On their 18th birthday, each Nightshade woman is sat down by her mother - or, if her mother is fortunate enough to have been dismembered, eviscerated, set on fire, or otherwise deceased, another suitable Nightshade female - and given the Last Rites.
No, not the quaint little Catholic custom; this is a purely Nightshade tradition, handed down from each firstborn female.
The precise ceremony is different for each woman, but traditionally, each Nightshade woman courts death and hopes for survival. Pain is delicious - and a reward in and of itself - but death is not the ultimate goal. If she survives, she has been deemed worthy to carry the Nightshade name. If she does not survive, she is laid to rest accordingly, but given no surname on the tombstone and still thought of as a girl, not a woman.
Esmerelda Nightshade and her twin sister Dyspepsia chose the traditional Iron Maiden for their Last Rites. Unfortunately, when they were to be set free after the designated twenty-four hours, it was discovered the lock on Dyspepsia's door had rusted shut. She lived to be forty-five, though slicing her food thinly enough to slip it through the mouth slot was a minor inconvenience. Esmerelda sported a festering wound as a souvenir for the rest of her life - it made her quite the catch, and on her twenty-sixth birthday, she was engaged to Arsenic Frump (the black sheep of the family, you know - quite touched in the head, thought he was a common policeman for the longest time).
Morticia Frump, about to be married, decided to forego the ancient Death of a Thousand Drops (where a poison, made from the plant of their namesake, is painstakingly dropped onto every area of the woman's skin), despite her older sister Ophelia enduring it two years previously. The pain would have been exquisite, of course, but it would hardly do to be seen on her wedding day in something so gauche as boils. Boils were for later in life - bad luck to have them at a wedding.
She chose Chinese water torture. The blue lips, cracked nails, and frostbite made such a lovely contrast with her black lace wedding dress, and Gomez had always had a not-so-secret weakness for seeing her restrained. He kissed every inch of the bruising left by the bonds around her ankles, arms, and wrists.
Oh yes, so much better than boils. They would be an anniversary present.
When Wednesday was born, Morticia and her mother were pleased. A new child, hopefully to live up to the Nightshade name. As she grew, she most definitely reflected the Nightshade side of the family: soft-voiced (all the better to force your enemies to pay attention to you - anyone can ignore a ranting and raving psychopath), deadly in her aim with the required weapons, and a regular strega in the kitchen, though Wednesday preferred potions and poisons to everyday meals.
The reading and love of swordplay? Well, some Addams genes had to out, and Wednesday had always been the sinister twinkle in her father's eye. Gomez used his books to teach her Latin and Greek (all the good spells were still in the old tongue, of course), and ensured she didn't seriously maim Pugsley or herself until she was old enough to enjoy it.
Wednesday had been planning her Last Rites since the age of six, when she'd persuaded Grandmama Esmerelda to tell her all about the Nightshade side of the family. She had decided upon a new method every year, but discarded it as soon as she found something new in one of Gomez's books. Morticia tried to explain that it wasn't a decision one made too far in advance - a Nightshade woman would just know, on the day of her eighteenth birthday.
Her daughter had always taken after Gomez in a tendency toward single-minded obsession.
It only got worse as Wednesday reached high school, utilizing all her considerable talents and a talent for chemistry to concoct new poisons and acids that she hadn't built a tolerance to. This worried Morticia considerably, but Gomez brushed it off, saying Fester had gone through a similar phase and he'd turned out just fine. Since Fester had managed to lose himself in the Bermuda Triangle, develop amnesia of all things Addams, and then marry a nanny, of all things, when he'd finally gotten his memories back, Morticia didn't place too much trust in what Fester could do.
Apparently Wednesday still did, though.
"Darling, are you sure about this?", Morticia asked, sitting her daughter down in the conservatory.
It was the morning of Wednesday's eighteenth birthday, and she'd decided upon her Last Rites. Wednesday plucked one of the roses - always testing things, her daughter was, especially Morticia's rule about touching her roses - and twirled it between her fingers, ignoring the thorns catching on her flesh.
"Of course I am, Mother. It's perfectly safe - Uncle Fester came back, and he told me everything I need to know."
"Your Uncle Fester went missing for twenty-five years in the Bermuda Triangle! I will not allow my daughter to repeat his mistakes. Assuming you come back at all, who knows what it will do to you?"
"It's going to do nothing to me I'm not prepared for." She squared her shoulders, facing Morticia. "This is what we do. A Nightshade woman courts death and prays for survival. How she does it is her choice, and hers alone. Would you stop me from following a tradition we have kept for over a thousand years?"
Her daughter, as foolish as she might be in choosing this path, had a point.
Morticia sat down on the bench beside Wednesday, stroking her hair. Wednesday had left the braids of her childhood behind, letting it grow unchecked to tangle down her back. When she was in one of her surlier moods - if she'd gotten anything less than perfect marks in chemistry, or if Pugsley had beaten her at swordfighting - she'd refuse to brush it at all, causing her to resemble Cousin It from behind.
Wednesday slid away from the touch, hair falling over one eye that glared up at Morticia. Wednesday had inherited the Addams height and topped out at five foot four, where Pugsley had gotten the Nightshade height and was still growing at six foot two.
This was, of course, somehow Morticia's fault.
Wednesday had been surprisingly good about it. She had only poisoned Morticia's wine glass twice, giving her a nasty bout of vomiting the first time, and sending her into convulsions the second. Fester encouraged Wednesday's interest in poisons, lending her books Morticia hadn't even known he possessed, though Gomez confiscated the one in Greek. That one might have actually harmed her.
Morticia sighed, knowing Wednesday would find a way to go on this journey with or without Morticia's permission. "Will you promise me something, then?"
One aggrieved teenage groan later, Wednesday nodded. "What?"
"If you do not survive, find a way of telling us. I will wait until my dying day for you to return, darling, as long as I have hope that you are alive. Your father will most likely wait longer. But if you do perish, we need to know for certain."
The request, she knew, was more for Gomez than herself. Death was a way of life - for Addamses and Nightshades alike - but her husband had always held more of a respect for life than anyone else. Any other woman might have seen it as a failing, but Morticia saw it as just another reason she loved him so deeply. The scales of existence must balance, of course, and for every death there must be another life to replace it; for every stroke of pain, there is a stroke of pleasure waiting on the other side of the blade.
She would grieve if Wednesday died, but Gomez would be heartbroken.
Wednesday must have known this as well, and she slowly slid back toward Morticia on the bench, allowing Morticia to arrange the tangled black hair behind her ears. She leaned her head on Morticia's shoulder, and played with the beading on the sleeve of her mother's dress.
"I will," Wednesday said. "Tell Father he doesn't need to worry. If Uncle Fester came back, I can come back."
Morticia would have taken little comfort in that statement, if not for Wednesday picking her head up and looking Morticia in the eye.
"I'm stronger than him. I'm a Nightshade, and I'm going to prove it."
For two long years, Morticia didn't know whom she worried about more; her daughter or her husband.
Gomez refused to believe Wednesday was gone, and insisted on keeping Gate open for her return, posting Lurch outside on Wednesday's nineteenth birthday. He kept the lights on for an entire week - "she'll be back, Tish, I know it, and she'll need to see where she's going. She doesn't know about the piranhas Fester and I put in the moat last month, don't want her to run into them" - and every day that Wednesday didn't come back, he would insist she was just fine.
She was an Addams, Gomez said. They always came back.
Pugsley and Fester took to spouting random facts about the Bermuda Triangle for Pubert, telling him stories of how Fester was eaten by a giant shark and spit back out on the coast of Brazil. How the ghost ships would pull you out of the water, and either keelhaul you or force you to serve, and how Fester got the captain drunk enough to let him out of his contract. The time he met an actual mermaid, and she gutted him with her trident.
Around the two-year mark, Grandmama tried to tell Morticia that Wednesday was gone. That she'd failed at her Last Rite, and would have to be memorialized as an Addams, and not a Nightshade. Morticia nearly snipped her mother's fingers off with her pruning shears; Wednesday wasn't dead, and never would be until she kept her promise and sent word.
The day after her daughter's twentieth birthday, there was a knock on Gate. Morticia loosened the gag over her husband's mouth and untied his wrists from the headboard, pulling her dressing gown off the door of the armoire. Gomez glanced over at the clock - half past midnight - and pressed a kiss to her throat.
"It's her, Tish. It's really her this time."
Morticia didn't say anything. She wanted to believe it was Wednesday, but more likely than not, it was one of the neighbors returning Pugsley from peeping in their windows again. She and Gomez did everything they could think of - restraints, ice baths, even electroshock - to keep Pugsley from sneaking out, but nothing had worked. They should never have let Fester teach Pugsley the lightbulb trick.
Gomez was at her heels as she descended the staircase, Fester and Pugsley already downstairs. Well, it wasn't Pugsley, at any rate. Grandmama had handed Pubert over to Lurch, and was brandishing her broomstick at a small, wet figure in the entrance hall.
"Grandmama, it's me. Put that thing down - I like both my eyes."
The voice certainly was Wednesday's, but Morticia hadn't forgotten the Fester debacle of seven years ago.
Neither had Pugsley. "How do we know it's really you?"
The girl sighed, removing her coat and draping it over the hooks on the rack.
"Because it's me, Pugsley, you plebeian. Uncle Fester had amnesia when he came back, but it was still him."
That was enough for Gomez: "See? It's Wednesday! She's come back, like I always said she would!"
"What's the play you and Pugsley performed at your school pageant?", Fester asked, stepping around Pugsley and blocking Gomez's path.
"Hamlet," she replied, slightly bored. "You taught us how to use chicken blood and bicycle pumps to get a good spray going for the death scenes."
That convinced Fester and Pugsley, and they brushed Grandmama's broom out of the way to hug Wednesday. Well, Fester did - Pugsley just kind of waved at her and smiled at her muttered "idiots, all of you".
Gomez had turned to her, and spoke quietly. "Tish, it's her. It's our beautiful, brilliant little girl, and she's finally home. Why aren't you happy?"
Her husband was a gorgeous, affectionate man. His brother was a funny, intensely loyal man. Her elder son was a sweet, generous boy. But they were Addams men. Together, they had the brains of a kumquat. Someone had to show some intelligence around here.
"Wednesday?", she asked, stepping forward.
"What is your proof? For all we know, you could have been working as a diner waitress for the past two years."
A horrified expression crossed the girl's face. "Mother, you of all people know I'd have dropped plates on customer's heads within five minutes and poisoned the lot of them by day's end. Please. If I were to get a job, it wouldn't be in a diner."
Morticia didn't say a word - it spoke and sighed and eyerolled like her daughter - but the Last Rites must be verified. And Wednesday would know that.
"Here. Open this," the girl said, tossing an envelope at Morticia.
Written on black parchment in Wednesday's telltale looping script, was her proof:
I kept my promise. I came home.
Morticia pressed a hand to her mouth, rushing across the hall to embrace Wednesday. Her daughter didn't even squirm or protest asphyxiation - instead hugging her in return.
Fester, his arm looped around Gomez's shoulders, spoke up. "So, how'd you like the Bermuda Triangle? The Dutch boys give you a drink like I said they would?"
Wednesday pulled away, breaking into a small laugh.
"Uncle Fester, you're a complete idiot. Everyone knows the rule of the Flying Dutchman."
Pubert peeked out from behind Grandmama's legs, piping up: "What's that?"
"Don't drink the water."