The first thing I felt when I woke up were fingers tangled around mine. I gave them a squeeze and opened my eyes, only to close them just as quick. Why was it so bright? Someone called my name, so I slowly raised my eyelids, giving myself time to adjust. Molly was right in front of me, her face wet with tears.
Her colorful coils were a mess—as if she too had woken up—and her face was free from all the makeup that made her pretty. She didn’t wear any charming jewelry or a cute outfit. Aside from her vibrant hair and eyes, the lively colors that made her so cheerful were gone.
“I’m so glad you’re awake!” she exclaimed. “We were so worried.”
“Wha—what happened?” I asked groggily. I tried to sit up, but my body felt so weak I laid back down.
“You fell and you. . . you were. . .” Molly struggled to string the right words together. “You were. . .gone.”
“Gone?” I whispered. “What do you mean?”
“You weren’t breathing. . . and . . . your head—”
I feebly touched my head, a cloth was wrapped around it.
“—it was split open.”
My eyes widened and for a second, everything went cold, frightfully cold. My mind wandered back to the fall, I didn’t remember the landing at all. I didn’t remember pain. . .only falling and I saw my parents. I saw them. So I was. . .I really was. . .?
“How did I come back?” I asked, balancing myself with the support of my elbows.
“Hertha brought you back. I don’t know how exactly, but you weren’t able to wake up. You’ve been out for a couple of days.”
“Days. . .” I mumbled, I closed my eyes and fell back into the pillow. “Wait.” My eyes snapped open and I suddenly yanked myself forward to grab Molly’s hand. “Hertha brought me back? Why?”
Molly flinched away, shocked by my outburst. She observed me as if I’ve grown two heads. “What do you mean ‘why’?”
’No’. I pinched my lip to the point that it almost bled. I shouldn’t have said anything, but. . .Hertha. It wasn’t her anymore. But why would she bring me back?
“Sophie? What do you mean?” The worry in Molly’s voice concerned me greatly. I shouldn’t have said anything, but it was too late now. I had to tell her. I leaned forward and whispered, “Hertha. . .it’s not her. I don’t completely understand, but whatever you do, don’t trust her.”
“What?” Molly released a nervous chuckle. “Did you hit your head too hard?”
“Molly, please listen,” I strained, “Hertha. . .it’s not her anymore. . .it’s someone else. She or. . .it. . .tried to kill me.”
Molly attempted to hide her distress with another chuckle, but that quickly faded and she dropped into a chair by the bed. She attempted to get comfortable by shuffling in the seat, but ended up getting to her feet and wandering to the door. “You must be thirsty; I’ll be right back.”
“But I’m not—” Molly left the room before I could finish. I wanted to call out for her, but held my tongue. I knew I couldn’t reason with her right away, but she had to know now. I didn’t want her or anyone else getting hurt.
Molly returned with a glass of water, but she had trouble holding it still. She couldn’t look at me in the eyes as she eased back to the bedside and handed it to me. I took a long sip—it tasted warm, but I didn’t say anything.
“Hertha told me that you had tripped over the platform,” Molly said, sitting back on the chair. “You weren’t feeling well and needed some air, but you got dizzy and fell off. That’s. . .that’s not true?”
I shook my head and Molly rested a hand over her forehead. She shut her eyes and mumbled something incoherent.
“I don’t understand,” Molly said and looked up to face me. Tears ran down her pale cheeks and her lips quivered. “I don’t understand. . .Hertha. . .Hertha is like a mother to me. She took care of me when I lost my parents. I’ve known her for years. She would never. . .she would never hurt anyone.”
“It’s not her anymore,” I said. “It’s someone else. Hertha. . .I’m sorry, she’s gone.”
“Gone?” Molly echoed. The tears kept falling and her voice cracked. “Wh—what do you mean gone?”
I tightened my hand around the glass and I breathed in and out slowly, struggling to compose myself. I was so tired. So, so tired. I wished I could sleep a little longer, just a little, but I couldn’t. The bed was so comfortable and warm I just wanted to sleep again, but I had to stay awake even if I had to force myself to.
“I . . .” I closed my eyes. It was so bright in here. So, so bright. Why was it so bright?
“Sophie?” Molly took my shoulder, but I could barely feel it—only the warmth of the bed. I swore the sheets were going to swallow me up. “What happened to Hertha?” Her voice sounded distant, as if she wasn’t right next to me. I couldn’t feel her touch anymore. An ugly sickness swelled up inside and I held my stomach, not realizing I had dropped the glass and the liquid splashed all over the bed until Molly’s gasp brought me back.
I jumped and covered my mouth. I collected the glass and placed it back on the nightstand before more water wetted the sheets, but it was too late. The warmth had ceased and a chill ran up my spine. Molly helped me to my feet and I stared at her with blurred eyes. I blinked and tears fell freely.
“I’m sorry,” I wept, “I’m sorry.”
Molly stared back at me—scared, confused, worried. I shouldn’t have said anything. I shouldn’t have said anything at all. I backed away but froze when we heard footsteps tapping from the hall.
“Is everything alright?” a familiar and airy voice slithered in. At that moment, numbness took hold of me and I could only move my eyes that unwillingly trailed to the doorway.
Hertha—or better yet, the imposter—wore yet another elegant dress—black with long, droopy sleeves and a sash. Black feathers pinned up her hair that framed her white powdered face. The smell of perfume was lost and was replaced with something stronger—yet sweeter--that I couldn’t distinguish.
“Oh, Sophie, I’m so glad that you’re awake!” she exclaimed with false care. The imposter glided over and embraced me tightly. I flinched at the touch. She released me but took my shoulders, her long black nails dug into my skin.
“How are you doing, my dear?”
I opened my mouth, but no words managed to leave my tongue. I closed my mouth and gulped down, but even swallowing was a hard effort, as if I had to remind myself how to do so.
“Sophie just woke up,” Molly cut in, albeit in a shy voice. “She’s still exhausted; she needs more time to rest.”
“Yes, certainly,” the imposter agreed, smiling down at me a crooked smile. There was that glint in her eyes again, but this time I knew why it was there; as a sign of what she really was. She knew that telling the truth would not help me at all. The imposter had the power to finish me, but I wondered why she hadn’t already.
“You do look pale,” the imposter commented and placed an icy hand over my forehead. “You’re warm. Yes, you must get back into bed. Wait, what happened to the sheets?” The imposter noticed the stained bed and frowned.
“I accidentally spilled some water,” I said.
“I see,” the imposter’s frown deepened but it disappeared. “No matter, there’s another guest bedroom. I’ll take you there.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled under my breath. The imposter still had her hand latched onto my shoulder. Her fingers were like the legs and fangs of a spider, ready to strike venom into me. She guided me out of the room and I looked back at Molly who followed us out.
“Molly,” the imposter called, but she didn’t turn around, “don’t you have to practice for your performance?”
“I—I’ve already done it,” Molly answered with a short stutter.
“Really?” the imposter asked, she still didn’t turn around. “It’s the crack of dawn, you normally don’t finish practicing until noon.”
Molly cleared her throat and said, “Yes, well, I haven’t been up to it as of late—with Sophie being unwell, you know and—”
“Molly,” ‘Hertha’ interrupted. “I advise you to continue your practice. Sophie is going to be alright. There’s nothing more to worry about.”
“Don’t,” ‘Hertha’ hissed, “disobey orders, dear. You of all people should know that.”
Molly’s lips formed a tight line. She gave me a desperate look and dropped her head.
“My apologizes, Hertha. I’ll be going.”
“Very good, you’re excused.” The imposter prompted Molly off with the wave of her hand. Before Molly left, she took my hand and gave it a small squeeze. I wanted to keep holding her hand but Molly was gone in an instant.
“Molly has been acting strange as of late,” the imposter noted as we continued down the hall. “I wonder why?” The imposter tightened her grip on my shoulder. “You didn’t tell her anything, did you?”
My footing slowed but the imposter forced me to keep up as she pushed me along. The purple candles dancing against the walls appeared dimmer and shadows loomed all around.
“I’m waiting,” the imposter sung hauntingly.
“I—I had to tell her the truth,” I stammered.
Hertha released pressure from my shoulder, but her hand remained like a leech. “Mmmm, well, it doesn’t matter now, does it?” she inquired. “After all, what is she going to do?”
“Please don’t hurt her,” I pleaded. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry, child, I’m not going to hurt your friend,” the imposter confirmed, but I didn’t trust her words. Every word, every syllable that came out of her venomous mouth only sent chills through me.
“Then what are you going to do?” I asked. “Why are you keeping me alive?”
“I realized that it would be too early to take your eyes. I want some more enjoyment from The Madam’s granddaughter. Besides, I can’t take the image of someone whose head was nearly broken off. You have to stay cute like the young lady you are.”
“What if Aleck comes? He knows I’m here, he could be on his way right now to save me.”
The imposter smiled a sly smile. “I’ll make sure he never arrives. Here’s your room.” ’The imposter opened a door and gently pushed me inside. “You should sleep some more, get your head cleared up.” She shut the door and I flinched. There was a soft click, she locked it.
I slid down the door and huddled my knees together. I stared helplessly at the window across from me. The bars of the aviary were closer than usual, and the sky was darker despite it being morning. There was no sun. The only light in the room was from the purple candles dancing against the wall, mocking my sadness.
The bed was neatly made, tempting me to lay on it, but I couldn’t go back to sleep now. I couldn’t. I kept staring at the window for a long while. I didn’t know how many minutes or hours had passed, but I didn’t want to fall asleep. I couldn’t now. I couldn’t.
“Molly?” I turned around and grabbed the doorknob, but then remembered that the imposter had locked it. “It won’t open.”
“Don’t worry, I got it.”
The doorknob jiggled for a couple of seconds before there was finally a click. I moved out of the way for Molly to open the door. She quickly shut the door and threw her arms around me.
“Oh, Sophie, I’m so, so sorry for all of this,” Molly exclaimed.
“Please don’t apologize,” I said. “It’s not your fault at all.”
Molly kept her hands on my shoulders. Her touch was so much warmer and comforting than the imposter’s.
“You have to get on the next train,” Molly suddenly instructed me. “It won’t come until the next performance which is in three days, but you have to go on it. Get away from here.”
“But. . .but what about you?”
“I have to stay,” Molly said.
“No!” I cried, taking her sleeve. “No, nobody should stay here.”
“We can’t,” Molly strained. “This is our home. We can’t leave it, no matter what.”
“I see. . .but when I’m gone, how will I be sure that you all will be alright?”
“We will be,” Molly said. “I assure you, we will be fine.”
“Could you promise me that?” I asked.
“Of course.” Molly gave me a genuine smile and I smiled back, though it was fainter. “Here, I want you to have this—” Molly took off a silver bracelet and wrapped it around my wrist, “—it’s my charm bracelet. Wear it, keep it safe, and know that whatever happens, I’ll be with you.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled. “I wish I had something to give you.”
“There’s no need,” Molly said. “Having a friend like you is the greatest gift.”
I smiled slightly but I couldn’t do so fully. It was difficult to do, as if my muscles were stuck. I observed the bracelet now around my small wrist. The silver shinned dimly against the little bit of sunlight that started to peek through the clouds.
“Can I ask you something, Soph?”
“What happened to Hertha?” she asked. “The real one, I mean.”
The sickness returned as I recalled what happened. Hertha’s milky white face. . . the blood that trailed down like tears. . . I swallowed whatever might’ve tried to crawl up my throat.
“She was. . . in a trunk in one of the rooms,” I answered with hesitance. “She was so pale and her eyes. . .they were gone.”
“Are you sure she wasn’t just unconscious?” Molly asked desperately.
“No, she was killed by that. . . monster and it took her appearance.”
“No . . .” Molly could only whisper. She released my shoulders and slumped back on the ground.
I reached out to hug her, but Molly got up and walked over to the window. She stared out silently, but then I heard her sobbing. She slammed a fist against the glass before sliding down to her knees in defeat.
I crawled to Molly’s side and hugged her gently. Molly continued to sob into my arm and I tightened the embrace.
We stayed like that for a while. . .comforting each other, hugging, staring at the window and wishing for some sort of miracle to happen--but nothing came.
It rained the next day. Clouds blocked out the sun and the heavens spilled forth heavy showers that lasted for hours. I wasn’t sure when it would ever stop, but performance practice was mandatory for everyone—except for me. The imposter didn’t want me to strain my body, but wanted me to rest so I could recover fully. I had been stuck in bed ever since yesterday, but I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid that the imposter would walk in while I dreamt and take my eyes.
When I was sure that the imposter wasn’t around, I snuck from the house and wandered about the training grounds. I entered one of the tents and found Naomi practicing inside. Her hair was pulled back as she practiced a routine on a bar. Her body was a combination of beauty and strength as she swung about with no trouble at all. When Naomi saw me, she instantly dropped down and hugged me.
“Sophie! I’m so glad you’re alright!”
“I’m glad to see you too,” I said.
Naomi’s smile dropped when she touched the bandage wrapped around my head. “Hertha told me what had happened, I’m so sorry, Sophie.”
“I’m getting better,” I said. “It’s only a bump, really. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Naomi pursed her lips, I wondered if she saw through my bluff.
“Shouldn’t you be resting some more?”
“I’ve been having trouble sleeping.”
Naomi’s expression didn’t change. “That’s not good, you should try and get some rest. It’s not good in your condition to be up and about like this.”
“I know,” I agreed, “but something’s been troubling me.”
“I don’t think I can say.”
Naomi got down on her knees so we could see eye to eye. Her hazel eyes were filled with concern. “You can tell me anything, Sophie. It’s not good if you hide your feelings, especially if they’re troubling you.”
“I know, but. . .” I paused. “I don’t want you to get in trouble. I don’t want you or anyone else to get hurt.”
“What do you mean?” Naomi asked. Her concern intensified in those eyes.
“Sophie?” Naomi cupped my cheek and brought my attention back to her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t tell you here.”
Naomi sighed, I feared she was giving up on me. I didn’t blame her. If I was in her position, I would grow impatient too.
“Let’s head back to my place,” Naomi said, rising to her feet. “I’ll fix you up some tea.”
I was taken aback by her statement. Her tone didn’t change, distress was still evident, but she remained composed.
Naomi slipped a cup of tea on the table. The delightful smell of honey and cinnamon glided from the cup and I took in the aroma before drinking it. Naomi’s kitchen was small but welcoming. Plants hung from the ceiling and cute figurines sat on the walls. What caught my eye was a rocking chair tucked in a corner, and the unfinished knitting work of a small hat laying on the armrest. The hat was small enough to fit a baby, so at first I wondered if Naomi and Ashton were expecting. However, Naomi didn’t look pregnant. . .but I think it was better not to ask.
Naomi sat across from me and folded her hands over the table cloth. She had her own cup of tea but didn’t even touch it. I continued to drink the tea and listened to the rain tapping the windows.
I gasped at the newfound sound and cupped my mouth. Naomi on the other hand, stayed calm and got up to answer the door.
Ashton stood at the doorway scratching the back of his head. He glanced down at his feet. “Hey, sweets.”
“You forgot your key again, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Ashton didn’t hesitate to answer.
Naomi sighed and shook her head. “Good thing I decided to head back here.”
“Heh.” Ashton smiled and finally acknowledged me with a broader one. “Oh, Sophie! How’s it been, kiddo?”
“Alright,” I said.
Ashton came over, but when he saw that I was lying his smile vanished.
“What’s wrong?” Ashton asked, his eyes were sharp and alert, but just like Naomi, he remained calm as he pulled up a chair and sat on my left. Naomi was about to sit down, but paused to ask Ashton, “Would you like any tea, dear?”
“No thank you,” Ashton answered.
Naomi nodded and returned to her seat and cleared her throat. She finally sipped her own tea, but it was very brief. The two looked at me, mimicking the same expression of undivided attention. I wasn’t sure who to keep eye contact on, or if I should even look at them. I instead decided to observe the details on the wall behind them.
“I’m going on the train in two days,” I declared.
“What?” Naomi’s eyebrows rose. “Didn’t Aleck want you to stay here?”
“Yes, but. . .I’m not safe here anymore,” I said, biting down on my lip. “There’s something dangerous here. I can’t stay and I wish that you two and everyone else can do the same, but it’s your home and—oh, I’m not thinking straight, I’m sorry.”
“Sophie,” Ashton said, leaning forward, “what sort of danger are you talking about?”
I held my breath again. I stared, worried, at the window and the door. The imposter could be anywhere, listening to me give it away. I exhaled, speaking softly once I was sure we were alone.
I told them everything. Unlike with Molly, I didn’t try to leave out any gory details about the real Hertha’s fate. When I was finished, Naomi and Ashton stared at me, shocked.
An owl shaped clock ticked loudly for seconds, then minutes, until the couple finally took my hands.
“We need to do something,” Ashton said finally. “Does anyone else know about this?”
“Molly does, but that monster said that Molly won’t be harmed,” I said. “However, I’m afraid Molly will get hurt, same with you all. I was scared to say anything because of this. . .”
“Don’t be afraid, we’re grateful you told us, Sophie,” Naomi said.
“Yes,” Ashton agreed, “if that monster comes after us, we’ll fight back.”
“But how?” I asked.
Ashton was about to speak, but his mouth only fell open.
“We’ll figure out something,” Naomi assured. “If Aleck doesn’t come in two days, you’ll go on the train, Sophie.”
“But what if it finds out I’m missing?” I asked.
“We’ll get rid of it,” Ashton noted. “Somehow. We can’t have a vile creature like that terrorizing our home.”
“I agree, but it’s best for us to have a plan first so we don’t make irrational decisions,” Naomi suggested.
“What would be the plan?” I asked.
Naomi leaned back in the chair and thought for a moment before saying: “I don’t know yet; we’ll think of something before the performance. Until then, we’ll act like everything’s normal.” Naomi checked the clock and got up. “I have to get going. Sophie, you can stay here a little longer if you’d like.”
Before Naomi left, she embraced me and said, “We’ll get through this, Sophie. Whatever happens, we’re here for you.”
“Thank you,” I said, hugging her back.
When Naomi left, I had a troubling feeling inside and I wanted to call her back and hug her for a little while longer. Instead, I watched the doors and windows in fear until Ashton began to speak. “I’m going to bake raspberry pie; would you like to help me?”
I turned to Ashton who was now wrapping an apron around his waist. It was a strange question to ask after such a dark discussion, but I was glad he was trying to keep the mood light. After all, I wasn’t sure how many more happy moments we would all have together.
“Certainly,” I answered. “I’d like that.”