Lizzie locked and barred the cellar door, then ran back and checked it twice. Her heart fluttered against her ribs as if it were searching for a way out.
“Stop it— there’s more to do than take care of that door.”
She scurried around the side of the house, peering around the corners and feeling her pulse race every time she stuck her face into the open. But there was no one there.
“They know. It’s part of the magic. He’ll be back at sunset.”
It was still early. Just time for breakfast. Her stomach growled. She looked around the last corner. The sun shone over the green lawn and backlit the mass of trees that lined the drive. Lizzie’s heart rose. “It’s beautiful, really. When things are fixed…” She let herself dream it: the grand house with all the doors and windows flung open to let in the air. And her friends! The ghosts restored to their bodies. And all that treasure…
She shook herself. “You won’t get it by standing here like a goose. You’re not nearly ready yet!” She hurried up the steps, checked to be sure her dewy feet had left no footprints, and slipped back inside the house.
She felt heavier at once and shivered, tossing her head the way a horse shoos away persistent flies. “I have to be good, I have to convince him. He can’t be suspicious. I’ll have to look just like before he left.” She paused on the stairs leading to the second floor. “God, Lizzie, did you think you loved him? That wasn’t love.” How do you know what love is? asked a doubting voice. Her throat tightened. “I don’t know. But it can’t be that.” She thought of Bri and the gray people, moving, perhaps, around her at that very moment, cleaning rags and dusters in hand. “I don’t need to be invisible. I don’t want that.” Then what do you want? Lizzie shook her head. “I don’t know! I don’t know. I want to get through this. I want— to be able to come and go as I please. I don’t want to ever marry again. Or, maybe I do, but I don’t want to have to.” She climbed the last steps and faced herself in the landing mirror. “And you won’t have to if you pull this off. You’ll have all the riches you could ever need. All the friends. You can buy the boys out of service— Mother could come live here, too!” She stared at her own grim face. “Pull yourself together, Lizzie Borden. You’re almost through the worst of it. You get yourself dressed as pretty as you can. You play your part and you wait. He’ll drink one, two glasses of wine as always, and with any luck, he’ll be dead before he gets up from the table.” She nodded, and her reflection nodded back. “Now get to work.”
She marched herself down the corridor to her bedroom and froze: the door was open. Had she left it that way? Her hands went cold, and she pushed it open.
The bed was neatly made and laid out with lace-edged underclothes and a fresh pair of stockings. On the table nearby stood a steaming bowl of porridge and a pot of tea. Lizzie looked around. “Hello?” Her voice dropped to a whisper, “Bri?” The curtains twitched, as if moved by a faint breeze, but there was no answer. Just in case, she added, “Thank you.”
She ate and then bathed. The water was hot and soapy and her many bumps and bruises from the cellar throbbed. Lizzie leaned back and closed her eyes, but after gauging the daylight filtering through the high windows for the third time she sighed and lifted herself from the tub. “When this is your house you can relax all you want.” She dried and powdered, dabbed on perfume, pinned up her hair so it would curl. She padded down the hall in her slip to the Room of Gowns. At the door she hesitated. “All the way, Lizzie. Be the wife.”
Still, her chest tightened when she walked in and saw all the gowns draped to show their pretty frills. Each one of them had belonged to a previous wife, a woman who was now somewhere between life and death in the tower room far above her.
She sorted through them, but none seemed right: lavender, teal, rich brown, buttercup yellow. What did he want from her? What would he expect? Contrition or boldness? She turned and looked at herself in the enormous mirror. She looked pretty, but thin, and not like herself, not like anyone she knew. She didn’t look so young anymore.
She stepped closer and ran a hand over her stomach. “I had a child. Here. A child that was going to change everything.” She closed her eyes. Her voice was very soft, a deep whispering of flesh to flesh. “You did change everything. I’m sorry. Thank you.”
The room was still and quiet. The house waited. The ghosts waited. Perhaps, somewhere beyond the castle grounds, somewhere in a land of light, a child cocked its head and listened, paused in its playing for a moment before frolicking on.
Lizzie sighed. She dried her eyes. She went back to the dresses and rifled through them until she fell upon one of deep scarlet. She lifted it from its trunk and shook out the gathers. She held it against her body and looked.
“Yes. This is a dress for a woman who kills her husband.” She cocked her head to the side. Her face brightened. “And it’s the color of wine.”
She laid out the dress, the selected earrings of dropped rubies. She crossed and criss-crossed the house, peeking in at the dining room, looking out the front windows from behind the edge of the curtain. She even went up to the North Tower once to check that the key was in its hiding place under the flagstone. She had half-hoped it would be clean and untarnished, but of course it was not. She slipped it back into place and polished the imposter against the scarlet dress. She thought of opening the door more than once, but then the fear that she would be caught, that a drop of blood would soak into her dress (unlikely as it was to show), stopped her every time. She would see the other wives soon enough, but they could do nothing to help her now.
The day dragged on. She ate nothing at midday; as if Bri and the others knew, there was no tray of food in her room and nothing but the two empty plates on the table. And then, suddenly, it was nearly dark. Time was making up for its slowness and Lizzie rushed about, putting rouge on her cheeks and pulling the pins from her hair so it fell down in a spring of curls at her shoulders. She pushed the key down into her bodice so hard that the chain cut against the back of her neck. She was just wondering if she should be waiting down in the parlor, or if that would look suspicious, when the tall clock chimed, the front door swung open, and the hallway where she froze was flooded with orange light.
Bluebeard was home.
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 Arrowsmith DeCoux