Despite the vintage exterior, the decor inside Rob and Darby’s house looked much like Alice’s old apartment. She glanced around, taking in the severe angles of the ultra-modern lights and furniture. Every room that Rob led her through appeared pristine and unlived in. Hardwood floors unscuffed, carpets smooth and fresh. The only immediate difference proved to be framed prints hanging from the walls—Rob’s work. He liked taking black-and-white photographs of people, oftentimes even strangers on the street who agreed to spontaneous portraits. Not all were unfamiliar, though; when Rob waved Alice into the studio, she found a large print of Magdalene waiting on the wall.
Rob could be an asshole, but he knew how to coax out the essence of a person and capture it. In the photo, Magdalene’s eyes were a striking mix of light and shadow, haunted and haunting and uncomfortable in the way they bore into the viewer. A cigarette hung from the corner of a sneering mouth, but Rob had somehow gotten the lighting to emphasize the lushness of her lower lip through the smoke.
Alice couldn’t look at it for long, and Rob noticed.
“She really fucked you up, didn’t she?” He sounded amused while sitting at one of the desks in the room—his, going by the photography paraphernalia that littered the surface. His gaze traveled over her while he flicked his cigarette at a nearby ashtray.
She didn’t like his attention; it felt too cold and curious, like a scalpel slitting skin to find what waited inside. But he was also the first one who had ever implied having an awareness of Magdalene’s darker nature, and Alice found herself asking, “Do you miss her?”
He thought about it, smoke trailing between them. “I always saw her as a rock skipping across water. Destined to sink, but oh, the ripples she made before she disappeared. Once you knew her well, you enjoyed what she did, but never who she was.”
At Alice’s startled look, he added, “Don’t pretend to be clueless. You were with her for years and looked like a ghost by the end. We both know how she ran through people, using them up and wearing them down. Hell, I was her only friend who never wound up in therapy. Or dead.”
The frankness was so startling that Alice didn’t know what to say. “How did you manage it?”
“Ego and balls. She’d feed off anyone, but the sensitive, wounded girls who reminded her of Indigo got it the worst.”
She must have reacted in some way to Indigo’s name, because Rob straightened up in his chair. “Magdalene told you about her?”
He blew out a lungful of smoke, studying her with more interest. “I’m surprised even while I’m not. Surprised because Magdalene rarely talked about her… And unsurprised because there’s a fragile quality to you that Indigo also had. You’re like this sweet little doll that will break and be all the more beautiful as shards. Magdalene loved that shit.”
Alice never knew what to say when artists slid into distracted, abstract conversation, and so she now remained silent.
Rob eyed her again. “Do you remember the nights we spent together? Entheogens would leave Magdalene talking for fucking hours about the connections of the universe and time warping in on itself, always dancing around the ways Indigo could somehow come alive again. Half the time, Darby would be in the bathroom having the shits because she never adjusted to mescaline well. But you… You would just go limp and pliable, open to any suggestion. Like being a doll was your secret nature.”
Alice glanced away, not trusting herself to immediately respond. She’d hoped Rob wouldn’t go into any of that, especially because she remembered enough to feel shame scald her at the mere mention. “Why are you bringing this up?”
“Because we’re talking about Magdalene and her effect on people. On Darby. On you.”
“While you stood off to the side and took photos.” The bitterness in her words surprised her, but Rob just looked interested, again.
“Sometimes, I’d be in the middle of things.” Then he shrugged and offered that indulgent smile he used with anyone who flared up at him over his art. “You probably remember that, since you won’t even fully look at me.”
She did, and hated how she had always agreed to let Magdalene drag her to those psychonaut parties, and how whatever they took—pill, shot glass of liquid, smoke—left her flushed and confused and looking to Magdalene for guidance.
In a low voice, she said, “I think it was a test from her. She liked watching us fuck. She liked seeing in my face that I’d do it only for her and not because I wanted to. Funny how words were never enough. I always had to prove it.”
Realizing her cheeks stung with heat, she turned away to avoid his gaze. Silence simmered as her restless steps took her to Darby’s side of the room. The walls there were painted turquoise and littered with photos of Magdalene. Some looked like Rob’s work, but others were missing his cool, precise touch, and instead held a rawness that made Alice wonder if Darby had taken them, herself.
She suddenly remembered the first time she had admitted to Magdalene that she liked painting—just a little, just as a secret hobby that bore results too crude and embarrassing to show to anyone. Magdalene had given her an indulgent smile while insisting on seeing them, and then had crooned over each piece as if it had been a Whistler instead of simple splatters of coffee. Something had rushed through Alice, then, sweet and immediate like a cube of sugar dissolving on the tongue. After that, she’d flung herself after that feeling again and again until it became habit to seek Magdalene’s approval, until it became the very course of nature itself.
How many times had Rob seen this happen? How could he have let his wife fall into such a trap? Alice nearly turned around to ask him, but a larger part of her insisted it was better to stoke his goodwill over his irritation. Instead, she kept studying Darby’s space, trying to figure out the other girl.
An antique writing desk overflowed with paper and books. Just enough space remained clear for a vintage typewriter to sit and preen. Off to the side nestled an office cabinet with the doors open to reveal a modern workspace. The corkboard above the desk interested Alice the most, though, and she stepped closer to study it. Handwritten notes were pinned all over its surface like dead butterflies, the delicate paper crumpled from obsessive fingers. Most were scribbled too illegibly for her to read, but she did recognize one as the address of her cabin. The number “31” was written above it and circled.
“What does this mean?” she said, looking over at Rob.
“She doesn’t tell me anything.” Then he stubbed out his cigarette and rose from his chair. “But I still know the gist.”
Alice locked her muscles to keep from flinching away as he approached, but he only studied the corkboard with her, his expression losing some of its smugness. “She’s fixated on Magdalene. Everyone fucking sees that. And I’ve known about her biography idea for a while. She came up with it after the funeral. But I learned how you play into it only because I caught her nosing through my photo files. She could’ve just asked to see something. The fact that she didn’t made me wonder what the hell she planned.”
“Photos?” repeated Alice, cold fingers suddenly clutching at her heart. This wasn’t at all what she’d expected. At the look on Rob’s face, she guessed the answer, and fumbled for a nearby chair before her legs gave out.
His voice drifted at the edge of her thoughts. “The ones from the nights we’d spend together.”
Alice tried to keep her voice from shaking. “She didn’t show me those.”
“She looked for them after seeing you. My best guess is that when you said no to the cabin idea, she decided to bring out bigger arsenal than a missing mom and a fucked-up grandma.”
“And you let her have them?” Despite her best efforts, her words rose in panic. “God, Rob, she wants to ruin me. You of all people know that not everyone waves away things like that. Magdalene told me enough about the town you both grew up in.”
Rob scoffed and lit a fresh cigarette. “Do you know how many times she’s screamed at me for not taking Magdalene’s death like she thinks I should? Do you know what she’d do if I tried to prevent this? It’s not worth it.”
When Alice shook her head, he added, “You’re the one who can stop it, and you already know how to. The cabin.”
Silence descended, then. Alice found herself looking everywhere but at him while a question burned in her mind. Eventually, she forced herself to say it. “How bad are they? The photos?”
“Explicit and you’re recognizable in them.” There was no trace of apology in his voice.
She felt ready to throw up. “She can’t publish those in the book. Is she planning to show them to my family?”
“She will if she finds them. She hasn’t, yet.”
“How can you be sure?”
Rob hesitated and then reached for a manila envelope on his desk. “Because I did. Prints and the negatives.”
The relief felt so sweet as to be agonizing as Alice reached for the envelope with greedy fingers, mentally thanking him for being enough of a prick to shoot his boudoir photography with film cameras instead of digital.
But Rob only stepped back, expression flat.
“You’ll get them if you let her into the cabin.”
Her hand fell back to her side. “You’re in on this, too?”
“I just want my life back. She’s fucking obsessed with visiting that place. Hopefully seeing it and finishing the book finally gets Magdalene out of her system.” Then he slapped the envelope back on the table.
Alice couldn’t stop staring at it. Rob was used to soft urban living and had the body to show for it. But she remembered that he’d been strong from a naturally sturdy build. She wasn’t sure she could snatch the envelope and make it to her car without him catching her, but felt desperate enough to try, anyway.
Her fingers had just curled into claws when he sighed, lines of frustration appearing on his forehead over her lack of response. “Just let her see the damn thing.”
“Or what?” Anger left her savage, and she spat out the words at him. “You’ll show my parents what I look like while sucking your cock? Maybe I don’t care about that, anymore.”
It was a lie, but he didn’t have to know that.
Surprise glinted in his eyes. Then he relaxed, again. “If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be so desperate to have them. Besides, your family is only one part to this. Darby told me you’re living with a guy and pretending your time with Magdalene never existed. That would have to hurt, him seeing the photos and finding out just who you really are.”
Her heart clenched. “You wouldn’t risk being punched out by an angry boyfriend.”
“My face isn’t in these. Yours is.”
“He’d still kill you.”
“Me, but not you?”
It was a desperate needling to see who flinched away, first. Where was the chink in the armor? Where was the Achilles’ heel? They each had their own, but who would be the first to find the other’s?
Alice pressed her lips together into a tight line, trying to get back under control. “I’m not afraid of him. I never have been.”
“But you’re afraid of losing him.”
She sucked in a breath, feeling her face tighten, and knew right then that she had lost.
“Abandonment,” repeated Rob, triumph clear in his voice. “Magdalene said it was a thing with you. Does he know how you used to live?”
“He knows my last relationship was with a woman, yes.” Another blunder on her part.
Rob didn’t hesitate to pounce on it. “Then seeing a man balls deep in you wouldn’t be high on his list of expectations.”
If she tried saying anything else, the words would dissolve into tears of sheer rage. When she remained quiet, arms folded to keep her hands from trembling, he rubbed his face. “Look, I want my life back and I want Darby to have hers back, too. So just show her the fucking cabin or I’ll release the photos.”
Something weak yet stubborn rose within her, like the worn nubs of teeth in jaws that still remembered how to bite. “How do I know you really have any photos? That envelope could be filled with anything. I’m not going to give in to a bluff.”
Rob scoffed, but put his cigarette in his mouth to reach for the envelope. As soon as his hand pulled out the glossy prints, she lunged. Her desperate fingers crumpled two before he wrenched the rest out of reach. “Christ, are you serious?”
She only snatched at the photos again, ready to claw his face off if it meant grabbing them. This time, Rob caught the fine wool of her coat and revealed that burly strength of his, shoving her hard enough to send her sprawling. Her back hit the floor just before her head, leaving her breathless and stunned as she looked up at him.
He readjusted his glasses, all traces of amusement gone from his face. “Stop fucking around, all right? Darby’s going to ask again once she finds something else to stick you with. If you don’t agree, I’ll release the photos, myself.”
“You—” was the only thing she managed to say before he pulled her upright, dragging her toward the front door. She hated the feeling of his hands on her, and struggled enough to break free just as they reached the threshold. She ended up on the porch and he just inside the doorway, and for a long moment, they stared at each other. Again, surprise flashed across Rob’s face. He’d truly expected her to break then and there.
“I won’t do it,” she said, voice cracking.
But he had already recovered enough to offer a small smirk in return. “We’ll find out for sure, right?”
At that, Alice turned away, unable to look at him any longer. As she walked down to her car, she hardly felt the shocked throbbing in the parts of her body that had hit the floor the hardest. Instead, all that filled her thoughts was how that slender thread of escape had snapped. She was trapped.
Back home, she agonized over what to tell Colton. The inexplicable burns on her arms had been overwhelmed by the danger of the photos, yet both seemed impossible to reveal.
She was in strange waters, now, for Magdalene’s fixed attention had offered security in its own way. Alice could never have been her muse, but never her devil, either. Magdalene had often called her beautiful like a fractured mirror, one of those strange insult-compliments that she’d always given. At the time, it had been a comfort. An assurance that even at her worst, Alice would remain loved. Or at least wanted…
Damn Rob to hell. He’d seen the core of her as surely as Darby and Magdalene had, just more coldly with his photographer’s gaze. She didn’t want to lose Colton to past stupidity or current madness. And if it was inevitable, why not stall the bitter end for as long as possible? Why not snatch at the bits of happiness that still glittered and keep them close?
At last, she bandaged her arm, practicing lies until her voice stopped shivering with shame. Then she made sure to light a fire against the chill, and to finish making the bed, and to check what bills needed to be paid. A varnish of domesticity to hide the sickly guilt that beat like a second heart. She even had dinner ready when Colton came home from work.
She reached for plates just as he slipped up from behind, pinning her body against his to taste the side of her neck. Tree sap and musk filled her senses as her hands shifted to instead reach behind her, stroking up along his hair. The heat of his body melted the tension that had snarled throughout every limb, and she twisted to nuzzle at him, wanting one of those rough kisses. Wanting a final taste of that dangerous mouth while her own was still honest.
His tongue teased hers, lulling her into dropping the back of her head against his shoulder. It left her neck exposed, and strong fingers found the tender flesh there, stroking along the pulse pounding beneath vulnerable skin.
Then his hand ran over her shoulder and continued down, stopping when it found the bandaging on her arm. Alice stiffened a moment before he broke off the kiss. When she felt him shift to look, she turned breathless for a different reason, and quickly said, “It’s just a burn. I brushed the oven rack while reaching in.”
“How bad is it?” His fingers ran over the gauze, as if he considered pulling it off to look.
Alice covered his hand with hers and angled her face for another kiss. “It’s fine.”
He accepted it, but she knew she was still too quiet during dinner, picking at her food rather than eating it. Chicken breasts stuffed with cranberries and chestnuts was a favorite meal, but fear turned each bite into a flavorless lump that had to be choked down.
Afterward, he looked over at her while they washed the plates. “Something’s troubling you.”
She nodded, aware that it would be useless to claim otherwise.
“Tell me while I get the wine.”
It fell like her heart withered and died while she shook her head. “It’s all right. I just need to think over some things.”
It was the first time she’d ever shut him out rather than bare herself in full, and she hated it. Surprise flashed across his face, but he took it with nothing more than a nod.
Later that night, in bed and their skins still slick with sweat, she stroked his hair and listened to his slow, easy breathing as he slept. Tears prickled in her eyes as she lay there, afraid of staying silent and afraid of shaking him awake to confess what had been happening.
Eventually, she must have slipped into sleep as well, for she found herself standing in the attic of her grandmother’s cabin. Blinding sunlight shone through the round window, and birds screeched somewhere outside, panicked.
Alice blinked, trying to clear her eyes while the dim shapes of forgotten furniture and useless relics slowly hardened into clarity.
“It took you long enough.” A familiar voice dripped into her ears like honey.
Alice jerked, her vision clearing in a flash, and found herself facing Magdalene and her smile. She still wore the same blood-soaked dress, but her throat looked whole while she tapped fingers against the large trunk between them. Alice recognized it as the one that had held the wolf pelt that had given her so many sweet nights of running in the forest with Colton.
Shivers wracked her body even before Magdalene spoke. “Open it. It’s for you.”
Alice shook her head, struck mute, but when Magdalene’s elegant, clever hands snapped the lock and pulled up the lid, she found herself stepping forward even as the metallic tang of blood filled the air.
Instead of the tanned grey-and-white fur that she remembered, the trunk’s plush interior cradled a black pelt. Blood streamed as if it had been freshly peeled off. Yellow eyes stared at her, now clouded over in death. Alice shrieked, fingers clawing at her own face as Magdalene laughed. The sound filled her head, drowning out her own screams as the first of the flies landed on lifeless fur.
She woke up shaking, pulse pounding so hard that it felt like her heart would burst. Even as she gasped for breath, she grabbed at Colton, absurdly sure she was about to touch a bloody, lifeless body. He shifted beneath her fingers, whole and strong and real, and she clung to him, trying not to cry.
It was the first of many sleepless nights.