Chapter 1: The Beginning of it All
The age of fifteen is a strange time to have changes come upon a young girl. In that same notion, any drastic ones should shatter reality for a young child. I had four siblings, a mother and father, and a quiet enough suburban home, given the circumstances. We weren't overwhelmingly rich, living in luxury, but we certainly weren't poor. No, we were the prime example of middle class suburbia, just the way we liked it. Momma was the prime example of what the matron of the household should be - she was beautiful, never quite needing makeup but choosing to apply it, a homemaker who could cook, clean, and care for her children and husband. By that time, I was active in helping her with chores, being shaped into a little housewife by the woman who seemed to be the master mould.
Daddy oh, was he wonderful. Two years our mother's senior, he held a youth and spirit of a man never past twenty. It's one of the things that made him to be the perfect P.R. man for his job, plus the charisma that even had his boss squeezing into our dining room for dinner on occasion. However, each profession comes with a price, and his involved constant travel to all parts of America and the world, but never more than five days could pass before he dashed home Friday afternoon, showering us with the missed affection and a few gifts from his travels. Even at fifteen, I would hide with my siblings, always in the most predictable spots, and run into his arms, peppering him with kisses and news from the week. He would return every kiss, and match every scrap of information with something grandiose that we knew was a little exaggerated and spiced to make his job seem a little more interesting. Nevertheless, Fridays were the second Christmas for us, for they became days of rest and celebration.
Once he passed around each trinket from his adventures, he would finally stand again, making his way to Momma. Never had I seen a couple so in love, and I haven't seen another since. Their looks could melt hearts, and when they were near, they looked years younger. In my deepest of hearts, I wished for a romance like that.
On those days, Momma would prepare herself as if she were getting ready to meet a prince. I wouldn't blame her; our father was as close to a prince as they came.
My sister Cathy was twelve at the time, the most impressionable age. She followed Momma and me like a puppy, soaking in all that there was to be a young woman. She begged to borrow my perfume, or Momma's makeup, or try on our dresses. She asked me about boys at school, what homecoming was like; if I thought I'd have a date to prom. She lived for love stories, seeking that Romeo to her tragic Juliet. Of course I'd oblige her a little bit, always giving less of an answer while filling her head with more. I'd describe the dashing boys of my dreams, giving fictionalized accounts of secret meetings underneath the football bleachers or in the courtyard. One detail I'd always give stuck with her, until she could almost finish the story herself; the boy would lean in for a kiss, and I'd deny him like a proper girl.
Momma knew that my stories were made up, but whenever I told them, she'd get this look in the eye, almost like she remembered something similar. She'd chide me in an exaggerated way, but wink and smile when Cathy wasn't looking. It was strange, then.
Christopher, his namesake our father, was fourteen, just a little under a year younger than I. It was a silent bonding force between us, always having each other's backs. Daddy said that when siblings were that close in age, it was like they were twins. Seeing our youngest siblings, he was nearly right. Carrie and Cory were twins as well, and they held the same mentality of mutual benefit. Christopher and I kept eyes on them as they grew. At eleven years younger than me and eight younger than Cathy, the age gap was considerable.
The odd thing about our family, the thing that most people noticed, was that we all looked a bit alike, barring me. My parents and siblings had wheat blonde hair, creamy skin, and had the same eyes. It was the eyes in my opinion that got them. All the same shape, all about the same color. In my case, I had darker hair, different eyes. We were often asked if I was a relative's child or adopted, but it was proven thick and thin I was my parent's. I shared just enough resemblance to them. Momma told me I looked like our grandmother who, for a reason she never seemed to state, I resembled. After age ten or so, I stopped asking.
Nevertheless, even with my striking lack of resemblance, we were dubbed the Dresden Dolls, which was much easier compared to our mammoth of a surname. Dollanganger. It rolled off the tongue in a way, yet was always a struggle for others to spell or say. Year after year of attendance, teachers would cross the threshold of 'D' in the roll call, and find themselves stuck upon ourselves. Dollar-granger was my favorite mispronunciation, I believe.
There was a Friday; happening around the time I was fifteen that happened to be Daddy's thirty-sixth birthday. Of course it was a special celebration. We had his closest friends attending a surprise party, one that we spent hours preparing for. Momma spent extra long in her oiled bath smelling of flowers, spending the time to apply the lightest makeup, to choose the perfect gown. She allowed me to watch, and even partake in some of her beauty rituals. It felt like a coming of age to smell of roses and lavender, to put on the layers of cream and powder, to try on an old negligee that she passed down to me. I was a woman. As much as it was a celebration for Daddy, it was the first time I could let Cathy and Chris do the washing up for the twins and pretty myself up. My hair was tightly curled, a freshly pressed spring green dress that contrasted against my brown curls. Momma bought it for herself, but when it looked dull against her blonde hair, she made sure it was tailored to my fittings. I was grown up.
Then the hours passed. The food was drying by seven, but we wouldn't eat without the man of the hour. Carrie and Cory, four years old, had such sensitive internal clocks, and were whining to eat and sleep. Not being able to stomach their cries, I quickly snuck each one some crackers. I wouldn't eat anything, though. Not until Daddy got home, smile on his face, wind tousled hair, explaining some traffic or incident at work to explain his lateness. Then we'd pull out dinner, by some miracle good again, then the cake and presents. We'd have a grand night, all of us playing party games and enjoying one another's company.
Most of the rest of the night was a blur.
The state police came, explaining that… an accident occurred. I remember flashes - Momma's makeup dripping down her face along with tears. The disbelief. They brought in his belongings, which only proved the fact that he was gone and it wasn't some mistaken identity. Cathy ran out, Christopher in shock, Carrie and Cory had no idea what was happening. The guests at the party gave condolences of all varieties. I felt numb. I made the twins peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, the crusts cut off. Chris later explained my seemingly emotionless state as shock, but I can't be sure for myself.
I don't remember much of the night. Sometimes people say that your brain chooses what's important to remember, and puts that away for safekeeping. The rest is thrown away when you sleep, or at least buried so far that you can dig and dig but never find it. I think my brain decided to toss that night into the furthest reaches of beyond, so far that no matter of probing on a shrink's sofa could pull it from the oceans of subconscious.
Following that night, I was more than just the look of a woman. I had to be one. Cathy and I took care of chores, of raising the twins when Momma was busy. Swarms of neighbors came with condolences as the news traveled down the block. Stacks of casseroles, of roasts filled our fridge alongside cans of food in the pantry. With every bit of food, we were given uplifting words of hope, of sorrow, of memories.
We all coped in our own ways, the five forms of grief. Cathy, denial, pretending that he was still around, always a little late to come home from a long day. Carrie and Cory were almost angry - where were their toys, their beloved father who would weekly shower them with every bit of love a four year old needs? Their state was short lived, though, and soon the memory was simply wisps in their short attention span. Depression hit Christopher early on. He didn't know how to vocalize it all. Nobody did. He kept to himself, already a half recluse, nose in his books. I watched Momma bargain in letters, our funds slipping. I had the silent understanding that she had no real job skills, and therefore no job. She just kept writing and writing, until finally we received a reply in the form of a thick, creamy colored envelope that sent her to tears.
If only, I think to this day, we hadn't received that letter.
Chapter 2: Travel and New Beginnings
When the crisp, clean envelope arrived in the mail that I fetched, I thought little of it. We'd received lots of letters. There were bills, letters of condolences, offers on the home. However, when I saw the tears come to our mother's eyes, I knew there was much larger work at hand. The three short pages were ones even I was forbidden to read, but according to Momma, we were to live with our grandparents in Virginia. She said that they had plenty of money and a large mansion in the mountains that we could enjoy, plus we could pay off our growing debts.
The word debt left a sour taste in my mouth. Carrie and Cory were left unawares, but I could tell that my other two siblings could decipher some meaning. We were going to lose everything. The house. The furniture. Everything but the clothes on our backs and a few other things were going to be swooped out from under our noses. When we were told this, I gave Momma a long look. She gave a short one back.
"Momma." I said softly, once the others had gone. "You lived in luxury for years and years, and then you did something to get that taken away. Why?"
She gave me doe eyes. "Your father and I made some bad decisions… All I can say is that my father was very very cross with me. He disinherited me, but I want to regain his favor."
I nodded. "And how will you?"
"Well, any way you'd try and please me when you've made me angry." She responded sweetly, finally wiping at the smudged mascara that ran down her cheeks in rivulets. "Gifts. Being the sweetest daughter one can imagine; obedient, kind, and truthful. I aim to tell your siblings later, but you ought to know now…"
She drifted off a little, but sat up straight again. "The bank is going to come and take anything they think is valuable. You can keep your clothes, they said, and the bare necessities. I can keep my wedding band, and I'm hiding my engagement diamond. Camilla, because you are my eldest, I'd like you to keep one, small thing if you'd like. However, you need to tell me by morning. They're coming at noon."
The information was so much, I could hardly bear it. Everything really was going. However, I pushed the fears down and excused myself to me and Cathy's room. I sat down, looking around. She lay fast asleep on her bed, and I slowly pat her curls. She didn't stir. I didn't make a sound. What to save? Even if we weren't particularly well off, we were always given plenty by our parents. It was like choosing a memory. It took some deliberation, but I finally chose something - a silver necklace with a beautiful opal inlaid. It may have not been overwhelmingly expensive, but it was from Father. That's all that mattered to me.
We left in a taxi at twilight, saying goodbye to each memory we had fostered. Goodbye, bedroom where I had laid my head to sleep each night from my newborn days. Au revoir, backyard, kitchen, living room where hours of imagination took hold and my childhood could grow. Sayonara, everything I've ever known. Even school. I was pulled out with little notice, and few ripples went through the town. Of course my friends were sad. I knew they'd forget anyway.
From taxi to train, we arrived at the station in the dead of night under the name Patterson. I could barely keep my eyes open, let alone carry two suitcases. I knew the situation, though, and obediently held them as we watched the train leave. It was strange when a lavish car didn't pull up, and it was even stranger when Momma hushed every question we asked as we walked. She'd been disinherited fifteen years ago… I subtly wondered if my conception was the sin that made her go. However, the thought was snapped from my mind when the twins began to cry and scream. They didn't like the woods, they didn't like the dark. Wordlessly, I handed a suitcase off to Chris and picked up Carrie. She struggled just a little, and then relaxed in my arms, exhausted. Cathy picked up Cory, who did the same.
Upon arrival, we were quickly ushered in by an old woman, dressed in all grey and possessing the face of a hawk. Her nose was sharp, hair pulled back so tightly it stretched the skin. Her face was the face of business. However, I could see the resemblance that Mother saw. I wondered, in a stroke of hope, if she had any of my personality.
Within the first few words she spoke, my heart sank. If this was grandmother, I refused to believe this was our relative. She said that we were beautiful, but kept prodding to see if there was anything 'wrong' with us. Of course there wasn't! Chris was a near genius, Cathy was intelligent in her own way, and so were the twins! I wasn't a terrible student either, averaging A's and B's. Surely there wasn't a lick of anything wrong!
Finally we ended in a small room on the third floor. I helped dress the half-sleeping toddlers, slipping them into beds before Grandmother nearly shrieked.
"Your three older children cannot sleep in one bed!"
Mother looked cross, claiming we were innocent of whatever sin was implied, but Grandmother was having none of it. She demanded that Cathy and Carrie slept together in one bed, and Chris and Cory in the other. However, that left me. She looked me over.
"This one," She began, "is too old and too big. She'll have to go."
Go? My blood ran like ice.
She continued. "Corinne, you're lucky that this one looks enough unlike you to pass as someone else's child. You're also very lucky that a distant nephew just passed away. She cannot stay, so she's going to have to arrive with you in the morning."
She didn't say any more, but she then instructed my siblings on how they would live until our mother regained our grandfather's favor. Her last statement chilled me further. They'd live there, but not really exist.
Once we said goodbye, Momma and I were ushered out from the room. It was locked. First, I was taken to a spare room in which I'd change. My clothes were deemed improper from a person of money. I was forced to pose as another. Deciding I'd have to please the woman, I picked a cream dress, high collared and a little outdated, but not overly so. It was approved by Grandmother, luckily, even with the opal necklace I feared was too frivolous.
Next, we dropped Momma off at a hotel in town. I think the staff knew Grandmother, so they didn't question why she was checking a woman in at four a.m. I was forced to say goodbye to her.
"You be a good girl, okay?" She asked. She looked me over. "A splitting image of your grandmother… Look, Camilla. You… you can't be my daughter anymore. From this day until your grandfather dies, we're distant cousins. After that, we can be a family again, alright?"
I nodded. "I understand. Goodbye, momma."
She waved, and I was driven home again.
Once we were in the car, driven by a butler, and the back secluded behind thick curtains, Grandmother looked me over again. I was polite, sitting silently.
"Your name is Lucille Winfield, got it?" She informed.
"Yes, ma'am." I responded.
"You are my niece; I am your great aunt. Your father was Albert Winfield; your mother was June Winfield. They died in a car accident, and you were sent to me so you might have a better life. Understand?"
I nodded curtly. "Yes, ma'am."
She continued. "You arrived on the five a.m. train from Greenville, South Carolina, and you are very distraught. All you want is to be happy again. Repeat back my instructions."
I swallowed heavily. "My father is Albert, my mother is June, and I am Lucille. Our surname is Winfield. My parents died in a car crash and I was sent to live with you on the five o'clock train from Greenville."
She gave what I assume was a rare smile. I was in the clear. For now.
When we arrived back to Foxworth Manor, I was escorted to a small bedroom on the second floor. Now, small is used in the lightest sense, as the room was roughly the size that our living room had been. Grandmother explained that it was a spare bedroom, once a distant cousin's, and that I'd be using it until we could leave. She'd explain to Grandfather why I was there for me, thank goodness. The walls were a light shade of green, the floor a rich wood, and on one wall there was a large window, looking over the front of the house, facing the rising sun. Around the room was furniture, unused, but not dusty. Obviously, it was cleaned regularly. Another thing I noted was that my suitcase had been brought up.
Grandmother instructed me to do three things; wash up, put on some proper nightclothes, and read a chapter from the Bible. She handed me a thick, leather bound copy and told me that it would remain on my nightstand and be read from daily. Obviously, she was a devout Christian. Once she left, I explored a little. I had an adjoining bathroom, where I washed my face and used the toilet. However, I still felt weary. I'd been up for nearly twenty two hours, and I felt it. I could barely keep my eyes open as I read the first chapter of the Book of Job, being the first one I flipped to.
Once the words began to blur, I stopped, and went to close the curtains so I might get some rest and pray. As usual, I did my bedtime prayer, but added one thing. With all my mind, heart, and soul, I prayed that my four siblings, living in the attic, would be safe.
Chapter 3: Life As It Is
When I woke, the sun was high in the sky, and the small alarm clock on my nightstand read that it was two in the afternoon. I shot up. The night's events flooded back like a tidal wave, sending shivers through me. Looking around, I took everything in. The room was how I remembered it, but with the early morning shadows melted away, I was able to fully take in the surroundings. Light green walls, yes. Dark stained wood floors, of course. The bed frame matched it exactly. Everything was neat, down to the sepia toned photographs of family I assumed long dead.
I stepped out of bed, feet contacting with cool floor. Stepping into the bathroom, I stared myself in the mirror for a long time. My face was both a blessing and a curse; a saving grace from staying in a tiny attic, but the factor that tore me away from my family. Closing my eyes, I recalled our biology lessons. Dominant genes were the traits that showed most often, and when two parents have similar features, there was a seventy-five to one hundred percent chance that they would be passed on to the offspring. Blonde was obviously the dominant trait. By the same token, recessive traits were the least common, and when dominant traits are present in both parents, there is a maximum twenty-five percent chance of the recessive trait appearing in the offspring. It was simple mathematics. Cathy, Chris, Carrie, and Corey were the seventy-five. I was the twenty-five. I, by some miracle or curse, was the recessive traits; brown hair, dark, almond shaped eyes, and freckled skin.
As if to wake me from the constant loop, I splashed cool water on my face. Then, I noted, I had to make a good first impression. Quickly, I went to my suitcase, yet paused, grandmother's words echoing in my memory. They were improper. I pushed the suitcase under the bed, and then tidied said bed up. The four poster had curtains like Cathy's, though thicker and velvety. Another sign of wealth. I tied them to the posts neatly like they were the night before.
The closet, left of the bed and next to the bathroom door, was closed, and I pulled the doors open. It had clothing, all conveniently my size, within. Obviously picked out for me while we dropped momma off. I picked out a summery dress, a soft yellow, proper as the creamy dress, but a thinner, cooler material. Then, as I knew would be a proper decision, I bathed. The bath was nice, warm, and there were a number of flowery soaps. I didn't care what I picked. All I cared was getting it over with. And so I did. I cleaned. I dressed. The opal necklace was clipped around my neck, and with a final check in the mirror, I hoped I was presentable.
Once I slipped on stockings and shoes, I opened my bedroom door. On the floor, I found a tray, cold coffee, toast, and dry looking fruit lying on crisp white china. Frowning, I picked it up, bringing it in. I ate the toast, as it was still a little buttery, but dumped the coffee down the sink regretfully and tossed the fruit. As a polite measure, I brought the tray with me as I strode downstairs.
As soon as my foot hit the landing, a maid took the tray wordlessly, taking it to a set of swinging double doors I assumed to be the kitchen, as I appeared to be in the foyer, near a dining hall. Another maid paced to me, anxious looking.
“My Lady Foxworth is in the study, Miss Winfield." She said softly, a sense of urgency lining each syllable. "Down the hall, third door on the left." She informed, and then hurried away as if speaking to me was forbidden.
I followed her instructions, and found the door easily. It was closed, but I could hear soft speaking and the rustling of papers. I knocked.
Grandmother answered the door a moment later, a frown causing wrinkles to deepen around her lips. "Come in." She instructed, and opened the door. I did so obediently.
The room was less a study and more a makeshift hospital. There were a number of nurses all scurrying about, and medical equipment was on every surface possible. At the desk sat a younger man with dark hair and a moustache, writing down what was dictated to him from the figure in the center of the room. My eyes made contact.
An old man lay in the bed, breathing labored, and all sorts of machines hooked up to him. Wispy hair stuck to his face limply. He looked cold. I knew, however, from first look, that this was my grandfather. He paused his speaking to glance up at me.
"Olivia?" He asked sharply. "Is this the cousin you spoke of to me?"
She nodded, face still firm. "As I said, arrived this morning. She's been settling in."
I quickly curtsied, not quite knowing what else to do.
He looked me up and down, before barking an order. "Well, girl? Can you speak? Address your cousin!"
"Yes sir." I quickly responded. "I'm Lucille Winfield. I'd like to thank you for allowing me to live here after my parent's passing."
He took in the information, letting it steep like a teabag in warm water. "I see. I hope you will continue the gratitude. Maria!"
A short, slim maid pattered to his bedside.
"Give her the full tour." He commanded. "And direct her to her duties."
Duties? I was certain I was a relative, not a servant. However, I was whisked away before a word could slip out. Maria led me around, and showed me where everything was – library, kitchen, dining hall, and so forth. I found that her voice was high, and both physical appearance and demeanor reminded me of a mouse. After the very quick tour, she paused.
"Here at Foxworth manor, you are expected to work for your board. You may be Lady Foxworth's cousin, but she very clearly stated that you will be helping in some way. She asked me to ask you what your skills are." She wrung her hands in her apron.
I was hesitant, but complied. "I… I can cook." Was my final and only answer.
She nodded quickly. I'll inform Lady Foxworth immediately, and you will begin work tomorrow. Supper will be served in an hour. Thank you, miss Winfield."
With that, she scurried away, and I was left alone in the foyer. A massive house, a hundred rooms, and even with a family here and dozens of maids and butlers, I felt alone. I didn't know where to go. After I let out a long, slow breath, I padded up the stairs, racking my memory in hopes of remembering where Cathy, Chris, Carrie, and Corey were. I hadn't been taken all the way to the third level as it was solemnly used, and even the second level where my room was wasn't heavily trafficked besides the weekly cleanings.
The third floor landing was dark. The only light was dim, thin beams from underneath doors. I saw that the electric lights were unused, judging on how old the light bulbs looked. There were even recent-looking marks from where gas lamps would have been. I took a few steps across the heavy carpet. Faint voices could be heard from one of the far rooms, and I could make out the familiar tones of Christopher! I nearly ran, when I was stopped short by a firm hand gripping my collar.
It was Grandmother. She pulled me into a spare room, shutting the door behind us. She leaned down, slow, building terror. "You will not come up here without explicit instructions or purpose." She instructed, flat and cool. "I told you and your siblings last night. They. Do. Not. Exist. Therefore, you have to reason to be here. You hear me?"
I nodded quickly, terrified.
She hissed, and then, raised her hand. It contacted my cheek with a painful thwack, and I had to bring myself not to cry. I could feel my skin rise, warm and red.
"When you are spoken to, you will respond yes, ma'am, or no, ma'am."
I nodded again, quicker. "Yes, ma'am."
She continued. "You will never acknowledge your siblings existence. You will be obedient. Never speak unless spoken to, better seen than heard."
"Yes, ma'am." I said, a little quieter.
"You will be sinless, you will be godly, and you will not ever commit acts that will reflect your cursed soul from the depths of Hell."
"You will bathe twice daily, and never be disorganized with your belongings, manners, or behavior. You will be a proper young lady."
"And child, you will never go by the name Camille as long as your grandfather lives."
I nodded again. "Yes, ma'am."
Grandmother stood up straight. For an old woman, she was much taller than I, though part of it may have been that I felt two inches tall. Her entire being was imposing. She wordlessly led me downstairs, and began informing me of my kitchen duties. In short, I'd be a kitchen helper – for the time being, washing dishes and peeling vegetables. In return I'd receive my room and board, and she added that if I did a good enough job, she would allow me to do actual cooking and receive a small allowance. The small offer gave me hope. Even with inheritance inevitably coming, money of my own felt like freedom, or at least a taste of it.
She led me back to the study. It didn't sound like anyone was inside, which puzzled me already. Either Grandfather had sent all the nurses away, he was moved, or he had died already. I doubted the latter, yet hoped for it. The door was opened, and I had to stifle a gasp.
Mother was here.
Chapter 4: Revelations
She was as beautiful as always, wearing beautiful clothes as always, and as serene as always. I had missed her dearly, even in the few hours, but I willed my face to say nothing. Grandfather was a statue, wrinkles denoting age. I could see the resemblance. Grandmother again pushed the door closed, and I stood straight, hands behind my back politely.
Grandfather sat up straighter. "Lucille," I stood straighter as well, to match him. "This is your cousin, Corinne."
I nodded, and curtsied to Momma.
"Corinne, your cousin Lucille Winfield, on your mother's side."
She smiled warmly, and we shook hands, greeting each other formally. It was strange to greet one's parent like a stranger.
Grandfather's face had been unwavering for the time, and did not change.
"Corinne," He began, slowly speaking. "has sinned in the most terrible manner. For the last fifteen years, she has been forgotten almost entirely by me and Olivia. She has come today to beg forgiveness."
I took it in. I knew there was some sin. What it was exactly, I didn't know. I knew her disownment. I knew she was begging. Momma was calm, but I noted the tiniest signs of fear; sweaty palms, wringing fingers, the idle pushing of hair behind an ear. I watched her swallow a lump in her throat.
"It will take time." He continued. "Her fall from the path of God was exceedingly far. It will take plenty of effort to show me that she has taken God back into her heart. It will take plenty of effort to show me that she loves me."
I nodded, still not showing emotion.
"Her sin is unforgivable by the Lord, but perhaps she will be granted some level mercy in heaven. Upon this plane, however, my mercy will not be spared. Olivia?"
I glanced to Grandmother. She stood as stony faced as her husband. She strode to his bedside, and gazed at him with cool eyes.
Grandfather looked back at her. "Her punishment is due. It is, in fact, long neglected." He pointed to a corner of the room, and my eyes followed the path of his finger. It gestured to the plain looking writing desk, cupboard doors closed, papers neatly stacked, and fountain pen in its holder. "Take the whip." He commanded.
My blood froze. If they were going to whip her, I didn't know how I could bear it. Then again, I tried to reason; perhaps it was a metaphor, or just a warning. Grandmother strode to the desk, and opened the top set of doors. My optimism was falsely placed, and I watched her pull out a long whip, handle made of rich wood wrapped in reddish brown leather. It looked used, but the leather strap used to torture had been replaced.
"Strip." Grandfather instructed Momma. She did so obediently. Grandmother looked me in the eye, and then to a chair next to Grandfather. I sat there quickly and silently.
Momma stood in the center of the room, in only a brassiere and underwear. She seemed bare naked, even without her filmy negligee she normally wore when she had come out of a bath. Creamy white skin was bathed in a yellowish light coming from the lamps, and I watched the gentle rise and fall of her chest, even if she was nervously shifting. It was surreal.
"Corrine Foxworth." He said firmly. "You lived in sin for sixteen years. Upon the conception of your child, if any remained, all the grace of God left you. With the destruction of that child, some may have returned. But not all."
I wasn't supposed to be here. Her punishment was because of me. I should've been dead.
"Corinne." He continued. "For each of those sixteen years, you will receive a lash. Amnon, son of David, was put to death by Absalom for your very crime. Take this as pity."
I watched Grandmother, raise the whip above her head. Momma cowered. I squeezed my eyes shut.
"Your cousin will now witness the penance for transgressions against God." He announced. "For the crime of incestuous relations with your half uncle, let the bite of the whip punish."
I heard a thwack, and a dull whine. It took every ounce of strength not to cry.
I was an inbred.
A second lash, a few moments later. A slightly louder sound. I bit my lip.
I could have been deformed.
A third, delayed. A gasp. I dug fingers into my palms.
“Open your eyes child! Witness the penance for sin!" Grandfather demanded. I did as told. I didn't want to suffer the pain. I didn't want to give anything away.
Four, five, six lashes. Mother's back was already red and bruised. I thought of the twins.
Seven, eight. Her thighs were raw, bleeding.
She was naked. The whip cut into her flesh twice more. The whip curled around her and gnawed her skin. Scarlet welts bloomed like roses.
Another three lashes in quick succession. Momma cried out, and was slapped across the face. She fell silent. I wondered what Cathy was doing.
A fourteenth. I felt a hot droplet of blood streak my face from the violent splatters. I didn't wipe it away. Chris would chide me for the impoliteness.
Grandmother raised the whip high once more, and then cracked it down with so much force I thought the whip itself would break. The amount of strength from the woman was immense, especially given that her husband seemed ancient. I watched the leather make contact with raw flesh.
That was fifteen. I could feel tiny crescent moons forming in my skin from nails pressing in. I watched as Momma half collapsed to the floor, saving herself with a hand. The carpet was a rich red; any drops of blood would never leave a noticeable stain. Plus, I had noted before, Grandfather looked as though he was coughing up blood. It would not be strange to find any in the room. It was a perfect setting. Grandmother raised the whip one last time, and brought it down.
The final blow. Her body ran crimson, her cheeks were stained from running mascara, and I watched her shudder. Her once calm breaths were ragged, and her perfect hair, perfect makeup, both were in disarray. I didn't move. I barely shifted. Grandmother tossed her a wet rag that I saw a nurse pat Grandfather's head with.
"Wash up." She said plainly, as if nothing had transpired. "I will be escorting you to your room. Lucille will join us."
Momma nodded quickly, and wiped herself as well as she could. With the wounds clean, they weren't as deep as I had thought, and some were already beginning to cease bleeding. Within ten minutes, no blood came anymore, and she was dressed. In the mirror, she fixed her hair and makeup. Like nothing was wrong. Like she hadn't suffered a brutal beating. Like her daughter did not witness it. Like her daughter didn't hear that her, along with her siblings, were crimes against the Bible, nature, and the odds. Grandmother gestured that I stand, and I did so. She led us out, and while she walked, she gestured to a maid, who scurried off, I assume to allow the nurses back in.
Up the flights of stairs we went, along long hallways. I looked up at Momma. She didn't look back at me. We were on the third floor again, where I had come so close to seeing my siblings again. My breath hitched in my throat. Grandmother unlocked the door, and pushed us inside, locking it again.
I had remembered the room being small the first time I'd seen it, but now it seemed even more so. Things were in disarray, but I saw all of my wonderful, wonderful siblings perk up when they saw Momma and I, and they ran to squeeze us in hugs. Momma winced, but covered it up with a smile.
And then she explained what happened. I had to tune it out. It honestly hurt to hear it again. My dirty habit of denial and ignoring often did me wrong. All I could think of was Carrie and Cory. They were just toddlers. They needed sunshine and room to run. A tiny room that required curtains to be tightly shut all day and night was a recipe for disaster. They already seemed distraught, antsy. When Grandmother finished her explanation, Carrie tugged on my skirt.
"Where did you go?" She asked softly.
I paused. Then spoke. "I can't stay with you, Carrie. I'm too big. Chris and Cathy can stay, though."
She frowned, and I scooped her up in my arms. She squeezed me tight. "Why you got blood on your face?"
I hadn't wiped it away, and I reddened. I saw the others look towards me. I didn't want them to know what happened and my involvement, so I lied, hoping they wouldn't make the connection. "I fell in my room, buttercup. Skinned my knee and accidentally got a little on my face. That's all."
I had never really lied to them. Sure, I had embellished the truth to entertain them, to tell stories, but never about anything serious. I had to though. To keep them safe and happy. I watched her think it through, perhaps with a little doubt, but she accepted it well enough. I set her down.
After a little more time and explanation of my situation, Grandmother ushered Momma and I out. We went to dinner, which was simple, given the house around us. Just a roast, potatoes, and carrots. It was excellent, though felt strange for grandeur. Then again, my grandparent's orthodox tastes likely forbade any meals that were over the top. Neither grandmother nor Mother even drank wine. They had tea.
After supper, Momma was shown her room, and Grandmother led me to mine. Probably so I wouldn't think of wandering off and knowing more than I should.
At my door, she stopped me.
"Lucille," She said cooly. "tonight you will read all of Deuteronomy Chapter twenty-one, verses eighteen to twenty one. You will memorize it, and by six p.m. tomorrow, I will have you recite it over supper. Take the words into your heart. Take them soberly." She instructed. "Breakfast will be at seven sharp. Do not oversleep again." She added, then left.
Kneeling at the foot of my bed, I prayed. Then, once I had pulled on pajamas and crawled into bed, I flipped to the correct passage.
"18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid."
Chapter 5: Changing Views
I woke, by some grace, at quarter past six. It gave me plenty of time to bathe, get ready for the day, and even study. I feared the reparations I could face if I didn't heed to my grandmother's whim. I gazed over the passage, murmuring the words to myself, quizzing from time to time. The passage felt as if it were taunting me. A rebellious child must be punished. Killed. It was my mother, no doubt, that Grandmother was not-so-subtly using against me, and warning me against sin.
Breakfast was brief. Eggs, toast, marmalade. Once it was over, a maid ushered me into the kitchen. It seemed much too big for the people it was feeding - on a normal day, without us, it would just be two people plus perhaps two dozen workers. I was immediately greeted by the man I assumed to be the head chef; a short, thin man of about fifty, with a wispy grey receding hairline. His face could only be described as nondescript, as it had no features that stuck out. In fact, as I made note of each servant, it appeared as though all of them had the similar quality of blandness. I wondered if it was a requirement for hiring. They could all blend into the background and be completely unnoticeable.
The chef shook my hand politely, and I curtsied.
"You must be Miss Winfield." He said plainly. "The lady of the house told me you'd be working here. You can address me as Chef Deegan. Allow me to show you around…"
I was briefly shown around the kitchen. Everything was as organized and rigid as an army camp. I was given an apron, jobs for each day, and an idea of what everything would typically entail. I was unpaid help. My wage was room and board, and I would work five days a week, Saturday reserved for leisure, Sunday for worship. As it were, Friday morning was upon us. All meals had been planned, and lunch and dinner were to be even simpler than the food I had sampled previously. My chores began with washing up from breakfast, a small pile of dishes that went away quickly. I then was instructed to wipe down countertops, sweep, mop, and generally keep things clean. It wasn't grueling work, though I had begun to sweat. It was, after all, midsummer, and the oven was going at full heat to bake the bread for the week. Yes, despite it being my only working day thus far, Friday was bread day.
The day passed by with nothing surprising. I had had a small lunch, and continued to recite the scripture in my head, checking if I had made any mistakes from time to time. By my luck and persistence, I fully memorized it by five forty-five. I had fifteen minutes to spare before dinner, and, to be sure, I murmured it under my breath as I set places out for dinner. Grandfather, due to his health, would not be joining us, though I was tasked to bring him his meal before I could eat mine.
The clock struck six p.m. with long, drawn out chimes, and on the dot, entered Grandmother and Momma. They took their places, and I stood rigid, waiting for my cue. We said grace, and Grandmother looked to me.
"Lucille." She spoke. "You were tasked with a biblical verse. Recite it."
I curtsied, and with my allowance to speak, began.
"Deuteronomy, Chapter twenty-one, verses eighteen through twenty-one." I paused. "If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son…"
The words blurred, but I finished. For a moment, Grandmother was silent, and I feared that I had slipped up and not noticed. However, she nodded slowly.
"You've recited perfectly." She said, no inflection showing if she was pleased, surprised, or otherwise. "Deliver Malcolm's meal to his study, then return."
"Yes, ma'am." I responded, and obediently excused myself, pushing the cart along the halls to where I remembered his study to be. The room was silent, but I knocked.
There was no response for a few seconds, but then the voice of my grandfather croaked permission to enter, and I opened the door slowly, wheeling the cart, laden with stew and a roll to his bedside. I awaited instruction or permission to leave. I was walking on incredibly thin ice, for I was left totally alone with the one force that could destroy me.
His lips formed into a thin line that could be defined as the ghost of a smile, though it was cold and held no real affection.
"Do you know," He asked slowly. "Why my daughter, your cousin, was disowned?"
I nodded, then answered. "She was pregnant before marriage, sir."
He tutted softly. "But that's not the whole story, you know."
I awaited his answer with bated breath, both from morbid curiosity and horror."
"One," He began. "the man she conceived the abomination with was her half-uncle. My half-brother."
I nodded. He had burned the knowledge into my brain.
"Two," He continued. "the infant was killed. Infanticide, even of a child born of incest and sin, is one of the worst sins one can commit. I admit, I had demanded that she remove the creature from herself. I wanted it gone. But it was by her hand, and those hands will forever be coated with blood."
I could only continue my nodding. I was supposed to be dead. He kept telling me these things, and an icy shard in me feared that he knew that I wasn't. That I was the abomination, the creature that didn't die. Curiosity got the best of me. I had to know. "How did she kill it?" I asked. "Do you know?"
He immediately chided. "Your prying will get you into trouble, young lady… but, if you insist… She drowned it. Right from birth, submerged it in the tub. The death certificate she sent was proof enough.
"Now child." He looked me directly in the eye. "Let it be known that unnecessary curiosity cannot be tolerated. Let Corinne's fate be reminder if nothing else. Sin will always be found out, you hear?"
"Remember." He sat up a little straighter, and took the tray onto his lap. "Even if you are forgiven on Earth, the Heavenly Father will not be light handed on His punishment. Be holy, or fear the flames of Hell. You are dismissed."
I curtsied, and left. I had to take a breath just outside his door before going to dinner. Everything was muddled in my head, from his information on my mother's sins to his warning of divine punishment. I was certain he knew I wasn't my dead. My parents had forged a lot of things, most likely, especially their own birth certificates. Surely they could have forged a death certificate for me. That's why I could go to school and such, I knew I had one. I had watched Momma pack it with our belongings, and it was probably hidden away somewhere. At least, I hoped.
I had dinner. I cleaned afterwards. It was uneventful. I was assigned another passage, Hebrews 13:17. With this, I already knew my passages were carefully being chosen. Grandmother was a sort of manipulative that was obvious, but one could never call out directly. She knew what she was doing; it was a skill she had honed into a piercing blade.
Once dinner and my duties were over, it was seven thirty. I had the rest of the night, plus all of Saturday to myself. As I couldn't visit my siblings, I wasn't sure what to do with my newfound time. Normally, at our home, I would spend time with them, or my friends, or go on walks, but none of those were viable. I decided to write. After asking Grandmother for some paper and writing materials, she allowed me into a secondary study, which I quickly raided and returned to my room.
However, the crisp, blank paper in front of me felt daunting. No ideas flowed, the pen in my hand felt like a weight. I pressed it to the top corner of the page, and dated it. It was a start.
Friday, June 29, 1957
I had a date. I decided to write a letter from my new persona. I had to get a grasp of being me. To whom the letter would be to, I didn't know.
I am Lucille Winfield. I'm sixteen years old. My parents are dead. I was born in Greenville, South Carolina, but I was sent to live with my distant cousins, Olivia and Malcolm Foxworth in Virginia. Their daughter was a sinner, and lives with us also. She was in a relationship with her half-uncle and had a child, which she killed. I have a room on the second floor, and I work in the kitchen for room and board.
I paused. Everything felt too simple. I crumbled the paper, though scribbled things out for good measure, just in case. One could never be too careful. I started anew, again with the date.
To whomever it may concern,
That too was scrapped. I had a dozen false starts. Nothing felt right. I was in an actress in a role miscast. I wasn't supposed to be here. I wasn't even supposed to be alive. The room suddenly felt constricting, and I had to open the window. The cool summer air didn't help. Stared into the woods. Fireflies were beginning to flicker, bats flapping through the trees. It was such a beautiful place around us. The austerity felt like a tragedy. There should been parties and love here, I decided, not hidden children, false identities, and fierce penance for sins.
It was there, deep in thought, bitter regard for my grandparents, that I decided I didn't believe in God. The nagging part of me still wanted to, but I wanted my seed of rebellion. It was right there, sitting on the floor, arms crossed on the dark windowsill, searching the stars, that I turned my back. Of course, I would read the Bible each night, but that was only to please my Grandparents. I would pray at meals for the same reason. It felt like I was indulging in Satan, but I didn't care.
I was forging my own destiny, now.
Chapter 6: Seasons Pass
The weeks passed, they melted into months. When September had rolled around, Grandmother enrolled me in the local girl’s school that Momma had been in, of course under my false name. I boarded on the weekdays, and came home every weekend. On breaks, however, I resumed my kitchen duties, and made a menial salary of three dollars a week. Momma started school too -- She was learning to be a secretary, or so she said. Many a night I had watched her pour over notes, trying to type and do shorthand, but to no avail. I couldn’t rely on her for my own work anyway. She had never been good with figures, so I had to rely on the servants that did. It was one thing I was thankful for, that Grandmother insisted on me having a good education and keeping my marks up. In my heart, I felt Momma wanted me to become a little housewife like her, but I genuinely enjoyed studying. My teachers sent monthly reports to our families, and Grandmother gave her rare praise when all my feedback was positive.
We had been with our grandparents since June, and it was now November. I hated how I couldn’t visit my siblings, and I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them in five months. It took a little persuasion, but by August I had a system going with Grandmother. Every Sunday, I was allowed to write them a letter, and on Mondays she arose early to give me their responses. It had to be very secretive, and their letters were to be burned upon reading them. That was the part I hated most. They weren’t allowed to exist. They were like ghosts. Every day I had to put on a brave face and pretend that my entire life was thrown away like dust in the wind.
I received even worse news a few weeks before. In July, Momma pulled me aside and explained that she couldn’t inherit anything until Grandfather died. Even worse is what she told me after. Because Cathy, Chris, Carrie, and Cory were hidden, they couldn’t ever meet Grandfather, but they would be safely protected under his money. Myself, as I had met the servants and Grandfather himself, I would have to wait until I was eighteen, even if Grandfather died before then. My blood chilled at the concept. My siblings could be free, living with millions in their grasp, free to call Momma by her name, but I was stuck for the next three years. I wanted to argue, but there was no way out of it.
I cheered myself up with the letters. I updated my siblings on things I did, and even sent Chris copies of my school notes. If he wasn’t going to school, I’d at least help him learn a few things. He wouldn’t stop gushing about their attic. Even if their room was cramped, the room above was a haven; spacious, filled with antiques, and even had a schoolroom where they could start educating Carrie and Cory. After he said that, I began to make sure I sent extra notes on things to teach them, from what I could remember being taught. Cathy remarked that Cory especially missed me, and it broke my heart. There was nothing I could do about it, but I made sure to put extra love into the bit in my letter directed at him. I couldn’t help but miss him too; he really was a sweetheart for a toddler, and memories of taking him on rides on my shoulders, showing him off to my friends brought tears to my eyes. How I wished I could kiss his rosy cheeks!
If only they really were rosy.
In a more worrisome letter, Chris fleetingly mentioned that the twins had begun to look sickly, paler. They were always confined to the tiny room where opening windows was forbidden, and their skin showed. The two had always loved playing in the yard, running around half-naked until their skin turned a soft brown, freckles popping up like weeds on their noses. I doubted they had any after so long without sun.
Thanksgiving was soon upon us. I remembered the years before. We always had a turkey, plenty of mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and mixed vegetables. It wasn’t ever a huge meal, but it was more than we usually had. Momma was the one to insist on a turkey. We would’ve been fine with chicken, but she got the biggest one the market had in stock. Anything we could have, she doubled it. Now that we were in our current situation, I was no longer surprised at our debt. Her youth among riches gave her the taste for the finer things in life. She and Daddy were originally going to only have a small home, she wanted bigger. They were going to have just me, but she wanted more children. She wanted a big engagement and wedding ring. Daddy could’ve always said no, but his heart was gold, and melted for her. He would live in rags if it meant she had a crown of jewels. But then he died, and the weight of her choices fell onto her shoulders in an avalanche.
Living among wealth once more, she seemed happier. I noted that the bags under her eyes that she tried so hard to conceal faded. Her eyes brightened. I swore that the fine worry lines that she accumulated disappeared. I also noticed the rings, the necklaces, the earrings. The nights she went out and stayed until dawn. The letters she got written in looped ink and the phone calls that lasted hours. My heart was heavy, and I bitterly realized that she moved on from her lost love. Daddy may have been gone, the supposed love of her life, but she brushed it aside and was letting suitors into her heart. I, of course, could say nothing. Grandmother would accuse me of trying to let my secret loose, or sympathizing with her relationship with her half-uncle. In fact, I was certain Grandmother wanted me to hate Momma. I couldn’t hate her though. She loved me, raised me, and now treated me with polite, cousinly affection. It felt strange, though welcome.
December came like the winter winds, chilling and abrupt. My midterm exams were approaching fast, much of my time was dedicated to studying for them. During the week it was a bit harder. I roomed with five other girls, who, even when they tried their hardest, never came up to par with my dedication. I would join them, of course, during beauty rituals -- having one’s hair braided is one of the best feelings in the world -- but it’s difficult to read from a textbook when your roommates play Elvis and Fats Domino until your eyeballs vibrate in your skull.
I survived however. Our week of midterms was the ninth to the thirteenth, and then we had three weeks off for holidays. Our results would be posted when we returned home, and I knew everyone would be anxious to see them. I felt I did well in English and History, but my heart sank when I looked through my Mathematics and Chemistry finals. I doubted I’d do exceedingly well. Even if I was decent with numbers, the application of them was much harder. Latin was completely out. The language was dead, much like my will to pursue the dozens of translations and ways to say someone was killed.
It was when I returned that I was told of the Christmas ball. I was actually excited. I didn’t have to cook for it, I was going to be in the fray, and I was even going to have a gown created just for me! It may have been vain, but I had always wanted something fitted to me, picked out to be perfect. I would be beautiful, just like my mother. However, I immediately thought of Cathy. She would be more than a little jealous. In fact, she’d likely hate me for a time if she learned that I got to go to a fancy party, in a fancy dress, and probably be flirted with. That was precisely the reason that I didn’t mention that I was going in the letter. I lied outright, saying that Grandmother forbade me to go. My siblings would never know, so they couldn’t be hurt. I did hate lying to them, but it felt necessary for everyone’s sake.
Momma took me to the boutique the weekend I returned. There were rows and rows of dresses to choose from, and it took ages to pick one. Momma had her own sense of what I should wear -- low cut, knee length, in bright flashy colors -- the seamstresses tried convincing her of something that would be more flattering to my body type, and something a little more appropriate for a fifteen year old. God knows what Grandmother would think if I wore a dress with too much cleavage. Once we were set on style, it was hours of going through colors and small variations. I was thrust into and torn out of dresses, shoes were experimentally paired, and it was dark by the time we were set on something and I was fitted. Grandmother was less than impressed with our timing, and no amount of flattery could smooth her lack of satisfaction. She was, however, pleased with the choice of dress we had finally decided on, from the magazine we snagged from the shop. That was one step down. Now all we had to do was wait.
My heart soared as the days ticked by. I had always loved Christmas. With my saved money, I discreetly purchased my siblings presents. For Chris I picked out a book on physics, Cathy got a record of ballet music (though I didn’t know if she could use it or not), Cathy got a large set of crayons, and Cory a small train set. I wrapped everything neatly, and placed it in my closet for safekeeping. Somehow I would get them upstairs. I was going to spend the holidays with my siblings if it was the last thing I did.
Chapter 7: Christmas
It was finally Christmas Day. I had asked Grandmother over and over, doing my hardest to please her, and she finally caved to allow me to see my siblings. She warned over and over that it would be a one-time deal, but I didn’t even care, I was seeing the four individuals that I had hoped to see the most! The night before I had meticulously wrapped each gift fully, with paper bows and all. I didn’t have a clue if Grandmother had gotten them anything. I doubted it. I knew Momma had a few things from the fleeting conversations we could manage. At seven sharp, Grandmother came to my room, ushering me upstairs quickly where Momma was waiting.
“Merry Christmas.” I whispered quickly to her, which she responded to just as quick.
The door was unlocked, and we stepped inside just before the door was latched behind us. The room was, as I remembered, tiny, made even worse by the fact seven people were in it. Everything looked exactly the same, besides a few, tiny pieces of evidence that people lived there. Momma, however, had brought more gifts than I’d seen in a long time, and was already making quick work of spreading them out as my siblings eagerly tore them open. They barely noticed me, but Cory quickly ran into my arms.
“Cammie!” He shouted. “Where you been?”
I grinned, tears of happiness rushing in. “Oh honey I wish I was here! But you know I’m a big girl. Did you like all the letters I sent?”
He nodded. “Merry Christmas!”
I set him down, and handed him his gift. “Merry Christmas to you too, I missed you!”
He took it, and unwrapped meticulously. The moment his eyes contacted with the set, his grin grew, and he threw his arms around my waist in the biggest hug a four year old could muster. However, the toddler he was, his attention span was short, and he focused on his other gifts. Laughing, I distributed the others. Carrie was eager to draw, Cathy explained that there was a record player in the attic (to my relief) and that she would be happy to have something new to dance to, and Chris’ eyes lit up at the new book. He had been dying for more reading material as always, and I mentally noted to get more books for his birthday. I was happy to see them all after the months. They were sickly, though. Their skin, as I had feared, was pale and even their hair seemed a softer shade. They were shades of grey, their clothes seeming too bright. The morning was nice, though. I had to leave at eight for Christmas breakfast, but not before they presented me with their tiny gifts, all gently crafted with paper or fabric scraps. The tears of joy spilled over, and I kissed them all a million times before I had to go. Who knew when I could see them again.
Grandmother ushered Momma and I out again, having us get breakfast and begin to get ready for the day. Fueled by my short visit, I was eager to see what the ball had in store. It began at seven in the evening, so I had more than enough time to ready myself. After lunch, I bathed in oils as Momma always had, getting a flowery halo of scent around me. Momma had even had some of the maids help me with hair and makeup. I looked strange in the mirror, rouge covering my cheeks, lips reddened, hair pulled into a tight bun. I had never worn so much makeup, even for homecoming dances. I welcomed the change, though. I felt mature, empowered by the feminine charm that I inherited from my mother, even if we had little resemblance. I was better able to see how she attracted men.
I was zipped into my dress at six thirty. It was powder blue, high necked, and was as regal as could be, much like a princess’s. For the most part, it was tulle, down to the neat bow in front. Perhaps it was a little much, a little heavy, but if I was going to play the part of an orphaned daughter of two aristocrats moved in with her cousins, I damn well was going to dress it. It was my Cinderella moment, from servant to sweetheart, allowed one night of dancing and frivolity. My heart leaped at the idea of finding some boy to dance with, though I doubted anyone near my age would attend. The guests were my grandparent’s friends, and they all were likely ancient. If 'anyone that was close to my age anyway, they’d likely be distant cousins, which, by the God-fearing interpretation of the Bible my family had adopted, so any dancing or flirting would be worse a sin than murder. I strode to the main hall, greeted by my mother in a fine gown, Grandmother in a dress almost similar to mine, though velvet, and to my surprise, she was pushing Grandfather around in a wheelchair.
I greeted them politely. Grandmother looked to be pleased with how I looked, and flatly told me that I was acceptably conservative. It was then that I learned that Momma already had a date, one that had been courting her for months. It was none other than Grandfather’s lawyer in charge of his will, Bart Winslow. I had to stifle a gasp. My father, her husband, the man she had called her soul mate, hadn’t been dead a year, and she already was in a relationship with someone. He was, in my opinion, rather handsome and trustworthy, but my blood ran icily at the thought of him potentially becoming my stepfather, or anyone for that matter. I had never imagined it, actually, until then. I had always assumed that Momma would regain Grandfather’s trust, get the inheritance when he died, and we could live happily, us six. It didn’t seem the case. In fact, when he arrived at seven on the dot, she was on his arm, leaning her head on his shoulder, exchanging soft words of love and courtship. It sickened me to my stomach, and I politely excused myself outside to the balcony for fresh, cool air. Everyone had arrived anyway, and I didn’t think I’d be missed.
I stared into the night. It was cloudless, starry, and cold. I shivered slightly as a breeze blew by. It ruffled the hem of my dress, but could not tousle the heavily hair sprayed curls framing my face. My heart ached. My siblings were locked in a tiny room, not allowed out even on Christmas; I had only seen them twice in six months. In that time my mother had transformed herself from a grief stricken widow to her old, charismatic, socialite self, dating half a dozen men and apparently sticking with the one absolutely closest to my Grandfather. He had become a barrier, and I realized a striking fact. He knew exactly what was in the will. I knew it wasn’t written that I had to be eighteen in the will of course, but I now had to tread lighter than ever. He was the individual closest to the man that held my family’s fate like marionette strings. If he learned that I existed, it was over. Momma would get nothing, probably cast onto the streets and beaten, and Grandfather would know that I wasn’t dead. Knowing the streak of divine punishment that they enjoyed inflicting, I didn’t want to know what would happen to me.
My thought trail was interrupted by the sound of the door opening, and I whipped around. It was a boy, probably sixteen or so though a little short, with an angular face framed by soft brown hair, hazel eyes staring back at me. He seemed startled, and jumped back a little.
“O-oh, sorry.” He quickly said, voice cracking nervously. “Thought nobody was out here.”
I offered a small smile. “It’s alright… I was just going back in. You are?”
“Nicholas. Nicholas Manning.” He answered, and extended a hand, which I shook politely. “You?”
“Lucille Winfield.” I answered, lying through my teeth. I didn’t let the hatred of my facade slip through. “Are we related?”
He chuckled. “If you’re kin of the Foxworths, than no. I’m not a Winfield either. Uh, Malcolm and my father were business partners.”
I sighed in slight relief. At least it wasn’t a sin to flirt with him. He was even a little cute. “What did you come out here for?” I questioned softly.
He blushed, and pulled out a thin, metal case. “I was going to smoke,” He hummed, “but it’s impolite around a lady.”
“How old are you, anyway?” I asked, now blushing as well. He had seemed my age, perhaps a little older-
“I’m sixteen.” He answered, relief once again washing over me. “I’m, uh, obviously not supposed to be smoking. Laws and all that. Sometimes you need it, though.”
I put a hand on his shoulder. “Stress relief?”
“Come on inside. We’ll both catch colds. We should dance.”
He took my hand gently. His was warm, rough at the tips but the palms were soft. They reminded me of guitarist’s hands. Leading me back inside once he pocketed the cigarettes once more, he took me to the ballroom. A slow waltz began as we entered, and he led me in it, hands placed perfectly. He really was a gentleman. I believed I had found my prince charming.
Hours passed. Just before midnight, as all the guests began to disperse to their rooms, we found ourselves in a small hallway, secluded for the most part. He held my hands gently in his.
“I don’t want to go, Lucy.” He disclosed, as shy as he had been all night. He avoided my gaze, but was smiling. “You’re really a nice girl. My parents are expecting me, though. We’re staying the night, and then leaving first thing tomorrow morning. I don’t think I’ll be able to get you out of my head.”
I turned his face to mine, a daring move perhaps. “We should write each other.” I suggested, voice barely above a whisper. We were alone, there were no bedrooms this way, but it felt right to be so quiet. “You’ve been so nice tonight. I couldn’t forget you even if I tried.”
He smiled, and I was surprised when his lips met mine for a fleeting kiss. No matter the stories I had told Cathy, I’d never actually been kissed, and my cheeks erupted in crimson. It was over too soon for my taste.
“Take that to remember me by?” He asked, as red as I was. “I’ll leave my address for you, alright?”
“C-can you walk me to my room, at least?” I asked, still in a star struck daze.
He shook his head, but then paused. “I shouldn’t… But I will. Damn me to hell, I will.”
I led him to my room with a few detours to stall, through winding halls and up flights of stairs for what felt for miles, but finally we paused at my door. “Do you have to go?” I breathed.
“I have to.” He murmured frowning. He kissed me again, this time more lingering. “I hope to see you soon.”
“I hope so too.” I whispered, and then he was gone, off to his room that he was sharing with his parents.
When I fell asleep, I dreamt of him.
Chapter 8: 1959
The years 1957 and 1958 melted into nothing like the icicles that hung from the windowsills in winter. I turned sixteen in February of ‘58, my maturity and womanhood blossoming. Grandmother began to trust me more. It was first in slivers; by the May of that year, she no longer made me recite biblical verses aloud, heading the table like a minister. Then she began allowing me to go into town with the rest of the servants on Sundays, given I observe their given curfew and that I was incredibly careful with my words. The biggest step was when she had the head chef allow me to start cooking. It was nothing big at first, just small side dishes, but soon I was crafting full meals with little help. Her praise was likely a literal godsend, purging the insanity that I felt as the false persona I was forced to adopt consumed me. There were times I forgot my real name, who my siblings were, where I came from. The name Lucille Winfield had truly become mine, and, though I detested it, the manufactured identity wrapped itself in a tight cocoon around my consciousness.
After Christmas, the first one at least, the letters stopped coming. I would write my own, of course, but they were always returned, unopened, and I was forced to burn them to destroy any evidence of correspondence. This went on for roughly two months. By my birthday, I stopped writing. A pang in my heart told me that they knew I had lied to them and gone to the party. Whether Momma or Grandmother told them, or they had some sort of feeling, or by some ability been able to sneak out and look for me, they knew. I couldn’t blame them of course. They sought out my candor and solidarity, and they were left in the dust.
And then I was on the eve of my seventeenth birthday; February first, a Sunday. I hadn’t seen my siblings in well over a year. I was packing my bags for yet another week at school, staring out at the cool, early afternoon through my window. I enjoyed coming home on the weekends. Few girls stayed, so the loneliness alone would kill me, but I also appreciated coming to see my mother, to spend time in the kitchens surrounded by the intoxicating scent of baking breads and roasting meats. I was able to spend just a few hours in peace and quiet, away from the dormitories, cramped bathrooms, and unruly dining halls. We were taught manners, but seldom used them behind closed doors. God was emphasized above all by the nuns that governed our lives, but we ignored this when away from their watchful eye. Yes, we swore, we spoke of boys in less than pure ways, some even snuck in whiskey that was snuck from a liquor cabinet in some manor. We listened to rock and roll, we hiked up our skirts above the knee, and we neglected to say our prayers before bed when we weren’t actively being watched. We were teenagers after all.
I reflected over this as I packed my freshly washed uniforms. The starched collars had long softened, the colors not quite faded but softened. They were conservative and simple; black shoes, pleated grey skirt that went nearly to the ankle, bleached white socks and shirt, belt, and a blazer and tie in the school colors: violet and silver. They were the shades of royalty. Unable to accessorize, we all took our own liberties. For example, my roommate Shirley never did her tie in a half Windsor as the protocol. Her slice of rebellion was doing a full Windsor. It didn’t even look any different, but when the rare uniform checks came along, she appeared to be the cat that got the cream.
I chuckled at the thought. The six of us got into our fair share of escapades. Never anything that got us into trouble, per se, but the little things that made life worth living a little. I shut my suitcase. Then paused.
My train left in an hour, the drive to the station was barely ten minutes. I had just a little time left. Making one last check to know that nobody was outside the door, ready to burst in, I lifted my mattress and pulled out what I had been searching for, a crisp, cream colored envelope much like the one we had received a year and a half prior. It was from Nick, dated January fifth, just after his birthday. His eighteenth birthday to be exact. I opened it, though I nearly had the words memorized.
I was overjoyed to hear from you in your previous letter to know that you are well. I truly miss you. The few visits that my father makes to your uncle’s home are never enough to sate my yearning for your touch.
His formality and eloquence always made my heart flutter. He was like a poet.
As you know well enough, I’m eighteen now, a real adult. Your gift that you sent was more than appreciated, I believe you’ll make a great photographer one of these days. But in any case, I had to sign up for the draft, and it was a meeting I dreaded. Something in me fears that there may be a war ahead. Perhaps not this year, or even in the next five or so, but something will happen. If I’m lucky, I won’t be conscripted, or perhaps I will be simply put in a more technical field. I don’t want to lose you, Lucy. You’re the best thing that’s happened to me.
I sighed, and fell to the bed. It was a fear we both had. The Soviets were growing ever stronger, Cuba was in a full on revolution. We were within missile range, though we kept reassuring ourselves that all would be well. I could only hope.
I can’t wait until you’re eighteen too, Lucy. I’m counting the days. I know you hate living there. It’s hard enough when you lose your parents, but I’ve heard what those people do. I’ve heard my father talking about them. He only associates with your uncle because of business relations. If I were him, I wouldn’t. I know you won’t tell me what they do to you, though, in fear of me worrying. But by my Lord, not theirs, I’ll do anything if they lay a hand on you.
My prince charming! How could any man be this perfect? I loved him so much.
I hope to see you in the next few weeks; my father has a meeting with your Uncle over stocks. Or perhaps trying to buddy up before he kicks the bucket. That heart attack was no small issue. Though, between you and me, I hope he dies soon.
Your love, hoping for quick reply,
I folded the letter back up. It was short and sweet, perhaps a bit over the place. His handwriting looped haphazardly, had smudges where he had touched the wet ink, but it smelled of him and it was enough. A doubtful voice in my head said that he was a bit violent at times, perhaps much too rebellious. In many of his letters he spoke of protecting me from anyone and anything, whether it is my grandparents or other boys. He was rather jealous at times, and spoke of slitting men’s throats for my honor. I tried to brush it off. He seemed to be the one for me, and I lay in bed many nights dreaming of our fairytale wedding. I even fantasized about him, much like Romeo in the famed Shakespearean tragedy, waiting outside my window, rose in hand, calling me to escape into the mountains with him. I would do it in a heartbeat.
I slid the letter back into its hiding spot. Better safe than sorry, I thought. Neither grandmother, nor any of the maids could find it. They didn’t even know Nick and I were writing each other, we had to do it in secret. I took my letters straight to the post office when I had the opportunity, and I invested in a post office box for him to write to. I was lucky to make the money I did, and even luckier that I was able to hide the monthly transactions.
Grandmother called me. I did one last check in the mirror, repeating a soft mantra I had begun to keep my sanity.
“I am Camilla Dollanganger.” I whispered, taking my suitcase from the bed and sat it on the floor next to me. “My mother is Corinne, my father Christopher.” I slid on a fur coat. “I have four siblings, all locked away.” I brushed a curl behind my ear. “I will survive.”
Grandmother called again, more urgent. Barely flipping off the light, I scurried downstairs where she waited with Momma and our chauffeur. Grandmother looked at me with an air of disdain.
“We are not going to be late, young lady.” She looked me up and down, apparently attempting to decide what she felt about me today. “You hear me?”
I very quickly nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
Momma gave a small smile, a large diamond twinkling on her left ring finger, catching the light just so, and temporarily blinding me. We never talked about her engagement. Though I loved her, she knew explicitly that I didn’t like Bart Winslow to any amount. Just looking at him put a sour taste in my mouth. It was likely the fact that my mother fell in love so quickly with him, how quickly they had become engaged, how quickly he would become my stepfather without knowing for at least another year. It felt like a betrayal to my father’s memory, no matter how many times she tried to persuade me otherwise. I knew he wouldn’t want her unhappy, and she couldn’t be in mourning for the rest of time, but it still felt wrong.
Grandmother led me to the car, Momma waving goodbye. She never went with us to the train station. My bag was placed in the trunk of the car, we were driven. Neither Grandmother nor I said anything. There was a silent understanding between us that while we were related and had to be on relatively civil terms, nothing constrained us to like each other. We simply tolerated each other to save face.
We didn’t even exchange more than a polite goodbye as I was dropped off and handed my ticket. No hugs, no kisses, not even a handshake. When the whistle blew, I boarded my train, and I was gone.
Chapter 9: Albus Nuptialem
It was summer of 1959, and Momma was getting married. The second anniversary of our father’s death was just a week before the ceremony, though the actual marriage license was signed a bit before. It was just the glitz, glamour, attention, whatever you want to call it, that’s what Momma and Bart wanted. I wasn’t a bridesmaid at least, Momma had chosen some of her friends and I didn’t mind a bit. I was elated when she revealed the list and I wasn’t on it. I was seething on the inside and she knew it, so she knew not to press. I could just be a spectator. I wasn’t involved. I only had a year until I could move away anyway.
The wedding was set in July, but it had to be postponed when Grandfather suddenly had a heart attack. A part of me wanted him to die, but he didn’t. No, he had to still keep on living, no matter what. I remembered the first few weeks of staying in Foxworth Hall, thinking he’d be dead by Christmas and I could have a little taste of freedom. We were promised a few months, and it was two years now. We could be long gone, I could be going to a normal high school, even if I was under a different name, I could still go back to the suburban lifestyle, flirting with boys, going to prom, wearing a pair of pants every once and awhile! But no, Grandfather’s weakening heart still had enough muscle to keep him alive and keep me in private school and itchy, ancient dresses. The ceremony was pushed to August.
Like I expected, the wedding was over the top, wild, and expensive. Nothing but the best for a lawyer and an heiress. Momma’s dress looked like it could fill a room with how much material it had, and I hadn’t an idea how she could get by wearing it in the heat. Ladies were fanning themselves, men pulled at their collars, and I was dying in my knee length dress. Grandmother refused to let me wear anything shorter, and the collar hugged my neck in a vice grip. I watched them go through the vows, barely listening, but I knew for a fact that they weren’t original. They were dry, overly rehearsed, probably pulled from some cheesy romance novel that my mother had picked out. I was absolutely bored, and I only then noticed I was the youngest one there. Nicholas was supposed to come, but from snooping around I did, his family had a falling out with ours about issues with loans.
I shifted in the pew. For a family with money, I’d thought we’d have more comfortable seats than this. Grandmother sat with an arrow-straight back, Grandfather given the luxury of a wheelchair and footrest. My mind wandered to years before, remembering faintly of Carrie and Cory’s baptisms. They were tiny little things, more amused at all the attention, not understanding what was happening. We didn’t exactly go to church often, but we were all baptized. Momma packed our certificates away before we came, in crisp envelopes, now hidden away. Part of me thought she might have destroyed them. Our birth certificates were likely destroyed too. We didn’t exist. This minor crisis hit at a strange time, as at that moment, Momma and Bart were told to kiss. I stood to applaud like everyone else. Best to blend in, even if I were pondering my own identity for the billionth time in the last few years.
We were led to the reception hall.
I was sat at the main table, right next to my grandparents. Every fiber of my being had to focus on the etiquette I’d learned. Work with cutlery from the outside, napkin on lap, never used to wipe, only dab. Soup is to be sipped with a spoon, never eaten. As a lady, eat tiny portions, no matter how hungry you are. Those were just the basics, and they made my head spin. Of course I’d been practicing them for years now, with occasional slip-ups, but this was the finest dining I’d ever had, even compared to Foxworth. Everyone here had been taught this from birth. My mother had the utmost grace, the rest were the same brand of polite. I couldn’t make a fool of myself. I had to blend in. I was one of them. I was one of them.
I was one of them.
The party went late into the night. I was absolutely exhausted; I’d been awake since five or so in the morning. My feet ached just watching everyone drunkenly dancing, although I’d also been coerced into a dozen or so by various relatives and family friends. I yawned a little and looked up at the clock. Three in the morning. I’d been up for twenty two hours. The taste of champagne was still on my lips, my first ever, and I could tell I was what people called a lightweight. Tipsily, I strolled to the bathroom to wash up.
In the mirror, I reflected, both literally and metaphorically. As the years had passed, I had matured quite a bit. While I’d stopped growing heightwise, puberty was only just winding down in relation to my body shape. Momma, behind closed doors, often wistfully mused about her teenage years, always saying I’d be a heartbreaker. That was the last thing on my mind, though I wondered about the boys back home. A few definitely were attracted to me at one point. I supposed they forgot about me by now. I patted my cheeks with cool water to wake up, avoiding smudging my makeup.
When I came out, the bride and groom of the night were finally saying their goodbyes. This meant I’d be leaving with my grandparents soon, and I was more than eager to crawl into bed. Her and Bart were making their way around the hall, her much tipsier than him, definitely tipsier than me. Her cheeks were flushed red and not from blush, her bell-like laugh filling the room as she made small talk. Was her and my father’s wedding like this? I doubted it. Disowned, disinherited, and pregnant with me, they wouldn’t have had the means to have anything large. It dawned that I’d never asked about their wedding. I’d always assumed throughout my childhood that it was a fairytale style, on a beautiful spring day, an impossible amount of people filling the rows as they said their vows. It was more likely that it was just a quick courthouse affair.
Momma finally made her way to me, her grin especially wide. “Lucy darling! How’ve you been? I haven’t seen you all night!”
Her hands snaked their way around my waist, hugging me close. I smelled wine on her.
“I’ve been well, you?” I asked politely, pretending she was a stranger. “Ready for the honeymoon?”
“Am I ever! A whole two months in Europe, all thanks to Barty here.” She answered, looking up with soft eyes at the man next to her, a serene smile on her face. He kissed her forehead and I tried to push down any disgust.
“I’m glad.” I licked my lips. “Anywhere in particular?”
“France, it’s our first stop. I’m surprised she hasn’t talked your ear off about it.” Bart answered for her. “The city of love… and lovemaking.”
The mere suggestion had me nauseous. Too much information. I faked a laugh, and changed the subject. “Oh. Boy. Well, I hope the crepes are as good as I’ve heard.”
Momma beamed. “Oh, I bet they will! I wish I could bring some home but they’d spoil. Oh well. Anything you’d like me to bring back? I always love bringing back gifts for the children in my life.”
The children in her life? She hadn’t noticed I’d grown up right under her nose. I was a few months away from being an adult, and in her eyes I was stagnated at fifteen. She likely hadn’t noticed Cathy, or Chris, or Carrie, or Cory growing older. Then again, I hadn’t seen nor heard from them in a long time.
I offered a thin smile. “Anything that catches your eye, Corinne. You know what I like.”
She laughed again, her voice high and breathy. “I will, Lucy. See you in October!”
Like that, they melted back into the crowd. Grandmother made her way to me, wheeling Grandfather in his chair. Usually they had a servant help him around, but this was a formal occasion -- none of them would be allowed anywhere near here unless they were waitstaff. She looked me over.
“We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.” She informed. “Make sure you have all your things, we’re not going to wait if you forget anything.”
I nodded and curtsied. “Yes ma’am.”
She sighed, looking at Momma waltz through the group. Her expression was unreadable. “She should've married a man like him the first go. Save all the hassle.”
The hassle was me. I was the mistake that led to all this, but I couldn’t be bothered to worry about it anymore. I’d spent the last two years worrying about it. I was glad to be alive, even if the situation I was living in was dire. In just six months I could be free and clear, allowed to legally be, well, Camilla. Part of me didn’t know which surname to go with, however. Dollanganger was a made up one, Foxworth carried too many bad memories already, and Winfield was a symbol of my entrapment. I supposed it would be chosen when the time came.
We drove home in a limousine. Nothing but the best, of course.
I could tell Grandfather was still in a questionable state of health. Ever since the heart attack, his speech had been slow and slurred, and he was essentially bedridden. When I’d first come he could walk short periods, but in the last year he had to be helped just to use the toilet. Now he had to be hand fed. I doubted he could live until Christmas, but I didn’t bet anything. He’d evaded death already, he could very well live another decade with my luck.
As we pulled in the drive, I saw Grandmother was exhausted. I couldn’t blame her, I was too. She dropped her keys in the bowl near the door. I was confused, she never did. Perhaps it was her mind slipping. She was rather old. She didn’t even remind me to pray tonight, simply went off to her bedroom.
And then I saw it. The familiar bronze key, literally in front of me on a platter. Once she was out of earshot I snatched it up, knowing I could press it in soap or clay and create a copy somehow.
It was the key to my siblings.
The key to my family.
The key to home.
Chapter 10: Silence
Knowing she could come at any moment, I didn’t waste a second. I took the key and ran to my bathroom, closing the door tight behind me. Nobody would follow, of course, but one could never be too cautious. I remembered what I’d read in books and seen on T.V.; just press the key into a bar of soap. It was actually a little harder than I’d thought, especially with the details in it, if any weren’t preserved, I could potentially get caught. Once I was satisfied, I stowed the bar underneath my mattress, next to all the letters from Nick. Nobody ever checked there. Quiet as a mouse, I returned the key (which I’d wiped down for obvious reasons) and snuck back up to bed, falling into a deep slumber.
Once morning came, the sunlight streaming across my eyes and lighting the room in creamy warmth, I became anxious. Say the servants flipped or cleaned the mattresses? Bed bugs were always a possibility. I took the letters and soap out again. They all smelled of lavender. Looking around, I tried to find a better space. My dresser would be too obvious, and so would my nightstand. My closet was a possibility, but only if I was impossibly cautious, as there were old dresses that Momma sometimes pulled out, and spare blankets on the top shelf. Part of me considered keeping them with me at all times, but that wasn’t feasible during the summer, whereas when I could keep them at school, I was allowed a little more privacy.
I looked around the room again. The floorboards were all firm and unmoving, I didn’t have a fireplace with loose stones, nor a bookcase to stick the letters in. I nearly began to cry, I didn’t know what to do. Then something caught my eye. There was a small tea table in the corner. I never drank tea, hated the stuff, but I’d sit there and embroider if I had free time. The chair had a ripped bottom that wasn’t getting fixed or replaced any time soon. I’d asked for weeks for something to be done to no avail. Carefully, I lifted the cushion, finding the rip, about six inches long, a small hole exposing springs and padding. I slipped the papers and soap in there, deciding to sew up the gap for now. If anyone asked or checked, I could simply say I decided to fix it myself. A few dozen stitches later, and it was perfect.
A few weeks passed, just after school began. It was a warm, August night, a Saturday. Grandmother was, for one rare occasion, out of the house and visiting a relative, Momma was on her honeymoon, and, of course, Grandfather was stuck in bed. He often was these days, he didn’t even leave to use the bathroom, instead being tended to by nurses at all hours of the day and night. I was sure now that dusk was turning on his soul, I only wanted it to come quicker.
Over time, I had carefully copied the key, fashioning it from a small piece of plywood I nicked from a broken crate. We had ingredients delivered to the kitchen, and one of my tasks was to take the remnants out to the scrap pile near the woods. Often, we sold it back to the servants, or the few people that lived on the outskirts of town, or the hunters in the area to use as cheap firewood. A scrap that was three inches long and an inch wide wouldn’t be missed. The carving was the difficult part. The wood was hard and dry, and I had to be careful as not to get any splinters. If I did, they’d surely be noticed and questioned. Each tiny sliver carved away was saved in an empty carton from old perfume and nightly it was smuggled away into flower pots or out in the yard. By all the graces I mustered, I wasn’t suspected of a thing. My only fear at this point was that I’d be caught, or even worse, it wouldn’t work and my efforts would have been in vain.
At the stroke of midnight, it was Sunday the thirtieth. With sock-feet, I slid out of bed, changed back into my dress from the day, and retrieved the key I’d stowed in my school bag. By the thin sliver of moon visible, I caught my reflection in the full length mirror, and in turn, reflected on my memories of my siblings. I hadn’t seen them in nearly two years, since Christmas of 1957, they would look worlds different. Chris would be sixteen, nearly a man, Cathy well into puberty at fourteen, and the twins six. They should be in kindergarten at least, if not starting first grade. Would they even remember me? I hadn’t a clue, only hope.
I slipped the key into my pocket along with some small candies. It was a small, insignificant consolation for not being present, but it was the best I could manage while being stealthy. With a breath, I pushed my bedroom door open and stepped into the hall.
It was dead silent. One could hear a mouse padding around, I figured, if they tried. My door was pulled shut quietly, and I tiptoed down to the stairs, thanking my lucky stars that the floorboards never seemed to creak. Even so, I walked close to the walls, and once on the stairs, as far to the railing as was comfortable. One flight, two flights, and I was up to the landing.
My siblings were just a few doors away. No servants were up here, so I could be just a little louder.
A few steps away now, the door becoming visible.
Just five feet away.
I pulled the key from my pocket. It was warm and heavy in my palm. With bated breath, I pushed it into the lock and turned.
It had unlocked. I nearly squealed in joy, but held my tongue. Turning the knob, I opened the door and stepped inside.
My four siblings were fast asleep, and I nearly cried at the sight of them. Though covered in blankets, they were so skinny, and in the dim light I could see their pale, ashy skin. It was unhealthy. Sunken eyes and hollow cheeks were prominent, and I saw that Cathy’s hair had been cropped boyishly short. My heart knew it wasn’t her choice. As I closed the door, Carrie stirred. My breath hitched in my throat, though she lay back down without even looking at me.
I kneeled next to Chris’ bed and shook his arm gently. With a grumble, he slowly woke up, questioning what was going on. I took a breath.
“Chris. It’s me. Camilla. I’m here.” I whispered.
He sat up, rubbing at his eyes sleepily. “Wh… What’s going on?” He yawned.
I repeated myself, and he suddenly became more alert, looking at me as if he’d seen a ghost. Perhaps he had.
“How? You’re not supposed to be up here! What if Grandmother finds out?” He asked, worried.
I pat his shoulder to reassure him. “She’s not here, and neither is Momma. I made a copy of Grandmother’s key, though.” I showed him my handiwork.
“We should wake up the others.” He suggested, and I then noticed how much his voice had deepened. “We can go up to the attic. We have lots to show you.”
With that, I took to waking Cathy and Carrie in the same fashion as I did Chris, gesturing for them to stay silent. Once they were all awake, I was led up a narrow flight of stairs to their garden, which they soon illuminated with old candles and flashlights, of course, once they covered the tiny windows. We sat in a circle in the center of the main room.
“You have to tell us everything.” Cathy begged. “Where have you been?! What’s going on with Grandfather?!”
I shifted. “Well, Grandfather is still alive. Unfortunately, though he’s on his last leg.”
There was a collective sigh.
“He can’t even get out of bed, the doctors give him less than six months. I say even sooner.”
“Are you sure? We thought he’d kick the bucket the first six months we were here, and look at us now.” Chris pointed out. “We need to be sure.”
“I’m certain.” I replied. “When we came here, he was still coherent, still able to get around at least a little, with help. Now he can’t move and he can barely speak most of the time. Even Grandmother is starting to make funeral arrangements. I give him until Christmas, this year.”
Carrie crawled into my lap. Despite being two years older, she hadn’t grown an inch since the last time I’d seen them. It worried me.
“Cammie?” She asked. “Why haven’t you come to see us? Do you hate us?”
My heart broke in two.
“Not at all, I promise. I’ve been wanting to see you for ages, I really have… I’m not even allowed to be on this floor of the house. It took a long time, but I was able to sneak and copy the key.” I explained. She didn't look one hundred percent satisfied with the answer, but she didn’t pry.
“What about Momma? Where’s she been?” Cory looked up at me.
I bit my lip. “Well, you remember the lawyer that Grandfather has to work out his will, correct?” I asked.
They all nodded.
“Well… to put it as bluntly as possible, she married him.”
There was collective shock, and I bit my lip.
“I know. I really don’t agree with it myself. It was earlier this month, she’s on her honeymoon now.”
“Daddy’s been dead not even three years and she marries him?!” Cathy began to cry. “She told me she wouldn’t ever get married again! She said she missed him and there wouldn’t be another man on the face of the earth that would ever match up to him! I hate her!”
Chris grabbed hold of her and held her close, rocking her back and forth. There was an odd pang in my chest. They acted much less like siblings and more like lovers. I didn’t like the thought, there was something deeply wrong, but I said nothing for now.
“I’m sorry.” I murmured.
“And you!” Cathy pointed at me, a frightening look in her eyes. “We saw you at Christmas, at that ball, you didn’t even look mad or sad or anything! You said you weren’t allowed to go, and we saw you dancing with some boy like you should be!”
Cathy began to sob.
“You’re out living your life all happy and normal while we’re stuck up here rotting! Grandmother drugged me and put tar in my hair! She starved us all for two weeks because something Chris and I did! She threatens to beat us for little things that we can’t even control! Chris and I act like parents to these two, we have to teach them because they can’t go to school, and I can’t even do math past fifth grade! I should be in high school, I should be thinking about going to homecoming and schoolwork and boys! I should be watching Carrie and Cory with their friends playing in the backyard, we should be starting to look at colleges with Chris! He should be going on dates and to the movies and getting his first job! I should be at a dance studio! You’re doing everything you want to, you go to school and have a boyfriend, I know that! You’re almost eighteen! Why haven’t you stood up to Momma or Grandmother or Grandfather or just told someone?! Why haven’t you done anything?!” She was nearly yelling, only quiet due to her instincts. Her breathing was ragged, sobs choking her.
I felt a cool drop on my leg. I was crying. Carrie shied away from me.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered.
“You’re not.” Cathy rasped. “I know you’re not.”
I closed my eyes. I felt small. I tried pinching myself, just wishing it was a dream, but it wasn’t. The sharp pain in my arm said that much.
It wasn’t a dream. It was a living nightmare.
Chapter 11: Sunday Morning News
I didn’t stay in the attic much longer than that. Cathy refused to listen to me, bitterly refusing the candies I’d brought. Deep down, I understood her rage. Who wouldn’t? She hadn’t spoken to a single soul besides Chris, the twins, Momma, or Grandmother in years. She’d been confined to a tiny room and attic, she hadn’t seen the sun as far as I knew. Anyone would have that cabin fever. I snuck back down to my room around two in the morning, heart heavy and pockets no lighter than before. As I lay in bed, hot tears ran down my cheeks in the realization that my siblings, however much I had missed them, didn’t miss me the same. Cathy hated me, Chris was indifferent, and the twins barely remembered me. I had to remind them of the things we had done, of who I was.
I turned to face the window. The key had been stuffed back into the hole in the chair. I would be able to pick up my letters on Friday afternoon once I arrived back on the train from school. The chauffeur that was to pick me up had a nasty habit of being late most of the time, so it was a regular thing, actually. I always told him I didn’t mind, and with my approval, he took his sweet time.
The clock read three fifteen a.m., give or take a few minutes. My vision was a little blurry from the crying, of course. Though my eyelids were heavy, sleep wasn’t coming easily. My thoughts swum in my mind like a frenzy of fish. I rolled over and stared at the door. It was an odd thing, but I contemplated the dark wood, read the grain from afar. This manor was old, at least a hundred years old. It was probably built by slaves. How many people had lived here? Within these four walls? How many people were born somewhere in this house, how many died? They were all family, or servants, or slaves. They either owned the place or were tied to it by law or petty wages. Where did I lie? Momma could own the manor, especially now she had grandfather’s favor. Although, I doubted she’d want to. Bart had money to spend, he was a damned lawyer. He could probably have his own manor house built. Legally, I didn’t really exist. I wasn’t a servant though. My siblings weren’t either, but they weren’t free. We existed in a limbo.
The house creaked in it’s habitual settling with a sigh. The wood was as weary as I. I rolled over again to stare out at the window. A whip-poor-will cried out it’s song in the distance. I closed my eyes. If only I could leave, grow wings like that bird. It felt cliche to think that. Maybe it was, but that was how my mind decided to spin my seemingly hopeless situation.
I must have fallen asleep after that, as when I reopened my eyes, birds were chirping and bands of light streamed through the window. Turning to face the clock, it was almost eight in the morning, I’d barely slept five hours and my body felt it. My muscles were sore, my eyes felt like they’d been coated in sandpaper. However, it was a church morning. Even if Grandfather couldn’t come, the rest of us; Grandmother, myself, and the servants, all went.
I didn’t have a lot of time to spare, however, and made quick work of getting dressed and bathed before running down to breakfast just as the large clock in the main hall chimed eight thirty. Exactly on time, even if I was a little rushed. Sitting at my place at the breakfast table, Grandmother looked at me for a long moment, some emotion hidden behind her eyes I couldn’t quite place. Did she know what I’d done? My blood chilled. If she found out, I was likely not the only person who’d get punished.
“Lucille.” She began, pausing after my name. “Will you lead us in our morning prayer? It’s been some time since you have.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded. We all bowed our heads over our plates which would soon be laden with ham, biscuits, and grits.
“Dear Father in Heaven,” I peeked just a little. Everyone was silent, even the kitchen had gone quiet. “We praise you for the nourishment You have provided this Sunday morning, an act which we do not often appreciate, and we ask You for forgiveness of that fact.” I licked my lips. This could be a light, indirect jab. “Forgive us for not realizing the magnitude of Your people who go hungry every day, please relieve their starved stomachs and hearts, and forgive those that hurt them. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
I looked up as I finished. It was just Grandmother and I, plus a few servants. Momma and Bart were on their honeymoon. The servants were none the wiser, Grandmother let on nothing. With the formalities finished, we ate.
The ride to church and the service of were as normal as could be. We sat in our pews, stood for each hymn and song, prayed for the needy, and donated money. I slipped a few dollars in under the watchful eye of my grandmother. I’d neglected to do so a few times and gotten lectured once she’d found out. Once the service was over, we’d normally stay and chat a while before going home for our biblically mandated day of rest. This morning was no different. Grandmother made her way to some of her acquaintances with me in tow. It was a stretch to say friends -- I had my doubts that she was able to understand the very concept of friendship. Naturally she was a very cold person, even at parties and galas and weddings. It was always formal. Never once did I hear hear her utter any greeting other than a “good day” or “hello”. Never a “how are you?”. She jumped right to matters. If she’d been born at a different time, I’d place her to be a diplomat of sorts.
Today, she decided to greet someone I’d never met before. He was an older gentleman, maybe a little younger than she, with combed chestnut color hair over a balding top. Tall, slim to an almost unhealthy level, and dressed in his Sunday best, I noticed the similarities between himself and my grandmother. Not to relation, but the air about them was the same.
“Lucille.” She addressed me. I stood a little straighter. “This is Mister Ernest Clark.”
I curtsied out of habit.
Grandmother continued. “Our families have known each other for generations, we have been traced back to before the Revolutionary War, our families fought alongside one another.” She paused. “We have not, however, had an intermarriage.”
At that, I shivered in fear, and I dreaded what she would say next. However, she didn’t speak to me.
“Ernest, this is the girl I’d written to you about. She’s been under my care for two years now and will be turning eighteen in February of next year.”
He looked me over with a thin smile. “A proper young lady. Stunning resemblance to yourself, I’d almost place her to be a granddaughter.”
Grandmother did not falter. In fact, she returned his smile. “So I’ve been told. Is your Arthur in attendance today?”
“Indeed, I believe he’s gone to speak with the other young gentlemen however. Nothing some healthy competition won’t sort out. Will you have her meet them now?”
“Not today.” Grandmother answered, terse. “Not here, anyway. We’ve set our date already. You and I both know Malcolm wants to be present at the meeting. Although he couldn’t be here today, he is set to be well in the next two weeks.”
Ernest nodded, chuckling. “Well, of course, Olivia. He’s always been the businessman. Do wish him good health for me?”
At that point, I’d tuned the whole conversation out. I knew what was happening, but not why. By some hellish tradition, I was going to be married off to some stranger by my next birthday, against what I’d been promised. I had to swallow back hot tears. There would be questions, and by the grace of anyone, I was making Grandmother answer them.
Eventually, I was led back to the car, I refused to speak until we were well down the road and the thick curtains were pulled back. I turned to Grandmother, but before I could speak, she did.
“I know you’re not an idiot, Lucille.”
She knew I hated that name.
“I know that you’re fully aware of what is happening. Unfortunately for you, legally, you’re not quite an adult until you’re twenty one. You know this, correct?”
I nodded. I’d always assumed, however, I would be much more free at eighteen like she’d told me.
“There is, fortunately, a loophole in the law for you. Anyone who is married before twenty one to someone of age can be considered an adult. There’s some paperwork to manage, but it’s fully, completely manageable through the law.”
I licked my lips. “So you’re marrying me off to Mister Clark’s son.”
“Not quite.” She replied, raising her hand. We hit a bump in the road that left us silent for a few seconds. “He’s one of four men that your Grandfather and I have picked for you to choose from. Neither of us want a repeat of what happened to Corinne.”
“And if I refuse to pick any of them? You can’t force me to get married.” I pointed out. “I won’t do it. I won’t marry a complete stranger just so you can have me leave.”
She gave me an icy look. This time, I didn’t cower.
“In the will it says I’m free to do as I wish at adulthood. Isn’t that making it easier for me to tell the world what you’ve done?”
“Oh, I’ve made sure you can’t.”
“All of your original documentation of being Camilla Dollanganger is destroyed. In the records, you’re dead. Again.” She almost looked pleased. “I had Corinne destroy everything related to you. I watched her do it, too. There isn’t a single copy in her possession, and we made sure to send a new death certificate to the courthouse. Car accident, it says.”
I was dead.
“And?” I asked.
“And I promise you here, on the holy day of the week, if you so dare utter one word about your siblings, I’ll kill them.” She finished as we pulled up the drive to the manor. “So please, Lucille dear. Don’t make things difficult. You meet your suitors on the thirteenth. I expect you to be on your best behavior.”
Oh. I would be.
Chapter 12: A Weekend to Forget
School had started on the first of the month and I dreaded going back. It was my senior year, and I should’ve been back in Pennsylvania and planning for prom and going to drive in movies with the cute boys at my school and thinking about a career or getting married. Now Camilla was dead. I was dead. The thought was a lot to wrap my head around. Of course, I could just go back home and prove I wasn’t dead, find someone who remembered me, but I had no proof that I was me. No records, no property, nothing. Even my school pictures had been left behind.
Friday the eleventh, I was picked up from the train station more promptly than ever. I barely had time to visit the post office, and was questioned when the chauffeur found I wasn’t at the normal pickup spot. I claimed, cooly, that I had been at the general store, and held up some recently purchased pencils from school to prove it. My lie seemed to have worked, and he questioned no further when I was driven back to the manor. Once we arrived, however, I was not free to do as I please, and in fact escorted to my grandfather’s chambers.
Against what Grandmother had said last weekend, he wasn’t getting better. In fact, he was getting worse. Perhaps the third time was the charm and he’d finally die, I thought. Standing in front of the large, wooden bed which was heavily covered in blankets despite the summer heat and surrounded by medical devices, I politely curtsied to my ailing Grandfather. “Good afternoon sir.” I said politely.
“Good afternoon, Camilla. You’ve most certainly heard of the news regarding Sunday.” He replied, looking me over. “Come, sit closer to the bed.”
Despite me not wanting to whatsoever, I obeyed. “Yes, sir.”
“Olivia told me you were apprehensive.” He croaked.
“I… Yes.” I admitted, keeping my cool. “Most people pick their own spouse from people they already know and fall in love with.”
“And that’s exactly the problem with Corinne.” He responded firmly. “She made her choice, a sinful one to lie with family, to conceive a child out of wedlock, and to commit infanticide. Olivia and I don’t want to see you make any choices like her, this is out of your best interest.”
I didn’t see it in any way my best interest, but I allowed him to continue.
“We’ve picked the finest four young men from the finest four business partners and colleagues I know. They’re intelligent, confident, capable, and can help a young woman raise a household. You wouldn’t need to worry about a thing.”
At this point I still didn’t see the point of being summoned here, but then he cleared his throat.
“I’m sure you remember about a year and a half ago, during the Christmas ball, a young man by the name of Nicholas Manning?” He asked.
My blood ran icy. I hoped, prayed, internally begged that the letters had not been found. “Yes.” I answered flatly.
“That is not the kind of man to associate with. His father and I have had a falling out, and since then I have been informed he has become infatuated with you. He’s been drafted into the armed forces, and his journals have been confiscated by his family under suspicion he’d desert, yet found paragraph upon paragraph about you.”
“Oh?” I feigned innocence, hoping it would work, and it did.
He pressed his lips together. “I see you were unawares, and that is only another sign he’s imperfect. He’s antisocial, narcissistic, and self serving. A Foxworth relative, a young woman from every family, should not suffer this. We chose men to support you, Lucille. Not to hurt you. This is no punishment.”
It felt like one.
After he had finished, he went into a long coughing fit and I was sent away. My heart felt like a pit in my chest, cold and deep and unyielding. I took the stairs two at a time to my room, closed the door quickly and pulled the newest letter from my bag. It felt lighter than most, and once I tore it open, I saw why. It was barely half a page long, on one sheet of lined paper in a messy scrawl. It was dated from Wednesday, it must have been express mailed or delivered from somewhere else.
Can’t write much right now. Have to sneak out to send. I’m going into the army and I leave next Friday (18). I can’t get another letter from you I’m sorry. They took all my journals and everything. I burned all your letters. They think I’m obsessed with you and I’m not. I love you so much. Maybe I’ll run away one day and find you again. Goodbye.
It was so short… I didn’t know how to feel. I looked at the chair in the corner, down to this letter, back to the chair. We were, essentially, broken up at this point, the worst possible time, and I began to cry.
On Saturday, we prepared for my meeting. A dress was picked out, etiquette was redrilled into my head, and I was given basic descriptions of my four suitors by Grandmother and Grandfather.
Arthur was Mister Clark’s son, at the age of twenty two, five years my senior and the second oldest. Mister Clark owned a shipping company in southeast Virginia and Arthur was learning to take over for him once he was too old. Supposedly he was good with numbers and enjoyed doing mathematics. The eldest, Lawrence who was twenty three, was already a business owner himself. He owned an accounting firm not far from town, but was poor with numbers, but good with managing people. He was known to be a little vain but pampered others when he felt up to it. Then, there were Kenneth and Charles, both twenty one, and their fathers were brothers-in-law. Both worked in a steelworking plant owned by Charles’ father as foremen, both were obnoxiously competitive at times, but supposedly gentlemen.
That was all I got. A few sentences about the men I’d have to choose a husband from. All of them were at least four years older than I, legal adults. The worst part is that I knew, deep in my heart, this was a business transaction. It wasn’t to protect me, that was the veil Grandfather hid it under. All of the men chosen were partners of his, and from what Grandmother explained to me, ones he wanted legally closer before he died. That was it. They could’ve chosen distant members of his family through lines of marriage that couldn’t be considered candidates for “sin”, or family friends that had nothing to do with making some partnership, but no. I was but the political pawn princess used by some banking family to strengthen ties and raise wealth like they did in Italy hundreds of years prior.
I was sent up to bed early that night, flushed out of the library, out of my copy of The Great Gatsby, and away as I “needed my beauty rest”. What a phrase! Bitterly I thought that my suitors could take me at face value, not dolled up like a pretty plaything. Out of spite I stayed awake well into the night, reading by moonlight, working on cross-stitch, anything to keep me alert. However, around three I found myself slipping, and had to surrender to the down comforter and solace of sleep.
The next morning, I had to be woken by a servant. She seemed angry, telling me she had been knocking at my door for some time before simply letting herself in. Taking a look at the clock, I realized I was, very, very late. I rushed through a bath, getting dressed, and making myself presentable. It wouldn’t be a perfect first impression to my suitors, but they could deal with it. Once I’d rushed downstairs, everyone had already eaten, so I had to pray over an apple for the road. Grandfather wouldn’t be joining us at the church like he’d wanted, but he’d meet us at Lawrence’s father, Mister Wright’s estate.
Church was uneventful, but through the entire service, I felt Grandmother’s disapproving stare bore into me. I’d gotten my pre-service lecture about tardiness, about sin, about obedience. I tuned most of it out, feigning attention as usual. She knew I was uneasy. She knew I wanted to bolt. She knew I wouldn’t. Not here.
Today’s sermon was unbearably short. We didn’t even stay to mill about. As soon as we were all dismissed, Grandmother’s hand clamped around my forearm in an iron vice and she walked me to the car. We had to be punctual, she said. I would rather have died there, or been late enough that none of them liked me. Unfortunately, we arrived on time.
Wright Manor like Foxworth Manor, loomed tall and foreboding, though unlike Foxworth, it was obviously once a plantation. Rolling fields surrounded the place, and the road leading to the front door was lined with dogwood trees, though they were long past flowering. The land was mostly flat, mountains visible in the distance, and I decided it must be beautiful in the springtime. At the doors, we were greeted by a tall, thin woman perhaps a little younger than Grandmother. In her youth, she would have been stunning.
“Olivia!” She called, a little excited, but not overly so. “This must be Lucille! Come, come. Malcolm and the rest are in the study, sandwiches and coffee are being served at noon.”
She was an eager host, leading us all in, and announcing our presence. I was going to thank her, but when I turned she was closing the doors and left, murmuring something about staying out of business under her breath. I whipped my head back around when I heard Grandfather clear his throat, sounding as raspy as he had been for awhile.
“Gentlemen.” He croaked. “This is my niece, Lucille.”
I licked my lips and curtsied politely. “Hello.”
There was a small chorus of hellos, and I was sat down next to my Grandfather’s wheelchair as I was more formally introduced to everyone. Lawrence was first, of course, this being his house and the oldest. His light blonde hair was carefully set in place, and when he kissed my hand I could smell the heavy cologne on him. Everything about him was crisp, prim, proper if he was sitting or standing. I noticed that when he walked, he was still gangly, all arms and legs. Still getting used to his adult body, I thought. He was overeager, and immediately began talking all about himself and his job and such. It wasn’t until after a few minutes of this did he pause, catch himself, and ask how I was doing, apologizing for his social faux-pas. I simply smiled and forgave him. Like a lady.
Arthur was next and much calmer, actually bowing when he approached me, greeting me with a soft voice. He thanked me for coming, and, like Lawrence, kissed my hand. When he did, the thick glasses on his nose slid down and he apologized profusely, pink in the face. I knew then and there he’d never met a girl. He had no discernible confidence, but made an overwhelming effort to try and charm me in the few moments of introduction, though didn’t even talk about himself much. Mosty his father and telling me I was very pretty. I decided he was sheltered.
Charles and Kenneth approached me at the same time, or at least tried to. As I was told, they were competitive. Kenneth got through first. He didn’t kiss my hand, though, he shook it and told me to call him Kenny. His grip was a little firm, my hand hurt once he’d let it go and I simply put it in my lap. He was a little fat, I noticed, and from how his breath smelled, it was from drinking. He had a faint halo of whiskey about him, and when I casually asked his birthday, he mentioned he’d be twenty two in December. I knew he was young, but it surprised me a little. He politely said he’d hope to get to know me better over lunch.
Charles butted in after he’d said this, making a snide remark about him liking any business over lunch. I shot a look at my Grandfather, but he’d turned his attention elsewhere. I waved a little at Charles, who, thankfully did not shake my hand and kissed it like the others had. He was muscular under his suit, I could tell. When he spoke, his voice had a light lisp to it too, and he dropped in a few choice words, of course, when the adults weren’t listening as much. It took me by surprise, but they were men after all.
All my introductions were brief, but over our aforementioned sandwiches and coffee, I got my impressions of everyone, and deep down, I already made my decision.
I wouldn’t pick any of them.
Chapter 13: An Addendum
SERIOUS NOTE: This chapter includes non-explicit descriptions of potentially upsetting/triggering topics including rape. If this is something you don't feel comfortable reading, I'll be providing a chapter summary at the end for this one so you don't miss anything.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Momma didn’t come home from the honeymoon until the Friday before Thanksgiving. Three full months had passed since I’d heard from her, let alone seen her, but her sun kissed skin spoke of afternoons in the sun of Spain, the beaches of Italy. She’d decidedly bought souvenirs for everyone; I received a gown from France and a few leather bound editions of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare from London. The way I was presented them felt more like obligation on Momma’s part and not kindness. In fact, she seemed much more tense than normal. Bart seemingly didn’t notice; was he accustomed to this? Had she been this way their whole honeymoon? If I were him, dealing with a new spouse constantly jumping at each noise and seemingly paranoid, I’d hate being married. He seemed happy, though.
Over the months, I had been socialized with my suitors more, mostly small parties each weekend, on a few occasions weeknight excursions. Obviously, each event was heavily supervised and much less dates and more so like a childhood play date. My grandparents wanted me to pick a suitable husband but weren’t making it easy in any sense. Grandmother always diverted conversation to topics she approved of. God forbid talking about school or hobbies or books; I was instructed, in essence, to advertise myself as an obedient housewife. I silently decided it was her parent’s methodology when finding her husband, my Grandfather. It barely felt like I was allowed a personality. Then again, it seemed my suitors were in the same boat. Their fathers insisted on their end of conversation focus on business. How they’d be great providers for me and our future family.
The idea of having children with any of these men sickened me. I wanted nothing to do with any of them. Actually, at this point, the idea of having children at all sickened me. Perhaps it was a result of the things I’d gone through the last two years, but I feared bringing up offspring in the world of cruelty and repression my family’s circle succumbed themselves too. Oftentimes, when I was alone, I’d close my eyes and try to dredge up memories from when I was young, the twins’ age, when all I wanted to do was play with my dolls in their little wooden house. I had had an active imagination, making up stories of princesses trapped away in a spare room until their princes came and saved them, and how they’d live happily ever after with their clothespin children. I’d make it theatrical, like the movies I’d seen where the charming beau swooped in, defeated the evil stepmother, awoke his love from a magical slumber, or climbed her yarn-hair, or fought the mammoth dragon for her hand. The stories lost their appeal to me now, for the obvious reasons. Being trapped in a faraway tower wasn’t all the Brothers Grimm had cracked it up to be. In any case, the possibility of parenthood was not only terrifying, it was something I likely couldn’t bear. I wasn’t given the best upbringing, how could I myself provide one to a child of my own?
Grandfather was getting worse and worse. In fact, this time, we were sure he wouldn’t make it until Christmas. I was silently reminded, however, that even if he’d died that very minute, I had at least three months until I could be ‘me’ again in theory. Grandmother’s will was strong, she would not relent in keeping me underneath her thumb as long as possible. If it took me being married off the day of my birthday, she would have it done. Luckily for her, I wouldn’t be able to marry until I graduated, which gave a small leeway between February and May to be a young adult and taste independence.
On Saturday the twenty first, I brought him breakfast. Sausage, eggs, toast. Before I could excuse myself, he took me by the forearm and forced me to look him in the eyes.
“Lucille.” He croaked. “Will you pray for me?” He asked.
“I will. I promise.” I replied naturally.
“Will you forgive my sins?”
It felt an odd time and place for him to ask, and me of all people. I had no authority to forgive anything, and even if I did, there were many things I could never brush away.
“Yes.” I lied.
He licked his lips, he always seemed to do so in the style of the elderly. “Lucille… I have done terrible things. You are young. You have time to grow, I do not. Do not do as I have done.”
I was beginning to be afraid, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Was he delusional in the morphine-induced haze he’d been cocooned in for the last month? He finally let me go.
“Promise to be obedient in the eyes of God.” He whispered to me before he laid back and closed his eyes. “That is all. You may go.”
I thanked him quickly, again promising to heed his word, and made my way back to the dining room so that I may eat my own breakfast. I didn’t mention the encounter to anyone, though Grandmother asked me why I’d taken so long. I simply replied that Malcolm wanted to speak to me a moment. She did not press further.
The next day, Bart would finalize his will, we were informed. He had other matters to focus on that afternoon, and he and Momma had a gala in the evening to attend that couldn’t be avoided as to not make a social faux pas. Malcolm would live another day, everyone decided, at least one. After that, it would be touch and go.
Sunday brought church again and lunch with my suitors. I paid as little attention to conversation as possible. Lawrence spoke of nothing but himself, though at one point began to stroke my hand and dream out loud of a wonderful manor in the mountains and a horse farm and all the lavish parties we could have, all the fine pearls and diamonds that were in his family that he would absolutely love to see around my pretty little neck. In fact, halfway through sandwiches he pulled out a long, slim black box from his coat pocket with a flourish and handed it to me, insisting I open it that moment. I did; it was a necklace, silver chain with a teardrop shaped emerald dangling. Politely, I thanked him, though shot a glance at my grandmother. Was this proper? She seemingly approved, nodding subtly. He beamed as he then took it and placed it around my throat.
“There.” He said, proud. “I had it purchased in Switzerland, they have the finest jewelry, you know. I could buy you anything you desired, my dear.”
Before I could even form a thanks, Kenneth scoffed. “Showoff.”
This led into a small squabble between all four, me in the center trying not to get my soup spilled. Thankfully, it was calmed, and soon enough, I was on my way back to Foxworth in time for dinner. I’d like to have said momma was in better spirits, brushed off her mood as jet lag, but now she was even more distressed. During the meal she dropped her fork no less than three times and wouldn’t stop licking her lips. Bart kept trying to reassure her, making the comment that her father would hate to see her so distraught. The codicil wasn’t so bad, it made their life easier even.
Codicil? This was the first I’d heard of anything. I supposed I’d be learning, as momma then said that she’d like to speak to me about it after dinner. Alone. I obediently replied that I didn’t mind whatsoever, I had the full week off school for the holiday so missing an evening train was out of the question. Once everyone finished and I cleared the table, she took me by the hand and lead me to my room, shutting the door behind us.
“Please, let’s sit.” She said, I quickly sat on the sewn up chair. I rarely had visitors, given that there was hardly ever anyone to visit, and one could potentially feel any of my hidden positions if they sat there. Better safe than sorry. Momma sat in the other armchair, pulling some papers from her pocket and setting them on the small table between us.
She took a breath. “Camilla dear.” She hadn’t called me by my birth name since we’d arrived. “Your grandfather has made some alterations to his will that concern you.”
She unfolded the sheet, though instead of it being a copy of the will or paperwork regarding the alterations, it was a crudely drawn family tree with a concerning number of crosses.
“You’re nearly eighteen.” Momma continued, turning the paper so I could read it. “There are things that I feel you need to know, now that you’re older and my father is dying. Your siblings -- Chris, Cathy, the twins -- they're only your half siblings. Their father, Christopher, isn’t yours.”
I scanned the paper, and she was correct. She was rather calm now, almost nonchalant about the whole ordeal. The line denoting my father cut across to my grandmother’s side, and tracing the connections up, it made him my grandmother’s nephew through her brother; momma’s cousin. My stomach turned at the name as well. Albert Winfield, whether it was irony or her intention, the man that was supposedly my father.
There was one question I could ask. “Why?”
She wrung her hands into her skirt. “I was young, I’d just met my half uncle and we’d been, well, in a relationship for some time. We’d made love, you’re mature enough to understand, we were aware of the consequences that could turn out. Young, dumb, idiotic love. Obviously nothing came of it. It was May of ‘41…” Her eyes closed, she began to cry a little. The act was failing and at least for now, she wasn’t putting it back up.
“Alfred had just come home on leave, he was fighting in Germany for some time, he’d lived in England for awhile and decided to enlist, but he was allotted some release and the ability to come and visit. There was this grand party held for him, everyone had missed him so much. I’d missed him so much, I hadn’t seen him since I was a little girl, you know. It lasted late into the evening, there was beer and wine, there was celebration even if we were all scared for him to leave.”
She had to take a breath. “Alfred got drunk that night, I got a little tipsy from sneaking a little too much champagne. He wouldn’t stop inviting me to dance, I wouldn’t stop accepting those invitations. Eventually, I got tired, he offered to walk me to the spare room where I’d be sleeping. He didn’t leave me at the door though.” The tears began to really flow. “I kept telling him ‘no, no, no’ as he kept kissing me, I tried to make him stop, he wouldn’t... When it was all over he just left me in that bed sobbing as he zipped up his pants and went back for more beers and fun. He said that if I told anyone he’d kill me. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew you were his… I never told Christopher. It would kill him. I think he suspected something, but he didn’t want to face that.”
I was dead silent. What could I say? I’d just been informed I was the product of an incestuous encounter that’d been swept underneath the rug for the last seventeen years. I just nodded slowly, taking her hand. She cried a few more moments, then dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief that she produced from another pocket. Her breathing calmed, and soon enough she resumed her facade.
“Camilla, I’ve never told anyone this.” Her voice was still shaky. “You must never tell anyone else. As for the will… Your Grandfather has put a ruling on my inheritance. I must never… Never ever have children. I can’t have a child with Bart. I can’t adopt. You nor your siblings can ever be known to be mine or else I lose anything. If I ever have children after gaining inheritance, I have to pay every penny back. I can’t do that.”
I paled. This was why I was being gagged, so I wouldn’t lose her money!
“However,” She leaned in closer, trying to smile. “I’m not supposed to know, but Bart told me… You’ve been written in as Lucille. You’ll get a portion of the estate. You’ll still have the money I promised!”
“What about Chris and Cathy and the twins?” I asked.
Her smile didn’t fall. “Don’t worry about them sweetheart… We’ll figure out something, I promise. Don’t we always?”
“I…” I faltered. Perhaps she was right. “We do. We always work something out.”
She patted my hand, getting up. “There you go… It’ll be okay, things are only going uphill. It may have taken a little longer than we thought, but it’s all coming together.” Momma began to walk to the door, but then stopped.
“Please, Lucille. Play along, and you’ll have a wonderful payoff. It’s what I’ve done.”
CHAPTER SUMMARY FOR THOSE WHO SKIPPED
Camilla has been visiting more with her suitors between September and the setting of this chapter in November of 1959. Corinne has recently returned from her honeymoon with Bart and is visibly on edge. On Saturday, she brings Malcolm breakfast and he insists on her praying for him and forgiving him. What for, Camilla is unsure.
On Sunday, she receives an emerald necklace from one of her suitors, Lawrence. Later on that evening, Corinne pulls her aside after dinner and reveals two things; the first is that Camilla is not Chris Sr.'s daughter, and in fact her father is Alfred Winfield, Olivia's nephew, and she was conceived when Alfred assaulted Corinne. Chris Sr. never knew. The second is that the codicil still applies; Camilla must never reveal her parentage nor her siblings, though she will still receive significant inheritance as long as she plays along with Corinne's game.
Chapter 14: Decisions
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.
Chapter 15: Emerald and Opal
On the afternoon of the Christmas ball, I sat in front of my mirror, studying myself more closely than I had in many years. I was mere inches from the glass, taking in every detail I could. Blue eyes, yes those were the same as they always were. My hair had grown out some since I’d been here. The freckles were gone. My face was a little slimmer. I touched the mirror with feather light fingertips. I was a young woman. I’d be eighteen in two months. I’d been here since I was fifteen. My mind always wandered back there, fifteen.
Taking a look at the clock, I sighed. People would be arriving in just over an hour. I still had to bathe, do my hair, apply makeup, and get dressed, all so I could present myself to the world and make the hardest decision I had in my entire life. I still hadn’t chosen my suitor. None of them were entirely repulsive. The problem was that I didn’t really know them. A few dozen afternoons over three months wasn’t enough to pick someone to be with for the rest of your life. To pick someone to inevitably have children with. That’s what was expected of me, wasn’t it? My cheeks heated up and I felt like crying, something I’d done a lot of late at night for the last few weeks. Every part of me wanted to curl up, to not attend the ball, to not pick a suitor, to simply not exist for awhile. With balled fists I rubbed fiercely at my eyes. No tears. Not now.
My gaze travelled to the silver jewelry box on the vanity before me. I opened it carefully, I’d been reminded time and time again that it was incredibly old, inset with jade, lined with plush felt. I didn’t have much inside, a few pairs of earrings, a single ring, a bracelet, and towards the center, two necklaces. One, less worn, was the silver chain with a small, oval shaped opal. I picked it up, holding it out. It caught the light magnificently, shimmering in a fiery rainbow, blue and orange and pink. It reminded me of the crystals that fantasy books mentioned, holding an unseen magic, hoarded by dragons and witches and wizards, coveted by kings. I set it back down, picking up the second necklace. It was the one from Lawrence, given to me a month previously. I’d only worn it once since then, at the funeral. The emerald stone itself, framed by tiny diamonds, was probably many times more expensive than the opal necklace. My father had bought it for my thirteenth birthday as a symbol of me hitting such a milestone. As I closed my eyes, I tried to remember the feeling of his gentle hands doing the clasp behind my neck, but nothing came. The chain had felt so long then; only now did I realize that it was probably intentional so I could wear it as an adult.
Lawrence’s hands had been cool, but gentle. Those I could remember. Kenneth’s were warm, soft, a bit fat. Like the hands of a baby. He’d briefly held mine as we took a September stroll through his family’s garden. Arthur’s were slim, soft, unaccustomed to work. Charles had the opposite; rough hands, thick fingers, already covered in scars. It was odd what you could remember about a person. I could remember Daddy’s voice, his face, his gifts, the cologne he wore, how he could never seem to cook anything but hot dogs or pancakes, but I couldn’t remember his touch. He’d hugged us so many times over, wouldn’t be imprinted into my memories? Maybe not.
The grandfather clock at the end of the hall struck three, chiming it’s song, echoing down to my room. I really had to get ready. With a heavy sigh, I set the necklace back in it’s box, latched it shut, and began to physically and emotionally prepare myself for Christmas night. Within the hour I was washed, perfumed, dolled up as much as I could. The champagne colored gown that I’d picked out the weekend before looked good enough, Momma insisted it brought out my eyes. In my opinion, it could have been the ugliest green burlap shift and I wouldn’t have felt any worse. My gaze fell back on the jewelry box, and I pulled out the two silver chains. Both matched my outfit, it wasn’t a matter of that. I knew I didn’t need to even wear a necklace. But it felt right. Felt necessary. This would be my last Christmas ball living at Foxworth Hall, my last Christmas of childhood, really. I held the two necklaces in front of me, but I wasn’t looking at them, I was back pondering my own reflection. The electric light behind me created a halo, the lavender scented candles I’d lit in an attempt at calming myself flickered their light across my features. I heard the doorbell chime faintly. People must have been arriving early. I shakily sat down on the vanity chair, reaching for some perfume to spritz across myself. All I had to do was get through tonight, I convinced myself. Get through December twenty-fifth, nineteen fifty-nine, and then life would only become easier. Right?
A knock at my door made me jump, and the necklaces clattered to the table. My head swiveled around to catch my mother peeking her head in. “Lucille?” She asked. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“Yes?” I replied.
She stepped inside, leaning against the wall just to the right of the door. “It’s time for you to come down. Olivia wants you to be greeting everyone.”
My eyes darted around, and I shuffled over to her, taking a deep breath. “Can’t you call me Camilla in private?”
She looked puzzled for a moment, as if I was suggesting she called me the Duke of York, it simply didn’t make sense to her, but familiarity flashed across her face. “I would, but there’s always listening ears.”
I didn’t want to accept her excuse, but did anyway. “I’ll be down in five minutes. I just… Need to do a few more things.”
She smiled at me, though it wasn’t warm. It looked forced. “I’ll see you then. Don’t be nervous darling, everything will be alright.” She replied, and was gone as quickly as she came. She tended to do that, peek in for a few words, then leave me unsatisfied and a little baffled. She was a songbird, flitting from one branch to another. I wish she’d built her nest somewhere more secure.
I took a final deep breath, standing once again at the vanity. Outside the window it was dark and frigid. In fact, we were due for a light dusting of snow, something I’d always missed from Pennsylvania. I made my decision, finally, and watched myself clasp the chain around my neck, watched the stone sparkle in the candlelight. I blew the candles out.
Everyone had arrived by the time food was being served. I could barely eat, though, despite the numerous hors d'oeuvres being offered left and right. My suitors were especially pressed, Kenneth would barely leave my side as he begged for me to try some cocktail shrimp. Luckily, he was whisked away by Charles who’d found the flutes of champagne. I’d already gotten one for myself, fresh cut strawberries lying at the bottom, and I nervously sipped it in futile search for liquid courage. I’d be announcing my suitor by inviting him to lead me in the first waltz which would be taking place in just a few minutes. That was it. Simple. Inconspicuous. To the untrained, or perhaps just naive eye, it was just me calling my personally chosen long-time boyfriend for a dance. Usually the man called, of course, but it was our Christmas ball. Olivia Foxworth called the shots.
She was hovering nearby, keeping a watchful eye on me. I was, in her eyes, a “flight risk”. I was firmly held by the throat by societal conventions. If I so much as thought of making a scene, so much as thought of hesitating, I would regret it dearly. It wasn’t just my wellbeing at stake. My siblings were playing chips.
I began to wander so my feet didn’t glue themselves to the floor. There was a lot of idle chit-chat, I was the talk of the evening of course, everyone knew that I’d be announcing something. Gossip had spread like wildfire. Eavesdropping, I had heard a few theories ranging from attending a university to moving to England. If only those were it. I tried blending in with the crowd. Somehow, it worked. The clock on the wall chimed it’s hour and my heart sank to my stomach. It was time.
I set my champagne down on a tray. Grandmother eyed me across the dance floor, it was as if the Red Sea had parted, but I was not walking to the promised land as Moses had. It felt like I was walking straight back to the pharaoh. She smiled, and to everyone else it would appear warm and friendly. I knew her game. I took my place beside her, the dance floor cleared, there was now only idle whispers. I took a breath, but she spoke before I could get any words out.
“As many of you know, my darling niece Lucille is nearing eighteen. She is a young woman. And as many young women do, they fall in love.”
Love, was it?
She raised her own glass of blood red wine high. “She has recently become engaged, and in honor of the soon-to-be couple, they will lead the first waltz of the night. Lucille, will you call your fiance for us?”
Time slowed. My gaze fell on the four men who vied for me. They stood in a small group directly across from me, perhaps twenty feet away. They looked like vultures. Only one of them would get me. Four pairs of eyes locked with mine. They wanted me. Or maybe my money. I hoped it was the money. My heart pounded in my chest. I made my choice. I licked my lips, willing myself to speak. It felt like everything was closing in on me. I had to keep my cool. I had to get this over with. It wasn’t so hard, right? Just say his name.
“Lawrence dear?” My voice didn’t even waver. “Shall we?”
He had the look of a cat who’d gotten the cream. He strode across to me, taking my hand as gently as he could. It wasn’t saying much, he was still a little rough with it, but he pulled me into a well trained waltz, feet much more certain than mine. I’d waltzed before, it wasn’t something completely foreign, but I was suddenly aware of exactly how many people were watching us. Just moments before, when I had to announce my suitor, I was only aware of five people. And now, it was perhaps two hundred.
He leaned down, lips nearly pressing against the shell of my ear. “You’ve made the right choice, darling.” He whispered. “And I do like your necklace. Emeralds certainly bring out your eyes.”
I gulped and faked a smile, faked being happy. “Oh, you think so? I never wear them. Perhaps I’ll get myself some matching earrings.”
He made an irritated noise as I accidentally stepped on his foot, but he bit it back as quickly as it happened. “Oh, no, darling. I simply won’t allow you to spend a penny on anything. I’ll take care of it.”
I caught the gaze of Arthur across the ballroom, looking absolutely crestfallen, drink in hand. He was my second choice. I think he was a lot of people’s second choice. Meanwhile, to his left, Charles and Kenneth were bickering.
Lawrence noticed my gaze was wandering, I suppose, because his fingers cupped my chin and made me look back at him. “Don’t worry, darling. They don’t matter any longer. Only I matter. We’re going to build a beautiful life together, you and I. I’m thinking a summer home in France, what say you?”
Everything was going so fast. I felt a few beads of sweat begin to form at my brow. Thankfully, the music changed, the waltz stopped.
“It sounds perfect.” I lied, pulling away a little. “I’ve got to powder my nose, may I be excused a moment?” It felt so much like asking Grandmother.
He beamed, squeezing my hands. “Hurry back, the steak medallions are nearly gone and they’re to die for.”
With a fake smile, I nodded, promised I would, and hurried to the hall, which was nearly empty. I didn’t stop there, though, I ran up the stairs, up flight after flight, until I was nearly at the top level. It was so quiet up here. So dark up here. I slumped against the wall and nearly began to cry. I’d made my choice, it was over, wasn’t it? I sunk to the floor, clutching my knees close to my chest. I don’t know how long I was there, perhaps only a few minutes, when I heard soft footsteps padding down. My head shot up, I quickly recomposed myself.
Soft moonlight streamed through the window at the end of the hall, thin with the waning moon, but it was just bright enough for me to catch a silhouette. Hidden in shadow, they couldn’t see me, but I could catch their features. Blond hair, yes, but shorter than Lawrence, with slighter shoulders and wearing white instead of a sharp black tuxedo. I watched the figure dart between doorways, and as it came closer, I could see more and more features. I crawled forward, stifling a gasp.
“Chris?” I whispered. He froze in his spot.
“Camilla?” He whispered back, inching closer. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”
I stood, and found he was taller than me by perhaps four inches. “I could ask you the same.”
Instead of replying, he pulled me into the closest room, an empty and unused bedroom. I flipped on the lightswitch. He was so pale, it hurt to see, and his eyes were sunken. This was the closest I was to him in a long time.
I sighed. “It’s Christmas.”
“I know.” He responded. “It’s the ball tonight.”
I avoided looking at him. “I’m engaged.”
“You told us.”
“I don’t want to be.”
He paused, looking a little puzzled, but I continued.
“Grandmother wants me out of the picture but she can’t lock me away. She’s forcing me to get married so I can move away. If I tell anyone what’s happening, she’ll hurt you.”
I could tell he was contemplating if I was lying or not, but he seemed to stick closer with the side of trust.
“So you’re just going to let her use you like that?”
“If it keeps you all safe, yes.”
“I see…” He sighed. “I guess I should tell you why I’m sneaking around.” Chris reached into his pocket and pulled out an array of change, plus a few crumpled dollar bills. “We’re trying to get away, but we need money. I’ve been sneaking into momma’s room to get the money she leaves behind.”
She had a nasty habit of leaving change around. A few times she accused the servants of stealing it, but of course she didn’t change her ways, and Bart didn’t complain either. I nodded.
“How much do you have?” I asked.
He shook his head sorrowfully. “Not enough.”
I began to think, then placed a hand on his shoulder. “On the new moon, I’ll try and smuggle you money, alright? I need to be as stealthy as possible. I want you to be as safe as you can be.”
“And you won’t rat us out?”
I wanted to say more, but I heard footsteps on the stairs. I quickly shut off the light, staying as silent as possible. I could hear voices as they reached the landing.
“Is she alright?” I heard a voice ask. “She looked a bit ill on the dance floor. Influenza is going around.”
“Which room is her’s again?”
“Not this floor, for sure.”
I looked at Chris, mouthing to him. “They’re looking for me.”
I heard the footsteps pace to the end of the hall, then back down the stairs. Once they were gone, I pulled away.
“I’ll see you soon.” I whispered. “I promise.”
Chris nodded, both of us wishing this fleeting meeting could be a little longer. He slipped out of the door first, and once I could no longer hear him, I slipped away too. Back to the party, if only to save face. If only to save them.
Chapter 16: The Days We Pass
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.