A couple more days had passed and I was getting ready for my second performance. Molly was once again doing my makeup while I observed through the mirror. The blush colored my cheeks bright red and my lips were painted pink. My eyes popped out from the rouge and my hair was pulled back by a rhinestone headband. Molly finished off with a bell necklace and bell bracelets.
“There! Perfect!” Molly clapped her hands.
Naomi entered the room wearing a sparkling gold and red dress with fabric that could resemble flames.
“May I have a word with Sophie please?” Naomi asked.
“Sure!” Molly didn’t hesitate to answer, or question why, but she gave me a wink before leaving the room. When she was gone, Naomi pulled up a chair and sat down.
“Have you heard anything from Aleck?”
“I actually haven’t talked to him in a while,” I confessed. “Talking to him hadn’t crossed my mind, I’ve been so focused on practicing for my performance.”
“I see,” Naomi said. “I think you should speak with him soon, just to let him know you’re okay.”
“Yes, I’ll do that.”
Naomi smiled and looked at the mirror, I looked as well. “Are you sure that’s not too much make up?”
“I suppose it is a bit. . .much,” I timidly confessed. “But it’s only for the performance, that’s all. If I were ever to come back home with this makeup on, the servants—especially Ms. Plumlee—wouldn’t be pleased!” I giggled. “They would be upset over such a little thing, but I wouldn’t blame them. . .I look so different. It’s like I’m another person.” I looked more closely at myself in the mirror. “I wonder what Sue would think.”
“I think she’ll say you’re beautiful,” Naomi said.
I smiled. “Do you think she could be here tonight?”
“It’s possible,” Naomi said, “but don’t have high expectations though.”
My smile dropped but I nodded sadly. “I should probably go talk to Aleck and Ms. Plumlee. . .I feel awful for not talking to them.”
“Don’t be, you’ve been busy,” Naomi said.
“Yes, but it doesn’t mean I can’t spare a few minutes to ask how they’re doing,” I said. “I have to talk to them.”
“But you’re about to go on,” Naomi reminded. “Why don’t you do it after the show?”
I started to fiddle with one of the bell bracelets. It rung whenever my fingers brushed it. “I suppose I could. . .”
Naomi got up from the chair. “I best get going myself. Good luck, Sophie, you’ll do great.”
Naomi left the room, although it would’ve been nice if she stayed a bit longer. I enjoyed her company very much so, but I did need to get to the platform.
“Hey, Soph!” Molly jumped back into the room. “You’re on in fifteen minutes, you ready?”
“Now remember, it’s only gonna be you out there,” Molly reminded. “I’ll keep watch to make sure everything’s a-okay. Okay?”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“Now,” Molly checked my face and removed a strand of hair behind my ear before getting me to my feet, “let the show begin!”
I hummed a little tune while wandering down the hall lit by violet candles. I had a couple more minutes to spare but I had to get to the platform. Although, I did wonder where Duff and Bramley were, I hadn’t heard anything from them since I got here. Hertha said that they were staying in one of these rooms, I wondered. . .
I peeked into some of the doors, but didn’t spot the two. Instead, I saw empty beds and empty tables sitting in the moon’s light. Bramley and Duff were nowhere to be found. I was the only one around. Hertha did say they were in this house, right? I wondered why she never spoke to me about them after our first meeting.
I jumped, there was Hertha standing right behind me. Her black cloak could have melted right into the shadowed walls. Hertha’s strange violet eyes stared down at me with so much disapproval that I froze up. But what frightened me the most was the fact that I didn’t even hear her footsteps.
“What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be at the platform?” Hertha asked. Her eyes fell to the door behind me and she shook her head. “You know, a young lady such as yourself shouldn’t be snooping around here. It’s terribly inappropriate.”
“I—I’m terribly sorry,” I stuttered. “I was wondering where Bramley and Duff were—the two men who I was with. I haven’t heard from them in some time and wanted to know how they were doing.”
“They’re doing perfectly fine,” Hertha answered bluntly. “There’s no need to worry about them, they’re in my care.”
“Could I see them?” I asked. “Not right now, but sometime later?”
“Eventually. Right now, your performance is more important,” Hertha stated. “Now, you must get to your station, you don’t want to keep your audience waiting.”
“Yes, I should get going, I apologize again,” I said abruptly before walking away.
“Oh, and Sophie?” Hertha called.
I halted. “Yes?”
“Don’t forget about our dinner after your performance.”
“I won’t,” I promised before heading off. As soon as I turned away, I knew that I had made a big mistake
I stood at the edge of the platform, looking straight down at the amphitheater. I wasn’t worried about the drop; I was worried about what just happened. How could I have been so dumb? Wandering around like that, what was I even thinking? It certainly wasn’t lady-like of me and I was scared that I had angered Hertha. I’m worried about this dinner, though I’m surprised she still invited me to dinner after that.
’Oh, just get your head cleared, Soph, focus on your performance,’ I thought to myself.
I huffed out a sigh and opened my parasol. I gave myself a moment to relax before stepping off the platform. I drifted downward with the aid of my parasol as it swayed me from side to side as if I was in a cradle.
As I floated towards the amphitheater, I spotted Molly helping Roxanne get into place. Molly looked up and waved to me. I waved back, I was happy that she was here with me, it indeed lifted my spirits.
I safely landed on Roxanne’s back and started my dance routine. didn’t have anything planned, and instead, kept thinking of random steps for the dance. It didn’t matter, with each step I took, the audience was pleased. They were constantly applauding and it made me smile throughout. They were so happy and it raised my spirits up more, what was there to worry about again?
When the show was done, Molly took me back to the main house. We stood before a pair of double doors that I didn’t recognize. The door was painted a deep purple and two bronze candelabras stood at either side. I somehow felt a bit unnerved, but Molly was by my side and gave me a smile.
“I bet you’re gonna have the best meal ever,” she noted with confidence.
“Why don’t you join us?” I asked. “I’m sure Hertha wouldn’t mind.”
Molly suddenly jumped back as if she saw a mouse. “Oh no, no, no! I can’t, Hertha would be mad. Besides, I have to help clean up the amphitheater.”
“Oh.” I frowned. It was too bad Molly couldn’t join, but I didn’t want to force her. I thought it was strange that Hertha only invited me to dinner. Was it just because I was related to my grandma? I wondered if I would get the same attention if I wasn’t.
“Anyhow, I best get going,” Molly said. “You have to tell me how it went!”
“I will,” I said. And just like that, Molly skipped down the hall. I could still hear her heels dash even when she was out of sight, but the sound faded and it was silent. I turned to the doors and knocked on it.
“Come in,” Hertha’s silvery voice slithered through the oak wood.
I stared at the door for a moment before finally opening it. Candle lit sconces and a blazing fire place brightened the dining hall. Landscape paintings mounted the violet paneled walls, revealing images of gloomy forests and empty valleys. The gray head of an elk, fixated above the fireplace, stared at me with wide, glass eyes. The elk’s huge ivory antlers branched outward, casting tall, dark shadows behind, like long fingers searching to grasp something.
Hertha sat at the end of a golden clothed table filled with all sorts of food. She had changed dresses. This time it was a deep, deep red that trailed and melted into the carpet. Hertha picked up a golden goblet, but before she took a sip, she faced me with those strange, purple eyes.
“What purpose is there to stand so still like a statue? Sit down, child.”
“Y—yes, I’m sorry,” I mumbled before sitting down at the other end of the table. The elk was still staring at me.
“I apologize for not being at the show,” Hertha said. “I had to prepare dinner.”
“No, no, please don’t apologize,” I said. “I’m really thankful that you’ve done this for me.”
Hertha smiled. “Anything for The Madam’s granddaughter.”
I glanced down at the food in front of me. There was a plate of escargot. My stomach churned, I wasn’t too fond of that. . .
“Is something wrong?” Hertha asked.
Hertha frowned. “It’s not suitable for a young lady to lie. You should know that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I . . . don’t really like escargot. It doesn’t do well with my stomach.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Hertha said. “No matter, there’s more food you can have.”
I nodded, there was a bowl of soup to my right so I decided to have that. It tasted sweet and creamy.
“I really like the soup,” I commented after taking a couple sips.
“Good,” Hertha said and ate from her own dish of escargot. I watched quietly as she bit into one of the snails before delicately chewing it. Her scarlet lips twisted before turning upward as she swallowed. She repeated the act again with the second snail, and then took a sip of wine. I observed the small lump sliding down her pale neck, and noted the emerald necklace dangling below the collar bone.
“That’s a very pretty necklace,” I commented.
“Why, thank you. I’m glad you like it.” Hertha plucked up the emerald between her long index finger and thumb. The emerald resembled stained glass amongst the candle light. “Would you like to wear it?”
“Uh, I’m not sure—”
“Please, I insist,” Hertha said, getting up from the chair. “A noble young lady such as yourself should pamper herself in the finest jewels. This is not suitable for you.” Hertha unhooked the bell necklace that Molly had given me and replaced it with the emerald. She slid the cool chain across my skin and the emerald delicately tapped against my beating heart. I observed the emerald with awe, though shivered as Hertha’s fingers brushed past the crook of my neck.
“There. Green is very lovely on you. You should wear it more.”
“I suppose I should,” I agreed, still admiring the necklace.
“Your grandmother used to love the color green, but she doesn’t anymore. Did you know that?”
“No I didn’t, actually,” I admitted. “Why does she dislike it?”
“Does the name Jonathan Westwood sound familiar?”
For a moment nothing triggered my memory, but then I remembered, “That was grandma’s fiancé.”
“Correct.” Hertha returned to her chair and sat down. “He was a very attractive young man; he always wore green. Green vest. Green coat. Green hat. He even had green eyes. Jonathan loved the color and so did she.” Hertha paused to take another sip of wine. She dabbed her lips with a napkin and her lipstick got smeared on the fabric.
“However, something happened between them and she despises the color now. But I’m sure if she sees you wearing that necklace, her love will come back.” Hertha picked up a golden fork and knife and begun cutting into a steak. The steak was still bloody and so the red liquid leaked from the cuts.
“Between my grandma and Mr. Westwood,” I said. “I barely know anything about him, but if he was grandma’s fiancé and had known him for years, he must’ve been very important in her life.”
“Indeed.” Hertha bit into a piece of steak and swallowed. “He was a very important person to her.”
“Then why hadn’t she ever told Sue and I about him?” I inquired. “I find it. . .odd.”
Hertha sighed and placed her utensils down. “You ask so many questions, child.”
“I’m sorry, I only wanted to know. . .”
“It’s quite alright,” Hertha said, “however, it’s best that we continue eating before the food gets cold.”
“Yes,” I mumbled. I ignored my own plate of steak and ate some salad instead. My mind was racing with so many questions. I wanted at least something answered, but I didn’t want to be rude. Though, I was surprised that she knew about Mr. Westwood. Did anyone else here know about him? What about Aleck? Oh!
“Um—” I started, but quickly closed my mouth when I met Hertha’s narrowed eyes.
“What is it?”
I gulped and faced my food. “I’m sorry, I had just remembered. . . it’s been a while since I’ve talked to Aleck. Might I speak to him after dinner?”
The rim of the goblet barely touched Hertha’s lips before she decided to return it to the table. A small smile crossed her lips. “You can talk to him now if you like.”
“No, I don’t want to be rude.”
“Please, I insist,” Hertha said. She got up from her chair and walked across the room. Her red dress swept across the floor and her high heels delicately tapped into the carpet. She carried herself with so much grace, but something felt. . .off. Like an unwanted chill had entered the room and never left.
Hertha now stood at the other side of the room, picking up a microphone similar to the one in the room with the wind chimes. She twisted the knob of the radio with gentle fingers: right, left, right again. A peculiar humming sound emitted from the box.
“Aleck? Aleck, are you there? You have a special guest,” Hertha said, but there was no answer except for the humming.
“Sophie, come over here.”
I rose from the chair and stood beside Hertha. She handed the microphone to me. The humming sound continued but it intensified. In the background, I became aware of another sound. Breathing?
“Aleck? Aleck are you there?” I called. Still no answer. “Aleck?”
“He—help, please. . .help.”
“Huh?” That wasn’t Aleck’s voice. ’Wait, this was. . .’
“Bramley?” I asked.
“He—help. . .” Bramley’s voice was cracking, as if he was struggling to breathe.
“Bramley? Where—where are you? What’s going on?”
“Help—Help—” he tried to speak, but he was gasping for air. Why was he gasping for air?
“Bramley? Bramley!” I called, but his gasping was followed by a sharp scream. His voice was cut off and all I could hear was that humming sound. The noise continued even when I dropped the microphone. I slowly turned to Hertha who now loomed over me like a shadow. I cast my eyes away briefly to see that the elk’s eyes were now empty holes.
“Her—Hertha?” I stammered, I couldn’t find the strength to raise my voice. “What’s going on? What happened to Bramley and Duff?”
“Child, child,” Hertha sung, inching closer to me. I instinctively stepped back. “You shouldn’t be worried about them anymore, after all, they kidnapped you, didn’t they?”
“Yes, but, they didn’t deserve. . .deserve—” The next words were blocked out, somehow, I found myself struggling to breathe.
“Deserve what?” Hertha inquired. “Death?”
The word rung as clear as the sound of my racing heart. The emerald felt heavy against my chest, and I swore the chain was tightening around my neck. I needed to take it off. More importantly, I needed to go. I needed to go now.
“You know,” Hertha said, tapping her chin, “you’re a really sweet girl, I almost feel bad that you had to hear that, but you had to know eventually. This isn’t the fairy tale that your grandmother had planned. . .it’s dark, cruel, and filled with nasty creatures like I.”
I nearly tripped over a chair as I backed towards the door. “I—I don’t understand. Why are you doing this? Who. . .or. . .what are you. . .exactly?”
“I’m a human like yourself,” Hertha said. “Nothing unusual, well, except for this,” Hertha lifted her hand and a smoky, gray orb appeared out of thin air. “I possess powers that manipulate whatever I wish.” With that, the candles from the sconces flickered off and only the fireplace provided light. The paint leaked off the paintings and the food on the table turned rotten.
“Funny, isn’t it?” Hertha asked. “You would think that just because your grandmother created these worlds, everything would be fun and colorful and perfect. So much like the circus.” She chuckled, her laugh was graver than before. “You’ve witnessed this imperfection before have you not? When you encountered the Vacuus?”
“St—stop it. . .” I stuttered. “I . . . I may not know everything about grandma, but. . .but you can’t say those things. She made so many happy places and people. . .I befriended almost everyone I’ve met so far on this journey. It’s. . .not all bad. . .it can’t be. . .it can’t. . . it can’t. . .” I had backed myself into the door and felt around for the doorknob. I couldn’t break eye contact from Hertha who trailed towards me.
“You really don’t get it, do you, child?” Hertha lent her hand forward and her long fingers stroked my cheek and tipped my chin upward. “There’s nothing here but nightmares.”
I froze up as Hertha brought her hand back to my cheek and placed it over my widened eye. She wiped away a tear with her thumb. “Poor, poor child. I’m terribly sorry it has to end like this. But it was fun while it lasted? Right?”
I couldn’t speak anymore. My voice was gone. The necklace was choking me. All I could do was search desperately for the door handle. Her fingers were merely inches from my eye. Was she going to take it out? No. No. No. No!
I finally found the door handle and almost fell through as I pushed it open. I ran as fast as I could down the hall. I couldn’t hear her coming after me, but I had to keep running. I had to keep running. As I hurried I tore off the emerald necklace. I inhaled sharply, I could breathe better without the chain squeezing my neck, but that wasn’t going to save me from this nightmare. I had to hide somewhere. Anywhere.
I couldn’t hear her coming. But she was after me no doubt. I couldn’t run forever. My legs were slowing down. Where was the elevator? Where was the slide? I saw nothing but the doors. So many doors. All I could do was hide.
I threw open a door and locked myself in. I dropped to my knees, catching my breath. The room was small and my eyes were drawn to a large box in the center of the room. A sickening sweet smell leaked from it and I covered my nose. It smelled so rotten, what was even in there?
’I need to get out of here. Wait, no, I had to stay. She’ll find me. But that awful smell. What was that?’
I steadied forward and reached a hand towards the box. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if this was a good idea. However, something in the back of my mind told me I needed to look. I held my breath and covered my nose with my other hand. I lifted the lid and for a moment I thought my heart skipped a beat.
Within the moon’s pale light—hair like satin shimmered and skin as white as milk fell into view. The face would’ve been beautiful if not for the dried blood trailing from closed gray eyelids. My legs nearly collapsed beneath me. . .it was Hertha.
The door opened.
“Dear me, I should’ve gotten rid of the body,” an icy voice said behind me. “Though I guess it doesn’t matter since I’ll be taking your eyes too.”
My mouth trembled and I backed away. “You’re. . . you’re not Hertha. . .you. . .what are you?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” the woman inquired. She stepped into the room, her face was hidden in the shadows, but her eyes scorched through the dark. “I’m human. I’m Hertha. But very soon, I’ll be you.”
I looked around my surroundings for something to help me, but there was nothing but the window. I needed to jump. That was my only option. I dashed to the window, lifted it open, but before I could climb out, the woman yanked at my leg and attempted to pull me away.
“Don’t you dare, child!” the woman hissed. “Be a good little girl and come to me.”
“Let go! Let go!” I exclaimed, trying to yank myself forward, but she kept pulling me back.
“You won’t even feel a thing!”
“Let go! LET GO!” I screamed and kicked her away, but I had pushed myself too far and my breath left me as I found myself falling out of the window. I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t call out, all I could do was fall.
Colorful lights flashed quickly before my eyes and the cage of the aviary appeared to close in on me. I caught a brief glimpse of the moon, but it somehow disappeared and became the sun. It shinned so brightly, but I couldn’t look away or close my eyes. It didn’t feel like I was falling anymore, but rather, I was floating. The colorful lights had transitioned to white lines that expanded and filled my vision. Gray silhouettes slipped through, but then they became clearer.
I saw Aleck. . .I saw Keith. . .I saw everyone I’ve met so far on this journey. . .I saw the servants back at home. . .I saw Ms. Plumlee. . .I saw my parents. . .I saw grandpa. . .I saw grandma. . .I saw Sue. They were all there. Not floating in midair, but were standing in a field where the grass was pure white as snow and violet roses grew.
I had seen that field before, but couldn’t remember where. The sun was shining brightly; it was so warm. So comforting. It was if there was a warm blanket wrapped around me. ’Could I stay here forever? Perhaps I could. Everyone was here. Even my parents’. Yes, mama and papa were smiling at me right now, and I was crying. I was crying so hard. Of joy. Of sadness. Mama and papa were right there. They were right there. I hadn’t felt this much happiness in so long. In so, so long. The sun shined so brightly—but then everything went black.