“We’ve tried everything.” The quiet desperation in my father’s
voice makes everything seem so final. There will be no more doctor visits, no
more needles in my arms, no more medication. Once this doctor leaves, my family
will retreat into the house with me. They will hide me away as I get thinner
and thinner, close the curtains on my windows so the neighbors won’t peek in.
I don’t want to live my final weeks, days, minutes locked up in my room with no sunshine. My body objects as I roll over in my bed, resting on my side and staring at the closed curtains. A slice of sunlight comes through the gap where the curtains don’t quite meet in the middle, a beacon calling me out.
My tired muscles ache within me as I force myself to sit up, to swing my legs over the side of the bed and press my slippered feet against the hard wood floor. I’ve been in this bed for too long, slowly losing my strength. My legs shake under me as I stand, keeping my hands pressed against the bed to support me. When I am almost sure my legs will hold me, I straighten, letting go of the comforter.
Deep breaths calm my shaking nerves as I stand there, getting my bearings. The room is dark aside from the sunbeam, but I’ve lived in this place long enough to have it memorized. To my left is my end table, where a lamp and a stack of books always reside. To my right is open floor until you get to the wardrobe. I don’t look at it. Don’t want to see myself in the mirror. The gown I’ve worn for the past week sticks to my sweat-soaked skin as I take one step, and then another, away from the bed. I smile when my legs hold, though they wobble with each step.
My closet has never seemed so far away. Each step takes me a little bit closer, but I long for the days when I could cross the room in three lively steps. Now it takes me ten minutes to reach the closet, and I have to brace myself against it before I gather the strength to pull open the doors. Inside are my winter clothes pushed to the left and my summer clothe to the right. I pull my grungy gown over my head and replace it with a blue cotton dress. The material is hot against my skin, itchy after the silk I’ve grown accustomed to. I cover it with a thick black cloak tied around my neck that stretches to my calves and wrap myself in it, shivering despite the heat of the room.
Summer is nearing its end, turning slowly into Autumn. I can see how the sunlight burns almost orange where for the past few months it has been bright yellow or blinding white. Although that could be attributed to the fact that dusk is nearing. A peek over my shoulder confirms that the door is firmly shut. I can still hear the whispers of my father conversing with my doctor in the next room. They will be speaking of options for another half hour or so.
A smile graces my lips as I pull the curtains open, blinking against the light. I have been closed in the darkness for almost a month now. It’s no wonder I am getting worse instead of better. I need fresh air and sunshine, interactions with people who still have life in them. My fingers fumble on the window lock, wasting precious time. Finally I hear it slide out of place, and I use all of remaining strength to push the window up high enough that I will be able to squeeze through. It clicks, echoing loudly in the silence of my room, as it locks into place. I cringe and glance over my shoulder again, but the whispers do not stop. My door doesn’t open. I am still okay.
I sigh before pushing one leg through the window, and then the other, sitting on the sill. I press my face against the glass of the window, half in and half out, to rest for a moment. My strength leaves so quickly now. But I don’t have much time to waste, so I slip out the window, stumbling as my feet hit the ground. For the first time, I am grateful to have a room on the bottom floor of our estate. It got too tricky, carrying me up the stairs after visits to doctos, so I was finally moved. It is a blessing to me now; without the hassle, I would never have gotten free of my bedroom.
Rest will have to wait, I decide as I push myself away from the building. I glance over my shoulder at my room, now lit with sunlight. The bed almost looks inviting, the flowered wallpaper making me think of the place as home for the first time in a while. But I am finally out, and I’m not ready to go back just yet. I stumble through the courtyard, thankful that my window faces the back of the house and not the front. A tall white fence hides my from the world outside, masking my escape. It will cause a problem when I reach it, but for now it is my shelter.
Roses graze my fingertips as I walk, and I open my hands so that their petals can rest against my palms. Their soft sweetness fills the air around me, and I inhale deeply, enjoying this first taste of freedom. I’d almost forgotten how wonderful a deep lungful of fresh air made the body feel. I feel almost rejuvenated, if not still a bit too weak.
I reach the wall soon enough, staring at its impossibility. There’s no way I’ll be able to climb over, anymore than I could simply walk out the front gate. An idea hits me and I wander around the fence, pressing lightly against it to keep myself steady. I remember stories from my grandmother, who also grew up in our house. She said she used to be a lively young woman, and she often liked to slip out to have adventures. She’d mentioned something about a gardener and a secret door, and…ah! There it was. I push aside the brambles that have taken over in my grandmother’s absence, revealing a door made of the same wood as the fence. The small golden hinges and matching round handle are the only things that set it apart from the gate, showing it for what it truly was: a way out of here.
Instinct has me checking over my shoulder, to ensure no one has spotted me yet. The light in my room is still off. I see servants passing in front of the upstairs windows, but no one in my room. They don’t even know that I’ve gone missing. My parents have spent so much time watching me in the last month, watching for a sign. Now that they’ve learned I will never get better, I guess I don’t matter as much.
I wipe away a tear and pull the gate open, struggling to drag it across the ground. Not for the firt time, I wish I were stronger. As the gate slowly inches across the ground, leaving an arced rut in the plush grass, I pray for the strength needed to just get me out of here. One hard tug has the gate open wide enough for my thin body to slip through. Closing the gate is much easier, as it just has to follow the rut that I already made. As soon as it clicks shut, I sit with my back against it to catch my breath.
London is spread before me. Cobbled streets, tall brick buildings, and a chiming clock. The air is thick with winter, and I shiver inside my cloak. Soon the streets will be covered in white, the people dressed in their winter best. As people stroll past me, I catch their worried glances. I know what I must look like, in my dress with my hair disheveled, sitting in the cold. I must look poor, homeless. Well, that is fine with me. Appearances cease to matter when death nears.
Finally, I am able to push myself to my feet, and I head to my right into town. The streets make no sound beneath my feet; my slippers are silent, but I can feel the rough stone beneath them. I know that soon my feet will begin to ache, but I push forward, with no destination in mind. Smells of freshly baked bread and unbrewed coffee beans waft from the bakery as I shuffle past. I hear the sound of muffled piano music from Muchinsky’s Music Shoppe and laughter from inside the toy store, but neither draws my attention.
Really, I don’t know where I am going, or if I intend to stop. I only know that out here, in the open, with people and sounds and smells, I feel better than being cramped inside the darkness, burrowed under covers. I’m walking a bit faster now, a smile on my face, still clutching my cloak to my body. It does little to protect me from the cold without the proper undergarments, but I know I can’t get any sicker than I already am.
As if the thought alone wills to prove me wrong, the world tilts before me, causing me to stumble. My body falls to the side, and I catch myself against a stoop. Black stairs, red door. I know this place, as if from a dream. I shake my head, trying to clear it of the images passing before my eyes. Card tricks and a crystal ball. Magic that should not exist, does not exist, except for in the minds of children. Peasant children. Poor children who’ve no other means of entertainment. But not in me. Not in the child of a wealthy man, or a seventh season mind like mine.
Still, while I am here, it couldn’t hurt to take a look around. To warm up a bit while I browse. I push myself up, almost grinning when another wave of dizziness does not send me back to the ground. Grabbing the ornate door knob, I twist it to the right and let myself inside. The shoppe is dark, lit only by candlelight. Candles seem to stand everywhere: on top of tables, on shelves filled with books and various other objects, and even in a gold chandelier that hangs from the center of the room. The shelves are all made of dark wood, and I run my finger along one as I browse the books. Potions, Herbs, Spells. Typical of a magic shoppe, I presume.
The room is so beyond crowded that I flinch as I run into a small table, no higher than my waist. I grab it to keep it from toppling over, waiting until it is steady to let go. I keep going, staring at crystal balls, rubber rats, and stacks of cards. Entering another room, I stop. This one is made of floor-to-ceiling oak bookcases, and they are filled, almost overflowing, with matching red leather volumes. In front of me is a fireplace even larger than the one in my own home, blazing with red and orange light. I am warm almost instantly, and I take my time in browsing the books. I expect to find more odd books of spells, but instead I find thick volumes of medicine, history, psychology, and other things that I know nothing of.
“You shouldn’t be in here, Ms. Wunderlund.”
The voice behind me makes me jump, in turn causing me to stumble. I grunt as I hit the floor, holding a hand to my spinning head. When my vision clears, I look up. A tall man stands in the doorway, leaning casually against the frame. Dark pants hug his lean legs, and I can just see the tails of his dark coat behind him. A top hat sits crooked on his head, and a small smile tells me that he isn’t angry at me for wandering into his library.
“Apologies, Mr. Hatterson. The door was open,” I explain. I don’t try to stand yet, though. My head is still spinning from my last fall. I fear I am getting worse and won’t be able to make it home. As fear sets in, I feel myself being lifted from the ground and then set into an elaborate arm chair. I sink into it, sighing in contentment at the warmth from the fire in front of me.
“No apology necessary.” I hear the other armchair rustle and realize Mr. Hatterson must have sat down as well. Opening my eyes, I study his profile. He looks so stern and serious, and yet there is something lively and fun about him. He is a walking contradiction. “How are you doing?
His question surprises me, drawing me back into the moment. Does he know how closely I was watching him? I feel my cheeks heat up in embarrassment and force myself to look away, instead studying the flames still dancing in the hearth. “Not well. The doctor says he can do nothing more for me.” I sigh and snuggle further against the armchair, wrapping my cloak tightly around my body. I feel suddenly cold and worry that I may be getting a fever. Or maybe it is just the dread of facing death so early in life that makes me shiver despite the heat of the fire.
“I see. That is most unfortunate.” He doesn’t sound apologetic, but I barely know Mr. Hatterson. I only know his name because the store is his own and named after him. He only knows mine because my father is highly influential. We are strangers, and yet he has been kind to me today.
“Unfortunate indeed,” I whisper.
We sit in silence for a moment, lost in our thoughts. My eyes wander the room, taking in the photographs on top of the hearth. Pictures of a beautiful woman with raven hair decorate it. In some, she holds a white rabbit close to her chest. In others, the scenery behind her is too bright and lovely to be real. In one, a young boy, likely close to my age, peeks around her legs, smiling sheepishly for the camera. His family, I presume, though I’ve never seen them in town.
“What would you do to live?” Mr. Hatterson asks.
“To live? I’m afraid that is impossible, sir,” I answer, not taking my eyes away from the woman in the photographs.
“Ah, but if it wasn’t. Would you do anything to grow up?”
“I suppose I would. I’d like to live forever if I could.” I realize, of course, that this is impossible. No one lives forever. But to have the chance to see eternal sunny days and starlit nights has long been a dream of mine. One that has continually faded away until it is nothing but an impossibility. A childish thought to hold on to when the future has become invisible to me.
“And if I said I could help you to live?”
I turn my head at his words, meeting his eyes. The flames cast shadows across his face, dance in his eyes. For a moment, he frightens me. But what is there to be afraid of in the face of death? Nothing.
“I would ask what you can do.”
A wide smile crosses his face, and he stands with a grand flourish, lifting me into his arms. I wrap my own arms around his neck, clinging to him as he speed walks through the store. He twists the OPEN sign in the window around to CLOSED and locks the door before turning around. I don’t know how he makes it through the store without knocking anything over, but I suppose he has had plenty of practice. With me still in his arms, he starts up a staircase I didn’t notice earlier. There are no lights in the stairwell, and I lean against Mr. Hatterson’s chest so that I won’t be knocked into any walls.
At the top of the staircase, I lean back and glance around. We are in a round, well-lit room. No candles or fireplaces here. Just natural light streaming in through the open window. The sun is high in the sky, but the light outside is more blue than yellow, courtesy of winter’s chill. I can see Big Ben out the window, slowly ticking away.
A bed sits against the wall farthest from the door, making me realize that I am in Mr. Hatterson’s bedroom. This is no place for a young lady, but he doesn’t give me time to object before gently depositing me onto the bed and disappearing into a smaller room to the left. I scoot back until I am resting aginst the pillows and close my eyes as weariness sets in. There has been too much excitement today. Too much moving around and speaking when the last month has been motionless and silent. But my heart pumps in my chest in excitement. I refuse to call it fear. If Mr. Hatterson truly knows a way to keep me alive, I will try it.
He returns to the room moments later. I hear his boots clomping across the hardwood but keep my eyes closed.
“Are you ready, Ms. Wunderlund?”
I nod, still not meeting his gaze.
“There are a few conditions.”
Now I turn to stare at him, noticing a red jar in his hands simply labeled WRH. He sets it on a small bedside table, next to yet another photo of the woman and the boy.
“Conditions? What type of conditions?”
“Well, there is the matter of payment. I will come to you in ten years to collect, should you live that long. If you do not, then of course, my job was not done correctly and no payment will be necessary.”
“Okay,” I reply, drawing out the word. “Anything else?”
“You are never to tell anyone of what I have done here today. Anyone. Not even your family.”
I nod, unsure of what to say. His face relaxes into a gentle smile, and I find myself smiling back. I feel safe, so I settle into the pillows and close my eyes, laying my hands flat by my sides. I can feel myself slipping away, but I am not afraid. If I die, I’m gone. I’ve nothing to be afraid of. And if I wake up again, then I will be alive and no longer sick. And then what do I have to be afraid of? A life with heartache and pain, love and happiness. A life that, as of fifteen minutes ago, I no longer had. But Mr. Hatterson will give it back to me.
“I can fix you,” he whispers as I float away. And I let him try. Because what did I have to lose?