When Hilda emerges from her first night in her new bedroom, Zelda is waiting to give her a particularly vicious push over the bannister.
She counts to a hundred – not that it matters, but it’s how she always does it and there’s a comfort to the numbers – checks on the baby and walks slowly down the stairs to her sister’s body. They stagger out of the house, and it’s like when she taught Hilda to dance, spinning round the room with her sister’s feet on hers, never letting her touch the floor.
Afterwards, Zelda makes a cup of tea – the only time she ever does – and gets on with her day.
It had been Edward’s favourite game, until their parents put a stop to it. Zelda had hated it – it made her dress dirty and once a worm crawled over her cheek – so whenever she jolted back into consciousness she forced herself to stay there as long as possible, in the cold lonely dark.
A world without Hilda is much the same.
Eventually, it was agreed that they were all too old to play in the Cain pit and that it was time to take the Dark Lord’s magic seriously. It coincided with Edward’s growth spurt, and with it a feeling of superiority over his sisters. Zelda had missed the game in spite of herself, but just playing it with Hilda was boring.
And then Edward died and Hilda was all she had left and Zelda couldn’t sleep with fear that someone else would be taken away from her. She held a mirror over Sabrina’s cot for hours to check that she was breathing, woke Hilda with a vicious pinch every time she went too long between snores.
The house felt too full of sharp edges and suddenly all the feelings she normally kept bottled away inside came crashing out in a wave and when Hilda asked if she was alright for the fifty seventh time, Zelda snapped.
Seeing her sister’s corpse on the kitchen floor made her feel better. It was like ripping off a band aid – once the worst was over, it was rather a relief.
She’d sat on the ground next to the pit and screamed her throat raw, all wordless rage at the Dark Lord for taking her brother before wiping her eyes and charming the mud off her skirt. She went inside, did the mortuary accounts undisturbed for once and then spent the rest of the day in the nursery playing peekaboo with Sabrina secure in the knowledge that, for the next hour at least, Hilda was safe under the ground where no further harm could come to her.
She cradles little Persephone the same way now, keeping an eye on the time. She’s not cruel, she won’t leave Hilda to come back all by herself.
It’s twilight before she heads outside again, the babe fast asleep in the nursery and Ambrose in his room, leftovers from the night before bubbling on the stove.
Panic grips her an hour and a half before Hilda is due, by Zelda’s impeccable calculations, to claw her way out of the grave. That too is an improvement, and she notes the time down dutifully. She takes another long, deep drag on her cigarette. It’s her fourth, which is one more than last time, but it’s been a trying day.
It’s temporary, she tells herself. She doesn’t know if she means Hilda’s death or this stupid, weak ritual of hers.
She’s building up a callous. Every extra minute it takes for Hilda to come back is another minute Zelda can survive without her. Sometimes she thinks her heart is nothing but scar tissue, but then something else happens and she realises there’s still some feeling in the old girl yet, something none of Hilda’s balms can ever soothe away. She wishes the damn thing would hurry up and calcify, that everyone would just up and leave like they’re all going to anyway.
Sabrina spends little time at the house anymore, and Zelda knows it’s just a matter of time before she moves into the Academy dormitories full time. And maybe that was at the back of her mind when she snatched the Blackwood child - the thought of the terrifying emptiness and what would follow. Ambrose’s house arrest will be lifted soon enough – and was it selfish of her to have begged for that instead of a shorter sentence in the Church’s dungeons? She knows the answer’s yes, knows she’d do the same in an instant – and Hilda has a job, has a man, has her own money now. She doesn’t need Zelda and one day soon she’ll realise that she never did.
It’s only in those long hours between death and resurrection that she holds any real power over her sister. She could pull Hilda out too soon and watch her twitch and choke until she dies for good. She could get run over by an out of control car that has improbably swerved its way onto Spellman land, severing the link between murderer and victim that the pit requires. Or she could wait until the earth starts to shift and lets loose its sleeper.
So she sits there, whispering questions into the gathering dark - How long will it take before you stop coming back? How long will it take before you leave me for good? What can I do to make you stay with me stay with me stay with me don’t leave me please don’t leave me alone – until she hears the sound, her favourite sound, of her sister coughing up mud and hoarse curses.
“You took your time,” she calls. Means even at my worst, you always come back to me.
“At least you won’t be able to suffocate me in my sleep anymore,” Hilda grumbles through a mouthful of dirt, stomping up the stairs.
“You’re moving to a different room, not a different continent,” Zelda reminds her archly as their roles settle into place again. She can’t be sharp without her sister’s softness, although she knows it only goes one way.
“I’ll get a lock.”
“I’ll wait outside the door.”
Hilda pauses in the hallway, dirty fingers twisting the torn fabric of her nightgown awkwardly.
“You know, I can come back sometimes.”
“Just when I was starting to enjoy the peace and quiet?”
“To help with the baby.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Still. I might pop in anyway.”
“Well. If that’s what you want. I wouldn’t like to deprive your withered maternal instincts.”
It’s still dark when she wakes, worries queued up in her mind ready to take their turn. But then Hilda snores and the baby snuffles, and she decides that for once, whatever troubles she has to face can wait until morning.