Ch 12: Telltale Key

“What do we do first?” Lizzie asked. Her eyes blazed, but she swayed on her feet.

“The first and most important thing you must do we can’t help you with,” said the eldest ghost.

“What?” Lizzie’s arms tingled with adrenaline and her cheeks were flushed.

“Get yourself something to eat.”

“But there’s no time for that!”

“You look faint, love,” said the apple-cheeked ghost. “The point is for you to come out of this alive— not to die a martyr, by his hand or your own hunger.”

Lizzie looked around. The others nodded. They bobbed lightly on the breeze that filtered in the narrow windows.

“Fine. But he could be back any time— any time. I’m coming right back up here after.”

“Lock the door after you,” said Eldest.

Lizzie huffed, but pulled the door closed and turned the key. Through the lock she heard them begin to whisper.

“She’s a spitfire.”

“She’s too thin, too young.”

“She’s old enough.”

Lizzie padded down the spiral stairs, not wishing to hear anymore. It was ridiculous, even dangerous to wish it, but she was jealous of the ghost wives; they weren’t alone, they had each other’s company. Then a thought brightened her face. “Maybe they’ll come back— they said this was a way to save them, too..”

She let her mind play out scenarios of all of them, friends, comrades dividing up the wealth of the estate, visiting each other’s houses or even living together.

She stopped on the carpeted landing. “I’ll never have to get married again. I’ll be rich and have friends— I’ll have everything I need. And I won’t be so stupid. I won’t be fooled again.”

She plodded down to the kitchen. The dining room with its immense table reminded her too much of him, and she didn’t care to eat magical food. She would prepare it herself.

Half an hour later after Lizzie had stuffed herself with as much coffee and biscuits and eggs as her out-of-practice stomach could stand, she headed back for the North Tower. But she paused as she passed the Room of Gowns, and then stepped in for a look.

She was a mess.

The slip was no longer white at all, but dirty brown and stiff where the blood had dried. She pulled it off over her head, and, reflexively, looked back to her reflection.

She actually took a step back, she looked that bad. Haggard, with dusky blue circles under her eyes. A body of skin and bones. She wasn’t soft and curved, nor was she muscled and strong. She didn’t look like any version of herself at all.

She began to turn away, then stopped. “This is what happens when you aren’t awake, Lizzie,” she said. “No blame. We don’t have time for that. But no more sleepwalking, either. We’ll get out of this. It’s not over yet.” Her reflection nodded.

She rummaged through one of the trunks and found the simplest dress she could: a rather drab olive-and-gray linen that was devoid of excessive buttons or tucks or frills. It was even a bit short on her, for Lizzie’s family ran tall, but she reasoned this would make it all the easier to run in.

“Though I hope it won’t come to that.” She resolved to get a knife from the kitchen as soon as she could.

She climbed the tower stairs and slid the key into the lock. For just a moment she was afraid she had imagined them— that it had all been a hallucination and she was alone on this sinking ship. But then they swam forward, paler in the daylight, but all there, every one of them.

The was a flutter and one ghost came forward. She reached out and touched Lizzie’s collar. “This was mine— this was my dress.” Her voices was soft as dusk and sounded out of practice.

“Oh— I’m sorry—“ said Lizzie. Then, “This was yours? Are they all yours, all those pretty things? The slips and petticoats and stockings?” She looked around at the women. Her breakfast lurched and began to climb.

Eldest came to her side. “Everything here was taken from someone. Not just our clothes, but all the gold and jewels, even the magic. No one was asked permission. But if you had been able to ask, of course we would have given it.” She looked to the former owner of the dress, who nodded.

“Yes, yes of course. Have it. It’s yours.”

Lizzie swallowed and nodded too. “I’m sorry.”

Eldest waved her hand. “None of this is your fault.”

Lizzie’s throat squeezed and tears sprang to her eyes. “But it is— me being here is my fault. I could have said no. Or I could have not come home early that day. I could have talked to my mother—“ at the word she choked into a sob.

Apple came forward and leaned in.

“Hush. You could have done all those things, and it might not have made any difference. Your mother couldn’t have stopped him.”

Lizzie cut her off. “But I smiled at him! He rode by while I was in the field and I smiled at him! I could have kept my eyes down, could have looked away, I—“

“That doesn’t make it your fault, Lizzie Borden,” said Eldest. “A smile isn’t a yes. A look doesn’t mean you don’t own your soul. If he were a decent man,” here she looked as if she would spit, but as a ghost could not, “a look such as you gave might have meant he’d ask around about you, come courting, seek your approval. It shouldn’t mean he’d carry you away on his cursed horse.”

Lizzie wiped at her cheeks and looked at the older woman. “How did it happen for you?”

Eldest grimaced. “I was bringing the butter to market, walking down the street with a basket of it on my head. And he just rode up and took me.”

Lizzie shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“I was old, Lizzie. Old enough to have been married and brought a half-dozen children into the world. I don’t know if he asked anyone; if he knew the opinion was that I ought to be settled down. I put up a fuss, but no one said a word. They just watched us ride out of town, and I could practically hear their thoughts: about time. They all agreed I needed taming.”

“He gave gold to my family,” said Apple. “I had so many sisters and there was no dowry left for me, and the land couldn’t be sold because it was to go to my brothers, split two ways. That made it small enough. And so when he arrived— my parents were relieved. Here was a man who had enough money of his own that he was willing to overlook that I brought nothing to the marriage, and they would be free of worrying about me.” She blinked and drew in a rather ragged breath. “They told me I was lucky— the luckiest of all their children. They told me to be good and obedient, and I promised them I would. They never saw me again. I thought about that when… when he…”

“When he what?”

Apple glanced back at the porcelain tub and looked away quickly.

The sick sensation that she had only just forgotten rose up again and she began to sweat. “What happened exactly. The— the things in the tub… that’s not… you.”

The ghosts looked at her. Dusky-voiced Olive fingered the skirt of Lizzie’s dress, spoke to the fabric and didn’t look up.

“He killed me with the axe. He dragged me up here when he saw…” she faltered.

“What? When he saw what?” Lizzie’s eyes were wild and they searched every face. Eldest answered.

“When he saw the key, Lizzie. They key covered in blood.”

Lizzie reached into her pocket and pulled it out: the silver was mottled black from the blood. She spat on it and scrubbed furiously with the edge of her dress, examined it, ran to the window and held it in the light; she spat and scrubbed again, and again, but the blood wouldn’t come off.

“One way or another, he caught us all. We had all the riches we could dream of—“

“Every room in the castle but one,” Lizzie breathed. She slumped hard against the cold stone wall. Her hair was damp with sweat and she was breathing hard. “He knew, didn’t he? He knew I’d come up here. This whole time—“ She cried and pounded her fists against the wall. “I’m dead, I’m dead!”

“Hush, Lizzie,” said Apple. “Not yet. Not yet.”

“But then what do I do? When he comes home he’ll see it, he’ll know— and then I’ll be—“ she choked, couldn’t finish the words.

“That’s why it will take great cunning,” said Eldest.

“It’s impossible!”

“It’s difficult,” Eldest replied. “They’re not the same thing.” She studied Lizzie squarely. “This isn’t like before. You have a choice. We can’t make you do anything. But you’ve already told us what you want, and if you meant that, then we’ll help you. You might die anyway, but you also might not. You might live to tell the tale: the true story of Lizzie Borden.”

Lizzie snuffled and wiped the back of her hand across her nose. “I’m sorry. I’m just so scared.”

“Of course you are,” said Eldest. “You’re sensible!”

Lizzie nodded. “All right. So. When he comes back— I just have to be ready. Because if I’m not, that’s it. But what do I do?”

“First, you find the shoes.”


READER RESPONSE:

Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose

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Ch 12: Telltale Key

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