I would be getting married on Saturday, June eleventh. That was it. Most of the planning would be taken care of by the families, naturally. All Lawrence and I had to do was show up at the altar, say some vows, sign some papers, and we were married. Since Christmas, two months had passed, and I was officially eighteen. I was an adult. I would be graduating soon. My roommates at school were overjoyed to hear the news, and, saving face, I made sure to invite them all. I even asked my bunkmate Myrtle to be my maid of honor, a title she graciously accepted. I asked two others, Mary and Judith to be my other bridesmaids. They were none the wiser that I did not want to walk down the aisle. They didn’t even know I’d been “dating” anyone until I announced my engagement. I made up some nonsense story that I was just trying to be sure I found the “right one”.
Regardless, preparations were being made, and they were being made fast. Venue: check, the church of course. My measurements were taken for my wedding dress to be created, chosen from a catalogue of designs. We had engagement rings, and our wedding bands would be brought in from Italy. The Saturday following my 18th birthday was spent trying out samples for dinner and our cake.
I hated saying our. It implied an equal footing, and we had none. Lawrence had quickly taken the reigns, directing my hand and leaving me with little choice. I suppose it was my destiny to be without choice. Life had become so monotonous with everything done for me. Most of me hated it, but it wasn’t all bad - it gave me time to think. I had just over one hundred days until the wedding, plenty of time to figure out how I could get out of this, if there was a way. From what I gathered, there were three main routes: get out before the wedding, during, or just after. I had no desire to meet Lawrence on the marital bed to consummate anything. If it were beforehand or during, there would be a few additional steps to ensure my siblings were safe. I knew what my grandmother was capable of. Even if it were after, and all the paperwork had been completed, I’d have to be very, very crafty to make it seem that I didn’t go on my own accord. I could fake my death, perhaps, or make it look like I was kidnapped. I’d read about people doing it in books from the library, the kind I’d poured through during rainy days and snowy evenings.
In any vein, I started helping Chris. I had two main stores of money - cash for myself, alongside what I put in my bank account, and cash for him. Most of the time, I would hide it in the daytime, usually around the time the moon was thin, each time in a new location, to be safe. He would retrieve it in the evenings, leaving a subtle sign he’d been there, like a misaligned painting or a scrap of colored thread. Other evenings, though, during the new moon, I would slip out of my room under cover of darkness, up the stairs to slip him money and news personally.
I still didn’t let any of my escape plans out, yet, though. I didn’t solidify anything, and didn’t want to risk him getting the wrong idea. I just told him that he would be out soon, and I would try and find them. In the two months that we’d been meeting, I’d slipped him enough for two train tickets to the next state over.
Then, the will was read.
Naturally, Grandmother received the bulk of it, including Foxworth Hall itself, with promise that it would go to Corinne and Bart upon her death. It seemed as though their relationship had been repaired enough for that. My mother also received a large enough inheritance that, for the time, she was satiated. The family fortune, much to her luck, would fall into her hands soon enough. With no siblings to compete with, it would, in time, all be hers, and with no known heirs, she could do with it as she pleased. As she was told this, I recall, she smiled like a cat who’d gotten the cream. Various cousins, nieces, and nephews were also written in, in much smaller amounts.
I didn’t expect to get much, if anything, but as Bart got to the bottom, he did, in fact, say my name, Lucille. I had been one of the later additions.
“To Lucille Annalise Winfield, my great niece, I leave the sum of six thousand dollars, my personal collection of novels, and, if at the time of my passing she is older than eighteen years and either married or engaged, the possession of property located in South Carolina, address…”
I could barely focus after that. That was a lot of money. Of course, compared to Grandmother and my mother, that was nothing, but it was still a lot. He left me a house. It seemed that few people even knew he had it, but once the will was read in full, I was informed by a few relatives that it had been a vacation home. They’d rarely used it given that he was usually too busy for a vacation.
A plan began to form itself more and more.
The money would be deposited into my bank account, now no longer monitored by Grandmother. That took care of a major problem, but I wanted to wait. If I acted hastily, things could go very, very wrong.
Instead, I continued sneaking money from working to my siblings. They would just get more at a time.
I slipped out just after midnight on the new moon. Between the complete darkness and a winter wind blowing hard against the house, I couldn’t be seen, nor heard. With a crisp five dollar note clutched in my hand, I made my way up the stairs, staying as close to the wall as possible. I made it, and once to the attic room, I knocked quietly in a pattern we’d established. Quickly, I was ushered in.
Chris enveloped me in a tight hug, something we’d dearly missed doing. Even in his stunted growth, he towered more than a few inches over me. He pulled away, and with a finger over his lips, he pulled me up to the attic where the other three were.
They sat in a pile on an old mattress, cocooned by a mixture of old quilts and clothing from a bygone era. The twins’ chests slowly rose and fell, faces still as they slept. Cathy was nearly in dreamland with them, but perked up when she saw me. Without any words, our relationship had had some semblance of being fixed. She waved me over, and I sat on the edge of the bed, shivering some. We didn’t dare raise our voices above a whisper. One could never be too careful.
“I was able to get five dollars for you.” I pressed the bill into Chris’ palm. “And it’s not even change.”
His smile didn’t falter. “Any more news about Grandfather?”
My heart dropped, but my expression didn’t. I, regretfully, lied. “He’s still holding on… He keeps revising his will, I think I’m being written in though. I’m hoping for something good.”
Cory stirred, waking with a shuddering cough. I pulled him into my lap out of impulse. “Are you all still sick? I can see if I can get you all some camphor or cough syrup-”
Cathy shook her head. “It’s not much use, we got some from Grandmother and they didn’t do anything. We just want out.”
I brushed a curl of hair out of her face. She was nearly as old as I was when we arrived, but looked much younger. It concerned me. “I know. I want to leave just as much as you.”
“Why don’t you?” She asked. “Can’t you live with your fiance?”
I chuckled a little. “Grandmother would absolutely forbid it, you know. I’ll be leaving in June, and hopefully, you will be too.”
“How do you plan on doing that?” Chris leaned against me, and I could feel him shivering in the cold. I was too.
“I’m not sure yet.” I admitted. “But I have some ideas, and as soon as one is put in place, I’ll let you know.”
Downstairs, down the hall, we could faintly hear the clock chiming one in the morning. With a sigh, I slid Cory off my lap and wrapped him in a blanket, then stood. I had to be getting back to my own bed before it was too late. Grandmother tended to be an early riser.
“Wait,” Cathy whispered, standing. “Can’t you stay a little longer?”
I shook my head in reply. “I’ll see you again soon, I promise.”
She pulled me in for a long hug, and I hated to pull away. Chris hugged me as well, not quite as long but twice as tight. As I leaned against his chest, I could hear how ragged his breathing was, his lungs full of mucus perhaps. A mental note was made to find some way to get them real antibiotics.
With a few more goodbyes, I slipped back down the staircase, out of their room. I hesitated at the door. Still silent, still dark. I still made sure to stay close to the walls, socked feet making no noise on the hardwood floors.
I paused again at the landing. So far, so good. My room was within sight, and it was still silent, still dark. I took slow, quiet steps there. About halfway to my room, though, my blood ran ice cold.
There was someone coming up the stairs.
I could make it, I was perhaps twenty feet away.
Whoever it was, they were nearing the top of the stairs.
Fifteen feet away.
They were on the landing.
Maybe they couldn’t see me, it was dark enough, no light flooded through the windows at the end of the hall.
Ten feet away.
They were walking towards me.
Five feet away.
A hand gripped my shoulder and turned me around. In the light of a flickering candle stood Grandmother, stony faced. Wordlessly, holding the neck of my nightgown fast, she tugged me back the way she came. I knew I wasn’t getting out of this easy.
We soon stood in the study. Like the last time I’d been there, it was barren, only the desk and a single chair remained. She sat down, flatly instructing me to stand before her.
“Lucille.” She paused. “What were you doing out of bed at this hour?”
I formulated a quick lie. “I was taking a walk. I couldn’t sleep.”
“And you could not remain in your room?”
“I am not your grandmother.”
A number of unspoken things floated around us.
“Yes, Aunt Olivia.” I corrected myself. “I like to take walks at night and think.”
She tutted in disapproval. “Lying is a sin, Lucille. Confess to what you were doing, and your punishment will not be so severe.”
I refused. “I’m not lying. I promise you.”
Wordlessly, she turned back to the desk, opening a drawer. From it, she produced the same whip that had cut into my mother’s flesh the years previously.
“Lucille. I will give you one more opportunity. Did you go to the attic?”
“No, ma’am.” I replied.
“Did you try and take care of the rat problem yourself?”
“Are you trying to deceive me?”
“That is no ma’am!” She rose from the chair, gripping the whip in her right hand. “Do not disrespect me.”
I stood steadfast, I wasn’t going to take this anymore. She raised her hand, ready to strike, poised like a cobra threatening its prey.
“Lucille Winfield, you have been disrespectful, deceitful, and unruly. I know what you’ve hidden from me through these years, and you need to face your judgement.”
With a crack, the whip came down upon my shoulder. I cowered, falling to my knees in pain. Remorselessly, she pulled me up, commanding me to strip. I hesitated, and she nearly ripped my nightgown off me, the cold night air causing my hairs to stand on end. She raised the whip once more.
“This is for sneaking about the house at night doing God knows what.”
Another crack of the whip, biting into my back. I whined in pain.
“This is for lying to me.”
Another crack, falling neatly where the previous lash had been. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes.
“This is for disrespecting me in my own home, in my time of charity for you.”
A fourth lash. The end of the whip curled around me, it burned.
“This is punishment for what you have done, warning against what you may do.”
Two more lashes of the whip made contact. I did not dare to cry out. The memory of my own mother being whipped this way flashed behind my eyes. I remembered how I didn’t protest. There was no one to protest for me.
I was whipped twice more. Eight lashes for my crimes. I nearly anticipated more, refusing to raise my eyes until I heard her place the whip back in the drawer, sliding it closed, and my nightgown was tossed at me.
Looking up at her, she held no remorse in her gaze, but she extended her hand to help me up. I refused it, standing shakily on my own.
“You will return to your room.” She commanded. “Tomorrow you are excused from any chores. You will instead remain in your room to think about what you have done. Do you understand?”
I nodded. My eyes burned and my throat choked with unshed tears of anguish and anger.
That was all. The next morning, breakfast was left for me at my door. I took a cold bath, and I finally let myself cry. I didn’t know what I should do.
However, one thing was certain. I knew what I had to do.