7. Miss Plum
One cold, gray morning, Agnes sat down heavily at the worn and battered wooden table in the kitchen. For the third day in a row she was sick as a mongrel dog. She hoped that a nice spot of sugary tea would help. Boris was still sick, too—he'd not even bothered to get up this morning. She let him be in his little room off the kitchen. Brother or no, accident or not...she'd not quite forgiven him. And Boris hadn't quite forgiven himself. Most like he never would.
Blank, trying to ignore her roiling stomach and the increasing sharp pain in her middle, she stared around the kitchen. She'd draped what she could in black, including the door to the dumbwaiter. The stove was not lit, and the shade was drawn over the window in the back door. The room was chilly and damp and oppressively quiet, the dark sky threatening rain outside. Not even the clock made a sound. Agnes had not bothered to wind it again after she'd stopped it on that awful day. No deliveries, no marketing, no cooking or preparations. She lacked the gumption even to send out for essentials, like tea and sugar—the sugar she'd been using for the past few days was the very last, the dregs she'd found in a battered silver tin tucked into the back of a cabinet.
There had been no business at all, not for weeks. Not since the Van Dort wedding. The festivities had been a trifle dampened by the village doctor and undertaker taking their notes and doing their work in one corner of the dining room. The serving had been all up to Agnes-Boris had been indisposed, as the constable had had a few questions for him. After an hour of Agnes dripping tears into their food and lethargic roaches lumbering around the table, Van Dorts had opted not to stay in the carefully prepared bridal suite. Recent death had rather ruined the atmosphere.
Poor Paul. Agnes still couldn't believe he was really gone. His handsome head taken right off, falling down the dumbwaiter shaft and rolling clear into the kitchen. Trailing gore until it hit the table leg and came to a stop. Not that she'd seen that. Boris had taken care not to let her see a thing until he'd got it cleaned up a bit, and had wrapped Paul's head, respectful-like, in a tea towel. But oh, she could imagine it well enough. Though it was kind of her brother to try to keep the worst from her. He'd always known how she felt about Paul, no matter how many other fellows there had been. And there had been a few over the years. It was one of those open secrets in the village. Agnes took a difficult sip of tea, her mouth tingling. She coughed.
Bless him, Boris had not said a word when she'd neglected to send every bit of Paul back to France. In response to her letter informing them of his passing, Paul's family had asked for his body. And his body they had received. Surely they'd never miss his head. Agnes needed some part of him here, buried in the churchyard. Fifteen years he'd been here. This village had become his home. The Tavern had been his home. Sometimes Agnes allowed herself to think, to dream, that she'd been part of home for him. Able to pretend, sometimes, that they were an old married couple. In all ways but an important few, that's just what the two of them had been, a bit.
It was the closest she'd ever come, anyway. Once one of the prettiest girls in the village, never lacking for lads, she'd gone matronly before her time—sleek black hair forever in a bun, stout frame always swathed in dark colors and covered with an apron. Wifely. Just what she was trying to be, what Paul never really saw. Fifteen years she'd wasted, playing house. She was alone but for her brother, with a leaky old pile of a building that she didn't want and couldn't keep, but with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. And she was an old maid.
Swallowing back a sob, Agnes took a big swig of tea. Immediately her throat convulsed, making her gasp and choke. The pain her guts was even worse now. Looking down, she noticed strange red splotches on her hands.
Boris, she thought. She should get Boris. They'd fetch the doctor. She'd never felt this sick before. Dizzy, nauseous, and her face feeling as if it was on fire, Agnes heaved herself up from the table. She was having trouble keeping upright. Bent nearly double from the pain in her stomach, unable to swallow, she staggered her way to the door of Boris' tiny room. She braced herself against the doorframe.
"Boris?" she croaked, the effort of speaking just that one word making her feel faint. There was no reply. Squinting in an attempt to bring her swimming vision back to normal, Agnes saw Boris sprawled on his cot against the far wall. Even from this distance she could tell something was very wrong. His eyes were open, and his chest didn't rise or fall.
When she took a breath, her middle clenched, and she turned and vomited into the bowl in the washstand next to the door. Before she passed out, she just had time to register the strange blue-green color of the sick puddled there in the basin.
Now that's odd, it is, was her last muddled thought as she sank to the cold stone floor.
Perhaps being violently sick had been just the ticket, for when Agnes woke she felt just fine. Perhaps she'd dreamed wandering into Boris' room, for she was sitting at the kitchen table again, as though she'd never moved. Cautiously she stretched, thinking it strange that she was a little numb. A side effect of whatever her illness had been? Would the numbness pass, too?
Then Agnes took a good look around. Her kitchen was all wrong. Where the massive black stove should be was an old-fashioned open hearth and fireplace, like the sort her mother used to have. There was even a large iron pot hanging over the fire. The green fire. The ceiling was too low, and the back door, ajar and offering a glimpse into a dark alley beyond, had no window. Instead of a staircase leading upstairs, there was only a doorway with swinging saloon doors leading who knew where.
Suddenly filled with dread, Agnes stood from the table. The table which, she saw now, looked as though it had been cobbled together from bits of coffins and caskets. She could see the odd hinge and raggedy bit of silk lining here and there, even. With an airless gasp she backed up until she hit the sideboard, another bit of furniture seemingly built from tomb leftovers. The cutlery and silverware rattled in their canisters atop the sideboard, and one of the drawers, also filled with utensils, fell a bit open upon impact.
"I'm dead," she said, looking around but not letting her gaze settle on anything. "I died. I'm dead." She held a hand up to her bosom. No heartbeat. She raised the same hand up to her mouth and attempted to breathe on it, but no breath came. Agnes wondered if the rest of her had turned the same shade of violent blue as her hand.
Dead. Alone in a kitchen. With outdated equipment and mismatched cutlery. For eternity. Was this some sort of punishment?
Agnes leaned back against the sideboard, watching the green flames flicker merrily under the pot in the fireplace. From beyond the saloon doors came, strangely, the ringing of a bell. Wondering, she turned her head in that direction just as Boris came through the doors.
"Agnes," he said by way of greeting. He came up to her, looking a bit sad and uncertain, his movements as slow and lumbering as ever. Boris was the same shade of blue she was, and his eyes were sunken. Whoever had buried him had buried him in the one nice set of clothes he owned—his whites. Looking down at herself, Agnes saw that the same was true of her. Her whites were the only nearly nice things she owned. Pristine as a wedding gown, too, as she'd never worn them every day, as Paul had wanted.
For a moment they stared at one another. Then Boris said, "It was you they were ringing the bell for. I'm sorry. But I did figure. They rung the bell for me, too."
"Oh," said Agnes, thinking she understood. "A bell gets rung for the fresh dead, eh?" Boris nodded. It was a nice idea, in its way. Like church bells for a wedding or a christening. Only not quite as somber. This bell had sounded like a dinner bell. Merry, sort of.
"I'm sorry, too," she said after a moment. "What happened? How'd we get so sick?"
Boris looked at her with big, sad, cow-like eyes. "I've thought on it. Meant to tell you, but got down here before I could. Agnes, what sugar did you use?"
"What was left, the old stuff in that little canister..."
She trailed off, understanding dawning. Clear as day the memory
came...the last time she'd been with Paul...Borax. Mix with
sugar...Dead little roaches. And she'd told Boris. Looking at
her brother's broad dead face, Agnes knew she'd guessed right.
She was stunned speechless, but only for a moment. Furious, she reached out for whatever weapon was closest—a fork, it turned out—and she jammed it into her dead brother's head, just above his ear.
"Ow!" he cried, though she knew it was more in surprise than pain. He was dead, after all. "What are you doing?"
Agnes snatched up a cheese grater and hurled it right into his face. "You put leftover poison back into a food cabinet?!" she shouted. "Where anybody might use it?"
"You didn't notice it were blue?" Boris asked in return, his voice feeble, chastened. But it wasn't enough for Agnes.
Raging, she dug her hands into the cutlery drawer and pulled out random utensils. More forks, ladles, a peeler, a potato masher, a whisk. And knives, quite a few knives, some in her hands blade-first, not that it mattered to her dead flesh. Some she threw at Boris, and others she plunged as deep and hard as she could into his back and head.
"Agnes! Get off!" he cried, holding up his arms in a vain attempt to ward her off. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! It were stupid, I'm sorry!"
"I'll give you 'sorry'!" Agnes fumed, running out of silverware and having to settle for whipping a dishcloth at him. He'd been the death of them all, he had. That brother of hers!
Only the sound of the saloon doors creaking open stopped her. She looked up to see a slender dead young man standing in the doorway, black hair frizzing out to either side beneath his toque. He was also wearing whites, just like hers and Boris'. Slightly embarrassed, Agnes stepped away from her brother, who finally felt it safe enough to stand up straight. One of his eyes had been knocked a bit loose in the kerfuffle, and he had so many kitchen utensils sticking out of him that he looked like some sort of culinary hedgehog.
"Anger stage, Miss Plum," said the young man, his voice quiet and familiar. "Perfectly normal. I went through it myself. You'll accept it all soon. It helps to keep busy, I found. I'm very glad Monsieur needed the help!" With that, he stepped over to a shelf by the fireplace and began taking down dusty brown bottles, which he set on a large silver tray waiting on a side table.
While Agnes had no idea what he was nattering on about, she remembered who he was the minute he said her name. Vincent. A Van Dort. He'd done fish deliveries to the Tavern until his unfortunate and untimely run-in with an unsecured load of herring on ice. Young Vincent had brightened up her Fridays, that was certain. And Monsieur, he'd said. Could it be? Oh, that would be just like her Paul, doing what he loved. She'd often teased him that they'd find him doing his job five years after he died. Turned out she'd been right.
"Monsieur Paul said to tell you to have a little drink," Vincent said gently, handing over a bottle, "and then come out to say hello. He sends his apologies about the circumstances, but he'd very much like to see you."
Agnes took the bottle and took a swig, not bothering with a glass. Vincent nodded, hoisted the tray onto his shoulder, and then left through the swinging doors. Whatever the drink was made her calm immediately. Almost cheerful again. Or maybe that was just hearing Paul's name.
"Nice to see Paul again, it was," Boris said, coming up behind her. "He were just as mad as you, at first. But we're all friendly-like again, now." Feeling warm and generous of a sudden, Agnes handed him the bottle, just to show no hard feelings.
"Sorry about that little tantrum," she told him, even as she tried to decide what she was going to say to Paul. She smoothed down her whites and poked at her hair, thinking that she'd have to find a toque of her own. Boris shrugged.
"At least I won't be losing my knives the way I used to," he said, fingering the handle of the one she'd stabbed him in the back of the neck with.
Eternity in a kitchen. With her brother and Paul and with Vincent Van Dort. Maybe it wasn't a punishment at all. It was all too much like her happiest years to be a punishment. Somehow she knew that if she wanted, she could be here to stay. It was all too perfect, really.
"Come on, then," Agnes said, giving her apron one more adjustment and making her way toward the swinging doors. "Show me round the new place, Boris. And no hard feelings, right?"
Boris grinned a slow grin. "No hard feelings," he agreed. "No real point to'em any more."
With that, they left the kitchen together, letting the saloon doors swing to an unhurried stop behind them.