I’ll get you some gifts too, books and toys and sweets. More things for your attic, wouldn’t you like that? I can special order colored paper and ribbons and records and anything you’d like. I’ve got plenty of money saved up.”
Carrie turned towards me a little. “I wanna go outside. That’s what I want for Christmas.”
“I…” My cheeks heated up. “W-well, I can’t arrange that, but one day you can, I promise. Anyway, it’s much too cold for you to go out now, you’ll get pneumonia. Then you’ll have to lay in bed for weeks and weeks. You don’t want that.”
“Oh. Okay.” She whispered. Her toddler age drive to fight and rebel was gone. It felt wrong, young children were supposed to fight against being told no. I licked my lips. “Cathy, I want you especially to know that I don’t hate you.”
“I don’t hate any of you. That’s the furthest from the truth. I think about you all every single day, about how I’d love to have a wonderful manor house, with lots of fields you can run and play in. About a library for Chris.”
“Don’t rub it in.” Cathy sighed. “You’re free, we’re not.”
“I’m not trying to rub it in.” I took a breath in an attempt to remain civil. “Cathy, if there was anything I could do, I’d do it in half a heartbeat.”
“Why are you getting married then? To leave us for good? You’re gonna have to move in with him. We’ll be stuck here and you’ll be living with some man who knows where!”
Her words felt like a slap to the face. She was unfortunately right. On some of my visits, I’d been shown the homes my newlywed and I would occupy: two houses on the outskirts of town, ones that stood tall and proud like the men of the house; a house in the suburbs, small but elegant; a small manor in the countryside with fields of lavender abound. They were like advertisements, choose this strapping young lad and get a house for free. They’d have maids for me, and the country home came with a cook, I’d theoretically never have to lift a finger. I’d be a lady.
I hated that idea.
I looked down at my lap, wringing my hands in my dress. “Cathy, I’m doing what I can.”
“What are you doing, then?” She bit back.
“Saving money.” I responded, shooting a glance to Grandmother. “Discussing private matters.”
“How is Grandfather?”
Ah, the dear catch-22. To tell the truth would be to incur the wrath of my grandparent, but to lie would only betray their wire-thin trust even more that I had in the long months. I lied.
“He’s alive, for now anyway.”
Cathy’s face was unreadable, and looking at Chris, so was his. Did they see through me? Was it a growing suspicion? I kept my poise. I was going to speak again, but Grandmother cut me off before the words could form.
“Children, Camilla and I must attend to very important matters, and must leave. Remember to not waste your food, and pray, won’t you?” She patted the basket as emphasis. “God has blessed each bite with nourishment, you must thank Him.”
She began walking to the door.
“Say your goodbyes.”
Nobody made a move to me, so I took the initiative to hug them all, kissing their cheeks to try and show my genuine care. Only Cory reciprocated any of it. Pausing at the door, I waved.
“I hope to see you all soon. Goodbye, everyone.”
“Bye Cammie.” Croaked Cory.
The door shut. We walked back down the hallway in silence for a time.
“How was that meant to sh-?” I began.
Grandmother held up her hand as to silence me. “I am not finished yet.” She said. We descended to the main floor, and she showed me to the kitchen. The cooks weren’t in, as they were at the markets looking for ingredients and such. She took me to the cupboard where all of our cleaners were stored, and from it she produced a white and red square tin.
“Read it.” She commanded.
It was rat poison; thirty five cents per tin, 2.6% arsenic trioxide. Perhaps I wasn’t connecting the dots quite yet, because Grandmother suddenly smiled a wicked smile. “We have such a nasty mouse problem up in the attic, you know. I’ve seen four in the last few days.
My heart almost stopped.
“Oh, no, Lucille, I am.” She took the tin of poison from my shaking hands and returned it to the cupboard. “You see, arsenic powder looks remarkably like powdered sugar, and takes only one or two doses to kill a mouse. It takes many, many doses from something with so many other ingredients to kill, say, a person.”
I was ready to scream, but she just tutted and shook her head. “Lucille, I hate to be doing this, I really do.”
“You have to stop.” I finally croaked. “You can’t do that… To them.”
“You can’t prove it, you know. Legally speaking, none of you even exist.” She reminded.
I had to do something. “What will it take to stop you?”
She thought a long moment, my fingers trembled as I fought back my sudden, deep set fear.
“Lucille.” She finally spoke. “If you do exactly as I say, pick a suitor, and marry him without question or hesitation, I will stop.”
That was all I needed to hear.