The Essence of Her
She had done a poor job of concealing the damage. The cream sash that wrapped around her torso was slipping at the bodice. The movement of the cloth revealed an array of light blush dots that seemed to dance across the front of the dress. The woman was unmistakably beautiful -- as she should be on her wedding day. Her hair was constructed in a perfect bun; the curls framed her face, bringing out the colour of her eyes.
He stood at the end of the aisle, marveling at her beauty. He watched as she floated toward him, her strides long and in tandem with the music. Upon her joining his side, he took her smooth hands in his and looked into her eyes that were shining with unshed tears.
As much as the man would love to say that he remembered the wedding in detail, he couldn’t. His eyes strayed to her face far too many times for him to wish to openly admit aloud. He recalled the little things, like how her hair swayed and the bright look in her eyes when he said, “I do”. If you were to ask him now, he would say that day was the happiest of his life, and if she were still alive, he would like to think that she would agree.
He preferred to remember his paramour the way that she was when they were courting and right after they married. She was spirited, free, and stubborn beyond his control -- not that he had any desire to control her. She would insist they take walks on the beach and picnics under the stars, and while he didn’t enjoy the activities themselves, he would agree to see her eyes light up and to experience the warm feeling he felt when they did.
That was the way he favoured to think about her, lively and about, not confined to a bed too sick to move, as she was on her final days. Those days were torture for him, and continued to be agonizing memories that wouldn't budge from his thoughts. She was pale, her blonde hair had been comparable to straw, and her eyes had lost their elegant beauty, eventually ceasing to shine once more.
He shook his head to rid himself of the despondent thoughts. Even that’s too depressing to think about at a funeral, hers nonetheless. He took a deep breath, swallowed his bitter thoughts, and breathed back out before hesitantly looking upward. He stood in front of an open casket – correction, her open casket. She had the same ethereal glow as she did on her wedding day, except she was missing the liveliness she once had.
His thoughts were interrupted by his niece, a spoiled, bratty six year-old. The impudent girl stood in the corner of the parlour, stomping her patent leather shoes. For reasons unknown, the mother of the recalcitrant child did not hasten to put an end to her tantrum, like she would have.
She had spoken adamantly about the desire to have a large family and the dream of raising them at the farm that was empty because most of the older generations of her family had passed on; the farm that now belonged to her sister because she was the eldest living.
While he had never had the same passion for kids as she did, the idea of one or two didn’t seem as abhorrent as it could have. But now, without her, the idea seemed unattainable, so lost and elusive.
Nearly a year had passed since the funeral. Nearly a year since he had seen her poised countenance. Nearly a year since he had communicated aloud to someone. Nearly a year since he had first pleaded for a chance to bring back his lost love. He had argued within his mind, berating the parts that accepted her loss, before reluctantly embracing the monstrous idea that she was gone.
He was beginning to realize how far down in his memory he’d buried her. It took effort to remember the way that she laughed. He struggled to picture her face in as great of detail as he could’ve before. And that thought, no matter how despondent it may be, proved optimistic. Maybe, just maybe, with that hopefulness of forgetting the simple things, he could forget her impropriety.
Things were wrong from the start, and no matter how oblivious he pretended to be, he’d noticed. Nights where she claimed to be with family and strayed far from midnight were a forefront in his mind. There were little lies that wouldn’t follow through.
“It’ll make sense later,” she would often repeat. He believed it, of course he had, he trusted her. But there were things – little things – that bothered him. Her family was one of them, or rather the lack thereof.
He had met her mother, a sweet lady with many wrinkles who insisted upon him calling her Mother. For the duration of the time that he knew her, Mother was incredibly and irrevocably kind. She would never have hurt another person, much less herself. Mother’s husband, a man who had died two years before, was described as charming and humorous. Mother would talk about him so often, the man felt as if he knew him.
The anniversary of her father’s death was one of the only times he had seen her pessimistic. She usually had a joyous smile on her face, but that day -- and the day that Mother died -- had seemed to affect her on an entirely new level.
He decided that answers were the cure to his problem. The answers would clarify everything; why? Why was she never home? Why would she never tell him where she was? Why would she lie to him? The thoughts kept repeating in his head like a mantra. Why? Why? Why?
He took in a deep breath and with a false sense of confidence, walked up the stone steps leading to the wrought iron gates of the farm. The metal squeaked loudly at the nearly foreign movement. It was obvious that the gates weren’t open often. He walked the worn cobblestone steps that led up to the ranch house. Upon arrival, he knocked on the screen door and watched as blue, chipped paint remnants floated down to the floor of the porch. He waited patiently for either the sister or her child to answer the door, but to no avail. He hesitated for a moment before deciding to see if he could move the tarnished brass door knob.
He pushed open the door with a loud squeak and stepped inside. As he entered, he duly took note of the changes that have taken place within the previous year. The davenport sat as firmly as ever in the left corner of the room, ornate decorations were perched on the mantelpiece and a singular lamp rested on the table next to the chesterfield. The furniture hadn’t moved, but the wallpaper changed.
Calling out the sister’s name, he roamed further into the house. His shoes clacked noisily on the wide wooden planks as he walked down the hallway towards her old room. Pictures of her family littered the wall in the hallway. Her grandmother and grandfather, cousins, uncles and aunts, all following the family tradition of dusty blonde hair.
Looking left, he saw that he was in front of a brown door, her door. Her room lay just beyond the threshold. The room she grew up in, the things that she didn’t bring with her when she moved in with him, everything that was hers.
He turned the doorknob and pushed open the door. The room hadn’t changed at all except the thick layer of dust that covered every surface. He looked around, the bed was made and the drawers on the dresser were closed. He remembered the secret time that they would share in the room before her mother knew he existed.
Reluctantly venturing further, the man decided that taking a seat on the bed would be the wisest decision when his knees began to feel weak. Being in the room made him remember her, in all of her eloquence. It made him face the fact that she was a sweet woman when they were together.
His hands rested on his face and he stayed in that position for the next hour. He was so consumed in thoughts that he didn’t hear the footsteps crunching on gravel.
The sister, a beautiful woman in her late 30's had appeared on the edge of the forest line. The forest was across the street, with thick brush that stretched for miles beyond the land that belonged to the family.
She hesitantly walked toward the house when she saw that the gate was open. She walked up the porch, into the parlour, down the hallway, and into her sister’s room. She saw exactly what she expected: her sister’s husband sat on the bed with his elbows on his knees and face in his hands. His brown hair was messy and looked as if it hadn’t been combed in days.
She had waited a pregnant moment before speaking his name softly to draw his attention. He begrudgingly looked up at the unexpected noise. There stood her sister dressed in a plaid dress, white stockings, and black buckle shoes. She had a kind smile adorning her face and a slight furrow in her brow.
"Do you wish for some time alone or do you need something?" she questioned in a sickly sweet voice that matched her equally darling features.
He stared at her for a moment more, comparing in his head how similar the sisters looked to one another. He cleared his throat before answering back in a tone that implied nothing of his thoughts just moments before, "If you do not mind, I have some questions that only you may be able to answer."
The smile on the sister’s face turned down momentarily before quirking back up as if nothing happened. "Of course, if you feel that’s best, you can ask me anything.”
He stayed quiet for a moment, unsure if the answers she had were the ones that he wanted. If they were, he would think differently about his love, and if they were his exact thoughts, he would never forgive her.
If she was unfaithful, it would break his heart even more so than it was before, and he didn’t know if he could handle that. He took a deep breath and with a burst of bravado, he asked a question that he dreaded to hear the answer to. "Was-" he cut himself off by clearing his throat. There was nothing there to rid, but he didn’t want to voice his inquiry.
She sensed his hesitance and continued his question for him. "Was she unfaithful?"
His lips uplifted momentarily, and with a cynical chuckle, spoke back, "yes, was she?"
The sister almost laughed at his laugh. He was being hysterical, wasn’t he? "No," was her simplistic answer.
"And you know this as a fact?" Was his next response. He was hoping that she wasn’t lying. His deceased wife’s possible infidelity struck fear through him and the chill rushed icily through his veins.
"Yes, she spent her time with me. Didn’t you know?"
His lips quirked upwards. "I was simply wondering where she would often disappear to."
"I see," she mused.
He looked thoughtful for a moment, "May I ask something else?"
His mind went blank as he stared at the bottom edge of her dress. There were red stains, ones of which reminded him of similar ones he had gotten on his clothes when he cut his hand trying to repair the frame of one of their wedding pictures that had fallen off the shelf less than a month after their union. He sat up straight and sent a worried glance her way. "The blood -- are you alright?" he asked, panicked. He stood up from the bed to walk briskly to her side.
Her eyes turned from warm and inviting to chillingly cold. The pleasant smile she normally wore on her face disappeared as quickly. She turned to glare at him, "why are you here?" She interrogated. She took a step closer to him.
Her whole demeanor changed. She was no longer nice and sweet; the air around her radiated hatred and disdain. Her steps were not as clumpy and loud as they were previously, they were near silent as she walked closer to him. Once they were near chest to chest, he took a step backward.
"Are you alright; have you caught fever?" He moved to raise his hand to her forehead, but to no avail as she caught his wrist before he made contact. Her gloved hand latched on to the fabric of his cuff and pushed it away. He was confused. Why was she acting strange? Was it something he said? He shifted his stance and opened his mouth to ask, but decided against it. He raised his hand up to massage his temples when he caught notice of the crimson on his cuff. He stared at it for a minute, eyes wide.
The sister noticed his distraction from her and chuckled to herself. The noise snapped him out of the daydream. "Wha-"
She cut him off with a sharp laugh that sent shiver down his spine. "You’re a curious little thing, aren’t you?" He normally would have been offended by being called little, as he was a man of tall stature, but the question caught him off guard.
"Do you know more than you’re letting on?" He questioned. His voice had a slight tremor in it that he tried to cover up with a cough.
"I know everything," she admitted casually. "My sister wasn’t the person you thought she was."
He swallowed thickly and shuffled his legs, "Will you enlighten me?"
The sister stood still for a moment, she observed his movements before sighing. "Are you sure? You’ll have to pay afterwards; it may not be worth it." She said with a sympathetic tone.
He stood frozen, still wary of her. She changed her demeanor with every sentence, and it messed with his head.
He wanted to agree, but stopped himself from making a hasty decision. If he agreed to something he couldn’t get out of, it could destroy him completely. On the other hand, if he said yes, he could finally get the answers he’d been pining after for a while.
Without any further consideration, he spoke the words that sealed his fate: "yes, tell me."
Her eyes brightened immensely. "I need to know something first: does anyone know you’re here?"
He was initially confused with the question. Why would she want to know if anyone knew where he was? His mind raced with reasons for her ever-changing personality, but it was for naught as he couldn’t think of anything. He wanted to lie and tell her that a friend knew where he went, but he felt that she would see through his façade and not spill a word of the information that he much desired.
"No, I’m afraid not, why does it matter?" His question was left unanswered by her as she spun on her heel and walked toward the closet door in the corner of the room. He followed her movements with his eyes, watching each miniscule twitch of her hand as she ran it down the pane of the door. Her nails lightly touched the wood, but the deafening silence of the room made the noise painfully existent.
"This is where Mother’s wedding gown hung in the months before your wedding," she paused for a moment before turning around to look at him. "It was a beautiful dress, was it not?"
He hummed in agreement, thinking back to the day she walked down the aisle. He turned his body toward the sister and gave her his full attention. "It was a beautiful dress, why is that important?"
She seemed to ignore his inquiry and kept talking. "Beautiful dress indeed, but special. Oh, so special." She turned to face him as she spoke nostalgically.
"What makes it special?" He asked the second question hesitantly, unsure if she would ignore his question in the same manner as the first.
"Mother was in it more than once..." she trailed off with a faraway look in her eyes.
He stayed silent for a while to give her a decently private moment, as he felt he was intruding and that it would be the best in the situation. She shifted her stance and his last question came out quickly, "she was married twice?"
The sister shook her head, "No, that would be preposterous. Mother was at her wedding, she walked with her down the aisle. Mother was with her when she stood at the altar and when she stood next to you speaking those dreadful words, blah, blah, blah."
Ignoring the pain that briefly ran through him at the mention of their wedding, he stared at the sister in shock. She must be delirious, Mother committed suicide by shooting herself in the head weeks before the wedding. Maybe she was in denial like he was.
She sighed heavily, "You must be so confused. Mother didn’t kill herself."
The news came unexpectedly. The man didn’t know what to believe anymore. Mother was dead, and while she wasn’t his mother, he missed her in much the same way. She was one of the kindest ladies that he knew, she wouldn’t harm a fly.
He calmed himself before looking at her quizzically. She seemed to read the look on his face. "So, how did she die? Is that what you’re wondering? I’ll tell you," her voice became a whisper. "It’ll be our little secret." She then raised a naimble, pale finger to her lips and winked an eye at him.
She was teasing him, that much was obvious. She was reading his movements and toying with his emotions. He was distraught and she caught onto that. She was psychoanalyzing his every move, it annoyed him, and she was taking pleasure in it.
“Your dear wife was never as innocent as she may have seemed. She hated Mother. While you may not choose to believe that, there is something that you need to take with you into your heart. She killed Mother. Shot her with one of Daddy’s shotguns right in front of the dress. Oh! You should’ve seen the mess.” She looked down to study the floor beneath her buckle shoes. “The blood was right here, right underneath my feet. It was a pain to clean up, I’ll tell you that. And the dress, the beautiful dress had blood all across the front.”
His mind was reeling. His sweet, innocent wife wouldn’t have done those things! He looked up towards the sister with an ugly sneer across his lip, “You lie!” he accused.
She had a smug smile stretching on her face, “really?” She asked sardonically. “Think about it.” She spoke those words seriously.
Against his will, his mind followed her commands. It filtered through memory after memory of his beautiful lover, eventually stopping on the event of their wedding.
His mind brought up the picture of his captivating wife walking towards him, the sash slipping down, the light colored dots splattered across the front of the dress. That was blood?
“She only did a mediocre job of cleaning the dress, but it’s what she could do on such short notice.” The sister had broken him from his contemplative state. “You’re surprised, aren’t you? Makes sense. She seemed so nice, even I almost believed her.”
He was flooded with emotion. Ones of which he couldn’t comprehend. His knees felt weak once again, so he sat down. All of the feelings that cascaded over him felt so foreign since he had been in mourning for the preceding year. Only one word could escape his mouth, “Why?” The word came out of his throat in a choked scramble, barely audible to her ears.
“You’re going to have to be more specific. Why what? She was messed up, completely wrong in the head, and yet you loved her, why? The real question is when. When did she murder everyone? When was she going to stop?” She bent down to his height, “When would she come after you?” The last comment was murmured under her breath and directed at him.
With what little control he had of his body, he glared at her. “She would never!” He protested strongly. “You’re lying, you have to be.”
“Why? Because of your perspective of her? You barely even knew her. You judge based on her appearance, your preconceptions of her had messed up your head. Get it out of the gutter before you drown.” Her voice was commanding, and the antipathy in her tone had caught him off guard.
She straightened herself before walking back to the closet, leaving the man to sort through all of the new information he had acquired. She opened the closet door and grabbed a small metal item that fit in the palm of her hand and ran up half of the length of her forearm. She held it discreetly behind her back and walked back over to him.
“There’s more, you know.” Her tone was humorous, it was obvious that she was thoroughly amused by the entire situation, “it gets worse.”
He held disbelief at the veracity of that statement. It couldn't get worse than her killing Mother. He sat on the bed in the same manner as before. His hands once again covering his face and his elbows resting on his knees, he drew in shallow breaths through his nose and out of his mouth, painfully slow.
Seeing that he wasn’t going to talk back, the sister decided to continue her soliloquy. "She didn't love you, you know. She wanted money, and you had it. It was adorable, you were enchanted by her and gave into her every whim." The laugh that followed was cold and dead. "And you were so oblivious! It was pathetic. She wanted all of your money, so she agreed to marry you. Her plan was simple, she was going to kill you afterwards. It was going to be some type of freak accident. Mother knew, too, and that’s why she died.”
The previous accusation of you lie came out of his mouth in a flurry. He stood up from the bed and stomped over to her. He grabbed her shoulders in an iron grip and began to shake her roughly back and forth.
Everything had happened so fast. Her eyes grew dark and her mouth twisted into a cruel sneer. He felt the knife sink into his chest -- though he hadn't realized what it was at the time. His hands went slack on her shoulders as he stumbled back. The sister stood looming over his fallen form, she took a step towards him as he pushed his body away from her. Another step, he could see the edge of the bedroom door.
"You won't be leaving this room," her voice was a low monotone.
Another step closer, his vision had began to darken around the edges. His chest hurt with unexplainable pain, and chaos ravaged throughout his mind. In a feeble attempt to placate the raging mess in his head and the agony in his chest, he crawled closer to the ajar door, trying to get to a place to shield himself from the onslaught of the sister’s attacks.
Another step closer. He began to realize that he had immense trouble moving, and therefore, hadn’t advanced but a few inches. Every breath was more torture than the last, making his croaked question of why excruciating. His throat was dry, his head pounded, and he had trouble reigning in his pandemonious thoughts.
Another step closer. A sinister, child-like giggle came from the doorway, drawing his attention from his attacker to the sudden noise. There, in her patent leather shoes, stood his niece, the girl he hadn't seen since the funeral. She was hidden partially behind the threshold of the door, watching the scene with morbid curiosity and dark fascination.
One final step closer. The smile on the girl’s face increased in size, her lips quirking upwards at his obvious struggle. She tilted her head to the side and spoke with frightening conviction, “like Mommy said, ‘you won’t be leaving this room.’” Pain radiated from his chest as the knife entered once more, twice more, and for a concluding time. The man fell into darkness with the haunting music of the little girl’s giggles.
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