The house was talking to me.
It spoke in groans and creaks. It spoke in whistling winds and thumps.
It told of pain. Loss. Neglect.
I heaved myself out of bed, lost under too many blankets. I shoved them back onto the mattress before stumbling to the armoire. My head swam and my hands never seemed to be where I put them.
The stairs were tricky this morning. I clung to the railing. Lucille was at the bottom, watching me with her icy stare.
“My dear, you look peaked. Not well at all. I'll make you some tea, return to your room and I will bring it for you.”
I followed her into the kitchen, rolling my eyes. “A good pour of whiskey would be better. My Gram always said, if it can’t be cured by whiskey, best to let it kill you.” I sank onto a stool, wavering a little. “I think I will go take a walk outside, though.”
Lucille glanced outside. “It is freezing out there.”
“Should do me good, the bracing air and all. The wet, not so much, but beggars can’t be choosers, eh?” I smiled at her. Nothing I did made that distant, somewhat disdaining look leave her face.
She shrugged, dismissive. “If you insist.” She pushed the teacup in front of me, steaming in the cold air, before leaving me alone in the kitchen.
Freezing out there? It was barely warmer in here. If I left the tea to sit, it would be ice before long. I sipped cautiously. The flavor was lacking, but the heat was welcome on my scratchy throat. It felt as if I’d had this ague forever. It must be the damp in the air- I wasn’t used to it.
Winters were just as cold in California or Colorado, but it was a different sort. Sharp and brittle. It didn’t settle into me like this, making my bones heavy.
I missed the frontier. I hadn't thought I would; when I left, I was hungry for a new life with amenities that the backwoods couldn't provide. But the frontier had been all I'd known. My father had followed the promise of gold, dragging me, my mother, and her parents out West. After my mother died, he took me along searching for gold, leaving behind my grandparents and their farmstead.
By the time he died in Oregon, he had a massive fortune and owned half a new town. I took my inheritance back East. I didn't stop by to see if my grandparents were still alive.
I slipped a few of the biscuits I had baked yesterday into a basket, along with a flask of whiskey hidden on the back of a shelf. Lucille didn’t like me “snooping” around, but this was my house too now and I wasn’t about to laze my through the days just because she was worried I’d find a dime novel or some such.
I tromped through the snow to the field where Thomas was working on the mining. He was atop the massive machinery he had invented, a shabby velvet coat over his jacket and a cravat covering most of his neck. Shovels churned on conveyor belts up and down.
When he saw me, he hurried down from his seat. “Darling, you should be inside, it is too cold out here for you.”
“Nonsense. I brought you a snack.” I held up the basket, as if I hadn’t done this every day for the last week. “You are the one who should be inside. Your nose is nearly frostbit! And your poor ears…” Dropping the basket to the snow, I reached up to cup my hands over his pink, chilled ears. I drew him towards me, looking into his sweet eyes.
A fit of coughing interrupted my intentions. Thomas took a step back and his face shifted from a look of love to one I couldn’t figure out. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” I wheezed. I made to hold him again, but he put his hands on my arms to stop me.
“Go inside, darling,” he said, so gently that it made my heart crack.
Why wouldn’t he touch me any longer?
For sure, there were incidental touches like this, to keep me back, to push me away. Not like before.
He had been so passionate in New York. Nearly a different man. He had courted me with sweet letters and bouquets. There had been stolen kisses in corners of garden parties, hasty and hungry. His hands had more than once caressed farther than they should have, more than once had we left marks on each other’s skin.
His proposal put Shakespeare to shame with the dramatic and burning love it had held.
We had been married in New York before boarding a boat for England. I thought for certain that we would break the bed in our cabin, I dreamed of it- but it had not happened as I wanted. I had not thought much of it at first. There was always some excuse- seasickness, a cough, too much wine at dinner.
It had only gotten worse when we arrived here. It was as if the house itself wanted to keep up apart. We slept in the same bed but never saw the other naked. Thomas was too exhausted from his work in the mine, or too worried over my health. Kisses became few and far between.
There were times when I thought that he was just too shy. Perhaps his confidence was shaken. I tried my best to help him through, to show him that I loved him no matter what he was struggling with. I still saw the passionate baronet in him, the man who had wooed me- me , a gussied-up frontier girl- with grace and desire.
Was it me that had turned him sour? I often wondered at night, when he was sound asleep beside me. His arm would be flung over his head, his hair spread over the pillow. I wanted to trace the angelic curve of his cheek. He carried his sadness even into sleep, somehow. The urge to hold him, to stroke him, to make all his hurt- whatever it was- go away, was so strong that I sometimes had to leave the bed.
The first night I had done that, I went for a walk down the halls with a candle. It was an eerie time, full of darkness, but the moon shone down through the hole in the roof. I frowned up at it. Shoddy work, I thought. Same with this bannister, half rotten from the damp. I nearly put a hand through it.
I heard soft piano notes coming from deeper in the house. No, that couldn’t be, it was past midnight. No one was playing the piano at this hour. Lucille was a genius at it, but even she needed to sleep. I assumed.
Maybe it was a breeze, making a sound as it snuck through some hole or another. The house certainly had enough of them.
I came to a locked door, certain the noise was coming from inside. Lucille had not given me a set of keys yet, but she didn’t know I didn’t need them. I dug a long pin from the pocket of my dressing gown and set to work. The lock sprung with a some effort- half rusted, I bet.
There was no piano in the room. There was nothing but a soft whooshing as I thrust my candle about, peering into corners. Lumps of dusty furniture, a pile of moldy books, a huge trunk, nothing in here was that interesting and I turned to leave.
I jumped and yelped, “Oh damn,” pressing a hand to my pounding heart.
A misshapen, hunched form was between me and the door. It raised its… head? and looked at me with bloody eyes. “Sssss,” it hissed.
I shook myself. “Too much at dinner, that’s what this is. I shouldn’t have had that second helping. Wandering around in the dead of night, of course I’m seeing spooks. Ha!” I walked past the trembling, gurgling figure, stepping around as if it were real. “Pardon me, um… ma’am? We’ll go with that. Have a nice eve, ma’am, I’ll come round tomorrow to fix the gap.”
I snorted at myself as I walked back to my room. Talking to spirits. And a damn creepy one at that. I was reading too much Poe before sleep; I should have left that book in New York. Wouldn’t Thomas laugh at me if I told him his house was haunted?
It wasn’t hard to find the old landscaper’s shed the next day. I spent the morning removing the rust from some of the tools there, and found a few decent planks of wood. I waited until Lucille had left to visit Thomas outside before I brought everything up to the room from last night (she scared me much more than any ghost, if I was honest.)
“There you go, Missus Ghost,” I said to the air, dusting off my hands. “No more hole in the wall.”
On my way downstairs, I noticed a hole in the boards of the main floor. That seemed easy enough to fix as well. I didn’t want to break an ankle falling in that. I hauled some more planks in from the shed.
As I worked, I swore I felt someone nearby, but no one was inside. I began babbling, as if to the ghost, just to fill the heavy silence. “Trust me. I know what I’m doing, I built plenty a house with Papa for our settlers. The roof will be harder, but I’ll figure it out. Maybe I can-”
“Who are you talking to?”
I squeaked a curse, leaping to my feet. “Lucille! You scared the hair right off my head!” I pushed the hammer behind me with my heel.
“What are you doing?” There was no change in her tone, but her annoyance was clear.
Here I was, fixing up this wreck of a house and she was going to be all prickly about it? “I was just talking to myself, you know how it is. Lonely, a bit. I thought I would patch up this hole here.” I looked right into her cold eyes, knowing that I was in the right. “The house needs care. Never been one to shirk from a chore that needs doing, so I’m doing it.”
We stared at each other, neither willing to back down. It didn’t take a genius to see that she didn’t like my being here and my changing things just made it worse. But I wasn’t going to apologize for not going quietly into disrepair.
“You will inform me when and where you want to make these… repairs,” Lucille finally bit out, icy as the air around us.
“Will not.” I shrugged. “I’m being helpful and there’s nothing I’m ruining by making sure someone doesn’t fall through a rotting banister.” I don’t know what made me say the next part, but it was out before I could think about it. “The house tells me where to fix.”
That changed the expression on her face. I couldn’t read it before she turned away.
Aw, damn it all. “Lucille… I know I’m an intrusion,” I said to her back. “I know you didn’t choose me to come in here and ruin your life. You have worked hard to manage this house. I don’t know how to run a household. You are great at it and you’ve been taking care of Thomas for so long. He loves you dearly. I just want to help him too. Maybe by fixing the rotten bannister and such, I can help him lighten his burden…”
“Fine. Just stay away from areas you are not supposed to go.”
As if I was going to get on that rusty, creaking bucket of steel they called a lift. That thing would kill me, I was certain of it. And if it didn’t, the feeling of being buried in a basement would have me wishing to be dead. I was a strictly above-ground girl. “Agreed,” I said.
I told Thomas about the exchange as he puttered around our room before bed. I edited it a bit to make Lucille seem nicer, of course. I wasn't about to start something between them. “Why wouldn’t she want me to patch up the floor though?”
Thomas sighed, hanging up his black coat. “This house… it is sinking under its own weight of expectation and history. It weighs on me- I mean, on the mine below. But it is all we have left of our family- we must preserve it, even if we become prisoners of it.” He tried to hide the bitterness in his voice under a layer of familial devotion, but I wasn’t fooled.
“Then shouldn’t you want to help it? I can make it lighter, I can hear it calling me to. That sounds silly, I know, but we don't just have to let it collapse on top of us-”
He turned and gave me the same look Lucille had. It was an unreadable mash.
“Thomas…” I reached out for him, sitting on the bed. “Come here? Please?” I was out of place and lost. I was doing the best I could here- cooking the meals and repairing what I could and being as friendly as I knew how to Lucille. But I was adrift, unwelcome in my efforts.
He came to me, kneeling on the mattress so that I could bury my face in the softness of his sleep shirt. His fingers stroked over my hair. The contact settled me, tethered me to this moment.
“Thomas,” I whispered, my hands rubbing circles on his lower back. I looked up at him, smiling sweetly before rising up to touch his lips with mine. My tongue teased at him while I pulled our bodies closer together. There was no hiding his reaction, dressed as he was. “Is that for me, love? Let me have it…”
My heart soared with elation as his hips pressed hard against mine.
His hands dropped and he swallowed. “I am very tired after the work today. I... need to rest.” He smiled weakly and reassured me just as weakly, “Another night, darling.”
I watched him pull the blanket over himself and roll away from me, stunned. The familiar stabbing ache in my heart overwhelmed me. It whispered with each beat. Unloveable. Worthless. Murderer. Unlovable.
I had thought that being half the world away would silence that voice. That if I could leave behind everyone who knew what had happened, that I would be free of it.
Swept up by Thomas’ bright blue eyes and his fragile smile and his rapt attention, I believed that he truly loved me in a way I had never been before. In a way I was desperate for.
But even without knowing what happened, Thomas could sense the flaw inside me. I was broken and he could never truly love someone like me.
Listening to Thomas talk about his inventions was always a joy. He lit up, his shoulders straightened, he became nearly a new person. He was so passionate about these machines he built and they gave him something that it seemed the rest of his life sucked away. He was especially beautiful talking in the clean bright sunlight, not the dim, dust-filtered light in the house.
I could listen to him forever, I thought. I saw the way that Lucille’s eyes glazed over when he spoke at dinner, how she tried to hurry him through his explanations and never praised his efforts. How would she feel, I wondered, if he acted the same way about her piano playing?
I peered at the half-build gadgets and dials on the shelves of Thomas’ study while he explained his current project to me. It was an amazing collection of junk, really, but he loved it so much. He sat hunched in an old plaid shawl to ward off the chill as he worked.
I wanted to tease him that I had a better way to keep warm.
I knew I’d be rejected. Gently, but still rejected.
So I listened to him and imagined running my fingers through his hair. My chest and back ached constantly now, from the coughing. Wouldn’t it be lovely if he helped me into a warm bath…
I tried to stifle it as the cough came again, but had to grab for my handkerchief. I closed my eyes and bit back a groan, my aggravated muscles complaining. I was light-headed. When I finally opened my eyes again, I gasped.
There was blood.
I was coughing up blood.
“Darling? What is wrong?”
I looked up at Thomas’s concerned face and I shoved the handkerchief into my dress pocket. “Nothing, nothing. I feel very faint all of a sudden, I think I will go lie down.” I forced a smile. “Perhaps you could bring me some tea? It would help my throat.”
I hurried back to our room, trembling, near tears. The cough I could not heal from, the exhaustion, the swimming of my head...
I flung myself onto the bed, burying my face in the pillow. I could not let Thomas and Lucille suffer like this. Doctors said that being too close to someone could spread the disease. They said that it was deadly. Everyone knew someone who had died from tuberculosis.
My body couldn’t decide between crying and coughing, tearing my chest apart to do both.
I could go to a sanatorium. The ones in Europe were supposed to be the best. Perhaps one in Switzerland. But that would take nearly all of our money, and might not even save me.
I didn’t want to die.
That wasn’t my decision any longer.
Over the next few days, I could think of nothing else. As much as I was hurt that Thomas and I had never consummated our marriage and as hard as it was to avoid disturbing Lucille, I did not want to leave Allerdale Hall. I found I liked it here. I had a purpose here, even if it was pointless. What else would I do, laze around a mountain top waiting to die?
I wanted to see Thomas’ machine finished.
I washed my handkerchiefs and dried them in secret, lest anyone see the bloodstains.
I wanted to see Thomas fix the house and buy himself a new coat and be respected as the inventor he was.
I wasn’t the type to sit still and rest in the cold mountain air. What would I do at a sanatorium?
I wanted him to be happy.
The problem was…
He could not do those things with me dragging him down.
My breath caught in my throat. Perhaps… Perhaps this was the best thing to happen. I would die and he could find someone to truly love, someone better. Someone unsullied, unbroken. Someone without this crack in her soul.
Lucille found me in the nursery. Sitting on the floor, staring at the paintings on the walls. I nodded to her, but didn’t say anything. I had not ever been in this room, but it had called to me in my grief.
“You are not planning on changing anything in here, are you?” Lucille sniffed, towering over me.
“No. I just wanted to look. It seems like a nice room, you and Thomas must have good memories here.” I rubbed at my face. I didn’t want her to see my tears.
“We were confined here. Put away so that we would not bother anyone. Thomas and I, we were always alone.”
At another time, maybe I would have been surprised by the emotion in her voice. But her resentment echoed with my own feelings. “That must have been hard.”
“It was fine.” She dismissed my compassion with a wave. “Thomas was mine, I took care of him. He was mine.” She was staring at the dirty window and was almost talking to herself.
“Oh,” I whispered. “You did not get a childhood. You were his whole world. That is a large burden to put on a little girl.” My heart hurt for her. “It must be hard, too, having another woman in your house. It must feel like I’m taking him away from you.”
Lucille whirled on me. If she had had porcupine quills, they’d be sticking out like mad at me, I was sure. Her eyes were fiery. “What do you know!”
I shrugged, my illness giving me a strange peace. I was going to die- and I was going to help my family before I did. “Nothing. It just feels like… you must have been so scared when he married me. It had been just the two of you for so long. I understand now why you hate me.”
I hate me too.
She stared at me, uncomprehending. “I… I do not hate you,” she said.
“It’s all right, you don’t have to lie,” I snorted. “I came in here and you feel I displaced you and…” With a sigh, I continued, “I understand.”
“You do not understand anything. ” She brushed past me, out of the room.
I probably didn’t. But I knew what I had to do now and I was going to do it.
I told Thomas that I worried my coughing kept him up at night and urged him to find another bed. I stopped trying to touch him. I kept to myself even more. I would not be the cause of Thomas or Lucille’s suffering more, I swore that to myself.
I heard my mother at night, shrieking her disappointment. I heard my grandmother's accusatory sobs in my ears as if they were fresh.
When I had the strength, I worked on the house. It spoke to me, straining, sighing, groaning. It breathed. The bannister was replaced. The floor was swept and cleaned. Doors were leveled and chinks patched. Shutters swung on freshly oiled hinges.
I kept coming back to the nursery. I didn’t touch anything in it, despite the rot on the shelves and the cracking plaster walls. I just sat on the floor and thought. And coughed up blood.
Maybe if someone had locked me away in a room like this, my mother would have lived.
I could see my grandfather so clearly still, after all these years. He had been crying- we had all cried as we buried my mother. His face was red, his eyes redder, but his voice had been calm and serious and heavy as he said, “You did this. You killed her.”
Was it possible to run out of tears? I certainly tried to find out. My mother had left the house one morning to milk the cows and Grandfather had found her hanging in the barn instead.
I never knew what I had done. Why she had thought that dying was better than living with me. But Grandfather had been clear, anytime he was reminded of it. It had been my fault. Grandmother was softer about it, but she would shake her head and whisper, “If only she'd not had that girl, she would have been happy,” when she thought I couldn't hear.
Some days I thought I should follow Mother to the afterlife to ask her myself.
I could understand the way Lucille would have felt trapped here, in this room. Not knowing what she had done to be shunned, only certain she had to take care of her brother. If I had had a sibling, I would have wanted to protect them from the terrible adults in our lives too. I would not have let Grandfather hurt them as he hurt me.
Thomas was lucky to have someone who loved him so much.
I would die for the chance to have someone love me like that.
I sat on the new wood planks of the main floor, staring up at the snow coming in through the hole in the roof. I shivered.
How long did it take to die from tuberculosis?
It was only right. I couldn’t stay with Thomas, I couldn’t have a life with him. I didn’t deserve him. He knew there was something wrong with me. My mother had seen it and it had driven her to take her own life. Nothing to blame him for.
I should apologize to him. He thought he could be happy but I ruined it.
“What are you doing!” Lucille’s voice was shrill with surprise.
It was always that question, from her. Was I such a strange specimen that she could never understand my actions?
“You don’t even have a dressing gown on! You will catch your death, sitting like that.” Her hands were on my arms, pulling me to my feet. I wanted to think there was concern on her face, but that couldn’t be.
I goggled at her, then laughed. “I already have. I have tuberculosis. Don’t touch me, you’ll get sick.” I pulled away, coughing. “A little more cold won’t change anything.” My hands were stiff and frigid as I waved my reddened handkerchief in front of me. “This isn’t clay.”
“You… You…” Lucille was at a loss for words, gesturing meaninglessly.
“It’s fine. It’s fine.” I nodded, my head a little wobbly. “You and Thomas, you can have my money, it’s enough to get his machine working. You can start the mine again… maybe move house, though, this one’s got rotten foundations. Better just to leave…” I was babbling, aimless and a bit slurred. Everything was nicely numb right now. “You don’t have to worry about me. It’s better this way. You’ve been through enough, you shouldn’t… have to deal with me.”
I was done. Delirious with fever, wasting away. My heart hurt. All I wanted was to be held, by anyone at this point. To belong, to be cared for. I could not go on, holding myself together with only stubbornness and denial. The pain was too much for me to bear alone. It was too much to hold inside me, clawing at me day and night.
The door slammed open, the huge main door to the house- unusual. I looked away from Lucille to see Thomas framed by the grey sunlight behind him. It was snowing harder outside, but his coat was missing. He stood in his shirt sleeves, his hair blown by the wind, his collar undone despite the cold.
“I’ve got it working! It is a beautiful sight, the belt is finally-” he shouted, exuberant. Then he froze. “What is going on?”
I could see it happening in slow motion. The explosive movement had been too much for the unstable door frame. The top rail split away and Thomas did not hear it. I staggered forward, gaining speed. I wasn’t going to make it. I was too far, I was too slow.
I heard Thomas’ whumpf of breath as I lurched into him. He stumbled and fell back, taking me with him so I sprawled onto the floor.
The wood crashed to the floor with a sickening crack.
Everything was still. My vision was black, my head lolling from the exertion of my sprint.
Until the nauseating pain surged through my body.
“Thomas,” I whined.
That’s the last thing I remember.
“We have to tell her.”
“We cannot tell her!”
The walls were talking again. I smiled, muzzily. Was I awake? Of course I was awake. I could clearly see Papa working outside my window, doing the spring planting.
“Lucille, I do not understand! This… you have never wanted to keep one.”
What were these walls talking about? The more I tried to listen, the harder it got to hear.
“You love her.”
“I… I do.”
“She loves you. Enough to push you out of danger. Enough that she is willing to die for you. She loves you so much, and wants to be loved by you so much, I think that if you asked her to walk off a cliff, she would do it just to see you happy.”
The voice was very sad. “She is a good person.”
“This is killing us, living this way. I didn’t know it until she showed me, but she is right. We can be better. Even if… even if she tells the police. It is time, Thomas. She will understand.”
Oh yes, I’m good at understanding, I thought. What am I understanding? Am I standing? No, I’m sleeping. Yes, sleeping…
My eyes fluttered open in early morning sunlight. Blankets were tucked under my chin, my head resting in a nest of fluffy pillows. I rolled to the side and groaned. My entire body ached, but the worst was the fiery burn in my lower leg.
“You are awake,” Thomas said, coming to the bedside. He looked exhausted.
I nodded slowly, nuzzling into the soft bedding.
Then I recoiled. “Don’t get near me! I’ve got the consumption-”
Thomas didn’t listen. He sat on the edge of the bed and extracted one of my hands from under the blanket. “You do not. Do you remember at all what happened? You saved me from getting my head smashed. But your leg is broken. We set it, but do not move too much yet.”
I tried to pull away. “I’ve got tuberculosis, Thomas, you shouldn’t-”
Thomas’ eyes were sad and soulful. It was like he was memorizing my face. “No, darling. You do not have tuberculosis, I am certain of it.” He sighed, squeezing my hand before letting go. “I am certain of it because there has been a poison in the tea you have been drinking.”
My brain was foggy from the pain. My thoughts were swimming through molasses in my head. I didn’t have tuberculosis? “What?” was the most insightful thing I could say.
“Lucille will be back soon, she will want to tell you some of this herself. We have-” he stopped and swallowed, “we have been poisoning you.”
Only fitting , the crack in my soul said. My vision got watery and I looked away from him. “You poisoned me.”
“You said you loved me.”
“I do .” He cupped my chin and turned my face back to his. “Please, darling, hear me out. I do love you. Desperately. You must believe that. It is just that… everything is very complicated.”
I stared at him. “Believe you? Believe you that you loved me and poisoned me at the same time?”
“He is very much in love with you. That was the problem,” Lucille said from the door. She carried in a tray with a steaming bowl on it.
I shook my head and she put it down on the table.
“No, you don’t have to drink it. Not after what Thomas told you.” She looked softer, almost peaceful. “You’ll have so many questions, and we’ll answer them all. But first… I am glad to see you awake.”
My God , was that a genuine smile on her face?
Was I already dead?
Lucille perched on the other side of the bed. Her back was straight as usual, her posture perfect. It was not enough to hide the nervousness radiating off of her.
Between them, they told me a story of two small children, trapped between a cruel and authoritarian father and a dramatic, cold mother. Lucille spoke of her time caring for Thomas, he spoke of his attempts to be the son his father wanted.
Thomas twisted the ring on his finger as listened to Lucille, his eyes closed.
“We… we began exploring each other, you understand. We were young and did not know any other way of living. We loved each other and it…” Lucille laughed a little through a grimace. “It felt natural .”
I didn’t say anything at all. Lucille was clear but blessedly brief about their relationship.
“When Mother found us under a blanket one day-” She paused and when she continued, her voice was strong and fierce. “She was going to seperate us, to send me away. I could not have that- Thomas needed me, he needed me to protect him and love him and-”
Nodding. I was nodding along with her. I stopped myself, but I could hear the deep, desperate fear in her words. That would have felt like the end of the world to them as children. They didn’t know another way.
Having your source of love and belonging taken away was a near-fatal wound. I knew it well.
Lucille did not shy away from the details of her mother’s murder. She was more circumspect about her time in an institution, and her reunion with Thomas. He had not spoken in a long while, his eyes still shut. I wanted to reach out to him. How could I, though? I could not comfort him, not after he had poisoned me. Not after hearing about the other women he had wooed.
Wooed, married, and murdered for money.
I was crying by the time Lucille finished. Silent tears, the pain of it all running down my cheeks. My broken heart. The women dead at their hands. The intense fear and love these two had battled for and with.
“We will leave you to rest a bit, I think. You should rest. And please, consider… we would like it if we…” Lucille stopped, taking a deep breath as if this part was harder than describing the murders she had committed. “We love you. The both of us. We could move past this ugliness, we could, perhaps, stop the rot and repair the damage.” It seemed like she had more to say, but instead she just patted my leg and left.
Thomas was still sitting with me. Damn it all to Hell, I thought. I reached for his hand.
He finally looked at me. His eyes were red-rimmed and hopeless. “Love is full of pain, isn’t it? We do such stupid things, all for the chance to been seen and treasured, to be told we matter in some way. I am deeply sorry. You deserve better than this graveyard as a life.” He stood abruptly and strode out the door.
I sank back against the pillows. “Shocked” was too mild a word for the absolute uprooting my point of view had just experienced.
I didn’t have tuberculosis.
They had made me think I did.
I scratched my fingers through my hair, tugging at the roots, using the sharp twinge to bring my thoughts into focus.
It didn’t help.
I wondered if I was their prisoner now. Surely they couldn’t let me leave, with what I knew.
They were kind. They didn’t talk to me overmuch, they didn’t try to force my decision. They made me crutches, crudely fashioned but functional. They brought me food- apples and toast and soft-cooked eggs in the shell, foods that were hard to tamper with.
Thomas even went into town, bought a new bottle of whiskey, and gave it to me, the wax seal on the cork not so much as scratched.
The pain in my leg was too much to do more than hobble around my room for necessities. Lucille fetched me the mending basket when I asked. I needed something to do with my hands as my mind careened around.
It was too much to handle.
It was late, but I could not sleep. The gnawing pain in my leg was not the only thing keeping me awake. I heard the door and rolled onto my side, my back to the person entering. It was Lucille, coming to check on me. Her clothes made more noise than Thomas’ and her steps were lighter.
She put something down on the nightstand.
I don’t know what made me speak. I hadn’t intended to. “Lucille?”
The rustling stopped, but she didn’t say anything.
“You must have been so scared. All the time. He was your whole world and it must have been terrifying to think of losing him.” The dark was warm and comforting, like an extra blanket. “You only wanted to protect him, and for him to love you too. I know he does. I know he would save you from any pain if he could. You must be in so much pain.”
I whispered, “I always longed for a love like that. I can’t have it. I killed my mother, see, she hanged herself and it was my fault. You were trying to protect him. I was just… bad.”
Lucille put her hand on my shoulder, tentative. “No-”
“It was easier, when I was dying. Everything seemed so clear. I thought he must see it, when he wouldn’t touch me. I thought he could sense the broken part inside that makes me unworthy. I guess I was only part right.”
“He… he loves you, never doubt that.” Her hand tightened on my shoulder. “If this shadow, if the weight of our crimes had not been hanging over him, it would be different. He wants you. He has not… I mean, he was torn, when he came back from America. Between us. He wanted you, but did not want to face my jealousy. He and I have not touched since you were married, I swear it. It is done, that part of our lives.”
I barely remembered that conversation in the morning. When I awoke, there was a thick envelope on the nightstand along with my breakfast. I opened it with trembling fingers. In Thomas' loopy scrawl, I read:
I beg your forgiveness for the endearment. I doubt that you will credit it, but you are the Dearest and Only One in my heart. I implore you to Know that no matter your inclination towards me, you will forever be My Love.
I am unworthy of asking your Trust, certainly not after I have brutally betrayed it as I have. Please, consider this last favor.
The pages of this Letter contain our written confession. We leave it with you so that you may do as you wish with it. Take it immediately to town, if you desire. If you do not, however, desire our immediate demise, I ask you consider this as a method to earn back your trust. We have a Safe at the post office and you may place this letter in it, under the condition that you arrive in person, alone, once a month, to check on it. If a month goes by without your visit, independent of Lucille or Myself, the letter will be mailed to a detective.
I have been consumed with Fear and Obligation for my entire life. Until I met you, Dearest. Please, believe my words, when I tell you that you have brought a Joy and Tenderness to my existence that I have Treasured.
Yours in Eternal Love,
I ran my fingertips over the lines of writing for the hundredth time. I knew what I should do. I knew what the right thing to do was. I knew that I was living with two murderers who might decide to kill me at any moment.
I knew that they had shared more carnality than Thomas and I had. Lucille knew his naked body, and he hers.
They had only been children. I remembered what it had been like, so curious about the other sex. And then the incessant itch under my skin, the undeniable drive to explore these new feelings. If I had had a brother… By the time someone told them it was wrong, they were too devoted to each other.
It was a terrible, twisted love, but it was all they had.
Would I not have clung to that love with everything I had as well?
You are the Dearest and Only One in my heart.
I would be a fool to trust that, after what he had done.
Believing I was dying had changed me. I longed for a place to belong, for love to embrace me, before the inevitable return of death some day. Life was short.
I would be stupid to look for that here.
Thomas found me sitting in the armchair near the window, staring at the gray clouds, clutching his letter. He approached me slowly, raising an eyebrow.
“Thomas.” My voice wavered. “Thomas, do you love me?”
“With all my heart I do. From the moment I saw you in New York, I knew-” He sank to his knees in front of my chair. “I knew my heart would cease to beat without you by my side.”
With a sigh, I finally indulged in the impulse I’d been stifling for months. I slid my fingers into his hair, dark and soft and silky. “All I ever wanted was to be loved by you.” There were tears in my eyes and in his too. “Why did it have to become so complicated?”
“I am sorry, I am so sorry,” he whispered with fragile desperation. I felt wetness on my palm before he turned his head to kiss it away.
I knew what I should do.
I would be a fool to do anything else.
But I loved him.
I loved him with the same devotion that had driven Lucille to kill for him. I loved him with the primal hunger that had pushed them into each other’s arms. I feared my heart would not beat without him too.
How could I blame what they had done for love, when I needed it so much myself?
“Come here,” I said, pulling him up so his face was level with mine. His eyes were so blue, so deep, so beautiful. Yes, I would die for him. I already knew that. “Kiss me.”
It was cautious at first. His lips were soft and tentative. I tugged at his hair, nearly pulling him into my lap. He braced his arms on the sides of the chair and lunged up, mouth open. He caught my gasp, swallowed it into himself as he pressed me back. My fingers curled around black strands, following him when he leaned this way and that, his passion leading me onward. I whimpered, encouraging him to indulge, to take.
My lips were tingling and swollen when we parted. His mouth still hung open, sharpening his cheekbones. He looked hungry, longing for more but too scared to pursue it.
“I will stay.” I wrapped my arms around him and he collapsed into me. “Thomas, my love.”